DVD Review Of Blowup
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/7/06
Blowup was Michelangelo Antonioni’s first English language film, made in Great Britain, in 1966, and it’s a flat-out great film, at a crisp 111 minutes. It was nominated for two Academy Awards; Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay- by Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, and Edward Bond- adapted from the short story Las Babas Del Diablo, by Argentine writer Julio Cortazar, and won the National Society Of Film Critics title as best film of 1967. Having first seen the two Hollywood films most influenced by it- Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, in 1974, and Brian De Palma’s Blowout, in 1981, I did not know quite what to expect, since the former is also a great film- arguably Coppola’s best, and the latter is a merely solid Hollywood thriller. Blowup is not only a great work of art, but a great work of philosophy. It is arguably as great as Antonioni’s earlier Italian language masterpiece, La Notte, and the film caused a bit of a scandal upon its release, both for its showing casual sex and drug usage, and for its female nudity. Of course, forty years later, this all seems a bit silly, as tame as the scenes really are to the modern eye.
The story follows an unnamed photographer (David Hemmings) who may or may not have inadvertently captured a murder on film, which may or may not involve a mysterious young woman (Vanessa Redgrave) who later visits the photographer in his studio, ready to have sex with him to retrieve the photos before he develops them. Both of the main characters are never named in the film, despite numerous reviews that call the two main characters Thomas and Jane. In watching the film twice- with and without commentary, I found zero in the way of evidence to support this claim of their being named, so I take it as one of those bits of information that gets repeated ad nauseam by bad critics until accepted, despite its being untrue. Possibly there were press kits that named the two characters, but they are not named within, nor in the credits. Yet, this very lack of names only makes the film all the more interesting, for not knowing the truth of these two characters only heightens their mysteriousness, and the events that ensnare the both of them. The photographer even sardonically comments in the film, when he’s about to lay two girls- or ‘birds’, ‘What’s the use of a name?’
Hemmings is a famed photographer whom we first see emerging from a London flophouse, just one of a crowd- not unlike the Carlo Battisti character in Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D., where he’s gotten some great and intimate photos of the poor, which he plans on using in a book. He posed as a poor guy to get them, yet hops into his convertible wood paneled Rolls Royce. We then see him rather misogynistically mistreat a high fashion and clearly pre-anorexia nervosa anorexic supermodel (Verushka) in the grotesque Twiggy vein- whom, in a famed scene, he erotically ‘mounts’, as he photographs her from above as she lies on the floor, five models who pose behind dark glass screens, and the two ‘birds’ in pink and green pantyhose. We also find out he lives next door to an Abstract Expressionist painter, Bill (John Castle), and his girlfriend, Patricia (Sarah Miles), whom he has an unspoken attraction to, and who seems to return his feelings. In describing his paintings, Bill says he has no intent when he starts a painting, and that meaning only comes later. This is a key to the film, or at least the viewer’s warning on how to take what they see.
The next day, Hemmings goes to an antique shop to buy a wooden propeller for which he has no use for, after commenting on some queers walking a poodle that he sees. He then takes some photos in the nearby park. Here’s where he happens upon Redgrave and her silver-haired beau (Ronan O’Casey). We see Hemmings surreptitiously and cockily photographing them, but we never actually see what he does- we only see him, and another point of view of what he presumably sees- a seemingly omniscient point of view. Antonioni is thus distancing his artistic voyeurism from Hemmings’. When she sees him snapping photos she comes to get the camera and film from him. He refuses her, and that seems to be that, even after she gets on her knees and bites his hand to pry the camera loose. He then goes to meet his photo publisher Ron (Peter Bowles), at a restaurant, to tell him of the poorhouse photos he took, and how good the park photos were, and that he wants to end the book with them, so it’ll end upbeat. When he gets back to his studio Redgrave is waiting for him- although how she tracked him down is never explained. They flirt, she tries to steal the camera, but he’s a step ahead of her.
They trick each other- he by keeping the roll of film, and she by giving him false information about herself, and part without consummation. As he develops the film he notices odd things- such as Redgrave looking off into the distance, and seemingly horrified. He follows her eyeline, and blows up the photos, to reveal, first, a man with a gun lurking in the bushes. This moment suggests an homage to Alfred Hitchcock, whose films were loaded with such moments- if less existentially loaded, and the fact that Antonioni subverts this classic mystery thriller ‘moment’ by never having it pay off. At first Hemmings believes he has prevented a murder. He calls Ron to inform him of this. But, after a male fantasy scene of a sex-filled ménage-a-trois with the two returning ‘birds’- blond Jane Birkin and brunet Gillian Hills, he spies, in one of the blowups, what seems to be the boyfriend’s dead body behind the bush. He deduces all this in silence, alone, peering at the photos, in a bravura bit of Dick And Jane type existential proof of the power of images and the mind to construct tales from them. It’s as pure a pure cinema as ever filmed- just images. No words. No musical cues to say, ‘Aha!’
He returns to the park at night, and sees the body, but has forgotten his camera. Yet, we later see that the seemingly hidden body is actually wide out in the open- from the reverse angle, so it’s highly unlikely any real killer worth his salt would leave the body there in the open, and even more so that, after so many hours, it would still lie undiscovered and undisturbed by predators. This hints that all Hemmings sees may not be so, and since Antonioni never allowed us to see from over his shoulder while he took his photos we do not know how accurate or not the shots are. Also, to a degree, like soap operas and slasher flicks, the dumbest possible action propels the plot. Would you go to a park, late at night, where a killer could be lurking? Fortunately, Antonioni has no killer lurking in the bushes to attack Hemmings upon his return, and we do not watch him from a fourth perspective, the trite killer’s point of view, where we would see him moments before getting attacked, so this dramatic subversion somewhat mediates the use of the dumbest possible action plot point somewhat.
Hemmings heads back home to find his studio’s been burglarized, the photos and negatives stolen, and only the last grainy blowup of the corpse remains. He heads to his painter friend’s home and catches him and his girlfriend having sex. She sees him but says nothing. Then she comes to his studio and he tells her what happened. She tells him to call the police, but- again in true soap opera fashion, he does not follow her advice, and instead tries to find Ron, to have his pal verify the dead body, before getting the authorities involved. Driving to the party Ron is at Hemmings thinks he sees Redgrave by a store window, parks his car, and takes off after her. He does not find her, as she seemingly ‘vanishes’, literally, as people often do in film- which makes us question our lead character’s trustworthiness in interpreting reality. It’s also likely that Antonioni is winking at his audience by telling us this is just a film, where strange things can occur, as Ingmar Bergman did a year earlier in his brilliant Persona, which manifested the fact that it was a film, an artificial construction, not reality. Has Hemmings imagined this whole murder scenario from what was an innocent encounter in the park?
He ends up at a concert where The Yardbirds are playing Stroll On, which later became Train Kept A Rollin’, then, after a melee, caused by Jeff Beck famously smashing his guitar to bits- in the fashion of The Who’s Pete Townshend, and tossing the top of the guitar neck to the audience, Hemmings emerges with the trophy, only to discard it after he flees the club with his booty, as others attack and follow him. A stranger on the street, outside, sees the guitar neck, realizes it’s junk, whereas moments before it was a valuable icon worth fighting over, and tosses it back to the street. Interestingly, before Beck tosses the guitar piece to the crowd they appear only as stupefied zombies, not typical rock music fans. It is the chance to get a piece of something that excites them. Similarly, it is the thought of solving what the film is about that excites many of its fans, not any of its many other great artistic qualities. Hemmings then heads to the party but Ron is too stoned to help. In another famed scene Hemmings meets the Veruscka model again, as stoned as Ron, who earlier claimed she was going to Paris. Hemmings exclaims, ‘I thought you were in Paris.’ She replies, ‘I am’. Clearly, what the mind makes is as powerful as what it takes in.
Hemmings then resolves to photograph the body with his camera. When he returns, in the morning light, the body is gone, and all his evidence is, too. The lobe photo left is meaningless without the context of the others, or any other substantiating ‘proof’. As he walks to the place where the body should be we hear another Antonioni trademark- wind blowing and rustling through tree leaves- a sure sign of utter desolation. We thus know that no killer is waiting, only frustration. In a bravura touch, we see Hemmings look up to the sky, from where the body was, and we cut to see the sun from between leaves on a tree. The camera pans down, and the shot is at a right angle from Hemmings’ eyeline, meaning it was not his point of view, as normally expected, but an omniscient’s or fourth party’s. This hints to the viewer that not only is Hemmings not a reliable witness, but neither are we. Did any of it happen? As he walks away he sees a bunch of anarchic mimes, who frame the story, and opened the film running through London like the young punks in Stanley Kubrick’s later A Clockwork Orange, now assembling for a game of faux tennis with an invisible ball and rackets. Hemmings thinks it’s fun, and even buys into it with the rest of the crowd- and Antonioni’s camera, which follows the ball’s ‘flight’, by following the flight of the ‘ball’, even when it’s smashed over the fence. Hemmings retrieves it, at a mime’s prodding, tosses it back, and thus buys into their reality, to the point that, after he does, we now even hear a real tennis match going on. Interestingly, we hear this, even though we never heard a gunshot in the park, another clue that reality can be skewed. Hemmings is then alone in the grass field- the same one seen in the film’s opening credits- and one eerily like the golf course that ends La Notte. He vanishes right before the film ends, just as Redgrave earlier did, and also- possibly, the corpse. And it’s not just a vanish, but almost a ‘pop’, or ‘blowup’, of his form- another play on the title. It’s a bravura moment to end the film, every bit as poetic and moody as the last ten or so haunting minutes of L’Eclisse.
Yet, one senses through the whole film that Hemmings’ character is a total cipher, one going through the motions of life, without any real convictions. In one scene, a protestor stuffs a picket sign in his car, and he oks it, then does not fret when it blows out as he drives away. Even his art- if brilliant, is disingenuous, as he whines of working with beautiful models all day. Yet, even as his surmise of the murder is deflated, he seems reborn when we see him toss the ‘tennis ball’ back to the mimes. Only one other time in the film, when he pulled away in his Rolls from ‘the birds’, did we see any glee, as he listened to the radio and bobbed his head and sung along. Other than that he is a seemingly joyless man, whose failure at film’s end seems to have rebirthed a passion in him, and an appreciation for life- his and others’. Perhaps he has not solved the mystery of what really happened in the park, but maybe he has an insight into his life, and will pursue real art again; maybe even tell Bill’s girlfriend that he loves her. One senses that she just needs to hear those words from him. In that sense, the film seems to end a bit prematurely, and leave the viewer to fill in not only the existential blanks, but the more realistic narrative ones, as well. This is a good thing, for unlike Hollywood films, Antonioni does not sneer at his audience. He trusts their intelligence.
Many critics state that the film is about the nature of reality- as well epistemology, and cite the final scene with mimes as their ‘proof’, but it’s also a rather obvious statement, however true, as well as a superficial one. The film was also a manifest direct response to the then still ‘shocking revelation’ of the Abraham Zapruder film of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which demonstrably debunked the Warren Commission’s fallacious claims of a lone gunman, and a kill shot from the rear. The very fact that over forty years of ‘experts’ have tried to convince people that what they saw- a kill shot from a second gunman from the front, was not true only strengthens Antonioni’s seeming posit that reality can be distorted unless verified. It’s worth noting that when Hemmings tells Patricia of the ‘murder’, her reply is to ask, ‘I wonder why they shot him?’ She asks the query in the conspiratorial plural, not why ‘he’, the singular man in the bushes, shot the boyfriend? Also hanging over the film was the then still recent Profumo sex scandal, as Redgrave looks quite a bit like the then-notorious sex kitten Christine Keeler. Other critics vacuously claim the film is simply about ‘loneliness’, but offer little to backup that simplistic claim. And just asking whether or not there was a murder misses the whole point of the film.
Hemmings’ photographer is not a particularly likable character, it’s true, but the odd events do humanize him in the end- in a very odd sort of bildungsroman. When Patricia asks him who the dead man was, he replies, ‘Someone,’ seemingly finally cognizant that people are more than just props for his art, and with a bit of warmth. That Antonioni deliberately plants information that is at odds with each other in the film, and that he never lets the audience have a glimpse at what ‘really happened’ lifts this film far above Hollywood’s drab fare, and, like all great art, there are multiple ways to view it, and almost all are correct- to a degree. Those which aren’t are still part of the fun.
The DVD, put out by Warner Brothers, on a single disk, is amazingly crisp. It could have been filmed this year, and I say this having seen the last two Woody Allen films set in London, as well the recent Austin Powers series of films which spoof the Mod era. It also amazes that film was made just a year after the black and white Roman Polanski classic, Repulsion- a film whose meaning also depends on the eyeline of its lead female character in a photograph, and what she sees or does not see. That film seems to have occurred forty years ago, while this one could be set today, save for a few costumes and hairstyles. Coincidentally, the cinematographer on Blowup was Carlo Di Palma, who later became a frequent collaborator with Woody Allen. He helps Antonioni exquisitely frame each shot with his trademark odd angles. There is no one in film quite like Antonioni in the use of blank space. His closest equal would be the Dutch painter Jan Vermeer. The same special technique is recapitulated on the soundtrack, with the use of long silences as a form of ‘music’. The DVD does have a few drawbacks. The first is that while the video is great, the audio is very weak, I had to turn it up very high to hear even regular conversations between characters. I don’t know if this was part of Antonioni’s original technique, or a problem with the DVD. There’s also a fairly pointless music only soundtrack to the film, featuring Herbie Hancock’s jazzy score. I still cannot figure out the purpose it serves, for there are many minutes with no music and just the images. Perhaps that’s the point? But, did Antonioni authorize this?
And, of course, there is a commentary track, by a so-called film expert, Antonioni biographer- The Films Of Michelangelo Antonioni, and English professor at George Mason University, Peter Brunette. While I’ve heard worse commentaries, this one is not good. First off, Brunette is a prude and a moralist, and instead of discussing the making of the film and backgrounds of the principals involved, he rails over and again about the Hemmings character- for example, he nearly runs down four Africans in the road with his Rolls, merely beeping to warn them, as they dodge him at the last minute. Ok, this is part of the character- now what? He also rails about parts of the film being ‘offensive’ to contemporary PC viewers. About the only things he says of any real value are to correctly acknowledge that the two main characters are never named, and to needle those critics who are obsessed with the technical aspects of whether photographic blowups could be used in the way the film depicts. He’s right, because much of the film depends on not what is seen, but what is thought to be seen- just like when one sees something and thinks it looks like something human- be it a cloud, the Old Man In The Mountain in New Hampshire, or the Face on Mars. Often, however, he’s merely preening philosophically or flat out getting things wrong. When he condemns Hemmings’ demands of his models, he sees them as misogyny alone, not also an artist striving for excellence. The two are not mutually opposing, and an artist would know that, while a mere critic would not. He also dismisses Hemmings’ poorhouse photos as being evidence of his character’s superficiality in not really caring for the poor, rather than seeing that they seem to be great photographs and high art. Again, one can be superficial, on one level, yet capable of depth on another- and what does Hemmings’ being a humanist or not have to do with the photographs? Brunette does not see this. Similarly he is flummoxed as to the purpose of the antique shop scenes, since they seem unrelated to the main narrative. Yet, clearly these sorts of scenes are set as diurnal relief for the main tale of intrigue to be set against. Contrast is often needed to achieve an effect. Similarly the purpose of the propeller in the film sets Brunette off on a speech about Kantian logic, and the claim that only useless things can be art- in direct contravention to the post-Duchampsian utilitarian view. Brunette also espouses the demonstrably false view that meaning is only a group construct, not immanent in a thing. Think- if you look at a poodle and declare that it is a wicker chair, does it make the poodle any less a poodle? No, its essential poodleness is immanent, no matter what term you hang on it. So is the excellence of a work of art immanent. A great painting that sits in an attic is no less a great painting for not hanging in the Louvre. Its greatness is immanent, despite the inability of the uninitiated to recognize it. Brunette’s also wrong when he declares that it was the Redgrave character that came back for the photos in the studio. Where’s the proof he offers? Could it not have been the killer, or another conspirator? We have no evidence that it was the Redgrave character. Brunette is simply imbuing, as are many critics, rather than dealing what is in the film alone.
Like Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Rashomon, Blowup works on many levels, yet allows us to participate in the interpretation to an even greater extent than Rashomon. Photographs can lie- just ask AP photographer Eddie Adams, who, a few years later took the infamous photograph of a Vietnamese police commander shooting a Vietcong prisoner in the head. What was not shown was that the prisoner had killed many innocent people. By going beyond being a mere whodunit, and engaging the very the meaning of meaning, itself, Blowup (and it is Blowup, not Blow-Up, as on the DVD cover) illustrates the differences between the writer and the visual artist. The former elicits significance from things that need to be seen, while the latter does so from that already seen. In truth, there could be plausible and non-criminal reasons for all that happens in the film, and only the dull life of Hemmings spurs him on to imbue significance. That we can never know the real truth within the film is the real truth as to why this film never loses its hold in repeated viewings. On that score, no comment is needed.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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