Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up is an unsettling, mysterious film that seems to be hiding multiple secrets beneath its glossy, impenetrable surface: the grainy, Rorschach blot photographs blown up by fashion photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) in his search for clues to a murder provide a blueprint for the film as a whole. Strange encounters, clues and red herrings, inexplicable happenings: the film is disconnected and radiates a zombie-like vibe right from its opening sequence, in which a troupe of mimes, faces caked with pasty white makeup, are contrasted against the deadened faces of factory workers clocking out for the day. Blow-Up is often summarized as being about a photographer who comes to believe that some photographs he took hold the evidence of a murder, but in fact more than half the film passes by before the pivotal moment when Thomas becomes obsessed with uncovering the clues in these photos. Before that point, he takes fashion photos, berating and verbally abusing the confused models, and has a nearly silent scene with Patricia (Sarah Miles), the wife of his painter friend, in which body language and exchanges of looks suggest some kind of longing between the two, and goes shopping for antiques, impulsively buying a giant wooden propeller. Antonioni prepares for Thomas' obsession with the details of a seemingly innocent photograph by patiently building a portrait of a man dissatisfied and adrift in his own life. Several times there are intimations of hidden homosexuality, as when Thomas seems disturbed by the "queers and poodles" infiltrating his neighborhood, or when his complaints about women are answered with the retort, "it would be the same with men."
Thomas, it seems, doesn't know what he wants. He's a vile and abrasive man, and midway through the film his encounter with two giggly would-be models (Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills) keeps teetering on the brink between playful flirtation and stormy violence. It's a disturbing sequence, since at times it seems like Thomas is on the verge of raping the girls, while at other moments they're playing along, flirting and joining his game. A similar dynamic is at work in the crucial scene between Thomas and Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), the woman in the pictures that drive the narrative in the film's second half. Thomas stumbled across Jane with an older man in a small park, and was moved to take photos, hiding in the bushes as the man and the woman walk along, talking, kissing, embracing. But when Jane sees the photographer, she confronts him, and later somehow tracks him down to his studio, where she alternates between cajoling and seducing him to give her the photos he took. It's such an interesting scene because, while Thomas initially seems fully in control, holding back against the tearful and increasingly desperate pleas of this woman, as they interact further she subtly gets the upper-hand, climaxing with the moment when she offers herself to him by removing her top, shaming him into at least pretending to give in.
There are a lot of subtle threads running through this film in scenes like this, notably the dynamic of male/female relationships and the balance of control and domination. Thomas is used to ordering women around, posing them how he wants, getting just the image of them that he wants, manipulating them into presenting a surface that's compelling to his camera — and beneath that surface, he doesn't care what lurks. But Jane is different, a woman who obviously has a story, and secrets, that never escape from beneath the surface she presents to Thomas. She disappears from the film after this scene, and her secrets disappear with her. The second half of the film has a fascinating arc. First, Thomas decodes the photographs he's taken, printing them out and using magnification and selective viewing to locate key points within the photos, following Jane's gaze in one photo and extrapolating in another to the point where she might be looking. His wall is eventually covered in photographic enlargements, blow-ups that reveal previously hidden details. At the end of this process, Antonioni inserts a montage of the photographs in an order that tells a story: the two lovers walking, eventually reaching a spot where another man, previously unseen, lurks in the bushes with a gun, waiting to kill Jane's companion, and then a shot of what may be the corpse lying in the bushes once the deed is done.
This montage is a kind of model for the cinematic art, the construction of a story through the arrangement of still images in sequence. The order in which the images appear, and the details highlighted in each image, determine what story is told. And the process also establishes the complicity of the artist in what he documents, in that Thomas' mirror image is surely the man with the gun: two men lurking, hidden, in the bushes, pointing something at the couple walking out in the open air of the park. Snapping a picture, or firing a bullet. The remainder of the film represents the reversal of this cinematic process of narrative construction, calling into question everything that had been created through this montage. The pictures disappear, stolen from Thomas' studio. The body in the park disappears as well, although not before Thomas sees, or imagines he sees, it with his own eyes one night. Jane disappears, the phone number she left behind a fake, her identity still a total mystery by the end of the film. Thomas' narrative of murder is ultimately ephemeral, removed as it is from concrete reality. When Thomas shows Patricia the only remaining photo he has, a grainy blow-up of what might be a corpse lying on the ground, she compares it to her husband's abstract paintings, inscrutable and open to interpretation. Earlier, the painter had explained what he liked about one of his own paintings by pointing to a single rectangular segment and praising it as a good leg, implying that this abstracted geometric tangle is actually a figure drawing.
There's a similar interplay between abstraction and representation in Thomas' photographs, a concept that overturns the simplistic understanding of photography as a documentary art, as the simple art of capturing the reality in front of the lens. Blow-Up suggests that even photographic art can lie and distort and hide the reality, that even a photograph can be abstract and dissembling. In the end, Thomas, like the film itself, winds up questioning what's real at all. In the final scene, the mimes from the beginning of the film return, playing a pretend game of tennis, and at one point silently instruct Thomas to "retrieve" a "ball" that has supposedly gone flying into the grass off the court. Thomas complies, pretending to throw a ball back to the players, but as they resume their pantomime, the shot remains trained on Thomas as he watches. The sound of a tennis ball bouncing back and forth on the soundtrack suggests that we create our own reality, that sometimes the mind is more powerful than the vision, that sometimes what we see or think we see is not to be trusted.
This is a compelling, mysterious film that uses such symbolic images — heavy-handed, perhaps, but nonetheless effective — to probe the ideas of photographic deceit, narrative, voyeurism and masculine exploitation that lie at the film's center. The sequence of Thomas desperately trying to piece together a narrative in still images is the film's core, and contains by far its most powerful material. But if the rest of the film is more scattershot, more unfocused, that's because it's documenting and critiquing a lifestyle that's similarly unfocused and empty. This becomes most clear in the weird scene where Thomas, looking for his manager, goes to a concert by British blues-rock band the Yardbirds. As the band plays their poppy, rollicking song, the audience looks disinterested and joyless, standing utterly still, their faces bored and bland, until one of the band members smashing his instrument provokes a frenzied riot. It's as though the music isn't enough, the crowd needs the visceral thrill of the violence, and they go wild trying to get the shattered guitar neck that's thrown into the mob — a souvenir that Thomas escapes with seemingly without realizing it, and discards as soon as he's out of the crush of the crowd. The guitar fragment serves the same purpose as the photographs, for a moment at least: a material object in which to invest great meaning, a thing to provide structure and forward momentum to an otherwise aimless existence.