Blow Up

Pics or It Didn’t Happen: In Praise of Antonioni’s ‘Blow-Up’ at 50

Blow-Up is half a century old.

I first learned of Michelangelo Antonioni’s groundbreaking slice of surveillance cinema while watching HBO with my parents in the 1970s. I was a precocious kid, but I wasn’t yet hip to the Italian auteur’s ersatz paean to Swinging London and fashion photography, not to mention the first glimpse of pubic hair in mainstream film fare. Instead, we were watching the more family friendly High Anxiety, in which Mel Brooks parodied Hitchcock films. Even still, that’s when I saw the scene…

It was a sight gag in a very literal sense, and a bit of a speed bump since it stepped away from Hitchcock’s Psycho and Vertigo and borrowed specifically from Antonioni’s then-only-decade-old Blow-Up.

So, in High Anxiety, Brooks’ character is falsely accused of murder, and his exoneration lies in the hands of his chauffeur, an amateur photographer. The chauffeur enlarges a succession of photographs of a Brooks doppelgänger committing an assassination in a hotel lobby until an absurd, billboard-sized image reveals the real Brooks in a glass elevator in the background.

High Anxiety
Ron Carey (in vest) “blows up” Mel Brooks in “High Anxiety.”

The scene was pivotal to Brooks’ plot and caused an eruption of knowing chatter from my parents that I would later realize was a kind of ur-DVD commentary. Even as a kid in single digits, I knew the reference was important. However, I didn’t see Blow-Up until my twenties, and when Antonioni’s rapscallion fashion photographer, played by David Hemmings, began blowing up images voyeuristically snapped of Vanessa Redgrave mid-romantic rendezvous in a park, I had the sinking feeling that I’d seen the scene before. Because I had. At least a version of it. It was like recovering some repressed childhood memory — the trauma of Brooks’ Borscht Belt shtick, I suppose.

This was not the first time the comedy cart was put before the horse who ran into it. Like most Gen Xers, I was weaned on after-school Looney Tunes reruns and as a consequence was guided through the canon of Western culture by Bugs Bunny’s gloved hand. Naturally, I wish this wasn’t the case, especially with Blow-Up, which epitomized retro cool. If a rimshot punctuated the moment Hemmings spied the killer in the photographic grain, I would’ve shrugged and accepted it. Fortunately, with repeated viewings, I’ve managed to get enough Michelangelo to eclipse my memory of Mel.

Now I’m hung up on the mimes. If you haven’t bothered to take 111 minutes out of the past 50 years to watch Blow-Up, I won’t spoil anything other than to explain that, as a filmmaker, Antonioni had a pretty vast toolbox at his disposal, and somewhere past the montage and mise-en-scène, he reached in far enough to find a handful of mimes. At first he uses them to annoy the protagonist — and, by proxy, us — as they galavant in and out of frame at seemingly random intervals. Then, Antonioni masterfully reveals the mimes as a sublime symbol of how we actually choose what we believe to be true — that seeing isn’t believing so much as believing becomes seeing.

Streaming Blow-Up on Amazon Video, for four bucks, is the most relevant viewing you can do in our age of Fake News and Wikileaks revelations about who’s really getting off on your sexts. It’s also a time capsule that serves to remind us that the concept of privacy wasn’t always a mere Facebook setting, but a moment in the history of privacy, perhaps lost to time.

The Accidental Voyeur

Candid photography, if it exists at all in popular culture, is the province of the paparazzo. At some point, our culture decided a gym-bound celeb in sweats constitutes an unvarnished moment of human truth. Redgrave, as Jane, conveys more reality in a few frames of her performance — faking a candid moment — than, say, the whole of the Kardashian’s oeuvre.

Moreover, what Antonioni’s photographer experiences is an almost impossible state to achieve these days — he’s an accidental voyeur. Sure, he starts his arc by clicking away at an unaware couple in a park, but what he sees — then — isn’t what he gets later. At least for a few minutes of screen time, he gets to experience what it means to see something he wasn’t intended to see. Try to find that on your friend’s highly curated Instagram feed. These days, it’s likely that the grainy gunman caught by Hemmings camera would just as soon post a selfie himself than compromise his brand of #murder with an unsanctioned image.

Think about it: Every intimate moment of everyone you ever knew is shared on social media, making the notion of a private life a living fiction. People share their sexual intimacies on amateur porn sites, and some startups share their employee’s salary information online. Until recently, the only acts people hid from public view were criminal, but now even the commission of capital crimes (including murder!) find audiences when shared real-time on Facebook Live.

Given this, I guess we needn’t fear a Blow-Up reboot. Peter Parker won’t be shooting any photos (or webs) around Maryon Park, London SE7 8HB, UK, anytime soon. That said, the adaptation of Blow-Up from its source material once seemed as unlikely.

Source Code

Blow Up
AKA “The Devil’s Drool.”

The film was based on a short story by Argentine author Julio Cortázar, originally titled “Las Babas del Diablo,” literally “The Devil’s Drool.” It’s telling that editions of the story published subsequent to Blow-Up’s success bear the film’s title. Even Google will translate the title to “blow up” when asked.

I’m not a fan of the story. It’s a sweaty, weird muddle that fanned my flicker of ADD into a full-fledged inferno. I couldn’t finish it, so my girlfriend read it to me while I tried not to sleep. Critics have long conjectured upon the tenuous relationship between the story and film, since “adaptation” is an overreach. These are two distinct works that share a single recognizable plot point: perceiving evidence of a possible murder in a photographic frame.

It’s been said that Antonioni’s crediting the story as his inspiration is generous. (I’d say a “hat tip” is more appropriate.) What the film and story both share, however, is an alienating vibe and whispers of magical realism. At the end, when the photographer no longer knows what’s real and what’s Memorex, he comes across those damn mimes again, this time playing tennis.

Though they have no ball, we hear one being struck and bouncing off the court. When the invisible ball goes over the fence and rolls to the photographer, he’s faced with one of the greatest existential choices in cinematic history: Does he “see” it, and will he throw it back into play?

The mimes wait as the character (and the audience) considers everything from relativity to notions of faith and the difference between truth and fact. It’s a sublime moment that teeters on the absurd and, as such, is immune to the meta-shenanigans of even Cortázar. It’s no wonder Francis Ford Coppola commented on the DVD of his own surveillance flick, The Conversation, that he was inspired by Blow-Up; ditto Brian De Palma, whose own Blow Out is essentially a cross-pitch of Antonioni and Coppola’s respective films. (More on that in subsequent installments.)

Perhaps, in 2067, when Blow-Up reaches the century mark and we live in a Big Brother dystopia of our own making, we too will find psychic liberation from a band of rogue mimes. At least we won’t have to worry about Mel Brooks.