When Josh told me that 1) He was going to have to skip his second showing and 2) For his first showing he was going to show Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 classic Blow-Up, I knew exactly how to fill that second, empty slot. But a bit more on that later – there’s a lot to discuss on the film, including that, so I’ll try to be relatively brief on the review to allow myself to be a bit verbose at the end.
The film starts out (and is in fact bookended, though we’ll get to that) by what we Americans are most likely to see as “a weird group of begging mimes”. In fact, this is intended to be college students participating in a British tradition known as “RAG Week” – this stands for Raising and Giving, and the basic idea is that for a week the students go around doing bizarre and/or antisocial things in order to get people to donate to charity.
On this particular morning, one of their farthing donors is a fashion photographer by the name of Thomas, making his way to the studio for a shoot. He’s rude to his models, he’s interrupted by a couple of teenagers who want to get into the modeling biz, and finally he just gets plain bored by the shoot and takes off with no particular destination.
He eventually finds himself in a park, taking surreptitious pictures of a kissing couple. Only, when the woman finally sees him skulking around, she confronts him and is very insistent that she be given the film. Thomas refuses as he feels that some of these shots would be great for a book he’s putting out.
But the woman is not to be denied, and somehow she later shows up at his studio, where after some serious flirtation she gives him a fake phone number, he gives her a dupe canister of film, and both of them part deceived. Thomas sets out to develop the film.
What he find there is quite surprising. In some of the photos she appears to be looking into the bushes, as if at somebody hidden there. Thomas blows up some of the photos and does appear to find a shadowy figure with a gun and in another photo appears to find the body of the man in the tryst lying halfway behind a shrub. This would seem to be really important, and maybe he ought to, I don’t know, call the authorities?
But the aspiring teenage models show up again, and he spends the afternoon with them on a three-way romp in the backing paper. Finally he decides that maybe he ought to do something about this murder he appears to have photographed, and he heads back to the park.
Sure enough, dead dude behind the bushes! But when Thomas gets back to his studio, the place has been ransacked and all of his photos have been taken (one, of the body behind the bush, has fallen behind something and remains). So he heads out to find one of his buddies to witness the body. (Again, there are official people whose job it is to investigate crimes like murder, and his buddy is not one of them.)
Thinking that he has seen the mysterious woman near a club, he gets sidetracked into a Yardbirds concert, and finally leaving with the neck of Jeff Beck’s destroyed guitar (which he subsequently chucks) he finds his buddy in the middle of an all-night drug party. He joins his buddy in partaking in the wacky weed and by the time he finally gets back to the park it’s morning – and the body is gone.
Then, wandering, he runs into the RAG week mimes again, this time playing mime tennis. When the mimes hit their invisible ball over the fence, they motion at Thomas to throw it back to them. He goes, picks it up and tosses it back over the fence, and we suddenly hear the tennis match going as Thomas fades out, leaving only the park grass behind him. The end.
There are a couple of things about this film that deserve mention. The first involves the Hays Code – this is what I teased up top in filling that second movie slot. Along with next week’s film (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Blow-Up was one of the two films that is most widely credited with bringing down the old Hays Code (which gave a thumbs-up/thumbs-down to films and effectively prevented the distribution of those films deemed inappropriate) and the rise of the current MPAA rating system. Blow-Up failed to get Hays Code approval (presumably due to the sex and nudity) but MGM decided to subvert the Code and distribute the film through a subsidiary that was not subject to the Code anyway. Oddly enough, the nudity is really tame – several models have brief shots of their breasts and Vanessa Redgrave spends a good amount of time topless with her arms covering everything. In fact, the only thing that would even get the film a “R” rating today would be the rough-and-tumble in the paper. It’s certainly not explicit by today’s standards, but there are several shots of Thomas working on ripping the girls’ tights off, and for a brief moment pubic hair is visible if you have a quick enough finger on the pause button. An interesting thing that Roger Ebert pointed out (and which I also noticed) is that Thomas’ misogynistic treatment of his models is far more objectionable today than the nudity or implied sex – but in the mid-’60s the nudity was super daring and the misogyny was par for the course (and not one of the no-nos of the Hays Code). Times change.
Perhaps just as interesting as its role in dismantling the Hays Code is the depth of interpretation that Blow-Up receives. If you look up a one-sentence summary of the film, it will most likely say something like “A bored photographer takes pictures of what appears to be a murder”. The “appears to be” is a huge part of the mystique of the film – did he really witness a murder? Sometimes I think that the interpretive license of the viewer can be taken too far. In this case, there really is just about no reason to think that there wasn’t a murder. Almost all of the script points towards this. Redgrave acts incredibly guilty in both the park and in the studio, although we don’t yet know why – a best guess for the audience up to that point is that she is trying to cover up an affair. Certainly somebody actually ransacks the studio to get the photos. Above all, despite the potentially ambiguous evidence in the photos Thomas does in fact see a body, which is basically the clincher, right? (And, for those who really dig into it, there are quotes on the internet from the actor who played the dead man indicating that scenes involving the plotting and execution of the murder were filmed but not shot due to budgetary concerns.) It seems quite a stretch to take one shot where Redgrave’s character seems to disappear in a crowd and the final fade-out of our do-nothing hero to imply that the whole thing was in his mind. OK, fine, in the morning the body is gone, but that could very well be due diligence on the part of the murderers. In their original plan, they probably didn’t need to drag the body fully away at the time of the murder, as the evidence of the body wouldn’t have been enough to lead to them. Once Thomas photographed it, they would have either had to eliminate him or to get rid of all of the evidence. The missing body is not at all inconsistent with the idea that there was a murder in the first place. It’s tempting to say that the role of the mimes is to show how Thomas is participating in somebody else’s fantasy, I get that, but then wouldn’t the sound of the mime tennis game that comes at the end indicate that the fantasy was real?
What does it all mean? How do you pack together the obvious murder with Thomas’ inactivity and the symbolism of the mimes? I don’t know. I do think it’s fascinating that the three things that delay Thomas from actually doing something proactive about the murder are the clichéd calling card of the sixties – sex, drugs, and rock and roll (though not quite in that order). Could Antonioni actually be critiquing the counterculture of the sixties, or is Thomas yet another of his famously aimless characters? The latter is probably true, but the impression of the former weighs so strongly on me. Bored as you might be with life, why do you not call the police if you think you have evidence of a murder? Because you’re distracted by the hedonistic pleasures afforded by society? Or because it’s just a movie? I don’t know.
Bottom line – I really love the final scene of the film. Even though I can’t find any good symbolism to tie the whole thing together, the unexpected sound of the off-camera mime tennis is one of the great moments of cinema, and it makes a decent if unfocused film seem suddenly profound. Maybe it isn’t profound after all, but that final scene was quite effective at throwing some doubt on the subject.