<I>Blow Up</i> and the Opaque CharacterComplications Ensue
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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Lisa and I watched Antonioni's BLOW UP last night. This is a quietly spectacular movie -- quietly because very little happens from a plot point of view, and there are no chases or explosions. Mostly the hero wanders through Swinging London of 1966.

But after you see the movie, the world looks slightly different to your eyes, which is a spectacular thing for a movie to do.

(The following has spoilers, though they probably won't affect the movie much.)

What struck me this time is how David Hemmings' photographer character Thomas curiously fails to do something normal in the middle of the picture. He finds a dead body in a park. He goes home. He visits his neighbor. He goes back home. The photographs he took that led him to the body are gone. His neighbor's wife visit. She asks if he should call the police. He changes the subject. He goes to a rave. He goes to a party. In the morning, he goes back to the park.

Any normal person finding a dead body in a park would call the police. Hell, he's got a radio in his car. He doesn't.

What's interesting about this from a craft point of view is that there's no explanation given. His neighbor's wife asks him if he shouldn't call the police. He changes the subject.

The question is addressed but it's never answered. We have to make our own explanations for his behavior.

In a way, the strangeness of his behavior becomes the point of the film. Maybe to Thomas, only the unreal is real; the dead body is so real, it's hardly there at all. But if you were to have Thomas or antoher character put that in words, the movie probably wouldn't work; it would reduce the thematic mystery to a sound bite.

I'm working on an odd political thriller, where the motivation of the main character is at odds with normal. There have been a lot of calls to make clear exactly why he's behaving that way. But I wonder if I should, instead, simply commit to what he's doing, to create a strong portrait of a man who is doing that, and not explain. Like a locked box, there is something fascinating about an opaque character. CAT scan it, and you run the risk of ruining the mystery.



Antonioni's work is full of opaque characters and it works especially well in Blow-Up and the earlier L'Aventura (where the body is never found and the mystery just dissipates).

I think as long as the character has an internal consistency that satisfies the writer, making it explicit kind of tamps the womb of the viewer's imagination.
That's if you want to make art, of course, commerce is a different matter.

Like David Lynch, who I admit has been taking it to an extreme of late, I watch Antonioni the same way I listen to music and think about it after like I would poetry.

In trying to think of a character whose motivations are not explicit in more commercial films, the best I can come up with off the top of my head is Javier Bardem's character in "No Country For Old Men." It worked for me, but I think it would be hard to make a sympathetic protagonist that way.

By Blogger OutOfContext, at 1:49 PM  

The trouble with characters whose motivations are not explained is that the character may end up doing something unexplainable that does not fit any sort of logic or reason.

The audience will ask themselves "Why did he do that?" and if they cannot come up with an answer, you have lost them. The answer may differ from person to person, and it could even be different to the one the writer had in mind, but the audience has to believe there is some reason behind it.

By Blogger Scott, at 9:20 PM  

I agree that a character doesn't necessarily have to do what would be considered normal, as long as it is consistent with who the character is. What bothers me (and I vaguely recall being bothered by Blowup for this reason, although it's been a LONG time since I saw the movie), is when a character does something out of the norm for no other reason than because it makes the story go in the direction the makers want it to. It feels contrived and I feel cheated.

By Blogger Tim W., at 1:06 AM  

I really like stories that do that, that commit to who a character is and how they act without telling you why. It makes them feel deeper and more real somehow, when things aren't explained point by point.

That was the one thing I liked about the American cut of The Professional - you never find out where Leon's from, who he was before. It doesn't matter. In the rest-of-the-world cut, he spills his heart out about his girlfriend who died, and that takes all the mystery away.

There's a tendency in animation to want to spell everything out, bullet proof the plot points and stupid-proof the characters... but if you look at Miyazaki movies, there is a whole lot of charm to be had from a more relaxed and less informative way of doing things.

By Blogger Emma, at 11:15 AM  

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