One of the first wide-release films that depicted 1960s London in all of its free-love and doped-out glory was Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966). Tame by today’s standards, Blowup jarred its first viewers with cavalier representations of casual sex and huddled party-goers tripped out on acid and deep green. It was nearly unheard of, in a non-underground film made by an acclaimed director, to see London’s 1960s subculture rendered so honestly — or as a mere backdrop to story, theme and characterization, like a stylistic or contextual afterthought. I’m making Blowup sound like a two-hour cinematic sex-and-drug fest, when in fact the sex and the drugs — outside of a few scenes that grabbed all the headlines — are at best an undercurrent to one of the most interesting and beautiful murder mysteries ever committed to film. It’s also one of the most quintessential of 60s classics, because it captures a thousand details about swinging London, the stereotypical locus of the fashions and counter-culture art of the period.
Blowup stars David Hemmings as a successful art photographer who has mod London at his feet. He uses homeless shelters as subjects for narcissistic book projects, hangs with the artist next door, drives around in a Rolls Royce convertible, and rocks a stylish pair of white jeans. His loft attracts flocks of birds hoping to work as models, he knows Veruschka intimately (her grotesque beauty turns up in two scenes), attends the finest psychedelic parties, and finds endless subjects for his frame in a London bursting with youthful individualism. As he wanders an inner-city park one day, he fixates on a set of lovers in the distance, snapping away from behind bushes until the woman (Vanessa Redgrave) spies him, gives chase, and demands he hand over the negatives. Hemmings’ photographer has already been established as a self-centered ponce, so he easily dismisses her and develops the photos back in the privacy of his studio. What emerges is not only the discovery of a recent murder, but one of the most captivating sequences of dialogue-free action in film history: a single actor developing negatives, exposing prints and pinning them up in an evocative montage.
But to open this retrospective with something as reductive as a plot summary is to both sell the movie short and mislead the uninitiated into thinking they’re being directed towards standard thriller fare. This is, after all, a film by Antonioni, the technician who loves a lingering take and an extended silence; he builds scenes that don’t direct us with words or musical cues, but hold us hostage nonetheless with riveting, everyday action, and he’s given us plenty of those in film-buff crack like L’Avventura (1960) and The Red Desert (1964). But Blowup, which was shot in English and partly funded by MGM cash, is a lot more accessible than Antonioni’s Italian portfolio. It’s both a so-called art film and an engrossing thriller — almost a proto-giallo, in some ways — and it’s been a cinematic eureka to countless viewers who, until seeing it, thought anything old or foreign was for the old or foreign. Blowup is a “transition” film for many, because it demystifies the alien for viewers who thought they had a taste only for the familiar. Those spoon-fed on the fat-filled exposition and ka-boom of Hollywood product often depend on halfling films like this to discover their buried curiosity for the offbeat or an appreciation for simply letting an action unfold onscreen in natural time. Since many people are hell-bent on maintaining an artificial distinction between “mainstream movies” and “art films” — digging deep into one trench or the other at their own expense (and with much mockery volleyed at the enemy) — it’s up to the Blowups of the world to desegregate and collapse those ridiculous barriers we taxonomic creatures love to erect.
It’s ironic that Blowup operates as a peacemaker this way, because the internal structure of the film is all about barriers. Antonioni — whose intense obsession with image makes that of most filmmakers seem almost negligible — fills his mise-en-scène with objects that separate the actors from one another visually, such as beams, trees, scrims, doors slightly ajar, bisected hallways, and other linear props and architecture. The players are nearly always bracketed or visually severed by something, reminding us that film itself is a framing device, and that people inserted into the frames of moving or still images are being turned into a visual object. Even love, destitution and death are images to be grabbed for someone else’s aesthetic purposes or profit; Blowup is a critique of the artistic process, in other words, that announces itself as art at every moment.
Many critics have pointed out that nearly every frame of Blowup could be sealed under glass and stuck on a wall as a perfectly composed image, but the term eye-candy feels pale. The film’s mod production design and Italian cinematography make up only one half of the arresting whole. Antonioni uses a balance of opaque and translucent textures to veil or semi-veil or completely expose the humans caught in his crosshairs — sometimes he even manages to do all three simultaneously, like the scenes that emphasize the photographer’s near-abuse of the women who model for him. Here a line of exhausted, stylized figures are bullied into poses by Hemmings’ unnamed character, who’s angling for the perfect male-gaze shot, while Antonioni’s self-aware camera glides back and forth in front of a series of transparent scrims that both separate the models and frame them together as a unified group. Antonioni creates an image that comments, all at once, on the aesthetic relationship between the objects (models), the subject (the photographer’s art-lust), the filmmaker and the audience. Much later, in the film’s last take, the segregating brackets finally give way to an endless expanse of grass that frames the photographer but which — for the first time — kicks free of the pinioned feel of the rest of the movie, and surrounds Hemmings’ character with no sense of limits, collapsing all of these positions and distinctions in a single crane-shot. The director’s techniques keep the images we’re seeing in line with the implications of the story and themes he’s working with.
Not only is Blowup Antonioni’s most easily digested film, it also has a commonplace subtext: It’s a moving picture about still images, and the unreliability of images in general. It plays with the art vs. reality question and suggests that no image itself possesses any inherent meaning — meaning must be imposed onto everything we see, and because this is a subjective act, no meaning has any real traction unless more than one person agrees on it (bear this theme in mind and it will clear up even the most cryptic scene in the film). The movie’s title also reveals Antonioni’s motives; not only does the photographer’s blowing-up of the park images push the movie into thriller territory (however muted), it also underscores the way images can distort the more they’re enlarged. Even the painter who works in the next studio admits that his own abstract expressionist canvasses don’t mean anything until he stares at them long enough to “find something to hang onto.” When the park photos are blown up to distorting proportion, the effects of pointillism mangle what the character at first believed he saw in the frame — a dead body protruding from a bush. Like the film itself — which contains scenes that might appear pointless at first glance — the tableaux in Blowup “sort themselves out” and “add up over time.” Distortion as a theme even bleeds out of the realm of vision, into that of sound. Witness what happens at the Yardbirds gig in central London one night: The bassist is plagued by feedback coming out of a speaker — his amp does to sound what the photographer’s blow-ups do to image, distorting what should become clearer when magnified. A comical, or frivolous, or even indulgent moment in Blowup fits seamlessly into Antonioni’s design, so long as we’re willing to draw away critically in order to get a wider view.
If a richness in style, visuals and meaning isn’t enough to recommend this classic ’60s film (so many themes, so little space to be effusive), Hemmings and Redgrave make the movie worth seeing. In his lean mid-twenties at the time of filming, Hemmings’ baby-face was still intact; Teutonic blond and hairless white, he’s disturbingly appealing both in look and lifestyle, despite his arrogance and misogyny. Antonioni and Hemmings have created a hero who’s almost an anti-hero thanks to his more despicable traits, but one who’s still monumentally charismatic, the way all the best heroes ought to be, no matter their failings. And Redgrave is (no surprise) remarkable as the unnamed woman who both foils and is foiled by the photographer who stole her image, turning up on his doorstep to haunt him with her principles. Their biggest scene together is wrapped in a jazz score by Herbie Hancock at his vintage best; it’s the most memorable sound in a film that mostly relies on ambient noise to superadd emotional texture, such as the recollected susurration of trees as the photographer examines his park images, alone in his loft when all is still calm — before a quiet kind of meaningless hell breaks loose. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published as part of Pajiba.com’s Classics Week series, on January 22, 2008.)