“Blow-Up” - Michelangelo Antonioni (1966)

Blow-Up (1966) was thought by many to represent a significant break for writer-director Michelangelo Antonioni, since it was his first film in English, his first film made outside of his native Italy, and it broke a string of four films featuring his favorite actress, Monica Vitti. But actually the film offers a continuation of Antonioni’s ongoing exploration of how our modern culture fails to address life’s mysteries and frustrations. In that sense Blow-Up represents a worthy continuation of the existentialist discourse served up in the preceding four films – L'Avventura, (1960), La Notte (1961), L'Eclisse (1962), and Red Desert (1964).

All these films, as I suggested in my review of Red Desert, situated the viewer psychologically into the perspectives of protagonists floundering in a world devoid of authentic human engagement.  L'Avventura looked at the ephemerality of modern romantic love.  La Notte seemed to resign itself to the inevitable breakdown of long-term (marital) love.  L’Eclisse, on the other hand, plunged the viewer into the modern-day difficulties of even launching an authentic loving relationship.  And Red Desert went even further by presenting a protagonist who felt cut off from meaningful engagement with anything in the world.   In all these films there are issues with the narrative forms that structure our lives and our relationships.  This was the underlying key to Red Desert, and it remains as a fundamental theme in Blow-Up, too. 

Narrative form is fundamental to how we understand the temporality of the world [1,2].   We tell stories about what we see, and we learn more about the world around us from others’ stories that we hear or read. We even understand ourselves in terms of the stories that we tell and remember about ourselves. Although we may store lots of information about the world in various structured formats, at a primordial level this information was originally gathered in terms of innumerable narratives that serve to structure the lives of all of us. These stories are co-created by the participants, so apart from purely fictive creations, the stories are not under the exclusive control of the person who tells the story.  This is what make narrative construction fascinating: we are constructing a plausible story – one that “makes sense” – out of the material that we have experienced.  In the stories are various environmental conditions along with (perhaps numerous) goal-oriented causal agents, which often include ourselves among the players.

Some of the most important (to us) stories we tell about ourselves are love stories – stories concerning the most significant and authentic forms of human engagement.  But our stories don’t always conform very well to the events and activities that we experience in the external world.  So we keep looking for new stories to provide satisfaction.  In fact our modern society has provided us with the means to experience, usually vicariously, innumerable stories; so we keep wandering from one diversionary story to the next, all the while looking for some sort of edification or fulfillment.  These are some of the ideas that underlie what happens in Blow-Up.

The story of Blow-Up concerns Thomas, a youthful commercial photographer in the then contemporary “swinging” London, and some of his experiences over the course of about a day and a half.  As is characteristic of Antonioni’s films, the overall plot structure of the film seems loose and episodic.  For Antonioni, the narrative focus is not so much on the progression of visible events, but on the development of the story’s thematic content, which often entails what is going on subconsciously in the mind(s) of the principal characters. In the case of Blow-Up, we could say that the narrative focus is on the nature of narrative, itself – how we distract ourselves with repeated diversionary mini-narratives.

So rather than describe a narrative structure that passes through a series of well-defined dramatic “acts”, it seems more appropriate to characterize the narrative structure of Blow-Up as a collection of interwoven, seemingly trivial, mini-narratives that represent distractions from Thomas’s main activity as a fashion photographer.  One of these mini-narratives turns out to rise up above the others and concentrate most of our attention.  To keep track of them here, I will label the mini-narratives of interest with the letter “D”:
  • D1: the Roving Mime Performing Group
  • D2: the Romantic Relationship with Patricia
  • D3: the Teenage Wannabe Fashion Models
  • D4: Photographing the Romantic Couple in the Park
  • D5: the Acquisition of the Antique Propeller
  • D6: the Dalliance with Jane (a Sub-narrative of D4)
  • D7: the Rock Concert
  • D8: the Drug-fueled Party
The beginning of the film (and the beginning of mini-narrative D1) shows a raucous mime group careening around in a jeep and engaged in RAG (“raise and give”) fund-raising activities for various political causes, such as banning nuclear weapons. Then the commercial photographer Thomas (played by David Hemmings) is shown in scruffy clothing emerging from a flophouse where he has spent the night surreptitiously photographing some of the impoverished residents. He walks over to his Rolls Royce convertible and zooms back to his apartment/studio loft.  So from the outset we see two parties engaged in narrative pretense: the mime group play-acting their symbolic games and Thomas, who has been pretending to be a down-and-outer like the other flophouse residents. 

Back at his studio Thomas begins a photo-shoot of the super-model Verushka (played by the real Verushka, a well-known model and performer of that era). Every photo is staged to suggest something provocative  – each one is evidently designed to evoke an imaginary micro-narrative of promiscuity on the part of Thomas’s intended viewers.  He immediately follows this up with a second photographing session involving a collection of “mod” young models, whom he treats as if they were manikins.  What Thomas wants here are artificial images that provocatively suggest sensual passivity and openness.

Then Thomas wanders across the street and over to the apartment of his friend, Bill, an abstract painter.  They gaze at one of Bill’s abstract canvases, both trying to make out some form in them.  Significantly, Bill remarks,
“They don’t mean anything when I do them. Afterwards, I find something to hang onto. . . . Then it sorts itself out and adds up.”
This is a key to the film’s theme: we are continually encountering bits and pieces of things in the world and trying to make sense of it all – that is, concoct little narratives that have some meaning for us.  Both Bill and Thomas are in the business of putting out the raw material, in various forms, for these mini-narratives that might amuse the public. 

Also in this sequence Thomas chats with Bill’s wife, Patricia (Sarah Miles), who seems to have some ambiguously romantic affiliation with Thomas.  The casual intimacy with which they interact suggests to the viewer that this relationship (D2) will have significance in the remainder of the film.  But this turns out mainly to be a distraction.

Thomas returns to his studio and is about to go out again, when he is visited by two teenage wannabe models who pester him to take photographs of them (D3).  He shoos them out the door, but we will see them again later.  Thomas then drives across town to an antique shop that he is apparently interested in purchasing as his new quarters.

Looking for more photographic diversions, Thomas now wanders over into a park and from a distance notices a middle-aged man and a younger woman engaged in furtive romantic embraces. The young woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), notices they are being photographed and runs over to Thomas and demands that he turn over his camera roll to her. Clearly this couple has something to hide, and we are now into a new mini-narrative (D4).  Thomas brushes her off and walks back to the antique shop to chat with the owner about buying the shop. Their conversation further exemplifies the relentless search for aesthetic distraction that affects modern life.
The shop owner says she wants to sell, because she’s fed up with antiques and wants to “get off somewhere”.  When asked where, she says, “Nepal”; but Thomas says confidently, “Nepal is all antiques”.  To which she responds dreamily, “perhaps I’d better try Morocco.”  
This conversation is interrupted when Thomas, himself, becomes distracted by the sight of a huge wooden propeller in the shop.  He cannot suppress his impulse to buy it immediately and take it back to his studio (D5).  The huge propeller represents another bizarre artifact/image that may stir one’s imaginative fantasies, and it does with Thomas.

At this point we are about one-third of the way through the film and have been exposed to the beginnings of (at least) five diversionary mini-narratives that have distracted Thomas.  From here on one them, D4, returns to take center stage when Jane, the girl photographed in the park, comes to Thomas’s studio seeking to get his camera negatives. Thomas resists, but her persistence leads to flirtation and then to her seduction.  Their dalliance I call D6, although it is a subnarrative of D4.  Their projected lovemaking is interrupted by a phone call from Patricia (D2) and the delivery of the propeller (D5). After Jane leaves without the negatives, Thomas quickly decides to see what mysteries that roll of film might contain.  After developing the film and making blow-ups, he notices in the obscure park background the fuzzy image of a pistol aimed at the couple.  This leads him to believe that his appearance in the park must have somehow interrupted a murder attempt, presumably on the man Jane had been embracing. 

But now Thomas’s concentration is interrupted by another diversion – the return of the teenage wannabe models (D3).  This devolves into a three-party sex romp, after which the exhausted Thomas falls asleep on the floor.  When he awakens in the evening, Thomas looks at his blow-ups again and notices a new element in the background: the fuzzy image of a body lying on the ground.  Maybe there had been a murder, after all! He rushes over to the vacant, unlit park and confirms his suspicions by seeing the dead body of Jane’s middle-aged “lover” lying under the bushes. 

Undecided as to what to do, Thomas  wants to communicate what he has seen to someone he can confide with.  He talks to Patricia, but she is preoccupied with her tangled relationships, and there is no communication between them.  And in the meantime, Thomas’s studio has been broken into and all the photographic evidence of the apparent murder has been removed.  So he decides to get in touch with his collaborative partner, Ron, who is attending a party somewhere.

While driving to Ron’s party, Thomas notices Jane on the sidewalk, partially obscured by other pedestrians.  When he looks further, she has mysteriously vanished from view – a phenomenon that reminded me of the existentially disturbing disappearance of Archibald Tuttle in Brazil (1985). 

Still seeking Jane, Thomas wanders into an apartment loft rock concert (performed by the Yardbirds,  featuring Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck).   Again Thomas is distracted – this time when Jeff Beck smashes his guitar in Peter Townshend style and throws the guitar neck into the crowd, which precipitates a mad scramble for the precious souvenir (D7).  Thomas finds himself caught up in the excitement and manages to capture the broken guitar piece and rush out of the concert hall with it. 

Once out on the street, though, Thomas remembers that he has to find Ron, and he discards his hard-won prize and makes his way over to the party that Ron is attending (D8). But everyone there is obsessed with smoking pot, and Thomas can’t communicate with Ron, either. Again he is distracted, this time by the party atmosphere, and gets drawn into the drug-taking.

When Thomas awakens the next day, he goes back to the park with his camera, but he finds that the dead body is gone. All evidence of the murder has now vanished. Subsequently wandering disconsolately in the park, Thomas encounters the frolicking mime troupe, who proceed to engage in a pantomime game of tennis (D1). Here we have a mini-narrative that is almost completely fantasy, since there is no tennis ball – the tennis players are only pretending to hit an imaginary ball. Thomas is curious, but eventually succumbs to the fantasy and even imagines the sound of the tennis as the movie ends.

Antonioni’s overriding theme in Blow-Up concerns the way we make sense out of the world around us.  We are all looking for “objective” reality, but there is always a difficulty of determining what is really real. And this difficulty poses existential questions about who we are and what is this strange world that we live in. The metaphor of an investigator possibly discovering a hidden and startling “truth” in the background of a mundane recording proved to be so riveting that it directly inspired two subsequent popular films: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and Brian de Palma’s Blow-Out (1981). But Antonioni’s telling of this tale is the best, and he does so by employing his various cinematic means of accentuating and highlighting the personal interactions taking place.  It was undoubtedly not an accident that Antonioni paired the 5' 8" Hemmings with various tall women with whom he engaged, such as  the 6' 3" Verushka and the 5' 11" Vanessa Redgrave. 

Moreover, Antonioni, again makes the visual environments important contributors to the story.  In particular Antonioni exploits the convoluted architecture of Thomas’s studio/apartment to convey the complexities of human engagement. This is particularly in evidence when Jane comes to visit Thomas at his studio. Here we have the characteristic visually complex Antonioni-style conversations involving people walking around in a room and looking away from each other while they speak their thoughts.  In addition, the repeatedly visited park setting becomes a memorable visual motif for the complex objective world that Thomas seeks to uncover and explicate.

Returning to the film's primary theme, we are all fundamentally constituted to make sense out of our experiences by representing and remembering them in terms of narrative.  And these narratives are a mixture of two types of things – external elements that are outside of our control (“objective” experiences) and, in addition, our own subjectively influenced narrative constructions that fill in the gaps. As a photographer, Thomas is almost an iconic instance of someone like a scientist in the business of capturing what is presumably the objective world out there in terms of photographic images. But we can see from the outset that he is also subjectively playing with his images in order to conjure up a narrative context that can make his images more exciting and appealing. Thus he is a co-creator of the little narratives that he is producing – they are based on images from the real world, but he is adding perspectival elements to suggest interesting narrative contexts. 

This raises the question as to what is actually real.  How much of our stories are truly objective?  If we examine the various mini-narratives in Blow-Up, we see that most of them are heavily influenced by their principal propagator and co-creator, Thomas. 
  • D3, the story of the teenage wannabes, is a sexual fantasy dominated by Thomas’s manipulation.
  • D5, the propeller distraction, shows Thomas in control of realizing another fantasy.
  • D6, the dalliance with Jane is similarly controlled by Thomas.
  • D7, the rock concert scramble, shows Thomas in sufficient control to actually get hold of the broken guitar piece.  Nevertheless, the structure and meaning of this fragile narrative is heavily dependent on the ephemeral social context.  As soon as Thomas is out on the street, the meaning of his guitar-neck prize evaporates into nothingness.
  • And D8, the drug party distraction, represents pure narcissistic drug-induced subjectivism.

So interesting stories – the ones we hold on to – involve an inevitable tension concerning causal efficacy. If the causal efficacy of a principal agent is too great or too little, the story proves to be less interesting. To make things interesting, the causal efficacy has to lie somewhere in between those extremes. There are in fact other mini-narratives over which Thomas has less influence. His relationship with Patricia (D2) represents a potentially interesting narrative, but it is not going anywhere. When he describes the relationship on one occasion to Jane, he tells her that Patricia is his wife. Then he corrects the story:
“She isn’t my wife, really. . . We just have some kids.  No, no kids, not even kids.  Sometimes, though, it feels as if we had kids.  She isn’t beautiful; she’s easy to live with. . . . No she isn’t.  That’s why I don’t live with her.”
So Thomas has influence over some socially-driven narratives, but these stories are unsatisfactorily temporary and flimsy.  They don’t survive their local contexts or stand up for anything. 

There are two narratives, D1 and D4, however, that stand well outside of Thomas’s personal control and represent two extremes of narrative externality.  D4, the story of the murder, represents the personal attempt to capture objective reality. Here Thomas is like the objective scientific investigator, and he first thinks that he has had some control in this situation – that he has prevented a murder.  But his further analysis shows that a real murder apparently actually did take place. Nevertheless, Thomas is unable to get confirmatory (social) involvement from others in this story, and in the end he has lost all his objective (personal) evidence about the event.  So he abandons it.

D1, the mime troupe’s antics, represents the other narrative extreme.  Here we have pure fantasy on the part of the mimes, with no objective reality whatsoever, but in this circumstance there is now confirmatory social pressure from the other mimes that something real must be happening.

In the end, Thomas abandons the individual-based narrative search for objective truth and succumbs to the social narrative, which is a lie. We do this all the time.  We often largely accept religious and cultural tales that are most probably pure fantasy, simply because so many other people around us accept them. And at the same time we too often abandon the crucial quests of fashioning (co-creating) authentic narratives with the most important “others” around us.  When we do this, we lose our own authentic identities and disappear into the background, just as Thomas does in the final shot of the film.

  1. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, volumes 1, 2, and 3, (1984, 1985, 1988), The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  2. Jerome Bruner, "The Narrative Construction of Reality" (1991). Critical Inquiry, 18:1, 1-21.

1 comment:

bawjames said...

Rather excellent insight into the film; I've read other analyses but yours made the most sense and had a clear explanatory logic. Thank you.