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In 1966, Michelangelo Antonioni transplanted his existentialist ennui to the streets of swinging London for this international sensation, the Italian filmmaker’s first English-language feature. A countercultural masterpiece about the act of seeing and the art of image making, Blow-Up takes the form of a psychological mystery, starring David Hemmings as a fashion photographer who unknowingly captures a death on film after following two lovers in a park.
Antonioni’s meticulous aesthetic control and intoxicating color palette breathe life into every frame, and the jazzy sounds of Herbie Hancock, a beautifully evasive performance by Vanessa Redgrave, and a cameo by the Yardbirds make the film a transporting time capsule from a bygone era. Blow-Up is a seductive immersion into creative passion, and a brilliant film by one of cinema’s greatest artists.
The narrative covers a day in the life of a glamorous fashion photographer, Thomas (Hemmings), the character's creation being inspired by the life of an actual "Swinging London" photographer, David Bailey, and contemporaries such as Terence Donovan, David Montgomery and John Cowan.
Blowup would inspire subsequent films, including Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974) and Brian De Palma's Blow Out (1981).
The history of narrative film, and perhaps of narrative in general, is dominated by creators who claim or imply that their stories impart useful life lessons. Antonioni doesn’t seem interested in film as a delivery device for truisms, though. His films operate more in accord with Dziga Vertov’s famous manifesto-documentary Man with a Movie Camera, a disquisition on the experiential possibilities of cinema and the ways in which the form offers an aesthetic experience wholly different from that of literature or theater. Angles of approach, editing techniques, choices in exposure and shot duration: cinema offers audiences the power to be anywhere, see anything, Vertov suggested. Moving pictures were an entirely new, unprecedentedly penetrating level of experience.
The photographer in Blow-Up, who is not a philosopher, wants to see things closer up. But it so happens that, by enlarging too far, the object itself decomposes and disappears. Hence there's a moment in which we grasp reality, but then the moment passes. Blow-Up proceeds according to the content of Vertov’s lesson, but the result is the opposite: the man with the camera doesn’t necessarily see anything. Thomas, the photographer, takes photos of people—significantly, of women and the poor—but he doesn’t really see or care about them. Most Antonioni films trouble our desire to identify with the protagonist, and that is certainly the case here: David Hemmings, in a role he would be identified with for the rest of his career, enacts Thomas as a barking, impatient, condescending young man entirely in thrall to the power of his own aesthetic abilities. (The character is supposedly patterned after David Bailey, an actual photographer of the London fashion scene.) He doesn’t interact with anyone as if they are equals, but instead as if their existence is limited to one of two categories: potential photographic assistants, or potential photographic subjects.
In a mesmerizing extended sequence, we watch Thomas at work in his darkroom, utilizing all of the chemical powers of photography: developing negatives, dodging and burning prints, and, of course, creating blow-ups. The sequence reveals that the creation of an image is actually the result of a process that first involves investigation: searching a negative for what might be found within. Craft and artifice create a presentation—a new image—of what was discovered in the investigation.
By presenting images as representations and interpretations rather than facts, Blow-Up anticipates much of the trouble of our contemporary moment, in which we live besieged by images and their supposed gift to take us anywhere, show us anything. The gift has not given us superior insight or truth. Instead, we increasingly live with a suspicion that none of the images we are shown capture the truth of an event. What really happens, it seems, is something we can’t see.
The erasures, disappearances, and abstractions that occur in the film point more and more insistently to not just the existence, but also the controlling influence in our lives of forces that are unrepresentable. This is tricky territory for a filmmaker. What is a director to do when he wants to incorporate into his images the presence of forces that cannot be captured in images? When the photographer goes in search of a body later in the film, one of Antonioni’s strategies floats past: the sign that does not symbolize.
“I didn’t want people to be able to read that sign. Whether it advertised one product or another was of no importance. I placed it there because I needed a source of light in the night scenes,” Antonioni said in a 1969 interview. (Antonioni often refused to interpret his films, or acted casual about aspects of them that people on his sets revealed he was in fact very exacting about.) For this sign that looms over the park where the photographer took the photos that have now become the center of his investigation, Antonioni requested the creation of a sign with abstract letterforms that do not conform to any actual language.
Other strategic employments of abstraction are also woven through the film—the photographer’s neighbor, for instance, is an abstract painter who says of his pieces, “They don’t mean anything when I do them. Just a mess. Afterwards, I find something to hang on to. Then it sorts itself out and adds up. It’s like finding a clue in a detective story.” Antonioni’s attraction to abstraction isn’t specific to Blow-Up, of course—most of his films are marked by moments in which the frame is filled by what the eye first reads as an abstract image: the surfaces of walls, empty landscapes, or the back of a person’s head. In Blow-Up, however, the scale of abstraction—of the unreadable, or at least of that which requires careful, considered reading—is raised from objects or individuals to the level of crowds.
Contemporary audiences watching the way Thomas, the photographer, storyboards his grainy images into “evidence” would surely have been reminded of Zapruder’s film of the Kennedy assassination in 1963: the same patient build-up, the same slow-motion shock. When Thomas returns to the park he does indeed find a corpse. It’s the grassy knoll moment. We feel both his confusion and his excitement at turning detective – he’s involved in serious work at last instead of debauching his talent on advertising and fashion. But, abruptly, his investigative work goes up in smoke. Next morning, the photographs and the body have disappeared. The woman has gone, too. This links to larger fears of conspiracy, a sense that shadowy organizations are hovering in the background, covering up their crimes – and getting away with it.
Blow-Up looks back to Zapruder but also ahead to Watergate and a run of films that riffed in a similar manner to Antonioni, with his inquiring, cold-eyed lens: Gene Hackman, stealing privacy for a living as the surveillance genius in The Conversation (1974) and later still, Brian de Palma’s homage to the sequence via John Travolta’s sound engineer in the near-namesake Blow Out (1981). But these sinister implications are not on the director’s mind. Where we anticipate a murder mystery, Antonioni balks us by posing a philosophical conundrum. “It is not about man’s relationship with man,” he said in an interview at the time, “it is about man’s relationship with reality.”