He made long, slow, painterly films about the misery of Europe’s postwar leisure class; he raised malaise to a fashion statement. Andrew Sarris described this style and method as “Antoniennui.” Yet the Italian director was narrative cinema’s first true modernist. His pristine imagery and elegant compositions taught moviegoers to watch a movie, not just see it. And viewing, or voyeuring, is the subject of Blowup, Michelangelo Antonioni’s first English-language feature. A sensation for its frank view of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll in swinging London, with music by the Yardbirds’ Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, the movie was a surprise hit that helped liberate Hollywood from puritanism. Making the city over to suit his vision, he painted trees, streets, phone booths — all to demonstrate the power that a visual artist has over reality, and the limits of that power.
Blowup’s antihero, the magazine photographer Thomas (David Hemmings), does fashion shoots for the money; for art, he takes monochrome pictures of old men or that furtive couple kissing in the park. The kissing woman (Vanessa Redgrave) wants his roll of film, please; Thomas refuses. Later, in his developing room, he slowly concludes that he may have photographed a dead man — he may have the evidence of a murder. The scene in which he enlarges the photos, then scrutinizes them to find a meaning, is a 10½-min., virtually silent tour de force. It puts Thomas in the position of a director, seeking to impose narrative logic on shuffled images — or of someone at an Antonioni film, who is willing to follow a mysterious story that may offer no solution, only flashes of insight into a time, a place and the mind of a demanding, rewarding picture maker.
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