As beautiful and scandalously masterful as it is, nothing about Blow-Up will ever be able to trump the sheer bafflement of its existence. In the mid ’60s, at the height of all that was swinging and buoyant and laconic about the decade’s concept of effortless cool and before that cool would curdle into something nasty and paranoid by the late ’60s, someone thought Michelangelo Antonioni, a film director even more cruel and formally intellectual and difficult than Fellini or even Godard, should direct a chipper, sex bombshell of a motion picture. I have no idea what promoted this happenstance, although I assume the swinging ’60s were just so off-kilter, the drugs so hazy and befuddling, that a movie producer just heard about that Antonioni guy who made “modernist” films and said “yes him, we need him to direct our ode to all that is chic about the mid-’60s”. Needless to say, they probably didn’t get the film they were expecting, but it made a cool 20 million anyway (huge in those days), and the producers were probably happy in the end.
But yes, all of this did happen, and it was a huge commercial success despite the fact that Blow-Up is only ever so slightly diluted Antonioni at that. The film is supposedly although not really about fashion photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) who becomes obsessed with a murder he believes he captured on camera. Yet all of that is circumstance at best, Antonioni’s thriller masquerade to hide his real goal of lamenting human modernity. Blow-Up is precisely the film you might expect a chilly anti-genre filmmaker like Antonioni to make if given the money to make an urbane, sexy English language thriller. Which is to say, it is a film that indicts its audience at every turn and dedicates itself to a ruthless deconstruction of genre principles and the entirety of slick ’60s fashion and popular culture. A masterpiece, you might say, and the sort of masterpiece to cherish because, by all sane logic, a filmmaker as damaged and challenging as Michelangelo Antonioni ought to never have acquired the funding to produce a box office success like Blow-Up.
Truth be told, Antonioni is already up to his game in the opening credits, which depict a green foreground with the cast and crew names cut-out to reveal a suggestively catlike female dancing and shaking behind. Prowling and minx-like, surely, but the naughtiness is matched by the nastiness of the robotic, angular text and the disgustingly putrid green color chosen for the foreground card. The suggestive elements of the dancer are almost so obscure as to become abstract and non-recognizable as anything sexual, or even human. It is simply sensual because we, and audiences in 1966, knew that this sort of “sexy dancing women” opening credits was a cool thing to do (by 1966, Bond films had already been making a calling of objectifying women in the same manner for a few years already). Even in the opening credits, Antonioni is taking the new-found ubiquity of hyper-cool sexuality in cinema to task, begging comparisons for audience members who expect the “sexy new Vanessa Redgrave pic” and indulging them in their fantasies in the most warped, combative way possible. Antonioni cryptically forces those audience members to stare on hoping for dancing women in the opening credits, whilst twisting those credits until they are intentionally ugly and difficult.
He is punishing us for our desire to look, using the same “sexy women, but you can’t really fully see them” technique so popular in Bond films at the time but using that technique not to provoke but to leer at provocation. Here, in the opening credits, we see the fetal stages of all that will coax the film forward. We open on scenes of Thomas, our photographer, photographing a scantily clad woman, and for a good while, we continue to watch him photograph scantily clad women for art books, yet the tone of each scene lurches from lightly sultry to vaguely off-putting, well before the film is actively exploring the possibility of murder. Thomas brutishly walks up to models and throws their bodies about and places his crotch into their face if it will help him get that ever-important shot, coldly objectifying the women with businesslike candor and generally using them like his playthings for the sake of art. He is backed up by a crisply ascetic color scheme that hints toward pop-art flair but favors harsh monochromatic whites at the expense of bubbly reds and blues so well known in the era.
An early photo-shoot with women placed in front of and behind translucent walls propped up in the middle of the room takes time to coat the women in make-up that otherizes them, rendering them almost inhuman. The camera becomes a microscope and the room – a planar white hellscape – functions like a mechanical, personality-free laboratory of rigid geometry laid over the women, cutting into and dicing up the physiques of the women at every turn. Sexiness is being produced, in other words, and Antonioni could not more clearly implore us to know how artlessly choked and mercenary the production of sex in popular culture is.
This sequence, beginning roughly ten minutes into the film and continuing on for a good painful while, is the great summation of Antonioni in a film that may be his most combative viewing experience ever. The box-like white walls of the sequence trap everyone, both the women who are the subjects and the man (Thomas) who is photographing them, deconstructing them all as pop-art squares pass in front of them and behind them and abstract the people to bare geometry so that they don’t necessarily function as “human” anymore. The film’s obsession with art here becomes downright malcontent and abusive.
Even the murder plot, where David hopefully might allow his camera to do some moral good by finding a killer, is mostly a red herring. As with Antonioni’s L’Avventura, the thriller story is a ruse designed to draw us in with mystery (in L’Avventura it was the disappearance of the main character’s girlfriend) until we realize that Thomas, frankly, doesn’t much care about solving this mystery. The film is well over halfway in the grave before murder rears its head at all, and Thomas seems so disinterested throughout the rest of the film that he might as well be walking further beneath the tombstone. Immediately after discovering and desperately fawning over photographs he believes depict a gun, he abusively instigates a three-way tryst with two models as though the whole “potential murder” thing had never happened.
Blow-Up bears closer connection to another 1960 film besides Antonioni’s L’Avventura: Michael Powell’s Pepping Tom, itself an exercise in ghoulish color that curdles the “pop” in pop-art into something decidedly nastier. The films bear neighboring thematic undertones as well, exploring the gaze of art as a decidedly masculine gaze and exploring the various ways in which the camera reveals, bruises, transports, objectifies, distances, wearies, and even kills. The camera isn’t Antonioni’s sole object of critique, though. At one point The Yardbirds cameo, and Jeff Beck smashes his guitar into pieces with all animalistic diligence, depicting rock music like a cage match of the human id.
Antonioni is no curmudgeonly old soul blustering and barking to the new cats to leave their pop-art at home, however. His take is more nihilistic, more omnivorous; he debates with all art, old and new. At one point, he positions Thomas in a cluttered jungle-gym art shop and pays all due attention to the fact that the art seems only to wish to engulf him. In the end, if we assume the “artificial”, that is the camera and thus the idea of “art” implicitly, might become a tool to save the natural world of humanity by discovering a murder plot, all it ends up doing is serving as an agent of that human world’s bid for self-destruction. The camera doesn’t save the dead man’s life, and it can’t save Thomas.
It is absolutely the case that Blow-Up serves an important role in Hollywood history. Released in 1966, it was one of the final straws for the Old Hollywood style and represented a new flowering age of young upstart directors ready to liberate cinema from its often puritanical older demeanor. Yes, Blow-Up was the first mainstream English language film to show female pubic hair, and yes it did exacerbate the growing trend of freewheeling cinema that would soon enough lead to the creation of the MPAA so that cinema could be dressed up in all manner of violence and sexuality and still be released in the United States. But this ribald quality isn’t the heart of Blow-Up, not by a long shot. If this film “loosened” the mores of cinematic good taste, it did so to frighteningly eviscerate the morality of mainstream society, and all society. It does not celebrate violence, nor sexuality. It interrogates them.
Thomas, for his part, is never depicted as anything less than a glazed-over brute with no taste for human compassion, and Hemmings gives a wonderfully droll, bored, quintessentially British standoffish performance. So much so that we cannot tell if he is lecherous and carnal or under-sexed and anemic; when he converses with Vanessa Redgrave in his apartment (a scene which features an astonishing shot around a wooden plank that seems to pierce the frame) and asks her to model for him, we can’t tell if he actually has a sexual interest in her, if he is simply bored and socially confused, or if all women are avenue to assert dominance for him through his camera’s gaze. Slightly afterwards, Redgrave’s character (who Thomas films in the park, much to her chagrin, so she comes to get the pictures from him only to become involved in the plot) dances to a swinging new ’60s tune. Her jittery actions suggest an alien descended to Earth with no idea of how to react to music, but simply the suspicion that she ought to react somehow.
Here, and everywhere, Blow-Up invites the idea of freewheeling sexuality, only to deploy every trick in Antonioni’s book to pervert that idea beyond human recognition. It feels at once pre-sexual and post-sexual, pre-human and post-human, which is the quintessential Antonioni dichotomy, and the one that proves pre-and-post humanity are merely lexicons for interpreting humanity. They are avenues to understanding what it means for us to know each other in the first place. Antonioni might just be dispassionate, but for a director to so caustically debate humanity’s impulses, that director must have cared about humanity so much they just didn’t know how to cope with its failures as a species.
Care, I suspect, Antonioni does. He does try to save Thomas near the end, when Thomas finally sees an out for himself, finally sees an excuse to do some good by exposing the body’s whereabouts to someone. For all that Thomas initially doesn’t “act” to ensure justice is done, for all that Thomas doesn’t seem to care, the world, in the end, cares even less. In a late film scene, Thomas and a cluttered behemoth of a crowd witness a rock concert in banished silence, like mannequins in a microcosm of anonymity, only to erupt in bestial chaos as if for no reason. They exhibit bedlam and anarchy arbitrarily, as if on cue at the hands of some master planner rather than because they are genuinely feeling any human emotion. They act as if solely because Thomas needs to escape, and something needs to block him, as if the world, for no reason, is out to get him. Maybe Thomas doesn’t scream “murder” to anyone, and maybe this is a caustic reflection of his inner emptiness. But maybe, just maybe, it is because he knows the world isn’t going to listen. When Thomas does eventually act, perhaps thinking he will save his soul, he finds that the world has no soul left to give out.