Blowup is a film about the illusion of reality and the reality of illusion. It’s a film that circles on itself, spiraling towards a bull’s eye of life’s contradictions. It’s a maze whose walls are lined with mirrors – flashing scenes of beauty and gritty reality in equal proportions. Its central story is about a journey continually interrupted, an odyssey with the protagonist’s pursuits constantly distracted or detoured. There are no easy answers in Antonioni’s Blowup, it’s like the pursuit of life itself – the blown-up life of modern society.
This post was first written for the centennial of Antonioni’s birth in 2012. .
Blowup is a story that could only have been told on film. Perhaps it’s one of those “the medium is the message” phenomena, or it’s just that the story could only be told through the various arts combined in film. It was Michelangelo Antonioni’s creation, who wrote the screenplay, inspired by a short story from Julio Cortazar, and directed it in the swinging London of 1966. It portrays the flashy but empty life of a celebrity fashion photographer who views life through a lens and then follows the lens down a rabbit hole. Thomas, the photographer, is loosely based on photographers David Bailey and John Cowan, and who also has elements of Avedon in respect to that photographer’s later fascination with shooting gritty reality photos completely opposed to his beautiful fashion photography. The film opens with a scene depicting one of its several displays of contradiction, wherein the noisiest element in a modern urban setting is a jeep-load of mimes, carousing through London. A quick cut then shows Thomas exiting a doss-house (flophouse) along with a line of down-and-out men. He’s dressed in torn clothes and unshaven. He walks down a street and gets into his convertible Rolls-Royce. As he drives off he’s later stopped by the mimes, then drives away. Contradictory visual images confront us on the street: two black nuns in white habits, and a Royal Guardsman guarding nothing.
He then drives to his studio where the impatient model Verushka waits for him. They have a frenetic photo shoot which is a small masterpiece of cinema. The final shoot, where he straddles her, is like sex with a camera, the lens a phallic symbol of his power. He climaxes by getting all the shots he needs, quickly getting up and flopping on the couch, Verushka is left on the floor, unfulfilled and wanting more. It is apparent that in this sexually liberated film sex for Thomas has been sublimated. In the next scene he shoots five models in mod clothes, barking orders at them but clearly unengaged. One of the models is played by the iconic Peggy Moffitt. As he’s about to leave the studio two young aspiring models barge in wanting their photos taken. Thomas tells them he has no time for them. One is played by Jane Birkin, future wife of French singer Serge Gainsbourgh, the duo that recorded the scandalous erotic hit song, Je t’aime.
Thomas seems to have it all. He has piercing blue eyes and the profile of Michelangelo’s David. Women and beautiful models flock to him. He drives a Rolls Royce and comes and goes as he pleases. He’s handsome and cool. He listens to Herbie Hancock, whose soundtrack infuses the film.Yet he seems alienated from life, a searcher seeking something that he knows not what.
Thomas visits the flat next door, where his artist friend Billy is painting a canvas, and lives with his wife played by Sarah Miles. She and Thomas share an intimate past, but the nature of their relationship is not divulged. In one of the purest statements made about art in film, the artist says to Thomas, as they look at his painting, “They don’t mean anything when I do them. Afterwards, I find something to hang onto. Like that leg,” he points to his canvas, painted in a half-pointillist-half cubist style, the leg barely discernible. “Then it sorts itself out. It’s like finding a clue in a detective novel.” And thus said, the key to the whole movie is pointed out: art is a stand-in for life, yet life intrudes on the creation of art.
Thomas drives away from the studio to visit an antique shop he wants to buy. He drives through a part of London where old buildings are being demolished to make room for new condominiums, an alienating landscape. He calls the store a “junk shop” but he clearly likes antiques as objects of beauty. The grumpy old attendant at the antique store is unwilling to sell him anything, so Thomas will wait for the owner to arrive – another contradiction as she is a pretty 20-something in a short skirt. The park across the way looks inviting, an oasis of green that beckons him. He walks in and immediately his spirits lift. He snaps photos, frolics with birds, and skips up the stairs. The only sound is the rustling of tree leaves in the wind, a strong and recurrent element in the park scenes. He views a couple in tender play and embraces, she is young and beautiful, he is older and looks like a successful businessman or politician. Thomas begins photographing them. He hops over the fence to hide in the bushes so he can keep shooting unobserved. This “shooting” behind the bushes serves as a dual image for that of a gunman, who is also similarly hidden behind the bushes. Thomas continues photographing them from behind a tree.
Thomas is finally seen, and is chased down by the woman, played by Vanessa Redgrave. She is very upset and wants the film, hinting by her nervous behaviour the clandestine nature of the lovers’ meeting. “This is a public place and everyone has a right to be left in peace,” she tells him. “I’m a photographer,” he tells her (meaning he is an artist, creating art – this is not about life). “It’s not my fault if there’s no peace.” She gets nowhere with Thomas, who also wants the photos for a book he is doing. She goes back to find her lover, and not seeing him, quickly looks behind a tree, then runs off. Thomas goes back to the “junk shop,”, and impulsively buys an old wooden airplane propeller, perhaps a symbol of escape, that will later be delivered to his studio.
Then Thomas meets his publisher for lunch, and shows him his portfolio of doss-house inhabitants, along with other gritty realism shots of butchers and homeless people, all for his book. He’s excited about the photos he’s taken in the park. As additions to his book he says they are “peaceful” compared to the “violent” ones they are looking at. Thomas adds, “I wish I had tons of money, then I’d be free.” “Free like him,” his publisher says, looking at a photo of a homeless man.” Thomas rushes out when he sees someone snooping on him and his car. That character is never defined, although there was commentary, made years later, that this was the role of Vanessa Redgrave’s young lover who commits the murder, and some scenes that were edited out of the film. Thomas drives off, going through a peace rally. The protesters’ home-made placards carry typical slogans – though some are more interesting when you read them from their back-side.
Jane, played by Vanessa Redgrave, has tracked him to his studio. She asks for the negatives, while he invents stories about himself. He plays jazz, teaching her about the upbeat, and they share what is likely a marijuana cigarette. He gives her a fake roll of his film, and she takes off her top. Just as they are about to get intimate they are interrupted by deliverers arriving with the propeller, which Thomas now finds to be a nuisance. He then finds her standing beside the long rolls of suspended backdrop paper. When he spreads open one of these , she appears wedged between two sheets, an allusion to the work of photographer Irving Penn and his famous “corner” photographs. She leaves thinking she has the correct roll of film.
Aftertwo interruptions, Thomas now begins developing his film. He pins up one after the other to his wall. He then storyboards all his prints, as would a film director, to make sense of the story. Thomas here is trying to use a technique of art to explain life. While looking at them he follows the woman’s gaze to a spot in the bushes. These sequences are wordless and without music, yet tense from Thomas’s efforts of trying to uncover a mystery. He is more excited in this process than he has been in anything else he’s done. Antonioni’s technique of almost soundless action is very absorbing. We are so accustomed to a musical score telling us how to feel in a movie that here we are left to concentrate on the action directly in view, looking for absent cues and forced to draw our own impressions.
In the photos Thomas is shocked to see a hand holding a gun hidden in the bushes, and realizes he’s just saved a man’s life. He is lost in thought about what could have happened, but then his door bell rings.
Again Thomas is interrupted, this time by the same two “birds” that want to be models. The end result is a free-for-all, with tearing off clothes and carousing on the floor. Whether there was sex involved is left to the imagination, but the girls were nude. Near the end of this frolic, Thomas looks back at his park photos and gets re-absorbed, telling the girls to leave. He blows-up more photos and is shocked to see a body. He blows up the photo again until the body is just a pixilated image of light on dark, completely indecipherable. His intial use of art to explain what has happend in life has resulted in a blur.
But the image leaves little doubt in his mind that the man he saw with the woman has been shot and killed. He rushes back to the park to find out – to confirm in life what happened, only to find that life has been lost in this scene. It is night, but the body is still there behind a tree. He touches it to be completely sure it is not just his imagination. He tries phoning Jane to talk to her about what happened but she left him the wrong number. He realizes that he never saved the man. And the idyllic park, the “peaceful” park, is where a murder has just taken place. He realizes that this seeming oasis is as bad as the rest of the urban chaos. Thomas returns dejectedly to his studio, where all his belongings have been ransacked and his photos have disappeared. He finds just one photo left, the pixilated, indecipherable image of the “corpse,” which could just as well be a photo of anything. When Patricia, played by Sarah Miles, comes in, he tells her, “I saw a man killed this morning.’ She asks how it happened. Thomas says, “I don’t know, I didn’t see.” Indeed, he was photographing the event instead of experiencing it. When he shows her the remaining photo she says, “It looks like one of Bill’s paintings.” Reality and illusion have traded places.
Thomas drives off. He sees Jane in a line in front of a store window. When he looks again she has disappeared completely from the shot. He goes around the back alley looking for her and enters a night club. Here the Yardbirds, including Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, are playing the rockin’ Stroll On to an audience that appears comatose. This visual contradiction is another of Antonioni’s tricks – the contradiction of a lifeless audience during a blazing rock performance. Thomas searches for Jane. On stage, Jeff Beck destroys his guitar and throws the neck out to the audience, which only then goes wild and scrambles to get the guitar neck. Thomas grabs it and fights off the crowd to keep it. He runs out of the building, only to throw the guitar neck on the sidewalk as he leaves. He had been searching for the etheral Jane, and was only interested in the experience of claiming the guitar neck in a struggle, and latching on to something. He seems always able to possess material things while people and relationships evade him.
His interrupted odyssey continues. He goes to his publisher’s house where a party full of young hipsters drink and smoke pot. His publisher Ron is high too, but Thomas tries to convince him to go to the park to see the corpse. “We have to go to the park and get a shot of it,” Thomas says. “I’m not a photographer,” Ron answers. ” I am,” Thomas says. They enter the room where the pot is being smoked. In the next shot Thomas wakes up in that room, but the house is completely deserted, everyone here too has disappeared. He leaves and gets his camera to return to the park. But the corpse has disappeared – both reality and illusion (and art) have escaped. The leaves rustling in the wind are the only sounds to be heard.
As Thomas walks through the park, the jeep-full of mimes roar back into view, coming full circle from the beginning of the film. Two of them begin playing a game of tennis, with make-believe rackets and an imaginary ball. They bring with them both their contradictory images and their illusory reality
When the imaginary ball goes over the fence they look over at him to fetch it. He buys into the illusory reality, and he runs through the grass to fetch the imaginary ball, which he then throws back. His smile slowly disappears and he looks forlornly at the grass, as if realizing the emptiness and illusory nature of his life and his own experiences. The shot of Thomas recedes into a wide-screen shot of grass, in the opposite process of a blow-up, but just like the corpse, he disappears from the screen. Was he too an illusion? Or was he just the creation of a film director that put him in the picture and just as easily cut him out. Perhaps it’s like the painting by Magritte,The Treachury of Images where the illusion has become the reality, but the reality is really an illusion.
I first saw Blowup in France during the summer of 1967 after graduating from high school. It left an indelible impression on me. Though the film has several sequences in which there were no words spoken, nor any music played, it’s the sounds of the movie that keep ringing in my head. I still hear the locomotive sounds of the Yardbirds playing Stroll On, and whenever I hear leaves rustling in the wind I think of Maryon park as filmed in Blowup. The film has been considered a masterpiece, or a complete enigma, and criticized for its affected artiness, or its obtuse plot. Alfred Hitchcock stated in 1978 that he thought Antonioni and Fellini , “…are a hundred years ahead of us,” and that Blow-up and 81/2 are bloody masterpieces.” To me it captured the era perfectly, much more so than many of the notable “outsider” films of the late 60s.
Antonioni did not believe in delivering a pat story with a happy ending in his films. And with Blowup, the movie is like an onion that you peel back its many layers of meaning. In an interview with Roger Ebert he said, “I never discuss the plots of my film.” “How could I? Until the film is edited, I have no idea myself what it will be about.” He also went on to say,”I depart from the script constantly, I may film scenes I had no intention of filming; things suggest themselves on location, and we improvise. I try not to think about it too much. Then, in the cutting room, I take the film and start to put it together, and only then do I begin to get an idea of what it is about.” This was indeed the process by which Thomas tried to make sense of the killing in the park. Regardless of his technique, Antonioni was an artist, and the statement made by the painter Billy in Blowup applies well to Antonioni. For his artistic elements he looks for color to use in his shots, whether natural or applied, and he painted entire buildings bright colors just for a certain look in his scenes. He also looked for angles and interesting composition elements to add to his frame. Contradictory visual cues infuse this film. In Blowup, Antonioni frequently used mirrors and reflective surfaces to add a multi-dimensionality (or etherealness) to his characters and their settings. Antonioni also stated that, “I think the theme of most of my characters is loneliness,” and that “…they find little to sustain them. They are looking for a home.” For all the external success of Thomas in Blowup, a good-looking guy in the swinging London of the 1960s,he was basically unhappy with his life and his surroundings. He was like Odysseus on his episodic journey home. The late David Hemmings said at that time that Antonioni got it right, “…that is the sort of life we live today in London. We are all available to whatever happens to come along. We do not exercise choice in our lives.”
The film is filled with the Mod clothes of mid-60s London. The models in the early scene wore exaggerated versions of Mod outfits, a common slant for runway or editorial purposes. It is especially interesting to compare the Mod clothes of the young people shown with that of the older Londoners that walk the streets. The line between Mod and not was very clear. David Hemmings’ garments were simple, and since the entire film took place over 24 hours, he only had two costume changes. Still his clothes were distinctive and showed him to be of the creative world vs. business: white denim pants, a wide black belt and black low-rise boots, a checked blue long sleeve shirt, which he wears without a t-shirt, and a dark forest green blazer. The model Verushka wears the most striking outfits: the opener in a sequined loose flowing but short gown open at the sides; and at the party a snakeskin and lozenge-patterned pants-suit with high suede boots. No costume design credit is given in the film, although Rebecca Breed is credited as wardrobe supervisor. As such it’s likely the clothes were off the rack, and with the Mod-look garments to be found in London in this early film, that was probably a good choice.
As an 18 year old, transitioning from high school to college, uncertain about life and what it would bring, seeing Blowup was revelatory, even for a self-styled hip kid like me from the swinging L.A. of the 60s. But if even a successful bloke like Thomas was lost, he who had everything I could have wanted, what chance did I have? And yet there was always the music ringing in my head, the music of the Yardbirds playing Stroll On.