Blowup, an English language film by Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, is too cool to have a plot. Its fashion photographer hero, if in fact he can be called the hero, is the type of artist who no longer exists, if he ever existed. It’s a dull movie about thoroughly unlikeable people and a mystery that’s dangled in front of us and never solved. So why do I actually want to watch it again?
I suppose because I’m a photographer and this is a photographer’s movie, not just a movie about a photographer. Thomas, David Hemmings, lives in a sparse, yet elegant loft near Maryon Park in London. He has a collection of Nikon F bodies and lenses that, while you could probably pick up the whole lot of them on Ebay these days for a few hundred dollars, might remind a few people of Jay Gatsby’s collection of dress shirts. He has a Hasselblad 500C. He has a 4 x 5 In other words, he has just about every piece of photo equipment that, in 1966, it was possible to own.
Thomas also has something better, something to photograph. In some ways I suppose Blowup is a little dated. It’s hard to listen to him yelling out “work it baby work it oh yeah” while photographing the model Veruschka without thinking of Austin Powers. We don’t really see any examples of his work, but, after watching two young models played by Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills sit through two days of him being an asshole just to get photographed, we assume he’s a master of his craft. He complains about money, yet drives around in a Rolls Royce. He gets invited to the best parties. He comes and goes when he wants.
Who wouldn’t want to be Thomas in Blowup?
The answer would be “Thomas.” Thomas has photographed so many beautiful women that he’s sick of seeing them. He dabbles in socially conscious photojournalism, spending the night in a flop house taking pictures of homeless men. He takes landscapes. While it may seem a bit odd these days that a glamorous fashion photographer would blow off Jane Birkin to take photos in Maryon Park, that’s precisely what Thomas does. It’s hard to exaggerate how beautiful the lighting is, how calm the setting. Maryon Park feels a bit like a mod Garden of Eden transplanted to Swinging London in the 1960s.
Then it gets more interesting. Thomas sees a pair of lovers, an older man and a young Vanessa Redgrave. He takes their photo. The man disappears. Redgrave follows him, outraged that he took her photo without her consent. It’s a situation almost every street photographer has found himself in at one time or another, but her vehemence — she bites his hand to try to get his camera — suggests there’s something more at work then her annoyance at becoming part of some tourist’s snapshot. What is it? Is the relationship Thomas witnessed adulterous? Is she afraid of being betrayed to her husband? Or is she just crazy? Later, when Thomas goes to his darkroom, we discover another reason. Thomas thinks he’s accidentally photographed a dead body.
Did Vanessa Redgrave commit murder? Thomas blows up the photo, thus the title. He goes back to the park and finds a body. He does nothing. Is it to protect Vanessa Redgrave? She had dropped by his apartment earlier in another attempt to get the film and they, possibly, had a sexual encounter of some sort. Or is Thomas just so jaded that, once he discovers the body, he no longer cares? He goes to a party. Everybody looks dead, beautiful, but dead. He goes back to the park, but the body is gone, and we begin to understand what the film is all about. Thomas is living in one of his photographs, in a beautiful, empty dream world full of mannequins and perfect light. It may look like heaven, but it’s essentially hell.
For us, the viewer, it doesn’t matter. Blowup may be boring as drama, but as a visual document of countercultural London it’s a superb film, so richly evocative of the 1960s that memories of my early childhood came flooding into my conscious mind, of Beatles album covers, TV shows, my parents’ old furniture, the new car they bought the year I was born, of a world I barely remember, but which seems more real than the world I’m living in now.