The wildly mixed reception of Antonioni’s splendid new Blow-up—witness Pauline Kael’s personal blow-up against it in The New Republic as against the “best movie of the year” award from the critics’ group to which she belongs—proves again that following an important artist’s career while it’s actually going on is rarely that peacefully exciting cycle of anticipation and gratification we would like it to be. Perhaps it never has been, not even in the golden age. Mozart, for instance: between 1784 and 1786 he wrote, besides Figaro, twelve piano concertos, most of them masterpieces, and it is pleasant to imagine having been there while that miracle of creation was taking place. But twelve concertos are a lot of concertos, and the chances are that Mozart’s fascination with this form might have seemed at the time not the creative exploration of genius that it seems now, but just dependable productivity, or perhaps even a rut. About Henry James there is no need for guessing. In the 80’s he published Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, The Princess Casamassima, The Tragic Muse, and a lot of short stories—all magnificently rich and interesting works though not all of them successful; yet by 1890 the feelings of the readers who had made The American and Daisy Miller bestsellers had turned almost to contempt. Today we calmly sort out the good from the bad and take special pleasure in praising the good and accounting for the bad. But James’s public had no such patience or good will, and his disastrous decision to try to write for the theater was forced on him by deep emotional as well as financial wounds.
With another kind of artist, even admittedly successful work can meet another kind of impatience. Waiting for Godot baffled some and moved others deeply, but it excited everybody. By now, a comfortable dozen years later, it is an acknowledged masterpiece, as easy to understand as Arthur Miller, and Beckett’s style has of course had a great influence and a great vogue. But in the meantime he has been writing other beautiful and authentic plays quite similar to Godot, innocently unaware of that urgent necessity to move on, to find new themes and styles, that is so obvious to some of his critics. Fifty years from now, his responsible loyalty to his own vision and talent will surely seem as honorable as Kafka’s, and it ought to right now. You could excuse his agent for urging him to try something new, but then it’s an agent’s job to worry about show-business rigueurs like over-exposure and image-adjustment. The critic’s job is to worry about single works of art, and today that job seems to require a disciplined refusal to play the culture-market. If it is regrettable to see the public wearing out new fashions in art as fast as automobiles, it is detestable to see criticism going along with this, if not actually leading the charge.
The Antonioni case is like Beckett’s, but intensified. There has been the same puzzled annoyance with an artist who keeps on thinking and feeling about themes that everybody can see are worn out—themes like “lack of communication” or “commitment.” There has been the same eagerness to master a difficult style and then the same relapse into boredom when that style turns out to be something the artist really takes seriously because that’s the way he really sees things. And now there is the fact that Blow-up is a big hit. But the movies wider audience and the correspondingly louder publicity has turned fortune’s wheel much faster for Antonioni; and his self-presentation as a great artist—in the perhaps untrustworthy interviews, in his own writings and in the notable “masterpiece” style of his movies—has raised praise and blame to such a pitch that it is hard to approach any of his movies calmly.
The trilogy that brought his work to attention is uneven, certainly, and I go along with the majority who think L’Avventura clearly the best. But I think the majority also go along with me in thinking it not only the best of the three but a magnificent and major work of art. And therefore I was taken aback to hear enthusiastic admirers of L’Avventura attack La Notte and L’Eclisse with triumphantly vindictive malice. And 1 was astonished at what this malice allowed intelligent people to say. that they were fed up with movies about bored and boring people, since they personally knew plenty of interesting and lively people who were interested in work and able to love other people and they didn’t see why movies couldn’t deal with these once in a while, and so forth and so on. This was no simple failure to make discriminations; it was a resolute and proud refusal to make them. It seemed obvious to me that in these two movies, the style of L’Avventura sometimes produced unconvincing and bad results, but mostly beautiful ones and sometimes excitingly new ones, as in the subtly sympathetic portrait of the character played by Alain Delon in L’Eclisse or the amazingly simple eloquence generated by the “tricky” ending of the same movie. I couldn’t understand why it seemed so important to refuse to see these things.
Then with Red Desert I contracted the disease. Red Desert angered me because it was bad in a way that Antonioni himself had taught me to understand. It was because the slow pace of the earlier movies had been so fully justified by the richness of the achieved meaning that I loathed the pretentious and portentous slowness of Red Desert; because the ambiguity of the architectural imagery in La Notte was so alert that the same thing in Red Desert seemed so lazy; because the range of nuance that Antonioni elicited from. Monica Vitti in the trilogy was so wide that I could see how far out of her range he had taken her in Red Desert. I still hold these views now, but in a much milder form. The unreasonable vehemence with which I held and expressed them before seems to have come from a nervous need for independence, as if to show that I could dislike Antonioni as energetically as anybody else.
And now I am about to praise Blow-up with an enthusiasm that may also seem unreasonable, since I am going to dismiss as a minor flaw something that I can imagine taking very hard in another movie. The fact is that, thanks to one of those irritating illusion-and-reality puzzles, and a clumsily managed one at that, interpretation of Blowup can’t be quite secure.
The mechanism of this puzzle is the first thing you see in the movie: a glaringly symbolic carload of heavily made-up pantomimers, or whatever they are—why, they don’t even look British. They disappear quickly, and the movie begins to follow a day in the life of a young London photographer who, about a third of the way through, takes some atmosphere shots of a man and a woman dallying with each other romantically in a park. When the woman goes to extreme lengths to try, unsuccessfully, to get the roll of film, he develops it and studies the pictures closely to find out what she’s so upset about. As he blows up detail after detail he gradually discovers that he has apparently photographed a murder in which the woman must have been implicated. He returns to the park at night to look for the corpse and he finds it; in the meantime somebody breaks into his studio and steals all the evidence. When he returns to the park again at dawn he finds the body gone without a trace and then Antonioni wheels in the symbol again: the pantomimers drive up, run to some tennis courts, and begin (very beautifully, I’ll agree) to mime a tennis match with an imaginary tennis ball. One of the players hits it out of the court onto the grass where the photographer is standing, and he is mutely asked to throw it back. He does so, and the camera focuses on his face while the sound track registers for the first time the sound of a tennis ball in play: by consenting to enter their illusion, he seems to have turned it into reality for himself, which is to say that there may have been no murder.
The crux of the puzzle is, of course, the dead body: as the photographer looks down at it there is a click on the sound track which sounds more like the click of a gun being cocked than the click of his camera but may be supposed to be either or both in his imagination. Is the body also imaginary? Or is Antonioni counting on the native realism of the movies to tell us that what the camera sees must really exist?
Now if these questions were rooted in the rest of the movie one would have to take them seriously, but then one would want to, because an Antonioni movie deeply concerned with illusion and reality would be worth seeing. Blow-up is not that movie, and the right response to the arch and superficial questions raised by the symbol is exactly the response of the photographer—mild curiosity. It suits his character perfectly that he should entertain the possibility that he imagined the murder, but it doesn’t suit it at all that he should actually have imagined it. Though Antonioni has pasted in a few little reminders of the puzzle throughout the movie, everything about the main character shows that he is a contriver, not an experiencer of illusions. He dresses up as a bum in order to take pictures in a doss-house and he verbally jazzes up a model to get the right expression of sexual ecstasy on her face. But this is all conscious expertise, not vicarious experience, and nothing in the movie suggests that the photographer’s fantasy life centers around things like revolvers and murders. Antonioni’s symbol won’t bear serious consideration.
But the shot of David Hemmings’s face as he takes in the puzzle is important, because it is the last stroke in a characterization that represents Antonioni at nearly his best. Characterization is the right word. It is Antonioni’s specialty to use the film medium idiomatically to represent human beings and human relations with a depth and subtlety that we are more used to finding in novels than in movies. In Blow-up he does it again, though you will miss it if you are tired in advance of movies about cool, uncommitted modern youth and if you aren’t willing to watch and wait while Antonioni’s beautifully managed structure reveals his meaning.
The characterization begins by delivering a sequence of vivid images in a non-committal tone and at a brilliantly fast but sensitive pace. Certain information is given, but positive judgments about the information are frustrated by the tone and speed. The photographer first seems to be a bum leaving a doss-house; when he is sure none of the other bums is looking, he races around the corner and gets into a snazzy Rolls-Royce convertible and puts an expensive-looking camera into the glove-compartment; as he drives off, he talks to somebody on a two-way radio, using standard Roger-Over vocabulary. All this is attention-getting but quite neutral information, its implications yet unfocused, and the same thing is true of the even more striking imagery that follows. Back at his studio, we learn that the young man is a successful professional photographer working in three fields: art (he took some “fabulous” pictures in the doss-house), arty semi-pornography, and far-out fashion photography. The information is still neutral but since it’s now getting into areas where negative judgments would be natural, neutrality begins to create tension. It is clear that he takes all three kinds of work in stride and doesn’t in the least mind producing junk: he is not a committed type, then, though he seems good at his job. But what we are to make of him in any broader terms is a question Antonioni holds in abeyance by giving us plenty to look at and by some coolly witty incongruities. Meanwhile, the flexible fast editing, which is geared to the photographer’s actions and his day, generates an interest in him that is of course augmented by the indefinability of David Hemmings’s appearance and performance—peculiar and ordinary, sensitive and coarse, beautiful and ugly, restless and assured.
When the photographer enters the park, Antonioni changes the tempo radically to prepare for an unequivocally sympathetic stroke of characterization: the photographer responds to the atmosphere by making an instinctive leap of agile, youthfully awkward-graceful, self-delighting high spirits. And Antonioni underlines his meaning by using all his resources to make that atmosphere as fully concrete a sensuous experience as any I have ever had at the movies. The thick palpability of the wind in the trees, the totality of sunlight, the slow, full, even pace of the sequence, the illusion that the park is a life toward which the photographer is drawn and to which his leap is a tribute—all this is so central and simple in mood, so non-eccentric, so familiar a view of nature, that when Antonioni expresses it with the boldest possible inflection the effect is overwhelming in itself and dramatically decisive. For the photographer’s response is also very boldly inflected and very central, so that a current of sympathy is set up between him and the audience strong enough to bring the whole characterization into focus and to control the meaning of the whole movie.
This control keeps the ambiguity of almost everything that follows perfectly secure and clear. It establishes the fact that the photographer is genuinely alive and free in an indisputably valuable way, and that he is consequently a figure of some dignity, interest, and concern. With this assured, we are in a good position to notice that there are many much less attractive aspects to his freedom. Though his body can express energy and enthusiasm, his face rarely does. His inner life, if it exists at all, remains hidden because he won’t reveal it to anyone, but we can feel no assurance in holding that against him. Sometimes his isolation seems almost poignantly independent, sometimes less than human; and though his friendship with the artist and his mistress is easy and familiar, it is extremely casual. He knows swinging London inside out, and yet it doesn’t really seem to be his “world.” Incidentally, Pauline Kael notwithstanding, Antonioni’s lurid images of marijuana parties and the like seldom amount to a heavy indictment of aimless modern living because they are always parts of the characterization of the photographer, who moves through them with such unsurprised and even uninterested acceptance that, instead of feeling how corrupt and sterile it all is, we are led rather to wonder whether this cool type can in fact respond to anything. But then he does momentarily get caught up in the struggle for the ruined guitar in the rock-and-roll sequence. And when he meets that incredibly hostile old man in the antique shop, it seems attractive that he should call his bluff with such good humor, without irritation or surprise. By these qualifications and questionings, Antonioni gradually shapes his essentially sympathetic interest in this “cool” and “uncommitted” young man into a complex view that seems to me extremely interesting and original, and also quite decent and humane. It is not moralistic, nor in the least pretentiously meaningful and important, but it is in touch with moral concerns about human and social responsibility, as it should be.
The murder in the park keeps us in touch with these concerns in a particularly interesting way because of its oblique relation with the photographer’s way of life. It is, of course, nonsense to say that this mysterious melodrama is the real life of significant human relations into which the photographer cannot enter responsibly. On the contrary, this event conveys almost no depth of feeling, nor does the character played by Vanessa Red-grave—though here it seems to me that Antonioni has failed to make his meaning entirely clear, and there’s a chance that she is supposed to suggest more than the synthetic overbred tension that I saw. In any case, this event is convincingly hard for the photographer to deal with. It is hard to take seriously because it’s so plotty, yet it does seem actually to have happened to real people. It is, then, just a special and single event, obviously exciting and puzzling, but just as obviously unrepresentative and perhaps even inauthentic.
Because of this, we watch with friendly sympathy while the photographer tries to figure out how to handle it. And because of Antonioni’s mastery, the superb sequence in which the photographer examines his pictures is something we watch with total absorption. To make this process so exciting to watch without inflating its meaning—that is something only a great artist can accomplish.