Blow-Up (1966)

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*. Just by way of introduction: (1) I love Antonioni; (2) I was blown away by Blow-Up the first time I saw it; (3) that was approximately thirty years ago; (4) I haven’t returned to it for a long time; (5) I’m not quite as impressed now, and yet . . .
*. It’s still interesting and admirable in lots of ways, and undeniably important, but I don’t like it as much as I remember. As a movie about the world of fashion at a very fashionable time and in a very fashionable place (that is, London in the swinging ’60s), some of it has dated to the point of seeming grotesque. Will we ever wear clothes like that again — not just the outfits worn by the models, but what the “birds” and David Hemmings wear?
*. Also, even though it seems knee-jerk and philistine to say it, some of it is dull, in a way that the silent longeurs in Antonioni’s earlier films never are.
*. Then there’s another point bearing on my feeling of let down that was raised by Andrew Sarris in his contemporary review. Sarris was upset that other reviewers were giving “the show completely away” by including spoilers in their reviews. He advised: “If you have not yet seen Blow-Up see it immediately before you hear or read anything more about it. I speak from personal experience when I say it is better to let the movie catch you completely unawares. One of its greatest virtues is surprise, and the last thing you want is to know the plot and theme in advance.”
*. This took me a bit by surprise. Blow-Up isn’t a movie with a twist ending like Les Diaboliques, for example. And yet I think Sarris is right in saying that “one of its greatest virtues is surprise.” There was something about it that took me unawares thirty years ago and that doesn’t today. That doesn’t make the film’s meaning trite or overly familiar, but rather (I think) says something about how it works by frustrating legitimate expectations.

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*. By the way, I’m going to refer to it as Blow-Up in these notes. I don’t know why the title is sometimes rendered as Blowup and sometimes as Blow-Up. On screen it appears as all one word without the hyphen so I think that’s how it should be written. But it seems wrong like that. On a related point, I don’t think any of the main characters are named in the film, though there is a convention of calling Hemmings’s character Thomas, Redgrave’s Patricia, and Miles’s Jane.
*. Don’t think that the source will help you with the names. The movie was “inspired” by Julio Cortázar’s story “Las babas del diablo” (“The Devil’s Spit”) (which was itself inspired by a Sergio Larrain photograph). Cortázar’s story is an interesting thematic match for the film, being about the process of storytelling and the indeterminacy introduced by different media, but it’s a far more abstract and intellectual exercise, with no clear meaning.
*. It was only Antonioni’s second film in colour, and his first in English, but there’s still no mistaking his work. Three points stand out: the sense of composition, the objectification of characters, and the enigmatic plot and dialogue.

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*. As with all of Antonioni’s films, there’s an architectural, staged feel to the composition. Most often this relates to buildings and interiors. Note how much use he gets out of that giant wooden crossbeam in Hemming’s loft, or the frequent use he makes of a “natural” split-screen effect — that is, one that doesn’t create an illusion of deep focus through something like a split-focus diopter — in several shots (I’ve included some screen shots above of what I’m talking about, and which probably gave De Palma, who loves this kind of thing, an extra nudge toward Blow Out). But even in the park there’s a feeling that everything is placed and stationed just so. Watching Hemmings move between the two trees in stalking mode immediately recalls the similar use of two trees as a kind of statuary in the park at the end of La Notte.

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*. Objectification comes with the territory of being a fashion photographer, but it’s not just the mannequin-models who are like this. The audience listening to The Yardbirds are zombies, and for some reason the antique shop is filled with busts. Antonioni thought of all his actors as just part of the image, almost a kind of stage dressing, and explained himself to Peter Bowles while filming Blow-Up: “When you work with other directors you give them your performance and they film it. Not with me, Peter. You see I have chosen you for how you look. I have chosen all your clothes. If I move my camera six inches, I would ask you to do that line in a different way.”
*. Keeping that in mind, I find suggestive how in one scene Thomas’s stance while taking pictures mirrors that of Verushka’s pose in the studio. They are both physical forms being arranged by Antonioni.

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*. Finally there is the enigmatic plot and vague dialogue. Apparently (at least according to Ronan O’Casey, who plays the man who gets shot in the park) Antonioni’s original plan was to show more of what was going on between Redgrave and her victim but budget problems forced him to make cuts. That may be, but I doubt Antonioni wanted to explain more than he did. As he also said to Bowles, when cutting one of his lines, “If I leave the speech in, everyone will know what the film is about, but if I take the speech out, everyone will say it is about this, it is about that, it is about the other. It will be controversial.”

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*. A great deal of the film is silent, which increases the sense of ambiguity. But even when people talk they only add to the mystery. What does Verushka mean when she says she is in Paris? What does Sarah Miles mean when she asks Hemmings if he will help her, and tells him she doesn’t know what to do? The matter is dropped immediately, with no explanation. And what does Hemmings mean when he tells Ron at the end that he saw “nothing” in the park? Has he just given up at that point, or is he making a distinction between what he saw earlier and what he took a picture of? “Nothing” can be interpreted in various ways; for example, as a complete absence or as something that we define as nothing.
*. The structure also recalls Antonioni’s previous films, in particular ending the movie with a “morning after the party” coda (as happened in L’Avventura and La Notte). The perfect moment to ask yourself “What happened? How much do I remember and what does it mean?”

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*. God did I ever hate Pauline Kael’s essay on this film. She just never lets up on haranguing how other critics, reviewers, and audiences in general are so stupid for not liking the things she likes.
*. On the other hand, I love Roger Ebert’s take. Not because I think he’s necessarily right in his interpretation of what the movie is about, but because it strikes me as an insightful reading. In brief, his conclusion is that Hemmings only comes to life when he is professionally engaged in a challenging and meaningful task like re-composing the scene in the park. This takes him out of his usual daily round of ennui, the point being that “we are happy when we are doing what we do well, and unhappy seeking pleasure elsewhere.” This isn’t what I thought of when I first saw the movie, but it’s an important point that is both generally true and I think basic to what Antonioni is saying.
*. I also find it interesting (and this is by the way) that Ebert says in his essay (which he wrote in 1998) that “Today, you rarely hear it [Blow-Up] mentioned.” Is this true? I think it’s still a very well known movie, at least relative to other art house films of the time. And its name comes up a lot in conversations and discussions that I’ve taken part in about movies.
*. Returning to Ebert’s main point, look at the intensity and physical joy (the jumping and clicking of his heels) that Thomas shows in the park and in his studio. He is slipping into that higher state of consciousness/awareness that psychologists refer to as “flow” or “the zone”: “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.” We share in his joy, but at the same time that joy is blinkered, narrow, shutting us off from the rest of the world. The zone is a solitary place. It’s no surprise Thomas is a loner, someone who always seems to be dancing with himself.
*. This is the fate of the artist. Aside from whether or not he’s witnessed a murder, Thomas has created a work of art in his photos. But his audience doesn’t “get” what he’s done.
*. It’s frustrating, but what can Thomas do? He’s in the position of someone who has had a deeply moving dream, but who only bores everyone he tries to tell about it.
*. That much said in sympathy, I was surprised by how much I disliked Thomas this time out. On the DVD commentary track Peter Brunette mentions how he finds him “kind of reprehensible” but that this is not the majority view. Isn’t it? Thomas really is awful, particularly to women.
*. It’s not just the models he treats like shit either. He’s a bully to Redgrave when they first meet in the park, and I’m particularly struck at how the antique shop owner helps him carry the propeller out to his car but he leaves her to carry it back in by herself when it won’t fit, and even yells at her when she drops it. In the restaurant, just watching an attractive woman walk by leads him to say that he’s fed up with the “bloody bitches.” What a jerk. He also says he’d like to have more money so he can be “free.” Presumably of shooting fashion spreads. And this comes just after he’s ordered a meal he isn’t going to eat. Get over yourself!

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*. Ahead of its time? In lots of ways, not least of all in being a film for the DVD generation. Today’s cinephiles engage in close readings of film that were previously available only to a few. They notice little things, and Blow-Up is a very careful movie, one that is in part about this very type of Zapruder-like analysis.
*. And so there are magic moments: literally disappearing acts. Thomas vanishing from view at the end is only the most obvious. Where does Vanessa Redgrave disappear to when Hemmings sees her on the street? Where? Ebert mentions going through the film frame by frame and not seeing it and I did the same, with similar results. She’s just there one moment and not the next.
*. Her first appearance is another such moment. She’s on the screen for less than a second, along with the older man, on the edge of the frame as Thomas is running out to take pictures of the pigeons. But at that point she’s still incidental. She’s there, momentarily, but we don’t see her because we’re not looking for her or at her. That’s how all magic tricks work.
*. I think it’s a great ending that nicely addresses the theme of truth vs. perception vs. reality. But I wish Antonioni had found better mimes. They get the tempo of a tennis game all wrong. But I guess we’re just supposed to take them as only a pair of college students having some fun and not professionals.
*. What’s it all about? Well, the above mentioned melange of truth, perception, and reality. But more than that it’s about how we feel (or don’t feel) about love and sex and death. I can’t help thinking of the end of Gimme Shelter, with Mick and the boys looking at the film of someone getting killed right in front of them. And as I said in my notes on that film, the question it poses is how do we feel about that? How does Mick feel? How do the Maysles brothers feel? We can’t be sure. And how does Thomas feel about being an inadvertent, innocent witness to murder? What does he feel when he looks at those pictures? Concern? Curiosity? Anything? When Ron asks him at the end what he saw in the park he answers “Nothing.” He doesn’t care any more. But did he ever?

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*. Of course not caring is central to Antonioni. Nobody cares much what happens to Anna in L’Avventura either, or at least they learn to quickly get over it. If meaning is based on a social agreement, so is caring. If someone is killed in a park and nobody “sees” it, did it really happen? If someone is murdered and nobody cares, is it (not in a legal, but a moral sense) murder?
*. This ties in to a question that I think everyone asks when they first see the film: how does the body lie there out in the open in a public park in the middle of London all day, on a weekend, and not get noticed? Somebody must have seen it but just as obviously nobody cared. It’s a philosophical dramatization (if that means anything) of the bystander effect: the body in the park is Somebody Else’s Problem (a type of camouflage invented by Douglas Adams). By ignoring reality it can be made to disappear and we can all go back to being distracted by the emptiest forms of mindless entertainment. Fashion. Drugs. A tennis game played without a ball.

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