1966 // UK // Michelangelo Antonioni
Criterion Collection (LINK)
Abstracted Reality and Inconceivable World
It has been fifty years since Blow-up is released, even though the film’s impeccable art direction and the cultural phenomenon depicted encapsulate the moment of 60s swinging London perfectly, it still looks as refreshing now as it would have been in 1966. This contradictory statement is my way of interpretation of the abstracted reality filmed in Blow-up. What you think doesn’t necessarily add up to be what you see, hence the perception could be indifferent to the reality. The scene definitely looks like a 60s London in Blow-up, yet it is perceived as modernistic after explication of one’s mind. The reality can be elusive due to a subjective process on the input of the variable information, the information can be visual, audio, odour, maybe even as intangible as a sense of feeling. The resulted reading is the accumulation of yourself and the external world. Hence the same film could be read differently from individual to individual, or evoke different feelings when viewed at different period of your life. Blow-up could be a non-sense inconclusive rubbish to me if I watched it fifteen years ago when I’m a teenage indulging solely in Hollywood desensitising blockbusters. Instead, and thankfully, I encountered the films of Michelangelo Antonioni when I am ready and eager to explore the impossibility of cinema, the impossibility of telling a story but at the end actually telling nothing and beyond, L’Avventura (1960) and L’eclisse (1962) definitely meet up that requirement, and Blow-up is the most accessible among them all.
The central murder mystery (is it really a murder?) in Blow-up is more than a MacGuffin, it never resolves yet it serves more than a mere trigger of the plot. In a green-grass park of a peaceful afternoon, the restless photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) is inspired by a striding couple he meet by chance there and start to photograph them passionately at a distance. Soon the lady of the couple, named Jane (Vanessa Redgrave) in the credit, discovers him and rushes to stop him and asks for the film. Thomas refuses decisively, she helplessly goes back to the dating place but suddenly flees away hastily. A few moments later, Thomas spots a mysterious man trying to open the trunk of his black Rolls-Royce when he’s meeting his agent. Moreover, the mysterious lady shows up at the front door of his house, attempt to retrieve the film by seduction this time. Thomas gives her a fake roll of film at the end. Hereafter, the film takes a meticulous pace and detailed depiction on the investigative process on the developed films and the selectively blow-up pictures taken by Thomas on the couple. At first Thomas believes he saves the man’s life, but during a detour of sensual interplay with an interrupting pair of to-be-models, Thomas abruptly visualises the dots and blotches is a man with a gun hiding in the bushes and a dead body lying on the grass ground. Indeed he finds a dead man lying there that night when he returns to the scene of crime.
Until now the central plot is quite straightforward, yet the film goes on in an opposite direction of catching the killer or confronting the femme fatale one would normally expect in a murder thriller. Like the disappeared woman in the desolated island at the beginning of L’Avventura, nothing is resolved at the end. Woman is never found, killer is never caught. The stagnation is materialized as a search in London’s nightlife of Rock and Roll and junkies party. It ultimately ends with an imaginative mimic tennis play from a group of white masked students we saw at the opening scene of the film. Camera movement in both scenes, panning between the blown-up pictures during Thomas’s investigative process or following an invisible ball over the fence onto a grass playground during the mimic tennis play, is both suggestive and manipulative, it imposes the camera’s point of view on our perception. The former example induces an idea that two separate blown-up pictures are connected in a narrative way, a gun thus a body equals to a murder, that exemplifies the mortgage theory in movies. As Godard once said “cinema is truth twenty four frames-per-second”, but Godard leaves out the truth can be manipulated. Do you see any tennis ball in the ending scene? I don’t, yet besides the fantastic mimic ability of the actors, the camera and the reaction of Thomas certainly receive the unreal as the reality, so does we.
Indeed Blow-up is not a film of murder thriller, it’s about a photographer, or more precisely how he perceives the world. The film starts with Thomas leaving with a group of homeless men out of a gate. He just dressed up as one of them to take photos in the doss house for his upcoming photo book. He is tired and late for his studio photo taking with the model Veruschka (Veruschka von Lehndorff plays as herself) and a second session with a group of young models. Thomas is ennui and nihilistic, almost misogynistic towards women. His photo taking with Veruschka is resemble to a sex scene and highly erotic, let alone the threesome with the intruding pair of to-be-models (played by Jane Birkin as the blonde and Gillian Hills as the brunette) where the action of nearly raping is responded with playful giggling from the girls. Women seem to be shameless in Blow-up, submissive to men’s desire. These part of reality is “unreal” to Thomas who either responds passively into brutality or shows no interest at all. There is disconnection or, with the use of the often quoted words for describing Antonioni’s film, alienation in Thomas’s internal state of mind, as shown when he blankly witnesses his friend and neighbor Bill (John Castle) having sex with his wife Patricia (Sarah Miles).
Photography is his only way of perceiving the world, Thomas says his photo book will show much violence, that’s the reality he perceived, and that’s why the peaceful state of the pictures he took at the park of the mysterious couple is consequential to the final product. It counterbalances the unreal. When Thomas suspects a murder is recorded in the photos, he becomes passionate, it’s his idea of reality being formalised, yet it’s elusive and perhaps surrealistic too. After Thomas discovers the body, all of the developed photos and films are ransacked in his apartment, all except one blown-up blurred photo which is largely inconclusive by its own. The reality Thomas supposed to grasp is now eluded, his stoned argent is uninterested or unable to process his discovery (there’s a stoned woman in the same junkie party claims she is “now” in Paris, making the scene more eerie than ostensibly seen), and the only thing he get is the broken part of a guitar smashed by a guitarist (the Yardbirds is performing “Stroll On” on stage) out of a group of crazy fans which is soon to be thrown away by Thomas afterwards when it is conceived as merely a junk. Now even the dead body in the park is gone, or is it really there at the beginning? Is it “truer” than the mimic tennis play? At the end the figure of Thomas is dissolved into the grassland of the same park when the camera zoom out of him, he’s back to his disconnected reality, like the propeller he brought from an antique store, he is out of place from the world he perceived, he is there and he is not there.