Thursday, December 9, 2010

BLOWUP (1966): Michelangelo Antonioni and the Need to Communicate Better

Blowup is a well-crafted and complex movie that was released in 1966 and, for me, was too perplexing to enjoy.  A London photographer (David Hemming), Thomas whose name is practically never mentioned in the film, practices his art by being belligerent towards whatever person happens to be the subject matter for his camera.  He has a girlfriend, Patricia (Sarah Miles), to whom he pays almost no attention or affection.   He’s not above offering modeling jobs in return for sex to women he never intends to actually photograph.  His studio is furnished with abstract art and props that he impulsively purchases.  And he is not conscience stricken by disturbing people’s privacy to take what he feels to be an interesting photo.  The subject matter of many of these photos is ugly and depressing.
One day, he takes a number of photos of a woman and man together in the park that appear to be lovers.  The woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), upon discovering that photos have been taken offers to pay money and even to pose nude to be given the negatives.  The photographer is fascinated with this woman, though not so fascinated that he’s ready to act with integrity.  The photographer gives her a role of negatives that he knows are not the correct photos, and the woman in return writes down a phone number that turns out to be made-up.  The photographer develops the photos and discovers a number of strange discrepancies regarding the photos.   A gun can be seen protruding from the bushes close to where the couple was embracing.  Other photos show the woman at the park first with the man she was embracing and later with another man whose face we cannot see.  Finally, he develops a photo that shows the original man she was embracing lying down besides the bushes.  The photographer, late at night, returns to the park to find this same man still lying in the same position as in the photo.  Obviously, he turns out to be dead.
The photographer tries to locate the woman in the photo in the event that she is in danger.  The photographer, for the first time probably in his life, seems actually concerned about the welfare of another person.  We’re not sure if this newly found conscience is because he actually cared about this woman, or because he realizes that he made his girlfriend unhappy after he discovers her in bed with another man.  We are left to guess at many things in this movie.  In any case, he tries to locate her on the streets and at a concert (featuring the Yardbirds and showing Jeff Beck destroying his guitar).  The photographer never locates the woman.  When he returns to his studio, he discovers all of his photographs to be missing (except for one photo that was too grainy to be used as evidence).  When he returns to the park to take more photos of the corpse, he discovers that the body also is missing.  At the end of the film, he watches some revilers that he had previously seen on the streets of London, acting as mimes in the park while playing a mock game of tennis.  The tennis game is almost as real as anything in the photographer’s life.
David Hemming, in his role of photographer, though not as obviously psychopathic, is remarkably similar to the character that Malcolm McDowell plays in Clockwork Orange.  The character has a high degree of energy and has little regard for the consequences of his actions towards others.  There are certain films such as this where the character is played with so much permeation that it becomes uncomfortable to sit through the entire movie.  The Talented Mr. Ripley, Taxi Driver and, again, Clockwork Orange would be examples of this.  Blowup came out before any of these movies and, if anything, Hemming plays his role with more complexity.  The photographer is not a violent man, but he nevertheless manages to damage everyone around him.  And like the lead characters in the three movies I just mentioned, the movie gets us inside the brain of a person we would probably otherwise choose not to ever know.
Hemming plays his role with the physicality it requires.  He sneaks around and moves with great vitality.  Some of the best scenes are while tailing the woman in the park where he hops over fences and runs quickly up and down the hill.   Any physical exertion he does with ease, which makes all of his mental and emotional efforts that much more awkward.  Hemming’s character seems capable of doing nothing else well outside of physical activity.  The photographer’s major flaw is that he is unable to express himself to anyone else.  This seemed to be an actual conscious choice of the photographer.  He cuts people off or refuses to speak to them on the telephone, he begins conversations that he never ends, he never keeps a promise, he immerses himself in a lifestyle where he can avoid communicating with anyone, and he associates with individuals where communication almost becomes a hindrance.  When he finally makes a sincere attempt to communicate something of value, nobody is interested in listening to him.  He tried to tell his girlfriend about the murder and she asks him an obvious question: why didn’t he tell the police about this?  He tries to tell his book publisher about the murder, but the publisher is at a party and is so high on drugs that any real conversation would be fruitless.  The photographer only seems to find any understanding in the group of revilers who also happen to be mimes that never speak a sentence.  The revilers mood of communication is through squeals of joy and physical activity.  Their situation is much the same as the photographers except that they have each other and they know how to express their pleasure.
Experimentation of the kind shown in Blowup was so new at the time of the filming that we probably can’t even cite any influences.  And though director, Michelangelo Antonioni, lived to be ninety-five, he remains an enigma.  I’m not certain why he wanted to muddy the waters concerning so many plots and subplots in this movie, or why he decided to film this movie in English when about everything else he directed was in Italian.  Having died just one day before the more famous director, Ingmar Bergman, we now can only guess.
Probably, Antonioni, by showing the lack of meaning in the life of the photographer and the people he associated with, was actually condemning their aimlessness.  Antonioni’s attitude towards pop culture seemed to be one of questioning the very senselessness that it came to represent.  The attitude of a painter, the musicians who destroy their instruments, and the photographer, himself, all show a disregard for creating anything they actually care for.  But at the same time it would be very strange for a movie director to question such experimentation in a movie that was so extremely experimental for its time.  Antionioni should be credited in that no one overacts in his movie.  Antionioni takes great care to show the suffering of his characters in real if somewhat understated terms.  We see their sadness and Antionioni does not need to make this more obvious.  Blowup is an interesting movie and one worth seeing if one is in the mood for a disturbing film.  But it’s not a movie that most viewers will be able to watch again and again because of its very nature and, frankly, it will only appeal to a small portion of the viewers.

© Robert S. Miller 2007 

August 8, 2007

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