Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Corp.; Metrocolor, 35mm; running time: 111 minutes; length: 9974 feet. Released December 1966, New York. Filmed during 1966 on location in London, and at MGM Studios, Boreham Wood.
Producer: Carlo Ponti; screenplay: Michelangelo Antonioni and Tonino Guerra, from a short story by Julio Cortazar; photography: Carlo di Palma; editor: Frank Clarke; sound: Robin Gregory; art director: Asheton Gorton; music: Herbie Hancock; costumes: Jocelyn Rickards; photographic murals: John Cowan.
Cast: David Hemmings ( Thomas, the photographer ); Vanessa Redgrave ( Jane ); Sarah Miles ( Patricia ); John Castle ( Bill ); Peter Bowles ( Ron ); Jane Birkin ( Blonde ); Gillian Hills ( Brunette ); Harry Hutchinson ( Old Man ); Verushka, Jill Kennington, Peggy Moffitt, Rosaleen Murray, Ann Norman, and Melanie Hampshire ( Models ); Julian Chagrin and Claude Chagrin ( The Tennis Players ).
Awards: Palme d'Or, Cannes Film Festival, 1967.
Antonioni, Michelangelo and Tonino Guerra, Blow-Up , Turin, 1968; New York, 1971.
Bernardini, Aldo, Michelangelo Antonioni de Gente del Po a "Blow-Up, " Milan, 1967.
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Boyum, Joy, and Adrienne Scott, Film as Film: Critical Responses to Film Art , Boston, 1971.
Huss, Roy, editor, Focus on "Blow-Up, " Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1971.
Bazin André, La Politique des auteurs: Entretiens avec Jean Renoir, etc. , Paris, 1972; revised edition, 1984.
Samuels, Charles Thomas, Encountering Directors , New York, 1972.
Goldman, Annie, Cinéma et société moderne , Paris, 1974.
Prats, A. J., The Autonomous Image: Cinematic Narration and Humanism , Lexington, Kentucky, 1981.
Rifkin, Ned, Antonioni's Visual Language , Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1982. Barthes, Roland, and others, Michelangelo Antonioni , Munich, 1984.
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Dervin, Daniel, Through a Freudian Lens Deeply: A Psychoanalysis of Cinema , Hillsdale, New Jersey, 1985.
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Perry, Ted, and Rene Prieto, Michelangelo Antonioni: A Guide to References and Resources , Boston, 1986.
Sarris, Andrew, in Village Voice (New York), 29 December 1966.
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Slover, George, " Blow-Up: Medium, Message and Make-Believe," in Massachusetts Review , Autumn 1968.
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Gow, Gordon, "Antonioni Men," in Films and Filming (London), June 1970.
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* * *
The plot of Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up is easily summarized. A photographer, Thomas (David Hemmings), chances upon a couple in a secluded park. From concealment, he photographs their apparently romantic playfulness. When the girl (Vanessa Redgrave) seeks him out and demands the negatives, he refuses. Provoked by her insistence, he later scrutinizes the photographs. As he successively enlarges selected areas of the shots (the blow-ups of the title), he discovers evidence that she has been complicit in the murder of the man with whom she was seen. Before Thomas can decide what to do with the documentation, his studio is vandalized and the photographs are taken.
A superficial mystery story, the plot is not what interests Antonioni in Blow-Up. His concern is directed toward the interplay among philosophical concepts of reality, illusion, and appearance that manifest themselves through metaphors of photography, painting, and pantomime. For Antonioni in Blow-Up , as in many of his other films (most notably L'avventura and The Passenger ), the narrative is a vehicle for the director's investigation of perception and interpretation.
London in the mid-1960s was the self-proclaimed capital of pop art; it boasted trends set by the Beatles, Twiggy, and Carnaby Street. It was chic, hip, and mod, filled with clashing colors and swinging youths. A technological advance in photographic equipment complemented this environment. Equipped with compact cameras that used faster film stock, photographers could snap their subjects rapidly and spontaneously. This liberation offered the photographer the potential of capturing life in its more candid and offhand aspects. The radical new concepts of photography that prevailed in the 1960s were thus characterized by an informal and unposed factual look at odds with the more obviously artificial photographic styles that had gone before.
Although the life-styles represented in Blow-Up may now seem dated, they did not, of course, account for Antonioni's attraction to the situation. In fashionable London, as recorded by the candid photography of the mid-1960s Antonioni found one of his most memorable metaphors. Blow-Up is a film about both a society decaying from within and a photograph's ability to record an instant of truth. Both of these factors affect the young and successful photographer who is at the center of both the film and his fashionable milieu.
The photographer, only rarely identified by name in the film, is uncommitted, hostile, indifferent. He is professionally successful and an expert photographer. He is in control of himself and situations only when he is armed with his camera; without it, he is at his weakest and most vulnerable. His uncertain sexuality is especially evident in the contemptuous manner in which he treats women, dominating and humiliating them while avoiding personal involvement. (The single exception to this is his non-sexual relationship with his neighbor's lover.) He is a model of duplicity: a voyeur, a deceiver, a performer. He is, for Antonioni, the Everyman of the disaffected generation: obsessed with surfaces, but blind to the inner value of people and deeper meaning of the events he so skillfully and energetically records with his camera.
The character of the photographer is of central interest to Antonioni in Blow-Up because it is Thomas's transformation that provides the essential meaning of the film. The ambiguities of reality, illusion, and appearance are ever-present but ignored by the photographer and his generation, and the photographer—against his will—is forced to confront this mystery, a mystery more perplexing and shattering than the murder he believes he has documented. The process by which the insulated self-confident, self-seeking, self-indulgent, self-absorbed photographer (so typical of his time) is changed by a set of circumstances he neither comprehends nor controls is examined by Antonioni with the skill and care of a surgeon. The photographer's casual assumptions are discredited and his values are toppled. He is a different person at the end of the film than he was at the beginning.
The photographer's transformation, in this ambiguous world where it is so difficult to distinguish reality from illusion, is realized through the act of seeing. In Blow-Up , seeing is explored on three levels; camera sight, revealed in photographs; imaginary sight, represented by paintings and the mime troupe; and ocular sight, which moves freely but uneasily between them. The concept of seeing is emphasized through a deemphasis of verbal expression. Blow-Up communicates on an almost completely visual level; nothing more than implied significance is verbalized. For such an obviously searching film, it is indeed unusual that there are no metaphysical discussions, no intimate exchanges, no analytical speculations. The dialogue track, divorced from the image track, exposes the extraneous or frivolous words that are used between the interacting participants.
This attention to the visual dimensions of perception underscores the subtext represented by the mime troupe. If words are indeed superficial to the photographer, they are totally superfluous to (and consequently discarded by) the mimes. The mimes are presented to us as a framing device—they open and close the film. At the beginning, they are seen gadding about the bustling streets panhandling; at the end, the same troupe engages in a mock tennis match. At the beginning, the photographer simply finds them a momentary amusement; by the ending, however, he actually shares their experience. It is, in fact, the mime troupe that serves as the spiritual barometer by which we measure the photographer's transformation. The act of miming is crucial for Antonioni and Blow-Up because it is the mime who brings our attention to objects by their absence. For the mime, the imaginary tennis ball is every bit as "real" as the evidential photograph is "illusory."
It is of course, significant that the tennis match takes place at the end. It is less a conclusion than a speculation. The photographer, an outer-directed man in the beginning, would never have retrieved the tennis ball and thrown it back at the outset of the film. He is only able to perform this act of assistance to the players because of what has happened to him in the interim. However, Antonioni does not have him abandon his camera as he fetches the ball; rather, he carries it with him. What the photographer has learned is that the camera and the tennis ball can (and do) exist in the same plane of perception—reality, illusion and appearance do not fall into neat and convenient categories.
The rejection of categories is given the final placement in Blow-Up. The blow-ups of the murder incident are visually related by Antonioni to the abstract design of his neighbor's paintings—the grain of the photographic enlargements bear an uncanny resemblance to the color dots on the painter's canvas. Antonioni underscores this motif when, in the film's final shot, the photographer is left as isolated and indistinct as the microcosmic emulsion grains he has enlarged. Antonioni masterfully frames him in the composition of this shot to resemble a visual element in one of his own blow-ups.
As a consequence of his spiritual awakening, the photographer is a different person. His slumbering world of possessions and exploitations have been dislodged. By the film's final shot, he is awake to the dualities and complexities of life, and, ironically, that wakefulness isolates him. He can no longer return to the blind-sighted comfort of his complacent and gluttonous life; he can no longer use his camera or look at photographs in quite the same way as before.
—Stephen E. Bowles
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