The Film

Blow-Up

David Hemmings 1966

Synopsis

A successful young photographer returns to his studio after spending the night disguised as a bum in a shelter for down-and-out men. He has been secretly recording the seamy side of London life for a picture book he is creating, but must begin his regular day's work: photographing fashion models.

Later on, while wandering near the tennis courts in a park with his camera, he catches sight of a young woman kissing and embracing a middle-aged man. Intrigued by their odd pas-de-deux, the photographer secretly follows and photographs them until he is interrupted by the young woman herself, who tries unsuccessfully to wrest the camera and film from him.

Returning to his studio, the photographer encounters the same girl, who has obviously followed him home. This time she offers sex in exchange for the film, but the photographer deceives her by giving her a blank roll. Alone, his curiosity fully aroused, the photographer develops the shots and enlarges parts of one of them to reveal what looks like a man with a gun concealed in the bushes.

At first the photographer thinks his own presence in the park prevented a murder, but after glancing again at the photographs, he discovers what appears to be a corpse on the ground. He makes a nocturnal visit to the park, where he finds the body of the middle-aged lover —in face wax-like and grotesquely illuminated by the glare from a nearby neon sign.

After returning to his studio, the photographer finds the apartment ransacked and most of the incriminating blow-ups stolen. He then goes to a marijuana party where he tries to convince a friend—the writer who is collaborating with him on his picture book—to go with him to the park to photograph the corpse. The writer is too stoned to understand, and the photographer, frustrated and exhausted, falls asleep.

Early the next morning, the photographer returns to the park. The body is gone, but a group of students, whose faces are painted like clowns and who appeared briefly on the street at the opening of the film, are miming a game of tennis on a nearby tennis court. The photographer joins them and pretends to retrieve their nonexistent ball. Sounds of an actual ball being hit can be heard on the sound track, and, as the camera pulls back into a long overhead shot of the photographer, he suddenly vanishes from the field.

The Film

Some film-makers change the way we see things; a few more change some of the things we see. At points in his career, Michelangelo Antonioni has done both—the word ‘see' for once being taken quite literally, forgetting for the moment the inevitable pile-up of over-tones. It is not merely that Antonioni is one of the supremely conscious and innovatory visual stylists; nor even that the work of this most intellectual and novelistic film-maker settles so deeply into the mind in terms of the intentness and focus of its visual images rather than through its range of characterization or the authority of its abstract thought. For Antonioni, seeing is the thing, the problem, the essence. Much of the strength of his cinema rests on the quality of his perceptions.

It is for this reason that Blow-Up (1966) seems in some ways the quintessential film that Antonioni had sooner or later to make—a work totally fascinated with questions of illusion and appearance and shifting surfaces, and the way objects adjust their character according to the nature of the observing eye. On that quiet, vibrant morning in a green London park, the film's photographer hero, casually spying on a man and a girl, misses seeing something which his camera scrupulously records. Later, the blow-up of a photograph shows us not what happened (a murder mystery can be reconstructed from the evidence of the corpse among the trees; but that is not the point), but what we and the photographer failed to see. At the beginning of Blow-Up, the photographer has tricked us as spectators (but not himself) by emerging tramp-like from a doss-house before climbing into a most untramp-like Rolls. And at the end of the film, Antonioni makes both his hero and his audience 'see' an imaginary tennis ball driven out of court off an imaginary racket. Perception is partly a matter of context; seeing is not as simple as believing.

The photographer in Blow-Up is a man who accepts, exploits and enjoys the contradictions of his society; who owes his success to the accuracy of his perceptions and believes that he can keep separate compartments for his commercial and creative endeavours; and who is finally brought to the great contradiction that can't be swallowed, the evidence that the instruments of his control are no longer to be trusted.

If The Red Desert is a film about a displaced person, Blow-Up, one could say, is rather about displaced objects—like the aeroplane propeller lurking in a junk shop, the seeming down-and-out in the Rolls-Royce, the abstract painting which conceals its meaning even from its creator, the models who are left like children with their eyes shut while the photographer slips away to other business. It is a film in which all textures are at once clear and deceptive; in which restlessness and susceptibility to distraction and interruption are conditions of existence. Ironically, the fact that Antonioni achieved the greatest commercial success of his career with Blow-Up is a kind of confirmation of his diagnosis: audiences snatched at the film's surface, just as Thomas snatches his broken stick of a trophy from the jazz club before throwing it into the gutter, and were untroubled by its ambiguities. The film, as Robin Wood has written, 'joins a handful of works ... which really express ... what it feels like to be alive today'. More significantly, it shifts Antonioni's enquiry into the confused sensibility of the 60s to entirely new ground, without altering his basic preoccupations. In the film's plot (and Blow-Up, unlike The Eclipse and The Red Desert, is constructed on plot as well as situation) he found a metaphor for a complex series of reflections on the relation between surface and meaning, the appearance of control masking a disintegrating sense of reality, the artist's own authority over his material.

Blow-Up presents a society in which the critical sense of reason and proportion has largely abdicated, and bizarre incongruities exist side by side; in which the corpse in the clearing is not evidence for objective consideration (still less for reporting to the police) but part of the subjective debris of the photographer's life. At the end, Thomas accepts defeat: he is last seen merging into the landscape, taking seriously something he knows to be absurd.

Antonioni has always avoided a self-conscious display of his mastery of the medium, but in Blow-Up he enters a new dimension. By transforming Cortazar’s amateur photography into a professional one, a would-be transcriber of life as well as an artificer of fashion, he makes the aesthetics of documentary filmmaking itself one of the key themes of the film. Whether the photographer's camera has created, distorted, or merely recorded reality becomes a question of technique as well as one of psychology and epistemology.

In Blow-Up, the search for self rightly takes the form of a physical quest, in which the protagonist moves successively through a park, in and out of a jungle of photographic equipment, among crowds of hostile and indifferent people. However, here too Antonioni enriches an artistic element by actually making it a subject for study: he not only dramatises the photographer's quest by choreographing his position with relation to people, objects, and background, but he also allows him, as artist-creator, to "spatialise" dramas of his own: to photograph the lovers from different angles and distances in the park and to arrange fashion models in front of and behind smoked-glass screens in order to give odd perspectives to his tableaux.

Blow-Up is Antonioni's contribution to the subject of the artist's involvement with his medium. In fact, in many ways, it is a film-maker's film: Antonioni's fascination with the art and craft of still photography—a sister art to cinematography—shines through at every point. He acknowledges this attraction in his brief foreword to the published Italian version of the screenplay:

The idea for Blow-Up came to me while reading a short story by Julio Cortizar. I was not so much interested in the events as in the technical aspects of photography. I discarded the plot and wrote a new one in which the equipment itself assumed a different weight and significance.

The filmmaker's involvement with his own craft is revealed in Blow-Up in one of the most spell-binding sequences of cinematic art—the one in which the photographer enlarges the series of photographs of the man and woman in the park. In a tour de force of artistic transcendence, Antonioni uses his own camera to compel the still-photographer to create a motion picture of the crime—a parallel to the photo-animation that occurs in the mind of the amateur photographer in Cortazar's story. In the beginning of the sequence, Hemmings merely resembles a film editor as he rearranges his "shots" in their proper or most revealing sequence, occasionally inserting close-ups (i.e. blow-ups) to produce what a film director would call Vanessa Redgrave’s “eye-line shots” – representations of what she is gazing at off-screen. But it is only when Antonioni begins to pan his own camera over the series of photos—sometimes dollying in on one of them for a "close-up"; once following Hemmings behind a translucent enlargement hanging on the drying-line for a "reverse angle shot" of the photographed park scene—that he begins to activate the series of stills into a kind of motion picture. By finally erasing the image of the photographer himself from the screen, Antonioni reveals even more decisively his directorial presence and control.

Robin Wood, writing of Blow-Up, speaks of Antonioni's 'tendency to manipulate his films towards a pre-ordained defeat' and suggests that the overall effect is 'still to limit rather than extend the spectator's sense of the possibilities of life'.

No artist, however, can expect to escape entirely from the confines of his own temperament—whatever that may be. Antonioni is probably incapable of creating on the screen a world of positive action, an uncomplicated relationship, a leading character who is not subject to lassitude and distraction. But to stress the films' underlying pessimism is to deny the experience of actually watching them on the screen, to ignore that sense of the 'possibilities of life' which informs them in detail, and which is part also of the relationship between the spectator and the screen.