Blow-Up: Carey Harrison

Michelangelo Antonioni, David Hemmings 1966

David Hemmings, Michelangelo Antonioni 1966

Unshaven, red-eyed, dressed in rags, a group of men emerge wearily from a slum dosshouse. It is early morning. A young man separates himself from the group, turns down a side street, and climbs into a limousine. He drives to work: his destination proves to be a fashion photographer's studio. Without changing, the young man grabs his camera and plunges into the routine, bobbing and weaving as he photographs the models, barking at them, shouting. The sweat-stained tramp disguise looks bizarre against the antiseptic chic of the sets. It turns out that Thomas is a fashion photographer who hates his work and despises his subjects; he lives for reportage photography, and the dosshouse sequence is to form a central part of his forthcoming book of Cartier Bresson-style photographs. The first mystery of the film is resolved.

With Blow-Up Michelangelo Antonioni has turned to making films in English, and while the film was being shot in London last year, speculation was intense. The film was said to be a devastating expose of the swinging scene and the lascivious world of fashion photography; the movie became a cult among its expected subjects. But Blow-Up is not a study in decadence. His easy life cramps the central character's initiative, and contempt for his own success has upset his values: he regards fashion photography and the fashionable world as utterly unreal, documentary photography and the outside world as completely 'real.' The discrimination is too glib, and the shock is all the more severe when he discovers that the outside world is just as opaque as the sets inside his studio. There is no 'more real’ world. The affluent life is the context of this discovery, and not the subject of the film's investigation. Perhaps Antonioni saw, too, that 'swinging London' exists only as a trap for amateur sociologists: the biggest common factor among the 'swinging people' is their anxiety to disown all common factors between them and other 'swinging people.' Their membership card is to have joined no club. which permits each of there to deride the squalid 'scene,' and look forward to Blow-Up's revelations without feeling exposed.

But Antonioni has not let himself be used. He is not concerned with the fashion photographer as icon of the pop world, nor with the idolatry of the girls who surround him. The hero doesn't need them: he ignores both status and personal relations. As a photographer, he believes he has a consuming, satisfactory relationship with reality, the surface of reality, the subject matter of his art. And the crisis he experiences is with his material, not with the women in his life. By means of the camera he believes himself to be a faithful interpreter of reality, and when his means prove fallible, all his self-confidence is challenged. For the first time in his life, it seems, he realises how deceptive reality can be, that all his life it has been unfaithful to him and his camera. The audience experiences the film as a series of similar discoveries. The opening shot presents a group of tramps, but we are already deceived: one of them is a rich young man in disguise. And like us, Thomas himself is gulled by the properties of the camera, and finally undeceived by it. In the little deceptions of the film, Antonioni invites us to share Thomas' downfall as well as observe it.

Thomas is searching for a lyrical shot to close his new book of photographs, counterpoint to the squalor of the 'real life' represented on the other pages. Out hunting for some bric-a-brac to decorate his studio, he strolls across a park. The sky is cloudy, the trees disturbed, but the scene is peaceful. Two lovers embrace in a clearing. Thomas skips from one hiding place to another, crouching behind one tree, then the next, taking photographs. He is intoxicated with the activity. But the girl hears a noise and comes over to demand the film. Thomas refuses, and returns to his studio to develop it. When he blows up the prints, he gradually discovers that the scene he was photographing was quite different from the idyllic tableau he thought he had seen: the gentle rapture with which he hoped to dose his brutal series of photographs, shots of the old, the poor, the desolate, the photograph that was to be such a contrast to all this, proves to be a document revealing murder in a London park.

This is unfolded in a thrilling sequence, to which the recent scrutiny of photographic evidence in the Kennedy assassination lends an added spice: in increasingly magnified blow-ups of certain prints, a body in the grass and a gunman in the bushes emerge from the apparently innocuous photographs. It is night. In a terrifying stillness, Thomas comes to the clearing in the park. He finds the body. Returning to his studio, he discovers that all the photographs have gone. All have been taken except one, a blurred, inconclusive print which leaves him with no proof of the event at all—apart from the body. He hurries to a friend's house, and urges him to come and witness the corpse. But it is late, a party is in full swing, his friend is drunk, reluctant, and at last Thomas gives up and spends the night there, forgetting his quest. Throughout the day there have been distractions: the girl in the park trailed him to his studio and tried once again to get the film back, but settled for seduction instead; there is a painter who lives in the same studio, and his girl friend makes fruitless passes at Thomas: two aspiring cover girls sue to model clothes, and end by taking theirs off. These are insignificant dalliances, but his surrender to the party proves his undoing: he wakes late and hastens anxiously to the park, but the body has gone.

Thomas is a man who uses language mockingly, disparagingly, with the irony aimed at himself; who contradicts himself, who is content to be confusing, irritating in his words, because he knows he can tell the story of his life in pictures. He believes his photographs tell the truth. But now that the corpse has disappeared, he has no means left of telling this adventure at all. Who will believe him, without the body or the photographs? Not only his mode of expression but his mode of perception is threatened: the fallibility of his perception, made real to him when he discovered what the camera had seen and he had missed, is now endorsed by losing all the evidence of that discovery itself.

In Deserto Rosso Giuliano was a neurotic who demanded that her environment protect her, justify her, answer her needs; streets and houses echo her emotions. She had to learn to live with their indifference. Thomas has to learn that he is no more powerful over nature with a camera than without. The final scene is a ritual penitence: as he leaves the park. he comes upon a student rag group, all whited up as clowns. These students are glimpsed at various stages of the film, passing in the street, and we recognise them now. They are miming a game of tennis on the deserted courts. Thomas stops to watch. The ball is struck out of the court, and all the students watch its imaginary flight, in the direction, as it happens, of Thomas. When it lands, and they have mimed watching it bounce, the students gaze hopefully at Thomas. Will he mime the action of throwing it back, and let them continue their imaginary game? He does so, and the Thomas once so sure he could interpret what was real, confesses himself a doubting Thomas, a humble, ignorant Thomas. The last shot seals his loss of faith: we see him in close-up, watching the mime. And on the sound track there begins the noise of a racket striking a ball, then the return, the rally. He concedes he knows nothing, they might be playing a real game, for all he could tell. Thomas has passed, it seems, from one over simplification to another.

Although the suspense in Blow-Up, admirably created but clumsily resolved, is of a murder-thriller kind unfamiliar to Antonioni fans—which is making the film a lot of friends in new quarters—the film's theme is thoroughly familiar. It is a melody already stated in the last 56 shots of L'Eclisse, where Antonioni's camera discovers what Thomas does in the course of Blow-Up—some of the unsuspected spheres of action contained in apparently familiar events. The closing sequence of L'Eclisse is a montage which reviews the lovers' abandoned rendezvous, the place and objects which became the touchstones of their affair: a zebra crossing, a water-butt beside a building site, a water-sprinkler that sprays a nearby park. The climax, announced by a thunderous chord on the organ, is a close-up of the street-lamp bulb that illuminates the whole scene, in the gathering dusk.

The montage stresses two things: the indifference of the objective world whirling about the lovers' own febrile activity, and its energy, like the fan which smugly whirrs behind the exhausted, quarrelling couple in the opening scene. At the end, the zebra crossing which was the prelude to a kiss becomes a trivial stage in the routine walk home of parsing businessmen; the water-spray which saw the lovers' first flirtation is casually switched off by a workman; jets pass overhead: other people watch them. The decor, the props of the love affair, prostitute themselves to other actors with less passionate designs, or continue their own activity independent of human behaviour: the twig that Vittoria dropped to poignantly (as she thought) into the water-butt to punctuate a meeting, slips into the gutter as the water flows out of a hole in the butt. The final shot, the mocking energy of electricity, indicts the dissipation of human energy, while the vitality of the objective world continues to expend its energy to scientifically assessable laws,

During the montage passers-by are scrutinised in a series of increasingly magnified close-ups. The gutter and the flowing water are treated with the same intensity. What each blow-up shows is a whole new picture: each pulsing vein in an old man's cheek is allowed autonomy by the intensification of focus; details of clinging mud and leaves form new shapes of microscopic beauty. Vittoria's response to this busy, sometimes mischievous universe is, as far as one can make out, to cope. But Thomas renounces his previous smugness for a worse smugness: the luxury of despair and renunciation of responsibility.

He believed he was wedded to reality by his camera: when he discovers that reality is unfaithful to him, that he has never possessed it completely, he renounces all conjugal rights: all reality, he meekly concedes, is appearance. Although he knows the rag students are miming their tennis match, he invents the sound of racket on ball. The way Antonioni’s thesis is presented is inconsistent with both the metaphysical proposition and the physical situation. In the first place, a leap has been made between the proposition that we often settle for oversimplified explanations of an event, and the directive that all explanation is futile. Certainly, Thomas was mistaken in thinking that he had photographed a quiet afternoon; but this is not necessarily metaphysical arrogance: a telephoto lens would have solved the problem at the time, and wedded him to a more complex reality rather more satisfactorily than his nothing-is-really-real gesture at the end.

The film seems to be making the paranoiac's leap from the proposition that objective reality is largely indifferent to one's desires, which is an unobjectionable argument, to the proposition that it conspires against one. Anna's disappearance in L'Avventura was a mysterious one–but it permitted of certain quite specific speculations: either she drowned; or she ran away, as she had threatened to do. The absence of a conclusive solution didn’t lead Sandro and Claudia to see imaginary tennis matches, or to wonder whether Anna ever existed. The same applies to Blow-Up. The body disappeared: well, somebody took it away. To rush to the extreme conclusion that nothing is real embraces Pirandellism, and forms a significantly different proposition to the statement that our means of observing and assessing reality are desperately limited.

If this were the gist of Blow-Up, there would be no need for Thomas to 'hear' the noises suggested by a student rag mime. He knows as well as we do that there is no tennis match. His camera has just unveiled to him a whole set of circumstances that his senses missed: instead of proclaiming all modes of perception invalid, which he does in the final scene, he of all people—a photographer—should not be surprised at what the camera uncovers. This is the inconsistency in the physical situation: what photograph, has this kind of shock in store? As a scientist does, working in a stricter symbology than the artist, a photographer understands what a medium of communication or a mode of perception is: it is a construct, more or less fallible. And when you find it has been fallible, as Thomas does with his senses in Blow-Up, you do not kick the mechanism to bits and charge fuming from the laboratory. You acknowledge the error, you discover why it happened, and you set about refiring the machinery with this new information.

This is all Thomas has to do. Because he became involved in a drunken party the night before, when he reached the park the body had gone. This does not mean that the body never existed, and he can no longer trust his memory, or that the mimed tennis match is real, and he can no longer trust his senses. All it means is that he should have extracted himself from the party and pursued his objective. Thomas is blaming on the world a failure of the will. In the first place, he has mistaken an event in a public park for something other than it is; in the second place, he has allowed himself so many distractions while investigating it that the march proves fruitless. So he resigns himself to 'hearing' a mimed tennis match: it is the act of a man who avoids the truth, the act of a man who is not prepared to criticise himself.

Which brings us to why Antonioni should move from dry intellectual poise of L'Avventura to the clumsiness of Blow-Up, where he has extrapolated an idea into a story without appreciating that he has changed his area of operations. And the appearance-and-reality proposition of which the film is an embodiment is not merely a tiresome cliche, but a lazy half-truth in narrative form. 'All of the other films I did with my stomach. this one I did with my brain," Antonioni said recently in an interview. He used to say bad films were made with the head or the heart, good ones only with the stomach. And we are a far cry from his Chekhovian remark "I never work from an abstraction towards a story." Antonioni claims in different ways, in different interviews (and the interviews themselves are testimony to this), that he has to preserve an area of non-articulate confrontation with his work; that the pressures of film-making make a certain avoidance of analysis essential in preserving this area of spontaneity.

I dislike being asked questions about my work, he has said, because they bring me to a level of ratiocination, whereas I prefer to work on a lower level (livello inferiore'). Naturally, in every artist the activity must relax down into the subconscious springs of inspiration once the conscious objectives have been defined: or if not the objectives, then the framework of the piece, the broad shapes. But once the area of refusal to criticise grows too large because of arrogance, or grows too intractable because of a constant threat to it, an artist is in danger of settling for the easy choice, for the contrived and the second-rate. He lets things through.

Blow-Up is unconsciously an appeal to the worst kind of intellectual sentimentality. It is a lesson in how to take the easy way out. It could become the handbook of those words-don't-ever-really-communicate and you-can't-ever-really know-what.-Im-feeling merchants who settle for these half-truths the moment a discussion becomes demanding, in the impermeable conviction that they are bravely confronting a more challenging and subtle reality than you. They use the limitations of perception and communication as a means of avoiding responsibility, as Thomas does in Blow-Up. It seems that Antonioni, too, has come to regard these limitations as an excuse rather than a challenge. Blow-Up is not merely an intellectual wheelchair for intellectual cripples, it propagates a moral defeatism towards the challenges of living that the film's technical expertise only renders more pernicious.

The craftsmanship is indeed of a very high order. The self-conscious use of colour in Deserto Rosso, has been left behind as an accessory of Giuliana's neuroticism and an experiment in the neurotic distortion of chromatic values. The art direction is splendid and the camerawork (Carlo Di Palma) relaxed. Antonioni's uniquely meticulous use of sound is in evidence. The rhythm of the film is rather disjointed at times, where scenes have obviously been cut very short, parts expanded, like Vanessa Redgrave's as the girl in the park, or visibly contracted, like Sarah Miles' as the painter's girl friend. The screen is dominated by David Hemmings as Thomas, and the contribution of the other actors is somewhat curtailed by their function in the story, which is to illustrate their insignificance in Thomas' life. Hemmings serves the story extremely well, playing Thomas both expressively and economically, and gaining our sympathy without blinding us to Thomas' indifference to the people around him.

The dialogue, tailored by Edward Bond from the Antonioni-Guerra screenplay, is convincing and unobtrusive; sometimes too unobtrusive—a line tending more to patois than to colloquialism, a delivery more private than intimate. The use of slang can become a restriction of expression, not a freedom; and on these occasions one suspects the director himself is more sinned against than sinning. For a film-maker working in a language other than his own, rhetoric is not the area of dramatic dialogue hardest to assess, but casual chat. In an effort not to betray unfamiliarity, underplaying is left unchecked. But these are rare lapses. Quite apart from its status as a uniquely authoritative debut in a foreign language, the film has a great deal to offer as entertainment, in the narrative, the performances, and the fluency of Antonioni's camera style.

Above all the story is immensely exciting. Two scenes are unforgettable: the gradual discovery of the murder as the prints are blown up, and the midnight visit to the park. An Antonioni film where the plot is enthralling and the intellectual content banal will come as a shock to a lot of people, but it is deservedly bringing him a wider audience, since the handling of Blow-Up as a thriller alone merits it a special place in that genre.