There’s a story about the demise of the Motion Picture Production Code that goes something like this: In 1966, the embattled Code — moral guidelines governing what could and could not be included in a movie displayed for a public audience in the United States — was taking its final breath. Michelangelo Antonioni made a picture that didn’t pass the Code’s muster, didn’t even attempt to, but MGM, a large studio who had worked with the rules for decades, circumvented the Code and released the film regardless of the fact it did not have an approval certificate. It was the first time a large studio had done such a thing since the Code’s inception over thirty years before. The Code had been getting hit on all sides for years, but this film, for this story fittingly titled Blow-Up, incinerated it. The film won the 1967 Palme d’Or at Cannes, but that wasn’t a complete breakthrough. What was more surprising was that without the Code’s blessing the film went on to gross a lot of money in the United States, received Oscar nominations for screenplay and direction, and was picked as the best film of the year by the National Society of Film Critics. If a film could reach audience and get this acclaim without the Code, then what good was the Code? Rather than exist with no power, it ceased to exist soon after. This important land-mine in cinema history has just been released by The Criterion Collection in a lovely deluxe package.
For years I have known this basic story about Blow-Up (which is true but lacks a lot of fascinating detail and nuance about the demise of the Code), but I had never watched the film until this month when the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray showed up. Because I rarely heard about Blow-Up outside of its role in cinema history, I have always wondered if this film was great in and of itself. Is it a sacred cow that with the passing generations packs a softer punch fifty years after it helped usher in a new era of movie making, during which the very elements it thrust forward and that blasted the Code are now commonplace even in tame cinema? Or is it a true masterpiece that stands for the ages?
The basic setup is pretty straightforward. Thomas, a London-based fashion photographer (played by David Hemmings) does his job well but drives off for a momentary escape to Maryon Park. There he begins taking pictures of a couple. Lovers? Perhaps. And look at the nice retreat they’ve found in this peaceful park. When she sees Thomas with his camera, the woman (unnamed in the film but called Jane in Antonioni’s screenplay, played by Vanessa Redgrave) demands he give her the role of film. She even follows him to his studio, but he deliberately gives her the wrong role. He’s quite excited by the photographs, you see. They look like a peaceful way to end his photography book, which, he says to his editor, is otherwise quite violent. When he starts to develop the photographs, though, a story emerges in the details: Is that a man in the trees with a gun? Perhaps I prevented a murder. Wait, is that a dead body in the foliage? Perhaps I witnessed a murder.
With no clear answer, Thomas goes in “search of a mystery,” as novelist Italo Calvino said he should when Antonioni asked for some collaboration on the story. In other words, the mystery is whether there is any mystery at all.
This setup has been used to great effect in subsequent films, particularly two I love that use sound recording instead of photography to set up a plot of paranoia: Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation (which I reviewed here) and Brian De Palma’s 1981 film Blow Out. One major difference between Blow-Up and these two direct descendants is the ambiguity. The Conversation and Blow Out develop into exciting thrillers. Blow-Up ends with Michael witnessing, and eventually participating in, an invisible tennis match, a distinct lack of payoff we might be expecting in a thriller, but this is the very thing that, discarding all of the rest of what the film did in 1966, makes Blow-Up unique and surprising, profound in a different way than these other films.
Blow-Up, for me, becomes a predecessor not only to the two great paranoia thrillers above but also to novelist Javier Marías’s great examinations of truth and lies and our ability to distinguish either in the part. If the photographs disappear, if there is no body, does our mind recognize that a crime was committed, or do we begin to doubt to the point we convince ourselves nothing happened, even if we witnessed it with our own eyes? How long can certainty exist when we are accosted by doubts and physical evidence is washed away?
After all, couldn’t the dead body have been an accident? Couldn’t the woman have wanted the role of film because it was evidence of her affair? And the gun was never that clear in the photographs to begin with. Take away the other photographs that combine to suggest a story, and there’s nothing there. It’s likely nothing happened.
And yet this potential nothing has the power to light up the otherwise coasting photographer.
So, yes, I am a believer in Blow-Up. It may be the Antonioni film I needed to approach his wavelength after failing to really appreciate his alienation trilogy of films: 1960’s L’Avventura, 1961’s La Notte, and 1962’s L’Eclisse, which also contain ambiguous mysteries and empty space. Indeed, I’m excited to revisit that trio of films with what feels like a personal breakthrough.
Beyond its role in movie history (which is fascinating and worthwhile in its own regard as well), beyond the portrait of mod culture mid-60s London (which is also wonderful to watch — Antonioni sets up the film by examining Thomas’s position in this exciting, constructed world of pleasure but little joy, and we get a disconcerting scene featuring The Yardbirds in their prime and before launching the careers of several of its members), Blow-Up is sophisticated, exciting, tense delight.
The long-desired Criterion Collection edition does not disappoint. It is a wonderful presentation of the film, which looks fantastic, along with lengthy, deep supplements. The disc includes two pieces on Antonioni’s artistic approach; an excerpt from the 2001 documentary Michelangelo Antonioni: The Eye That Changed Cinema; a 2016 documentary Blow Up of “Blow-Up”; old interviews with Antonioni, Hemmings (two of these, in fact), and Jane Birkin; and a new (lengthy!) conversation between photography curator Philippe Garner and Vanessa Redgrave. On the outside, it’s a nice looking deluxe package that includes a booklet with the original Julio Cortázar story; an in-depth essay, “In the Details,” by David Forgacs; a look at the films production by critic Stig Björkman; and a series of questions that Antonioni gave to painters and photographers to prepare for the film. This is an easy recommendation.