It's the Antonioni movie. Judge Mike Pinsky reviews it. What more need we say?
"They don't mean anything when I do them. Just a mess. Afterwards, I find something to hang on to…Then it sorts itself out and adds up. It's like finding a clue in a detective story."—Bill (John Castle), on his abstract paintings
Facts of the Case
All facts are suspect.
All suspects have absconded.
There is nothing to see here.
I remember watching Austin Powers pull out that camera and demand the attention of a squealing fashion model. I remember laughing. Was I the only one laughing? Was I the only one in the theatre who got the joke? Mike Myers was playing David Hemmings playing a shallow fashion photographer in Michelangelo Antonioni's first English-language feature. I suspected that few people watching Austin Powers have ever seen Blow-Up, and the few that had probably remembered it more for its hip fashions and fusion jazz score by Herbie Hancock. Oh well, nobody seemed to get the Russ Meyer joke either.
A viewer only mildly familiar with the work of Michelangelo Antonioni and the Italian director's penchant for stunning visual compositions might assume that David Hemmings's unnamed photographer in Blow-Up is a surrogate for the man behind the bigger camera. After all, this London shutterbug seems totally cool. He can have any woman he wants. He drives a fancy sports car. He lives life as if he is racing toward a finish line he cannot even see. Who wouldn't want to be this guy?
But appearances are deceiving. The photographer is a fairly unlikable brute. He uses women, dresses them up and objectifies them through the camera. Everything must be "fab" or "cool" to carry any weight. Such weight, however, is only ephemeral: once the next fab thing comes along, all that was once fashionable is jettisoned.
Blow-Up is, like all Antonioni's films, all about desire. The opening credits are a clue: an empty green field (where the film will also wind up) covered with letters that reveal bodies moving, as if we are looking into windows, seeing through a placid surface to the chaos underneath.
A gang of—mimes? students on a bender? spirits of play?—charge through the streets of London. These are the fake inhabitants, the simulations that remind us that the rest of London is already filled with fakes who just don't know it yet. One fake is our hero (David Hemmings), who never has a name. Most writings on the film (and the Internet Movie Database) insist his name is "Thomas," for no particular reason. His radio callsign is "Blue 439," so we will call him Blue, for lack of a better name. When we first see Blue, he is leaving a workhouse, disguised as a common prole. But this is a game: he has sneaked in so that he can photograph these poor men for a book that proves his artistic talent. He says, "Hello, love" to his assistant at the door to his studio, but he feels no desire for her. Everything he does is a game of pretend.
Blue distracts himself from his emptiness by manipulating others, by forcing himself to become a subject using everyone around him as objects. He is particularly adept at using women. Antonioni, the master of negative space in cinema, understands the pseudo-eroticism of fashion photography, having Blue constantly intrude into our frame of reference during the photo shoots. It becomes impossible to tell exactly who is posing for whom, as Blue climbs on top of a bored-looking model (Verushka) and demands more and more from her writhing body in a mock sexual act. Then, Blue ignores her as if he is a frat boy casting off a drunken freshman girl.
As always, Antonioni's visual composition—his ability to give any shot a sense of depth usually reserved for still photography—is peerless. Only Stanley Kubrick could compete. Indeed, the influence of this film on Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange is quite apparent throughout, especially during the sequence in which Blue photographs a group of women in surreal, futuristic fashions. He insists they close their eyes so that he becomes the only watcher—then, while their eyes are closed, he slips out the door and disappears.
Antonioni uses everything from architecture to bodies to the spaces in between. Watch and listen to everything. Notice how Blue is left out of everything, a watcher outside. He sees happy couples (straight and gay) walking down the street, ignoring him. He is refused service in an antique store by an old man who answers even obvious questions in the negative.
When people discuss Blow-Up, they always seem to focus on some sort of plot. Well, here it is: Blue follows a couple into a park and photographs them. The woman (Vanessa Redgrave) demands the film back. "This is a public place," she tells him. "Everyone has the right to be left in peace." Never mind that her logic is inverted here: how can you claim a right to privacy when you are in the open? Blue instead offers an even more cryptic response: "It's not my fault if there's no peace." Does he mean that privacy, subjective integrity, cannot exist, since we can all be watched? Is he making an oblique reference to the Cold War from which London's hedonists are always distracting themselves? Is his cynicism a reflection of the chaotic world around him?
This all becomes dizzying—and this is only a single moment in the film, wound tightly. Later, Blue returns to his studio, only after another Cold War clue: passing a no-nuke protest, he steals a sign marked "Go Away" (separating its political context in favor of pure image), only to have it fall out of the back of his car while he drives home. He does not even notice.
The woman from the park shows up at Blue's studio to recover her photographs. Antonioni uses the room's architecture (wooden beams, glass panes) to fragment their bodies. Answering a phone call, Blue claims that he has a wife. Then he says that she isn't his wife, and that he "feels like" he has kids. Another simulated relationship? The woman from the park flirts, but nothing comes of it. He gives her the wrong roll of film, and in return, she gives him a fake phone number. Everything is illusion.
Now comes the part that passes for a plot. Blue develops the roll of film from the park. Following eyelines, he blows up sections of the photos and hangs them around the room to construct a narrative. Is that a hand holding a gun? Is that a dead body in the grass? Blow-Up is about fractals: blowing up the image causes patterns to appear, iterations of tiny flaws ("no peace," remember?) in reality. Each blow-up causes more complexity, rather than clarification. Photography, masquerading as the objective gaze, tells us that seeing is believing, and that believing is truth. Blow-Up demonstrates that only the first part of that statement is true.
When Blue goes to the park to investigate, he indeed finds a dead body, its eyes open and unseeing. Later, he returns to his studio (after voyeuristically watching his friends have sex) to find the pictures are all gone, except for the one that shows the body. Or does it show a body, when taken out of context? Blue races to find his editor Ron (Peter Bowles), hoping that someone can confirm this reality. Thinking he sees the woman from the park, he stumbles into a Yardbirds concert (check out Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck looking young and probably not too stoned) as the band plays to a blank and lifeless crowd. When Beck smashes his guitar after hearing feedback (chaos again), the crowd erupts momentarily. Ron is equally quixotic, stoned beyond caring at a nearby party. When Blue awakens in the morning (that party was just too tempting), he returns to the park. Of course, the body is gone.
Then comes the kicker: Blue encounters that crowd of youthful mimes pretending to play tennis. They invite him to participate. In his head, he begins to hear the game. He stands alone in a field, then suddenly vanishes. The end.
Angry that I just gave away the ending? Watch the film again. Each iteration, it becomes something different. This time, pretend the body was really there, that a conspiracy is afoot. Was that a spy watching Blue through the window of a café? Now watch it again. Is the body only a dream? When Blue is in the midst of his series of blow-ups, he takes some time off to cavort with a pair of fame-obsessed bimbos. One moment, they are naked and wrestling. Then suddenly, they are dressed. Was the sex play merely in his mind, or has time broken apart? And why does he only notice the dead body after his sexual arousal?
Blow-Up becomes a new film with each viewing, as a fractal reveals new patterns each time you zoom in on it. Those looking for simple entertainment might only want to approach the film as a portrait of London in the swinging '60s, but for those who like a puzzle, Blow-Up will keep you busy for a long time.
But do not expect the commentary track to clear up any of the film's mysteries. Although Peter Brunette is a film professor and author of a book on Antonioni, he offers very little interpretation, no behind-the-scenes gossip, and even less on the career of Antonioni. In other words, this commentary is—certainly not intentionally—as full of empty spaces as the film. But Antonioni's empty spaces are always meaningful. Indeed, I have offered you more clues and possible angles of interpretation in this brief review than Brunette does in nearly two hours of talking. Brunette's refusal to offer any theories, even tentatively, only manages to suck the life out of Antonioni's masterpiece. Skip this commentary track at all costs.
Apart from the fact that Warner Bros. has packaged Blow-Up with what may be the single worst commentary track I have ever heard, I highly recommend this disc. Antonioni's film is one that you can return to again and again, discovering new clues even in the empty spaces. No director has mastered the use of visual space as successfully as Michelangelo Antonioni, and Blow-Up may ironically be his most accessible film for contemporary audiences.
Blow-Up is like a roll of Blue's photographs. The more he blows up each frame, the more he discovers. The more he discovers, the less he can be certain of. Clues contradict one another. Evidence vanishes. The emptiness of his desire, the chasm inside him, mirrors the abyss that stares back from his photographs. Do you still want to live in his world?
This court has no evidence to hold Mr. Antonioni. Anyone for tennis?
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary by Film Scholar Peter Brunette
Review content copyright © 2004 Mike Pinsky; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.