****/**** Image B Sound A Extras A
starring Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles, David Hemmings, John Castle
screenplay by Michelangelo Antonioni and Tonino Guerra (English dialogue in collaboration with Edward Bond), inspired by a short story by Julio Cortazar
directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
by Walter Chaw Michelango Antonioni's Blowup, when it appeared at the end of 1966, marked the confluence of a great many cultural throughlines. Sanctified by the grace of a long theatrical run on the rep circuit in the United States, it all but ensured (with an assist from Mike Nichols's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and that film's gleeful use of the term "hump the hostess") the final death of the antiquated Production Code when audiences disregarded the promise of eternal hellfire and went to see the damn thing anyway. There were other foreign arthouse sensations before it, of course (notably Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, with which Blowup shares some surface similarity), but it was Blowup that felt like the revolutionary bellwether for the rise of the foreign arthouse as something of a genre unto itself. The picture's success was of a moment with the peak of the British Mod period and right there with the birth of America's version of it: namely, the Summer of Love and the concurrent season of assassination. We never quite recovered from that whiplash between love and death. Similarly, film language has never recovered from the teleological disruption of Blowup.
Blowup is a film about what film does, a "meta" film before the term was co-opted and misused to the point of ironic, linguistic auto-critique. (It's "meta" to misuse "meta.") Blowup's closest analogue is probably Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, another movie about how film works but one that was pilloried on release and left for history to excavate. Powell's picture was a full six years ahead of its time. Had it opened in 1968 instead of 1960, I hazard it would've been big. As it is, Blowup became the sensation that first identified a domestic audience for subsequent fare like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Nicolas Roeg's Performance and Don't Look Now. Truly, Blowup is the sudden, inexplicable, popular sanctification of critical theory: the equivalent of a semester's work in semiotics. I'm not sure the New American Cinema of the 1970s would have been possible without this groundbreaking film.
Begin an unravelling of Blowup with an early scene in a stuffy antique store. The proprietor is a rude, miserable old bastard (Henry Hutchinson) who disapproves of our young, hip, photographer hero, Thomas (David Hemming). He's a curator of relics from a lost, precious time and Thomas, with his open shirt and flop-top haircut, is the mad emperor lighting a match to it all. "There are no cheap bargains here, you're wasting your time," he tells Thomas. He's taken the measure of Thomas and found him to be shallow. There are things money can't buy, and a sense of reverence for history--for the experience of time--is one of them. There's a way to unpack this sequence that touches on our current millennial culture of post-literacy, where anyone can be an expert in anything with a few clicks but where passing few still do the real work of archiving and curation. The tension here is eternal: Plato's frustration with Aristotle recycling with every new mode of knowledge.
The antique shop is a maze of junk: porcelain statues without heads and a collection of busts (which are only heads) arranged as comparison and critique of the living moving among them. Antonioni frames Thomas against one headless form and the shopkeeper against another. Their heads are disembodied in that way, and we are asked to engage our minds, invited to detach ourselves from our viscera. The sculptures are classical in their style and draw attention to Blowup's separation of itself from traditional modes of storytelling and communication. Thomas asks the shopkeeper questions he declines to answer; the old refuses to understand the new, and the new has forgotten the appropriate language with which to communicate. Thomas is looking for "pictures." The shopkeeper says there are none. Moving junk aside, Thomas uncovers a large canvas and tries to buy the oil painting it holds. He's told it's not for sale. Of course it is, just not for him. There is knowledge that can't be gained through the acquisition of its physical accoutrements. You can wear the cap and gown even if you haven't gone to college, after all. Thomas leaves to retrieve his camera from his car and so initiates one of the most famous sequences in film history.
Almost as if motivated by the shopkeeper's rebuffing of him, Thomas decides that if there are no pictures to be bought, then he'll take them. His photography, something we've already seen as an instrument of violence and power, humiliation-unto-rape, in another of the most famous sequences in the history of film, is also an instrument for the theft of agency. Thomas's images are taken from his subjects. Antonioni tells us through a montage that Thomas is moonlighting as a social documentarian, going undercover on a sweatshop assembly-line to steal pictures of the desperate poor. If asked, he'd probably say he's performing a service for them. Abusers accuse their victims of making them abuse them. Once Thomas takes photographs, how they're used is his to decide. Once an audience views a film the film is no longer an extant object, but rather an internalized experience changed alchemically through its interaction with an audience member's personal biases. For every single individual motion picture shown, thousands of "different" and personal films are experienced, and each of those experiences belongs to the viewer and the viewer alone. Blowup's central thesis is that art is wholly subjective interplay that is enhanced by experience and the accumulation of other art.
Thomas strolls into a park across the street from the antique store and takes snapshots of pigeons, of an oddly-dressed matron picking up garbage, of the area around tennis courts that will loom large in the conclusion, and, finally, of a pair of lovers running up a hill. He gives chase at a discreet distance, standing for a moment behind a copse of branches for Antonioni to formulate him, branches hiding his face, as the obscured subject of Magritte's 1964 masterpiece "Son of Man" (see above). From across an open space, he sees the lovers (or are they married? Are they having an affair? Are they fighting, the man pursuing the woman? Are they dancing?) and takes their picture.
For his part, Antonioni's camera sways back and forth, side to side, and the only sound is the wind whipping through the brush. Antonioni is taking Thomas's picture. He is the unobserved observer in Lacan's stages of observation. We represent a fourth level: the unseen audience for the unobserved observer observing the subject observing the object. Now you, reading this, become another level of observer. If you've seen Blowup, this analysis provides a kind of critical memory. It accretes, level by level, like geological plates stacking towards earthquake. Thomas jumps behind a fence to disguise his voyeurism. He is the predator tracking his prey, and Antonioni captures him in one stunning moment from an extreme high-angle vantage (maybe from a crane, or up a tree), reducing him to a figure hunched and small and conniving. The lovers kiss, the hunter is discovered, and the woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), runs after him. She says these images are hers. She bites him. She offers to pay him for the pictures, but these pictures, like the oil painting in the shop, are not for sale.
Thomas does eventually agree to give her the photos when they're developed. We suspect this is a ruse to get Jane back to his flat and seduce her, though we can't be certain. As she flees in frustration (or is it sudden fear? The prey recognizing her predator?), Thomas fires off a few shots of her in flight. I sometimes think about how the words we use for photography ("shoot," "take," "expose") are the same ones we use for intimate violence. We notice what he won't until later on: that his lens cap's on during her rapid retreat. It's the first inclination that Thomas is blind in many ways and, moreover, that his arrogance and confidence may blind him to his blindness. Not to say he isn't powerful as the possessor of the gaze, but that he underestimates his power as the "artificer" of an image, as Wallace Stevens might put it. There's a quantum theme in Blowup that suggests the viewer creates reality as he observes it--that the act of observing constantly creates and destroys the world for an individual. The Heisenberg Effect describes how an object changes when it's observed. What's not often included in that definition is the impossible-to-fully-grasp theory that it's not the act of observation that changes a thing, but what the observer expects to see. We see the world as we expect it to be because the world changes itself to conform to what we expect to see.
Thomas returns to the antique store to find the shopkeeper washing a window and the young owner (Susan Brodrick) zoomily fiddling with a record. She's of Thomas's generation, thus she agrees to sell him a huge wooden airplane propeller that he seems to purchase on a whim. He buys it to prove he can. He buys it as a salve for his embarrassment. The airplane prop is an instrument of flight, which only serves a decorative purpose detached from a plane. Displaying it suggests...well, what does it suggest when you put anything in your space? An expression of hope? A boast of achievement? A request for understanding of a desire unrequited? Thomas talks about freedom a lot, and he means to earn it through photographing "those bloody bitches," i.e., the high-fashion models he keeps waiting for hours and treats like meat. Those trophies, though, the dresses and the pretty faces, are ignoble trophies. Thomas prefers his "important" role as documentarian--the pictures he steals of unfortunates, naked, compromised, looking for a warm shower and a bowl of soup, have more value for him as expressions of self-worth. The propeller represents flight, but Thomas is going to mount it on a wall.
Thomas is a thief and a bully and, like all bullies, he's a coward and a bit of a phony. A troupe of mimes, the Merrymakers, roams through Blowup, causing mime-related mayhem and the sort of irritating commotion only mimes can cause. They greet Thomas as he leaves the workhouse in his undercover hobo disguise--or, at least, they pass him in the street, and Antonioni takes pains to compare them to Thomas: clowns at play pretending to be doing something they're not (something important) by being something they aren't. Thomas is a photographer, of course--a successful one, too, as his most extended session finds him shooting Verushka, David Bailey's favourite subject. But what Blowup begins to unpack is how little Thomas appreciates what it means to be the master of an image. Until what he captures in the park, he's just an eye--a lens and a screen, like a movie camera and a projector. After the images he captures in the park, he's tasked for maybe the first time to interpret the things he's stolen. Jane locates Thomas, appearing on the street outside his door. She's there for the pictures and he stalls, invites her in, plays a record, offers her a drink, compliments her on her posture, and offers to take more pictures of her. He gives her a joint and she accepts it. There's an amazingly erotic screentest available that Alfred Hitchcock took of Tippi Hedren and Martin Balsam where Hitch directs Tippi down to how she holds her head and the angle of her hand on her body. Thomas does that to Jane when she starts to dance to some music in his loft. Jane then tries, and fails, to steal his camera and the pictures it houses while he's out of the room.
Thwarted, she takes off her shirt, offering herself in exchange for what he's taken. This isn't how it's supposed to go. When she leaves, disappointed, Thomas, curiosity piqued, develops the photos. He pins them to a rafter and looks at them in sequence. Film is a series of still images posted on a strip and run through a machine at twenty-four frames per second--a speed that replicates motion for the sight mechanism of the human eye. This sequence of Thomas examining the photos plays like the images in the Parallax Test from Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View: close-ups, tracking shots, medium shots, in sequence, then out of it, back and forth and back again. Thomas has a drink, puts on another record, picks up a magnifying glass, and pores over every inch of these pictures. And then he sees something--or, you know, he thinks he sees something in the background of one of the photos. He blows it up. This sequence will be replicated in Blade Runner when Deckard notices a woman in a bathtub in the grainy far background of a photograph he's stolen. Thomas sees (does he?) something he interprets as a body, and because of the other images he's now immersed himself, and us, in--and becomes convinced that he's inadvertently captured the moment and immediate aftermath of--a murder.
The entire cinema of paranoia that erupts in 1968 owes its roots to this moment in Blowup where Thomas mindfucks himself into an altered, insupportable reality. In the parlance of anti-intellectuals, he's read a lot into what could simply be a collection of shadows and photographic artifacts. Antonioni inculcates us in the delusion by reimposing sounds of the wind whipping through the trees here. The first time I watched Blowup, I had no question that Thomas stumbled onto something big--huge, I tell you. Through subsequent viewings, my certainty has drained away to the point where I don't know what he sees. Blowup is the rare film that gets more complicated the more you work through it, because it isn't a puzzle with a solution, it's a film about how the world is mysterious and you will never understand it. The best you'll ever do is lay meaning over top of it and convince yourself it's some barely-held notion of a concept of truth.
The conventional puzzle in a scenario like this is to uncover the killer, but the identity of the killer is never really a question in Blowup. I don't mean to imply that it's obvious, merely that it doesn't matter. Who cares? If pushed, I would say the killer is Thomas: he has created a body in his mind and by making it the thing he expects to see, of course that's what he finds when he goes looking for it in the park. He has thought the body and the universe has created it for him; his belief was strong enough, persuasive enough, to will it into being. Eve is created in Adam's dream--he sleeps and wakes to find her real. For Antonioni, whose best, most well-known films engage with the language of dreaming, Thomas's close excavation of these pictures he's taken access a collective unconscious. More than a thief now, he is a critical observer and, as a critical observer, he is an artificer of the real.
He loses the pictures, alas. Naturally, he can't "prove" what he's found. Returning to the scene of the "crime" at night (without a camera this time, notably), he discovers a corpse right there in the bushes where he saw it on film. He doesn't need a camera anymore to capture an image. He is the camera now. Thomas looks like he's going to cry. What, pray tell, is the source of that emotion? He doesn't know this corpse and has no real connection to Jane, either. Is it validation? Guilt? Fear? And if so, of what? He hasn't been questioned for what he's seen, hasn't shared his suspicions yet. Even when he shows the photo to someone else, they're unable to see what he sees. Given that there's nothing to see. The crack of a twig and Thomas, spooked, runs. We're spooked, too. By what? Pakula made a career of this non-specific paranoia--the creak on the roof in Klute, for instance, that belongs to maybe a serial killer, maybe a disgruntled john, maybe the ghost of our hero's best friend. Most accurately, it's just the shade of our own free-floating guilt and anxiety.
Antonioni goes on to shoot Thomas through panes of smoked glass in his photo studio, then reflected in a sheet of metal, then framed and diminished by various doorways. Thomas is becoming insubstantial; he's floating away. Perception, Antonioni reminds us, is entirely subject to the whim of the artificer, the creator of the image. He asserts his presence as a director constantly in this film. I don't think there's more than a minute or two where he allows us to forget we're watching a created thing. Antonioni even repainted entire buildings on the London block where they shot exteriors, the better to control the picture's colour schemes. Almost as if in a nightmare, Thomas, seeking comfort, catches sight of his friend Patricia (Sarah Miles) getting fucked by some guy and, horrors, she sees him, too. She reaches out and makes a quiet cry of shame or plea for forgiveness, I don't know. Her lover likely thinks she's crying out in pleasure. Nothing is as it appears to anyone at any moment, and Thomas is gradually reaching that terrible realization. Everything is subjective. Every person is the creator of their reality, moment by moment. Patricia asks him a little later if he "was looking for something just now," and Thomas says, "No." Of course he was. He shares a little of his fears about what was in the photographs that he took, which are now gone, and Patricia asks what's happened. He says he doesn't know because he "didn't see." The truly revolutionary thing Blowup suggests is that there is, in fact, no objective truth to know and seeing is not believing. When everything is true, nothing is true. This movie about taking pictures says that pictures are the absolute worst way to get at the truth.
The last twenty minutes of Blowup see Thomas running through the darkened streets of the city--streets he's complained earlier are falling into ruinous hedonism: gay men and poodles. He enters a club where The Yardbirds, with Jeff Beck whaling on lead guitar, are laying down an amazing set, and no one in the place save one zoned-out hippie is dancing. They're sitting very still and listening politely--just like Thomas wanted Jane to do earlier in his apartment. Thomas has become the artificer of this world. Everything in it is something he's created, just as everything in Blowup is something Antonioni has created. In frustration, Beck smashes his guitar to pieces and hurls the shaft into the audience. He didn't want to do it--Beck wasn't known for breaking guitars, that's Pete Townshend--but Antonioni made him angry before rolling and stole this moment. The crowd riots for the pieces. The music doesn't move them, but the opportunity to own a piece of ephemera prompts them to frenzied action. It's not the plane, it's the propeller. You understand, you get it.
I've wished I had that destroyed guitar in a frame I could hang in my house. Why? I have no fucking idea--but I want it really bad. Thomas runs out of the club with a prize. Once he's safe on the street, he throws it on the ground. A bystander prods it curiously, then tosses it in the trash. He wasn't there. This holy relic holds no holiness for him. Thomas used to want these anchors to reality, these signs and signifiers with which to lard his spaces. What use are anchors?, he now realizes. What is their function when there's no ship, no ocean, no bottom for them to drag. The "scene" shifts to a party where all the attendants are posed in slack, empty postures. The rooms where men and women come and go, smoking reefer and waxing philosophical about Michelangelo (the painter, not Antonioni). Thomas is fully in a nightmare, the only awake person in a world asleep. In the park the next day, broken, the wind his only constant, he takes his camera out but doesn't snap any pictures. There's nothing to see. There never was. Why take something when you're its author?
The film ends with the Merrymakers resurfacing to play a game of imaginary tennis. A ball goes sailing invisibly over the cage where Thomas stands, mute, slack. Antonioni suddenly starts following the path of the ball as the players lobby it back and forth. He shoots their pantomimed game like he would a real game, and the distinction becomes impossible to parse. What's a "real" game of tennis? Is it the one in Strangers on a Train? Is it one you'd see at Wimbledon? On television? At the Y? On the clay court behind the elementary school between a father and his daughter? What is real? After Thomas throws the "ball" back to the mimes, we hear, off-screen, the sound of a tennis ball "bonking" off a racquet. Is it real now that we can hear it? Blowup is alive with challenges: feints and counters very much like that tennis match and no less requiring of mental agility to keep up with it. Watching film is a collaboration that requires our participation to peanut-butter over its apparent gaps. Although there are black shutters between every image on a film strip, our brains help us to hide the flicker. A person leaves one location and arrives at another. Was a time, the film would show a series of shots of the person in a car or taxi, entering it, exiting it, walking up the stairs. Now we fill it in: we have learned a shorthand in the last hundred years of the evolution of this language. Blowup causes us to examine the strategies we use, the muscles we flex, when we watch cinema. It pushes us to demand more from our entertainments by placing the task before us of understanding how our mind works with great art to tell a story that is meaningful to each of us in some way. And how even though a film is an object that is only ever itself, the experience of watching it is not just different for every individual, but different for the individual every time they watch it. Blowup is fucking astonishing.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion brings Blowup to Blu-ray in a curious 1.85:1, 1080p transfer sourced from a 4K scan of the original camera negative that nonetheless suffers from the peculiar "ringing" that one sees in other vintage Warner titles, such as Dial M for Murder and Giant. These slight, bluish edge haloes blunt detail fairly consistently throughout the film's bookends, though the issue also rears its head in Thomas's studio, particularly when Thomas is examining the pivotal photographs. The presentation looks better than that of Warner's old DVD, natch, providing a smidge more picture info on the right side of the frame as well as richer colours (dig the absolutely sulphuric yellows in Thomas's darkroom) and improved dynamic range, but for a jewel in the Criterion Collection going back to the LaserDisc era, I had my hopes set on perfection. The uncompressed audio is uncompromised, however, delivering a crisp soundstage without tinniness in the dialogue--I'm in love with Vanessa Redgrave's voice--and with surprisingly immersive the wind effects, considering everything's coming out of the centre channel. Herbie Hancock's rollicking jazz-rock score is robust and gratifyingly textured.
"Michelangelo Antonioni" (5 mins., HD) is an archival piece interviewing the director in his office following a triumphant screening at Cannes. (It's excerpted from the longer doc Michelangelo Antonioni: The Eye That Changed Cinema.) Of key interest is a brief discussion of a film John F. Kennedy had wanted Antonioni to helm of the Apollo astronauts' preparation for their moon landing. What a loss. Of Blowup, he mentions wanting to make a London that was more London, an idea that reminds me of the Tyrell Corporation's motto of "More Human than Human." Next, "Blow Up of Blow Up" (53 mins., HD) is a retrospective making-of documentary by Valentina Agostinis that revisits the park set as well as a few key players. Dialogue director Piers Haggard recalls the great director's difficulties working in English for the first time. Photographer David Montgomery talks about Antonioni's influence on the photographic arts ("At that time, Antonioni was God"), while writer Barry Miles reflects on the Mod scene, ex-Yardbirds manager Simon Napier-Bell recounts the band's involvement, model Jill Kennington discusses her own involvement...it's all exactly the type of thing you would expect from a collectible release of Blowup. Not a lot of surprises, yet an agreeable way to pass an hour. I was pleased, I should say, by the contribution of art historian Kate Stephenson on the artwork that appears in the film. I've always thought there's a thesis alone in the picture's background art. Here's a place to start on that. I enjoyed, too, the stories of how much of a hellraiser David Hemmings was at the time. At some point, I'd love to host a double-bill of Blowup and Dario Argento's Deep Red--two Hemmings vehicles interested in the power and mystery of looking.
Two talking-heads with Hemmings, one from 1968 (5 mins., HD) and one from 1977 (20 mins.), find the actor in fine, punk fettle, complaining about the set and acting and generally being too awesome for it all. The longer piece, a segment from the program "City Lights", features Hemmings, looking pallid and strung out, dishing about Antonioni's "twitch" and revealing that he modelled Thomas after Dylan Thomas. Oh. Shit. I know it sounds like I'm dunking on Hemmings, but really, I love him. He reminds me a lot of Peter O'Toole: the urbane madman, the drunken raconteur. Or Richard Harris, who once returned after a period of years to a wife he'd summarily abandoned, charming himself back in her good graces by asking when she opened the door why she hadn't "paid the ransom." Hemmings is that sort of personality, and the revelations he spills here are valuable and delivered with great charisma, however drawn his appearance.
A post-film, HD Q&A with Vanessa Redgrave from 2016 runs 44 minutes and is...look, it's always an amazing gift to see and hear Redgrave, but the whole thing is kind of a rambling mess. She gets talked over a bit, unfortunately, and her answers are unfocused--and it's all worth it, because something like this probably won't happen again. The moderator, historian Philippe Garner, is transparently more fan than critic and spends most of his time mining for anecdotes that Redgrave, alas, mostly fails to deliver. Move on to a 1989 interview with Jane Birkin (9 mins.), who mentions getting scouted for the ménage à trois that notoriously got the film a "C" rating from the Hays Office. She's a charming storyteller, and her memory of shooting the violent/playful sex scene is wonderful. She sent her "mum" to see the film because Birkin herself had heard there was a bit of a controversy flaring up over her scene and was worried that it was randier than she had thought while shooting. It wasn't. She says at the end, "We weren't very important, anyone could have done it." My friends, I fell in love.
Garner returns--with curator and historian David Alan Mellor and Walter Moser, head of the photographic collection at the Albertina Museum in Vienna--for "Antonioni's Hypnotic Vision" (45 mins., HD), which goes into in-depth detail about how the pop artist Rauschenberg may have influenced Antonioni, along with Antonioni's use of and fascination/conversance with painting. They touch on the colours of the "profane street" and compare approaches and techniques. "It was a like a hand grenade," Mellor says, this collision of painting, photography, and pop. My friends, I fell in love again. The idea of Antonioni desiring to marry the Modern with the "deep past" is an approach I had not considered, underscoring the idea that Blowup is an extraordinarily fine catalyst for active interpretation. It's the best-sparring conversationalist you've ever met, should you choose to engage with it. There's a long dialogue begun, too, about the tradition of mythology and folktales in which the film engages. I was particularly edified by the explanation of how the work of photographer Arthur Evans carried over into the lobby cards produced for the film and used within it as evidence of Thomas's skill. Much is additionally made of the frustrated search for authenticity and the autobiographical elements of the picture. Invaluable stuff. The disc's video-based supplements round out with a teaser (1 min., HD) that intones, "Sometimes reality is the strangest fantasy of all," over a series of rapidly-cycled stills, plus a full-length trailer (2 mins., HD) that takes much the same approach. While both truly get the ethos of the picture, the trailer focuses in on some of the more titillating elements of the piece. "Love without meaning, murder without guilt." If nothing matters, those things don't matter, yes?
Packaged in the sleek, slipcovered box is a 64-page, soft-bound book housing two essays on the film, the Julio Cortazar short story upon which Blowup is based, and a questionnaire Antonioni distributed to various photographers and artists while he was developing the project. Italian studies professor David Forgacs's "In the Details" offers more nuts and bolts about how the picture came to fruition as the first of Antonioni's three English-language films, the way it deviates from its source material, and the finding and manipulation of its locations. He also elaborates on a series of scenes imagined for the film but never included that chart a much clearer sequence of events leading up to a murder and later a conspiracy to conceal it. I'm so very grateful that Antonini decided to err on the side of obliqueness over obviousness. Holding hands is nice for children and lovers, not so much for adults considering art. Meanwhile, Stig Björkman's "On the Set" is a set diary featuring observations from a couple of days observing Antonioni at work, complete with impromptu cast and crew interviews. Here, Antonioni refers to himself jokingly as a "poet of loneliness," to which I would respond, why joke? The Questionnaire is of particular interest. Among the questions: are photographers trained to capture the sensuality of the models or just the clothes? How do models and shooters spend the money they earn (and do they think ahead to the future)? Do painters model their work on literal objects or on sensations? Finally, the short story is told in first-person in the manner of Mann or Camus, following the exploits of a photographer and ending with the revelation of a hidden image to serve as an epiphany. (The film places this moment in the middle--the rest is the dissemination of how essentially meaningless it's all been.) It's a worthy end to a rewarding meal.
112 minutes; Not Rated; 1.85:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English 1.0 LPCM; English SDH subtitles; BD-50; Region A; Criterion