Color, the new dimension

Color film had been around for decades before Antonioni shot his first color feature, Red Desert, in 1964, using Technicolor. He switched to Metrocolor for Blowup, Zabriskie Point, and The Passenger. I consulted Steve Neale’s 1985 essay “Technicolor” (from Color, The Film Reader by Angela Dalle Vacche and Brian Price) for some history on the subject of coloring films and it was interesting enough that I thought I’d summarize it a little here.
Technicolor (the company formed in 1915) had developed by 1932 a three-strip process that improved upon its former methods. The Technicolor cameras used three negatives and three filters for the light, one each for blue, green, and red (previous methods used only two colors). This yielded much higher-quality prints made with incredibly expensive cameras that studios rented for color productions (and Technicolor’s secrecy allowed it to hold a monopoly on the color industry despite the cost of its cameras). Eastmancolor, Technicolor’s main competitor, released a much less expensive method in 1949 that combined the three strips into one roll of film that could be used in a single-lens camera. It was less expensive, but Technicolor’s more complicated process has proved more durable; Eastmancolor films faded more over time. Eastman Kodak didn’t improve the quality until the 1980s.
As Antonioni used Metrocolor (a trade name of Eastmancolor) for three pre-1980 films I’m studying, I’ve become slightly concerned about the quality of the color I’m trying to analyze. I suspect it’s all right, because the DVD copies I’ve used don’t seem wrong. It’s unnerving and irritating when sources disagree about the films’ colors, but as I noted in my last post, color can be very subjective and difficult to reach a clear consensus on — even in differentiating colors. For example, Rifkin in Antonioni’s Visual Language argues a character’s “purple” handbag is a significant purple moment in Blowup, but I’d have called it magenta. (103) And when I clearly see a pink handbag instead of the purple someone else is writing about, I’m going to wonder if my version looks the way it was intended.

The "purple" handbag in Blowup: looks pink to me

In Hollywood at least, color was “overwhelmingly associated, aesthetically, with spectacle and fantasy” (Neale) through the 1950s, and critics doubted its artistic value for already-great films — very similar to 3D filmmaking in the present. Italy’s first color film, Totò a Colori, came out in 1953, just 11 years before Antonioni’s Red Desert, although Italians had been watching foreign color films before Totò a Colori and I’m curious about the Italian view of color around that time. Luchino Visconti made his melodramatic Senso in vibrant Technicolor in 1954, but it took Federico Fellini until 1965 to adopt color in Juliet of the Spirits.
As for Antonioni, he had gained worldwide recognition with his trilogy of alienation: L’avventura, La notte, and L’eclisse in the early ’60s, all in black and white. Red Desert in 1964 dealt with similar themes, but it also marked a great aesthetic departure from its predecessors. The ability to use color opened up new possibilities for symbolism and expression and Red Desert was partially an experiment to see what he could do with the new spectrum.

A constant feature of the films is the focus on the spaces around the characters, especially buildings. The architecture in the films means something slightly different in each. For example, Sandro in L’avventura has sold out and given up on his younger dreams of being a great architect, and finds himself surrounded and taunted by beautiful architecture, whereas in La notte the stark, cold city buildings visually dwarf Lidia and convey her alienation from her husband.

Architecture in L'avventura

La Notte

The later films rely less on architecture to support the plot; buildings remain very important, but the films use color more often to suggest what Antonioni earlier conveyed through longer takes, dialogue, and the architecture. A possible exception is The Passenger, which features fluid Gaudí designs, although their significance in the film is more abstruse than the previous films’ buildings. Antonioni also manipulated color far less in The Passenger than in any of the previous color films.
The industrial settings in Red Desert would certainly be as imposing in black and white as in color, but an important visual contrast is between the various kinds of color in the film — artificially bright, modern colors, dulled earth tones and grey surroundings, and the bright colors of Giuliana’s sea fantasy. There are important color symbols, such as yellow, which represents the modern industrial world Giuliana perceives as poisonous:

A yellow flame shoots regularly from the tower in Red Desert's first scene

A ship raises a yellow flag for "quarantine" (looks greyish, its yellow value is from the characters discussing what a yellow flag means)

Giuliana's son asks her if birds die from flying through the yellow smoke; N.B. also the yellow barrels

Written the way it is, the film definitely requires color. Blowup is the same way — I doubt it would work in black and white — although the color is used in a less subjective, expressionistic manner than Red Desert, where the colors often convey Giuliana’s emotional responses to her environment. Blowup‘s colors have less to do with its protagonist’s emotions and relate more to his place in the world.
Blowup has a great deal of black, white, and grey. This is the mostly monochromatic world of its main character, a prominent fashion photographer. It’s not only an appropriate environment for a photographer who, as far as we can tell, only uses black and white (the norm at the time): Antonioni also aligns the monochromatic settings with the young, hip world of Swinging London. There are colors, but many of the shots are predominantly black, white, and grey. Like Red Desert, the contrast between kinds of color is important; in this case, it’s the black/white/grey areas versus the bright colors of the green park, a row of older storefronts painted bright red, etc. Antonioni uses architecture similarly to the earlier films, conveying the coldness in modernity:

Mimes reveling, Blowup's opening scene

The structures are still important aspects of the mise en scène and essential to the films too, but the new dimension of color makes the buildings less instrumental in carrying meaning for Antonioni. In Red Desert, the industrially sublime structures are essential to the film but it’s Antonioni’s color choices that really show Giuliana’s struggle to cope with her modern environment.