Monday, September 21, 2020

Michelangelo Antonioni Vibes to an Easygoing Groove With Blowup

Thomas (David Hemmings) is a photographer. He's not a very happy one though. Thomas yearns for something better but for now, he'll begrudgingly settle for having ladies fawn all over him. One day, while out taking a stroll, Thomas takes a photo of a woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), and her lover in a park. Jane is insistent on getting the photo back. Thomas hands her back the photo, though, unbeknownst to her, he's kept a copy of the images. While processing these pictures, Thomas notices something strange. There's a dead body there. Lying in the park. What to do now? Well, Thomas isn't the only one who doesn't really care in his world. Even in his moments of urgency, Thomas will discover how difficult it is to get detached people to care about something as massive as a corpse.

I guess Michaelangelo Antonioni isn't for me? Between L'Avventura and now Blowup, I've found plenty to admire in Antonioni's works but I haven't really been captivated by them. I want to stress that I'm not trying to declare that "Antonioni is actually bad" or anything of that sort. It's just interesting to realize that something or someone universally beloved may not be up your personal alley. Oh well. Even as someone who isn't super into his works, though, there's still plenty to commend with Blowup. Most notably, Blowup has an impressive level of commitment, particularly in its filmmaking, to a relaxed atmosphere. 

Much of Blowup, especially in its first-half, is incidental. All we're doing is following Thomas as he wanders around town looking for objects for a photoshoot and then dealing with Jane's desires to get her photo back. All the while, Thomas briefly crosses path with elements of the 1960s counter-revolution. It's like Antonioni is taking the viewer on a brief tour of a day in the life of Thomas rather than showing us a traditional narrative-driven feature. It makes for such a unique atmosphere and I love how the framing of crowded scenes rarely sees Thomas being the central focus of a shot. He's a guy who can easily get swallowed up by the vastness of the world and the framing of Blowup reflects that.

The chilled-out nature of Blowup also proves useful in making the sudden presence of a corpse quietly unnerving. Antonioni has established a world where we're accustomed to just hanging out and enjoying the sights of London. Thus, tossing a dead person into the proceedings proves as jolting for us as it does for Thomas. Additionally, Antonioni packs each scene of Blowup with enough details to make revisits a must. Most notably was my post-film realization that, when Thomas get the mimed tennis ball back in Blowup's final scene, it briefly takes on sound for the first time. What a great and appropriately subtle touch to close the film out on.

There's plenty of finer points of Blowup well worth commenting on. Why didn't all these elements add up to a more wholly satisfying movie for me personally? Honestly, I chalk that up to Thomas just not being all that engaging of a character. Blowup is a mood piece, it's not supposed to be about character arc or character likeability. Still, like many protagonists of arthouse European films of the 1960s (think works of Godard), Thomas is a repulsive male figure with particularly odious attitudes towards women. Antonioni isn't aiming to make Thomas likable, which helps make the character go down easier. But spending this much time with primarily him does begin to wear one down.

It doesn't help that the supporting characters surrounding Thomas, particularly any of the women, are thinly-sketched. A lot of great hangout moves (like the works of Richard Linklater) make even the most throwaway people memorable. Blowup, meanwhile, struggles to find people as compelling as its restraint atmosphere. As an atmospheric exercise, not to mention as a historical artifact thanks to its truly groundbreaking frank depictions of sex, Blowup fares much better. Michaelangelo Antonioni's movies may not be to my personal taste, but it's impossible to deny the craftsmanship on display in his works like Blowup.

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