Will Blow-Up be taken seriously in 1968 only by the same sort of cultural diehards who are still sending out five-page single-spaced letters on their interpretation of Marienbad?

by Pauline Kael

Some years ago I attended an evening of mime by Marcel Marceau, an elaborate exercise in aesthetic purification during which the audience kept applauding its own appreciation of culture and beauty, i.e., every time they thought they recognized what was supposed to be going on. It had been bad enough when Chaplin or Harpo Marx pulled this beauty-of-pathos stuff, and a whole evening of it was truly intolerable. But afterward, when friends were acclaiming Marceau’s artistry, it just wouldn’t do to say something like, “I prefer the Ritz Brothers” (though I do, I passionately do). They would think I was being deliberately lowbrow, and if I tried to talk in terms of Marceau’s artistry versus Harry Ritz’s artistry, it would be stupid, because “artist” is already too pretentious a term for Harry Ritz and so I would be falsifying what I love him for. I don’t want to push this quite so far as to say that Marceau is to comedians I like what Antonioni’s new Blow-Up is to movies I like, but the comparison may be suggestive. And it may also be relevant that Antonioni pulls a Marceau-like expressionist finale in this picture, one of those fancy finishes that seems to say so much (but what?) and reminds one of so many naïvely bad experimental films.

Will Blow-Up be taken seriously in 1968 only by the same sort of cultural diehards who are still sending out five-page single-spaced letters on their interpretation of Marienbad? (No two are alike, no one interesting.) It has some of the Marienbad appeal: a friend phones for your opinion and when you tell him you didn’t much care for it, he says, “You’d better see it again. I was at a swinging party the other night and it’s all anybody talked about!” (Was there ever a good movie that everybody was talking about?) It probably won’t blow over because it also has the Morgan!-Georgy Girl appeal; people identify with it so strongly, they get upset if you don’t like it—as if you were rejecting not just the movie but them. And in a way they’re right, because if you don’t accept the peculiarly slugged consciousness of Blow-Up, you are rejecting something in them.  Antonioni’s new mixture of suspense with vagueness and confusion seems to have a kind of numbing fascination for them that they associate with art and intellectuality, and they are responding to it as their film—and hence as a masterpiece.

Antonioni’s off-screen conversation, as reported to us, is full of impeccable literary references, but the white-faced clowns who open and close Blow-Up suggest that inside his beautifully fitted dinner jacket he carries—next to his heart—a gold-edged gift edition of Kahlil Gibran. And from the way people talk about the profundity of Blow-Up, that’s probably what they’re responding to. What would we think of a man who stopped at a newsstand to cluck at the cover girls of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar as tragic symbols of emptiness and sterility, as evidence that modern life isn’t “real,” and then went ahead and bought the magazines? Or, to be more exact, what would we think of a man who conducted a leisurely tour of “swinging” London, lingering along the flashiest routes and dawdling over a pot-party and a mini-orgy, while ponderously explaining that although the Mod scene appears to be hip and sexy, it represents a condition of spiritual malaise in which people live only for the sensations of the moment? Is he a foolish old hypocrite or is he, despite his tiresome moralizing, a man who knows he’s hooked?

It’s obvious that there’s a new kind of non-involvement among youth, but we can’t get at what that’s all about by Antonioni’s terms. He is apparently unable to respond to or to convey the new sense of community among youth, or the humor and fervor and astonishing speed in their rejections of older values; he sees only the emptiness of Pop culture. All we can tell is that he doesn’t understand what’s going on—which is comprehensible, God knows, because who does? But then shouldn’t he spare us the altitudes worthy of a Time essay or a Reagan speech?

Those who enjoy seeing this turned-on city of youth, those who say of Blow-Up that it’s the trip, it’s where we are now in consciousness and that Antonioni is in it, part of it, ahead of it like Warhol, may have a better sense of what Antonioni is about than the laudatory critics. Despite Antonioni’s negativism, the world he presents looks harmless, and for many in the audience—and not just the youthful ones—sex without “connecting” doesn’t really seem so bad—naughty, maybe, but nice. Even the smoke at the pot-party is enough to turn on some of the audience. And there’s all that pretty color which delights the critics, though it undercuts their reasons for praising the movie because it’s that bright cleaned-up big-city color of I-have-seen-the-future-and-it’s-fun. Antonioni, like his fashion-photographer hero, is more interested in getting pretty pictures than in what they mean. But for reasons I can’t quite fathom, what is taken to be shallow in his hero is taken to be profound in him. Maybe it’s because of the symbols: do pretty pictures plus symbols equal art?

There are the revelers who won’t make room on the sidewalk for the nuns (spirit? soul? God? love?) and jostle them aside; an old airplane propeller is found in an antique shop; the hero considers buying the antique shop; two homosexuals walk their poodle, etc. Antonioni could point out that the poodle is castrated, and he’d probably be acclaimed for that, too—one more bitter detail of modern existential agony. There is a mock copulation with camera and subject that made me laugh (as the planes fornicating at the beginning of Strangelove did). But from the reviews of Blow-Up I learn that this was “tragic” and “a superbly realized comment on the values of our time” and all that. People seem awfully eager to abandon sense and perspective and humor and put on the newest fashion in hair shirts; New York critics who are just settling into their upper-East Side apartments write as if they’re leaving for a monastery in the morning.

Hecht and MacArthur used to write light satirical comedies about shallow people living venal lives that said most of what Antonioni does and more, and were entertaining besides; they even managed to convey that they were in love with the corrupt milieu and were part of it without getting bogged down. And Odets, even in late work like his dialogue for Sweet Smell of Success, also managed to convey both hate and infatuation.

Love-hate is what makes drama not only exciting but possible, and it certainly isn’t necessary for Antonioni to resolve his conflicting feelings. But in Blow-Up he smothers this conflict in the kind of pompous platitudes the press loves to designate as proper to “mature,” “adult,” “sober” art. Who the hell goes to movies for mature, adult, sober art, anyway? Yes, we want more from movies than we get from the usual commercial entertainments, but would anybody use terms like mature, adult, and sober for The Rules of the Came or Breathless or Citizen Kane or Jules and Jim?

The best part of Blow-Up is a well-conceived and ingeniously edited sequence in which the hero blows up a series of photographs and discovers that he has inadvertently photographed a murder. It’s a good murder mystery sequence. But does it symbolize (as one reviewer says) “the futility of seeking the hidden meanings of life through purely technological means”? I thought the hero did rather well in uncovering the murder. But this kind of symbolic interpretation is not irrelevant to the appeal of the picture: Antonioni loads his atmosphere with so much confused symbolism and such a heavy sense of importance that the viewers use the movie as a Disposal for intellectual refuse. We get the stock phrases about “the cold death of the heart,” “the eroticism is chilling in its bleakness,” a “world so cluttered with synthetic stimulations that natural feelings are overwhelmed,” etc., because Antonioni inspires this pompous jargon.

When the photographer loses the photographic record of the murder, he loses interest in it. According to Time, “Antonioni’s anti-hero”—who is said to be a “little snake” and “a grincingly accurate portrait of the sort of squiggly little fungus that is apt to grow in a decaying society”—“holds in his possession, if only for an instant, the alexin of his cure: the saving grace of the spirit.” (My Webster doesn’t yield a clue to “grincingly”; an “alexin” is “a defensive substance, found normally in the body, capable of destroying bacteria.”) In other words, if he did something about the murder, like going to the police, he would be accepting an involvement with the life or death of others, and he would find his humanity and become an OK guy to Time. (Would he then not be a representative of a decaying society, or would the society not then decay? Only Time can tell.)

This review, and many others, turn the murder into something like what the press and TV did with the Kitty Genovese case: use it as an excuse for another of those what-are-we-coming-to editorials about alienation and indifference to human suffering. What was upsetting about the Genovese case was not those among the “witnesses” who didn’t want to get involved even to the degree of calling the police (cowardice is not a new phenomenon) but our recognition that in a big city we don’t know when our help is needed, and others may not know when we need help. This isn’t a new phenomenon, either; what is new is that it goes against the grain of modern social consciousness, i.e., we feel responsible even though we don’t know how to act responsibly. The press turned it into one more chance to cluck, and people went around feeling very superior to those thirty-eight witnesses because they were sure they would have called the police.

The moral satisfaction of feeling indignant that people take away from these cases (though I’m not sure that Time’s moral is what Antonioni intended; probably not) is simple and offensive. Do all the times that the police are called when they are or aren’t needed prove how humanly involved with each other we are? The editorial writers don’t tell us. And they couldn’t do much with the West Coast case of the young academic beaten, tied to his bed, moaning and crying for help for days before he died. His friends and neighbors heard him all right, but as that’s how he customarily took his pleasure, they smiled sympathetically and went about their own affairs, not knowing that this time the rough trade he had picked up to beat him had been insanely earnest.

The quick rise to celebrity-status of young fashion-photographers, like the quick success of pop singers, makes them ideal “cool” heroes, because they don’t come up the slow, backbreaking Horatio Alger route. And the glamour of the rich and famous and beautiful rubs off on the photographer who shoots them, making him one of them. Antonioni uses David Hemmings in the role very prettily—with his Billy Budd hair-do, he’s like a pre-Raphaelite Paul McCartney. But if we’re supposed to get upset because this young man got rich quick—the way some people get morally outraged at the salaries movie stars make—that’s the moral outrage television personalities specialize in and it’s hardly worth the consideration of art-house audiences. Yet a surprising lot of people seem willing to accept assumptions such as: the fashion photographer is symbolic of life in our society and time; he turns to easy sex because his life and ours is empty, etc. Mightn’t people like easy sex even if their lives were reasonably full? And is sex necessarily empty just because the people are strangers to each other, or is it just different? And what’s so terrible about fast, easy success? Don’t most of the people who cluck their condemnation wish they’d had it?

Vanessa Redgrave, despite an odd Mod outfit, has a tense and lovely presence, and because she has been allowed to act in this film (in which almost no one else is allowed to project) she stands out. However, someone has arranged her in a wholly gratuitous mood—laughing with her head back and teeth showing in a blatant imitation of Garbo. It’s almost a subliminal trailer for Camelot in which, according to advance publicity, she will be “the Garbo of the Sixties.” This little deformation does not stick out as it might in another movie because this movie is so ill-formed, anyway. The exigencies of the plot force Antonioni to alter his typical “open” construction (famous partly because it was the most painstakingly planned openness in movie history). In Blow-Up he prepares for events and plants characters for reappearances when they will be needed, but limply, clumsily; and he finds poor excuses for getting into places like the discotheque and the pot-party, which “use” London to tell us about dehumanization. In some terrible way that I suppose could be called Antonioni’s genius, he complains of dehumanization in a dehumanized way, and it becomes part of non-involvement to accept a movie like this as “a chronicle of our time.”

Just as Marienbad was said to be about “time” and/or “memory,” Blow-Up is said (by Antonioni and the critics following his lead) to be about “illusion and reality.” They seem to think they are really saying something, and something impressive at that, though the same thing can be said about almost any movie. In what sense is a movie “about” an abstract concept? In Marienbad and in Blow-Up, by reducing it to silliness. It’s likely that what Antonioni and the approving critics mean is that high fashion, Mod celebrity, rock and roll, and drugs are part of a sterile or frenetic existence, and they take this to mean that the life represented in the film is not “real” but illusory. What seems to be implicit in the prattle about illusion and reality is the notion that the photographer’s life is based on “illusion” and that when he discovers the murder, he is somehow face to face with “reality.” Of course this notion that murder is more real than, say, driving in a Rolls

Royce convertible, is nonsensical (it’s more shocking, though, and when combined with a Rolls Royce it gives a movie a bit of box-office—it’s practical). They’re not talking about a concept of reality but what used to be called “the real things in life,” i.e., the solid values they approve of versus the “false values” of “the young people today.”

Antonioni is the kind of thinker who can say that there are “no social or moral judgments in the picture”: he is merely showing us the people who have discarded “all discipline,” for whom freedom means “marijuana, sexual perversion, anything,” and who live in “decadence without any visible future.” I’d hate to be around when he’s making judgments. And yet in some sense Antonioni is right: because he doesn’t connect what he’s showing to judgment. And that dislocation of sensibility is probably why kids don’t notice the moralizing, why they say Blow-Up is hip.

The cultural ambience of a film like this becomes mixed with the experience of the film: one critic says Antonioni’s “vision” is that “the further we draw away from reality, the closer we get to the truth,” another that Antonioni means “we must learn to live with the invisible.” All this can sound great to those who don’t mind not knowing what it’s about, for whom the ineffable seems most important. “It’s about the limits of visual experience.

The photographer can’t go beyond make-believe,” a lady lawyer who loved the movie explained to me. “But,” I protested, “visual experience is hardly make-believe any more than your practice is—perhaps less.” Without pausing for breath she shifted to, “Why does it have to mean anything?” That’s the game that’s being played at parties this year at Marienbad. They feel they understand Blow-Up but when they can’t explain it, or why they feel as they do, they use that as the grounds for saying the movie is a work of art. Blow-Up is the perfect movie for the kind of people who say, “now that films have become an art form…” and don’t expect to understand art.

Because the hero is a photographer and the blow-up sequence tells a story in pictures, the movie is also said to be about Antonioni’s view of himself as an artist (though even his worst enemies could hardly accuse him of “telling stories” in pictures). Possibly it is, but those who see Blow-Up as Antonioni’s version of —as making a movie about making a movie—seem to value that much more than just making a movie, probably because it puts the film in a class with the self-conscious autobiographical material so many young novelists struggle with (the story that ends with their becoming writers…) and is thus easy to mistake for the highest point of the artistic process.

There is the usual post-Marienbad arguing about whether the murder is “real” or “hallucinatory.” There seems to be an assumption that if a movie can be interpreted as wholly or partially a dream or fantasy, it is more artistic, and I have been hearing that there is no murder, it’s all in the photographer’s head. But then the movie makes even less sense because there are no indications of anything in his character that relate to such fantasies. Crowther has come up with the marvelously involuted suggestion that as the little teeny-bopper orgy wasn’t “real” but just the hero’s “juvenile fantasy” the Production Code people shouldn’t have thought they were seeing real titbits on the screen.

What is it about the symbolic use of characters and details that impresses so many educated people? It’s not very hard to do: almost any detail or person or event in our lives can be pressed into symbolic service, but to what end? I take my dogs for a walk in New York City in January and see examples of “alienation.” An old Negress is crooning, “The world out here is lonely and cold.” A shuffling old man mutters, “Never did and never will, never again and never will.” And there’s a crazy lady who glowers at my dogs and shouts, “They’re not fit to shine my canary’s shoes!” Do they tell us anything about a “decaying society”? No, but if you had some banal polemical, social, or moral point to make, you could turn them into cardboard figures marked with arrows. In so doing I think you would diminish their individuality and their range of meaning, but you would probably increase your chances of being acclaimed as a deep thinker.

When journalistic details are used symbolically—and that is how Antonioni uses “swinging” London—the artist does not create a frame of reference that gives meaning to the details; he simply exploits the ready-made symbolic meanings people attach to certain details and leaves us in a profound mess. (The middlebrow moralists think it’s profound and the hippies enjoy the mess.) And when he tosses in a theatrical convention like a mimed tennis game without a ball—which connects with the journalistic data only in that it, too, is symbolic—he throws the movie-game away. It becomes ah-sweet-mystery-of-life we-are-all-fools, which, pitched too high for human ears, might seem like great music beyond our grasp.

The New Republic, February 11, 1967


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