Friday, April 1, 2011

historic hipster urbanism

Does one need a spoiler alert for a 45 year old film? Depends on whether you've seen it I guess but, anyway, if you haven't seen Blow Up and you think you might like to, the following does give the entire game away. 

I watched Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up again the other day, a film I've not seen for many years. The first time I saw it I must have been quite young - early teens I suspect - and I found it fairly mystifying. Why was no one saying anything? Why did the characters seem so casually unpleasant to each other? And why did so little happen for such large amounts of time? 

Most of these questions are still pertinent, although I'm less mystified and much more admiring of it now. Apart from anything else, Blow Up is a fascinating historical document. From the opening scene in which a jeep full of students drive around the raised plaza of the Smithson's recently completed Economist Building, to the brand new curtained walled office blocks rising up over London Wall (detailed here) to the positively Dickensian looking doss house from which the central character first emerges, the film describes the collision of an old, Victorian London with 1960's modernity. Interestingly, it is almost exactly contemporaneous with the film of Geoffrey Fletcher's The London Nobody Knows  and Iain Nairn's London, both of which document similar themes.

Blow Up revolves around Thomas, a jaded fashion photographer who accidentally witnesses a murder. The drama of this plotline is underplayed however and his discovery occupies a relatively small section of the film. Much of what happens around this central conceit is unnecessary from a  strictly narrative point of view but vital in establishing the milieu in which Thomas lives. Not only that but it locates the event in its proper place within Thomas' fairly shaky moral universe. Permanently slightly drunk and a bit frazzled, he's too self-absorbed to see much of what is going on.

Instead he spends large amounts of time wandering around his studio complex, gazing blankly at assistants, beautiful models and a woman - played by Sarah Miles -  who might or might not be his wife and who is having a non-committal affair with a painter living next door. London is experienced as a backdrop to Thomas' frequent trips out in his car, a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud equipped with a CB radio which he uses to bark pointless instructions to his assistants. A seemingly trivial sub-plot involving an antiques shop and the purchase of an aeroplane propeller keeps intruding into the main story, literally breaking up the narrative with slightly comical banality.

Most obviously the film is about images and illusion. Thomas only discovers that he has witnessed the murder once he examines a reel of film that he shot in a park earlier that day. The murder is never actually seen, but is reconstructed through a series of still photographs. Most of the characters seem to wander around barely noticing each other, especially Thomas himself who breaks out of his pampered torpor only when taking pictures. A glazed amorality hangs over the whole proceedings. Having discovered the murder, Thomas isn't moved to report it or express any particular outrage at what has happened. The photographs that reveal this mysterious event are primarily valuable to him as images for a book he is working on.

The ongoing visual joke of a group of mime artists provides Blow Up with its one pat moment, the closing scene when Thomas watches them pretending to play tennis and - having shed some of his earlier cynicism - 'sees' the imaginary ball they are playing with*. Otherwise the film maintains its cool throughout, never really revealing much about what is happening or why. Antonioni's seeming casualness of plot and framing - both of which are actually beautifully judged throughout - echo Thomas' life so that we construct the events much as he does as a series of disparate but connected images.

Blow Up is also almost comically sixties of course and intended clearly as a self-conscious record of an era. Jimmie Page's first band The Yardbirds appear in it, for no immediately apparent reason. Other celebrities of the day - including the model Veruschka - make cameo appearances. But these 'real-life' appearances only add to the ambiguity. They are both real, in the sense that they genuinely exist in the world beyond the film, and unreal in the sense that they aren't really connected to the rest of the storyline.

There's also fun to be had spotting unlikely guests at the sixties party such as Janet Street Porter (seen dancing in the club where the Yardbirds play) and Peter Bowles who plays Thomas' Andrew Loog Oldham-esque agent. Infamously, Thomas' character is based on David Bailey and the film's casual misogyny might be intended as a critical commentary on Bailey's lifestyle or might simply be a lazy reflection of the era. It's difficult to tell. Like the characters in it, Blow Up is determinedly opaque, as too-cool-for-school as the hipster London it depicts.

Blow Up is a kind of conspiracy theory movie where a partial and unstable 'truth' is constructed through the obsessive re-examination of the facts. The body in the bushes remains as one possible  explanation of what Thomas has witnessed. Like any good conspiracy theory though, it's never clear if we should believe it or not. Conspiracy theory in fact undermines the idea of any single version of events, acting as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy for doubting Thomases everywhere.

Blow Up is also the subject of its own conspiracies, endless speculations about its motives and meanings. The locations used in it have become the subject of the sort of ceaseless archiving that the internet specialises in. The park in which the murder is witnessed has taken on a particularly mythical status - a fictional rival to the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza - at least partly because - unlike everywhere else - it appears unchanged from when the film was made. In this way, the stills of Blow UP are as endlessly pored over as Thomas' reel of film.

* Having thought a lot about the film since writing this post (and having been forced to in a way by the comments below) I have to say that I misread the final scene badly and don't in any way do it justice with this description. Several things strike me now that didn't then. Firstly there is the status that Thomas enjoys as a successful photographer which conveys an authority on his examination of the photographs. We are inclined to believe his theory that they contain clues to a murder for precisely this reason.

Secondly, there is the issue of the missing body, the 'object' that would solve the murder, or at least definitely prove that one had taken place. Without it the only 'proof' is the one grainy photograph remaining after Thomas' studio is burgled and Thomas' own memory of what he has seen. He is an unreliable narrator, or at least an unreliable subject of an unreliable narrative. The mimed tennis game thus presents an entirely new take on the proceedings, suggesting that Thomas's account of events, the evidence that he has seen, is highly suspect. We tend to trust objects rather than images but objects are representations too. The absent ball and the absent body have an equivalence but their absence still allows events to be constructed entirely around them.

In general, this post suffers from not nearly enough thought and a slight dismissiveness in tone which I partly put down to the blogger's disease of simply wanting to say something, fill up space in case everyone goes away forever! 


Giovanni Tiso said...

I never tire of it, although admittedly I'm obsessed by some of its themes. And surely it has the best soundtrack in the history of filmmaking, which doesn't hurt in the rewatching.

Have you seen Red Desert by any chance? It is set in the very striking - and strikingly photographed - industrial periphery of Ravenna, and clashes quite interestingly with Blow Up. It is (uncannily) even more beautiful to look at, and far more strident to listen to.

Charles Holland said...

Yes, slightly embarrassed not to have mentioned the Herbie Hancock soundtrack. To be honest I feel I need to watch it again and published this post rather sooner than I should have. It repays a lot of scrutiny and its hard to avoid lapsing into other people's cliches when talking about it - I feel I haven't got any way beyond that here. Perhaps you should have a go - I would love to read your take on it.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Ah - you're very kind. I do have a couple of Antonioni posts in the works but writing about something you venerate is always the hardest I find, and it will open up some topics, including conspiracy theory as you note, that would take some time to tackle.

But just to show how obsessed I am: at one point I wrote about Landscape with the Fall of Icarus in the hope that somebody would point out that the corpse in the bushes in the painting is practically identical to the corpse in the bushes in Blow Up. However nobody did because as we have discussed elsewhere these expectations are always bound to be confounded, both positively and negatively.

And speaking of expectations: has any of our object oriented philosopher friends written about the tennis match at the end of the film? To my mind it quite neatly explains how culture works, I'd love to hear their take on it.

Unknown said...

Ditto. Snap. (I also saw Blow Up again recently, having not seen it since a teenager.)

To be honest, I think it's a curate's egg mood-piece, which isn't really the sum of its parts. Very adept at creating a torporific, paranoid ambience but hard to tell how much of the shaky "plot" and the pretentious ending are deliberate or not.

That said, you can still file it under Great Films About Britain Shot By Foreigners.

And the opening sequence around The Economist HQ has an architectural echo in Antonioni's other London film, The Passenger, where Jack Nicholson briefly wanders around the then-new Brunswick Centre. I shit thee not.

Charles Holland said...

Giovanni, yes I see what you mean about the tennis game, although I know next to nothing about object orientated ontology. As you say, there's an awful lot to un-pick with that film. I've been thinking about it a lot since writing the post and would probably tackle it differently already. Incidentally though, I was in the Barbican today which overlooks London Wall and down which Thomas drives early in the film. I found myself looking for the office blocks that were new then but are mostly demolished now. There are one or two and they look distinctly shabby. I've never noticed them before!

Matt, I tend more towards the view that it's a fantastic film myself. Especially having thought about it since re-watching it. It really repays a lot of effort and I think it's much, much more deliberate than you suggest. Part of its deliberateness is the prevarication and wandering off the "plot". Pretentiousness is always a dangerous term, tending to be deployed in the direction of anything that isn't totally straightforward or literal.

I must watch The Passenger though.

Unknown said...

Maybe I'm being a bit harsh with pretentious - the tennis scene works on its own terms as the climax of the film, it just sounds pretentious in the extreme when one tries to talk about it afterwards.

I think it stands in the tradition of fantastic films about Britain by outsiders, from Polanski to Last Resort.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Maybe I'm being a bit harsh with pretentious - the tennis scene works on its own terms as the climax of the film, it just sounds pretentious in the extreme when one tries to talk about it afterwards.

What the...? Is this how we berate things now, because you can't talk about them without sounding pretentious? Bah.

It's damn near as close as you'll get to the perfect scene - dramatically, thematically, cinematically. It advances the plot. It's indelibly memorable. Really now.

Charles Holland said...

I agree that the concept of pretension is pretty useless here, merely acting as a block on thinking about it too seriously.

In general though I think the problem lies with the original post. My misreading of the final scene is particularly unforgivable in this respect. I rather wish I had waited a bit longer and written a more considered piece as it doesn't really do the film justice or get to grips with some of its fundamental concerns.

I've added a brief addendum to it btw, although that doesn't quite get it either I don't think.

Oh well, five our of ten!

Giovanni Tiso said...

I thought your post was fine, actually... it's not like we have to write The Definitive Review every time we feel like mentioning something that we've enjoyed revisiting. Don't be put off by my fanboy rants!

Charles Holland said...

Yes, but I'm all upset now.....

....kidding. Ta for comments. And now, I'm off to watch The Passenger.