BLOW-UP (1966): A MYSTERY IN SWINGING LONDON
I became interested in Italian art house modern cinema when I was researching “Italian Neorealism” in film school; a movement that began in mid-40s and lasted for a decade to serve as a catalyst to change the dominance of “quality cinema”. It was so impressive to me how cinema could adapt itself to radical socio-economic progress and political changes of its time and why, in this movement, suddenly reality became a tool for filmmakers to show socio-cultural conflicts in their films.
At first glance, the problem appeared quite simple; in the mid-40s, World War II had ended, Mussolini’s fascist government has collapsed and Italian cinema had lost one of its main supporters, Vittorio Mussolini, the dictator’s son, who was also a strong and enthusiastic film producer. The studio facilities had been damaged significantly due to the war and poverty threatened much of Europe, including Italy. All these factors converged to significantly challenge Italian filmmakers. But they used these limitations wisely to create new readings of reality; stories of poor working class ordinary people filmed on locations with hand held cameras and by using available light, and with professional actors replaced by non-professionals. The result was the birth of the neo-realism phase of the Golden Age of Italian Cinema.
I started to watch this national movement’s masterpieces; Visconti’s Ossessione (1943), Rossellini’s Open City (1945), De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) and I suddenly found myself obsessed with creative works of a group of genius filmmakers who were defining realism for me, until I crashed to this:
“Unlike early neorealist filmmakers, I am not trying to show reality, I am attempting to recreate realism.”
Suddenly, all the pureness and magnificence of realist cinema shattered in many pieces in front of my eyes and I thought to myself: even though De Sica, Rossolini and Visconti could successfully show reality in their films, maybe recreating one’s own reality, using this medium is another way of dealing with cinema!
The quote was from Michelangelo Antonioni, an Italian filmmaker who redefined the concept of storytelling cinema. He successfully challenged the idea of action for the sake of observation and questioned the traditional approaches to realistic drama. After directing nine feature films including his famous trilogy (L’Avventura, 1960, La Notte, 1961 and L’Eclisse, 1962) Antonioni signed a deal with an Italian film producer Carlo Ponti to make three films in English for MGM. Ponti promised to give the director full artistic control on the films and Antonioni departed to London to make the first one: Blow-Up.
Blow-Up is a 1966 psychological thriller film. It is the director’s first film in English and his second experience with color after his 1964 Il Deserto Rosso (Red Desert). The film is written by Antonioni and his longtime collaborator Tonino Guerra based on Julio Cortázar’s 1959 short story “Las babas del diablo” (The Devil’s Drool). Edward Bond also joined the project to write the english dialogue. Herbie Hancock contributed the jazz score, and diegetic music was used: music was only used if a character turned on the radio, for example.
The film portrays a day in the life of a handsome fashion photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) who is living in Swinging London era. Thomas is spoiled: his life is filled with wealth, women, fashion and art, which makes him unmotivated to achieve anything earthly. He photographs models (“birds”) as his day job, but we also see him wandering around this swinging world, looking for truth.
After credits appear over an expanse of green grass, the film opens with a group of mimes running around London collecting money for charity. These characters reveal their importance later; we will realize not only these white faced people but all the film’s characters are puppets in the director’s hands, including Thomas, who enters the story among some other homeless people. At this point we still don’t know why Thomas spent the night in a flophouse (later we find out it was an attempt to take photos for his photo-documentary book), but what immediately comes to mind is the director’s interest in political issues, as with the opening of his previous film Red Desert where Giuliana (Monica Vitti) is walking with her young son towards the petrochemical plant, passing striking workers.
Thomas then returns to his studio where a model (Veruschka) is waiting for him to be photographed. She wears a custom dress, designed by the film’s costume designer Jocelyn Rickards; a fluid-like dress that changes as she moves for different poses fueling an intense scene that has been voted the sexiest cinema moment in history; I call it “sex with the camera”.
It starts with her “Here I am.” And the famous scene begins: Thomas photographs Veruschka while she makes seductive poses for his camera. During the process the photographer uses a combination of certain words: “give it to me now…come on…that’s good…this side…lean right forward”. On the surface these are giving her direction, but reveal an important artist-art subject psychological relationship. He goes a step further, asking his assistant Reg to pass him the 50 (referring to a 50 mm lens or a metaphor for an erect penis) then turning to Veruschka and says: “on your back” he then sits on the model’s stomach and, as both breathe heavily, he continues: “that’s it, keep it up, lovely…make it come…Now! Now! Yes! Yes! Yes”.
Here photography is equated to sexual intercourse, camera to the phallus, the photographer to an artist and the model to the art, a very similar concept to what we see in Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom” (1960), but with one big difference; unlike Powell, who uses a Freudian relationship between his protagonist and his camera as a tool, for Antonioni (who should have a great deal of control of his narrative) the protagonist and his camera are both tools in the hand of the director.
Later that morning, Thomas goes back to his studio where other models are waiting for their photo shoots. Here, the director’s painting background and his strong interest in experimenting with colors to recreate reality becomes clear. For a director like Antonioni, design and image always precede character and story and so, in a close relationship with his art director, Antonioni uses a wide range of color spectrum in his films reflecting his idea that color is a powerful tool in cinema that every filmmaker should use in any way that they want.
In response to Samuel Goldwyn’s skepticism about the use of color in his films, the director writes:
“The same objects don’t have fixed colors, a poppy can be grey a leaf can be black, green isn’t always grass , blue isn’t always sky…So you see, Mr. Goldwyn,” Antonioni wrote, “wide horizons open up for a director who has understood that the law of beauty doesn’t lie in the truth of nature. I am one of those directors. I am a colorist director. Will you let me make a film?”
During the film, Thomas regularly visits his neighbor friends Bill, a painter, and his live-in girlfriend. In a quick visit, Bill talks about his paintings and reveals an important Antonioni opinion about art; “they don’t mean anything when I do them, just a mess, afterwards, I find something to hang on to it”. Bill then points to an arbitrary shape in one of his painting and continues: “quite like that leg”.
Later, Thomas visits an antique shop, he plans to buy it for one of his friends as a potential fashion studio. But as he enters the shop, the mood of the place dominates him and he looks for art, particularly a landscape. The seller refuses to sell the only old landscape painting in the shop. Thomas leaves, takes his camera and wanders around the area, until suddenly find himself in the middle of “Maryon Park”, where he photographs two lovers. The woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave) notices and approaches him, asking him to hand over the film. “You can’t photograph people like that… this is a public place, everyone has the right to be left in peace.” Thomas refuses to hand over the negatives; instead he says something that again subtly reveals Antonioni’s political opinion: “it’s not my fault if there is no peace.”
At the end of their argument, some crucial dialogue takes place that for the first time in the film triggers doubt in the audience about the film’s sense of reality. While Jane struggles to take the camera from Thomas, he says: “No, what’s the rush? Don’t let’s spoil everything. We’ve only just met.” Jane responses: “No, we haven’t met. You’ve never seen me.” What does that mean? Anyone familiar with the works of screenwriter Tonino Guerra knows this man never uses a single word without a reason. Is it that she only exists in the protagonist’s imagination? Is Thomas living in a fantasy? Or is he now inside that landscape painting that he couldn’t buy?
Later that day, Jane visits Thomas’s studio and again asks him to hand over the negatives, she even offers sex instead. Thomas refuses and says: “Get dressed.” He deceives her by pretending to return the roll of film while keeping the real one. Jane leaves and Thomas processes the photos in his darkroom. He starts to hang the photos around his studio and carefully studies them. He then blows up some of them into a larger scale, where he sees a gun protruding from the bushes. He realizes Jane was part of an assassination plot and it was a set up for the man who was kissing her.
(By showing how a photographer can extract a meaning (first the presence of an assassin and then the corpse of a man) by magnification, Antonioni examines the reliability of our senses in recognizing reality.)In this process, Thomas’s reading of the photographs is the opposite of what Bill does with his paintings. Bill’s paintings consisted of thousands of colorful dots that he tried to extract meaning from, while Thomas magnifies a photo to maximum exposure and then, by selectively studying its parts, he tries to find the truth, and uncovers startling narratives.
Later that night, Thomas travels back to the park to examine his hypothesis, causing a chain of events that lead to the film’s denouement, further executing its thesis that explores and expands on the themes of ownership and theft, crime and evidence, private and public property, and the very nature of art and reality.
Blow-Up was a major success at its time in the mid-1960’s “Golden Age of Cinema”, winning the Grand Prix at Cannes, and still considered the highest grossing art house film ever made. Although some critiques relate its initial financial success to film’s subject matters and sex scenes, no one could underestimate its cinematic importance in redefining the concept of realism in narrative.
By Ramin Fateh