by Marty Demarest

I love Michelangelo's work because it's so cool and so mod. The women are always fabulous. The men sit around, petulant and greedy.

Of course I'm not talking about that Michelangelo. I'm talking about Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni, who made his best films during the 1960s, when morals and aesthetics were changing daily and the Italians were determined to make a mark in the film world. Along with compatriots Federico Fellini and Roberto Rossellini, Antonioni represented a bold new way of making film. It was personal, provocative, and always lavishly presented -- like Gucci on celluloid.

Blow-Up was Antonioni's last great triumph. The film centers on Thomas, a thoroughly unlikable, apathetic photographer, who spends his days with meaningless sex and hollow art. Unfulfilled by his fashion shots, Thomas is photographing a serene park when he photographs what he thinks is evidence of a murder. Consumed by this mystery, Thomas enlarges his photos and loses himself in the flood of images, trying to understand what they mean. In the end, however, the images, reality, and meaning all disappear in several sequences that cheat the eyes.

At times, Blow-Up feels like a dead-serious Austin Powers. Characters say things like "fab" and mean it. Psychedelic colors deck the screen without a hint of nostalgia; they're just there, hanging on the furniture and bodies, because that's what psychedelic colors did. It's beautiful but hollow. Nevertheless, there seems to be something more than a condemning look at modern apathy. Antonioni desperately wants things to have meaning. Thomas can only find meaning in his images by blowing them up; sometimes, we also need things to get a little out of control before we get the point.

Antonioni is a master of doing this. He photographs this world like it was never going to go out of style. His camera, like Thomas's, devours everything that it finds. There's more than a little similarity between Antonioni and that other famous Michelangelo. They both focus in and blow up reality until an entirely new expressive vocabulary reveals itself. We're still able to recognize ourselves - or at least we want to imagine that those fabulous beings are us. But every color vibrates and every personality smolders with something extra - something important to say. Watching the new DVD release of Blow-Up, I'm tempted to speculate that the expressionism of the Renaissance didn't reach its full bloom until the 1960s.

Publication date: 02/12/04

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