The Conversation is a new feature at Sound on Sight bringing together Drew Morton and Landon Palmer in a passionate debate about cinema new and old. For their third piece, they will discuss Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up.
The cultural impact of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up would be very difficult to overemphasize. Upon release, Andrew Sarris referred to the film as “a mod masterpiece” and ‘Playboy’ critic Arthur Knight went so far as comparing the film to Hiroshima mon amour, Rome Open City, and Citizen Kane in its potential influence on filmmaking. The film was also a massive hit worldwide and the tenth highest grossing film in the United States in 1966 – a memento of a brief window in time in which an art film by an Italian auteur could also do boffo box office. And, having been denied a seal by the Production Code Administration, Blow Up (along with Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that same year) helped push the last nail in the coffin of Classical Hollywood’s holdover practice of film censorship.
Yet despite the breadth of its influence and despite being the most financially successful film of Antonioni’s career, Blow Up isn’t timeless – at least, not in the way his L’Avventura and Red Desert are. Blow Up is one of those films whose role in history was so big that the force of the film itself has paradoxically been lessened by its own influence. Where audiences once found risqué, open, and unrepressed sexuality (this is set in England, after all) we might today wince at the problematic gender politics of a protagonist taking advantage of his privileged position for sexual favors in a way that paved a path for the Terry Richardsons of today’s fashion world. Where audiences in 1966 may have seen a great, distracting carnival of hip, ebullient youth against the backdrop of Swinging London, Blow Up’s portrayal of the counterculture seems small compared to the following cultural upheaval and mobilized youth politics that reached from Haight-Ashbury to Paris. Blow Up today seems more like a bridge between two cinematic 1960s, with A Hard Day’s Night residing on one side and Medium Cool (or Antonioni’s own, underrated American take on ‘60s youth culture, Zabriskie Point) on the other. Watching Blow Up now, it’s hard not to think about the many revolutions to come shortly in its wake, in cinema and elsewhere.
Yet I don’t hold this against the film as I find timelessness as a qualitative category to be a false way of assessing films, for the supposed virtues of “timelessness” demand a text to somehow transcend from its history while encouraging an audience’s ignorance of it. Blow Up is not a timeless portrait of Swinging London, but a glimpse into a fleeting cultural moment. And as much as the film has typified “swinging London” and ‘60s filmmaking more broadly (think of how iconic its poster has become), it’s still very much Antonioni’s vision of London, a vision free from a British cinema otherwise defined by Richard Lester, James Bond, and the residue of kitchen sink realism before the nation’s filmmaking came to be domestically undone yet again by the radical visions of Ken Russell, Ken Loach, and Nicolas Roeg.
In fact, the hip iconography of Blow Up seems to have little to do with the film itself, but rather the cultural phenomenon attached to it. Antonioni seems to have wired Blow Up with seeds for its own self-destruction. Yes, David Hemmings’s photographer – known only as “Thomas” – is based upon David Bailey, an English photographer who typified the fashion-photographer-as-celebrity/tastemaker image. Yes, the soundtrack is brimming with contemporaneous music from The Yardbirds and Herbie Hancock. But Blow Up is hardly a hipster tourist attraction.
In brief cutaways and on the margins of the film, Antonioni highlights the gap between a new youth leisure class almost drowning in excess and the harsher realities underpinning London’s industrial economy, sneaking in a shot of workers leaving a factory here or driving by the ruins of a former factory or apartment complex in the Thomas’s convertible there. And during scenes that actually depict London’s counterculture, Antonioni places youth revelry in quietly alienating juxtaposition with its environment, as if making a Tati movie designed to be banned by the Legion of Decency. Blow Up is bookended by a medley of costumed performers/clowns/mimes who seem to be engaging in completely unrestrained frivolity. Yet the performativity of this frivolity is emphasized against the grey, mute exteriors against which this group parades. From the beginning, the British counterculture isn’t portrayed as a radical reimagining of traditional social relations, but an unsustainable, almost desperate escape from it. The Yardbirds’ performance is even more off-kilter. As Hemmings’ photographer elbows his way through a packed performance from the band in a claustrophobic club, with the exception of one couple slowly dancing, his fellow onlookers stand in a dazed, zombiefied pose as The Yardbirds’ play against faltering technology. When Jeff Beck smashes his guitar, it doesn’t read as a Pete Townsend-style triumph of rock ‘n’ roll excess, but a calculated yet petulant fit. And when Beck tosses the remains of his instrument to the audience, the once-catatonic crowd lunges at it like hungry dogs.
When Hemmings examines the photograph in the film’s titular sequence, the moment is pure, sublime Antonioni, but in moments that expand the film’s scope to a greater social milieu, Blow Up opens into an ambivalent new territory for a filmmaker that both advertises and slyly critiques London’s new cosmopolitanism.
As with L’Avventura, it should be expected that Antonioni’s protagonist here eventually becomes complacent about arriving at no closure regarding the mystery at the film’s center. But within the film’s larger portrayal of mid-1960s London, Blow Up’s ending potentially comes across as an indictment of the emerging youth culture itself – not unlike the critique of student youth movements leveled by Godard in his pre-’68 satire La Chinoise. As Thomas – whose seemingly nonexistent capacity for empathy has been momentarily aroused by the semblance of a murder – begs his agent to at least acknowledge that something has taken place before receiving his intoxicated dismissal, the ornaments of the London counterculture begin to appear as a distraction and a fleeting fantasy rather than a consequential upending of previous ways of life – a way to not acknowledge, rather than save, the struggling worker or the monochromatic architecture. Thomas doesn’t see the occasional ruins, but Antonioni (and we) do. By contrast, by the film’s end Thomas and the other youth performers do see a figment of a tennis ball, but Antonioni leaves it up to us regarding what exactly we’d like to see.
Does the Photographer find a dead body or not? I thought I knew the answer to this question after coming back to Blow Up a decade or so after my last viewing. Perhaps part of the problem is the legacy of the film. Having inspired two superb yet loose remakes in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and Brian DePalma’s Blow Out (1981), all three of which I have remixed into a video essay entitled “Cross-Cut,” I thought I remembered the ending of Blow Up as being more definitive. We know there are conspiracies in both The Conversation and Blow Out that result in murder. The murders are verified by the protagonists directly (as in the climax to Blow Out) or indirectly (the frosted glass obstructed attack and the blood coming out of the drain in The Conversation) but they are also verified by external sources (for instance, a newspaper headline removes the ambiguity in The Conversation).
Thus, due to the climax and construction of the “remakes,” I had assumed that Blow Up had pretty much doubled down on the dead body. Yet, over the course of re-watching the film and especially in the context of the final scene with the Merrymakers, I found myself going the other way. Obviously, Antonioni has constructed a mystery without any definite closure and the roots of that impulse, as Landon notes, go back to L’Avventura. I will not pretend that this interpretation is definitive, but let’s focus a bit on that final scene and how it linked back to the “blow up sequence.”
The “blow up sequence,” the scene in which the Photographer continues to analyze the scene in which he has captured two lovers on a grassy knoll (after a romp with two teenage girls) and a man holding a gun in the bushes. He takes one of his photographs and re-photographs it with a larger format camera, upscaling the image so that he can blow up it even further and finds a dead body on the knoll. Antonioni’s camera tilts between the numerous vantage points and enlargements on the space as the frenzied Photographer tries to make spatial and narrative sense of the scene. Stylistically, this scene of investigation is edited differently than the earlier moment of discovery (which is rendered in largely static cuts between still images). Here, the camera takes on the Photographer’s point-of-view, further doubling Antonioni’s connection between photography and filmmaking. In short, we only “discover” the dead body when we see the scene from the Photographer’s vantage point and after a great deal of technological modification. Reality, despite the presence of the ontologically “real” photograph, is still a subjective construction.
This discovery scene leads him back to the grassy knoll – in person and unmediated. The camera tracks along side of him as he strolls towards a bush and we can see a head hanging out from behind it. The camera then cuts to behind the Photographer and we see more of the body. Throughout the sequence, we only see the body when it shares the same frame with the Photographer. While he does not give us another point-of-view shot, Antonioni is spatially linking the two characters. In short, we do not get a view of the corpse “disconnected” from the Photographer’s vantage point. While one might argue that it makes narrative sense to see the two characters in the same frame because there are a limited number of ways that one can film such a discovery, I would counter by arguing that we are watching an Antonioni film here and much of the meaning derived from his films is to be found in methodical and deliberate staging and framing.
Later, when the Photographer encounters the Merrymakers mimes playing imaginary tennis, Antonioni mobilizes his camera in a way that echoes the “blow up sequence.” The camera pans and tilts, following an imaginary tennis ball as the mimes follow one another’s eye lines to determine the location. Further linking the two scenes is the use of ambient quiet. We can hear the wind in the trees of the knoll when the Photographer is in his studio, just as we can hear it now, making the scene register retroactively as being largely subjective. In short, it’s entirely plausible that the Photographer imagined the murder and the woman (Vanessa Redgrave) merely wanted to the photos because they captured a love affair – if she existed at all (think about how she disappears from a London street towards the climax of the film). When he returns to the knoll, after asking a friend to accompany him to verify it externally, the body – like the tennis ball – simply is not there.
Now, why would the Photographer imagine or project a murder onto a photograph? The film’s characterization of the Photographer suggests the usual Antonioni tropes of sexual apathy, interpersonal alienation, and existential crisis. He cannot relate to his models; he treats them like mannequins and objects. When he photographs Veruschka at the beginning of the film, there is a sexual energy to the session that ends immediately after his roll of film is spent. He abandons her; he does not care that he has left her high and dry for the past hour. He treats the two teenage girls similarly, pushing them out of his studio while telling them to come back later. When he speaks of his wife, he says “She isn’t my wife, really. We just have some kids. No, no kids, not even kids….She’s easy to live with. No, she isn’t. That’s why I don’t live with her.” He’s unable to nurture a human connection; his only desire is for “tons of money… Then I’d be free.” Like the Hipster Mod Rockers Landon mentioned, the Photographer has been emptied of emotion and empathy.
Yet, despite his vocalizations, his demeanor suggests a desire for connection. The longing gaze he shares with his neighbor (Sarah Miles) as she makes love to a painter testifies to this. Tellingly, she’s the first person he goes to once his studio is raided. Thus, I would argue that his invention of “murder” is his means of beginning a real connection – starting a conversation – with a woman, away from the objectification and power dynamic that we’ve seen him relate to his models with. It’s a product of the Photographer’s boredom and, riffing off of Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), starts to define the protagonist’s relationship to a woman.