Blowing Up vs Shutting Down

I recently took a long bus ride uptown to see my very first Antonioni film, projected on the big screen at the Prytania Theatre.  I enjoyed Blow-Up well enough but did not love it.  However, I do love some more genre-minded pictures that were directly inspired by it—namely Blow Out, Perversion Story, and The Eyes of Laura Mars—all titles I previously understood purely as giallo-era Hitchcock derivatives.  In contrast to those later, flashier works, Antonioni’s own perversion of a Hitchcockian murder mystery is a stubbornly arthouse-minded affair.  On paper, its story of a horndog fashion photographer in Swinging 60s London who uncovers evidence of a murder (and a larger political conspiracy to cover it up) in his photos reads like a stylish crime thriller.  In practice, Blow-Up deliberately withholds all the traditional payoffs of a murder mystery story & a political conspiracy thriller, instead dwelling in frustration & ambiguity.  If it’s a straight-up horror film, it’s about the existential horror of asking all your friends & acquaintances “Hey, you guys wanna see a dead body?” and no one taking you up on the offer, leaving you to sit with your own morbid fascination and no outlet for the tension.  As a result, it’s the kind of movie that earns measured “That was interesting!” compliments instead of more genuine, swooning enthusiasm.

To be honest, the most rewarding part of the screening was not Blow-Up itself, but its presentation.  The film was preceded by a lengthy slideshow lecture about The Beatles’ albums Rubber Soul & Revolver, which had nothing to do with the movie except that it happened to be set in London in the 1960s.  It was clear most of the audience was not aware of this deeply nerdy opening act, which pushed the start time a full precious hour later into the weeknight.  Every new slide about how well 45″ singles like “Paperback Writer” or “Yellow Submarine” were reviewed in the papers had people audibly groaning in frustration, with a small crowd of younger moviegoers cowering in the lobby, desperate for the rant to end.  It was an incredible bonding experience, like surviving a group hostage situation.  I don’t know that the lecture sold many Beatles-themed history books as potential Christmas gifts in the lobby, as intended, but it did a lot to restore my personal faith in humanity on both ends; it was good to know that the kids out there are still indignant brats and that the nerds are still oblivious to their audiences’ attention span for rapid-fire niche interest stats.  I often go to the theater alone, talk to no one except the box office worker, and leave without even making so much as eye contact with my fellow moviegoers, much less conversation.  By contrast, that Blow-Up screening felt like a substantial Community Event.

Somewhere in the lengthy preamble to the feature presentation, I found myself chatting with an employee at the theatre and expressed gratitude that they were adding more repertory classics to their weekly schedule. It turns out the single-screener only had room for this extra rep screening because the Oscar Bait Movie of the Week, She Said, was doing poorly.  And while the audience for Blow-Up might have been groaning at the nonstop onslaught of mid-60s #BeatlesFacts before the show, I was encouraged to see them show up & stick it out.  There were a few dozen people in attendance, when I’ve gotten used to sharing the room with much smaller crowds on my artsy-fartsy weeknight excursions.  After reading so many doomsaying national headlines about the box office disappointments of Awards Season hopefuls like She Said, The Fabelmans, Triangle of Sadness, and Tár, I was starting to worry that my local independent movie theatres might not be able to survive between superhero epics & Top Gun sequels if audiences are just going to wait for everything else on the marquee to hit streaming services.  Seeing that crowd show up for Blow-Up (and struggle to stay up for The Beatles) gave me hope that the business might not be dying, just changing.  If art-friendly spaces like The Prytania, The Broad, and Zeitgeist have to survive on community events & repertory screenings instead of Avatar-scale CG monstrosities the world may be all the better for it.

Even that night, I had to choose between seeing Blow-Up for the first time uptown at The Prytania or Hitchcock’s North by Northwest for the first time down the street at The Broad.  And The Prytania’s new downtown location has been running more regular repertory screenings than either of those locations combined, something I don’t know that I’ve ever seen with any regularity in this city.  I may not have fallen totally in love with Blow-Up on this first viewing, but it did feel like I was placing an essential puzzle piece in my larger understanding of genre film history, the same way that I felt seeing big-screen presentations of Ghost in the Shell & The Fog for the first time in recent months.  I do want to see the trend of every non-superhero movie struggling to make money continue in this post-COVID, rushed-to-streaming world, because I fear that theatres will not be able to sell enough booze & popcorn to stay afloat.  That momentum may be unstoppable at this point, though, and that surprisingly well-attended Blow-Up screening gave me hope that there might be another way to combat audiences’ exponential disinterest in trying new, uncanonized art.  I can’t speak for the rest of that crowd, but I’ll sit through a hundred more Beatles lectures if it means I get to keep watching weird, divisive movies projected big & loud.  If nothing else, I’m too old & too tired to find a new hobby at this point in my life.

-Brandon Ledet

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