Why Blow-Up Is Still My Favorite Photography Film (even though it’s not really about photography)

I remember seeing the Michelangelo Antonioni film Blow-Up in a movie theatre back in 1967 just after its release. [1] I went with friends – we did this a lot in those days – Friday or Saturday night at the local theater in Chatsworth, California, right next to the same Mason Avenue Thrifty we visited every Thursday afternoon to scour the latest shipment of comic books. It never really mattered what was playing, we usually just went and saw what was showing. I am not even sure if I understood then what this film was really about. I saw it more as a mystery about a photographer (Thomas – played by David Hemmings) who thought he had witnessed and photographed a murder but was left without any proof of the crime when one of the subjects of these images (Jane – portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave), or her agents, broke into Thomas’ studio and stole the film, negatives, and all but one print. That last precious print is all that remains of the crime Thomas was convinced he had witnessed. Unable to convince anyone else without more, the remainder of film sees Thomas go through his own version of Five Steps of Grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) as he struggles to come to terms with this loss and the realization it brings. [2]

Thomas and Jane [3]

Based in London during the mid-1960s, Blow-Up is filled with shots of swinging sixties London. One scene takes place in a nightclub where a pre-Led Zeppelin version of the Yardbirds (with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page) perform Tiny Bradshaw’s Train Kept-A-Rollin’ (recorded by the Yardbirds as Stroll On). We even get to witness Jeff Beck go early Pete Townsend and smash an electric guitar on stage and toss the pieces into the crowd. Of course, our photographer-protagonist is there to snatch the guitar neck which he later discards after leaving the nightclub. Why did he want it in the first place? Is there something fleeting about what we covet? Is his struggle to keep the broken guitar neck a metaphor for his struggle over purloined evidence, or perhaps a last ditch effort to hold on to something tangible as he realizes the evidence won’t be recovered? There are other wonderful shots of factories and other parts of London that anyone interested in place will appreciate. An earlier scene where Thomas photographs the model Verushka (portrayed by herself) is one of the most allegorical scenes I have ever witnessed in film and probably generated its own controversy in its day.

Thomas and Verushka [4]

Antonioni is careful not to romanticize the Thomas character too much. He refers to models as bloody bitches and laments over all of the queers and poodles he sees in a re-developing London neighborhood. He is as much hustler as artist and maybe that dampens some of the empathy we might have for Thomas as he goes through his ordeal.

But there is an interesting corollary at play with this film. A generation of photographers were inspired by this film to become photographers, and to this day, the scenes of Thomas shooting and developing film and printing are candy for many of us who still cling to the notion that film represents a more real and more tangible version of the art and craft of photography. I often wonder, though, whether the Minor White claim that “one should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are” might apply to this film. [5] I really doubt that this film inspired that quote just as much as I doubt that the same quote inspired Antonioni to make Blow Up, but what remains is that this film is not really about photography, and it is precisely this that makes it so extraordinary.

But what is this film really about? I have heard scores of hypotheses, but I think the theme of this film is quite simple; it is about the illusion of control. Early in the film, Thomas sees himself, and behaves accordingly, as one in control of his destiny and even that of others. When he tells his models to close their eyes, they close their eyes, and they stay closed even after he walks away. It reminds me of the story of the Centurion from the book of Matthew, “But just say the word, and my servant will be healed”. [6]

Thomas Through the Looking Glass [7]

Thomas struggles to come to terms with this loss, but is it really his loss? After all, he is not the one that died. The final two scenes of the film see him returning to the scene of the crime hoping to photograph the corpse and anything else that might be corroborative. Finding nothing, he ends up as accidental participant in an imaginary mimed tennis game. I imagine an earlier version of Thomas ignoring the plea to retrieve the imaginary tennis ball hit out of court, but this time he chases it down, throws it back, and even watches as play resumes.

As much as I appreciate Antonioni using photography as a backdrop and frame of reference for this film, I often find myself imagining the film without a single reference to photography. The main character could have been, after all, a cheesemaker who thought he made the best mozzarella in town only to be told of a recent entrant into the fray who made it even better. Perhaps less exciting, but equally devastating to our protagonist Thomas as he struggles to come to terms with his utter and complete lack of control over his own destiny.

One other question I have about the film is how Thomas could have afforded that wonderful Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III he drove in the film.

Sources:

[1] Michelangelo Antonioni (director), Blow-Up, 1966, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0060176/

[2] Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (author) and Ira Brock M.D. (forward), On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Families, Scribner; Reprint Edition, 2014.

[3] Michelangelo Antonio, Thomas and Jane, Blow-Up, IMDB, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0060176/mediaviewer/rm829337600

[4] Michelangelo Antonio, Thomas and Verushka, Blow-Up, IMDB, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0060176/mediaviewer/rm4291763968

[5] Minor White, 22 Quotes by Photographer Minor White, John Paul Caponigro, http://www.johnpaulcaponigro.com/blog/12041/22-quotes-by-photographer-minor-white/

[6] BibleGateway, The Faith of the Centurion, Matthew 8:5-13, New International Version, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+8:5-13

[7] Michelangelo Antonio, Thomas Through the Looking Glass, Blow-Up, IMDB, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0060176/mediaviewer/rm1902155776

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