When Antonioni Blew Up the Movies

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Vanessa Redgrave in Blowup, 1966.

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But that revolution was ancillary. (So was the Blowup rave-up performed by the Yardbirds, including the young Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck.) Artistically, Antonioni was after bigger game, and bagged it. As critic Adriano Apra says on the Criterion edition of Eclipse: "In film each auteur gives us his distinctive perception of the world. Antonioni goes beyond that. He always invents a world of his own." Apra means that literally, especially regarding the director's first two color features.

Red Desert is in passing a requiem for Ravenna, the medieval city whose air, fields and water were poisoned by the toxic waste regurgitated by big factories there. But is essentially an experiment in color. This time, reality wasn't good enough for the neo-neo-realist. He painted the earth a sludgy gray, and found a sickly yellowish color for the canals, as if they had vomited on themselves. (He also gave Vitti red hair). It was all in aid of showing the already polluted city through the eyes of the schizophrenic wife and mother played by Vitti. "I have to put into the landscape the colors needed," Antonioni said, "to express a certain state of mind...to violate, so to speak, this reality, to adapt it to the purposes of my story."

He was no less reluctant to give London a makeover for Blowup. "I actually painted trees, streets, houses. ... I changed a small part of London to make it more London than London." Under his brush, the grass was greener, the phone booths a more violent red. (Redgrave was given auburn hair.) The intent this time was not political. It was to show the power that a visual artist has over reality — and the limits of that power.

Hemmings' Thomas (loosely based on David Bailey) is a magazine photographer on top of the fashion world. He speeds through London in his Rolls convertible, communicating with business associates on his dashboard two-way radio. Larking about like a fifth Beatle, he's got a casual swagger that says, This is my town. So does his brutal way with the anorexic goddesses who pose for him. In a shoot with the model Verushka, he shouts insults, whispers endearments, straddles her like a rough lover with his camera clicking away at her simulated passion, then immediately stops and walks away when he has the shots he needs.

That's for money. For art (a book he's assembling) he takes grainy monochrome shots of scrawny old men in welfare hotels. Or he'll go to a quiet park to snap pictures of pigeons... or of that couple kissing furtively 50 yards away. The woman in the couple (Redgrave) notices him and pursues him to get the apparently incriminating photos back. "My private life is already in a mess," she says when she trails Thomas to his studio. "It would be a disaster if..." He interrupts flippantly: "Nothing like a little disaster for sorting things out." But later, when he starts developing the roll of film, he slowly concludes that he may have photographed a dead man — may have the evidence of a murder.

The scene in which he enlarges the shots until a long wall is papered with pieces of the mystery, then scrutinizes them to find a meaning, is a 10-1/2min. tour de force, silent except for the briefest phone conversation. It puts Thomas in the position of a movie director, editing the film he's shot, seeking to impose narrative logic on shuffled images. He is also the viewer of an Antonioni film, who is willing to follow a mysterious story where it leads him while hoping against hope it might be resolved. At any rate, Thomas is no passive pawn of his own weak will. He's a smart, resourceful detective, a hip Hercule Poirot. And Hemmings, 24 when the film was made, is perfect as a rare Antonioni alpha male. On screen for every scene, he invests the role with discretion, daring and the look of a fallen seraph.

Do pictures tell the truth? Or is the reality revealed by photographs another seductive deceiver, a trick the mind plays on the eye, like the persistence-of-vision trompe l'oeil that makes the consecutive images clicking through a movie projector at 24 frames per second seem like one continuous moving image. Antonioni, true to his creed, won't say — unless we are to take Blowup's last shot as the answer to this larger question. Thomas is seen from a distance alone on a green field. And then he disappears, as Anna had in L'Avventura. This is the anticonjuror's dogma: not seeing is believing.


In the next 14 years Antonioni made only two fiction features: the bleak and glorious Zabriskie Point and the meandering Passenger, with its one climactic sequence of nearly unrivaled technical virtuosity. He didn't fall out of critical or popular favor so much as he gracefully receded from view, like Thomas at the end of Blowup. By the late '70s the movie environment had changed, and not for the better. Hollywood was reluctant to finance the chancy projects of a double-domed European of Social Security age, when kids in L.A. could bring in hundreds of millions with their clever toy movies.

On a smaller but no less ambitious scale, Antonioni kept experimenting. He reunited with Vitti for The Mystery of Oberwald (1981), which used the new video technology to repaint forests, walls, gowns in an expert riot of surreal colors. He continued even after a 1985 stroke robbed him of speech. His four short segments in Beyond the Clouds had the old camera suavity and started to make explicit the erotic yearnings of his '60s films. He could not have made this film, and his 2003 contribution to the omnibus project Eros, without his wife Enrica, through whom he communicated with his casts and crews.

It was a gross irony that speech should desert the director who had virtually patented the theme of man's inability to communicate. Before he stroke he had addressed his lingering reputation with characteristic wryness: "I've always carried this 'incommunicability' around with me. But no one doubts that this incommunicability exists. If everyone attributes it to me, this means I communicated it. Therefore, I am not incommunicable."

And some emotions don't need words. In 1992, Antonioni received an award from the Italian government, and the assembled dignitaries lined up to congratulate him. Suddenly there was Fellini. Bursting with love and energy, he hugged his old colleague and gently caressed the back of Antonioni's head. A huge smile lighted his face; his cheeks were dappled with tears.

The vital Fellini was dead in a year; Antonioni lived another 15.

On The Web:

Ingmar Bergman Obituary

Woody on Bergman

Criterion L'Avventura

The Mystery of Oberwald

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