Antonioni in the English Style: A Day on the Set

Blow-Up

Michelangelo Antonioni 1966

"Blow-Up" must be seen as the interpretation of an era, an age that is carefree on the surface, but terrifying in its depths. The film is set in a city subject to the caprices of fashion, gaudy with "pop" colors and populated by crowds of young people who eagerly seek escape from the daily humdrum by getting "atoned" on LSD.

Antonioni wrote "Blow-Up" with the help of both his faithful collaborator Tonino Guerra and the young English dramatist Edward Bond, whose violent play "Saved," now suppressed by the censor, provoked a scandal last winter. Bond has had an important role in editing the dialogue of "Blow-Up," but has not contributed as much as Guerra to the elaboration of the scenario. The violence which often surfaces in this film cannot be compared to that which triggers the events shaping the plot of "Saved." Bond has depicted a violence that is visible and physical. Antonioni makes us sensible to a violence that stimulates feelings and ideas. He comments on this in a single phrase: "It often happens that I experience fragmentary feelings before the experiences themselves take hold."

The principal part, that of the photographer, is interpreted by David Hemmings, a stage actor who is not too familiar with the cinema (his screen debut: Clive Donner's "Some People"). Vanessa Redgrave and Sarah Miles play the two female roles. "Blow-Up" is being shot in color under the supervision of the chief director of photography of "The Red Desert," Carlo Di Palma. The British "pop" group known as The Animals will provide the musical portion.

At the opening of "Blow-Up" the camera discovers one of those clothes emporiums which drip with neon and border on Carnaby street, as it is being visited by Thomas, the photographer, his meddling camera clutched in his hand.1 The whole film is realized in natural decor, exteriors and interiors alike.

By way of providing a set, Antonioni's employers–Metro Goldwyn-Mayer—have rented a photographer's studio for the occasion. We are now inside Thomas' room: walls whitened with lime, a black ceiling. Gray furniture. A bright gray rug is spread out on a black floor. On the beams of the ceiling and on the walls hang enormous photographic enlargements in black and white. In these very coarse-grained images one can recognize the young woman of the park and her companion. The atmosphere remains clear, fresh, and transparent, in spite of the overpowering heat generated by the floodlights.

In the studio, screens made of smoked glass six and a half feet high are set up. Photographers' models pose either behind or in front of these screens, and there also, the film's characters interact with each other. For this drama Antonioni has intentionally conceived a setting that is poor in color, a universe of distorted images, of reflections. Behind the partitions of glass, reality seems to be in disorder.

"I wish to recreate reality in an abstract form,” Antonioni declares. "I put reality itself in question. This is an essential point with which the visual aspect of this film is concerned, given the fact that one of its principal themes is 'to see rightly, or else not to see the true value of things.' "

In MGMs temporary office, a motto is posted on one of the walls: "A shot a day keeps the producer awayl"

Progress on "Blow-Up" is slow. Shooting began in May [1966] and in August some of the continuities still remain to be filmed. The film's director of production, Pierre Rouve. an Italian-Rumanian with sad eyes and a voice that becomes plaintive when he launches into his long tirades, reminds everyone of costs and of the number of shooting days that have come to be added to those originally planned. But: "Antonioni is a great artist. What can one do? We give him all the quiet, all the time, all the material he needs. In return, we hope of course to have a very good film." This confidence is completely mutual.

Antonioni's fastidiousness is well known. He is a perfectionist: with rapt attention he controls even the most minute details in the course of his work. He looks into the viewfinder more often than most other directors, and uses the cameraman's seat more than the framer does. In fact, Antonioni practically always decides the framing and composition of his images. That afternoon they shoot only a single scene. The number of takes increases to twenty-one before Antonioni declares himself totally satisfied.

He is concerned with one of the key scenes of the film: an encounter between Thomas, the photographer, and the wife of his best friend. Patricia, played by Sarah Miles. Scene all set up. Performers in profile. Exchanges of remarks, but to Sarah Miles falls the responsibility of conducting the game.

The worst enemy is the sound. "Blow-Up" is being shot in direct sound and the nonexistent soundproofing of the photographer's studio does not make the job easy. The din of the traffic threatens to drown out the text. The fourteenth take ends with a peal of bells from a church in the neighborhood. Hysterical laughter on the set.

The twentieth take comes of perfectly. It in then that the assistant director notices that someone from the working crew has modified a detail in the decor. In an instant a storm is let loose. Antonioni, in the height of rage and despair, cries out, "All London seems to be against met"

The confiding scene between Thomas and Patricia is typical of the desperate and depressing tone of the film. Thomas and Patricia give the impression of living in doubt, a doubt that only deepens from day to day. They imagine that they are leading an absolutely free existence, whereas, in fact, they are two magnificent caged birds, prisoners of a whole web of ritualistic acts. They are in search of stable values in order to be able to live in a time marked by the negation of values and permanent instability. In the conversation, Patricia's replies betray her fear and her defeatism: "You must help me. In five years I shall come towards you—or you towards me—and then you will kill me. Everything would be so much simpler if I knew how to have only five years to live. I would organize my life; I would dedicate myself only to what is essential to it”.2

"Blow-Up" is a story without a denouement, comparable in tone to those novels of the twenties in which writers like Scott Fitzgerald showed their distaste for life.

Antonioni has a tired look. He admits to sleeping badly during the shooting of his films. Moreover, the language barrier adds to his exhaustion. To be sure, Antonioni speaks a respectable English, but he prefers to give the more precise and detailed instructions for set-ups in French, leaving his interpreter to translate them. Snags in the translations sometimes cause misunderstandings and also devour precious minutes.

A little later in the photographer's studio: Sarah Miles is supposed to emit an embarrassed laugh after her previous reply, but Antonioni is not satisfied with her smile. He goes into a huddle with the translator, who has confused "gene" [embarrassed] with "genereux" [generous, or abundant]. The translator also tries to make his own personal point of view understood: "But this smile is a reaction that is quite British!” Antonioni: "I hope no one will say that Blow-Up is a typically English film. But, at the same time, I hope that no one says it is Italian."

At first, the story of "Blow-Up" was to be set in Italy, but it proved to be impossible to do the shooting there. "In the first place, a person like Thomas does not really exist in Italy. However, in England, those newspapers with heavy print that you find there use photographs like those I have captured in my film. Thomas is also about to become entangled in events which are easier to relate to London than to life in Rome or Milan. He has opted for the revolution which affects life, customs, and morality here in England, at least among the young artists, designers, advertising men, models or musicians who are inspired by the 'pop' movement. His existence is regulated like a ceremony, although he says he knows no law other than anarchy. I came to London last year, and I waited around a long time while Monica Vitti was filming 'Modesty Blaise.’ I noticed then that London would be an ideal setting for a film like this. But I do not really intend to make a film about London. The same story could be shot in New York, perhaps also in Stockholm, and certainly in Paris."

For his exteriors, Antonioni prefers a pale gray sky to a frankly blue pastel one. He is trying to work out a scale of realistic tones for "Blow-Up" and has renounced certain effects obtained in "The Red Desert."

"During that time I worked a lot with a telephoto lens in order to get flattened perspectives, so that I could tie together people and objects and make them seem pasted one on top the other. Nothing like that this time. On the contrary, I have been trying to deepen the perspective, to put air between persons and things. The only time I used the telephoto lens was when circumstances forced me: for example, when I had to shoot right in the middle of a traffic jam. The greatest problem I have run into has been that of recreating the reality of violence. Color automatically embellishes and often sweetens that which, to the eye, seems harsh and aggressive."

In “Blow-Up,” eroticism occupies a key place. But, often, the accent is on a cold, intellectual kind of sensuality. Exhibitionism and voyeurism are especially emphasized: the young woman of the park undresses and offers her holy to the photographer in exchange for the negative which she is so anxious to recover: Thomas is a witness to intercourse between Patricia and her husband, and his presence as spectator seems to increase the young wife's excitement: finally, the film ends with a party that sinks into debauchery.

"The scabrous side of the film would surely have made it impossible to shoot it in Italy. Censorship has without a doubt become more tolerant in many parts of the world, but it remains firmly entrenched in Italy, the country which, remember, harbors the Holy See.

"In my film, there is for example a scene in the photographer's studio in which two young girls, less than twenty years old, disport themselves in a way that is especially provocative. They are completely nude. But that scene was not constructed for ogling. I believe I filmed it in a way that no one would judge obscene. This sequence is not erotic, any more than it is vulgar. It is fresh, light—and I venture to hope—funny. I cannot prevent anyone from finding a scabrous side, but I needed that scene in the film, and I did not wish to renounce it for fear of its not suiting others' tastes."

We might perhaps recall the sentence Antonioni wrote in the preface to one of his scenario: "My films are documents not of a train of coherent ideas but of ideas which are born of the moment." He therefore refuses to speak of the preconceived notions he has put into the film to which, at the moment, he devotes all his time.

"It is impossible for me to analyze one of my creations before the work is completely finished. I am a maker of films, a man having certain ideas which I hope to be able to express with enough sincerity and clarity. As for knowing if it tells a story about our time, or, on the contrary, a story without any relevance to our world, I am incapable of deciding—at least as determined by the present phase of my work.

"When I really set myself to thinking about this film, I often stay awake all night, reflecting and taking notes. Soon the story, with its multiple possibilities, will fascinate me. and I will try to guess where its different implications could lead me. But now that I have arrived at a certain phase, I say to myself: let's continue by making the film itself. Frankly, I am not at all sure what I am in the middle of. All the same, I have a presentiment, because I am in on the secret.

"I believe in working in a way which is at once reflective and intuitive. For example, a few minutes ago, I isolated myself in order to reflect on the scene which would follow. I tried to put myself in the shoes of the principal character of the film, when he discovers the body. I walked over there, on the plot of grass, into the shadows, under the mysterious brightness of the neon sign. I approached the make-believe corpse and I truly identified with the film's protagonist. I was fully able to imagine his excitement, his emotions, the feelings that would be triggered by my hero's discovery of the body, the way he was going to conduct himself, to move, to react. This lasted only a minute or two. Then the rest of the equipment arrived, and my inspirations and sensations put out to sea."

1. This sequence was obviously scrapped later [Editors, note].
2. Omitted from the final version [Editors note].