Copyright © 2010 by James Clark
There is a moment, in the middle of Blow-Up (1966), which seems the right starting point for us. A busy young commercial photographer and Londoner-about-town, “Thomas,” pores over reams of negatives covering an impromptu shoot in a park. That bit of seizing the moment had begun to take on a life of its own, insofar as what had been seized was (soon-to-be-apparently) an act of murder. Thomas had been impressed by a woman’s serpentine determination to recover those vignettes, some of the frames of which featured her and what appeared to be a lover. Now rid of her, he quickly moves toward discovery of what great importance he has engaged. And, to assist his enlarging the special revelations, he comes up with a magnifying glass of major proportions. As he works with it, his face frozen in anticipation, we have to think of Sherlock Holmes. We almost reprove ourselves for such an incongruity, Thomas (in spite of his Victorian name) being the epicenter itself of modernity. (To take one instance, his studio/home base is the envy of all those who would be cool, an industrial behemoth on a grotty street, flashing its not-for-the-faint-of-heart grungy, coal era struts, but sprouting an apotheosis of just-in, top-of-the-line commercial and residential appointments—spare, metallic and glassy—punching out features like sliding doors in candy colors.)
But is he? He prints enlargements and discovers that the woman, romancing an older man in a grey business suit, often shows forth as looking toward a clump of woodland beside the broad expanse of solid,
well-tended English lawn. Now sweating and moving amidst his imposing equipment with that killer instinct he had previously displayed in dealings with business associates, he pushes the enlargements to extra strength, recreates the parkland by positioning the developed sheets on three walls, and, going to a troubling spot and quantum-leaping the enlarger and contraster, he discovers a man’s face looking out of the bushes and then discovers that the mysterious element is pointing a hand gun at the man being romanced by the woman with whom he had matched wits and taken to bed. Before he gets down to pedalling his machinery to the metal, there is the doorbell and, using the gambit, “You weren’t expecting us, were you?” two very young aspiring models he had given short shrift en route to the park. Setting in stark relief his unpreparedness for the new-wave challenge at hand, there ensues an episode with these naifs, who were definitely not averse to sleeping their way to the top, involving much groping, tearing clothes away, the girls squabbling and him calling out, “Go on! Give her a left hook!” a rush to his pristine fashion-shoot studio where they laughingly rip down a floor-to-ceiling lavender backdrop and all three writhe in its shambles. On coming to, they now dressing him, his eye catches the sleuthing set-up and he re-examines a couple of pieces while they watch in puzzlement. He gets out his magnifier, chases them out and manages a tight little smile as he thinks himself to be closing in on another successful conclusion among many photographic calculations. He had, midway through the first phase of investigation, phoned his agent, “Ron,” and prematurely announced, “Something fantastic’s happened! Somebody was trying to kill somebody. I saved a man from being killed!” Subsequently he pushes things beyond comfy gratifications, realizing he’s been outfoxed in the business end of the mystery he presumed to be amenable to the kind of rational talents and dogged mobility with which Sherlock Holmes was amply endowed. He drives to the park to confirm his chilling discovery, and we notice he has failed to bring his camera along. The matter at hand had careened beyond his comfort zone. On returning home, he was confronted with further evidence that his former stance of being on top of the world was illusory—all (but one) of the enlargements and all of the negatives had become the property of someone else.
Antonioni’s first venture away from Italy could not draw upon his standard means of registering the deep setbacks that had become an obsession with him. The actress, Monica Vitti, his angel of Angst, had made it imperative to explore the abysses of public and personal action in uniquely physical scenarios. Shifting his scope to 1960s London and its flighty, fluffy and yet still somewhat Holmesian manufactures of a much-bruited ne plus ultra of cool, he would gravitate to a far more discursive and verbally pointed schema (assisted by playwright, Edward Bond, for idiomatic cogency) to touch upon regions of remorse La Vitti could nail with the low beams accompanying the slightest turn of her head. Whereas the public context of the Italian works had consisted of various materially thriving technicians, to be upstaged by the actress’ far from sufficing sensual output, in Blow-Up we do have a technician-superstar showing what he’s made of, but the antithesis emerges in that same sensibility. What sets in relief his discoveries and predicaments (and prompts the format of convoluted mystery adventure entirely foreign to Monica Vitti’s skills) is an epoch in thrall to a particular brand of egotistical intimidation, a trade Thomas has mastered to celebrated heights.
Thus we are ushered into the ticking time bomb this film enacts, by its credits in the form of staid designations the font of which roils with vignettes of the camera shark demonstratively conducting a fashion shoot. To carry along that piece of unfinished business, the first stage of the narrative confronting us involves an open jeepload of white-noising mimes in deathly whiteface and perky costumes, invading a commercial plaza and then staging an infantry charge through streets they would conclude to require the anarchic energies being delivered by wonderful them. Juxtaposing this manic offensive, is Thomas (dressing way down) along with various faded figures departing a flophouse along the objective of that army, which swishes past a couple of immigrant nuns as if they were street furniture. They encounter the hero at the moment when he relocates himself behind the wheel of his black Rolls Royce convertible. They swarm that chariot and demand a handout which the young noble is happy to provide, and in doing so he signals by his body language he’s with them in shaking up a moribund history. These extortionists, typically locating themselves in a mob, will reappear at the end, and Thomas’ response to them at that time will make more remarkable sense to us.
He will go on to tell the two birds we have already considered, who had asked him for a couple of minutes of his time, “I haven’t got a couple of minutes to have my appendix out,” thereby identifying himself as both frighteningly productive and yet feeling some need to expunge a discredited complement to his factually productive powers. His having lots of time for the improv guerrillas directly coincides with indicators that Thomas was, for all his disdain toward the “appendix,” looking for profit centres over and above the fashion industry. Seeing him in an uneasy kinship with the disadvantaged and an advantageously easy kinship with the glib sport of reverencing those in material distress, we begin to comprehend his being at the Rolls Royce level of fluency with popular, commercially sound vapidity. On pulling away from the cosmetic Samaritans, he grabs the speaker of his remote system and barks out field marshal orders to a compliant staff person with an old-fashioned vocabulary, “…Roger, Wilko and out…” Then he’s into his to-die-for digs, getting an efficient underling, “Reg,” to do the scut work for his artistry with a skeletal, high-cheekboned Slavic model who puts him on notice with, “I have to catch a plane for Paris at eleven.” He puts her in her place by inquiring, with a disgusted perusal, “Who the hell were you with last night?” and proceeds with a precisely staged photo essay of her presumably dazzling sexuality, destined—with multi-purpose smarts—for both a fashion magazine’s quick-wave at art and for a coffee table book. They slip into a register of steamy tryst they no doubt had run through before, and his aural contribution is not only a means of placing the present point of his counterattack on behalf of change, but an alert that pithy, ironic phrases (often out of his own mouth) would dog his dabbling with the real deal. “Give it to me!…really give it to me…that’s very good…c’mon, work, work, work!… (Straddling her) Stretch yourself!…Lovely…Make it come…yes, yes, yes!” His “no, no, no!” attitude to a flock of fashion model birds—“Hoy! No chewing gum! Get rid of it! Not on my floor!…Terrible!… Start again. Re-think it…—intensifies the portrait of crisis. A factually improbable but thematically validated aspect of that episode reveals Thomas demanding they close their eyes to regain a professionally acceptable range of composure, and then leaving the building. (On returning and being even more nonplussed, he orders them to continue their eyelid yoga, and he cuts out again.)
Before his alighting on the park, there are a couple of other touches to enable us to take a more rounded reading of the spiral of distemper he has latched onto. Across the courtyard of the industrial-complex edifice he calls home are two friends whose marriage has turned into major gridlock. There is “Bill,” an abstract painter, who says things about his work on the order of, “They don’t mean anything when I do them. They’re just a mess…but a painting sorts itself out [in retrospect]… It’s like finding a clue [doing Holmesian classical logic] in a detective story.” And there is his beautiful wife who, noticing Thomas is a bit under the weather—he couldn’t wait to tell her, “Been all night in a dosshouse”—is eager to massage him back to health—“Don’t stop. Just rub me.” As the take-charge and charmingly reckless guy goes back to the studio, she follows him with an admiring gaze. Thomas had expressed an interest in buying the painting Bill had just completed (save for the “making [conventional] sense” part), but canny Bill (who was also non-committal to his friend’s proposal he give it to him, gratis) was waiting till the reviews were in to be sure of its value. On his clearing the premises for a second time—leaving the two young wannabes in the swoosh of his cool deliberations—we look into his windshield from above, showing reflected foliage and architecture; and, beaming out from that, merrily lip-syncing to his peerless sound system, Thomas is the spitting image of Sir Paul Himself. We could remark a fringe of effervescence to rather awkwardly cap off the blunt ambition; but Antonioni, now well into a metaphorical vehicle (including Mike Hammer and the crescendo of Kiss Me Deadly) putting his protagonist through a very tough job application, would be primarily unimpressed with that gift of being fresh, but not really.
That said, Thomas does exude a form of athleticism, and his getting more than he bargained for at the playground comes to him as a welcome challenge. The park abuts an antiques district, and his incursion is bookended with visits to two incarnations pointing up a readiness in him for the new. At the first instance, he is stonewalled by a geriatric clerk, unforthcoming as if bitterly determined not to share with someone from a younger generation the solaces of days gone by he would only sneer at. The actor, David Hemmings, in addition to being able to cover a Beatle, has the heavily lidded visage and ready-to-pounce carriage of Elvis, and his sifting through memorabilia (mainly as irreverential props to lend novelty and whimsy to the magazine fodder) recalls the King’s fondness for Teddy Bears and the like. The acrid impudence of the old man introduces a note of intractability to a procession that hitherto had met only deference and adulation. On completing the eerie speed bump that was the demanding photo subject in the park—having to be rebuffed in terms of, “It’s not my fault if there’s no peace…Most women would pay me to photograph them”—he comes back to the shop where the young proprietor (now on the scene, her troll/employee now deferentially washing windows) is amenable to lowering her prices due to being “fed up with antiques” and being ready to give Nepal a try. “Nepal is all antiques” is Thomas’ intimation to her (and to himself) that the world at large holds big disappointments for the young and the beautiful, like them. Then he spies something just for him, a large, shellacked, mahogany airplane propeller, sure-fire as a Brancusi sculpture and with irony no one could miss. He leaves the infatuated dabbler (who is much more anxious than he about damage to his car from using it as a truck) with the demand, dripping with a reflexive sense of entitlement to things easily falling into place, “It better turn up today.”
Then he is with Ron, who is well underway with an instance of the expensive meals he can count on by accommodating Thomas. They’re going over proofs of his shoot at the no-cost lodgings, lucratively exploitive of others’ embarrassment, along lines of Mike and Velda’s manipulation of divorce combatants. “They’re great!” Ron says. “It rings truer;” and we can see propeller-like irony. (He refers to the addition of the “very peaceful” park scenes to set in relief the horrors.) The artiste adds a touch of viscosity to all this celestial payoff, with, “I’ve gone off London this week. It doesn’t do anything for me.” He can’t resist putting himself on the spot in terms of, “I wish I had tons of money. Then I’d be free.”/ (Ron, cottoning on to the “edginess” of the moment, points to a picture of one of the self-destructive inmates and asks, “Free like him?” Thomas notices a man on the street doing surveillance on him as he sits at the window table of the restaurant, rushes out to confront him, loses sight of him, drives homeward and has to wait for an anti-nuclear weapons demonstration (shadows of bomb-enhancer, Dr. Soberin, who frequently interrupts Mike’s progress in the noir touching upon this narrative). One of the contrarians shoves a placard into the back seat of his inconspicuous vehicle, a far cry from the antiques protester who was so careful about that fabulous upholstery). It reads, “Go Away.” Steadfast friend of the fatuous, he smiles complicitly and says, “That’ll be alright.” When he reaches his street—a neutron bombing scene, as usual—he leans on his horn, hoping to have offended someone, still caught up in the seemingly promising paunchiness of the theatrical outcry.
What his noise does rustle up is the woman from the park, her compatriot at the restaurant window having put her on the scent. “I’ve come for the photographs!” Her stress level—“My personal life is a mess as it is”—cues Thomas’ (at this point only) slightly wilted savoir-faire toward a level he can discern only as a package of ominous distemper. “So what? Nothing like a little disaster for sorting things out.” As they manoeuvre for advantage—he, like Mike, intrigued by the fuss and ugliness surrounding his puzzling discovery, and quite steadfast (again) in his typecast role of irresistible man of action (offering to facilitate her in a career as fashion model—“You’ve got it…Not many girls can stand like that”—and teaching her how to be cool in face of his music—“Slowly, slowly…against the beat…That’s it!”)—both Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave (as the petitioner) convey expertly the triteness they cleave to as default orientations, and how damaging such crudity has become for them. He leaves the room to get a glass of water for her; she takes the camera with the hot roll of film and scurries toward the door; he’s there, like Elmer Fudd with Bugs Bunny: “Do I look a fool, Luv?” He reproves her with, “Your boyfriend’s a bit past it.”/ “Why didn’t you say that was what you want?”/ (She strips, to the waist, as does he.) And, therefrom, a coy, self-conscious spate of gestures rolls by. There is a split second when both of them try to generate loving. It had been preceded by his fielding a phone call (scrambling around the furniture like a sitcom player, looking for the phone) from a woman—“It’s my wife…Sorry, Luv, the bird I’m with won’t talk to you…She isn’t my wife, really…We just have kids…No, we don’t, not even kids…She’s not beautiful, but she’s easy to live with… No, she isn’t…That’s why I don’t live with her… Even beautiful girls, you look at them, and that’s that.” He pretends to give her the film she wants. She pretends to give him her phone number. The propeller arrives and she’s suddenly brimming with decorator advice.
The ransacking of his chic surround prompts him to do some brainstorming with Ron. En route to the latter’s whereabouts that night, he catches a glimpse of the thief; but by the time he parks the car she’s gone. He’s drawn to the electronic buzz of a Yardbirds concert at a nearby building and joins a crowd of youngsters standing stock still and with a blank, noncommittal, studiously cool expression on their face. The singer frequently repeats the bluesy phrase, “(I’m) strollin’ on,” and we see the protagonist, who is all about “strollin’ on,” but more immediately about being diverted, fitting right in with the diversionary conclave. Like him, the band runs into bugs with their electrodynamics, and they start bashing a sputtering speaker getting in the way of effective transmission. (However, they could have been availing themselves of the eerie aspect of such compromise, in the spirit of early rock guitar researcher, Link Wray. They did seem to be enjoying the vandal gestures.) One of the guitarists (not cherubic Jimmy Page, who seems to be at another concert altogether), a young Jeff Beck, in fact, on wrecking the fretwork of his instrument, throws it on the floor, stomps on it and tosses the debris into the crowd, which has an alarm clock effect on those frozen bodies. Ever the Alpha, Thomas comes up with the prize, runs from the hall and, on reconsideration, discards the offending matter, depositing it on the sidewalk. Then it’s on to trencherman Ron, whose performance entails smoking two joints at a time at a party in a mansion. Before engaging his distracted friend, he runs into the orgasmic model, and unaccustomed cheek. “I thought you were in Paris.”/ “I am in Paris.” For perhaps the first time in his free agency, Thomas does not occupy a commanding vantage point, showing instead—in this scene, so recently agreeable to him, of fashionably bombed trend-setters—as (despite a few friendly waves) decidedly out of the loop, no longer a bracing figure of salubrious barbarism. “Someone’s been killed,” he blurts out to the entertainment specialist. “We’ve got to get a shot of it!” Why on earth would he consult with so patently limited a source at a time like this? Why, unless his work and his life had become so bewildering, painful and dangerous that he was intent on crawling back into a gratifying corporation, and Ron could be counted on to confirm the wisdom of that reaffirmation of child-rule. “I’m not a photographer,” grumbles Ron, displeased to be interrupted at what he’s good at, and emboldened by being in Paris. Far from Paris himself, Thomas bites out, “I am.”/ “What’s wrong with him?…What did you see in the park?”/ “Nothing.”
Nothing is what he sees at the park in the light next morning, in place of the corpse of the previous night, the one that couldn’t make the Yardbirds gig. As he stands there, silently reviling the fates, a (broken?) sign atop a commercial building by the park flashes “FOA” over his head—perhaps an incomprehensible obscurity; perhaps hinting at “Fear On Arrival,” at a place of DOA. Arriving with typical rebel yells, the triumphant street fighters and their jeep take over the tennis court where he, dejected, may be compared with the spent, sidewalk traffic of the earlier uprising. A boy and a girl mime a tennis match while the others follow the “ball” with coy amazement. Thomas finds himself smack in the middle of this rendition of give and take, and after a while it transpires that the “ball” has cleared the enclosure and “landed” near him. There is a sharp moment when all eyes are upon what clearly has been seen to be a not very significant outsider and pedestrian—his tailored, dark green jacket, contrasting off-white pants and lack of makeup, and also his desolate demeanor (he does manage an unconvincing grin which does not sit well with the quiet alarm in his eyes) marking him as a piece of work for devious reformers like this band of his betters. He is expected to pick up the “ball” and throw it back into play. He is expected to be a good chap and suspend all disbelief. He does, being thereby instrumental in fortifying the charade. As he stands amidst this comprehensive rejection of physical fact, he can hear the sound of a ball being hit, his instinct for comforting common sense being predominant. He walks away, stops; and the camera soars, leaving him apparently little more than a speck.
But we have accompanied him to the point where the placard saying, “Go Away” poses an arresting historical nightmare for one who luxuriated in alliances with all the best people. Not for him the bang of tripping Pandora’s Box open with more nerve than could be balanced by finesse. Rather, Thomas seems torn between now wildly suspect stylishness and fear, the surmounting of which would leave him in accordance with the putatively ironclad state of “rather have the blues.”
With his good friend, the wife of the painter, he had proclaimed, “I saw a man killed this morning.”/ “Who was he?”/ “Someone.” Thomas would insist upon every individual registering in the scheme of things, every centre of intent putting out a compelling saga. In light of his actual practice, that would amount to politic cant, a rhetorical accessory to the brutal facts of clan exclusiveness and adventure. (On his car phone to deal with the acquisition of antique props, he touches upon some realities of real estate values as affecting retail prices, and in the same breath he touches upon clannish resentment toward an association competing with his own guild as pertaining to the avant-garde: “The area’s already crawling with queers and their poodles.”) She goes on to ask him to help her with enduring Bill. (“Why don’t you leave him?”/ “I can’t.”) Thomas of course can’t be bothered with such stragglers, snared in tedious details. (“I wonder why they shot him.”) By the time he hits the tennis game, he is fully aware of being a “Someone” and, to all intents and purposes, a “no one.” He hasn’t, however, been entirely consigned to road kill. The saucy barbarians have left him the gift of their trained bodies in concert, the negation of factual content leaving (to those with an eye for such things [and, in the increasingly peevish run with the fashion models, Thomas has “stretched” himself in that way, if only for fleeting moments]) a seriously regenerative carnality, and kinship beyond fatuous violence.
Thus the Yardbirds’ song does, for all its sputtering, speak to Thomas, who is very much a work-in-progress, and not enjoying it a bit.
Strollin’ on, cause it’s all gone
The reason why you made me cry
By tellin’ me you didn’t see
The future bore our love no more
If you want to know I love you so
And I don’t want to let you go
I’m strollin’ on
Gonna make you see
I’m strollin’ on
You wish you’d never lied
You’re gonna change your mind
But you ain’t gonna find
Any more of my kind