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August 15-21, 2007

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Cult Leader

Dear Antonioni: Lamenting the lost legacy of 'Blowup'

By Steve Palopoli

DEAR Michelangelo Antonioni: What's up, genius? Nice job going and dying less than 24 hours after Ingmar Bergman! No offense, but we're talking legacy here, and Bergman ...I'm just saying.

I know you probably got used to getting short-sheeted in the legacy department. But man, you should be glad you're not around to see what they're writing now. Especially about Blowup. From The New York Times: "Mr. Antonioni is probably best known for Blowup, a 1966 drama set in Swinging London. ...But his true, lasting contribution to cinema resides in an earlier trilogy—L'Avventura in 1959, La Notte in 1960 and L'Eclisse in 1962." Ouch! Nothing against L'Avventura, certainly, but to say that those artier, less-seen early films came anywhere close to influencing cinema the way Blowup did is nuts. Blowup is the film that connected, the film that defined its time.

Most importantly, Blowup is the film that pioneered a new, postmodern genre: the mystery movie in which the mystery doesn't matter. Without your amazing film, we wouldn't have fake-mystery masterpieces like The Conversation or The Big Lebowski. Nor do I think we'd have the '70s cycle of paranoia films that start out like detective stories and end up as meditations on conspiracy, like Chinatown and The Parallax View. Blowup was the movie that elevated the ambition and intellect of the genre.

Like Parallax, your film was a thinly veiled response to the Kennedy assassination. I'm going to get into some possible spoilers here—not that you care, since in addition to being dead, you are quite familiar with the plot of the film—but others who have not yet had the pleasure might want to skip the next couple of paragraphs.

There are undoubtedly many ways the ending of Blowup can be interpreted, but to me it comes down to one thing: Believing is seeing, rather than the other way around. Throughout the movie, everyone is obsessed with looking—doing it, talking about it, whatever. It is a classic study of voyeurism. David Hemmings' Thomas, a fashion photographer who apparently skipped the class on model releases, is the most obsessive of all. He doesn't so much look at people as look into a machine that looks at people for him. But as he gets drawn into a mystery based on scattered details he notices in one set of photographs, his ability to see is gradually taken away from him—by the loss of detail in the blowups of his pictures, by the thief who takes his work, by whoever removes the body from the park. In the end, he is forced to acknowledge that looking is not always enough. The murder is real because he believes it happened, even though he no longer has any visible evidence, just as the mimes' tennis ball can be real—and even make a noise!—even though it is only in their collective imagination. Ultimately, Thomas has to accept that his belief is enough.

In regard to the Kennedy assassination, Blowup came at a perfect time. The official investigation had backed the single-gun theory, but people all over the world believed there was something more insidious. Blowup, with its implied reference to the Zapruder film and assassination, sent a message to grassy-knoll believers everywhere: keep the faith.

At one time, the revolutionary nature of Blowup was widely acknowledged, and a couple of subsequent films were basically meditations on yours that also turned out to stand on their own. Brian DePalma's Blow Out, which tweaked the concept to focus on sound, is the most obvious example. But Blowup has sort of fallen out of favor with the film elite, and these obits of yours writing it off as trendy and dated—a product of its time—don't have a clue. Blowup was way ahead of its time, and hey, thanks for that.

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your favorite fake mystery here. To check out a previous edition of Cult Leader, click to the Cult Leader archive page.

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