Surely a film about swinging London would concentrate on the nature of the swinging. Yet Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up depopulates the city and extracts from it most of the metropolis's sounds for the purposes of an essay on what exactly? It has been called many things - a study in alienation, an examination of the problem of comprehending reality, a hard look at a decadent lifestyle - and all these are pertinent, but we would still be left with a sense of mystery greater than any ready comprehension. What we need to try to do is retain the film's mystery while embarking on an analysis of its meaning, and the best place to start would be to pinpoint the mysteriousness of the form itself.
Critic Gilberto Perez has very aptly described Antonioni's style in The Material Ghost as that of the point of view of a stranger. He reckons subjectivity in a film arises when "an incompleteness makes itself felt" and goes on to say that usually a film "will convey such a sense of partiality and insufficiency only when attributing it to a character in a point-of-view shot". In Antonioni's work however the point of view is the director's in the sense that the director doesn't sacrifice himself to the story, but the story sacrifices itself to the director, to the director's point-of-view, to the point-of-view, if you like, of a stranger.
What might help us to make sense of Antonioni's film will be the estrangement not only of the characters to each other, but the camera's estrangement to the events it depicts. This is a common element in Antonioni's work. At a certain point in L'Avventura the leading character goes missing and Antonioni decides not to follow through on the details of her disappearance. At the end of The Eclipse an assignation has been arranged by the two leading characters, but neither character turns up. Antonioni shoots the location where they would have met, in a series of humanly empty shots. In The Passenger, Jack Nicholson's death is viewed off-screen though it is vital to the narrative.
Thus when we talk of estrangement it is twofold. For example when the characters do not turn up at the meeting place in The Eclipse, we may assume there wasn't enough of a connection between the characters for them to make an appearance, but, at the same time, that the camera is present while they are absent can add to this sense of an estranged world.
In Blow-Up this sense of estrangement is less through the key character at key moments; more through the general absence of the sort of subordinating characters who usually give a film its verisimilitude. Andrew Sarris in The Village Voice reckoned "Blow-Up is never dramatically effective in terms of any meaningful confrontation of character", and critic and philosopher Gilles Deleuze in his Cinema books astutely notes Antonioni is a great director of the rarefied frame, of the empty shot. Now there are many ways in which a director can utilise the empty frame without eschewing the film's verisimilitude: one can show a village on Sunday where all the villagers will be in the church and the streets will be empty. But Antonioni offers rarefied framing in a metropolis, in one of the biggest cities in the world at a time when it was perceived as the place to be. Robert Phillip Kolker in The Altering Eye says that though the park Antonioni shot in is surrounded by houses, these are carefully absent from the film. We might also note that most of the film takes place on Saturday, yet the park is almost empty when the leading character Thomas (David Hemmings) visits it during the day.
If the images seem emptied of content, then the same can be said of the film's soundtrack. Herbie Hancock's credit music gives the impression of swinging London, but often Antonioni records as if in a whisper. Whether it is the scenes in the park, or Thomas looking at a series of photographs in the studio that he shot in the park, Antonioni's point of view is that of a circumspect, polite stranger, and in many ways the antithesis of his leading character, a figure who barks out statements as if in contrast to Antonioni's visual and aural tranquillity. On the DVD commentary critic Peter Brunette insists Thomas is a loathsome individual, but central to that loathsomeness is Antonioni's perspective in relation to the character's. If Antonioni is the stranger finding characterisational and formal ways of emphasizing strangeness, Thomas is a man about town, bored with his own familiarity with the city. In one scene he tells his agent that London "doesn't do anything for me anymore", while in another he sleeps with a couple of young women looking for some modelling work. He basically tells them to get lost after they've put out, but before he's taken any photographs.
However, we need to put this loathsomeness into the perspective from whence Antonioni comes. This is a director fascinated by the nature of mystery, offering us a character for whom mystery is secondary to jadedness. Thomas is a good example of Georg Simmel's notion of the blas, a character who believes he has seen and done it all, and yet Antonioni wants to frame him in such a way that he is a character who has it all except for the curiosity with which to enjoy it. He lives in a stunning apartment in central London that is grand enough to double up as his studio, drives a Rolls Royce, and can photograph whatever he likes.
But what happens one day if he photographs the contingent; will this give back to his being a sense of purposefulness? It's as though Antonioni here wanted to offer two things; the jadedness of a culture, and the potential curiosity within the self, and view them as conflicting elements. From this perspective the film could almost be Antonioni's 8frac12; if we see the film as a number of critics have as a metaphor for artistic creativity. However we needn't see it as metaphorical, more subjunctive, a what-if scenario of creative activity in the midst of epistemological indifference. How to generate epistemological passion, Antonioni seems to be saying, and can a murder committed that Thomas accidentally witnesses give him a sort of epistemological kiss of life?
This initially seems to be the case as he starts to blow-up the photographs and realizes, after another visit to the park where he took the pictures, that his camera has witnessed a murder. For a person who has until this point been constantly distracted by one distraction after another, the murder seems finally to focus his attention. Yet also what happens is that the body he finds goes missing, and the pictures he's taken are stolen. Not only by the end of the film has he had his curiosity aroused, he has also had his sense of certitude eradicated. He has moved from the blas to the curious to the uncertain, an epistemological arc that makes our perception of Thomas's character (the film's moral arc if you like) of much less importance than the epistemological one, the arc that generates curiosity, and at the same time uncertainty - a curiosity without end we might surmize.
In his story That Bowling Alley on the Tiber, Antonioni's narrator says that he likes to work from a series of images to a state of affairs, and gives as an example how he saw a man going to his car, who waited before opening the door, and Antonioni thought the way he did so was so odd that he decided to follow him. Now if what is central to Antonioni's work is a series of images to a state of affairs, of course many films use images to illustrate a state of affairs. The state of affairs is given, and this is vital to the numerous scriptwriters who talk up the importance of the three act structure, and the significance of character arcs and moral through-lines. But it's as if what fascinates Antonioni is less the story than the potential within it.
Thomas is a character for whom potential seems initially absent: he is bored photographing the models, toys with buying an antiques shop, and insists as we've noted that London bores him. Yet all of a sudden London does do something for him, when he witnesses the murder. However it is also important not simply to say that Thomas witnesses a murder; the witnessing of the murder itself is a complex epistemological journey. First Thomas happens to be taking pictures in the park including photos of a couple apparently canoodling. The woman asks him to stop doing so and then insist he gives her the roll of film. Later she turns up at his flat hoping to get the roll of film off him, and her insistence piques his curiosity. After he tricks her into leaving without the film, so he then blows up the footage and notices in one of the photos a man can be seen firing a gun from the bushes near where the couple were. Later he goes up to the park and discovers a body, only to arrive back at the flat to see that the pictures have been stolen. The next morning he returns to the park and notices the body is missing also.
Now a number of critics (including John Orr in Contemporary Cinema) have wondered whether the film is a product of the central character's imagination, but it is perhaps more useful to think of it as an investigation into the limits of material reality against the onslaught of doubt. Through the course of the film, Thomas moves from a man bored with everything to a man who can no longer trust his own perceptual faculties. It is as though Antonioni has offered an essay on the perceptual spectrum: at one end is the sense that everything we see and hear is predictable, and at the other, endlessly interpretable and ambiguous. When Antonioni said that "we know underneath the revealed image is another that is more faithful to reality, and beneath this still another, and again under this last", it is the mystery of life and not its predictability that Antonioni wants to reflect.
Thomas may be a man who has earned for himself a privileged place in London society, where cars, money and girls are readily accessible, but the freshness of perspective eludes him until the ambiguity of reality forces upon him a rethink about the world: he becomes not the arrogant photographer, but a certain type of doubting Thomas. At the end of the film, after he notices the body's been removed, and that without the pictures or the body as evidence, he might as well have dreamt the murder, he passes some rag week kids playing a game of mime tennis. At one stage the imaginary ball ends up going over the fence and they gesture to Thomas to throw the ball back. As he does so, it's as if he is willing to acknowledge a world beyond the material, the imaginary existence that can give purpose and meaning to brute reality that, without imagination, without manifold curiosity towards reality, remains meaningless. As he throws the ball back over the fence we start to hear the sound of the ball whilst the camera holds on Thomas's face. A moment later Antonioni moves to a high-angled long shot of Thomas in the park and Thomas literally vanishing from the shot as the film ends. Will we throw the 'ball' back and join in the film's hermeneutic impulse, or reject the film as a work of trendy ambiguity? The choice it would seem is the viewer's.
© Tony McKibbin