Blowup: blown up out of proportion to actual charms

Michelangelo Antonioni, “Blowup”, Metro Goldwyn Mayer (1966)

I’d been warned by a friend that this movie was over-rated, and possibly “Blowup” is famous among a lot of people for the wrong reasons, but after seeing it for free at an art gallery, I find this is a clever murder-thriller with a dark message about Western society and its fetishisation of objects, technology, spectacle and popular fads. The movie is based on a short story by Argentine writer Julio Cortazar (1914 – 1984), one of my favourite writers who has a brief cameo in the movie as a homeless man in a photo; the story revolves around an amateur photographer who takes pictures of a woman and a teenage boy, and discovers the boy is being set up for something sinister. The man intervenes and rescues the boy but later when he develops the photos and relives the actions he took to save the boy, he ends up paying a huge price for committing himself … The story itself is narrated by the photographer himself or his camera, and perhaps both at once so it’s very hard to tell what actually happens to the photographer but the reader gets a sense of the photographer identifying so closely with his camera that human and object become as one.

In the movie itself, the now professional photographer (David Hemmings) takes photos of a woman (Vanessa Redgrave) and her much older lover in a park; as in the short story, Redgrave’s character demands the photographer hand over the film but he refuses. She then follows him to his studio but he tricks her into taking away a different can of film. He becomes curious and obsessively develops the pictures of the woman and her lover over and over, and discovers in the process an image of a murderer. In later developments of the photos, he also finds a dead body. By the time the photographer has done all this, the movie has already made clear he is an arrogant, self-absorbed and misogynist prick lacking in feeling for his fellow humans and bored with his current career, wanting to strike out in a more “serious” artistic direction, so it’s no surprise that he seeks to exploit the apparent murder to advance his reputation instead of calling the police. His self-seeking actions are thwarted though: his studio is raided and the prints stolen while he returns to the park to view the dead but curiously bloodless body of the woman’s lover. The photographer appeals to his publishing agent to come see the body but gets nowhere. The photographer visits the park a third time to discover that the body has gone.

In nearly every scene of “Blowup”, something is always lacking: nearly everyone we see in the movie, including the rock band (the Yardbirds) in the last half hour of the movie, is not named; the antiques shop lacks a cash register even though the female manager yaps about money and little else; the photographer buys a propeller but once he gets it home, he can’t do anything with it and can’t imagine what he can do with it; he straddles a writhing model while photographing her, ogles Redgrave’s character when she bares her breasts and romps around with two starry-eyed teenage girls but the scenes end up strangely asexual. Anything that hints at exchange, some kind of transaction that could lead to an ongoing relationship that involves emotion and feeling, is missing from these encounters.

One realises that the wider society really does share the photographer’s inner hollowness and quest for meaning as illustrated by the Yardbirds scene, where the young audience is drained of enthusiasm and life, at least until one of the guitarists (Jeff Beck) gets fed up with his non-performing instrument so he bashes and breaks it and throws the pieces at the audience who, vulture-like, swoop in to fight over the fragmented object. The photographer nicks the fretboard and the stock but once he races back out into the street, the items lose their symbolism for him and he tosses them onto the pavement. This particular scene itself has become an object of desire in media like due to the presence of four individuals in the scene (Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Michael Palin and Janet Street-Porter) who found fame and fortune years after the movie’s release; the significance of the scene itself, with Beck’s rage at his silent guitar and the audience mirroring perhaps the photographer’s frustration with his life, is lost with its removal from the movie’s context. Antonioni and Cortazar no doubt would be very amused.

The movie is deliberately unsettling and provocative in the way it contrasts the emptiness of materialism with the world of the intangible, the hidden symbolism, the context and inter-relatedness of things: so-called Swinging London of the late 1960’s is revealed as shallow, aimless, dreary, sometimes oppressive and dependent on contrasting itself with a traditional England (but not necessarily a nicer, kinder one); the main character tries hard but is simply unfit to investigate the murder of the woman’s lover, if indeed the fellow was killed, and what the woman’s role may be; and the plot that is the movie’s raison d’etre remains vague, open to interpretation and unresolved. There are many passages in the film where there is no dialogue or very minimal dialogue and the characters tend to talk at or over each other. Background scenery that includes long camera shots of greenery and historic English villages, city scenes of brutal modernist buildings and modish interiors anchor the movie in a definite historical period but because I was so absorbed in the photographer’s actions and the movie’s plot and themes, the movie didn’t seem very dated to me.

It may be that a murder has never occurred at all and the photographer comforts himself with this possibility. Or he comes to a realisation that there’s much more going in life than what he sees physically. David Hemmings puts in a credible performance as a character who may or may not have been changed by the events of a 24-hour period; appearing in nearly all scenes, he is the one constant who must hold the entire film together and to his credit, he keeps the viewer’s attention riveted to his unpleasant anti-hero’s character and actions.

Judging from my friend’s reaction and the comments left on about the Yardbirds scene, I see that not everyone who has seen the movie agrees with Antonioni’s aims or interprets them in the same way. The film’s plot can be so vague that you can read almost anything you want into it. Notions such as object worship, the search for hidden meaning, the contrast between modern materialism and older, supposedly more meaningful ways of being and living have been done to death and probably in more depth in literature and film, and Antonioni’s take on these subjects in “Blowup” could be construed as narrow and reactionary. It’s easy to come away with the impression that Antonioni disapproved of or didn’t understand 1960s youth culture and trends. I like the film but I think perhaps it’s not one of Antonioni’s better efforts.

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