In 1978, Morris Lefko boasted to director James Toback that, as president of distribution at MGM, he had put “Blow-Up,” which he referred to in most unflattering terms, over on the American public. The blowhard gave himself 100% more credit than he deserved. It was no conniving ad man who sold Michelangelo Antonioni’s masterpiece to the American people. It was the critics who, through their perceptive and intriguing reviews of the movie, piqued the public’s interest in seeing it. Today, with fewer critics capable of discerning the good from the bad movies, let alone single out the occasional masterpiece, too many praiseworthy films go unheralded, leaving it to the Morris Lefko’s of this world to promote whatever garbage is in their outbox.
It has been 47 years since the critical arguments and interpretations of “Blow-up” began flowing off the newsprint into the cocktails at the cocktail parties, where people who had seen it more than once held forth with their own analysis and opinions. The arguments were already in progress as those leaving the theaters neared the exit doors, and continued through the night on the street, in bars, and in coffeehouses. People didn’t shy away from having opinions in those days, and disagreements about books, movies, and art were part of what made it fun to talk with other people.
Although today’s moviegoers may be more interested in discussing the pros and cons of filming in 3D versus adding the effects in post production than arguing whether the substance of hard reality is as suspect as the art that represents it, the issues that stimulated so much discussion in 1966 remain worthy of revival. Hopefully, those watching “Blow-up” today will find things in the film that were not apparent to those who saw it when it was first released.
David Hemmings plays Thomas, a photographer in mod London who makes his living as a fashion photographer, while his personal portfolio favors the easy realism of ordinary people. When we first see Thomas, he is pretending to be a real person, mingling with the working men on their walk to work. After getting his dose of weary reality, he ducks out of this drab scene amid the hoopla of extroverted mimes, and heads for the studio where he is awaited by the beautiful people. He is a man of coarse aesthetics, especially when composing sleek and vapid images for the glamour pages. He performs a faux seduction of his model, Verushka, a mockery of a woman with whom he climactically mimes erotic surfaces. Later, his vicious personality emerges while shooting a spread with multiple models in absurdly birdlike poses. The prettiness of these images is nullified not only by their pettiness, but the cruelty through which they were created.
For Antonioni, the modern artist is one who looks for meaning in an abstraction that is manifested unconsciously. “They don’t mean much when I do them. Afterwards I find something to hang onto. It’s like finding a clue in a detective story,” The crux of “Blow-up” is built around this statement made to Thomas by his artist friend Bill. It is this idea that compels him to search for the clues in the random photographs he later takes of a furtive couple having a romantic tryst in a public park.
When something catches Thomas’ attention, be it a woman or a propeller, he must possess it. Afterwards, he loses all interest, sometimes so much so that he neglects even to discard the unwanted object. None of this collecting gives him any real pleasure. In fact, he expresses no joy until he begins to follow and photograph the couple in the park. When the woman chases him and demands the roll of film, his joy increases.
His mania to photograph is the mania to possess what is too elusive to be acquired through purchasing, which is why he will not sell the roll of film to the woman at any price. Her desire for it gives it a greater value to himself, which may be why he is compelled to blow up and examine the pictures after developing them. Like his friend Bill, he is looking for something to hang onto, a clue in a detective story. He finds it when he interprets a shape in the picture as a dead body. He returns to the park and finds the dead body is in fact real. When he returns a second time, the body has disappeared. At the end of the film, he watches the mime troupe play a game of tennis with an imaginary ball. But the ball might be as real to them as the corpse was to him. And eventually, the ball becomes a real, tangible object to Thomas as well. In a world that does not confirm his illusion, he accepts the invitation to partake in an illusion by this group of people who are bound together by their agreement to support and to share the illusion.
Even more so than the art and illusion business, Antonioni is concerned in “Blow-Up” with the social organization of human types. His street scenes might be crossed by a group of anti-war demonstrators or African tourists in traditional garb. His interiors may be packed with zombie kids standing around listening to a rock band or stoner adults chitchatting at a cocktail party. Thomas believes he has discovered something important in his photograph, but who does he talk to when the world is half-asleep and unable to understand him? What is the burden of knowledge when the world is indifferent?
“I thought you were in Paris,” Thomas accusingly confronts Verushka when meeting her at a London party. “I am in Paris,” she replies. There is no point in continuing that conversation. Thomas asks one of his lovers if she will leave her boyfriend and she does little more than shrug. Who do you love when nobody cares with whom they make love?
Although Thomas spends much of his time driving alone through the streets of London, there are always females waiting for him whenever he happens to come home. When Jane (Vanessa Redgrave) comes by to retrieve the incriminating roll of film, she strips to the waist without explanation or enticement. Soon, Thomas is also shirtless, but nothing significant happens between them. As soon as she is whisked out the door, Thomas is in his darkroom blowing up the photographs. The blow-up sequence is interrupted for a nude frolic with a couple of teenagers who have dropped by in hopes of having their pictures taken. Again, what occurs in this threesome is absolutely pointless and, based on the little we are shown of their activity, possibly no more than childish shenanigans.
The sequence in which Thomas enlarges the suspicious details of his photographs is one of curious suspense. We share Thomas’ investigative tenacity in its examination of these blow-ups, although we are kept ignorant of what he is looking for in the pictures. Antonioni invites us to share an objective sense of excitement at the unraveling of a mystery of which we are not included. Seeing the film a second time, and knowing what it is that Thomas thinks he sees in the photograph, the sequence loses much of the suspense experienced during the first viewing. In its place emerges an identification with the photographer and a complicity in his exploration.
In “Blow-up,” the meaning of any work of art is something that only the artist himself can discover. The artist’s dilemma is that, even then, he cannot share this meaning with others. He is forever spewing abstractions that will remain meaningless to the rest of the work. As the world’s indifference becomes more complete, so does that world become more meaningless to him. In the end, Thomas knows that, however much he photographs them he will never become one with the working classes and the reality they represent. Instead, he will find his place with the clowns. Through such a transformation does art become entertainment, to be delivered into the mercantile hands of Morris Lefko and his ilk.