A VIEWER’S GUIDE TO BLOWUP
; London was the center of the youth-oriented counter-culture of the second half of the 1960s
(often labeled the “Swinging London” movement).
; The Swinging London phenomenon was a reaction to the austere conservatism of post World
War II England. In some respects, it was also a reaction to the “angry young men
movement.” “Don’t get angry, just get crazy”—seemed to be the answer of the Love Child
generation to the angry young men of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The movement, and the
entire “Hippie” movement, of course, was partially ignited by growing dissatisfaction with
U.S., British, and French imperialism, and the Viet Nam War in particular. “Make Love, Not
War” was the bumper-sticker philosophy of the period. (Note the “Ban the Bomb” street
protest in the film.)
; It was a period of naïve optimism and hedonism, characterized by rejection of the
establishment and authority, and experimentation with free love, drugs, and new
“psychedelic” forms of art and fashion.
; The music of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, et al, played a huge
role in shaping the counter-culture’s “alternate reality.” (The
group in the night club near the end of the film is The
; London was also the center of “Mod” fashion. Twiggy and
Varushka (she is in the film) become international icons (along
with the mini-skirt).
; Peter Max’s “psychedelic” style of art (which employed a
simplistic, colorful style) was a major influence on design,
fashion and the graphic arts (note the colorful dresses of the
two young girls in the film). He designed Beatle album covers
and influenced the animation style of their film, Yellow
; The high priest of the drug culture was Dr. Timothy Leary. His quotation “Turn on, tune in,
and drop out” became the mantra of the counter-culture.
; Other Swinging London films include The Knack and How to Get It (1965), Alfie (1966) and
Georgy Girl (1966). The Austin Powers films of the 1990s spoofed this period.
; Blowup was Michelangelo Antonioni’s first English-language film. (He, of course, is the
famous Italian director who began his career in the days of Italian Neorealism and worked
with Roberto Rossellini. His most famous film is La’Adventura.) Antonioni was fascinated
by the Swinging London “scene.”
; Bergman thought Blowup was Antonioni’s best film. (He thought most of his other films
were “boring and overrated.”) Interestingly he and Antonioni died on the same day last year
Style of film
; When the film premiered, it was regarded as somewhat of a breakthrough in terms of editing.
Peter Bondella (one of the most prolific Italian cinema scholars) observes that “Blowup is
edited with the dynamic speed of a modern commercial and represents Antonioni’s attempt to
capture the energy of the period” (Ezra 135). While the film is somewhat of a departure from
Antonioni’s earlier style (which featured long takes, open-ended narrative lines, and a mise en
scene that emphasized backgrounds), by today’s standards it is difficult to agree with
Bondella’s assessment. Many viewers think the film is “slow.”
; The film makes little use of non-diegetic music. While it is not always clear, most of the
music heard in the background appears to be coming from a radio or tape player in Thomas’s
studio. At times, there is no music, which adds to the “cerebral” nature of the viewing
experience. Antonio wants you to ponder the scenes along with Thomas, specifically the
scenes in his studio when he blows up the photographs and tries to piece together what
happened in the park.
; Ironically, while the film is largely about “alternate perceptions of reality” (more about that
later), there is nothing “unreal” about the film—no dream sequences, no magical realism, no
surrealism—nothing that extends beyond the boundaries of a realistic narrative—except for
one little device he uses at the very end of the film (more on that later).
; The opening scene tells us a great deal about Thomas, and also establishes the key themes of
; First we see the “merrymakers” on board a military-style Jeep, weaving their way through
what is the Financial District of London, on to The Economist Plaza (The Economist is the
famous international financial newspaper.) The contrast is obvious—between the Hippie-like
merrymakers and the conservative institutions of The Economist and the military (implied by
; Next we see weary workers leaving a grimy factory. David Hemmings, who plays Thomas,
emerges from the factory in the midst of the workers, clutching a paper bag, which we
eventually learn contains his camera.
; The factory scene appears as if it were shot in black and white. It is a clear allusion to the
great tradition of British Social Realism (and perhaps to Italian Neorealism—Antonioni
began his career working in INR). I believe Antonioni is suggesting that in the past,
European filmmakers, writers and artists equated reality with social reality. They were
obsessed with documenting the real life of common people, with the hope of bringing about
social reform. They were greatly influenced by documentary journalists, photographers and
filmmakers who tried to capture “life in the raw.”
; But those days are over. In the 1960s, he and other artists—from Peter Max to the Beatles—
were interested in the depiction of other realities and dimensions of the mind. He even fools
us for a few minutes: we think Thomas is one of the workers. But we soon learn he is
working as an artist undercover. At the end of the film, Thomas undergoes a tremendous psychological and philosophical evolution. When we meet him in the beginning, we learn that he is a top-notch fashion photographer (he drives a Rolls convertible and photographs the top models in London, including Varushka). He is an artist at heart, but has prostituted himself to the world of commercial photography. The way he treats his models and leaves for the park in the middle of a shoot suggests both his disdain for his work and his love for “real photography.” At this stage in his evolution, and the plot, his obvious passion is
“socially realistic” photography, which he feels is closer to “the truth.” That is what he is
most interested in, and ultimately, what the film is all about (i.e., “What is truth”?)
; As his name suggests (Doubting Thomas), he is a rationalist or an empiricist. He believes the camera is capable of capturing truth and reality (as is evident with the book of photos he hopes to publish). His entire approach to solving the basic mystery of the film is based upon an empirical approach. One might argue that he is a disciple of Bazin (who believed that photography, more so than painting, enabled artists to capture the true reality of an image).
; He also believes he is in total control of his own view of reality and his world. He is cocky, confident and controlling. Interestingly, we see the early scenes of the film pretty much through his eyes and his camera lens. As the film progresses, the camera’s point of view
changes. In the park, for example, we see him from a distance—from a God’s eye or bird’s
eye view—as he realizes, and we realize, that he has less control over his world view (which is eventually brought into question).
; It’s also interesting to note the passers-by on the streets in the first few scenes. There are
nuns and a Sikh (with the purple turban), with British guards in the background—all people
with very different perspectives of reality. (Later in the film there is a group of Africans in native dressing walking down the street, and a gay couple with two poodles.)
; There is one glaring error in the first driving scene: you can see the cameraman reflected in the windshield of Thomas’ car (from a crane above the car).
; The next few scenes show Thomas at work, first doing a solo shoot of Varushka, then a group shoot of five models. These scenes (and later scenes) tell us a great deal about Thomas and his relation with women. He is, first and foremost, an artist and thus is an observer of life, not a participant. He is only interested in seeing the world through his camera lens, and wants to control his world through his “masculine gaze” (Laura Mulvey, a noted feminist /
psychoanalytical film theorist, has written extensively about the “male gaze” in film, arguing
that it has significant Freudian undertones. One could do a feminist and/or psychoanalytical reading of the film, but I do not believe it is the primary way to “read” the film—but it would
make for an interesting secondary reading). His session with Varushka ends with her writhing on the floor as he straddles her with his camera—an obvious simulation of (or
substitution for, in his case) sexual intercourse, after which he is exhausted. (In a later scene, he observes Bill and Patricia having sex.)
; In the group scene, the models have become commoditized, held together by cloth pins. They are plastic creatures to Thomas. He has no emotional attachment to them. They are mere objects, mere products . The scene suggests his boredom with his craft, and can also be read as a commentary on the dehumanization of the fashion and modeling industries, and
consumer materialism in general.
; As the film progresses, we realize we really don’t know much about Thomas—whether he
has a girl friend, where he came from, anything about his parents, etc. All we know is that he
is a photographer/artist, which seems to be Antonioni’s intention. Is Antonioni making a
statement about the general role of the artist in contemporary society, including filmmakers?
Is Thomas Antonioni? Perhaps.
Bill and Patricia
; The scene with Bill and Patricia is significant since there are elements within it that
foreshadow the central mystery of the film, as well as important sub themes.
; Bill’s paintings are pointillistic abstractions. He comments that “they don’t mean anything
when I do them…but later the details add up, like finding a clue in a detective story.” He
then points out a detail to Thomas that he says looks like a leg. The paintings obviously echo
the graininess of Thomas’s photos in the park, after he blows them up—and also the body
under the tree.
; There is something mysterious about Patricia and her relationship with Thomas. It appears
she is unhappy with Bill, and is interested in Thomas. She goes to his studio later in the film
and says she needs to talk to him, but their conversation—and relationship—are never
consummated. Is Antonioni making a statement about the breakdown of human relationships
in modern society—and that the so-called Love Generation didn’t have a clue about love?
Possibly. His film La’Adventura explored the theme of alienated “couples”—unable to
communicate or truly connect.
; The central mystery of the film begins when Thomas enters the park. In the scene before, we
see him in an antique shop searching for a landscape painting. Then he discovers, by
accident, the entrance to the park, and strolls toward it, as if attracted by some force. This
seems to suggest the next transition for Thomas—from social photographer to nature
photographer. While it is not explained, something has suddenly made him interested in
landscapes—perhaps it was a long submerged or forgotten interest. When he discovers the
park, he is like a kid again, kicking his heels with joy—quite a contrast from his cold, glib
reaction to the models he photographs. He begins to take pictures of the park and pigeons.
; As stated earlier, this is where our perspective of Thomas changes. We now see him from a
distance. He is now the observed, not the observer. (The film ends with a shot of him from a
similar bird’s eye perspective.)
; He sees the woman in the park and begins to photograph her. She seems to be pulling the
man in the suit in a certain direction, which arouses Thomas’s curiosity.
; The most interesting aspect of the park scene—which suggests that there is more here than
meets the eye, even more than what turns out to be a murder mystery—is the fence (yes, the
fence). The park consists of a well-manicured (humanly manipulated) lawn, surrounded by a
painted picket fence. The fence represents the boundary between the known and the
unknown, between the world of man and nature, between light and reason and darkness and
mystery. (It is a green fence, and thus a subtle boundary.) The park and the woman lure
Thomas into another world, another reality, beyond his comprehension.
; Thomas’s “initiation” into the world of the unknown begins when he jumps over the fence
and enters the “dark side.”
; The details of mystery he attempts to unravel, of course, are situated on the other side of the
; The central part of the film shows Thomas trying to literally piece together what happened in
the park, in a rational manner. Using logic, he tries to solve the crime. He studies the
woman’s stare, and thinks she is looking at a certain spot in the wooded boundary of the park.
He marks that spot, takes a photograph of that section of the photograph, blows it up and
mounts it on the wall.
; With each consecutive enlargement, the picture gets grainier and grainier (reminiscent of
Bill’s paintings). In other words, instead of obtaining a clearer picture of the “the truth,” the
picture becomes more and more ambiguous.
; He continues to blowup the photographs until he discovers a face in the trees and a gun.
; He then tries to piece together all the photos into a continuous narrative, or “storyboard,” to
explain the sequence of events to his satisfaction.
CONTRARIAN VIEW: There are a few critics who question whether the face and the gun are in
the photos, or whether he puts the “pixels” of the image together in his own mind to create these
images—out of his desperate need to impose rational order on what he saw. The images do appear to be somewhat crisper than the surrounding background. And at the very end of the film (without giving too much away, in case you have figured the ending out yet), his mind does distort his “visual reality.” I think the face and the gun are there. But, either reading arrives at the same conclusion about the film—namely, the subjectivity of truth).
; All of this suggests man’s need (at least a rational imperialist’s need) (a) to believe that there
is absolute truth and that it is obtainable through observation and reason, and (b) to impose
order on the universe. Thomas’s attempt to storyboard his photographs reflects our desire to
make sense out of disjointed images and patterns, to believe there is a unifying story that
explains such things. Are our lives simply a random string of disconnected experiences, or
do they comprise an integrated storyboard that tells a unified, meaningful narrative?
; He is convinced he has solved the mystery—and has saved a man’s life.
; He later goes to the park and sees the body beneath the tree. (Obviously, the opposite of what
he thought—that he saved a man’s life—appears to be true.)
Searching for verification
; His photographs are stolen and now he has no evidence. Was it the woman in the park?
Someone she sent?
; He looks for his friend Ron, publisher of his photo book, and thus verifier of what he
observes and sees in life. On his way, he thinks he sees the woman in the street. Was she
there or was it his imagination?
; He goes into a night club looking for her. The Yardbirds are playing. It is a dark temple of
Rock and Roll. People are staring at the band, but not smiling or dancing (eerily similar to
the club scene in Wings of Desire). The amp begins to go haywire, and Jeff Beck, the lead
guitarist, smashes his guitar into pieces (reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar smashing at the
Monterey Pops Festival one year after the film was made). Now the crowd goes wild,
fighting over the broken guitar, which Thomas manages to get hold of and escape with. Once
outside the club, he tosses it on the ground. A strange scene, but what does it mean? The
people just about kill each other to get their hands on a piece of the guitar. It is suddenly the
most important thing in the world for them. The fact that everyone wants it is the only factor
that verifies its worth. Outside of that context, without the verification of the group, it is
worthless trash—a very postmodern metaphor of truth and value. The guitar, in itself, has no
universal value. Only those who are fans of the band would possibly see any value to it, but,
again, they only want it because everyone else does. Thomas, for a moment, gets caught up
in the frenzy, but his rationalism returns when he leaves the club. He is unaware of it at this
point, but the club scene also parallels his own situation—that what he has discovered is
worthless unless he can get others within his group to verify his discovery.
; He finds Ron at a party in which half the people are stoned on drugs, experiencing
“psychedelic” reality. He tries to tell him what he discovered, but to no avail. Ron is in
another world. He sees Varushka, who utters perhaps the greatest line in the film. He says,
“I thought you were in Paris.” She says. “I am in Paris.”
; He returns to the scene of the crime. The body is gone. Did any of this really happen?
; Without verification of the truth by society, there is no truth. It might well not have happened.
; In one of the greatest endings in the history of film (in my humble opinion), the merrymakers
return. Thomas watches as two mimes enter the tennis court and begin to “play” tennis. The
rest of the merrymakers follow the flight of the imaginary ball. Thomas watches out of
curiosity. Suddenly, one of the players hits the “ball” over the fence. They beckon to him to
fetch it and throw it back. He runs over to a patch of grass, picks up the “ball,” and tosses it
back over the fence. We then see him staring toward the tennis court—and we hear the sound
of an actual tennis ball hitting rackets, back and forth, back and forth. The camera then
zooms back to the bird’s eye view, and we see Thomas alone in the field of grass—and then
he totally disappears. The end.
; Thomas has gone over to the other side, and joined the “Magical Mystery Tour” of life. He
has learned the immortal lesson of the Beatles—“It’s all in the mind, y’know (see the above
poster). The reality of the merrymakers is as good as any one else’s. That, at least, seemed to
be the attitude of the Hippie generation.
; The film, therefore, raises question, “what is reality”? Can we ever know the real truth about
anything? Can we see the big picture, or only minute isolated parts of life’s mysteries? What
does any of this matter? All that matters is what is true within your local subculture (the
postmodern philosopher Jean Lyotard stated, “all truth is local,” and that there are no longer
any grand metanarratives, or universal truths, only “little stories”).
; The film can be read as a statement on the role of the artist in society, and the correlating
themes of the subjectivity of truth, the imposition of order by the observer, the growing
insignificance of the author (Roland Barthe’s famous statement that “the author is dead,”
which is alluded to by Thomas’ disappearance at the end), the social construction of identity,
and related themes that postmodern and poststructural literary and film critics are fond of
; If you want to probe the film more deeply, there have been many excellent articles written
about it, including one that discusses Thomas’s preference for “seeing” from an
epistemological perspective rather than an ontological one (this essay is by Colin Gardner;
you can find the link to it on the course Web site), and how he can be viewed as an alienated
; It is also perfectly okay to read the film as mere social commentary on the spiritual
shallowness of the 1960s.
Ezra, Elizabeth, ed. European Cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Gardner, Colin. "Antonioni's Blow Up and the Chiasmus of Memory." www.artbrain.org.
10 April 2008 <http://www.artbrain.org/journal2/gardner.html >
Prepared by Karl J. Skutski
Department of Modern Languages and Literatures