To some extent, it is widely believed that Blow-Up (1967) is a special film for Michelangelo Antonioni, since it’s his first international film and it’s also his most commercially successful one. Besides, it’s his rare film that doesn't focus on the experience of women, but on that of a male photographer named Thomas.
The film’s plot is about 24 hours in the life of a highly successful fashion photographer in London called Thomas. After spending a night in a flophouse where he has taken some photos for a book of art, he drives back and begins his work with the shoot with Veruschka. After this, he drives off to an antique shop. Wandering in the Maryon park, he accidentally meets two lovers and takes photos of them hanging around. However, the Girl is mad at Thomas’s behavior, demanding Thomas to hand over the negatives. When Thomas gets back to his studio and develops those films, he discovers something horrible and considers that there is a great chance that he has met with a murder. However, the fact gets more and more mysterious when Thomas tries to put all the evidence together.
Summarizing this film is never an easy task and interpreting it is even harder. Honestly speaking, the thematic preoccupations of the film are different from Antonioni’s previous films, even if it includes the old themes, such as the inability to communicate with others and the fragility of their feelings. However, this film strikes me with a radically new perspective towards the relationship between reality and illusion. Furthermore, as Antonioni has put, “I mistrust everything I see, which an image shows me, because I imagine what is beyond it. And what is beyond image cannot be known.” (Antonioni, from the “Introduction” to Technically Sweet)
As a consequence, the goal of this essay is to explore the new theme in Blow-Up. This essay will explore the insights of this film and how Antonioni expresses this theme by characters and plots.
Themes: continuation and development
Taken into consideration, the theme of Blow-Up (1967) is slightly different to some extent. In his previous films, mental isolation, distraction and the desire to flee away are the main themes.
First of all, the characters are mentally isolated from each other and unable to express what they feel. In L'eclisse (1962), the heroine Vittoria is likely to lose the ability to communicate with his ex-boyfriend Ricardo and his boyfriend Piero. When it comes to the stock market, Vittori describes it as an area of combat and cannot figure out the reason why so many people are crazy about it. After the question, Vittori kissed Piero with a window separated. Then Piero wants to get closer to her, and Vittori refuses. In a conversation, Piero expresses that he feels as if he was in a foreign country. Vittori thinks that she has the same feeling when she is with him. And then they are radically divided on the issue whether they should marry or not. Vittori is always suspicious of love and her relationship with Piero and is spiritually empty. Furthermore, everything seems to fail to satisfy her. She says,” Why do we ask so many questions? Two people shouldn’t know each other too well if they want to fall in love. But maybe they shouldn’t fall in love at all.” From their relationship and Vittori’s problem, there are misunderstandings between them. In the last five minutes, Antonioni gives up presenting the characters’ actions, but concentrates on the environmental objects, which are cold and ruthless. Finally, it is evident that this is a world that people cannot negotiate and their demands are never equal to others.
Blow-Up (1967) also conveys this theme deeply, people even cannot communicate with each other superficially, and there are so many barriers that they seem to forget what has been said instantly. In this film, the communication lacks the interaction and becomes useless. Particia, wife of Thomas’s neighbor Bill, comes into his studio as he found that his studio has been pillaged. While Thomas wants to talk about the murder, Particia seems not to hear what he said and carry on talking about the things worry her. The basic rule of communication no longer exists, since they cannot stick to either topic and they are so absorbed that they cannot respond to each other appropriately. When Particia comes in, she asks Thomas whether he is looking for something. Thomas skips this question, saying “Do you ever think of leaving him?” She replies she doesn’t think so, and Thomas says he has found a man killed in the morning. Particia puts up several questions to dig out the details of the murder. Thomas’s requests are ambiguous, saying “I don’t know, I didn’t see.” However, Particia ignores his own confusion, responding a rhetorical question with full suspect:” What do you mean? You didn’t see?”, and then she asks,” Shouldn’t you call the police?” Thomas points at the negative, saying” That’s the body.” Particia’s replies:” It looks like one of the Bill’s painting.”, which is a disappointment to him. After seconds of silence, Particia returns to her own trouble, asking him whether he could help her. “What is it?” Thomas asks. However, she wanders off the topic again and looks at the picture saying “I wonder why they shot him.”
Then distraction is also familiarly Antonionian. In Blow-Up (1967), when Thomas turns to Ron to look for some support, he goes into a club full of noise, and finds Ron is obsessed with cigarettes and several girls. After he manages to drag his focus, Thomas reports the murder. However, Ron is distracted by the girl, wine and cigarettes with Thomas’s sentences unfinished. Later, when Ron is reluctant to ask him what happened, Thomas just replies,” Nothing.” This scene represents the inability of his mod individual and the whole situation. He cannot escape getting stoned too, since he fails to photograph the corpse on his own ground.
The desire to flee away from the present situation is also familiar to Antonioni. In La Notte (1961), the heroine Lidia cannot find it boring to accompany his husband Giovanni to visit patient and show up in some events, she chooses to get away from it and wander around the blocks without any specific targets. And in Blow-Up (1967), from the model, the owner of the antique shop and the mimes to Thomas, they all look forward to getting rid of the present situation. Some of them want to go somewhere unfamiliar to them, for example, the owner of the antique shop has little interest in the shop, longing to get to Nepal. Others choose the more extreme way of treating the world with a playful attitude, such as the mimes.
Compared with his previous films, the old themes are carried on and further developed. In Blow-Up (1967), the communications have been useless, every character is preoccupied with their own trouble. And the distraction not only comes from the environment, but also from the bottom of their heart. The desire of flee away has been exaggerated, thus treating the world as is it were a joke. However, what Blow-Up express is more than these.
Characters: Thomas and the mimes, two sides of a coin
In the film, the protagonist is Thomas and the antagonists are the mimes. Their relationship is a paradox, which is like two sides of a coin. To put it another way, they both share some similarities and some differences.
From Thomas to the mimes, they are people without any exact history. The only thing we know about Thomas is that he is a fashion photographer, living in London. Personal relations are almost vanished. His wife or girlfriend never appears and we may not be so sure that she practically exists. And the mimes do not possess any names, not to mention other personal information. In the film, they are just some crazy young people who might celebrate the rag week.
And by ordinary standards, Thomas’s occupation can provoke some thoughts and seems symbolic. In Blow-Up, Thomas is foremost an artist, which means he usually gets his pictures mostly on esthetic grounds, not on the moral grounds. It can be concluded from the shoot of the couple without any permission and the refusal to hand over the negatives. Apart from that, Thomas’s reputation in fashion photographs makes him a figure of dignity, since there are groups of girls waiting for him to take photos for them. During the shoot, he knows exactly how to inspire the models to present their best performance even by a dominating way of sexual acts. Besides, he also calls the models “birds”. Judging by the standards of fashion photographer, he is attentive and professional. However, what he might not recognize is that spying on others and possessing the surface is the way that he exercises his rights or his functions as a photographer. In this way, he can be regarded as a pessimistic icon in the western world, for which his only connection with the reality is photographing surface. One notable scene is that when he takes photographs of the female model in black to get some erotic pictures, he adopts some sexual actions to keep the model high. But after the shoots, Thomas just walks away in spite of the model’s emotion. From this scene, we can conclude that what really counts for Thomas is to grab the surface, but not the sensual desire. Furthermore, he isn’t satisfied with just being a photographer and he is eager to become a philosopher. His interest in nature and truth is direct and enthusiastic, for which he believes that he can uncover the truth with his own camera. He is so arrogant that he refuses the Girl’s request and claims that it’s his job. Apart from that, he firmly holds the belief that he is able to have a grasp of the reality. After those blow-ups, Thomas assumes that there was a murder on that day. But what he gathers from the surface is beyond the truth greatly, and he is doomed to be confronted with the strike from the reality. Besides, as an artist, he is led to believe that he can achieve anything or see the reality with his camera, even the private use of a public matter, which results in the ignorance of people’s right. (Chatman, 1985)
The mimes are on the contrary to some extent. During the whole film, their faces are white and they appear to be crazy when they are shouting and running around the streets. At the end of the film, when Thomas is greatly depressed, they even play a tennis game with an imaginary ball. Contrary to Thomas, this group is a symbol of the doubt to reality. Their white faces are like fake masks and barriers against the reality. (Jinhua Dai, 1992) They are wild with joy as if they abandoned the real life. From their perspectives, even the surface is deceptive. Radically different from Thomas, they never believe they can grasp the reality, thus treating the world with a playing attitude and regarding the world as if it were imaginary. In this way, the mimes are on behalf of Antonioni’s thoughts about the links between reality and illusion. “This film, is like Zen, the moment you explain it, you betray it, I mean, a film you can explain in words, is not a real film.” (Antonioni, interview with Pierre Billard, 1967)
From the characterization, we can infer the master Antonioni’s thought in this film. A popular photographer or artist, who has always held a serious attitude to life and thinks he has got the ability to discover the reality with his camera. It has clearly suggested a fortiori argument: if the professional is unable to identify the meaning, the truth carefully, how about the ordinary people? And a group of mimes, who are unusual when compared with other people. In their eyes, the world seems to be unreliable and the surface is also deceptive. And the attitude they adopt is so cynical that they just play in this world assuming no liability and treat the world as if it never existed. In Antonioni’s directing, Thomas has presented an obvious contrary against the mimes. From their behaviors, the mimes stand for an attitude that we can never grasp the reality and the surface is deceptive, while Thomas thinks the narrative text he creates is exactly the reality, but the text is just a realism illusion. From this comparison between Thomas and mimes, Antonioni seems to suggest us that the reality is what we think is real and we are unable to totally know about it. As he has put it that “Reality escapes us, changes constantly, when we believe we have grasped it, the situation is already otherwise.” (Daniel Mario Lopez and Alberto Eduard Ojam, 1968, p.103)
Events: Blow-Ups, the narrative text
Except for the characters he put in Blow-Up, Antonioni also attaches great importance to the arrangements of the plots.
From the very beginning, we can infer that Thomas has spent a night in a flophouse photographing the living conditions and people there. During the lunch with his editor Ron, we can see life in the flophouse can be mostly reflected from Thomas’s photos. In these photos, they have some artistic merits indeed and there are someone smoking or sitting desperately. But when we think about this phenomenon carefully, we can easily find out the links between reality and illusion. Because all the photos are an esthetic vision of Thomas, but not a genuine social record. He takes these photos, because he thinks their contents are exact realities, which he never realizes is that these photos are the essence of his concept to flophouse. Apart from that, when Thomas engages himself in his fashion work, he appears very arrogant, and during the whole process the models try their best to attain his demands and please him. In other words, all the gestures and expressions are expected to live up to Thomas’s expectation. So the fashion photograph is also a reflection of Thomas’s esthetic vision. In these two events, the director Antonioni indeed has given us a hint that the theme of this film has something to do with the connection between art and illusion.
The most important event happens after Thomas goes into the park by accident. In this morning, he is confronted with a couple and he takes some photos. Refusing the Girl’s request to give back the negatives, Thomas develops the negatives, enlarge them and firmly holds the belief that he has found something horrible during the filming process, for which he has discovered something strange in the blow-ups of the negatives. In this way, the sequence of the blow-ups is of great significance.
In order to figure out why Thomas thinks that way, let us number the actual events during the blow-ups.
1. The couple are walking in the clear hand in hand. (Picture 1)
2. The couple are hugging. (Picture 2)
3. The Girl is looking at the other side with a panic expression. (Picture 3)
4. There is something like a gun holding out in the direction that the Girl looks at. (Picture 4)
5. The Girl is looking at the direction directly. (Picture 5)
6. They both observe that gun. The Girl is obviously in panic, and the man is pretending to be calm. (Picture 6)
7. The Girl is running towards Thomas. (Picture 7)
8. After the conversation with Thomas, she gets back to the clear. (Picture 8)
9. The man is dead, and the body is lying on the grass. (Picture 9)
In these photographs, we can easily find out that the crucial photographs are double blowups or even triple blowups, such as Picture 3, Picture 4 and Picture 9. In other words, the blowups are the details of the original negatives. During this time, Antonioni seems to arrange the enlargements coincide with the Thomas’s steps on purpose. What’s more, the movie camera presents the passion to discover the crime because Antonioni always moves it to close in on a photo. (Chatman, 1985, p.146) As a result, what we see and what Thomas implicates is enlarged by Antonioni. However, it first leads us to think the way what Thomas thinks and then it presents Thomas’s inability to do anything about it.
With these triple blowups, Thomas bravely infers that he has been confronted with a murder in that park, for which these details of photos consist of a brand new narrative text, such as the gun, the panic expression and the corpse. However, even he has seen the details of those photos, there is still something that he is unable to explain. Technically, the negatives are no longer clear, but filled with plenty of dots, which are like some abstract paintings. Even Particia thinks they look like Bill’s painting. They cannot be regarded as solid evidence.
And the process of blowing up is like a process of making up of stories or like media. In order to solve his puzzles, he tends to select the materials that can support his assumption, but ignoring other details. The things happening next deeply weaken his guess. At the moment he tries to call the Girl, he found the number wrong. When he goes back to the park again, he sees the corpse lying on the grass with his eyes. But he doesn’t bring his camera, which is unusual for him. After this, he runs in hurry to find his friend Ron to explain the whole things, but Ron does not pay much attention to it without a photo as the evidence. In this way, the belief has been conveyed to us that we live in a world that we just believe the solid evidence rather than the words by others. Having tried to communicate with Ron, Thomas returns to the park but the corpse is gone without a sign. What’s more, his studio has been destroyed, all the negatives are gone. At this time, reality escapes him, and even Thomas himself begins to suspect that the whole thing is like a nightmare.
From these events, this movie has already presented its modernism features. It is about agnosticism, which means the reality is far beyond our ability. And our subjective conjectures, cultural backgrounds and traditional customs can be constituted as the barriers against the reality. Then it is about a reflection on media, since it’s about the language and narrative, but it is also anti-language and anti-narrative.
At the end of the movie, when Thomas is depressed in the park, the mimes appear wildly again. What is beyond the imagination is that they start to play tennis without a visible ball. The mimes are so devoted that their eyes follow the tracks of the invisible ball, their heads keep swinging, and they cheer up without any sound. Full of suspect though, Thomas is gradually attracted by the strange tennis competition. When a “ball” flies away from the court, every mime looks at Thomas sincerely. It is like a request and an invitation to participate in this game. (Jinhua Dai, 1992) And it is more than a testimony about the power of illusion, which needs the Thomas’s participation to perfect this game. With Thomas, this game can finally amount to success, for which his joining means in this situation realism illusion become pale and reality is replaced by illusion. Thomas, though with some hesitation, finally gives in and runs to the place the mimes stare at, picks up the invisible ball and throws to the court. Up to now, we can still assume that Thomas deliberately regards the illusion as reality. However, after that, there is a high angle shot, presenting a pitch arc, which is Thomas’s angle of view of the flying “ball”. A mime steps forward and picks up the “ball”, expressing appreciation to Thomas. By this means, Antonioni presented the intersection between reality and illusion. Following a close shot of Thomas’s attentive expression, Antonioni presented some sound of tennis ball. And at last, Thomas disappears from the grassland. In this way, Antonioni pushed the agnosticism to the ultimate and the audience may begin to question the seen.
In this movie, the theme about agnosticism has been totally visualized, for which Antonioni has questioned the relationship between the “scene” and the “seen”. During the communication, “I saw a man killed this morning.”, but when it comes to “How did it happen?”, Thomas can only reply,” I don’t know, I didn’t see.” Based on the principle that seeing is believing, Thomas’s reply seems ridiculous. He has posed himself as a witness with these pictures, but he didn’t see anything with eyes. There are plenty of external conditions that make no references to a murder, such as the peaceful park, the gentle wind, and the joyful couple. So faced with Ron’s indifferent attitude, Thomas began to shake his belief too, answering “nothing”. Apart from that, Antonioni constructs a system that forms a sharp contrast visually. In Thomas’s space, black and white are the main colors, not only from his clothes, but also from his studio and his photos. As far as Thomas is concerned, the black-and-white film is his aesthetic way to treat the world. As for his darkroom, it mainly presents yellow inside with a red light outside. From my perspective, this red light stands for a warning and yellow always symbolizes as “fake” in western world. My supposition there is that something may get mysterious, which is not a good premonition anyway. Regarding to the external world, the colors are more plentiful, such as the green land. The plentiful colors are main factors that make the truth escape us, for which the peaceful green contributes to concealing the crime in the park. Though Thomas has recorded this murder that he has never seen, it still cannot be regarded as the reality.
In the west, the theme in Blow-Up is not unusual, for which it has conveyed the agnosticism and the reflection on media. For Antonioni, he continued to represent the old themes in his previous films, such as the inability to communicate with others, the distraction from the outer and inner, and the desire to get away from the present. Furthermore, he is desperate to express these themes more deeply and convey his thoughts about agnosticism. As an artist, the unique way to express the familiar themes in west has made him rise to fame. The symbolic characters, the use of the similarity between photograph and film, the events in blow-ups and the colors in sharp contrast all make the theme totally visualized. Antonioni is more than a rationalist, adopting a ruthless attitude towards the western civilization.
Seymour Chatman (1985). Antonioni, or the surface of the world, p151-152. University of California Press, Berkley, Los Angeles, London.
Pierre Billard (1967). Michelangelo Antonioni, Edited by Bert Cardullo, The University Press of Mississippi
Robert Bresson (1977), Notes on Cinematography (New York), p.41
Jinhua Dai (1995), Mirror and secular myths, Renmin University of China Press
Alison Ross (2008), The Aestheticization of Time and Experience in <The Passenger>, Edited by James Phillips, Cinematic thinking: Philosophical Approaches to the New Cinema, p.41, Stanford University Press.
Robert Garis, “Watching Antonioni,” Commentary43, no.4 (April 1967), p.88