Blow-Up Antonioni and the Mod World: James F. Scott

David Hemmings 1966

David Hemmings 1966

On first viewing, The Blow-Up seems too clever, just too clever. How can anyone be so coy with a camera without losing himself in visual display? From the film's opening moment, when splinters of dramatic action burst through the tides until David Hemmings is erased from the last scene by a trick of the optical printer, Michaelangelo Antonioni never relaxes his insistence upon striking effects. Shots through layers of glass, props to complicate composition, splashes of expressionistic red, deep-focus and wide-angle fixes that draw the eye to incidental detail: the photography never ceases to dazzle. And yet I am now convinced this picture is much more than the cinematic equivalent of a Mary Quant dress. The mad mod world of London has found its poet, but has not found him in exactly a celebratory mood. Antonioni's highly complex reaction to contemporary English culture creates the thematic core of what most surely rank among the finest films of the sixties.

However brief his residence in London, the Italian director already knows this world well, its pace, its idiom, its style. He is not just the enthralled tourist, gawking at mini skirts and pink tights, even though such gear provides much of the surface phenomena of the film. As always, his bent is analytical and documentary, his attention devoted to the psychology underlying gesture and speech. His unnamed protagonist (played with supreme cool by Hemmings) might have been lifted from one of the Beatle records, for, like the musical hero fashioned by John Lennon, he's "a real Nowhere Man . . ." who "doesn't have a point of view/Knows not where he's going to." But in Antonioni the lyricism of the Beatles gives way to more ambiguous tonalities which, in spite of occasional dissonance, are arranged with great care, almost cunning. Down to the last stroke of the imaginary tennis game at its close, The Blow-Up is the work of a virtuoso. At the same time, though, it is a telling commentary upon the psychic defenses of man, particularly the man of artistic temper. Antonioni's seriousness about these matters reclaims the film, even when it comes close to triteness and sensationalism.

Paradoxically, this is perhaps Antonioni's most personal film. Like Bergman's The Magician and Fellini's 8 1/2, it is another version of "a portrait of the artist," here a commercial photographer. Of course, Antonioni avoids the confessional. The young man with the camera is no more the director himself than Herr Vogler, the traveling magician who does tricks with a magic lantern, is really Ingmar Bergman. But Antonioni surely feels the force of professional cousinship to his hero. Like the director who created him, the protagonist of The Blow-Up is intelligent, aloof, objective, technically expert, sometimes exploitative, and even a little worried about his obligations towards those who get into the view finder of his camera. He knows the strain of urban isolation but sees no relief from it, "I'm off London this week," he confides to a buddy, but these efforts at escape are no more significant than the chatter of the girl in the secondhand shop about emigrating to Nepal. He also senses, at least vaguely, the ambiguous position of an artist working with mass media: Critical of the public taste that furnishes his livelihood, he must devote himself to representing the life of a community whose values mean almost nothing to him. Does aesthetic detachment require a purely spectatorial attitude? Does art do nothing more than freeze a moment of experience with a snap of the shutter or a stroke of the brush? These questions, arising naturally from the plight of the protagonist, are really Antonioni's own. Though the director never gets as close as to be unable to judge his hero, the verdict is delivered against a kindred spirit.

In characterizing the artist-hero, the film summons up polarities we have all grown familiar with—art and life, illusion and reality, style and impulse. Those who wish Keats had turned his back on the Grecian urn and Yeats had stayed clear of Byzantium will immediately be put off by this. Yet Antonioni is rarely cliche, though he crosses few philosophical thresholds. His fable is carefully built, and his characters, even when they resemble zombies, seem fully real. If the meaning expands into allegory, its generalized significance emerges from an ensemble of concrete sights, sounds, and gestures. The task he sets for himself as a film-maker is to "defend the principle of intelligence within the heart of the real" (Bianco e Nero, 1958). This scrupulous fidelity to the sensate world enables him in The Blow-Up both to assert the autonomy of art and measure the artist himself in moral terms.

To Antonioni, autonomy suggests distance, not escape, from life. But distance is crucial, because art imposes its claims indirectly; it does not have "meaning" in the ordinary journalistic sense. Bill the painter, Hemmings' closest associate, says of his own canvases: "They don't mean anything when I do them. Just a mess. Afterwards it sorts itself out—like a clue in a detective story." This echoes a remark Antonioni once made about his own work: "It can happen that films acquire meanings, that is to say, the meanings appear afterwards . . ." (Positif,1959). Whether or not this parallel is significant, Bill's way of looking at his paintings provides a verbal paradigm for the plot of The Blow-Up. Only by letting the meaning "sort itself out" does Hemmings discover the real subject of his photography. This, however, complicates the prospect of action based on artistic insight.

The revelatory possibilities of art, Antonioni implies, spring from the openness and curiosity of the artist. Hemmings plays the part of a good-natured vagabond, exceptionally sensitive to light and shape, with fingers that move over F-stops as smoothly as if he were performing on harp or violin. In the critical scene in the park, he comes upon the lovers just accidentally, while collecting some landscape shots to balance the somber tone of a volume of photographs. The unexpectedness of the lovers' presence is emphasized in the way Antonioni shoots the scene, the film camera first catching them as a colorful off-center blur in a few frames of a fast pan. As Hemmings first begins to pursue them, he has (beyond some voyeuristic interest) only an expectation that they will ornament the landscape more attractively than the pigeons whom they replace as his subjects. Even after his altercation with Vanessa Redgrave, (like Hemmings, nameless in the film), the photographer still has no idea he has taken a picture of a murder. The point is simple, but well made. The real subject of art is distinct from the conscious designs of the artist, to which it often does violence. A qualifying note is added upon Hemmings return to his studio: though art, like science, makes gains from serendipity, chance favors only the properly disposed.

Hemmings is thus favored because he is, whatever else, a fine photographer. Sensitive to composition, he notices the eccentricity of his subject's sight-line. Attentive to light, he sees a shadow he can't account for. He misarranges, then corrects, the sequence of shots, entertaining and later rejecting the hypothesis that Miss Redgrave is looking at him. From these notes a syndrome of details falls into place, for association and implication are the substance of artistic insight. During these moments as the prints are hung on the studio wall, the sound track effectively reinforces an imaginative reconstruction of reality, Hemmings' absorption in the world he has caught with his camera. While his concentration intensifies, the sound of wind stirs through the trees, and the clouds of that fatal twilight seem to regather. Now, too, we understand why Antonioni has made his protagonist specialize in black and white photography. Returning to the scene in the park, we go back to a world drained of color, an unrealistic, self-evidently artificial world, yet one whose tones are more real than reality. Only when the park episode is printed out in black and white does the atmosphere seem sinister enough for murder. The film stock itself serves to unmask the picturesque. Moreover, in this special world of art, a meaningless, unfocused shadow gradually becomes a form, a man, a killer. The parable is now complete. When Bill's mistress later remarks that one of the blow-ups looks "just like one of Bill's paintings," she just underscores verbally what the action has already shown.

Art fixates, transforms, enlarges, and in so doing shows us aspects of reality we could never see with an unguided eye. I discern in this a special message from Antonioni to his critics, those who have looked askance at the seemingly arbitrary imagery in some of his earlier films. Watch closely, gentlemen; trifles, are not always a trifling matter. Beyond this, however, there is the more obvious public meaning, central to The Blow-Up. Art confers upon man a special kind of insight, yet not through magic or mystification, but through patience, craftsmanship, and mental alertness within an organized discipline.

Though if art is distinct from magic, this doesn't prevent its seeming magical to the uninitiate, or keep the artist himself from donning the robes of a mage. After all, the artist is a maker. and appears to create ex nihilo. There is something terribly beguiling about his office, which makes it a source of power. And that is why, I think, Antonioni's hero finds his profession so attractive. He is a weak man, rootless and confused, who uses his camera for ego support.

Camera in hand or in reach, the hero is sturdy and stylish. He can control his environment, choosing the roles he will play (worker, lover) and the terms on which he will play them (the escape clause of professional distance). This is not necessarily bad, of course, for every artist counterfeits those roles which extend an opportunity to create. The problem with Antonioni's protagonist is that behind the mask there seems to be no face. Personalities fall off him as readily as the roving picket's "Ban the Bomb" sign tumbles from the rear seat of his automobile. He needs the camera to maintain his identity, for without it he is quickly caught up and lost in every crowd that gathers. At the mercy of his surroundings, his private self is too weak to withstand the world. Antonioni's interest in the camera as a power surrogate thus governs the argument of the film, offering the chief clue to the judgment he passes upon the central character.

The talismanic authority of the camera is nowhere more evident than when it is used as a sexual instrument, as in the sequence where Hemmings is first shown photographing a model. Much more than an isolated extravagance, this episode establishes a pattern running through all the scenes in which he exhibits strength. His camera, its threats and its promises, confers upon him a mastery over his associates. On this occasion, he feigns the role of lover, and with absolute success. His relationship with the model is purely professional, yet Antonioni composes the scene so as to make their encounter simulate sexual climax, complete with verbal enticements, erotic movement, gradual convergence, and eventual exhaustion. The clicking shutter of the camera marks the rhythm of this engagement, underscoring the importance Antonioni attaches to the visible badge of his hero's profession.

Having established this motif in a single scene, Antonioni now extends and complicates it, as Hemmings uses his camera to control the reaction of a wide range of persons—the sophisticated manikins of his studio, a desperate Vanessa Redgrave, and the absurd teenagers who stumble into his path. For the painted creatures of the studio, the photographer's authority is absolute, whatever mockery and contempt is implicit in the way it is exercised. As for the girls who come calling, after hours, they epitomize the same subservience at a comic level—the fantasy of male power associated with the camera. The mere promise of an eventual chance to model brings them stumbling out of their clothes in order to be sexually available to their benefactor. Flopping about like bewildered seals in an ocean of purple paper, these outrageously inept coquettes bring to grotesque summation the theme of ego-support derived from professional status.

As might be expected, the relationship between Hemmings and Miss Redgrave is more complex, exhibiting both the strength and weakness of the protagonist. While he plays the role of artist, his personal power is again reinforced by his camera. In the park, when Miss Redgrave protests his invasion of her privacy, he brushes her objections aside with brash clinical detachment: "It's not my fault if there's no privacy in the world." Apparently he has declared perpetual open season upon those who get in front of his camera. And he is still fully in command when she comes to the studio to plead for the incriminating film. So long as he holds it, he can have her as mistress or model, even restyle her personality according to his specifications and make a game of her incompetent efforts to steal the camera. The relationship changes, however, the moment he becomes personally implicated in her affairs. Suspecting nothing in her private life beyond a conventional liaison with an older man, he is shocked to find her connected with a murder plot. The discovery in the photo lab jars him completely out of the studied, easy composure he has turned into a rule of life. He loses his cool. Ironically, the honesty of his art explodes the artifice of his personal style, by forcing his attention upon a disturbing existential fact.

Significantly; in the scenes that follow his leaving the studio, he is without his camera. He can no longer control his environment. Alone, he is nervous and frightened. In crowds, he is immediately stamped with the collective image. Fumbling about the darkened streets of London, he is quite another person than the man who orders around the mascara-bedecked minions of his studio.

Look at the difference, for example, between the two scenes in the park, first when he is protected by his camera, then when he goes back to search for the corpse. Trailing the lovers, he was poised, self-assured, moving so bouncily as almost to dance. Returning to the scene,he is jittery, faltering, upset by incidental noises of the night, obsessed by a confused plan to "get help." His white garb against the deep, green backdrop gives him something close to a spectral appearance. Should the police be telephoned? Apparently not before this impulse receives positive support from his friends.

Like nearly all Antonioni's heroes. Hemmings evades his spiritual crises with a benumbing emotional binge. First it's the Yardbirds' concert, which he blunders into but can't seem to leave. The audience, fixed in hypnotic stupor, traps him with its inertia, forcing him to listen to the adolescent vocalist who thumps out, ironically, a song about “goin’ on." So close is Hemmings' inadvertent identification with this quivering glob that when he finally escapes during a moment of riot, he comes away with sizeable hunk of a dismembered guitar. If this is the fruit of accident, his deliberate devices are still more disastrous. While the teenagers go on jazz jags, their elders get high on pot. In the temple of narcotic euphoria he now visits, conscious life has collapsed altogether.

"I thought you were going to Paris” he tells one of the guests. "This is Paris," she rejoins. The keynote of the scene is struck as the camera briefly lingers upon a volume a Van Gogh's paintings; madness and self-destructive brutality rule this world, though it lacks the redeeming assertiveness of Van Gogh. In the hell of. Sartre's No Exit, the damned eternally confront one another with lidless eyes. But the marijuana enthusiasts are fully protected against this mark of existential awareness: their eyelids are permanently rolled down into a visionless squint. Quickly ennervated by this atmosphere, the protagonist himself settles down into unconsciousness.

"After such knowledge, what forgiveness?" Antonioni might well repeat T. S. Eliot's question. Confronted by the nasty reality of violent death, Hemmings is totally incapacitated. Its not that he should have played the hard-boiled private eye, hunting down the guilty woman like some latter-day Bogart. What she’s guilty of remains less than clear, perhaps active involvement, perhaps only accidental complicity. All we really know of the heroine comes from her own lips ("my private life is very confused"), hardly sufficient evidence for conviction. In any event, Antonioni isn't interested in pressing an accessory-after-the-fact charge' against his hero. The focus of concern is this man's, complete inability to cope with a violation of the world he has worked so patiently to make secure. His remedy for disturbance is distraction—sex, song, drink, drugs. In the morning he will have second thoughts, but by morning the chance to act will have vanished forever. This is why Antonion’s films so often end in the morning, not just The Red Desert, but The Adventure and The Night as well. Missed, opportunities 'seem most poignant as one carries an emotional hangover into a new, but unpromising, day.

In The Blow-Up, however, the conclusion is protracted to considerable length, allowing time for the now famous (or notorious) tennis match which white-faced revellers play with an imaginary ball. Giving up his sleuthing, Hemmings is ready to play too, as is evident from his willingness to chase a stray shot and return the ball to the court. But who are the players and what's the score? It's tempting to take this scene as summarizing the motifs of escape and evasion that permeate the entire dramatic texture. Their grease-paint associates these bizarre performers with the strangely tinted models of the studio; their collective hallucination brings to mind both the jazz concert and the marijuana party; their enthusiasm for racing around in an automobile resembles the nervous exuberance of Hemmings himself behind the wheel. Opening and closing the film, their antics seem to frame and evaluate everything in between. In accepting their game, the protagonist might be said to embrace a regressive fantasy life which permanently corrupts his being. But maybe not. While perfectly plausible, this reading strikes me as overly simple.

Whether by intention or accident, Antonioni has left the last scene of The Blow-Up somewhat cryptic. I don't think he has quite made up his mind about the mods, or at least isn't ready to damn them en masse. One thing these youths have in their favor is their dissociation from the values of the past, which Antonioni so passionately rejected in a statement apropos of The Adventure:

We make use of an aging morality, of outworn myths, of ancient conventions. And we do this in full consciousness of what we are doing. Why do we respect such a morality?

He resents fiercely that man "is impelled by moral forces and myths which were already old in the time of Homer" and that "in the realm of the emotions, a total conformity reigns." However irresponsible, the mods have escaped the burden of these inhibitions. Antonioni was of two minds when he talked about them in the Life interview last January:

The young people among whom my film is situated are all aimless, without any other drive but to reach that aimless freedom. Freedom that for them means marijuana, sexual perversion, anything. . . .

Yet, on the other hand:

To live as a "swinger" . . . I think it means to take a leave from certain norms, certain traditions at any cost. . . . But maybe it's also a legitimate way to get near a happier condition of life. Who can tell?

This mixture of feelings enters into the last scene of The Blow-Up.

The revellers, after all, are a little different from the marijuana crowd. We first see them collecting for charity, which may help no one, but seems well intentioned. They also appear to be really in touch with each other, not just rubbing shoulders while each pursues his private dream. Their eyes focus, too, if only on imaginary tennis balls. Though deliberately feigning, they apparently understand the difference between illusion and reality. Perhaps their posturing is an evasion of life, but it seems more like strategic retreat than unconditional surrender. We might make the some case for the artist-hero. He does not grow, but neither does he shrivel. In fact, the tennis match—repeating a game he watched before photographing the murder—seems to return him to an earlier stage of his life. He has recovered his style, his manner, and perhaps acquired some insight into his inclination to indulge in posturing. At least this is a matter for further critical debate.

The Blow-Up is such an ocular tour de force, it is hard to avoid being either aggravated or overwhelmed by it. Balanced appraisal, however, must take account of both fault and achievement. To me, the defects seem minor, but they are there. I am still not sure, for example, why Miss Redgrave doesn't simply expose the film during the moment she has the camera in her possession. And why is the nude scene with the would-be models drawn out so lengthily, particularly since Antonioni has to bundle the characters in paper wrappers to get them past the vice squad? Yet the total effect of the picture is one of expert finesse. Appropriate nuances are everywhere, and little snips of footage speak with quiet eloquence. Take, for instance, some of the paraphernalia associated with the protagonist. An ornamental propeller—ready to twirl endlessly without moving anything anywhere. Or the drawing of an Arabian caravan —sylishly parading across an empty wall of the studio. Or a bust of Louis XV—remembered by history for a single phrase, "apres moi, le deluge." Antonioni refuses to caress these objects with the affection of a symbolmonger. But how right they are, how fully relevant. The acting, too, is smooth, natural, while the composition and coloration will likely be studied by film technicians for the next decade.

The intellectual import of The Blow-Up is more difficult to assess. Like his protagonist, Antonioni seems to resent any encroachment upon his moral neutrality. Critics who insist upon social consciousness as a sine qua non will probably regret that the director gives so little attention to his hero's connection with the world of the doss house. An orthodox Marxist might easily have built this moment of hesitant contact with the proletariat into an elaborate statement upon the parasitism of bourgeois art. On the other hand, those who seek from this picture some "spirituality" of a kind usually associated with pulpits will come away utterly frustrated. Antonioni debunks Hugh Haffner, but not from the perspective of either Talcott Parsons or Cardinal Ottaviani. Perhaps there is no controlling perspective in the film, which gives some force to the charge of evasion. It might be argued, surely, that the neat paradox of the tennis match offers theatrical finality in place of human judgment.

My personal sympathies, however, lie with Antonioni. I don't like The Blow-Up quite so much as The Eclipse or The Red Desert, but nothing in this film effaces my respect for the director's integrity, intelligence, and severe moral astringency. Rightly, he suspects both private mystiques and public orthodoxies. Of course, he merely sees through, never sees to. His visual rhetoric always shatters, never saves. At the end of The Red Desert, Giuliana tells her young son that the bird protects himself from sulfuric factory-smoke by learning to fly around it. At the human level, unfortunately, the problem is more complicated. I doubt that we will avoid the threats to our own survival by playing tennis in a London park, and gather that Antonioni doubts it too. But if anyone knows what we should be doing instead I wish he'd drop me a line.