Saturday, March 29, 2014

Looking without seeing, enlarging until vanishing

Blowup (1966) found Michelangelo Antonioni at the peak of his renown, yet, rather than resting on his laurels, he was embracing all things new. Following the astonishing Red Desert (1964), it was only his second film in colour, and every arresting hue feels precisely selected and shot-through with wonder. Blowup was Antonioni’s first film in English, with dialogues written by playwright Edward Bond. Most notably, while Antonioni was already well into middle-age, Blowup is immersed in the youth culture of its moment, its costumes colourful, scanty and modern, its London fully swinging, populated with the likes of Jane Birkin, Verushka and the Yardbirds, and with kids running wild in the streets, or anyway as wild as a troupe of mimes can get. We see these merry-making mimes flood into frame at Blowup’s beginning and at its end, when they enjoy a tennis match sans ball or rackets, serving as a reminder that the visible world is riddled with illusion. Is seeing believing, or is the reverse true? Is a photograph a way of obscuring reality or does it reveal a reality we’d otherwise never see? These questions haunt Blowup—and, as is often the case with Antonioni, they’re questions that will remain dutifully unresolved.

An unnamed photographer (David Hennings) takes photos of a man and a woman in a park. The woman (Vanessa Redgrave) demands the negatives. The photographer tells her she has to wait as he has other things on the roll. Eventually the photographer develops the film, makes prints of the images taken in the park, and, as takes photos of the photos, enlarging one detail until it becomes clearer and then more abstract, he comes to believe that he’s photographed a crime. The script was put together by Antonioni and Tonino Guerra, but a prominent credit is given to a story, alternately translated as ‘Blowup’ or ‘The Devil’s Drool,’ by the great Argentine author Julio Cortázar. It’s a generous credit, in that what happens in Blowup echoes its source material only in essence; its characters, setting and situation are very different. But Antonioni was an artist who appreciated just how rare a truly perfect idea is—and the idea of Cortázar’s story is so good it inspired at least two more excellent movies, Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981), though both cleverly trade photography for sound recording.

It must be said that Blowup does nothing to counter Antonioni’s tendency to put utterly unpleasant men at the centre of his films. Ostensibly based on photographer David Bailey, Blowup’s protagonist is a prick, treating models in a way that alternately reads as sexual harassment or verbal abuse. Still, watching him work is fascinating, and his lack of empathy, or rather, his overwhelming focus on his own creative work, drives the story forward in a way that a more sensitive and sociable protagonist wouldn’t have managed. All he wants is the most compelling, most beautiful, most mysterious images possible, and if he has to disguise himself as a homeless person, scream at models or put himself in danger to get these images, so be it. Though on first glimpse Blowup seems locked in time, a closer examination reveals a timeless notion at its heart, something about truth and technology, and what happens when the world is broken down into frozen fragments. Which begs the question: where is the Blowup for our digital age?   

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