Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Great Movies: "Blow-Up"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966

Much as I respect Roger Ebert, I think he dropped the ball on this one. He begins his write-up in The Great Movies by scolding "young audiences" for not being interested in this movie about an ennui-stricken playboy photographer. We are all about slasher flicks and explosions, he suggests with uncharacteristic gracelessness. But that's silly. Contemporary audiences are quite comfortable enough with slower-paced movies about ennui; take "Donnie Darko" or "Lost In Translation" or your pick of the Wes Anderson films, for instance. "Blow-Up" hasn't become obscure because we've lost the sophistication to deal with its clever themes. It has become obscure because it isn't very good.

We have here another film from the sixties that, like "Belle de Jour" or "8 1/2," handles psychological themes with a ham-handedness that approaches self-parody. Late in the movie, for instance, the lead character finds himself at a rock concert. The guitarist smashes up his guitar and throws it to the crowd. They have been listening in torpid passivity up to this point, but the mods in the crowd come to life now and go nuts fighting over pieces of the guitar. Our hero, though not a rock fan, comes up with the biggest chunk and fights a long retreat, defending his prize from others who chase him, trying to take it from him. They chase him down an alley! He perseveres! Until he gets to the street, where he realizes he doesn't really want or need a chunk of broken guitar, and carelessly tosses it aside on the sidewalk.

Well, fine: it's a metaphor for the way that striving engages one completely, whereas having achieved the goal is often a hollow experience. It's the theme of the movie in a nutshell. Except that this episode takes a couple minutes of screentime, and carries no weight whatsoever in advancing the plot, developing the character, or otherwise integrating itself into the rest of the movie. The effect is like reading the short fiction of a bright college freshman. You get tired of being beat over the head with the overt symbolism.

"Blow-Up" does have an interesting murder-mystery concept at its core, although we are required to accept a very high level of stupidity on the part of the apparent murderers -- shoot a guy in broad daylight in a public park? Without noticeing the flambouyant photographer prancing around, 30 meters away? I don't think so.

The biggest problem with "Blow-Up," though, is that its lead character is contemptable, and the movie doesn't seem to realize it. The movie seems to think that he is glamorous and cool, and that we should all feel bad about his little ennui problem. Actually, he is merely a misogynist creep, and it's hard to feel too terrible about how bored he has become of the good life. Really, it's kind of hard just to put up with him for the length of the movie.

Plot: Misogynist creep, after taking pictures in a park, is approached by a woman who really, really wants the pictures back. He refuses. Looking very closely at the pictures later, he discovers what may or may not be a murder in progress. His pursuit of this interesting finding is interupted by an episode of what the movie considers "swinging, baby" but which would today more likely be considered "rape," and by a good old-fashioned pot party. By the time he is back on the case, all of the evidence has disappeared, and the movie ends inconclusively. Back to the ol' ennui.

Dialogue: Naturalistic, and reasonably well delivered. The lead character spouts off bits of pseudo-philosophy from time to time to the effect that nothing matters to him except the beauty of images. This is supposed to convey his artistic sensitivity, I think, but it really just conveys that he's an asshole.

Visuals: Easily the strength of the movie, there is lots of lovely cinematography and visual tricks throughout. Like many films of its period, "Blow-Up" has many long stretches where we are watching characters perform everyday actions with no supporting noises on the soundtrack. I've always felt that this reflects a director's overconfidence in the power of the image, and found such sequences a little painful to sit through. It's a detail, but the glimpses we see of the lead character's photography are pretty boss.

Prognosis: Of historical interest only.

- - - - -

Song of the Day

Billy Bragg, "The World Turned Upside Down"


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed Blow-Up. It captured a slice of the 60's that many missed. The "hero", a successful and well-to-do photographer, was older than the hippie generation, yet drawn to the sense of freedom it represented. He approached it asymptotically, the same way he "investigated" the murder. He was lost in, as you say, "the power of the image", surely Antonioni's strongest suit (for some of the street scenes, Antonioni had entire blocks painted the same color (red, if memory serves)), and was destined to remain an onlooker, capturing images and guitar chunks with the same detachment.

At some point the David Hemmings character slides his Leica into the glove box of his Rolls. This became a glove-box capacity test adapted by "Road and Track" and that ilk for years.

I don't know why the Yardbirds reworked "The Train Kept A'Rollin'", a 50's-era blues from their first album, into "Stroll On" for the movie, but perhaps it was to open up lead guitar parts for both Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck (!) to appear in the movie. The power and excitement of that performance was special, though I remember only getting a truncated version of the song.

The musical performance, while ancillary to the plot, is one obvious symbol of the desire of the establishment to accept the new culture, of the Hero's generation attempts to wrap its arms around the younger one, and of the art film intelligensia attempting to capture a more youthful and formless sensibility. Some say Antonioni overextended this effort with his next effort, "Zabriskie Point".

I don't know if Blow Up worked. I guess not for you. It did directly influence dePalma's "Blow Out", had quite an impact at the time, and certainly hit me over the head like a ton of obscure presidents...but not everything stands the test of time.

Chance said...

You poor take courage!
You rich take care!
This earth was made a common treasury for everyone to share!

Michael5000 said...

@karma: Awesome! Dissenting viewpoints welcomed, yea, downright CRAVED, in the Great Movies project! Thank you for helping me get more out of the movie.

To comment back on one simple point: Yes, the "Stroll On" performance is pretty scorching. If it feels to me, as I wrote in the O.P., disjointed from the fabric of the movie, it is also a nice treat in and of itself.

Which gets me thinking: The "hero," having discovered what appears to have been a crime, sets out to explore (or more likely exploit) the situation. But before he can accomplish things, he gets distracted by three episodes:

1. Sex (the groupies)
2. Rock and Roll (the concert)
3. Drugs (the pot party)

Could it be that "Blow-Up," for all its excess, is actually a moralistic fable against the three cannonic vices of the modern age? You be the judge.

@chance: Gotta love some British agrarian utopianism....

DrSchnell said...

When my daughter M. (now 5) was younger, part of her bedtime routine was for us to sing three songs (usually picked out of "Rise Up Singing"). "The World Turned Upside Down" was a favorite of hers, done in a lullaby-ish croon by yours truly, with a bit of pseudo-Cockney-by-way-of-
Oklahoma-upbringing accent.

I generally stopped before the slaughter at the end, though....

Bpaul said...

I listened to BB in High school religiously -- I can still sing this song verbatim -- and it's been "a few years."

Awesome pick.

I got to see him in 1988 alone on stage just like in this video, and I was right in front, lighting his cigarettes between sets.

Great memories.