Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni was much admired during my childhood, before I had access to foreign-language films. His 1966 film (1966) “Blow Up” was something of a breakthrough from his black-and-white films in Italian – not that language was very important in his films by that time! with the notorious final ten minutes of “L’eclisse” having no spoken lines – to color films with English dialogue. (It was Antonioni’s second color film; “Red Desert” (1964) had starred Richard Harris; “Red Desert” was in Italian.)
“Blow Up” is still gratuitously mysterious, even in comparison with the story by the avant-garde writer Julio Cortázar on which it was based. (The movie also heterosexualized the story.) Like such other “daring” films from the early 1960s such as “Darling” (and “La dolce vita,” “The Party,” or “Girl on a Motorcycle”) the “decadence” is the most dated aspect of the film. What tame (indeed, boring) orgies! The Merry Pranksters at the beginning and end are also very dated (besides being pretentious symbols).
Like “L’eclisse” (but with psychedelic colors almost as vivid though less mannered than those in “Red Desert”) and the later “Zabriskie Point,” the photography is paramount and the actors ciphers. (Carlo di Palma was Antonioni’s regular cinematographer, and cinematographer of eleven of Woody Allen films during the late-1980s and 1990s. Allen’s admiration for the films of Ingmar Bergman are well-known, and Antonioni would seem an unlikely influence on so logorrheic a figure as Allen, but it is clear that Allen’s veneration of the art-house masters recognized during the 1960s extends beyond Bergman.)
As photogenic as Alain Delon is, one doesn’t miss him at the end of “L’eclisse.” And “Zabriskie Point” is aptly titled for what is most interesting in that film: vistas of Death Valley. Emptiness is adoringly portrayed in all Antonioni’s films that I can remember: urban in “L’eclisse” and “Blow up,” wild in “L’aventurra” and “Zabriskie Point” (and “The Passenger.”)
Although I continue think Antonioni was (and still is) overrated, I nonetheless still find “Blow Up” pretty absorbing. Given some very intrusive music by Herbie Hancock (and the Yardbirds and the Lovin’ Spoonful) the lack of music for long stretches of the main narrative development is very striking. Antonioni is capable of narrative development: the sequence of blowing up photos is quite exciting, though neither Antonioni nor his protagonist know what to do with what they photograph so well. Beyond showing fashionable alienation, the message is obscure(d), as David Hemming thrashes around “swinging” mid-1960s London.
Plot is of little importance for Antonioni, but I suppose that I should mention that such narrative as there is shows a successful fashion photographer (David Hemming) who discovers in some photos he took in the park what appears to be a murder in the background. He blows up the image and is visited by the woman (a young Vanessa Redgrave) who seems to be in the photos (and bares her breasts trying to persuade him to cease his attempts to figure out what was happening). Trying to solve the mystery focuses the photographer’s attention, but he eventually seems to give up and go with a very stylized flow. This irritated a portion of the audience at the time, but there have been many “mysteries” since then without neat solutions, not to mention many representations of mounting paranoia and/or justified mounting suspicion dismissed as paranoia (e.g., “The Conversation,” “Blow Out”, both audio variants on the visual one in “Blow-Up”)… The Zapruder movie of the assassination of John Kennedy , which fed generations of conspiracy theorists seemed to many to be a prototype, though I think that Cortázar’s story predated the assassination.
As for careers, David Hemming had a moment – “Blow Up,” followed by the only memorable part of “Camelot” (1967), wandered about as the lead in “Charge of the Light Brigade” (1968) was the drunkard mate in “Islands in the Stream” (1977), and subsided from stardom into smaller and smaller roles thereafter (disappearing through the 1990s, reappearing as Cassius in “Gladiator” in 2000 [and “Gangs of New York” in 2002, and died of a heart attack in Bucharest in 2003]). Vanessa Redgrave, in contrast, who was little known then, has had a long (and continuing) run of good parts (or parts she has made good as in “Prick up your ears”). Though unable to speak after a stroke in 1985, Antonioni directed a few more films [before dying in Rome in 2004 at the age of 94] and picked up a lifetime-achievment Oscar from the star of “The Passenger,” Jack Nicholson.
The 1959 Cortazar story on which the movie was based was originally title “Las babas del diablo” (The Devil’s Drool), though it headlined Blow-Up and Other Stories in English. Oddly, the movie (Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra and Edward Bond) received an Oscar nomination for “best original screenplay” rather than for an adapted one. Antonioni’s direction was also nominated, but not Di Palma’s cinematography (nor the art direction of Assheton Gorton (the original (“Get Carter,” “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” etc.).
This is the third of my revisits of the great puzzle films of the 1960s (for art-house audiences), following reviews of Alain Resnais’s “Last Year at Marienbad” and Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona.”