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Exceedingly popular, Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up was adored by the public for perhaps all the wrong reasons. It's still upheld as a controversial film and the most memorable scenes involve David Hemmings straddling supermodel Veruschka for a shoot and a menage-a-tois between Hemmings, Jane Birkin, and Gillian Hills. Watching it in hindsight can provide quite a few kicks, considering there is a very young Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck in the Yardbirds' line-up and one can spot a poster stating the death of Bob Dylan, at a time when he switched from acoustic to electric.

It's easy to be swayed by the extravagant coating of Blow-Up. It's reminiscent of Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? in that often, the visual images are remembered more than the underlying themes of the film. But it's very easy to be distracted by the painted face of Peggy Moffitt, dressed in full peacock attire. At some point, one has to realize that these depictions of life, these glamorized depictions, are false images. They are an imitation of life.

Antonioni's Blow-Up follows the life of a photographer in a day. Don't listen to the descriptions that try and sell this film as a thriller. There isn't much thrill in Blow-Up, but that's the point. Hemmings' photographer spends his day shooting bored models, purchasing useless items, searching for a possible image, and becoming fascinated by a woman with no name who may have been involved in an assassination. Throughout the day, he's bothered by Birkin and Hills, young girls who have fantasies of becoming models, of the screaming and giggling variety. Hemmings visits a club later in the film, where The Yardbirds are performing, to find a listless audience. The only time they react is when Jeff Beck destroys his guitar and throws it out into the crowd. While driving, Hemmings runs into a protest, the protestors sticking a sign in his car with flies away immediately.

There is a statement being made here about the culture of the 60's, but it is a statement that goes beyond just a decade. This is a statement about a culture produced by modern times, that is not solely comprised of the young generation, but of all involved in such a society. The scene with the protestors resonated with me. When I was first in college, Bush was in his second term and a war was still being waged on foreign grounds. I was handed a flyer by one of the participants. They wanted to march for peace. They were going to march down the sidewalk with signs asking for peace. At twenty, I stared at the man and said, "Are you serious?" Marching down the sidewalk with signs. That isn't going to change anything. All it's going to do is prove to people outside of you what your beliefs are, and those aren't even deep beliefs. It's an act of ego, not an act for peace. If they really were for peace, they would have been looking up ways to contact their government, anything other than marching out and proving to people that they, they, the elite college students, were against war.

This is true in Blow-Up as well. Statements are worn, not believed. You never know what the protestors are against. This is the immediate theme of Blow-Up, that this is a culture that can't connect to anything, not even music. The models are bored out of their minds, the audience only reacts when they're offered an object to hold onto rather than interacting with the music, and Blow-Up shows a culture that takes to drugs in order to feel any authentic emotions. But the fact that they are turning to drugs is inauthentic in itself. This is a culture devoid of any true feelings and so they are directed by photographers, by fashion, by a presence outside of their beings; they are told what to like.

Veruschka's character is upheld as a paragon of sexuality and beauty, but she's as bored and as vacant as everyone else. Hemmings' character knows plenty of people, male and female friends, but he has absolutely no intimate connections with any of them. In fact, I found the sex scenes to be completely devoid of any intimate feelings at all. Hemmings' relationship with his "wife" lies in ambiguous purgatory. And yet the lives they live are held up to the rest of culture as some dream that we should all try to attain. I can forgive Birkin and Hills' characters due to the fact that they look so young and at least, if anything, they want something. But they want a false image.

Blow-Up has some of the most incredible camerawork. This is, perhaps, to emulate what Hemmings, as a photographer, does. The camera veers away from Hemmings' gaze, showing destroyed buildings, apartment complexes consisting of bland gray and white walls. Hemmings' character can't divorce himself from his aesthetic eye; he's always a photographer. Everything he sees is in the eye of a photographer. It's as important to acknowledge what he doesn't photograph. Hemmings searches out preserved past. He visits an antique store to find props (specifically, a landscape), he goes to the park to find just the right image. Rather than search for an authentic past, he goes to stock images of the past. He ignores the reality of London for romantic visions of the past and future.

As a photographer, Hemmings is also very controlling of everything he encounters. At one point, he controls how Virginia Redgrave's character reacts to music to make it photogenic. He wants to halt her natural reaction so that it's palatable on film. What he's missing is that she's the only character who has an authentic reaction to music.

There is a sense that everything is filtered, or controlled, in this film. Filtered through the lens, filtered through the photographer's eye, filtered through the camera, filtered through the director's eyes. The Yardbirds' performance is faulted by a failing amp, another piece of equipment that filters sound. And as Hemmings is revealing the story of Vanessa Redgrave's unknown woman, his version of the story is filtered through the perceptions of a story-teller.

As Hemmings is walking through the park, he sees a woman interacting with a man, possibly romantic. He begins to take shots until they become aware of his presence. The woman, portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave, insists that he give her the shots. What she does in her private life is her business, he doesn't have the right to publish it. She's so insistent on receiving the film that she follows him to his flat offering money and, when that fails, sex. She runs off before they can have a connection of any sort, forgetting the film. Hemmings develops it, intending to place it in his book at the end as a "peaceful image", blows up the images, and pins them to his wall. As he inspects the images, he begins to realize that the story of a romantic couple gallivanting in the park was a false image. There are signs of distress on Redgrave's face and a murky blur in the bushes. As he blows up that image, he realizes there is a man hiding in the bush, holding a gun. Another image reveals that Redgrave knows the man is there, her gaze initially directing Hemmings.

A man was murdered that day, he realizes and informs a friend in a blase tone. Hemmings has no interest in the man who was murdered. He's fascinated with the mysterious woman who was a part of this crime and so he doesn't call the police, but searches further. The fact that the woman is upset to have her private life on film is intriguing, considering that everyone in this film is willing to portray everything private about themselves.

Privacy is consumable in the modern age. Birkin and Hills, though afraid of taking off all their clothes in front of Hemmings, do so anyway as all is revealed on their flesh. Hemmings appears to have no private life. He's allowed his persona to encapsulate his identity. Every female in this movie is willing to show their bodies, show their privacy for a flash of fame. Except for Redgrave's character. Though she takes off her top to entice Hemmings, the viewer is never allowed to see her fully. She has no name and the fact that Hemmings has pictures of her proves that she exists. When the pictures are taken away, Hemmings doesn't even see who takes them; they're just gone.

The ancient Greeks had stories about men watching virginal goddesses, seeing their nude form as they bathed and they were either struck blind or killed on spot. Redgrave's character is both a harbinger of life and death, an avatar of Kali that Hemmings has captured on film. She wants to take away all evidence of her existence. By creating a story out of the images, Hemmings is trying to control Redgrave's presence. He tries to add explanation to her story. But by being a photographer, by being someone who is of the arts, he is in turn controlled by her and as such, has no claim to the images. Unlike the Greek goddesses though, Redgrave's character doesn't blind Hemmings. Rather, she leads him to a revelation.

At the end, Hemmings sees a group of mimes take to a tennis court, pretending to play the sport. The camera follows the ball as it travels courts, as if the ball really exists. Eventually, the imagined ball flies over the fence and lands in the grass, where Hemmings is watching. They stare at him and imply that he throw it back. Hemmings gazes at the empty space. Finally, he reaches down, picks up nothing, and throws it back to the court. The camera steadies on Hemmings' face as the sound of a tennis ball being whacked by rackets becomes apparent. It's the one time Hemmings connects with anyone in this film. Mimes imitate life. By participating in their act, Hemmings is acknowledging that he too is an imitation of life rather than one who actually lives.

In terms of story-telling, it is also one of the best endings I have ever seen.


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February 2013

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