Today’s cinema adventure: Blowup, the 1966 feature by Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni; an existential mystery set against the backdrop of “Swinging London’s” hip fashion-and-art scene. Concerning a successful young photographer who begins to suspect he has inadvertently captured images of someone being murdered in a park, the film is really an exploration of alienation and desensitization in a culture obsessed with image and surface, as well as a meditation on the deceptive nature of perception and the uncertain boundary between illusion and reality. Setting up his theme from the very first scene, in which a truckload of exuberant mimes careens into a London plaza, Antonioni proceeds to perpetrate a cinematic sleight-of-hand by luring our focus onto the ostensible subject- a callous youth, played by unlikely leading man David Hemmings, and the intrigue into which he stumbles- while using the surrounding environment to convey the real purpose of the movie. As surely as the significance of his leading character’s photos lies in the grainy, uncertain corners of their background, the real mystery of Antonioni’s film reveals itself through examination of the peripheral details of its central plot.
The action of Blowup takes place in a world full of vapid fashion models and disaffected posers, communicating in brief, distracted ambiguities and seemingly trying to appear as disinterested as possible at all times. It’s a place dominated by a game in which style is substance, and the master of this game is the photographer, Thomas. As a creator of image, he is at the center of the “in” crowd, and he flaunts the power granted him by his status; surly, entitled, smugly insolent, he treats everyone as an object or as a means to an end, striding confidently through his day and seeking relief for his terminal ennui from momentary whims- whether buying a propeller from an antique shop, having a naked romp with a pair of underage would-be models, or clamoring for a scrap of a rocker’s smashed guitar at a concert- and then becoming disenchanted as soon as he achieves his fleeting gratification. He is a reflection of the culture of desire and acquisition that surrounds him, completely disconnected from others and encased in a self-absorbed bubble of over-saturated perception; and when reality asserts itself in the form of his unwitting involvement in the enigmatic experience at the park, he is completely unprepared and ill-equipped for the situation, failing to control it with his usual tactics and unable or unwilling to communicate it to any of the emotionally distant friends or vaguely hostile strangers he encounters.
It would be easy to slide into a complex morass of analysis in discussing Blowup. It is a deceptively simple film that opens up into an unending progression of dovetailed themes and implications upon even the most superficial examination. Suffice to say that in his portrayal of this ultra-specific time and place, Antonioni captures timeless issues that affect the society of popular culture and commerce no matter what the details of their outer trappings; and in Thomas’ obsessive quest to determine the truth about what he has seen, enlarging his photos until they become as abstract as a Rorschach ink blot, he illustrates the impossibility of objective certainty and suggests that the difference between truth and illusion exists only within our highly suggestible perceptions. Ultimately, all that can definitively be said about Blowup is that it is about a man who, for a short time, at least, pays attention to something.
More to the purpose, here, is a discussion of the artistry involved in bringing all these heady concepts to the screen. Director Antonioni, already renowned for his work in Italian cinema with films like L’Avventura and La notte, enlisted the help of noted playwright Edward Bond in writing the dialogue for this, his first film in English. The resultant wordplay is a brilliant reflection of the themes explored within the screenplay (which Antonioni co-wrote with Tonino Guerra); the characters speak in terse banalities, expressing half-truths and absurdities which stand in contrast to their actions and fail to convey their true intentions- almost everything they say represents a pose, an image they wish to present, and when they must try to convey something more direct or meaningful, more often than not they collapse into an inarticulate and incomplete breakdown of communication. Yet every exchange reinforces the film’s central ideas, from the first line (one of the mimes telling a bystander, “Give me your money- do it!”) to the inscrutable response of top model Verushka when asked if she is supposed to be in Paris (“I am in Paris”). The actors contributions serve as varied brushstrokes on Antonioni’s canvas, creating the necessary blend of textures which completes the picture. Vanessa Redgrave is the mysterious woman whose secret dalliance in the park may or may not have more sinister implications; tall, bird-like, and awkwardly elegant, she superbly conveys a desperation which continually threatens to crack the mandatory veneer of cool disinterest, and gives us a character whose determination and intelligence are plainly evident (though Thomas, her circumstantial antagonist, can only see the vulnerability of her surface) and she suggests a connection to the machinations of a larger world that exists outside the insulated niche in which the film is set- one in which things actually matter. In smaller but no less important roles are Sarah Miles and John Castle, as Thomas’ married friends; standing in for the masses whose interests are captured by those who put on the show, she shows us (with minimal dialogue) the timidity and guilty fascination of someone drawn to the shallow flash represented by Thomas over the weightier substance of her painter husband; and he embodies an obtuse, intellectual aloofness that makes him simultaneously attractive and repellant. The aforementioned Verushka makes an unforgettable impression (as herself) in the iconic scene in which she is photographed by Thomas, writhing on the floor as he straddles her in a highly sexualized encounter which underlines the replacement of actual experience with the artificiality of image. As Thomas, our photographer “hero,” the previously unknown Hemmings became a major star and a symbol of the mid-sixties “mod” lifestyle; his performance, while necessarily limited in range by the scope of his character, is perfect for its purpose within Antonioni’s vision. Though Thomas is arrogant, unpleasant and shallow, Hemmings somehow manages to make him likeable in spite of these qualities, showing us the giddy and rambunctious child beneath his ultra-cool mask in the moments when he is alone, and allowing us to be comfortable when we are forced by Antonioni’s focus to identify with him.
The star of Blowup, though, is the cinematic auteur behind the camera. The film is almost certainly Antonioni’s masterpiece, a vibrant, stimulating work of art that delivers brilliantly both on the surface and on a deeper intellectual level; the entire film leaves the impression of a stunning visual experience, yet though it is filled with indelible images created by the director’s masterful eye for composition (and captured by cinematographer Carlo di Palma), the grand picture we are left with is a synthesis of all we have seen- an intangible and non-existent zephyr. Much of the film’s powerful cumulative effect comes from Antonioni’s use of contrasts- between speeds, colors, textures, people- and his knack for portraying mundane, everyday occurrences in a manner and context that makes them seem hallucinatory and surreal. His use of sound is also important; in particular, the haunting sound of the wind in the trees during the all-important park sequences suggests the vastness and the irresistible force of the ultimate reality which surrounds all the meaningless illusion with which his film’s denizens are preoccupied. His musical choices play a big part, too: the jazzy score by Herbie Hancock captures the hurky-jerky energy of the fast-paced culture in which he has immersed us, and an underlying zeitgeist is evoked by the raw and angrily frustrated sound of The Yardbirds as they play for a seemingly unimpressed crowd of club-goers in their now-famous cameo scene.
Watching Blowup today, it’s easy to see why it has been lauded as an influential classic and been the subject of so much homage and emulation. It captures a perfect snapshot of the fleeting era in which it is set, yet at the same time presents us with a timeless metaphor for our existence in a world of never-ending sensory stimulation. Though the technological methods depicted as central to the story are dated in today’s digital age- in which high-resolution photographic manipulation is instantly available in the palm of everyone’s hand- the basic theme of seeking validation for our perceptual experience is not. Furthermore, it is impossible not to observe the parallels between the pop-obsessed society depicted in the film and that which exists today: in his personification of the mod dilettante at the center of Blowup, Hemmings could just as easily be portraying (if you’ll pardon the expression) the archetypal hipster douche-bag of our contemporary world; and the crowd that surrounds him, the clubs and parties he goes to, and the interests he pursues could all be found on any Saturday-night excursion into the hip-and-happening world of our current youth culture. It’s a movie that became, no doubt with intentional irony, the “next big thing” perpetually sought by the crowd it both portrayed and appealed to; thanks to the far-reaching vision of its director, it was more than that, and it has deservedly become a cornerstone not only of cinema, but in the collective consciousness of our modern world.