Saturday, March 11, 2023

Rival explanations of why Blow-Up is so difficult to understand

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Part of the allure of Antonioni's 1966 'Swinging London' film Blow-Up is the feeling that, if you watch it just once more, it will give up a deeper secret.

I have come across two radically different online explanations of why the meaning of the film is so elusive.

The first is in an interview with Peter Bowles, who played the agent of the lead character Thomas the photographer. He was played by David Hemmings.

Bowles explanation runs:

I had been given the script by Antonioni, and what excited me very much was a scene I had with David, after he'd done the blow-ups and had come looking for me. I'm at a party, a very druggy party in the middle of the night, and in this scene I had a speech that was the absolute hinge of the movie, which was marvellous of course.

This scene was to be my very first night's shooting, so I arrived on set, a house in Cheyne Walk, and went into makeup. As I sat there, Piers Haggard, who was working as Antonioni's assistant, came up and said there had been some rewrites, which is quite usual on a movie. But then I saw that this speech had been cut. 

And in my innocence, and no doubt arrogance, I thought that a terrible mistake had been made. So I said to Piers that Antonioni mustn't cut that speech, that it was essential to the whole film. I demanded to talk to him about it. Piers said, "You must be joking! Nobody goes and talks to Antonioni about the cuts he's made." But I said I was sorry, but that I was serious. I threatened to walk away unless I could speak to Antonioni.

So in the end, Piers took me next door. There was Antonioni is this very large room, which he'd cleared of about 300 extras, all of whom were sitting on the stairs. He always did this after he had shot a scene, he would clear everybody out and then talk to his lighting cameraman about the next shot. Piers went in, very nervous. Then he came back and said: "Antonioni will speak to you." So I went in.

Antonioni was grace itself, quite beautifully mannered. He said, "Peter, you are worried because I have cut this speech. Could you tell me why you are so concerned?" So I launched into an explanation of why he shouldn't cut the speech. He listened, and listened, until finally I ran out of words. There was silence. So I said, "Erm, sir, are you going to put the speech back in now?" 

He replied, "No. Because, Peter, you have explained to me exactly why I should cut it. If I leave the speech in, everyone will know what the film is about, but if I take the speech out, everyone will say it is about this, it is about that, it is about the other. It will be controversial." So it was cut. 

But there is a speech, which I have, which explains exactly what the film is about. It is all there in the film, if you know where to look, but I can't disclose specifically what it is.

That sounds conclusive, but then you read a letter from the Irish actor Ronan O'Casey that is quoted on the website of the late American film critic Roger Ebert.

O'Casey plays the grey-haired man who meets Vanessa Redgrave in the park and is surreptitiously photographed by Hemmings. And if we believe there was later a body in the park, that was him too.

He writes:

The screenplay, by Antonioni ("just call me Michelangelo"), Tonio Guerra, and Edward Bond, told the story of a planned murder. But the scenes depicting the planning of the murder and its aftermath -- scenes with Vanessa, Sarah Miles and Jeremy Glover, Vanessa's new young lover who plots with her to murder me -- were never shot because the film went seriously over budget.

The intended story was as follows: the young lover, armed with a pistol, was to precede Vanessa and me to Maryon Park in London, conceal himself in the bushes and await our arrival. I pick up Vanessa in a nice new dark green Jaguar and we drive through London - giving Antonioni a chance to film that swinging, trendy, sixties city of the Beatles, Mary Quant, the Rolling Stones, and Carnaby Street. 

We stop and I buy Vanessa a man's watch, which she wears throughout the rest of the film. We then saunter hand and [sic] hand into the park, stopping now and then to kiss (lucky me). In the center of the park, Vanessa gives me a passionate embrace and prolonged kiss, and glances at the spot where her new lover is hiding. 

He shoots me (unlucky me), and the two leave the park intending to drive away. Their plans goes awry when he notices Hemmings with his camera and fears that Hemmings has photos of her. As it turns out, he has.

None of this was ever shot. There were other scenes, such as those between Sarah Miles and Glover, that also went unrealized (unreelized?). (Sarah tried to get her name off the film because she ended up with so little screen time.) Some of the scenes that were shot pertaining to the murder plot ended up in the film, but are completely puzzling to the audience. 

For example, in the film there is a scene with Vanessa and Hemmings at a cafe. A young man approaches her, notices that she is with Hemmings, and runs away. That's Glover. This makes for an odd, mysterious moment because the audience is completely ignorant of his identity.

The trouble with this latter account is that the sources seem to agree that the screenplay was exceptionally sparse. And in his memoirs, David Hemmings recalls being no clearer about Blow-Up's meaning after he had read it.

Still, O'Casey does give us a reason for watching the film again. Can we spot more pieces of this abandoned conspiracy?

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