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In Michelangelo Antonioni's seminal film Blow-Up, there is always more than meets the eye. David Hemmings plays Thomas, a young highly successful fashion photographer who lives a decadent free-wheeling lifestyle in swinging 1960s London ripe with sex, drugs, rock and roll and gorgeous modeling hopefuls banging on his door in hopes that he will turn his famous lens on them.
One day while taking candid pictures in a local park, Thomas comes across a young woman (Vanessa Redgrave) embracing an older man who appears to be her lover. When the woman notices him snapping pictures clandestinely of the private scene, however, she angrily demands that he hand over the film. Intrigued, Thomas instead holds on to the film and proceeds to examine the scene he witnessed more closely by blowing up the images. With each enlarged image, he comes to realize that there was something more sinister going on in the scene he witnessed. What really happened in the park that day? In this fascinating, ambiguous film that was his only commercial hit, Antonioni challenges the viewer to question the very nature of reality versus perception.
CAST AND CREW
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Writers: Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra
English Dialogue: Edward Bond
Based on the Short Story "Final del juego" by Julio Cortazar
Producer: Carlo Ponti
Executive Producer: Pierre Rouve
Cinematography: Carlo Di Palma
Art Direction: Assheton Gorton
Editing: Frank Clarke
Costumes: Jocelyn Rickards
Music: Herbie Hancock
Cast: Vanessa Redgrave (Jane), Sarah Miles (Patricia), David Hemmings (Thomas/The Photographer), John Castle (Patricia's Husband), Jane Birkin (The Blonde), Gillian Hills (The Brunette), Peter Bowles (Ron), Veruschka (Herself), Julian Chagrin (Mime), Claude Chagrin (Mime), Reg Wilkins (Thomas' Assistant), Tsai Chin (Thomas' Receptionist), Susan Brodrick (Antique Shop Owner), Harry Hutchinson (Shopkeeper), Mary Khal (Fashion Editor), The Yardbirds (Themselves), Ronan O'Casey (Jane's Lover in Park)
C - 110 min.
Why BLOW-UP is Essential
Blow-Up heavily influenced a generation of up and coming filmmakers and artists of the 1960s and 70s. It became the definitive film that depicted swinging London in the 1960s.
While filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni made numerous notable contributions to modern cinema, Blow-Up was his most commercially successful, reaching a wider audience than any of his previous films. It was his artistic breakthrough and the most famous film of his career.
Blow-Up was highly praised by critics and was honored by winning first prize at the Cannes Film Festival (the Palme d'Or). It was named Best Film of the year by the National Society of Film Critics and received Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Screenplay.
Even though it has been nearly 50 years since Blow-Up was released, it still continues to inspire new generations of filmmakers and artists with its challenging narrative and cutting-edge visual style. It is a film that still inspires debate and raises provocative questions about the nature of reality and the line between the real and the imaginary.
Blow-Up features a terrific early jazz score by Herbie Hancock (credited in the film as Herbert Hancock). It was the first of many film and television soundtracks to which the famed innovative jazz musician and composer would contribute throughout his illustrious career.
The success of Blow-Up both commercially and critically was a direct contributing factor in the dissolution of Hollywood's antiquated Production Code. The Production Code, which had been developed in the 1930s to prevent anything morally questionable from making it onto the big screen, had long governed the studios' body of work in America. When Blow-Up was released theatrically in the U.S. without the Production Code seal of approval, it helped usher in a new modern, freer era of creative filmmaking. Its success as a film that frankly depicted modern decadence in swinging 60s London, as Time magazine put it in a 2007 article, "helped liberate Hollywood from its puritanical prurience" and eventually gave way to the more updated MPAA ratings system.
The success of the film helped make lead actor David Hemmings a star. It was his breakthrough role and helped establish him as a major star in Britain during the 1960s. In his autobiography, he called starring in Blow-Up "probably the critical event of my professional life."
by Andrea Passafiume
Francis Ford Coppola used Blow-Up as an inspiration for his 1974 thriller The Conversation in which an expert sound surveillance man played by Gene Hackman gets mixed up in a murder mystery.
Brian De Palma's 1981 thriller Blow Out starring John Travolta and Nancy Allen paid unofficial homage to Blow-Up with its plot. Travolta played a Hollywood sound engineer who happens to record a Chappaquiddick-like car accident involving a politician and a prostitute and begins to obsessively put together pieces of the puzzle in order to find out what really happened.
Several other films including High Anxiety (1977) and Blade Runner (1982) have used the plot device of blowing up a photograph in order to see a hidden detail in an image that proves pivotal.
In the season 3 episode of the popular 1970s television show The Brady Bunch titled "Click" Greg obsessively blows up a photograph he took at the high school football game in order to reveal a game-changing detail that was previously missed.
There is a brief scene in Amy Heckerling's 2007 romantic comedy I Could Never Be Your Woman in which Paul Rudd and Michelle Pfeiffer playfully re-enact the famous scene in Blow-Up in which Thomas straddles Veruschka while taking her photograph.
In the original music video to Seal's 1995 hit song "A Kiss from a Rose" he plays a fashion photographer who at one point re-creates the sensual Veruschka/Thomas scene with a model.
The first two Austin Powers films pay subtle homage to Blow-Up in scenes that feature Austin (Mike Myers) taking photographs at fashion photo shoots.
by Andrea Passafiume
While the photographer played by David Hemmings is never named in the film, his character is called "Thomas" in the screenplay.
The band that Thomas watches in concert briefly towards the end of the film is the real-life group The Yardbirds featuring a young Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. The song they perform is "Stroll On."
Blow-Up was Michelangelo Antonioni's first entirely English-language film.
Actress, singer and fashion icon Jane Birkin plays the unnamed young blonde who engages in a Mnage trois with Thomas and her girlfriend. Birkin was also famously the inspiration for the coveted Herms Birkin bag.
The rabble-rousing costumed and made up young people at the beginning and end of the film are meant to be English students participating in a traditional ritual known as Rag Week, during which mobs of students dress up and take to the streets to raise money for charity.
Blow-Up did not premiere in Italy because of the national censors' disapproval of the film, mainly due to the scene with Thomas and the two young girls who visit his studio. The first screening held on the peninsula was in the independent Republic of San Marino.
In 1985 an interviewer asked Antonioni about the directing offers he received following the initial success of Blow-Up. "An American producer wanted me to shoot a fairy tale, Peter Pan," he said. "Can you see me doing Peter Pan? He called me into his office, and on the one side there was Mia Farrow, who was to take the lead role, on the other side was the composer and the artistic director (the music and scenery were all ready), and in front of me there was this producer with his checkbook out, offering one million and three hundred thousand dollars. And then I just asked: 'Since everything is ready, what do you need me for?' Those guys never understood why I turned them down. So many of my colleagues would have accepted. I have to say that sacrifices of a material kind have never really affected me much. The sacrifices that matter have to do with our view of life, they are of the moral kind. It's when you lie to yourself, when you compromise, that you really pay for it."
According to star David Hemmings, there was buzz that actor Terence Stamp had already been signed to play the lead role before he landed it himself. "Subsequently I learned that after Stamp had met Antonioni on the set of Modesty Blaise (1966)," said Hemmings in his autobiography, "the director had talked to him at some length about the picture...and even asked him for a list of his presumably 'swinging' friends. He offered Stamp's then lover, Jean Shrimpton, a role, but didn't show him the script or tell him much more. Terence was determined to work with the Maestro and, despite the vagueness and secrecy surrounding the project, put off a lot of other work to keep himself free for it when it eventually happened. He went and saw Antonioni in Rome a few times, but was so in awe of the great director that he didn't follow his instincts and others' advice to extract a contract or some kind of written commitment from him. Negotiations with MGM got under way and Stamp settled in to the task of learning how to behave like a photographer. Nevertheless, once Antonioni was in London making the final preparations for the movie, for some reason it seemed he changed his mind and no longer saw Terence in the role...Although he'd never had a contract, he still managed to get MGM to pay him some money to compensate him for all the other jobs he'd blanked in order to work with the Maestro. Astonishing as it may seem, I've never met Terence, although I fear he's never forgiven me for doing him out of Thomas in Blow-Up. But then, he did me out of Captain Troy in Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), so I guess we're quits."
According to David Hemmings, the scenes in the park were filmed "over a series of consecutive days in Maryon Park, Woolwich, an extraordinary and underused oasis of rus in urbe, just beyond Charlton Athletic's football ground."
In order to communicate with and understand Antonioni better, David Hemmings was inspired to learn the Italian language, which he started doing on the set of Blow-Up. "...as a result," he said in his autobiography, "Italian is now my second language and Rome is my favorite city."
According to David Hemmings, the famous party scene towards the end of the film was quite realistic. "To give as much verisimilitude as possible to this party scene," he said, "Antonioni had adopted the risky strategy of instructing that all the extras be given massive joints made with the best Lebanese hash. The air was thick with ganja smoke and the bit players were all lolling around, giggling inanely and doing nothing to help the concentration of the speaking parts."
Famous Quotes from BLOW-UP
"My private life is already in a mess. It would be a disaster if..."
"So what? Nothing like a little disaster for sorting things out."
--Jane (Vanessa Redgrave) and Thomas (David Hemmings)
"Don't let's spoil everything. We've only just met."
"No, we haven't met. You've never seen me."
--Thomas and Jane
"I thought you were supposed to be in Paris."
"I am in Paris."
--Thomas and Veruschka (Herself)
"Couldn't you just give us a couple of minutes?"
"Couple of minutes? I haven't even got a couple of minutes to have my appendix out."--The Blonde (Jane Birkin) and Thomas
"What did you see in that park?"
--Ron (Peter Bowles) and Thomas
Compiled by Andrea Passafiume
Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni had firmly established himself as one of the most interesting filmmakers of the 1960s with a string of fascinating, if sometimes inscrutable, films including L'Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), L'Eclisse (1962) and Red Desert (1964). Antonioni's work usually challenged traditional approaches to narrative, and he quickly became one of the most exciting and influential voices of European cinema.
Soon after the success of these films, Antonioni signed a contract with Italian producer Carlo Ponti which obligated him to a three picture deal. The first film that Antonioni decided to make as part of the contract was Blow-Up.
The initial inspiration for Blow-Up came to Antonioni in the form of Argentinean writer Julio Cortzar's short story "Las babas del diablo" ("The Devil's Drool") in which a translator living in Paris named Michel one day sees a woman with an adolescent boy. Using his camera to take some candid shots of the scene, which appears to be a seduction in progress, the angry woman demands to be given the film. As she is joined by another man who appears to be involved in the situation, the boy runs off. Using the process of blowing up the photograph to take a closer look, he soon realizes that the scene was something more sinister that his picture taking interrupted.
Antonioni was drawn to the story's central idea of using a photographic enlargement to reveal a hidden truth or meaning, and he planned to do a loose adaptation of it drawing from his own imagination.
He began constructing the story of a highly successful fashion photographer named Thomas who snaps some photos of a woman in a park embracing an older man who appears to be her lover. When she angrily demands the film back, he is intrigued enough to enlarge the images he took, which soon reveals that he may have just witnessed -- and captured on film -- a murder in progress.
Antonioni gave a great deal of thought to where the setting of the film would be. He felt that because Thomas was a much in-demand high fashion photographer, Blow-Up could easily have been set in New York or Paris. He also considered setting it in Italy, but he realized early on that this would be "impossible" for the story. "A character like Thomas doesn't really exist in our country," he explained. "At the time of the film's narrative, the place where the famous photographers worked was London. Thomas, furthermore, finds himself at the center of a series of events which are more easily associated with life in London, rather than life in Rome or Milan. He has chosen the new mentality that took over in Great Britain with the 1960s revolution in lifestyle, behavior, and morality, above all among the young artists, publicists, stylists, or musicians that were part of the pop movement. Thomas leads a life as regulated as a ceremonial, and it is not by accident that he claims not to know any law other than that of anarchy."
The character of Thomas wasn't the only reason that Antonioni abandoned his usual Italian setting for London. "The risqu aspect of the film," he said, "would have made filming in Italy almost impossible. Italian censorship would never have tolerated some of those images."
The Italian director had already spent time living in London while his longtime paramour and frequent creative muse, the actress Monica Vitti, worked on Joseph Losey's 1966 film Modesty Blaise. He spent time getting to know the city as well as becoming a frequent observer of the fashion and art world, soaking in the details of what would become the glamorous world of Blow-Up.During his stay in London, Antonioni spent time observing some of the era's most important professional photographers at work to help inform the character of Thomas. Antonioni seemed to be most inspired by his time with high fashion photographers David Bailey and John Cowan, whose kinetic working styles and dynamic personalities helped provide inspiration.
To play the role of Thomas, Antonioni chose actor David Hemmings, whom he discovered performing in a small London stage production. The versatile Hemmings had been working steadily in film, stage and television roles since the 1950s, but had not yet achieved stardom. That would all change with Blow-Up.
When Antonioni met Hemmings backstage after his performance in the play Adventures in the Skin Trade, Hemmings could register no sign of approval with his performance in the director's eyes. "To say that my first meeting with the great director himself was a disappointment would be understating it," said Hemmings in his 2004 autobiography Blow-Up and Other Exaggerations. "As far as I could tell, he didn't react at all to what I'd just done. He took my hand perfunctorily with a doleful shake of his head, as if he'd just slept through the play, showing, as far as I could see, absolutely no interest in my performance, and that was that."
However, the next day, Hemmings got a call that Antonioni wanted to meet with him at the Savoy Hotel in London. Hemmings was incredulous, but intrigued. "After a perfunctory greeting," recalled Hemmings about the meeting, "he studied me and waggled his head from side to side in a gesture of profound negativity. I had been in the room less than five minutes and I was already convinced the interview wasn't going well. After a few moments he confirmed this with another prolonged bout of head shaking, as if rejecting an unacceptable truffle. In a thick Italian accent, he said, 'You looka too younga.'"
"I wasn't going to give in that easily. 'Oh no,' I answered emphatically, 'I can look older. I've done it before. You can trust me on this. I am an actor.' He smiled indulgently; he was a much older hand at this game than me. His halting English gave him the excuse to insert death-defying chasms of silent suspense. He shook his head again. 'How do you look blond?'"
"'Much older,' I replied instantly."
When Antonioni appeared skeptical, Hemmings thought that was the end of the road. "I left the Savoy in the certain knowledge that my encounter with the Maestro had been a total failure and I'd blown a big chance. I took the train back to Elmhurst Court in Croydon in a state of deep depression."
To his great surprise, however, he received a call from producer Carlo Ponti the next day inviting him to do a screen test at the studio of photographer John Cowan in Pottery Lane, which was to be a shooting location for the film. At the test, it seemed to Hemmings that no matter what he did, he could not please Antonioni, who kept shaking his head as if he did not like what he saw. "I was boiling with resentment," said Hemmings. "Why did the bastard ask me here? Could you please just not waggle that chin again!"
As Hemmings tried his best to improvise and find something - anything -- to impress the great director, he could not help feeling that he was blowing his chance. "The director sat unmoving beneath the camera and watched," he said. "Every time I looked at him, his head was still shaking. No, no, it said. Wrong. More unpleasant thoughts crossed my mind. Well, fuck you! I've given you my best shot. I can't do any more...I walked out aching with a massive depression and a badly bruised ego."
Two days later, Hemmings got the phone call that he had won the part. He couldn't believe it. "Everything in his body language said he thought I was crap," he said. "Now he's given me the bloody part."
Hemmings didn't see the script until the first day of his costume fitting for the film. "As soon as I was out of the building," he said, "I dived into the nearest pub...ordered what I've always called a PoG - a pint of Guinness - which I didn't remember drinking, opened the script and buried myself in it. I read it three times from cover to cover before I rang [my girlfriend] Jane and told her. 'What's it like?' she asked eagerly. 'God knows,' I said, shaking my head rather like the Maestro. 'I don't understand what the hell it's about.' All I cared about then was that I had secured one of the most coveted film roles in Britain at the time."
Antonioni found co-star Vanessa Redgrave while she too was performing on the London stage in the title role of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Redgrave was already an established stage actress and had begun to make a splash in films such as Morgan! and A Man for All Seasons (both 1966). In her 1991 autobiography Redgrave recalled how Antonioni decided that her character Jane should look a little different from her. "Antonioni asked me to dye my hair black and shave an inch from my hairline to give me a higher forehead," she said. Redgrave obliged.
The days leading up to shooting the film were "angst-ridden" for David Hemmings. "Apart from all the usual strain of meeting dozens of new people involved in a production," he said, "at the front of my mind was the fiercely nagging doubt as to whether I could deliver the nebulous character. There seemed, on paper, so little to him; and anyway, the director himself in our acquaintance thus far had demonstrated no faith whatsoever in my abilities - apart, of course, from giving me the role. However, while I longed to get started on the first day's shooting, the week passed in a haze of frantic preparation. The last couple of days were the worst."
Blow-Up would become a complex multilayered film, but Antonioni wanted to remain flexible while he worked and let the film decide for itself what it wanted to be. "...my narratives are documents built not on a suite of coherent ideas," he said in an interview, "but rather on flashes, ideas that come forth every other moment. I refuse, therefore, to speak about the intentions I place in the film that, at one moment, occupies all my time and attention. It is impossible for me to analyze any of my works before the work is completed. I am a creator of films, a man who has certain ideas and who hopes to express them with sincerity and clarity. I am always telling a story. As far as knowing whether it is a story with any correlation to the world we live in, I am always unable to decide before telling it. When I began to think about this film, I often stayed awake at night, thinking and taking notes...But at a certain point, I told myself: let's start making the film--that is to say, let's try, for better or for worse, to tell the story..."
In a 1969 interview Antonioni told Roger Ebert, "I never discuss the plots of my film. I never release a synopsis before I begin shooting. How could I? Until the film is edited, I have no idea myself what it will be about. And perhaps not even then. Perhaps the film will only be a mood, or a statement about a style of life. Perhaps it has no plot at all, in the way you use the word."
by Andrea Passafiume
In April 1966 director Michelangelo Antonioni assembled his cast and crew for Blow-Up in England to begin shooting. Even though the film was set in London, Antonioni was adamant that the story wasn't necessarily about London. "I was hoping," he explained, "that no one in seeing the finished film would say: Blow-Up is a typically British film. At the same time, I was hoping that no one would define it exclusively as an Italian film."
Blow-Up would be Antonioni's first film in English and his second in color. Antonioni brought along skilled cinematographer Carlo Di Palma as his Director of Photography to help him achieve the particular look he wanted for the film. Di Palma had also shot Antonioni's first color film Red Desert (1964), which had been highly praised for its stunning atmospheric landscapes and use of color.
Star David Hemmings was "nervous as hell, but disguising it" according to his 2004 autobiography Blow-Up and Other Exaggerations. To loosen things up, he decided to start the production with a bang. Literally.
"In those days, when the money involved in making a picture was a lot less than it is now," said Hemmings, "it wasn't an uncommon opening ritual to test the mettle of a director [on a new production] by winding him up a little. In this case, we thought it would be a good wheeze to blow up a beautiful Mulliner Park Ward convertible Rolls-Royce. In one of the earliest shots, my character, Thomas...drives the Rolls away from a dosshouse where he's spent the night, snapping the run-down inmates. Thinking fast and with most of the crew ready to help, we suspended a pair of large steel plates under the engine and loaded them with nuts and bolts and any other oily metal objects we could find that looked like bits of engine. We also wired in under the bonnet a small, harmless bomb that would explode with a loud bang and a dense cloud of smoke."
Having carefully planned the prank with the prop master who had a "wicked" sense of humor, Hemmings prepared for the first shot with the cameras rolling. "I drove the car round the corner into view and Props gave me the nod," he recalled. "I pulled a lever that had been rigged up for me under the dashboard and, instantly, a muffled explosion echoed off the walls of the drab brick buildings, immediately followed by a metallic clatter of detritus tumbling onto tarmac and a plume of blue-grey smoke spewing from under the bonnet of the vehicle. I snapped off the motor and came to a screeching halt."
"An ominous silence followed the bang and the last rattle of metal. In the mirror I saw what looked like an entire engine scattered along the street behind me. It was so convincing, I almost believed the car had blown up."
"Pierre Rouve, the producer, stood rigid at the roadside, as if paralyzed by cardiac arrest," Hemmings continued. "He had bought the car for the production from Jimmy Savile and I guess he was planning to keep it for himself afterwards. Now it looked like a write-off. The Maestro [Antonioni] himself barely winced. With a few tidy strides, he walked up to the sick-looking Roller, beckoning a spark to open the bonnet. He peered inside. Everyone on the set was laughing."
"Antonioni slowly straightened his back and looked up at me where I still sat, pale and shamefaced, in the driver's seat. There was a shrewd, angry glint in his eye. 'Che cazzo fai?' he rasped icily. 'Stronzo! You have to learn now, David, this is not a picnic. We are here to work!' He knew perfectly well we'd been trying to wind him up, but now, a little late and with a nasty hollowness in my gut, I realized he was a very serious man indeed, entirely his own master, accountable to no one. And one of the greatest directors I ever worked for."
As filming continued, Hemmings was annoyed to see that Antonioni was still shaking his head back and forth in the gesture that he had interpreted as negative during his audition process. However, he soon realized that the gesture was simply a tic and had no negative meaning at all. "Once the mystery was solved," he said, "I was prepared to love him; and I never told him about the week of hell he'd put me through as a result of his affliction."
Antonioni said that with Blow-Up he was aiming for a sense of "cold, calculated sensuality." He tried to help capture that feeling by using what he called "enhanced" or the "hardest and most aggressive" of colors. It was part of his vision to "recreate reality in an abstract form. I wanted to question 'the reality of our experience,'" he said. "This is an essential point in the visual aspect of the film, considering that one of its main themes is to see or not to see the correct value of things."
Acknowledging that he liked to convey "reality in terms which are not entirely those of realism," Antonioni had definite ideas about how the film should look. "I wanted a gray sky...rather than a pastel-blue horizon. I was looking for realistic colors, and I had already given up, for this film, on certain effects I had captured in Red Desert. At that time, I had worked hard to ensure flattened perspectives with the telephoto lens, to compress characters and things and to place them in juxtaposition with one another. In Blow-Up, I instead opened up the perspective, I tried to put air and space between people and things. The only time I made use of the telephoto lens in the film was when I had to--for example in the sequence when Thomas is caught in the middle of the crowd."
To help translate his vision of a specific heightened reality, Antonioni altered certain visuals by painting trees, streets, grass and houses in order to get the look he wanted on film. "[Antonioni] was feverishly attentive to detail," said David Hemmings. "A massive Alitalia sign in the Elephant and Castle was painted black and whole streets in Brixton were sprayed red. When he told Di Palma, 'I want every tree in the park painted green,' Carlo understood. But the British set designer, Michael Balfour, gazed at him with puzzled horror. 'They are green.'"
"'The trunks are brown. I want them green, too,' the Maestro ordered lightly, as if it were a perfectly reasonable request, 'to match this fence. And I want all the paths sprayed black.' Some deferential gofer on the crew was dispatched to find the paint; the rest of us sat in the White Horse on a corner near an entrance to Maryon Park, while the crew improved upon nature by spraying all the vegetation in the park a vernal green. It was soon made clear that cutting corners to save money had no place in Antonioni's film-making."
To Antonioni, this tinkering with nature was essential. "It's untrue to say that the colors I use are not those of reality," he said. "They are real: the red I use is red; the green, green; blue, blue; and yellow, yellow. It's a matter of arranging them differently from the way I find them, but they are always real colors. So it's not true that when I tint a road or a wall, they become unreal. They stay real, though colored differently from my scene. I'm forced to modify or eliminate colors as I find them in order to make an acceptable composition."
Antonioni felt that Blow-Up marked a "radical" departure from his previous films. "In my other films," he explained, "I have tried to probe the relationship between one person and another--most often, their love relationship, the fragility of their feelings, and so on. But in this film, none of these themes matters. Here, the relationship is between an individual and reality--those things that are around him. There are no love stories in this film, even though we see relations between men and women. The experience of the protagonist is not a sentimental nor an amorous one but rather, one regarding his relationship with the world, with the things he finds in front of him. He is a photographer. One day, he photographs two people in a park, an element of reality that appears real. And it is. But reality has a quality of freedom about it that is hard to explain. This film, perhaps, is like Zen; the moment you explain it, you betray it. I mean, a film you can explain in words, is not a real film."
While there was always a screenplay to work from, Antonioni allowed himself plenty of freedom for the creative process to be organic. "I depart from the script constantly," he said in a 1969 interview. "I may film scenes I had no intention of filming; things suggest themselves on location, and we improvise. I try not to think about it too much. Then, in the cutting room, I take the film and start to put it together, and only then do I begin to get an idea of what it is about."
During production, the actors had to trust Antonioni. "We had really no idea where we were going, and how it was going to make any sense," said David Hemmings, "but from the start, without a moment's uncertainty, Antonioni conducted the whole movie with the ruthless authority of a Thomas Beecham. He had the backing of a gang of key operators he'd brought from Italy. They'd worked with him many times and had learned his moods and whims...I understood clearly now that he didn't consider it his job to enlighten or educate his actors; to him we were like the colors on an artist's palette. When people have been kind enough (and I mean that) to tell me I was good in Blow-Up, I've often felt that I'd done no more than a dab of yellow paint in Van Gogh's Sunflowers."
Antonioni shot some of the scenes in the real-life studio of famed London photographer John Cowan, one of the main figures who had influenced the character of Thomas in the script. Cowan rented out his space to Antonioni and acted as an advisor to him on certain details to help provide an authenticity to the world of high fashion photography.
According to one of the models who appeared in the film, Jill Kennington, the famous scene between Thomas and real-life fashion icon Veruschka as he whips her into a sensual frenzy while snapping her picture was quite authentic. "[That] scene for Blow-Up was pure Cowan," she told Vanity Fair in 2011. "Antonioni must have seen him working--I never saw anyone else take pictures quite that way. The shooting on the floor downwards, completely fluid, unhindered by tripods, etc., was typical Cowan."
Actress Vanessa Redgrave had to work double duty while filming her role as the inscrutable Jane in Blow-Up. She would shoot with Antonioni during the day in London while at the same time starring every night, plus two matinees a week, in the title role of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie on stage. Despite the rough schedule, however, Redgrave found it very rewarding to work with Antonioni. "With Michelangelo the camera angle, its movement, the frame, their color, position, and movement, whether human or inanimate, told his story," she said in her 1991 autobiography. "The dialogue was of no great significance, or certainly of secondary importance. Trained as a dancer, I was able to appreciate this. I learned to look sharply and precisely at the shapes and colors around me. Exact positions, angles of the body, the head and shoulders, exact tempo of movement, were vital to him. I had never encountered such an eye in the cinema. In English and American films, colors and shapes were part of the decoration, appropriate, but only as background to the action. In Michelangelo's films they were the action."
To Redgrave, Blow-Up was a film that was as much about listening as it was seeing. "...Michelangelo's ear, not for dialogue but for the sounds of nature and normally inanimate objects," she said, "was as subtle as his eye."
Throughout the shooting, according to David Hemmings, Antonioni and Director of Photography Carlo Di Palma argued constantly. "There was also a sense that Di Palma was pretender to the Maestro's throne, Carlo's Iago to Antonioni's Othello, which may have added to the palpable tension between them," he said. "He certainly had no qualms about challenging his boss. Antonioni, being the Maestro, never let him have his way completely but, in the end result, it was clear that their explosive rapport produced astonishing images. In achieving this, though, there were these moments of quite alarming aggression, which never perhaps reached their natural conclusion, inasmuch as the two men never hit each other, but a great deal of shouting, arm waving and surrogate kicking went on - fireplaces, ladders, tables, anything. Kick, kick, kick."
Hemmings was amazed at Antonioni's energy and stamina throughout the production. "I was an energetic 25-year-old - probably more so than most - and I was fascinated by the way Antonioni, at 54, could operate around the clock and still sustain a momentum he needed to get him through the production," he said. "It seemed that, however late he'd gone to bed the night before, he appeared on the set each morning as bright-eyed as a bantam cock, and just as well-groomed...For a man of his age, he was impressively eager for new experiences. I think perhaps he was a little in thrall to the idea of 'swinging London' and even once shooting had started, he spent a great deal of time hanging around in search of oscillation, often with photographers and models. Perhaps he considered it all research, but in his quest he raved ceaselessly, night after night in clubs and discotheques, in the company of the new goddesses of the fashion world, with his fierce eyes shining intensely in the dark, grave face as he drank grappa till his ears bubbled and tried to extract every last ounce from the swinging city - a man from Rome, a modern Bellini, determined to leave his mark in the middle of the liberated new world."
When shooting was complete, Antonioni moved into post-production and watched all the elements of Blow-Up start to come together in the editing room. One of the finishing touches he added to the film was the modern jazz score by composer Herbie Hancock. It was the first film score composed by the famed innovative musician who was emerging at the time as a successful solo artist in addition to being a part of the legendary Miles Davis Quintet.
MGM was prepared to release Blow-Up when it was finished. However, it was hindered by the refusal of the Production Code office to issue its seal of approval. The office had a particular objection to the scene in which Thomas has a playful Mnage trois with two giggling young aspiring models that featured uninhibited nudity and sexuality. The Production Code had been established in the 1930s as a way to set detailed guidelines for what was and was not acceptable content for films being shown in America. Beginning in 1934, all films released in U.S. theaters were required to obtain a certificate of approval to indicate that they met the code's strict guidelines. The Code was not created or regulated by the government, but the Hollywood executives who created it wanted to have a form of self-regulation in order to avoid any threat of government censorship down the line.
By the 1950s, however, the grip of the Production Code was beginning to loosen when Hollywood was faced with competition from television and European art house cinema. More and more films were dealing with previously taboo subject matter. American cultural attitudes had also begun to change, and the Code no longer had the power it once did to keep audiences away by withholding its seal of approval.
MGM decided to release Blow-Up without the Production Code office seal of approval through a subsidiary company they created called Premier Productions. It was a sign of the times that changes were needed regarding film content regulation.
Blow-Up was a hit on the art house circuit when it was released and caused a sensation with its enigmatic narrative and vibrant frank depiction of the swinging London scene. It became Antonioni's first (and only) commercial success, eliciting high praise from critics along the way. For some, Blow-Up was the most accessible work of Antonioni's career.
The film's cryptic and inconclusive ending challenged viewers and was highly open to interpretation. Viewers, critics and scholars made a pastime out of assigning meaning to it. Some offered theories about the illusory nature of art and life, the idea that reality is a construction and the relationship between the real and the imaginary. Some saw the film as Antonioni's depiction of his personal experience being an artist and filmmaker, while others saw it as a commentary on hedonism and alienation. In the end, no definitive solutions were offered, which only added to the film's allure. It was a mystery with no resolution that made the audience think. "Blow-Up is a performance without an epilogue," said Antonioni, "comparable to those stories from the twenties where F. Scott Fitzgerald showed his disgust with life."
Antonioni offered little in the way of insight into his intentions with the film, and was always clear that meaning wasn't meant to be spelled out. "By developing with enlargers...things emerge that we probably don't see with the naked eye...," he said. "The photographer in Blow-Up, who is not a philosopher, wants to see things closer up. But it so happens that, by enlarging too far, the object itself decomposes and disappears. Hence there's a moment in which we grasp reality, but then the moment passes. This was in part the meaning of Blow-Up."
Vanessa Redgrave offered her take on the film in her autobiography. "Blow-Up was about the unity and difference of essence and phenomena, the conflict between what is, objectively, and what is seen, heard, or grasped by the individual."
The film made David Hemmings a star, though he could never pinpoint what exactly about the film spoke to so many people. "Certainly for me, there has been no escaping Blow-Up," he said. "And that's OK. Much talked about, much vaunted, the definitive film of London in the 'swinging sixties'. There's no question that it has found a certain resonance with several generations and still stands as a cult strip of celluloid that is forever a part of sixties folklore. But why? It is not, in my view, such a great movie; perhaps not even a good one. It's confusing and offers no solutions to the problems it creates. But it's certainly beautiful...I don't know that anyone can truly define Blow-Up; not Antonioni himself, nor Carlo Di Palma, his director of photography, nor even the elegant Piers Haggard, who spent a lot of time patiently scratching his head as the official interpreter of the script."
Blow-Up went on to collect a number of awards and honors, including the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It also received two Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Screenplay.
The film went on to become a modern art house classic and influenced a generation of artists and upcoming filmmakers including Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese. The success of the film without the Production Code office's seal of approval helped usher in a new era for modern cinema in which the Code was soon eliminated altogether in favor of the more up-to-date MPAA ratings system. As Time magazine's Richard Corliss said in a 2007 article, "[Blow-Up] grossed $20 million (about $120 million today) on a $1.8 million budget and helped liberate Hollywood from its puritanical prurience."
Blow-Up's success also helped usher in an exciting new era of modern art house cinema in which films often challenged the traditional "rules" of narrative and embraced fresh new ideas that often pushed the boundaries of conventional cinema. "For about a decade, thanks to Antonioni," said Richard Corliss, "Hollywood movies had permission to be enigmatic, unflinching and adult."
Blow-Up continues to this day to inspire new critiques, interpretations and analysis. In 1969 Antonioni said, "In Blow-Up, a lot of energy was wasted by people trying to decide if there was a murder, or wasn't a murder, when in fact the film was not about a murder but about a photographer. Those pictures he took were simply one of the things that happened to him, but anything could have happened to him: He was a person living in that world, possessing that personality...Blow-Up is a film that lends itself to many interpretations because the issue behind it is precisely the appearance of reality. Therefore, everyone can think what he wants."
by Andrea Passafiume
Thomas, a bored London fashion photographer nurturing plans to create a more ambitious album of photos depicting the social realities of contemporary life, happens upon a young woman and an older man embracing in a city park. He begins to photograph them, but the young woman confronts him and demands the negatives. Inviting her to his apartment, he switches film canisters behind her back and develops the photos after she leaves. In the process of making blowups of the pictures he discerns a gunman hidden in the bushes. A playful orgy with two would-be models distracts him from the task at hand. When he returns to the photos and examines them more closely, he realizes that the murder plot was successful after all, but his attempt at playing detective is frustrated at every turn.
From the opening sequence, with its truckful of shouting mimes careening wildly through London streets, Blow-Up (1966) invites the audience to view it as a parable or allegory. With the notable exception of Pauline Kael, who dismissed director Michelangelo Antonioni as a gawking "tourist" among London's youth culture and the film itself as a facile game akin to Last Year at Marienbad (1961), few critics have been able to resist the temptation to decipher Antonioni's puzzle on their own terms. The film has variously been interpreted as an allegory of reality versus illusion, as a commentary on the decadence and lack of meaningful relationships in modern life, or as Antonioni's personal statement about his role as an artist in the world. Certainly, the central sequence of the film, in which the photographer constructs a narrative of the murder by piecing the blowups together, is a metaphor for the filmmaking process and how photography and editing reconstructs meaning from the raw material of existence. Antonioni's self-reflexive meditation on the nature of film has had a direct impact on younger generations of filmmakers, particularly Francis Coppola in The Conversation (1974) and Brian De Palma in Blow Out (1981). A number of critics have singled out the opening and closing sequences with the mimes as examples of forced symbolism, though it should be pointed out that they are realistically motivated, setting the film in the spring during Rag Week, when mobs of students dress up and roam the streets raising money for charities.
In his second color film and first English-language feature, Antonioni largely abandoned the deliberately artificial, expressionistic color effects of Red Desert (1964), such as a cart of fruit painted entirely gray, although some of the London city blocks depicted in the film are disturbingly uniform in color. Rather, Antonioni sets up a more subtle play between black and white and color, the black-and-white elements (photographs, mimes, the interior of the music club) generally being associated with the world of artistic creation, as some critics have pointed out. Blow-Up also marked a departure for Antonioni in that it was an adaptation of a literary work (Argentinean writer Julio Cortazar's brilliant short story of the same title) rather than a wholly original story. In Cortazar's story, a translator and amateur photographer in Paris interrupts an encounter between an older woman and a young boy. After blowing up the photos, he realizes with dismay that that woman was not attempting to seduce the young boy herself but was acting as a go-between for a third character, a man waiting nearby. Antonioni's screenplay, written with his regular Italian collaborator Tonino Guerra and the English playwright Edward Bond, preserves only a few basic elements of Cortazar's original story.
At the same time, Antonioni maintained the spontaneous, improvisatory approach which has set him apart as a director; typically, he refrains from planning specific shot setups until he actually arrives on location and is able to experience things firsthand. During an interview with the French magazine Cahiers du Cinema he said: "I believe in working in a way which is at once reflective and intuitive. For example, a few minutes ago, I isolated myself in order to reflect on the scene which would follow. I tried to put myself in the shoes of the principal character of the film, when he discovers the body. I walked over there, on the plot of grass, into the shadows, under the mysterious brightness of the neon sign. I approached the make-believe corpse and I truly identified with the film's protagonist. I was fully able to imagine his excitement, his emotions, the feelings that would be triggered by my hero's discovery of the body, the way he was going to conduct himself, to move, to react. This lasted only a minute or two. Then the rest of the equipment arrived, and my inspirations and sensations put out to sea." The director's perfectionism and slow working methods no doubt caused considerable anxiety for the studio executives at MGM. According to one account, a sign was posted on the wall of the studio's temporary office in London: "A shot a day keeps the producer away!"
Antonioni's frankness in depicting the decadence of London's youth culture in the 1960s aroused considerable controversy at the time. Most notoriously, in one scene the photographer takes part in an orgy with a pair of girls who come to his studio looking for a break into the fashion industry. The fleeting glimpses of nudity in this scene, which Antonioni steadfastly refused to cut, resulted in the film being released without the MPAA's seal of approval. Far from damaging the film's commercial prospects, it helped make Blow-Up a breakthrough art house hit, the greatest of Antonioni's career; it also contributed to the ultimate demise of the Production Code and the establishment of a ratings system.
David Hemmings, who had played minor roles in films such as Otto Preminger's Saint Joan (1957), made his career breakthrough with Blow-Up; his next major project was Camelot (1967), which teamed him once again with Vanessa Redgrave. Redgrave, who made a deep impression on the London stage in the lead role The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and won Best Actress at Cannes for Morgan! A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966), appears only briefly in Blow-Up but nonetheless stands out as the inscrutable young woman whom Thomas photographs in the park. Jane Birkin gained notoriety in her early role here as a giggling teenager; since then, she has worked mainly in France, appearing in such acclaimed films as Bertrand Tavernier's Daddy Nostalgie (1990) and Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse (1991). The Yardbirds also make a cameo appearance as themselves in a crowded club. At the time of the film's release Andrew Sarris wrote, "It is possible that this year's contributions from Ford, Dreyer, Hitchcock, Chabrol, and Godard may cut deeper and live longer, but no other movie this year has done as much to preserve my faith in the future of the medium." Blow-Up received Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.
Producers: Carlo Ponti and Pierre Rouve
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Screenplay: Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra and Edward Bond, based on the short story by Julio Cortazar
Cinematography: Carlo di Palma
Editing: Frank Clarke
Music: Herbie Hancock, The Yardbirds
Set Design: Assheton Gorton
Cast: David Hemmings (Thomas), Vanessa Redgrave (the Girl), Sarah Miles (Patricia); John Castle (Painter), Jane Birkin (Teenager), Gillian Hills (Teenager), Susan Broderick (Antique Shop Owner), Peter Bowles (Ron), Veruschka von Lehndorff (as Herself), The Yardbirds.
C-112m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by James Steffen
"It will be a crying shame if the audience that will undoubtedly be attracted to Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up because it has been denied a Production Code seal goes looking more for sensual titillation than for the good, solid substance it contains--and therefore will be distracted from recognizing the magnitude of its forest by paying attention to the comparatively few defoliated trees. This is a fascinating picture, which has something real to say about the matter of personal involvement and emotional commitment in a jazzed-up, media-hooked-in world so cluttered with synthetic stimulations that natural feelings are overwhelmed. It is vintage Antonioni fortified with a Hitchcock twist, and it is beautifully photographed in color." -- The New York Times
"What it sees becomes a far-out, uptight and vibrantly exciting picture...Antonioni presents for public inspection a slice of death: the same cold death of the heart his stories invariably describe. Yet in Blow-Up, Antonioni's anti-hero holds in his possession, if only for an instant, the alexin of his cure: the saving grace of the spirit...Blow-Up will have its detractors, and many of them will wonder why Antonioni offers no explicit explanation of what happens, why he arbitrarily transforms an ingenious thriller into an opaque parable. But the transformation is not really arbitrary, and the parable has a point. In the last scene, the riotous masquers of the opening reappear to play tennis with an invisible ball, and one of them hits it over the fence. Wonderingly, the photographer picks it up. Holding the invisible in his hand, he looks like a man who has glimpsed for the first time something of what St. Paul may have meant by 'the things which are not seen' - a man suddenly made aware that there is more to life than what the senses can perceive or the camera record. Deliberately, he throws the ball back onto the court. And the game goes on." -- Time magazine
"Writer-Director Antonioni's hypnotic pop culture parable of photographer caught in passive lifestyle. Arresting, provocative film, rich in color symbolism, many-layered meanings." -- Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide
"There may be some meaning, some commentary about life being a game, beyond what remains locked in the mind of film's creator, Italian director-writer Michelangelo Antonioni. But it is doubtful that the general public will get the 'message' of this film...As a commentary on a sordid, confused side of humanity in this modern age it's a bust." -- Variety
"It is possible that this year's contributions from Ford, Dreyer, Hitchcock, Chabrol, and Godard may cut deeper and live longer, but no other movie this year has done as much to preserve my faith in the future of the medium." - Andrew Sarris
"Will Blow-Up be taken seriously in 1968 only by the same sort of cultural diehards who are still sending out five-page single-spaced letters on their interpretation of Marienbad?...It probably won't blow over because it also has the Morgan!-Georgy Girl appeal; people identify with it so strongly, they get upset if you don't like it--as if you were rejecting not just the movie but them. And in a way they're right, because if you don't accept the peculiarly slugged consciousness of Blow-Up, you are rejecting something in them. Antonioni's new mixture of suspense with vagueness and confusion seems to have a kind of numbing fascination for them that they associate with art and intellectuality, and they are responding to it as their film--and hence as a masterpiece...Love-hate is what makes drama not only exciting but possible, and it certainly isn't necessary for Antonioni to resolve his conflicting feelings. But in Blow-Up he smothers this conflict in the kind of pompous platitudes the press loves to designate as proper to 'mature,' 'adult,' sober' art. Who the hell goes to movies for mature, adult, sober art, anyway?" - Pauline Kael
"Over three days recently, I revisited Blow-Up in a shot-by-shot analysis. Freed from the hype and fashion, it emerges as a great film, if not the one we thought we were seeing at the time...Antonioni uses the materials of a suspense thriller without the payoff. He places them within a London of heartless fashion photography, groupies, bored rock audiences, languid pot parties, and a hero whose dead soul is roused briefly by a challenge to his craftsmanship." - Roger Ebert
AWARDS AND HONORS
Blow-Up received Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.
Blow-Up received a Golden Globe nomination for Best English Language Foreign Film.
The film received three BAFTA Film Award nominations for Best British Art Direction (color), Best British Cinematography (color) and Best British Film.
Blow-Up won the Palme d'Or at the 1967 Cannes Film Festival.
The French Syndicate of Cinema Critics named Blow-Up the Best Foreign Film of the year.
The Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists named Michelangelo Antonioni Best Foreign Director for Blow-Up.
Antonioni won Best Director from the Kansas City Film Critics Circle for Blow-Up.
The National Society of Film Critics named Blow-Up Best Film and Michelangelo Antonioni Best Director.
In 2009 director Wes Craven created a list for Entertainment Weekly magazine called "10 Movies That Shook Me Up." He included Blow-Up on the list saying, "I saw Antonioni's Blow-Up when it first came out, in a theater in Potsdam, N.Y., the small town where I was teaching at the time. Clarkson College, Department of Humanities. I went back to see it three times in the next week, fascinated by it. The oblique, non-linear, suggestive ambience, the incredible control of color (Antonioni painted whole streets to accord with his needs), the shocking (for that time) sexuality, and the impenetrable complexity of its mystery absolutely beguiled me. It wasn't long after seeing this film that I quit my job and headed off to New York to seek my fortune in the film business."
In 2012 Vanity Fair magazine named Blow-Up one of the "25 Most Fashionable Films of All Time," saying "It's not a whodunit; it's a what-happened...You could say the movie is about the culture of seeing versus the nature of seeing. And that's what fashion is all about."
Compiled by Andrea Passafiume