Classic Film Club: 'Blowup'

Each week Tom Huddleston watches a classic film he's never seen before. The rules are simple: each film must be considered a masterpiece and each must be completely new to him. This week: Michelangelo Antonioni's 'Blowup'(1966)

Blowup’ is one of those films you almost don’t need to see: it’s all around us, in the films it influenced, in the fashions, the adverts, the music videos, the cultural architecture. Any TV documentary on music, cinema or Britain in the ’60s either uses clips from the film, or archive footage that’s almost interchangeable. The first of Antonioni’s three films in the English language, it aims to capture, in vivid detail, a brief, iconic moment in time: London, 1966. And it succeeds, albeit in an odd, unnerving, deeply ambiguous manner.

The story was adapted from a short story by mystical Argentinian author Julio Cortázar, originally entitled ‘Las Babas del Diablo’ (‘The Droolings of the Devil’), later changed to ‘Blow Up’ to cash in on the film’s success. The gulf between the film and its source work is broad – the short story essentially details the thoughts of a young photographer watching a woman in the park – but the overriding concerns are, if not the same, then at least compatible: both deal with the male gaze, with the photographic act and its psychological and sociological consequences. And while Antonioni is perhaps less rigorous than Cortazar in his exploration of these themes, he has other concerns on his mind: the changing world, youth and its indulgences, a smattering of class consciousness and an intermittent investigation into the shifting nature of relations between men and women.

The centre of our attention – he’s in every scene – is David Hemmings’s shutterbug Thomas, the character who, along with his real-world inspiration David Bailey, came to define how a fashion photographer ought to dress, behave and speak. The first iconic image – that of Hemmings straddling impossibly leggy German model Veruschka, muttering heated directives as she writhes on the floor – has been mimicked and lampooned countless times, perhaps most notably by Austin Powers (in a film series which relies on an audience’s familiarity with ‘Blowup’ for a surprising number of jokes). That image alone says a fair amount about the character: he’s dominating, self-possessed and absorbed in his work, and he doesn’t take women terribly seriously.

How much Antonioni is condemning this attitude – a prevalent, even fashionable one at the time – is the subject of ongoing discussion. The women in ‘Blowup’ – with the arguable exception of Vanessa Redgrave’s forthright but repeatedly victimised Jane – tend to be of the pretty and obedient variety. Like Thomas, the film never attempts to engage with any of them: they come, they go, they strip and pose, giggle and plead and hop willingly into bed. Antonioni may be asking searching questions of his central character – about his attitude towards these women, his coldness and detachment, his existential emptiness – but he never feels the urge to ask the women anything at all.

In this aspect, as in many others, ‘Blowup’ is very much a product of its time. Indeed, the scenes in which Antonioni tries hardest to capture the spirit of swinging London are, unsurprisingly, the scenes which feel most dated: the ultrachic party loaded with reefer smoking hipsters, The Yardbirds smashing their guitars (in an obvious nod to The Who, who refused to appear) and most of all, the gangs of rampaging student mime artists inflicting themselves on the general public. True, Antonioni’s attitude to these groups is never more than ambiguous: the partygoers are dead-eyed and disengaged, the concert audience either motionless or pointlessly screaming, the mime artists, necessarily, grasping at nothing. But is such ambiguity a justifiable objective stance, or merely the aloof pose of a director unwilling to connect with his subjects (an accusation which Antonioni has been repeatedly forced to defend)? Which, of course, brings us full circle to Thomas’s own icy disassociation.

For all its groovy period trappings, ‘Blowup’ is a surprisingly unforgiving film: the central character is a creep, the plot a cipher, the style pointedly abrasive and unemotional, Herbie Hancock’s music invasive and severely dated (though the director’s decision to keep the soundtrack almost exclusively diegetic is an interesting and effective one). There are times when the entire experience feels like a signpost to nowhere, as though Antonioni is teasing us with fascinating surfaces, drawing us in with hinted subtexts before revealing that, like its central character, there’s not much going on underneath. In fact, there’s a great deal going on: convoluted, interwoven themes of art and commerce, privacy and voyeurism, male and female, looking and seeing. All of which, in the final analysis, make ‘Blowup’ a much easier film to admire than it is to enjoy.

Author: Tom Huddleston





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