Blow-Up (1966)

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After the success of Red Desert, Antonioni was contracted by MGM to make three English-language films.  These films became Blow-Up, Zabriskie Point (1970), and The Passenger (1975).  Blow-Up is probably Antonioni’s most famous film.  It was a huge success both critically and financially and its plot was a direct inspiration for two other great films, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981).  The plot concerns Thomas, a London photographer who thinks he may have photographed a murder at a park.  The plot sounds Hitchcockian but it stays true to Antonioni’s style and thematic concerns.

In the film’s central montage, Thomas develops his photographs of the couple in the park. Constantly surrounded by attractive women, Thomas lives a life of relative ease, but there seems to be something missing until he blows up the photographs. The photos provide him with excitement and intrigue.  Like Thomas, the viewer is looking at the photos, developing their own thoughts and observations of what is being shown. The scene has deliberately long takes with hardly any sound that allow the viewer to process the information and create their own meaning.

The viewer’s focus is solely on the photos, which are shown in close-up. At first, the photos seem to be depicting an ordinary couple in the park, but on closer examination, they appear to reveal something more sinister. A close-up reveals a face in the bushes beside the couple and a gun. The face and the gun do not seem to blend into one cohesive person. As a matter of fact, one cannot be sure it is a gun. This scene is full of uncertainty, which dominates the rest of the film.

Blow-Up plays with both Thomas and the viewer’s perception of reality.  After seeing the gunman, Thomas assumes he prevented a murder from happening but then sees what appears to be a body lying on the ground. When he goes to the park, he discovers the body. However, when he returns to the park again, the body has disappeared. One could argue that Jane (Vanessa Redgrave) is covering up the murder. However, the final sequence brings into question the reliability of Thomas’s perceptions.

Antonioni continues his tradition of great endings with a final sequence that is truly remarkable.  In this scene, Thomas watches a mimed tennis game.  The sound of the bouncing tennis ball helps the viewer visualize it even though it is not actually there. The camera follows the flight of the invisible ball as it lands on the grass.  In this scene, Thomas walks the thin line between reality and fantasy. The tennis playing mimes amuse Thomas at first, but then he accepts their reality. After Thomas throws back the invisible ball, Antonioni does not cut back to the mimes. Rather, the camera remains on Thomas whose eyes follow the flight of the ball.  Nothing seems certain in the film and not even the protagonist is grounded in reality. In Antonioni’s proclaimed signature shot, Thomas disappears and the viewer is left with the image of the patch of grass that was seen in the first few frames of the film. In Blow-Up, things appear and reappear and nothing seems absolutely certain.  The film questions the meaning of reality. Thomas and the mimes make their own meaning and so can the viewer.

Besides its existentialist themes, Blow-Up is fascinating on a historical level as it shows swinging London in the 1960s complete with a jazzy Herbie Hancock score and a performance from the pre-Led Zeppelin band The Yardbirds. The film’s success in the U.S. was no doubt helped by its frank depiction of sex and nudity.   Interestingly, the sex scenes seem very tame by today’s standards. Even though it is still very unconventional, Blow-Up is probably Antonioni’s most accessible film and a good place to start for novices.

Rating (out of ****): ****

Zabriskie Point (1970)

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After the critical and financial success of Blow-Up, Antonioni’s following film Zabriskie Point was panned by critics and flopped at the box office.  Since its release however, the film has gained a sort of cult following.  While it is certainly not on the same level as Antonioni’s previous masterpieces, Zabriskie Point is a fascinating film that is often overlooked and underrated.  If for nothing else, it is worth watching for the ending alone, a mind-blowing sequence that elevates the entire film.

This is the only film that Antonioni ever shot in the U.S.  The film takes place during the youth counterculture and antiwar movement that engulfed the nation during the late 1960s and early 70s’.  Zabriskie Point captures the zeitgeist of that period.  With that being said, it is a flawed film.  The main problem is the film’s two leads, Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin, two non-actors who are terrible.  The film is significantly hurt by their performances. Additionally, their characters, also named Mark and Daria, are poorly developed and the dialogue that they deliver sounds silly a lot of the time. However, one should not think of Mark and Daria as characters in the traditional sense but rather, representations of certain ideas and concepts.

One of the film’s most interesting sequences takes place in Zabriskie Point, located in Death Valley National Park, California. Mark and Daria have sex and soon, in a sort of fantasy orgy, all sorts of naked couples appear and make love in this striking landscape.

As for the ending, it is mesmerizing. After her chance encounter with Mark in the desert, Daria arrives at her destination: a corporate meeting at a house in Phoenix. The house is carved into the beautiful red rock, reminding the viewer of humankind’s need to manipulate and capitalize on nature. Daria imagines the house explode into pieces. Antonioni shows the explosion from various camera angles over and over again. Soon, Pink Floyd music is audible in the soundtrack. Close ups reveal various products of American consumer culture (a TV, clothes, food, laundry detergent, a fridge, etc.) blowing up into pieces and floating into the air. The film ends with a shot of the sunrise over the desert, signaling the dawn of a new era. This explosive and violent ending uses the telephoto lens, slow motion photography, and close ups to create an abstract assault on American consumer capitalism. Surely, this is one of the best endings to any film I have ever witnessed.

The film’s excellent soundtrack features Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, Roy Orbison, and others. Antonioni never skimps on the visuals and the film is quite beautiful. In Zabriskie Point, Antonioni shows an admittedly pessimistic view of America but one that never seems dishonest or false. When a foreign filmmaker comes to America to make a film, it is no doubt going to reveal a unique perspective. Antonioni’s was too hard to swallow for most people at the time and its overwhelming critical backlash was beyond unforgiving. In retrospect, Zabriskie Point remains a fascinating piece of 70s’ cinema that deserves more recognition.

Rating (out of ****): ***1/2

The Passenger (1975)

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After the overwhelming critical and financial failure that was Zabriskie Point, Antonioni rebounded with The Passenger, a successful film that received much praise. The film features great performances from Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider in the lead roles. The Passenger explores the basic human desire to escape one’s identity and create a new one and has an overwhelming sense of alienation, a word that has become synonymous with Antonioni’s cinema.

The film’s final sequence has received a lot of praise for good reason.  The film’s penultimate shot is a seven-minute long tracking shot that begins in Locke’s hotel room, looking out onto a dusty square. The camera slowly pushes beyond the railings of the hotel room and onto the square before rotating 180 degrees back into Locke’s room to reveal his fate. It is a truly amazing shot that displays Antonioni’s virtuosity behind the camera.

The film is often praised for its acting. When discussing Nicholson’s filmography, The Passenger is often overlooked. David Locke is one of Nicholson’s best roles and performances. I love watching Nicholson in his 1970s films and believe it represents some of his absolute best work.

Along with Blow-Up, The Passenger is one of Antonioni’s more accessible films. It is still an Antonioni film though, complete with long takes and a storyline that wanders and meanders its way toward a conclusion of sorts.

Rating (out of ****): ***1/2

Identification of a Woman (1982)

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For Identification of a Woman, Antonioni returns to his native Italy for a film that yields interesting results. While not as masterful as some of his earlier films, Identification is still a strong film and one that is often underrated and overlooked in the director’s filmography.

Identification concerns a film director who is looking for a woman to play the leading role in his next film and in his life. The plot unravels in unexpected ways and has a high level of eroticism. The film’s most striking sequence takes place in a thick fog that envelopes the characters and perfectly matches the mood and atmosphere that the film creates. Like Antonioni’s other works, Identification is hypnotic, and gorgeous with striking visual compositions.

Rating (out of ****): ***1/2

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