1966 BLOW UP


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Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 masterpiece Blow-Up influenced many subsequent filmmakers, including most obviously Francis Ford Coppola (The Conversation) and Brian de Palma (Blow Out). Like all of Antonioni’s work, this movie will appeal most to filmgoers with a predilection for art films, but it’s also as close as Antonioni would ever get to making a film with mass appeal in mind.

Blow-Up won the Best Picture award from the National Society of Film Critics. The British Film Institute ranks it as the 60th best British film all-time. This was a thrilling, intelligent, and influential film that every film lover should see sooner or later and, preferably, both sooner and later.

REVIEW
BLOW UP 1966

The Story: The opening credits run against a backdrop of closely cropped green grass in a park, with nothing else in sight. For most other directors, a patch of grass would be just a patch of grass, but, with Antonioni, as we shall see, the grass could just as well represent some root form of reality, on top of which we humans project meaning, either individually or collectively. Shortly, we find ourselves in the swinging sixties of mod-era London, where a truckload of carefree mimes careen aimlessly through the streets, reveling in their own version of reality. Meanwhile, homeless vagrants are emerging from a shelter, or “doss house.” One scraggly young man, Thomas (David Hemmings), stands out a bit from the other bums and as soon as he’s separated himself from his mates, his demeanor abruptly changes and he hurriedly trots down the street and hops into a parked Rolls Royce convertible. Soon, Thomas is zipping along the London streets and calling into his receptionist (Tsai Chin) on a mobile phone. Thomas, it seems, is no vagrant, but a highly successful photographer who had used his disguise as a tramp to shoot some candid, artsy photographs of the dregs of society.

Blow-Up

Thomas rushes to his studio for a solo shoot with supermodel Verushka (Veruschka von Lehndorff), who appears to be one of those anorexic fashion models that grace the pages of chic magazines. Thomas quickly changes out of his hobo outfit and orders an assistant to burn the rags. The photo session with Verushka is electric with sublimated sexuality, as the macho Thomas works his frenzied model, even straddling her provocatively as she twists and rolls passionately. After finishing with Verushka, Thomas turns his attention to a group of five more bony fashion models, shouting instructions and invectives at them as they work. When Thomas becomes exasperated with the models, he leaves them posing and heads off for a visit with his neighbors, Bill (John Castle) and Patricia (Sarah Miles).


Bill is an artist who dabbles in abstract paintings. “They don’t mean anything when I do them,” Bill tells Thomas. “Afterward, I find something to hang onto.” Though Patricia is Bill’s lover, she has some evident though unspoken interest in Thomas, which she illustrates by massaging his head, neck, and shoulders as he sits in her kitchen. Returning to his studio, Thomas is intercepted by two attractive teenagers, one blonde (Jane Birkin) and the other brunette (Gillian Hills). They’re hoping for a shot at the modeling big-time, with Thomas’s help. He’s got no time for them, however, and escapes their insistent efforts by speeding off in his Rolls.

Thomas heads to an antique shop, apparently having an interest in buying it because it’s in a neighborhood where he expects real estate values to rise. The owner is out, however, and the shopkeeper (Harry Hutchinson) seems terribly averse to parting with any of the antiques. Thomas decides to kill time in a nearby park while waiting for the owner to return. He occupies himself photographing some pigeons until he spots an amorous couple heading off to a more remote field. Thomas rushes after the pair and shoots their frolicsome activities from a discrete distance. Soon, however, the woman of the pair, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), comes running after him, accusing him of invading their peace and demanding the film. She even tries to grab his camera from him, but Thomas resists and refuses to give up his film. He offers to sell her the photographs once they are developed. Jane’s lover is nowhere to be seen, and she runs back toward where they had been together, as Thomas shoots more pictures. Returning to the antique shop, Thomas meets up with the owner (Susan Broderick) and impulsively purchases a very large airplane propeller, which will have to be delivered in a van. While returning to his studio, Thomas calls his receptionist and tells her to advise his real estate agent to move quickly on buying the antique shop.

Thomas stops for lunch with his publishing agent, Ron (Peter Bowles), who will be putting together Thomas’s book of artsy photographs, including the ones taken at the doss house. There is obvious artistry in Thomas’s photographic work, though he exhibits little concern for his subjects beyond their value as images. Thomas and Ron spot a man observing them through the restaurant window. Thomas leaves the restaurant and spots the man trying to open the boot of Thomas’s Rolls, but the man soon drives off in his own car. Thomas returns to his studio and finds Jane waiting for him. She’s come to collect the photographs, one way or another. Inside Thomas’s apartment, Jane tries to steal Thomas’s camera, but is intercepted. Failing that, she tries to seduce him in exchange for the photographs, after they’ve smoked some marijuana. She removes her blouse but Thomas, in an apparent act of charity, gives her the roll of film, settling for just a kiss. In reality, he’s given her a different roll of film.

As soon as his visitor has left, Thomas sets out to discover what is so important about the pictures shot in the park. He closes himself in his darkroom, develops the film, and makes some oversized prints. With his experience as a photographer, he notes little hints that something is not as it should be. He sees, for example, in one of the photographs, Jane embracing her lover but looking off intently to her left to a point some distance away in the woods. Thomas follows her line of sight and studies the wooded area at which she is gazing. He blows up that section of the photograph for a closer look. He sees in the enlargement what appears to be a hand and a gun, almost hidden among some trees. In a skillful concatenation of images, Antonioni allows us to share Thomas’s thought process as he pieces together a likely sequence of events that may have comprised a murder.

Thomas’s investigation is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of the two teen models who had earlier tried to gain his interest. Each of these adolescents appears to be modest and inexperienced, yet vaguely prepared to do whatever is required to get ahead. Thomas pulls off the blouse straps of the blonde, who then hides her bare chest with various modeling outfits hanging on a nearby rack. Soon, the three are rolling about on the floor, wrestling and giggling, and pulling at each other’s clothing. The blonde doesn’t want to be the only one bare-chested, and starts yanking at her friend’s blouse, while Thomas cheers and, soon, begins pulling off the girls’ tights. When both are stripped bare, they turn on Thomas and begin stripping him. After a few more tantalizing flashes of breasts and possibly the first ever (momentary) appearance of pubic hairs in mainstream cinema, Antonioni graciously cuts away to the ceremonial aftermath of redressing. Soon, Thomas kicks the two gals out, suggesting they return the next day, so that he can return to his photographic detective work.

Thomas returns to his dark room and, in another enlargement, spots what he believes might be a corpse. The image is so grainy at this point that it looks a bit like one of Bill’s abstract paintings. It’s dark outside, but Thomas hops in his Rolls and heads back to the park. There he finds the corpse, precisely where he anticipated it would be. Now, he’ll need to find another witness to validate his discovery. Thomas goes to the home of Bill and Patricia, walking in on them as they are making love. Only Patricia spots him (Bill being engrossed in his effort) and she nods her head, urging Thomas to leave quietly before Bill also takes notice. Thomas returns to his own neighboring apartment and discovers that all of the pictures from the park have been stolen. Patricia drops by to visit with Thomas. Each is preoccupied with a different issue. Patricia says, vaguely, “Will you help me? I don’t know what to do.” Thomas asks, “What is it?” but gets no reply. Viewers will likely sense that Patricia had come close to telling Thomas of her feelings for him, but backed off at the last minute. Thomas, whose mind is elsewhere, says, “I saw somebody killed in the park.” Patricia responds, “How did it happen?” All Thomas can add is, “I don’t know. I didn’t see.” What he saw was the photographic evidence, not the actual event.

Now, with his photographic evidence gone, Thomas is desperate for some external validation of what he believes happened. He places an urgent call to his friend and agent, Ron. Ron, however, is out partying. Thomas goes to find him, but on the way, he briefly spots Jane near a storefront. She disappears in a crowd, however, before Thomas can reach her. He looks down an alleyway and then enters a club where he thinks she might have gone. There, the Yardbirds (including Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and future Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page) are performing “Stroll On.” The crowd is listless and unresponsive. The guitarist, Jeff Beck, gets so ticked off when the sound equipment starts producing static that he smashes his electric guitar and hurls the broken bridge into the audience. There’s a wild scramble for it and Thomas finally emerges with it from the crowd. He has to race outside to avoid being trampled. Once outside, he realizes that the broken bridge is worthless and tosses it away.

Thomas continues to where Ron is partying and finds a hoard of up-scale literary types smoking grass. Ron is so zonked out that it’s obvious that he wouldn’t make a credible witness, even if Thomas could drag him to the park. Verushka briefly emerges, to Thomas’s surprise. “I thought you were supposed to be in Paris, he says to her. “I am in Paris,” she replies, famously. She’s so spaced out she could be anywhere. Thomas decides that the best remaining option is to return with his camera and photograph the body. When he reaches the park, however, the body is gone. The dejected Thomas realizes that his version of the reality of what happened that day, in the park, will never be able to be confirmed by anyone else. He may as well have dreamed it.

Thomas heads back to his car, walking past a set of tennis courts, just as the same truckload on anarchistic mimes comes rolling up. A couple of the mimes rush onto the court to engage in a tennis match, with neither rackets nor a ball, but otherwise mimicking the movements and the emotions. Their fellow mimes compliantly observe, apparently enjoying the fierce competition. Thomas looks on more skeptically. One of the mimes whacks the imaginary ball a bit too hard and it sails over the fence, in Thomas’s direction. The nearest mime silently asks Thomas to fetch the ball and throw it back onto the court. The “ball” has come to rest in the center of the same patch of grass with which the film opened. Thomas hesitates in accepting this alternate version of reality, but finally acquiesces out of good fellowship. After tossing the ball back onto the court, Thomas proceeds to observe the match, rolling his eyes back and forth with the movements of the ball. The camera pauses on Thomas, standing alone in the field, for a few seconds. Then Thomas disappears, leaving just the field, to the accompaniment of a sudden surge of non-diegetic music, to remind us of the director’s presence. Historical Background: Michelangelo Antonioni was born on September 29th, 1912, in Ferrara, Italy. He was educated at the University of Bologna, but, oddly enough, in business and economics. After college, Antonioni began experimenting on his own with 16 mm films and writing film criticism for a local newspaper. In 1939, he decided to commit himself to filmmaking and headed off to Rome, where he briefly attended a famous film school, the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. In 1942, he collaborated on two film scripts, one for Rossellini’s Una Pilota Ritorna and the other for Fulchignoni’s I Due Foscari. Antonioni also worked as assistant director on the latter film. Later that year, Antonio went to France as the Italian representative for the French-Italian co-production Les Visiteurs du Soir, directed by Marcel Carné. In 1947, Antonioni completed his first film as a director, a short documentary called Gente del Po. Six more documentaries followed in the next three years.

Finally, in 1950, Antonioni, already 38 years of age, directed his first feature film: Story of a Love Affair. Four more gestational films followed during the next ten years, through which Antonioni cultivated his unique style. Then, in 1960, Antonioni initiated a trilogy of films that would bring him international attention and establish his unique aesthetic and thematic emphasis. The remarkable L’Avventura (1959) initiated the trio, followed by La Notte (1961), and concluding with Eclipse (1962). All of these three films related to human alienation and all featured actress Monica Vitti. Antonioni’s other best-known works included the bleak Red Desert (1964), his first color film, and his three English-language films: Blow-Up (1966), Zabriskie Point (1969), and The Passenger (1975), starring Jack Nicholson.

Antonioni’s films typically have very little plot, dealing instead with metaphysical and philosophical issues. Antonioni establishes meaning more through images and manipulations of time and space than through dialog or plot. Antonioni’s films usually center on female characters, with males mostly serving as catalysts or as part of an oppressive and alienating social structure. Mystery and ambiguity are often integral parts of Antonioni films, demanding intelligent involvement on the part of audiences.

Blow-Up was a major divergence from form for Antonioni. It was his first film made in Britain, his first English language film, a rare instance of Antonioni featuring a male character as lead, and the most stylistically mainstream film Antonioni would ever make. Blow-Up would also stimulate worldwide controversy for its depictions of drug use and casual sex and would help bring the downfall of the production code, triggering the introduction of the movie rating system. MGM was scandalized by the film, but had no choice but to release it. Blow-Up contributed significantly to the transformation of filmmaking that was underway in the late sixties and early seventies. In the end, this film would be recognized as a venerable classic.

Themes: This is a complex and ambiguous film about which reams have been written. There are uncertainties and alternative interpretations, with this film. Nobody, least of all I, can definitively explain what each nuance of this film signifies. The broad thematic contours are clear enough, however. This is a film about metaphysical and philosophical issues, not a simple thriller. Viewers who approach the film as primarily a thriller are bound to be disappointed. There is no final resolution to the mystery element. We can’t be certain that a murder occurred, much less why.

The core issue of this film is the nature of reality and the various kinds of representations of reality that comprise individual perception, social consensus, and art. Ultimate reality is something unknowable. We may be able to peel away a layer or two of the obscuring factors, but additional ones always remain. An individual’s impression of the reality of an event is colored by his physical position in relation to the event, his belief system, and his biases. Every personal experience and recollection has a subjective component. Individual perceptions can acquire increased credibility if validated by the perceptions of other witnesses (and the more witnesses the better), but even viewpoints validated culturally by an entire population of people are contextually based and may not appear valid to persons from another culture. Many Americans, for example, view Islam as a menace while many Islamic people view America as a menace. The mimes, in Blow-Up, have their own subculture and agreed upon interpretation of reality, valid within their insular group, by which a tennis game can take place without rackets or a ball. In the nightclub, a guitar bridge thrown into the audience is priceless, but only so long as a number of people desired it. Thomas convinced himself of a likely interpretation of events that took place in the park, including a possible murder. He seemingly verified his interpretation when he discovered the corpse in the park. Later, however, his photographic evidence was stolen, except for one solitary, ambiguous print, which lost its meaning without the context of the other photographs. He realized that his notion of reality of the events in the park could no longer be sustained or externally validated. He might as well accede to the reality of society’s perception, even if it means watching a tennis game that has no ball.

Antonioni emerged as a filmmaker around the time that “realism” was all the rage among filmmakers in Italy, also influencing some directors working in other European nations. Antonioni developed a contrary style, however, which became known as “abstract cinema.” Antonioni recognized that true “realism” is an unattainable objective in art. Art always has a subjective element and must always reflect the perceptual framework of the filmmaker. A photograph or a film might seem to be an objective record, but is always subject to interpretation. Movies are even more subjective than photographs because of their complexity. Collage editing, for example, plays a major role in creating associations and inferences. Blow-Up is one of the finest films ever made about the nature of artistic expression. Thomas, the protagonist, is a visual artist, as is also his friend, Bill. The filmmaker, Antonioni, is also a visual artist, which permits Blow-Up to provide a multi-layered perspective on the nature of visual representations. Throughout the film, Antonioni keeps his camera perspective separate from Thomas’s perspective, to remind us that what we see is colored not only by our protagonist’s viewpoint, but by the director’s viewpoint as well. One could add also the viewer’s own perspective. Art is an illusion, more or less based on reality, but never reality itself. Just as Bill could project meaning onto his abstract paintings, viewers can project meaning onto photographs and movies.

Another theme inherent in this film is detachment vs. commitment to action. Most artists, by the nature of their work, are observers. Certainly that is the case for photographers and filmmakers. When one looks at the world from behind a lens, one acquires a habit of observation rather than direct engagement. Antonioni was often accused of being apolitical in his films. Antonioni’s preoccupation with alienation can be seen as a corollary of detachment. Thomas, the protagonist of Blow-Up, photographs destitute homeless people, capturing their plight with pictures of brilliant artistry, but easily sheds the rags that he donned to get access to the homeless shelter. We sense that he just as readily sheds any further interest in the plight of the poor. For Thomas, the poor are simply objects of art, not subjects to stimulate social conscience. Thomas happily permits an anti-bomb demonstrator to deposit a sign in the backseat of his Rolls Royce convertible and is just as contented when the picket blows away as he speeds down the street. Thomas is what would later be called a “yuppie.” “If I only had more money, I’d be all right,” he says. Confronted with something as serious as a murder, Thomas has no idea how to take action. Antonioni paints the London mod scene as a hollow kind of preoccupation with hedonistic pleasures in the here and now. It may be the counterculture and it may have rejected the establishment’s nuclear arms race and imperialist mentality, but it is far less committed to political activism than personal pleasure.

Production Values: Although the script for Blow-Up was based loosely on a short story, Las Babas del Diablo, by Julio Cortazar, the film bears only a loose connection to the original. The script was co-written by the director and Tonino Guerra. The resultant screenplay is vintage Antonioni, transformed from a simple story into a philosophical meditation. There’s a Hitchcockian twist to the script, but no Hitchcockian resolution. The film provides a fabulous evocation of swinging London, with the rock bands, pot smoking, casual sex, and stylish outfits.

Antonioni is the unsurpassed master of images. Blow-up is beautifully photographed, with rich colors and many multi-layered images. No filmmaker has ever paid more attention to the architecture of his frames, though perhaps Eisenstein and Dreyer were equally attentive. To some extent, Antonioni treats the actors as just another part of the images. The art direction by Assheton Gordon and the cinematography by Carlo di Palma are both top drawer. The score for the film is a hip rock track by Herbie Hancock, but it’s intermittent and Antonioni studiously avoids using the song track to help viewers figure out what they’re supposing to be thinking or feeling. The most dramatic moments in the film are accompanied by silence or, in one instance, the rustling of leaves in the wind.

David Hemmings’s character is utterly fascinating. He stalks, struts, and bounds about like a tiger on the loose. He’s bottled machismo in both the reprehensible sense and the appealing sense of animal magnetism. He’s the kind of guy who can do cool tricks with coins on his fingers and click his heels effortlessly as he leaps. He refers to his models as “bitches” and as “birds” but they just can resist his allure. He’s got the power to make them or break them. Thomas has the eye and intellect of a true artist but not much heart to go with those skills. Thomas has success and wealth, but craves more, as a balm for that aching feeling of loneliness and ennui. Hemmings is brilliant in the role and went on to a long career that included performances in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), Juggernaut (1974), Just a Gigolo (1978), Last Orders (2001), and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003). Hemmings died from a heart attack in 2003.

Vanessa Redgrave stars here as Jane. She does a great job during the scene in Thomas’s apartment exuding a combination of nervousness and determination. She appeared in Morgan! (1966) in the same year as Blow-Up and then went on to a long and illustrious career in such films as The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), Julia (1977), Wetherby (1985), Howards End (1992), Mission: Impossible (1996), Mrs. Dalloway (1997), Wilde (1997), Deep Impact (1998), Cradle Will Rock (1999), Girl, Interrupted (1999), and The Pledge (2001). Sarah Miles was outstanding in a part with not much screen time. She worked in such films as The Servant (1963), Ryan’s Daughter (1970), and Hope and Glory (1987). The rest of the cast had relatively little work to do.

Bottom-Line: The Warner Bros. DVD for this film has some nice extras. There’s a commentary track by Peter Brunette, author of a book called The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni. I listened to the entire track. It’s good but I wish it had been better. There were some scattered insights that I found useful for preparing this review, but not as many as I would have liked for a two hour investment. Another feature is a music only audio track, which is somewhat silly, considering that the music is rather intermittent. Two theatrical trailers are also provided. Language options are English or French. Optional subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish. The film’s running time is 111 minutes. The audio and video tracks are both first-rate.

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