Blow Up – tape 294

This tape opens with the end of Did You See, with a bit of ‘faith healer’ Peter Popoff doing his fake healing with his wife’s voice in his ear telling him the names of all the people in the audience who had come with ailments. One of the guests on the programme was James Burke, and they reviewed Life Story, so it’s a shame I don’t have the programme here.

After this, a trailer for Painting With Light. David Hockney tries out the latest in TV graphics – something like a Quantel Paintbox, I’m guessing.

Then, Michelangelo Antonioni’s hymn to the swinging sixties, Blow Up. I’ve never seen it before, but it has a reputation as a seminal movie of the sixties. Its sexual content was outrageous for the time, and it was refused a certificate by the MPAA in America.

David Hemmings plays a photographer who spends much of the first part of the film bullying models, being generally sneery, driving around in his Rolls Royce convertible, which in the grim, grimy London depicted here seems like the worst choice or vehicle imaginable.

At one point there’s an anti-war protest, but it’s the oddest protest I’ve ever seen.

Not This

Placards with ‘Not This’ and ‘No No No’ are like a 12 year-old’s idea of a protest. One of them even has ‘No No’ written backwards. And I checked that it’s not just a backwards placard. I’m sure it’s very deep.

In his search for some verité, he surreptitiously photographs Vanessa Redgrave talking to a man in a park, which she’s not happy about, but won’t say why.

There’s an awful lot of non-sequitur in this movie. At one point he buys a huge propellor from an antique shop. Later, in between actual plot, a man arrives to deliver it. I’m really hoping that this is Chekov’s propellor, and it will play a pivotal role on the thrilling climax.

Redgrave visits Hemmings to ask for the pictures back, and he seems to try to seduce her, which would appear to be his primary mode of communication with women.

Vanessa Redgrave

After fobbing her off with a different roll of film, Hemmings develops the photographs he took of Redgrave and her assignation in the park. He blows them up large, and starts looking closely at odd details – Redgrave’s body language, her expression as she looks not at the man but at something out of frame. Eventually, he spots what looks like a man lurking in the bushes with a gun, and he becomes convinced that by disturbing them when taking his pictures, he saved the man’s life. He excitedly tells his agent on the phone about his discovery.

There’s another interlude when two young girls, who have been hassling him, presumably intent on pursuing modelling careers, come back to the studio, and proceed to take off their clothes and roll around amongst his purple backdrop paper. This was, apparently, a groundbreaking moment for cinema, as it was the most nudity ever witnessed on screen up until that point. And it also established other traditions, like being entirely gratuitous, and treating women entirely as sex objects.

But after this digression, he studies the pictures more, and makes a grim discovery that takes him back to the park, where he discovers the body of the man, still lying in the park. Clearly there aren’t many dog walkers in this neck of the woods.

When he returns to the studio, it’s been ransacked, and all the blow-ups on the wall have gone, along with his negatives. He discusses this with Sarah Miles, who I don’t think we’ve met before (although Hemmings did visit her house to find her having sex, but he didn’t interrupt). He doesn’t seem unduly curious about this man who died, and she seems only slightly more curious. “How did he die?” “I didn’t ask.”

Hemmings goes driving and spots Redgrave on the street. He follows her, and finds a music venue where the Yardbirds are playing. I don’t know what drugs the audience are on, but with a couple of exceptions, everyone is standing staring blankly at the band, with nary a foot tapping. They only seem to wake up when the guitarist (Jeff Beck) gets annoyed at an amplifier buzzing, smashes his guitar, and throws the neck into the audience, at which stage they transform into a screaming mob.

Hemmings grabs the guitar neck, runs from the club, pursued by other audience members, only to discard it as soon as he gets to the street. Yet another non-sequitur.

He finds his agent, played by Peter Bowles, at a rather druggy party. He tells him he wants to go back to the park to photograph the body. “I want you to see the corpse. We’ve got to get a shot of it.” “I’m not a photographer.” pause. “I am.”

This is sparkling dialogue.

Peter Bowles and David Hemmings

Next morning, Hemmings returns to the park, but the body is gone. Then, as he’s wandering around, a land rover filled with a crowd of (I’m guessing) students from the local mime school, is driving around, with them shrieking and shouting. I’m assuming they’re the remedial class at mime school.

They stop near Hemmings, and two of them go in to a tennis court, and proceed to mime playing tennis. They mime hitting the ball out of the court, and indicates to Hemmings he should go and get it  which he does, and throws it back, then watches them play for another couple of minutes.

Then the film ends.

Mime school

I think there must be some huge contextual thing I’m missing that makes this the classic it’s always described as. I’ve only known it by reference to other films – both Coppola’s The Conversation and De Palma’s Blow Out are variations on the same theme of a captured clue to a tragedy, those being about sound rather than picture. And both those films are better than Blow Up by virtue of actually having plots.

I know I’m a critical lightweight, preferring crowd-pleasing genre fare over more weighty, worthy offerings, but really, this was a barely coherent, dull, pointless piece of fluff that squandered the one interesting idea it had. When it comes to Italian movie directors, I think I’ll take Argento over Antonioni any day of the week. Even Argento’s lesser offerings are more interesting than this.

And they never used the bloody propellor for anything.

BBC Genome: BBC Two – 2nd May 1987 – 23:00

The tape ends right after this, as BBC2 closes down.




  1. I love Blow-Up, it’s a fascinating artifact of the 60s and by far the best thing Antonioni ever did. He’s a very cold, characters under the microscope kind of director, didn’t care to explain everything outright, but once it all comes together with the students at the end you should realise it’s all about the consensus of reality, and if you’re outnumbered about what you think is real you’re lost. Pretty bleak, but that was laugh a long a Mike.

    The two girls in the sex scene were Jane Birkin (of Je T’Aime fame) and Gillian Hills (of Beat Girl and Owl Service fame). Hemmings grumbled about Antonioni the way Malcolm McDowell grumbles about Stanley Kubrick. At least I hope you’d agree Blow-Up was better than Argento’s Dracula.

    1. I must admit I haven’t seen Argento’s more recent output, which I understand is pretty bad. I was thinking about things like Terror at the Opera which is a pretty bad movie, but one I enjoyed watching. Bliow-Up did nothing for me except make me cross.

      1. Well, European arthouse movies aren’t for everyone, and I don’t think you’re that much of a lightweight as you say, some of your posts on this blog are very astute, but we all have our blind spots. As for Argento, best not to watch anything after the 90s (some would say the 80s!), never has a major talent gone quite so dramatically off the boil. Stick with Suspiria, Deep Red, Tenebrae, all the good stuff.

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