50 Years Ago This Week – Antonioni’s Blow-Up
A major stepping stone on the road to the New Hollywood, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up opened in the U.S. on December 18, 1966. Antonioni was already a heroic figure to that younger, big-city, buzzing-with-excitement legion of avid filmgoers (and future film-makers)—the New Hollywood generation that had previously flocked to art-houses for screenings of his earlier masterpieces, including L'Avventura and La Notte. Blow-Up, Antonioni’s first film in English (shot in London and supported by an American studio), suggested a bridging of a gap between arty, cult-favorite foreign films and the prospect of ambitious but (somewhat more) commercially appealing home-grown productions. (A sensation, Blow-Up would be an important inspiration for the New Hollywood triumph The Conversation. The two films share numerous common elements, among them an intimate attention to their protagonists’ dedicated craftsmanship in reconstructing events, and a keen interest in exploring the relationship between perception and reality. Writer-director Francis Ford Coppola tips his hat to Antonioni’s film with the introduction of the mime that appears in the opening sequence of The Conversation.)
Blow-Up (about to receive its overdue Criterion treatment), gestured towards the direction of the New Hollywood in many ways—some obvious, some subtle but ultimately more profound. In the former (and then much-discussed) category, the film embraced new youth-oriented cultural trends with its portrayal of the “swinging-London” scene, an appearance by the Yardbirds (then with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page—Beck does a serious Pete Townsend job in trashing his guitar), and, most salaciously, glimpses of nudity that went beyond anything that had been previously revealed in a Hollywood movie. For those much-anticipated snippets (featuring Jane Birkin participating in a ménage), the wheezing Production Code Administration (Hollywood’s self-censorship outfit), then on its last legs, refused to give the film its seal of approval. Normally this would have killed the movie’s prospects for widespread distribution, but MGM decided to release it anyway, an unprecedented step for a major studio.
Of much greater interest (not that we didn’t enjoy the models), is the way that Blow-Up reflects the sensibilities that would be embraced by the just-around-the-corner New Hollywood. The plot sounds plausibly old school: a photographer, casually strolling in the park, takes some pictures that catch his fancy—but someone is desperate to get hold of his negatives, which, upon further inspection, may have inadvertently captured the commission of a high crime. A classical set-up, but the execution is entirely new wave: this is a film that raises more questions than answers, is devoid of anything that looks remotely like traditional movie heroism, and concludes with an open ending utterly disinterested in explaining what happened. Ultimately, what do we really know about Jane (Vanessa Redgrave)? Nothing. Is she an accomplice? Perhaps. Perhaps not. It depends on how you look at the (inconclusive) pictures. And as for our leading man, Thomas (David Hemmings), actually he doesn’t seem like a very nice fellow, an attribute certainly more New Hollywood than Old.
Although it may not provide answers, Blow-Up is alive with the possibilities of film. Three thrilling sequences demonstrate this most evidently, but the feeling is palpable throughout. As for those sequences: accounting for over a quarter of the film’s running time, they are (except for one isolated line) entirely without dialogue—wordless passages that amount to a clinic in visual storytelling (and you’re unlikely to even notice the silence if you weren’t thinking about it). Two of them occur in that park, first during the (possible) murder, and then at the end when steps are retraced in search of evidence that will never be found. And at the movie’s midpoint, there is the film’s centerpiece, a bravura twelve minute sequence, where Thomas, yes, blows up photograph after photograph, trying to piece together “what really happened,” imagining a possible narrative in his head. But what might have happened really depends on how you arrange and interpret the pictures. Which is another way of describing the movies.
Thomas (David Hemmings) Hard at Work
Jane (Vanessa Regrave) Pays A Visit. About that Camera . . .
Every Picture Tells a Story
Seraching for Answers