I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

A Film that Does for a Decade what a Soundtrack Does for a Film: Blow-Up (1966)

by Mike O'Shaughnessy
April 3, 2011

Friday evening. Home from work. Black Friday, we called it – there were a surprising number of layoffs. I survived again. Now I’m in the basement listening to an Elvis Costello compilation, and from the very first note, his music puts me in an appropriate mood to write about Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up.

Elvis Costello came into vogue in the next great cultural overhaul following the passing of the Swinging London scene of the mid-60s, the backdrop, or maybe you could say the vein through which Michelangelo Antonioni’s characters pulse for 111 minutes.

Costello’s singing “Watching the Detectives” from his 1977 debut album. “He can’t be wounded cuz he’s got no heart.” At first I thought that would make a fitting quote for the lead character, Thomas (a fashion photographer portrayed by David Hemmings). But while Thomas, irritated by uninspired models, bored with his glamorous lifestyle, wears that phrase as well as his flared white slacks, it’s too fleeting and draping of a description. By the film’s end, Thomas’ concrete facade cracks, letting in the light of other realities.

If you are unfamiliar with Blow-Up, or Blowup (UK) (but never Blowed Up), don’t be put off by the mimes in the film’s opening scenes. I know mimes can be real deal breakers when you’re trying to impress a date (although this, like most films, are best watched alone), but remember this was the 60s. As it turns out, the mimes are very important. At least Wavy Gravy wasn’t in it.

But for exposition’s sake, let’s say the film concerns a fashion photographer who suspects he’s photographed a murder. Inspired by Argentinean writer Julio Cortazar’s short story, "Las babas del diablo" (1959), and by the life of David Bailey, a photographer in and of the Swinging London scene, Antonioni co-wrote the screenplay.

Forgive me, I’m riffing a bit. I’ve been listening to nothing but jazz lately – bop, free, modal. Blow-Up, the soundtrack, serendipitously, is provided by jazz composer/keyboardist Herbie Hancock. His songs, as well as a rare Yardbirds’ tune, play a diegetic role in the film, meaning when you’re hearing the music, the characters are hearing it. There’s no incidental, omniscient orchestral bursts or keening strings. Thomas plays an LP and we hear it; it’s just that it’s mostly Hancock. The remainder of the soundtrack is the wind, traffic, the rustling of fabric, the snap of the camera’s shutter – the sounds of the day. (After watching the film, start over again and just listen to it.)

So what is the film “about?” Well, that’s not so easy to explain. Or necessary, really. Antonioni remarked, “Perhaps it has no plot at all, in the way you use the word." Flannery O’Connor writes, “For the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.”

“The film was not about a murder but about a photographer. “ - Michelangelo Antonioni

After my father-in-law saw Blow-Up, he sold his gun and bought a camera, spending the next year of his life taking pictures of everything. “That movie changed my life,” he recalled.

Blow-Up premiered in the US on December 18, 1966. A Sunday. If you weren’t at the premiere, you might’ve been home watching an episode of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (Disney had died three days earlier). Or you might have caught the very first showing of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” on TV. I think of those who sat home watching cartoons while a decade-altering film splashed across a screen in Manhattan and flash on that line from Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables: “Some part of the world still cares what color the kitchen is.” (DePalma would direct a loose remake of Blow-Up in 1981 called Blow Out, starring John Travolta.)

Earlier in the year, movie-goers were offered two somewhat lighter versions of Swinging London: Georgy Girl and Alfie. Both films dealt with some heavy issues (unwanted pregnancy, adultery), but they had delightful theme songs many of us still whistle today. When I say many of us, I mean me. Saxophonist Sonny Rollins performed the soundtrack to Alfie. And Georgy Girl starred Lynn Redgrave, while her sister Vanessa - whose mysterious dalliance in the park impelled Thomas to snap the titular photographs - embraced the darker spectrum of that era.

1966 also stood as the eye of the storm of that decade (my own weak theory). True, the Vietnam War was still raging wildly and unrest gripped the streets, but a cursory glimpse of then-current events suggests that America, for a moment, seemed to catch its breath. JFK had been assassinated, the Beatles turned the world upside down, Malcolm X had been assassinated. By ‘67, the Beatles would release Sgt. Pepper, altering the landscape of popular music; the “Summer of Love” would blossom in San Francisco, dominating music and fashion; the end of the sixties returned to assassinations, the escalation of the war, riots, the etceteras of a society collapsing.

1966 beheld the deaths of such influential artists as the poet Frank O’Hara, social commentator/comedian Lenny Bruce, and bop progenitor Bud Powell (whose piano playing inspired Herbie Hancock). These three men, younger at the times of their deaths than Antonioni (indeed they were all in their early 40s), dismissed or overcame the assumed forms of their respective arts. The director had been doing the same with film for years. “Perhaps the film will only be a mood, or a statement about a style of life,” he considers.

Today we are bombarded with “reality shows” whose trajectories are so obvious, whose conclusions are so predetermined that the fictional tag-a-long we take with Thomas, encountering the banalities and the surprises with him as the film proceeds, strikes me as more “real” than any of that “true-life” programming.

The absence of a traditional, influential soundtrack lends the film a documentary quality that I find so much more compelling. The audience travels as a parallel voyeur; we know no clues or secrets hidden from the protagonist. Was I there for a moment in 1966? Antonioni invades my dreams and perhaps someday my memories.

Let him invade yours.


Michelangelo Antonioni quotes from Roger Ebert’s interview (June 19, 1969)



Blow-Up: Now & Then



“Trust me. I am not God, but I am Antonioni.”



Mike O'Shaughnessy