Blow-Up — A Memoir
Michelangelo Antonioni, Vanessa Redgrave, Ronan O'Casey 1966
As the photographer in Blow-Up who never knows the identity of the murdered foreigner under the bush, no I never knew who Antonioni was when I met him. In a house in the Limehouse Docks, I was shooting with a 16-millemetre Bolex a scene for a short black-and-white film, it was to be used to cover set-changes in Adventures in the Skin Trade, my stage adaptation of Dylan Thomas's novel. A mutual friend of Antonioni's and mine, Claire Peploe, had brought him to visit the London docks, while he was scouting locations for Blow-Up. I did not hear her friend's name, which she mumbled as I prepared to start filming in my room on the Thames. "I'm busy," I said grandly. "I'm shooting. Wait".
With his usual grace, Antonioni waited. When I had finished my shot and discovered who he was, I was confused. I had told Antonioni to wait while I filmed my little piece of nonsense. It was worse than death by a thousand cutting-rooms. We had a brief conversation, translated by the enigmatic Claire. He praised the London scene and was intrigued by the Dylan Thomas play. He would come and see it, he said. He even quoted poetry in Italian that he claimed was written by Dylan Thomas, something about the pain and uncertainty of love being better than not being able to love at all.
We had asked Terence Stamp to play the Dylan role in our little play. He had refused. One of his reasons, I believe, was that he was being considered for the lead in Blow-Up. Instead, we chose David Hemmings, then little-known, he played the lead for the fortune of twenty pounds a week. His was a hallucinatory performance, compelling and imaginative. With his quality of beatific corruption, Hemmings looked too much the fallen angel for anyone's good.
I took Claire Peploe to the First Night of Adventures in The Skin Trade, and she took Antonioni to the Second Night. She wanted him to see the power of young Hemmings, who was immediately chosen by Antonioni to play the part of the photographer in Blow-up. The loss of Hemmings prevented our play from transferring to the West End. His good fortune was our ill luck, although I myself was lucky. Tennessee Williams came to see the play and declared it was the best play running in London. Consequently, rather like Hemmings, I was offered a fortune to write a screenplay in Hollywood. So, as in the movies,. sudden chance changed our lives.
David Hemmings was staying with me in my house on the river at Limehouse. He showed me the script of Blow-Up, what there was of it. It was a mere twenty pages, certain ideas of Antonioni and Tonio Guerra, hardly enough to hang a short film on. It would be invented in the shooting, David Hemmings said. Soon a white Rolls Royce coupe was delivered, and Hemmings drove from the East End like King David. It was one of those fantastic changes of styles of living that characterised photographers like David Bailey in the late 1960's, the world of Blow-Up. Antonioni meant to capture the essence of 'swinging' London at the time, the sweet immorality of the women, the decadence without any visible future. As he said to Nadine Liber of Life magazine:— "Living among that youth, I had the precise sensation of entering a world which has finally put down barriers between individual and individual. No more taboo topics. I've talked to hundreds of girls and boys who were seeing me for the first time. If one is used to smoking marijuana, he'll say so without fear. If a girl is frigid, she'll have no inhibition to admit it. This is a generation that has approached a certain individual freedom ... and freedom from feelings, too, because their sexual freedom, at this point, goes without saying. I don't know whether they can love the way we loved. They must suffer, I guess, but I'm sure they suffer from reasons very different from ours ... never romantic.... To live as a 'swinger' . I think it means to take a lease from certain norms, certain traditions at any cost.... But maybe it is also a legitimate way to get nearer a happier condition of life. Who can tell?"
The shooting of the film depended on Antonioni's daily inspiration and improvisation. "When I was doing my first films," he said, "it would take me forty-five minutes of complete silence and solitude to prepare for the next scene. Now I can isolate myself very easily. An actor must arrive on the stage in a state of virginity. I, too, must come to the set in a state of mental virginity. I force myself not to over-intellectualise. I force myself never to think the night before, of the scene I'll be shooting the next morning. I always spend a half hour alone to let the mood of the set, the light, prevail. Then the actors arrive. I look at them. How are they? How do they seem to feel? I ask for rehearsals — a couple, no more — and shooting starts."
A major role in Blow-Up was shot, featuring the foreigner first seen kissing Vanessa Redgrave, later found dead beneath a bush in the park. The role all ended on the cutting-room floor, leaving only the mystery of the blow-up sequence to prove that there had been a murder at all. In part, this treatment of the material reflected Antonioni's own ambivalence about the London people he was describing, where barriers were finally being put down between individual and individual. He was both attracted and repelled by English society with its quick engagement and speedy execution of those it engaged. He now himself playing the part of the foreigner in his own film, then cut out his role and left himself rejected and probably betrayed by the elusive English femme fatale who led him to his fate. "Nothing like a little disaster," the photographer says to her, "for sorting things out
Antonioni's Blow-Up has made history as well as cinematic history. Each time I see it, I am aware of that time, those places, such a style in bygone London. "I have never felt salvation in nature," Antonioni has said. "I love cities above all." He has inscribed London at that period for ever.
No director is more artistic and masterful than Antonioni. At one moment in the shooting of Blow-Up, his camera operator said that he could not follow a complex series of movements during a take. Antonioni himself sat at the camera controls with a pencil mounted on the lens and wrote his signature on a piece of paper by twiddling the right wheels. "If I can do that," he said to the operator, "you can shoot my shot." The operator heard, saw, and did so.
Above all, a master of the daily material he improvises or intuits from place and people and atmosphere, Antonioni captured in Blow-Up a period and urban manner that approaches cine verite. Its successor, Zabriskie Point, remains too far out, too idiosyncratic to suggest more than an alien perception of the California of the time; but Blow-Up is so evocative that its images are more real to me than my own memories of those days. As oblique and insoluble as the murder of the foreigner was my own involvement in the making of Blow-Up — an encounter, consequences, marginal happenings. Yet so troubling and haunting is Antonioni's film that I am always seeing that time through his camera eye with David Hemmings's shutter open.