Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni was an art house icon long before he began his English language debut, Blow-Up (1966). A former film journalist and documentary filmmaker, Antonioni had already created a distinct series of films in his native Italy dealing with subjects such as middle-class ennui, social alienation and dehumanization. By the time Blow-Up reached American shores in late 1966, Antonioni was being celebrated as one of the most influential auteurs of his generation.
A popular critical and commercial success, Blow-Up was almost immediately entangled in notoriety for its brazen depictions of casual sex, open marriage, flagrant drug use and explicit nudity. Certainly, the moralistic scandal surrounding the film enticed audiences, who made the film the highest grossing art-house film of its era. But it can also be argued that Antonioni had been fortunate to have had his film circulated during a significant midpoint in American socio-cultural history.
Released in-between the closing stages of the British Invasion and the popularization of the American counter-culture movement, Blow-Up was made available to an audience highly receptive to its charms. Set in Swinging London, Blow-Up starred David Hemmings as Thomas: a materialistic photographer whose affluent lifestyle was purportedly based upon the activities and mannerisms of famed British photographer David Bailey.
Bored, indulgent and impetuous, Thomas is perennially discontented with his life. One afternoon, following a visit to a disorderly antique shop, he decides to take a stroll in an eerily vacant park. There, he sees an adult couple wandering in the distance and decides to take a few random snapshots for the final pages of his latest book. Soon, Thomas is pursued by Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), the female half of the couple, who begs for him to return the photographs.
Upon doling out to Jane an empty roll of film, Thomas decides to investigate the photographs he took in the park in order to possibly discover why Jane wants them returned to her with such urgency. What Thomas unearths from the film's negatives is at the core of Antonioni’s existentialist inquiries into ideas of reality, image, attention and focus.
The perplexing riddle Thomas attempts to connect in his array of photographs acts as the film’s MacGuffin. The actual properties contained within the camera film are never concretely rationalized or afforded a logical conclusion. Yet, through Thomas’ search, Antonioni coolly manages to unlock a subversive and unorthodox reading of Swinging London: rejecting its fashionable, colorful imagery for something darker and less florid.
The Swinging London Antonioni found and recorded was one cluttered with shallowness, materialism and egotistical creatures. The vibrancy of the period transmitted in the films of Richard Lester is absent in Antonioni’s work. Antonioni’s London is soulless and decaying. The city’s older segments, surviving remnants of the Second World War, now reside alongside cold geometrical skyscrapers and office towers. In the narrow streets Thomas propels his sleek Rolls Royce convertible through, an aesthetic clash between Edwardian and Modern architecture is visible.
Unbeknownst to its residents, this frosty, newly constructed postwar London has unwittingly spawned Thomas and his kind: a fleet of unenthused and jaded people as spiritless and inexpressive as the rectangular buildings dotting the cityscape. Many of the young people Thomas meets throughout the film are like him: impulsive, acquisitive and bored.
There is the antique shop owner (Susan Broderick) who yearns to travel to Nepal or Morocco, because she is tired of being surrounding by the past. When Thomas informs her that Nepal is equally full of antiques, she appears nonplussed by his response; as though she barely understands the rationale behind her original decision. Escapist tendencies are also arrived at in the film through casual sex and open drug use, most notably in a line delivered by the Paris-bound model Verushka who insists “I am in Paris” at an affluent drug-filled party held in a fashionable London home.
Nihilistic and avaricious, Thomas rapaciously yearns to expand both his bank account and his personal collection of possessions. Thomas equates wealth with freedom and fails to understand those who do not share his appetites. Additionally, Thomas’ judgments are sporadic and hasty. He wants to purchase an antique shop, yet the geometrical interiors and self-conscious décor of his home studio appear to belie an interest in historic relics. He buys an airplane propeller, but has neither any use for it as an aesthetic object, nor seems interested in the item once it arrives at his front door. He eagerly tries to procure an unfinished painting from Bill (John Castle) a nearby abstract painter, only to be rebuffed. Upon leaving Bill’s cottage, he promptly loses all interest in the painting, which in its complexion curiously later mimics the increasingly pointillist images within Thomas' magnified photographs.
In congruence with the film’s other youthful characters, Thomas also lacks genuine purpose in his life. Throughout Blow-Up, he is constantly in motion: moving from one situation to the next, unable to focus on a single event. This aspect of Antonioni’s film is similar to his earlier work L’Avventura, in which a group of Italian socialites try to find a missing member of their party, only to lose interest in her disappearance. The photographs Thomas takes in the park provide him with his only genuine interaction with reality. But this too is fleeting. By the film’s finale Thomas is no longer concerned with the photographs, just as his miniscule attention span no longer remembers his momentary desires for Bill’s painting, the antique shop or the broken guitar neck he recovers from a Yardbirds concert.
Blow-Up is also notable for its interpretation of reality and illusion. Thomas is unquestionably a central figure in this matter, since his perception of reality is mostly filtered through the lenses of his camera. His photographs depict a staged reality, whether it is via models posing in modish attire or elderly men at the dosshouse. The actual reality Thomas encounters after analyzing the blown-up photographs is neither logical nor rational. Ultimately, Thomas sees what he wants to believe he has observed in the pictures taken at the park; in the same way the mimes at the end of Blow-Up believe they arewitnesses to a tennis ball being tossed in the air.
When Blow-Up was released in late December 1966, the film quickly became the personification of mod cool. Whereas in 1966, Hemmings’ Thomas was hip and fab, his protagonist now appears decidedly more cold, violent, distracted and superficial. A misogynistic streak is also more clearly attributable in his aggressive attitudes toward women, who he views as objects and sexual playthings. Hemmings also accorded Thomas with a lust for money and possessions more akin to Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko than the Flower Power children who would come to later define our collective consciousness of the Sixties.
Aside from Edward Bond’s overwhelmingly dated jargon, Blow-Up still retains a mysterious aura. Unquestionably, the film’s lasting mystique and power is mostly due to Antonioni’s intricate direction. It is Antonioni’s auteurist voice which shapes and guides Blow-Up more so than the film’s performances, Carlo di Palma’s cinematography, Herbie Hancock’s jazzy soundtrack or Frank Clarke’s editing. In doing so, Antonioni created a film, which today appears to be more a subversive and critical interpretation of Swinging London’s spiritual and moral decay than a celebration of its transient status as the Sixties' capital of cool. An influence on later films such as Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974) and Brian De Palma's Blow Out (1981), Antonioni's Blow-Up still remains one of the Sixties most perplexing creations.