August 14th, 2007
Blow-Up is Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s English-language film debut, and an icon of the Sixties.
The swinging ones, you know? London. Carnaby Street. Skinny models called Veruschka and Twiggy, in raccoon eye shadow. Mods and Rockers. The Yardbirds. The Who. (The Yardbirds and Veruschka are in this movie, along with Vanessa Redgrave.)
Antonioni died on July 30, the same day as Ingmar Bergman. To honour the occasion I revisited Blow-Up, which I had only seen once before. I saw it in a theatre on Yonge St. in Toronto, in 1967, when I was 9. (Just kidding! I was 18. I was looking to movies to show me how to live. I don’t think I got it from this movie.)
David Hemmings stars as a handsome, wealthy, misogynistic fashion photographer. The first half of the movie is about portraying his unpleasant personality. He is shown pouting around a shabby part of London in his Bentley convertible, mistreating shopkeepers, models, and model wannabes.
Once he announces that he has “had it with those bitches,” meaning women in general, and there is an unexplored gay sidestory - really only a hint - as he visits his friend, a male painter, and surprises us by addressing him respectfully. But this is sidetracked by a slightly more explicit motif of sexual attraction for the painter’s wife. (On second thought, I don’t think this is meant to be a gay subtheme. Rather it is meant to suggest that the two male artists naturally have mutual respect for each other. Women, on the other hand, are only useful as sex objects. It’s 60’s dinosaur thinking.)
But the fact that these themes are fragmentary and hard to understand is the essence of the movie. Everything here is surface, sentences are never finished, and nothing is explained. A glimpse is all you get of anything, and if you want to delve any deeper, to try and make sense of it, you will only be disappointed. It’s not cool to look beneath the surface.
The photographer becomes slightly more likeable in the second half, when he chucks the posturing in favour of a solitary photo ramble in a large downtown park. It’s fun to see him chasing pigeons and photographing them with a film camera, winding the film after every shot like you used to have to do. (He’s using a Nikon 35 mm SLR with a fixed-focal-length lens - zoom lenses weren’t common in 1966 - and naturally, it has manual focus.)
The photographer glimpses something that happens in the park, and the rest of the movie is about finding out what it is. All he has is dots on a film negative, but he sets about blowing up the print, larger and larger, until he finds evidence of a murder. This part of the film is well done, although it seems mundane now, in this age of CSI TV shows. But it started here.
Then what? Having glimpsed a terrible meaning in the dots, our hero cannot convince anyone else to believe him, or to care, or to do anything about it. Like him, everyone around him prefers the surface of life, and they live in a very cool world.
As an example, there is a strange scene of The Yardbirds, that seminal British rock band that featured both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, playing full-volume rock and roll to a room full of bemused, non-dancing, stoned-out hipster onlookers. Nobody is excited except the band, and even they are excited in a cool, sweaty, unsmiling, shades-wearing kind of way.
In the end nothing happens, but the theme of fragmentary meaning in things is reinforced in the final scene when a mime troupe plays a game of tennis without a ball. The photographer, watching, is persuaded to fetch the imaginary ball and toss it back onto the court, a scene that expresses something about meaning as a shared construct. If we all agree that there is something there, it will be there; but if we don’t see it, or don’t want to see it, it won’t be.
The idea that meaning is hidden in the dots of the photographic emulsion is echoed in the nature of the painter’s work, a kind of pointillism made up of dots of paint. This theme could be said to apply even more today, in a time when everything is made out of pixels. I like these ideas, but the movie takes way too long getting down to them.
The first half is too long, too nasty, too shallow and glittery, to be of much interest, except as a kind of lurid sixties travelogue; and the soundtrack by Herbie Hancock - soft, poppy organ jazz - isn’t much good either.
I don’t think this is a good movie, but it does have historic standing in Antionioni’s ouevre, and it shows that mythic swingin’ London. Do you want to see that? You might.
I do like the mimes, a kind of Felliniesque chorus of freaks, although most of the time when we catch sight of them they are about the noisiest mimes I’ve ever seen.
So, yes, I think you should see it if you haven’t. It has some interesting ideas about the nature of meaning, although it takes a long time to get to them. But it won’t teach you anything about how to live.