Blow-Up: Medium, Message, Mythos and Make-Believe: George Slover

Michelangelo Antonioni, David Hemmings 1966

Michelangelo Antonioni, David Hemmings 1966

Photography, rock, and pot are so many foci of London's mod world and its "swinging” offshoots in urban centers everywhere. In Blow-Up, Antonioni reveals the histrionic basis of the life intent on these foci: its underlying motive is to create a new order out of the sheer willingness to suspend disbelief.

In Blow-Up Antonioni also lays bare the terrible pathos which is at once the source and the upshot of this impulse. The concluding parable brings the director's vision into focus. The miming of the clowns creates not just a tennis game but, more fundamentally, a community, a sharing in a super-personal reality. Creation of community is, in fact, the end to which the making-believe is merely the means. The make-believe impulse arises, Antonioni shows, out of the pathos of isolation. When the act of suspending disbelief has run its course, the loner falls back into his estrangement. There is, then, a kind of built-in pathos in the effort to create community by make-believe. It is the lyricism of this anguish which we hear—now faintly, now distinctly—throughout Antonioni's film.

Only once does the photographer-hero (Hemmings, to be designated “H.” hereafter) give voice to his underlying malaise. Past the table, in the restaurant where Ron and H. are sitting, a female walks swinging her buttocks provocatively. In detached disgust, H. complains to Ron that he is "off London." If he had money, he says, he would get away from it all and be free. What makes this remark so puzzling is that H. has money, and if money could buy what H. yearns for, he could probably afford it The girl who owns the antique shop also wants to get out of London. also feels hemmed in and appears already headed for Nepal. Perhaps this need to get out of London or out of the antique shop is a cover for another—as yet undefined and hence pathetic—need: to get out of themselves.

To an audience nurtured in the closed-door ethos of the middle class, what is so remarkable in Blow-Up is the singular ease with which characters walk into and out of one another's living quarters. All doors appear to be open; locks are out. H. drifts into his painter neighbor's apartment any time of the day or night There is nothing unusual in his coming upon the painter and his mistress making love. Minutes later, the girl returns the call. So, too, the teeny-boppers, total strangers, appear on the scene uninvited, are put to work making coffee. The person who filches the photos of the murder seems to have no trouble getting in. Studio and apartment, professional models and private friends, working associates, and neighbours, all merge and mingle. The atmosphere suggests the "new tribalism" which Marshall McLuhan is prophesying. The mod world is its vanguard. This new tribalism celebrates openness, receptivity, spontaneity, a sharing of goods, particularly the good of sense experience. At first, the communality Antonioni presents seems convincing and engaging; it is based, apparently, on the various enthusiasms of the mod world: the camera image, music, clothes, pot. There is a rejection of all forms of establishment life, particularly those which divide and repress.

The relationship between H. and V.A. (Vanessa Redgrave) unfolds in this context and in this style. It is an attempt by a lonely young man to make friends—an attempt which never has a chance. From the first, H. is taken with V.A., whether with her freshness and spunk or with the concealed fright which he senses is not important. Like a little boy in his first puppy love, H. offers V.R. his most precious possession: he proposes to make a model of her, tells her she's a natural, has her stand against the lavender paper, then sit on the sofa, as if he were administering a screen test. He puts on a record, offers her a cigarette, presumably marijuana; teaches her how to get the most out of it by inhaling ''against the beat'. of the music. These are acts of friendship; he is taking her under his wing. Anxious to retrieve the film, however, V.R. sends H. for a drink of water. grabs the camera and runs. H. intercepts her at the bottom of the stair. Still misunderstanding H.'s motives, she takes off her blouse and offers herself as swap for the film. Seeing that she will settle for nothing less—and still unwilling to part with the park shots, and perhaps also persuaded that there is nothing compromising of V.R. on the film, whatever she may think—H. goes to the dark room and returns with a bogus roll of film. Thinking she has what she came for, V.R. relaxes. She permits her affinity for the photographer to surface. She invites H. to make love—not because she has to, but because she wants to. In the last scene of the sequence, she is again sitting on the sofa across from her coach, smoking and laughing spontaneously. Suddenly she looks at her watch, jumps up, gets dressed. H. asks for her name and phone number. She scribbles something on a piece of paper, gives it to him and goes.

The scene is marvelously constructed to reveal the rhythm between friendship and estrangement, between community and isolation. In H. and V.R., Antonioni presents two desperately isolated people reaching for one another. The mod style—music. pot, and cool sex (a style both understand)—serves as ground of their community. Their association is, however, a make-believe. The suspension of disbelief cannot dissipate the commitments that separate them. Both lovers lay claim to the photos H. shot in the park. And these claims are absolutely irreconcilable. H. claims the photos in the name of art, and thus feels justified in passing off a phony roll of film. H.'s deception makes explicit the gulf that separates them, even though it does not come to be felt until later—until, presumably, V.R. discovers she has been deceived. To V.R. the photos are, simply, evidence of the murder in which she is herself, whatever the details, an accomplice. She claims the photos in the name of life and liberty—her own. Like the film H. gives her, the name and phone number she gives H. turn out later to be fake. The unbridgeable abyss opens. In the last episode of the relationship, H. comes upon V.R. by chance; she is window-shopping. As he goes in pursuit of her, V.R. disappears. The sudden flowering of community in H.'s studio withers again into isolation.

The rhythm which Antonioni presents in H.'s relation to V.R., reverberates through many of Blow-Up's shorter episodes. The painter's mistress, who had earlier given H. a beer and a neck rub, cannot bring herself to tell H. her troubles, she, too, fails to break out of her isolation—sensing, as I have suggested, H.'s preoccupation at that point with his lost photos. The same terrible feeling of sudden estrangement pervades the episode in which the teeny-boppers are shown putting on their hero's socks and making their exit. The mood is in sharp contrast to the comradely sex frolic—community sex, share and share alike—which has preceded. The open doors, the new tribalism of the studio-community, do not, it appears, open souls.

Perhaps the most compelling of the community-isolation images is the pot party sequence. We see, at first, clusters of people seemingly in high communion. Gathered around a little mound of marijuana, they are partaking of the “sacrament": one puffs on a cigarette, another rolls one. H.'s conversation with his collaborator Ron belies this impression. Having found Ron at last, H. tries to communicate the distressing ambiguity he has felt since his awful discovery. A creature of the image, H. is not used to expressing himself in words; he needs to be "drawn out." He has sensed that of all the people he knows Ron could do this. But Ron is “turned on." He misses H.'s point, takes H.'s words—we’ve got to get a shot of it—at face value; is deaf to the cry for help in them. Hence, the pathetically irrelevant though perfectly logical answer: "Well, I’m not the photographer." With this, Ron walks away, and to make the point secure, Antonioni has Ron mutter to himself, "What did he say?" H. recognizes in Ron's behavior the time and memory distortion of marijuana, gives up the effort to communicate, and accepts Ron's invitation to "turn on" himself. Apparently, the "communion" of the pot party is more a collocation of discrete bodies —a Brownian movement, forming and reforming human clusters at random. It is a make-believe communion. There is as much reality in it as there is in the model's faith that she is in Paris: real absence, it might be called, or perfect isolation.

There is in the mod mode of life a hellish futility. The make-believe impulse aimed at creating community deepens, when enacted, the very isolation with which the impulse is to cope. In Blow-Up Antonioni penetrates to the source of the compulsion which powers this infernal mechanism.

Once again, the clowns furnish the pattern in little. The mimes stand in high relief against the world in which they move. They constitute a community within, yet over-against, the larger community. They depend, however, on that community; depend on it precisely as performers depend on their audience. In the film's first sequence, they take up a collection for their performance, as if the miming were their livelihood. In the clowns' relation to their audience is figured the relationship between the mod community and the establishment.

Curiously, the action of Blow-Up unfolds almost entirely within the mod community; the establishment is hardly represented directly, Characters over thirty are very few: the down-and-outs in the doss house, off-scourings of the establishment—who are used to indict it; the elderly salesman in the antique shop who turns out to be not the owner but an employee of the young woman who owns and is selling the shop: finally, the murdered man, about whom, more in a moment. Though not directly represented, the larger community is, nevertheless, everywhere implied in Blow-Up: indeed, the mod community is everywhere dependent on it. To begin with, mod depends on the establishment for technology. Consider the highly sophisticated and marvelous photographic equipment in H.'s studio and laboratory. Not just mod's image culture, but also its music culture is technologized. And Antonioni makes a point of showing us the fact: the large amplifier with its knobs and dials which the electric-guitar player pummels again and again in his rage over its imperfect operation. Consider also the crucial role of the automobile in the mod world as represented in Blow-Up. Mobility, the mastery of space, is of the essence. Antonioni gives the hero’s Rolls Royce considerable attention, shows it in action again and again, even equips it with a two-way radio. In the same vein, Antonioni mobilizes his company of clowns with a kind of jeep—the first machine we see in the film. The mod world and the mod culture presuppose the square technology of the square establishment. The establishment is a hovering presence, as is the invisible audience in a theatre to actors on a stage.

Like the clowns, the mod community Antonioni presents does, in fact, earn its keep from the surrounding society. Antonioni's hero, we may have already remarked, is a man of some means: his car, his living arrangements, his working conditions, all bear witness. Indeed, there is no real poverty in the mod community. H. is both an artist and commercial. His collaboration with Ron on the photographic essay—which is —may or may not net some income. But surely the fashion photos and the sex shots are big moneymaker, and it is the establishment that pays. The mod community functions, first of all. as costumers to the establishment. The outfits Antonioni selects reveal to what taste mod designers are appealing: the taste for fantasy. The fashions H. photographs belong to a science fiction world, cut off from ordinary experience. As a fashion photographer, H. is an indispensable middleman. His job is to catalyze the imagination of the larger community and to induce women to enter into mod's fantasy world. We know, in fact, how marketable these clothes are. The sex photos, also marketable, have a function similar to the fashion shots. In the mod community sex has already "cooled off": in the establishment it is still "hot"—a discrepancy which the mod community is quick to exploit for commercial purposes. H. and his like keep the establishment imagination (inhibited by discipline) supplied with images of delight, abandon, passion, freedom: no matter that they are fantasy images.

Mod is, in fact, a kept community—kept by the establishment, and kept, precisely, for its special skill in making believe. Completely committed to a life of calculations—scientific, technical, industrial, economic—the establishment generates an unappeasable appetite for fantasy. Paradoxically, the sober creators of technology require, for sheer human survival, the intoxicated creators of fantasy. Thus the dependency is mutual. One might see in this phenomenon the application of the division of labor to man's inner economy. Establishment life causes atrophying, in its members, of certain functions of the anal—the life of the senses, of the imagination, of the feelings. Instinctively, the establishment generates and fosters a community, necessarily separate, which will cultivate these powers. The result is the coexistence of two communities with two mutually exclusive, yet mutually dependent, ideals of man. But more, the establishment fosters the creation of a make-believe world in which those powers of the soul can live their life insulated from those other, calculating and narrowly rational, powers which the establishment cultivates as appropriate to its fantasy of the world.

Viewed structurally, mod is nothing new: it is merely the latest in a long succession of Bohemian which make good. As a Bohemia, it is a community in which the "artist'. is king and priest and in which the rest of the members subserve the creative process in one way or another, if only as an audience which guarantees approval. What makes Blow-Up such an extraordinary work of art is that it gets to the bottom of the Bohemian psychology and mythology. Like the clowns of the film, the mod community is organized as a theatrical troupe; the establishment, the society at large, is at once its audience and its employer (and as employer, it pays better than the patrons of former Bohemian). On the surface, the arrangement seems plausible enough. Antonioni reveals. however (and he is himself a member of Bohemia), that, appearance notwithstanding, this arrangement is deadly, certainly for the artist but probably also for his audience—fraught with contradiction and conflict.

The Bohemian community—mod or otherwise--arises out of the is pathos of isolation, his alienation from, and rejection by the larger community. The act of make-believe through which the anti-community comes into being is attended by large measures of anger, reverse rejection, revolt. Epater le bourgeois is the order of the day. The artist is pure; the bourgeois, corrupt (the very spirit we discern in H.'s doss house pictures). Indeed, after a decade or more of angry and absurd theatre, we are familiar with playwrights' and actors' ways of abusing the audience that patronizes them. Give that audience time, however, and it will come to love it. That is what is paradoxical—may I say, pathological?—in this state of affairs. What has happened to a whole chain of Bohemias and what is happening to mod is that the establishment—confused by the outburst of hostility, uncomprehending, feeling victimized—responds in the only way it knows how: by putting Bohemia on the payroll. This parody of turning the other cheek has, Blow-Up suggests, a certain psychological impact on the members of the "artistic" community: a progressive deepening of alienation, a confirming of "coolness" (passive aggressive, in the lingo of interpersonal psychology), leading to a total rupture of communications between the communities. In individuals, this rupture takes the form, first, of ontologizing the act of make-believe—the act Antonioni performs for us in having H. hear the report of the imaginary tennis ball; second, of de-ontologizing the world which furnishes the artist his material—H.'s annihilation of the body.

One is tempted to place Blow-Up's murder into this context. What is so provocative about the murder is Antonioni's selection of personnel. In his short story, Julio Cortazar stages the park drama between an older, mature woman and an adolescent of perhaps seventeen. The third party is an older man sitting in a near-by car for whose perverse sexual interest the older woman is presumably soliciting the young man. Antonioni changes all this around. He gives us an older, already greying, man lured by a very young woman to a spot where he is shot by a third party. If this third person is the young man whom H. catches peeping in on him and Ron through the restaurant window, then the murderer, too, is under twenty-five. The older man—one of the very few characters over thirty, as we have already said—is also clearly establishment. He wears a well-tailored suit with vest, white shirt, tie. The girl, on the other hand, is clearly mod: mini-skirt worn from the hip. In the unfolding of the film, the viewer begins by surmising that a solid businessman type has fallen for a young mod, or that a precocious young mod is deliberately turning the head of an older man for fun or fortune. Antonioni misleads us intentionally: we witness, in fact, a premeditated murder plot in which the woman is decoy for bringing the victim into range of a revolver. What appears as a charming flirtation between the communities—over thirty and under twenty-five, establishment and mod—is, in fact, the murder of the old by the young, the destruction of the keeper by the kept. The murder is the physical analogue of H.'s spiritual annihilation of the corpse in the final sequence.

In both scenes, Antonioni enacts (if we read him aright) the final rupture between the communities, the irrevocable estrangement. We have already noted that Antonioni places the murder in an idyll, in a garden. This, too, represents a change from the Cortazar story where the photographed scene takes place by a parapet overlooking the river within view of a parked automobile. Is Antonioni alluding to the garden story in Genesis where likewise is enacted the drama of an irrevocable estrangernent? If so, we can discern in Blow-Up the comprehensive mythos of mod Bohemia: a mythos which unfolds in two great symbolic acts. The first is the primordial act which effects the estrangement of the two communities. The second is the act through which the hero “saves" himself from the painful consequences of the primordial estrangement. In the first, a man is murdered; in the second, the existence of the man is denied by making believe that his corpse is real only to art. on film. The latter act is, however, the parody of a saving act: it confirms the initial act by de-ontologizing its consequence. In Blow-Up, Antonioni performs for us the two cultic acts—sacrifice and initiation–of the religion which makes art the comprehensive mystery; the artist its high priest: Bohemia its church: the establishment its world. The estrangement of the two communities may be taken as the ultimate source of the pathetic, lingering isolation which afflict so many characters in Blow-up's mod world. That pervasive alienation is to the murder and make-believe in Blow-Up as sin and disorder is to the disobedience of the garden in the Judaeo-Christian scheme. Estrangement within the primordial community is prior, ontologically, to estrangement of individuals from one another and within themselves.

Perhaps this is pushing things too far. Nevertheless, this much remains secure: Blow-Up presents the estrangement both of mod from the establishment and of the members of the mod community from one another. In the theatricalizing impulse, Antonioni reveals the source of this estrangement. The chief “objective correlative" of the film's master motive is the camera and the “photographic mode of life." The camera, make-believe, and the pathetic sense of estrangement—these three, Blow-Up brings into significant relationship.

And yet, there is no necessary connection between alienation and making believe. The fact is that the theatricalizing impulse is enormously rich. We discern its working in numberless instances within our daily experience. Long before Blow-Up, poets, playwrights, novelists explored its appeal and its meaning. Long ago, the notions “life is a play" and "the world is a theatre" were commonplaces. One already encounters them in Plato and Democritus, and finds them cropping up again and again since that time down to the Renaissance and beyond. Nevertheless, these ages understood the life-acting and the world-theatre equations as metaphor, and theatricality as one of many modes of human activity. What Antonioni presents in Blow-Up is a community which construes the whole of human life as theatrical. For mod, the theatre-world equation is no longer metaphor; it is literally so. Its make-believe, when acted, generates in fact a social order radically divided and estranged, generates in fact an isolation terrible in its completeness. Blow-Up gives the theatrical impulse a very special turn....

The complete article, from which this excerpt was taken, first appeared in Italian translation in Strumenti Critici, 5 (February 1968).