June 17, 2009 / Filmwell
Criterion’s May release of Wise Blood (1979, John Huston) makes available the flawed but fascinating artistic meeting of two uncontested American masters, novelist Flannery O’Connor and film maker John Huston.
September 13, 2012
Filmwell welcomes Andrew Welch as a new guest contributor. Andrew Welch lives in Denton, TX, and has written for Books & Culture, Relevant, and Art House Dallas. You can follow him at his blog, Adventures in Cinema, and on Twitter.
There’s a moment in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up where the movie’s main character, Thomas (David Hemmings), strolls into an antique store intending to buy it, but instead leaves with a wooden propeller under his arm. It caught his eye from where it was resting in a corner, and he couldn’t resist himself; his insatiable nature demanded that he have it.
Blow-Up, to me, is a lot like this propeller. I have a picture of it in my head as something ornate and delicately carved but covered in cobwebs, a forgotten masterwork in a room full of distracting curios.
Not everyone would agree with that assessment–that it’s somehow been forgotten–but ask yourself what kind of place Blow-Up has in our collective consciousness, and then ask yourself how we decide what our masterpieces are. A movie earns its place in our memories and in the canons we create through its quotability–verbal and visual. That makes watching a movie kind of like sifting through a shoebox of faded Polaroids. But just because we can divorce a handful of moments from the broader picture doesn’t mean we have a masterpiece on our hands. And just because we can’t do the opposite–which is the case with Blow-Up–doesn’t mean we don’t have something very special in front of us. What it does mean is that we have to break our masterpieces down into two categories: the ones we have to go out of our way to find, and the ones we have to go out of our way to avoid.
Because Blow-Up defies quotability, it belongs in that first category. It’s not a Polaroid, but an expansive landscape. Works like that embody their form in a singular way. You could tell Blow-Up’s story in just about any way you can think of (a novel, a short story, a play) but it wouldn’t survive the transplant. Without the kinetic energy it derives from its editing, its cascade of scenes and images, its complete lack of exposition, it would wither and die. What nourishes Blow-Up is the fact that cinema is different from other narrative forms. In literature, the constant reminder is “show, don’t tell,” but at some point you just have to tell; you can’t not tell. But in cinema, you never have to tell, and maybe it’s better if you don’t.
The side effect of that is disorientation. Where are we? What’s going on? In Blow-Up, the answers come in slow drips, and until they do, you have to be content with your own confusion. For the most part, audiences don’t like being in this kind of position. We don’t like filling in the gaps because what if we’ve filled them in wrong? Watching a movie shouldn’t be like grading your own quiz. But that’s almost what Blow-Up is like. Antonioni shows us a man, a woman, a park, and asks us to piece everything together. Except we can’t quite do it; our best guesses are still only guesses.
It’s like this from the very beginning. When we first meet Thomas, he’s walking through the gates of a factory, dressed like a working class man in dingy clothes. Then, just minutes later, he’s speeding through the streets of London in a sleek sports car. He’s not a working class man at all; he’s an artist, and specifically a photographer, only alive when he’s snapping pictures. It’s what he does for hours on end at his studio, where he berates and cajoles his models, feeding off their hopes and staged passion until they look ghostly and hollow. It’s what he does, too, at a park, where, without thinking about it, he photographs a couple sharing a private moment. With every step forward in this aimless, unfolding plot, Antonioni forces us to fill in the gaps in what we’re seeing before then forcing us to take another look, just like he forces Thomas to reexamine those photos from the park. Was that just a romantic interlude, or has he photographed a murder? And if he has photographed a murder, what will he do about it? Antonioni pushes these questions to the forefront of our mind, causing us to ask them along with Thomas, until, finally, we face the only question that matters: Is there any hope for Thomas, or is he a complete moral failure?
For some, movies that require this kind of active engagement might be “good for you” but aren’t terribly fun. For others, though, it’s the only reason a movie is worth watching to begin with. Does that make moviegoers of the more curious variety somehow better than other types?
I seem to have painted myself into a corner, so I’ll just say it–yes, I think it does. But so it is with any activity. Active engagement of any kind always beats passive detachment, and Blow-Up requires a particular kind. It requires the dedication of a jogger trying to keep up with a fitter running partner. Someone can have the same opinion of jogging as they can of movies. Good for you, maybe, but fun? Certainly not. The kind of moviegoer I’m talking about, though, knows that it’s good for you too, but would put it another way: exhilarating.
Jeffrey Overstreet watches far too many movies, writes film reviews and two weekly columns for ChristianityTodayMovies.com, maintains the Web site LookingCloser.org, contributes to Paste Magazine, and is at work on a series of novels. He works at Seattle Pacific University.