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Antonioni's "Blow-Up"

David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave in “Blow-Up” David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave in “Blow-Up”

When I went to film school in the mid-sixties, there were three undisputed titans in cinema: Fellini, Bergman, and Antonioni.  Mind you, Lucas, Scorsese, and Coppola were still making their student films.  That's why it was so gratifying for me watching the Academy Awards telecast in 1995, when a lifetime achievement Oscar was presented to Michelangelo Antonioni, filmmaker extraordinaire.

Before making "Blow-Up," his first English language feature, he specialized in incredibly artistic--sometimes terribly slow-- studies of women experiencing angst, often starring Monica Vitti.  "Blow-Up" was a departure for him, since his star is the young David Hemmings, who plays an alienated photographer in the swinging London of the era.  Antonioni shot and edited this one at a much faster pace, but he continued to focus on the slightly decadent milieu of upper middle class life, in this case fashion photo sessions, abstract artists, drug parties, and what appears to be a murder, but we're never quite sure.

Michelangelo Antonioni at workMichelangelo Antonioni at workAmbiguity is the key, from the way we're introduced to the main character - he is unshaven and is carrying a crumpled paper bag, leaving a factory at the end of the night shift; of course, the bag hides a very expensive camera, and he's been taking pictures of the workers - to the main plot involving some shots he takes in a park, that capture a crime he doesn't even know is taking place.

The cinematography is superb, and whereas in "Red Desert" Antonioni used colour to denote the degeneration of the urban landscape by industrial pollution (years before this became a fashionable topic), in "Blow-Up" he uses slightly more vivid pastels to capture the outside trappings of the protagonist's existence, yet reverts to near monotone when a series of large photographic blowups explode his comfortable vision of reality - namely, an afternoon stroll in a quiet park.

Vanessa Redgrave replaces Monica Vitti in this one, playing the mysterious woman in the photographs, who comes to beg for the roll of film, and is not beyond using seduction to get her way.  Hemmings plays with her, deceives her the same way she deceives him, and we end up wondering, who's seducing whom?

David Hemmings uses his camera to seduce another model.David Hemmings uses his camera to seduce another model.Herbie Hancock provides the music score.  The Yardbirds make a brief appearance in a party scene, and smash an electric guitar, this before that gesture became a cliché.  Hemmings and a fashion model interact erotically during a photo session, then fall down exhausted, as if after an orgasm.  Hemmings surprises his artist friend and his wife making love, but Sarah Miles as the wife looks longingly at Hemmings during the act.

Some viewers will no doubt get angry at the off-handed way in which Hemmings' character handles women.  They have to understand that Antonioni was only true to his subject matter, this is what his observations told him about male/female relationships, circa 1966.  We hope that we've all come a long way since then.

This classic film ends with an imaginary tennis game played by white-faced mimes.  Our hero watches the "ball" as it goes back and forth, then one of the players hits it over the fence, in his direction.  They look at him, encouraging him to pick it up.  For a split second, he can't decide what to do, then he bends down, picks up the non-existent ball and throws it back, much to their delight.  What is Antonioni saying about the nature of reality, in this very memorable scene?  Decide for yourself, by getting the video, and enjoying one of the best films ever made.

Major urban centres usually have a video outlet that handles classic films, or else you may find it online. In either case, it’s worth the effort to obtain it.

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The trailer for Blow Up.
Last modified on Tuesday, 26 July 2011 03:00

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