[box cover]

Blowup

Warner Home Video

Starring David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles,
Jane Birkin, and Verushka

Written by Michelangelo Antonioni and Tonino Guerra
from the short story "Blow-Up" ("Las babas del diablo," or "The Devil's Drool"), by Julio Cortazar

Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni


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Review by D.K. Holm                    


Hello. I am a 14-year-old webhead film geek and while I'm waiting for Hellboy to come out, I'm wondering what the heck this Blowup that my grandparents are so excited about coming out on DVD is about?

Happy to help. Blowup came out in 1966 and was the first English-language film by Italian neo-realist director Michelangelo Antonioni. It got a lot of attention at the time because the film took place in swinging London and nudity and drugs figured in its portrayal of nouveau riche young swells on the make.

Jeese, you mean this movie is 20 years old?

Well, 38 to be exact, but yes, it is an old movie. Yet it doesn't look old fashioned. And that's kind of shocking, given that all the characters wear Mod '60s garb and speak out-of-date slang.

Mod? What's that?

Heavy eye-liner and eye-shadow, haircuts that combine long bangs with edifices of coiled fiber filament on top; flimsy and short summer dresses in multi-colored patterns accompanied by bright-colored tights; tight-fitting narrow men's clothes with pointy-toed Beatle boots. That sort of thing. What the characters wear, however, does not detract from the freshness of the film. It's still as engaging as it was when it first came out. In fact, I would argue that only now can we see how truly accurate it was in its observations of social behavior, alienation, miscommunication, misperception, and how social castes clash in a socioeconomic systems where almost everyone is reasonably well off. The art film as accurate cultural reporting, so to speak. Elements that appeared weird or inexplicable then are now clear as a bell.

Oh. Well, what happens in the thing?

Blowup recounts about 24 hours in the life of a London fashion photographer, from early Saturday morning to the next day, Sunday morning. Wes never hear his name but in the script he is called David. After emerging from a doss house —

A what?

A sort of homeless shelter for impoverished men. Anyway, David emerges from this doss house at dawn, only to sneak off to his Rolls Royce Silver Cloud convertible and drive away (no one films car shots as well as Antonioni). We learn quickly that he is a much-in-demand photographer who on the one hand snaps pix of underweight women in ghastly clothes for fashion magazines while at the same time hungering for the respectability that a forthcoming book he is planning will provide him (that's why he was taking pictures of the homeless guys). While on a reconnaissance mission to see whether he wants to buy an antique store he wanders into a nearby park and sees two lovers, a young woman and an older man, frolicking. He takes photos of them. But the young woman, played by Vanessa Redgrave, spots him and demands the film. Later, when David returns to his studio, the woman surprises him. In a long scene of mutual seduction and high-strung nerves, the woman attempts to get the roll of film out of David. The photographer gives her a different roll, and after she leaves David develops the film and tries to find out why she was so distraught over the shooting. In a series of blown-up images, David pieces together a story: that the woman lured the man into the park so that he could be assassinated. (By the way, all the publicity for the film has the title Blow-Up, with a hyphen, but during the titles of the film itself, it is simply Blowup, one word.)

Huh.

David returns to the park, and under the illumination of an obscure neon sign he sees the body, still there. He rushes off to his friend Ron (Peter Bowles, who looks like a young John Milius), the writer who is providing the text for David's book of photographs, but, finding him at the center of a pot party, fails to convince him that anything is amiss, and ends up, his will sapped, getting high and passing out. The next morning he goes to the park and finds that the body has been removed. His faith in perceived reality undermined, and his egoistic belief that he has solved a crime shattered, he stands by forlornly as a group of street revelers mime a tennis match. As the camera switches to a high, overhead shot, David vanishes in a flash of film magic.

I guess that sounds interesting, except that it sounds boring.

Hey, they didn't call him Antoniennui for nothing. Blowup is, like most of Antonioni's films, rather deliberately paced. Actually, you don't notice the slow pace at first because you are beguiled by the mime-faced revelers, the mod clothes, the Yardbirds concert —

The Yardbirds! Grandma has one of their records!

— the glossy lifestyle with its models and pot and orgies —

Models and pot and orgies! You didn't say anything about that!

Actually, I did mention the pot party. But yes, there is also an orgy scene. Two girls come to David's studio to see if he will help their career as models. He is right in the middle of investigating the photos he took in the park, but he gets sidetracked by these two girls (one of whom is played by Jane Birkin, the very English looking actress who ended up going to France and becoming a pop star). They try on some of the clothes waiting to be shot for fashion magazines and David starts to play around with them on the enormous sheets of rolled paper he uses as backdrops. There are fierce debates as to whether this scene constitutes the first time that pubic hair is shown in a mainstream movie. Though it seems gratuitous, it's another moment emblematic of the endless and empty distractions that come David's way, and anyone who runs in those kinds of circles.

Huh. You're saying that orgies and stuff are bad?

In Antonioni's view, yes, the orgy and the many other impulsive things that happen are a measure of the sheer vacuity of David, a restless man with seemingly no interior life. Antonioni admitted that he was just as attracted to the pot and easy sex available in swinging London as anyone else, and others might view the film as non-judgmental, simply observing the shenanigans of an affluent city rife with cultural clashes (Antonioni, after all, started out as a documentarian). But the film does take a rather delicate moral position, one that doesn't condemn the sex and the drugs so much as indict a capitalist society (Antonioni was a leftie) in which there is such a gap between personal pleasure and responsibility, in which, by the terms of Marx's ethos, man is no longer able to take satisfaction in his work. David is an interesting character because he is not a capitalist in the conventional sense. He is a self-employed man but also a mini-industry, wildly successful but still able to complain at one point, "I wish I had tons of money. Then I'd be free." Even though he is surrounded by beautiful women and has nothing akin to work schedule like the great mass of men, he is still unhappy, bored, and he takes it out on women, his models, whom he calls "bloody bitches" and is harsh with during shooting sessions.

Boy he sure sounds like a rotten guy.

Antonioni contrasts David with his neighbor, Bill (John Castle). Almost a parody of the vigorous, manly artist, Bill usually hates what he does and refuses to sell it. His girlfriend, Patricia (Sarah Miles; like Redgrave, the daughter of a prominent actor from a previous generation) seems frustrated by his self-doubt and appears to yearn for David, even gazing at him, in one scene near the end, while an unknowing Bill brings her to orgasm. Bill, for all his faults, his aesthetic uncertainty, and poverty, is at least an authentic man, in existential terms.

This is kind of brainy stuff. I'm not sure I'm getting it.

Antonioni and his screenwriter, Tonino Guerra, based their film on a short story by the modernist Argentine writer Julio Cortazar (Hopscotch).

Uhhh, I only read books the teacher says I got to.

I see. Cortazar's original story was about a translator who takes a stroll in a park with his camera and comes upon a mysterious situation involving a woman, a young man, and an older man in a car. His presence breaks it up. Getting the film back home he develops the images and figures out that he hadn't understood the situation at all at the time, that in reality he had disrupted the woman in the process of soliciting the young man for the preying older man in the car. Hence the title of the original story, which translates as something like "A Close Shave" or near miss.

I don't get it.

Hold on. When Antonioni came upon the story he viewed it as a good premise for a film that he and producer Carlo Ponti wanted to make set in London. As Shawn Levy recounts in his excellent chronicle of swinging London, Ready, Steady, Go, Antonioni planted himself in London for several months and did prodigious research. David is based loosely, though in some instances exactly, on noted fashion photographer David Bailey, and many of the odd events in the film, such as the somnambulant concert fans at the Yardbirds gig, were based on Antonioni's direct observation. Haven't you been surprised at how kind of immobile rock fans can be at times?

Uh, I guess so.

Well, I know I have. In fact, one of the reasons why this is among my all-time favorite films is — not because of its strangeness, but — because of its unnerving accuracy and resemblance to things I have seen and heard in my own life. Take the Redgrave character, for instance. We have all known women who were as neurotic, flighty, and nervous as her, women like mercury, imposible to reach, and Redgrave, in collaboration with Antonioni and his script, capture that type perfect, something never done on screen before.

As Levy points out in his book, Antonioni ran out of money and so many facets of the film that might have been clearer remain unexplained. Levy notes that the murder mystery in the film may have been much less mysterious (a man who peers into a restaurant window while David is dining with his friend Ron is apparently a residue of this more elaborate if more conventional plot line). My point is this. It's not a "brainy" film by any means. It wasn't originally meant to be as mysterious as L'aventura, where the missing girl was never found. It's more like the way episodic TV shows such as "The Sopranos" have material cut out at the last minute, suddenly making aspects of the story line "mysterious."

How you figure that?

All you have to do is look, observe, let the film wash over you and work its magic, and all is clear. The only illusions that appear occur in the last few minutes of the film: The click of a camera that isn't there, the sounds of a tennis match that is only being mimed. Everything else that is seen or heard is actually there: the girl, the park, the body, the "badge man" in the grassy knoll —

The what?!

Just a private joke. The film is also very cleverly structured. Did you see Eyes Wide Shut?

Uhhhh … oh yeah, the only boring Tom Cruise movie.

Right. Well, if you remember, that film is based on a series of doublings. Almost everything in Kubrick's film happens in duplicate: two trips to the Long Island estate, two visit to the hooker's apartment, two visits to the costumer, and so on.

Huh.

Blowup is the same. Two scenes with the aspiring models. Two scenes with Ron. Two scenes with Redgrave. Two scenes with the painter and Sarah Miles. Two trips to the park; two visits to the antique shop near it.

Huh.

Also, as in EWS, nothing is as it seems. Models who say they are in Paris are actually in London, high on pot. A gay couple with a poodle act like women, and a female park maintenance staff member is dressed like a man (actually like Alfred Hitchcock). An assignation between two lovers in a park is really a set-up for murder.

Huh.

Nothing may be what it seems on the surface, but it is real. Kubrick's film argues that you can't determine what is real. Can a momentary sighting of a uniformed man invade a married woman's dreams for years? Can a musician whom some say was beaten and taken from a hotel really be, as someone else says, safely borne back to his family in Washington? Whom do you believe in a world in which everyone is trying to seduce you?

Huh.

In fact, I would argue that in a certain vivid way, Eyes Wide Shut is Kubrick's remake of Blowup, an American in England making a film about a guy on a quest in New York, patterned after an Italian director's movie about a man in London on a quest.

You would? Why would you do that?

To amuse myself.

So what's so special about the DVD? Does it have a "David the Photographer" video game on it?

No, no games. Warner has done an efficient job with its single-sided, dual-layered disc. The anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) looks about how I remember it from contemporaneous screenings. The monaural DD English audio sometimes sounds a little shredded in the high registers. The audio also comes in French, and there is a music-only track, the first one I've encountered in a long time. Subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish. There are also two trailers for the film. The most substantial supplement is an audio commentary track by Peter Brunette, who has written a book on Antonioni's films. He walks us through the film and tells a few anecdotes and in large part makes a case that the theme of the film is Antonioni's meditation on perceived reality, a sort of Wittgensteinian game theory of agreed upon rules for what is real and not real. Oh, and it comes in a snap-case. So does all that sound cool? Make you want to run out and watch your grandparents' copy of the disc?

Yeah, I guess that sounds OK. Especially the part with the orgy with the three girls with the photographer and all the paper. Hey, I gotta go! "Punk'd" just came on!

— D.K. Holm



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