“Blow-up,” by Peter Brunette, from (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998)
It is difficult to say anything new about Anionioni's next film, Blow-up, made in 1966. Literary critics, philosophers, anthropologists, and a host of others, slumming from time to time in the movies, seem invariably to have felt the need to talk about this particular film. One reason is that it was an international art-:house success, even beyond that of the trilogy (in no small part because of its steamy - for the time - sex and drug scenes), with a relatively well-known cast that had wider drawing power than less familiar Italian actors.1 Even more important, the film was made in English and placed in a more easily recognizable setting, and, for those reasons, it seems to be more immediately accessible than his earlier films. Above all, the film seems to have been tempting to commentators precisely because its meanings end up being so ambiguous and apparently multiple; in fact, the variety of interpretations inspired by this film is nothing short of astonishing.
By the time Blow-up appears, it has become clear that Antonioni prefers to put meanings in play, rather than to follow a prearranged, clearly worked-out plan - as he himself has always insisted in interviews - and it is this factor, more than any other, that accounts for the wide disparity in critical interpretations. (This free play also strongly marks the rather tenuous relation between the film and the short story by Argentinian writer Julio Cortazar, "Las babas del diablo" [The devil's drool] on which it is ostensibly based.)2 Paradoxically, despite the film's many ambiguities, things initially appear much less complicated in Blow-up^ and the surface more welcoming. Antonioni himself also seems to have felt that this film marked a new departure for him, as he told an interviewer for Playboy magazine that it was completely different from his earlier films, because now he was examining the relationship between an individual and reality, rather than interpersonal relations (p. 48). (As noted in chapter 4, he said much the same thing to another interviewer about Red Desert.)
Some elements do not change, however. For example, Antonioni continues the pattern established in the earlier films of indicating, even in the first few minutes, potentially enlightening ways of watching the film. Thus the intercuts between the merrymakers and the homeless men emerging from the "doss house" (shelter) with which the film opens are heavily, almost didactically, oppositional and seem meant to nudge us in the direction of seeing the film as a set of binary oppositions. Modestly, and ambiguously, Antonioni's earlier penchant for specific social critique survives in this almost too obvious contrast between the revelers of the "swinging sixties" (the mimes here are an explicit figural symbolization of the irresponsible and drug-besotted mod London seen throughout the film)3 - a historically specific phenomenon that the film seems, on one level, to want to document - and the oppressed and despairing men of the homeless shelter. Alternatively, in the context of the i96os, the anarchic revelers who refuse to play by the rules may very well represent that rebellion against authoritarian structures for which the decade is chiefly known, especially since many of the people that the merrymakers pass (for example, the nuns and the palace guard) are wearing their own sorts of uniforms, which connote repression. Thus the binary structure of the film is established from the beginning, but the exact terms of the opposition remain unclear.
What might be called the "epistemological" theme of the film - most evident, famously, in the photographer's attempt to reconstruct the murder in the park by enlarging his photographs - is also stated in the beginning when the photographer, played by David Hemmings, appears to be simply one of the men filing out of the shelter early in the morning.4 Since he was hardly a recognizable star at the time the film was made, no one thinks that he is any