Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Blow-Up


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.

22 comments:

DavidEhrenstein said...

Hemmings' photographer (he's referred to as "Thomas" in press materials and end credits but his name isn't voiced in the film at all, nor is anyone else's) is in many ways a British cousin to Alain Delon's stockbroker in Eclipse. He's a brash lively guy with his eye squarely on his work -- women being a mere diversion. You seem to imply he mistreats the girls. But this is precisely what they were looking for. In fact you can well say they seduce him rather than vice versa. (Fascinating to see Birks in this part only a year after her debut in The Knicak. Gillian Hills had appeared to considerable effect in Edmond T. Greville's Beat Girl and later in Franju's C'est la Faute de l'Abee Mouret but her career never quite panned out.)

Originally Antonioni had rather different plans for the third act. There was supposed to be a trial and a revelation that the brother of Sarah Miles' character was involved in the muder. But Carlo Ponti wouldn't give Antonioni any more money so he cut what he had -- and created the greatest international success of his career.

Most films struggle to stay au courant. Blow-Up was right on top of the zeitgeist. Whenwe think of "Swinging London" it's Blow-Up that first comes to mind.

Verushka is still very much with us. Paul Morrisey came out of retirement to co-direct a documentary about her, and she acts frequently for Ulrike Ottinger. In fact she's set to co-star with Tilda Swinton in Ottinger's film about lesbian vampire Elizabeth Bathory, The Bloody Countess. Needless to say Udo Kier has a supporting role.

Ed Howard said...

Blow-Up was right on top of the zeitgeist.

I think that says it all. It's a film that's very much of its time - it'd be easy to call it dated, with its mod stylings and counterculture subtexts, but really it's just a very compelling document of a particular time and place, and some of the pressures experienced by the people living in that time.

Sam Juliano said...

More than any other art film of its time, BLOW-UP was hip and fashionable for those hankering for cryptic cinema that embraced the use of symbols and made suggestive use of color. I agree that the film is disconnected, as it regularly poses the questions of 'what is illusion?' and 'what is reality?', and it can be compellingly posed that the camera is a devise to distort reality.

The film is definitely dated, and nowhere as resonant as Antonioni's great masterpieces, but there's no question it exerted enormous influence, and it brought the masses into the art house fold, even moreso than Bergman, whose legions were more narrowly defined.

Great to see you return here, and with a vengeance no less!

DavidEhrenstein said...

I think it's "dated" only in terms of the fact that it's the 60's at its height. The heart of thr film -- Antonioni's tour de force disclosure of a murder mystery through a series of photographs taken by the anti-hero by chance -- is as fresh as ever. I can't think of another living filmmaker capable of presenting this kidn of narrative in such a precise way.

Sam Juliano said...

Mr. Ehrenstein, that's an undeniably excellent clarification there.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sam. I'd agree with David, I think, that the film's trappings and setting are dated, but not necessarily its ideas. The whole sequence where Thomas pieces
together the mystery through the photos he took is especially fresh even today. And though you're right that the camera is a device to distort reality, I'd say that's a central idea of the film itself. After all, everything is so ambiguous here that it could just as easily be argued that Thomas invents this mystery through imagination and reading too much into an innocent photograph, that the desire for some excitement leads him to see things that aren't there. This possibility is made more or less explicit when the photos are compared to the abstract paintings, where one can see anything one wants.

DavidEhrenstein said...

The disclosure of the mystery is what marks the film. When he's following the couple and take shots of them he thinks he's got a simple "intimate" moment. When she spots him and runs after him demanding the film he toys with her -- thinking he's got something "hot" in the way of an adulerous liason. He doesn't follow her. If he had he would have seen the body then -- or perhaps even interruped the killing. Instead he goes home and devlops the film -- and it isn't until after he's looked all the shots he's taken over for a considerable amount of time (with the girls as an interruption) that he males THE blow-up shwoing that someone was lurking in the bushes with a gun.

Vidal said...

I'm still not sure what to make of the central scene where Thomas discovers the details in the pictures he took. I mostly agreed with Roger Ebert's perspective that the enlarged photos were impossible to make out, much like what Patricia tells him towards the end, like an abstract painting. The problem for me is that we can still see the gunman. However, now that David has pointed out that the third act was originally intended to have some more developments, I believe Antonioni wanted those pictures to be decipherable - to a point, anyway. At any rate, the motif of subjectivity still stands.

I'm glad to see you're still updating, Ed! I was really missing your reviews.

Michael O'Sullivan said...

I have been fascinated by BLOW-UP since I saw it in '67 when I was 21. It was like seeing myself on the screen as that is how we looked and dressed and Hemmings was like an alter ego. All the comments and reviews and magazine features and books (there is at least one: Focus On Blow-Up) accept that there really is a body in the park - though how it would have remainded unseen all day is another matter. There was a magazine article a while ago by the actor who played the body - Ronan O'Casey, who it seems knew Ponti - confirming that there were more scenes to shoot particularly the restaurant scene and whoever was disturbing Thomas's car, but Ponti refused any more time or money!
The other great success of the film is the score by the young Herbie Hancock, it complements the action perfectly - I have had the soundtrack on vinyl, cd and download, its one of the great early abstract jazz albums!

Lutz Eitel said...

Isn't there a scene where Hemmings goes into the park and actually finds a body? Means I have problems similar to Vidal, there are some scenes that within cinematic narrative cannot be discounted a through a game of ghost tennis alone . . .

DavidEhrenstein said...

That's right. he goes back to the park and finds the body. later he returns and its gone. Obviously either the perps or the police took it away.

Another thing to keep in mind, during the central photo examination sequence Hemmings talks to no one, save for a brief telephone conversation. He tells the party on the other end (unheard and unidentified, quite possibly his agent) that he's discovered something incredible and that he may have prevented a murder. As he goes on to discover as he looks agian there WAS a murder. IOW though the bulk of the scene Antonioni leaves it up to us to draw the conclusions that Hemmings comes to.

Needless to say a compare/contrast with Hitchcock's Rear Window is definitely called for.

Ed Howard said...

As Vidal and Lutz say, the scene where the photographer discovers the body in the park is problematic for the ambiguity of the photos. But the way that scene is staged calls attention to the real/fantasy divide, by carefully filming the photographer walking up to the body, then slowly panning down as he crouches down beside it and the body finally enters the frame. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that, at least in the film as is, this brief scene can be read either as confirmation of the photographer's murder theory, or as a fantasy that confirms it only in his own mind.

And as Michael says, it stretches credibility to think that the body just sat in the park all day without anybody seeing it. I also love that Herbie Hancock soundtrack, which further adds to the period vibe of everything.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I never got any sense of fantasy from that scene at all -- or anything else in the film. The boyd is there -- then someone takes it away.

Michaël Parent said...

I really enjoyed your review here Ed! And Blow-Up is my favorite Antonioni film. It's been a while since I saw it... But, as I remembered it murder or not, body or not, like Ed wrote it's Antonioni's message from the last scene that is primordial to understand.

Jason Bellamy said...

I don't want this to sound harsher than I mean it, but I remain thoroughly unconvinced about this film's supposed greatness. In saying that, I also don't want to imply that I'm hung up on its reputation, and that I'm holding its praise against it.

Rather, I've yet to read a review that truly convinces me that there's a through-line to this film. Everyone seems to agree on the film's core, which makes itself clear in numerous ways: (1) it's the longest, most sustained portion of the film; (2) it ties into the title; (3) it's the time the film actually has a plot (and we respond to plots, even if we're interested in more than plots, I believe). That part is compelling, no question.

But beyond that, I've read numerous accounts that supposedly tie everything together, or at least mostly everything, and while I cannot refute those readings I've yet to find one that rings true to me.

In the comments above people have articulated, rightly, that this film is a perfect encapsulation of its times -- swinging London -- for better or worse. But I wonder if that's most true in relation to the filmmaking, and that perhaps Antonioni was as indiscriminate in his approach as the characters of this film seem to be in their lives -- much in the same way that the approach to the end of Easy Rider says as much about its era as what's actually captured "within" the film.

For some, maybe that would make this even higher art. But, as Ed knows well from our conversations pieces, I find it hard to celebrate unmotivated abstractions, and sometimes I think we work too hard (and/or give the filmmaker too much credit) when we try to unite two things that the filmmaker him/herself never united in the first place -- beyond splicing together pieces of film.

Having said that, full disclosure: It's been 10 years since I've seen Blow-Up. Maybe I'd feel differently now. But, Ed, your review lines up with my memories. I just fail to find much compelling beyond its core attraction.

(Crap. I really hope that all makes sense. Never write an opposing view when exhausted. I thought I learned that already.)

DavidEhrenstein said...

Well take another look at it, Jason. It's not an "unmotivated abstraction" at all but tight little murder mystery thriller.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Michael.

Jason, I don't think you're too off-base in suggesting that the film is a bit disconnected, with much of the surrounding material seeming to be extraneous scene-setting. But for me this largely works to establish the protagonist's disaffection with his life and the strange vibes of swinging London in that era. I don't think that's trying too hard, either: there's a weird, unbalanced feel to this film that enhances the mystery by producing profound uncertainty about what's going on. Events just sort of seem to happen, and some of that is probably a result of dropped threads necessitated by the lack of funding — like the guy who's lurking by Thomas' car at one point — but the fact that Antonioni leaves these loose threads hanging so prominently in the text of the film indicates that the ambiguity and uncertainty was part of what he intended in the finished film. It can't all be wrapped up neatly, and the tennis ending suggests that maybe we can't even be certain that we, or Thomas, saw anything at all.

Jason Bellamy said...

David: I will give myself credit for this: it's been in my Netflix queue for a few months now. I get through that queue very slowly, but I do feel the need to give it another look.

I agree it would be improper to call the whole movie "unmotivated abstraction," and I wasn't intendeing to imply that. But "tight little murder mystery thriller" doesn't line up with my memory either.

DavidEhrenstein said...

We it does with me. I've seen Blow-Up many many times, and it's a murder mystery. The thing it lacks is All-Knowing Detective character to tidy things up.

Hemmings has no idea what he's stumbled into until at least a quater of theway into the action. He thinks he's just taken a few snaps of an "illicit" romance, and is tickled by Redgrave's attempt to retrieve the pictures. it's only after he looks at them more closely that he discovers what's up. Beign the sort of character he is (and he was based largely on David Bailey --60's photographer supreme, and ex-hubster of catherin Deneurve) he doesn't go to t cops. Zhe goes to the park and finds the body. When he gets back to his palce he discoevrs that someone has broken in and taken all the pics -- save for one blurry blown-up close-up that looks like an abstract painting. So he's got nothing.

Really that's all. Nothing "ambiguous" or "Is it dream or reality?" about it.

Jason Bellamy said...

Right. But, again, with the admission I haven't seen this in a decade, isn't that a core component of the film -- certainly the main "plot" -- but doesn't that leave a significant portion of the film unaccounted for? That is, isn't it too limiting to consider it a thriller? Or, if it is a thriller, is it accurate to call it tight?

No need to reply here. I'm on very shaky ground going on my faded memories here. I'm just trying to clarify my initial argument, while acknowledging my memory could be faulty.

DavidEhrenstein said...

It's not too limiting at all to consider it a thriller. What was Antonioni's first film? Crinica di un Amore -- an uncredited adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice. A thriller. What's The Passenger ? A thriller. it's a noble genre.

Just Another Film Buff said...

Lovely essay, Ed. Somehow, I think Blow Up is the right kind of film to remake today. May be surfaces have changed, but the meanings and attitudes prove truer now than ever, I think.

Cheers!

P.S: I'm resisting the temptation of reading your Social Network review!