Art and Commerce: Michelangelo Antonioni’s BLOW-UP

By James Kenney

“Michelangelo Arnonioni’s camera never flinches: at love without meaning…at murder without guilt…at the dazzle and the madness of London today!” (from Premier Productions marketing materials for Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up)

Blow Up was declared the Best Picture of its year, by the National Society of Film Critics, which was a heady crew: Stanley Kauffman, Hollis Alpert, Arthur Knight, Brad Darrach, Philip T. Hartung, Brendan Gill, Pauline Kael (who actively disliked the film), Andrew Sarris, John Simon, Joseph Morgenstern and Richard Schickel.

“You’ll hold your breath when you see Antonioni’s Daring “Blow-Up,” set against dazzle, madness of today’s London!”

Director Michelangelo Antonioni, already established on the art-house set for his previous, deliberate Italian masterpieces, provides an underlay of existential dread beneath the exhilarating photography of (literally) hand-painted London scenery peopled by good-looking young and already jaded individuals. He seems hostile to the whole thing, perhaps because he knows the jazzed-up “empty” energy, color and sex of the Swingin’ 60s London scene will bring vitality to his intellectual moralizing despite his best efforts to expose its vacuity.

I sound too hostile to Antonioni here, but I don’t think I’m far wrong; the film indeed was the biggest international hit of his career, more due to the lively trappings, good looking half-clothed women, and indelible David Hemmings performance than for Antonioni’s (not uninteresting) pretensions– though much time was spent hand-wringing trying to decipher Antonion’s “meaning” at the time. The uneasy mood is established beautifully by Antonioni and then stretched out voluptuously as David Hemmings, playing a trendy but talented London photographer based on the real-life cause celebre of swinging London, David Bailey, realizes he has accidentally photographed a murder in a park yet can’t quite stitch together what happened.

Antonioni sustains this mood for so long you feel psychologically girdled by creeping paranoia despite the altogether detached presentation of the material. We really don’t even know if there is a murder by the end of the film, or if Hemmings’ well-appointed ennui and fixation with images have schemed together like naughty British school boys to fabricate one.  Antonioni controls the landscapes, the pretty marionettes (his characters), and the audience. But because of Hemmings, mostly, the damn thing takes on a life of its own that Antonioni can’t quite control.

Blow-Up prospers despite (or is it due to?) its decided airs (most on exhibition at the peculiar musical interlude scene in the nightclub with the Yardbirds) because of the sinuous way Antonioni betrays audience expectations throughout and how he certainly keeps things gorgeous. But don’t give the auteurist all the credit, because Hemmings, as he did later in Dario Argento’s Deep Red, is so exceptional in drawing you into the mystery his character obsesses over despite having a director who perhaps only think in painterly terms. One imagines an Antonioni or Argento demanding the actors sort out by their lonesome some kind of credible psychological timbre as they carefully tramp over the hand-painted grass of Blow-Up or through the spattered gore of Red.

Hemmings is terrific: aloof, diffident, arrogant, disdainful, bemused, spontaneous and thoughtful all at once. He’s really sly, even when Antonioni demands something near silly self-consciousness. Vanessa Redgrave might be saddled with the least practical, most closed off character of the 1960s, her anxious vitality thankfully betraying the character’s portentous mindfulness.

She’s too chic, too abstracted,  yet captivating, enthralling even, but then maybe so is the film; it’s a cohesive, self-possessed masterpiece that sticks together in the way Antonioni’s U.S. based follow-up Zabriskie Point absolutely doesn’t.  Don’t get me wrong, Blow-Up wholly knocks me out, it’s extraordinary. It’s not clear (by design) that anything is really happening in this film other than a rich photographer’s bored afternoon of dealing with an unhappy wife, tiresome playthings, and his own imagination, but it remains altogether chilling and thrilling even when the vagrant hippies start playing tennis without a ball.


“Swinging”—Time Magazine.

“Civilized” – Esquire

“Sweenging” – Paris Match

The subject is not a smash-hit musical but a place – the city of London which, much to its surprise, has been rediscovered as the world’s trendsetting center.

Once it was the custom for male tourists to get off the plane at London Airport and ask “Where are the dames?” Today, they ask, “Where’s the action?” (I, as a tourist, have never done either. Did helpful airport staff point them towards “the dames”?).

For the social revolution which has swept the city like a new broom has been nothing if not well-publicized. Inevitably, someone had to film the revitalized British capital, where the boys’ hair is too long and the girls’ skirts too short….in directing [Blow-Up], Antonioni, an acute and stylized observer of the metropolitan scene, used the whole new-young London as the background for his story.

“Anyone who wants to see old London can always look at Christmas cards” he states in a tone which implies he hasn’t much time for the old and none at all for Christmas cards. “It’s the new that’s exciting in this city where the fashion industry alone, with its annual turnover of millions, is almost exclusively under the control of people in their twenties, where teen-age pop singers have their records sold in shops owned by people their own age, where photographers who have barely started shaving, drive Rolls-Royces with radio-telephones.”

“The new persuaders who have invented the new norms of beauty and with one inspired photograph can make the ugliest of ducklings into an international sensation.

(those are Antonioni’s words, not mine!)

Antonioni is quite happy to go along with the definition of David Bailey, unofficial spokesman for the group, who says: “We are young, short, muscular, of working class origin and totally devoid of complexes.” (Bailey is romanticizing himself, and the characters we see are almost all complexes, it’s a center they lack)

It is this lack of inhibition, Antonioni believes, which distinguishes the new breed of peaceful revolutionaries. “When I got to know them, I had the feeling of entering a world where the barriers are down between individuals.”

Pauline Kael, in her fairly negative review “Tourist in the City of Youth,” did touch on something I find irreconcilable about Blow-Up: Antonioni’s exposure of the “emptiness” of this modern world of jaded photographers and hyperactive model-bunnies is belied by his fascination with it. As Kael writes, “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?”


As reported in the press materials, in researching London, Antonioni made a team of hand-picked observers and professional journalists who were asked to submit 5,000-word reports on varying aspects of the young London scene. There were tape-recordings with top fashion photographers, random thoughts jotted down in taxis by their models on their way to assignments, interviews with dolly girls, pop singers and antique shop owners, a profession which occupies a high percentage of the younger set.

From the resultant foot-high dossier, Antonioni and Tonino Guerra, Antonioni’s frequent collaborator, fleshed out the characters for the story.

Antonioni is described in the marketing as a “nervous and highly intense man” who can only “concentrate in cathedral-like quiet,” a lesson hard-learned by the “noisy” English technicians, who “despite their tradition of stiff-lipped reserve…can be as noisy as the Irish parliament” (!) (I thought it was generally the Italians who worked on noisy sets and then worked up a post-synch soundtrack, but any opportunity to insult the Irish, I guess!)

Vanessa Redgrave, quite busy at the time as the young can be, was appearing nightly on stage in London in the title role of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” while shooting both Fred Zinneman’s A Man for All Seasons and Antonioni’s Blow-Up during the day.

When not acting, we are told, she might be participating in one of the “midnight poetry readings” which were the “in-thing” with today’s young Londoners.

“My idea of fun is to go out to discotheque and dance and dance until the small hours.”  She explains that she can recharge her batteries with half-hour napes instead of proper night-sleep.

One of the most famous sights on the London locations for “Blow-Up” was apparently Redgrave’s “gorgeous long-frame stretched out asleep in the back seat of her car.”


A crowd of Cockneys who watched Italian director Antonioni work commented that it was “London’s biggest face-lift since the bombs fell.”

Three hundred gallons of black emulsion paint were used to paint the surfaces of two-hundred yards of intersecting roads leading to Maryon Park, where much of the movie was shot, as Antonioni decided the roads weren’t black enough. He needed a vista that matched the mood of his scene and made houses lining the road stand out in vivid relief.

One house-owner got a new coat of brilliant white paint, but another owner was asked, for a fee, to allow the new bricks of his edifice dirtied by a coat of removable water paint.

A shopkeeper gave permission for his 30-yard wall to be painted mail-box red, and building contractors working on a new apartment block were persuaded to hang a white shroud over the iron innards Antonioni found distasteful.

“Color in my films is now almost as important as the actors. I have an instinct that tells me which color to use behind which actor to suggest a certain mood. Other directors do the same thing in studio filming. I convert natural set-ups to my own advantage.”

The park, where David Hemmings first meets Vanessa Redgrave, had thirty square yards of its grass painted green. A 100-foot-high working neon sign was set atop a hill by the park to not only make a “pleasing Antonioni-type composition” (this phrase is in the press materials, indicating auteurism was in full effect and that the director had enough of a known personality he was recognized for his artful shots), but provide the lighting cameraman with a light source for two weeks of night shooting.

In one instance, Antonioni was turned down – the tenants of a terrace of 30 houses in the background of the park refused to permit their properties to be painted snow-white.  However, they gave permission for a 200-foot-long by 30-foot high scaffolding to be erected in their collective back gardens on which was built the facade of 30 snow-white houses.


David Hemmings was building quite the rep already as he’s described as having been “24 when shooting but looks older or younger depending on how it went the night before. His idea is that life is meant to be lived to the full and he makes no bones about loving the attention and rewards that success in show business can bring.”

“All those people who profess to detest the business would duck out of it quickly enough if they didn’t thrive on it” he asserts.

While a masterwork, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up is not necessarily an easy film to market, even to the progressively more open-minded audiences that were developing in the late 60s before shutting back up with Star Wars and the entirety of the Simpson/Bruckheimer catalog.  Still, Premier Productions, the releasing company, did yeoman work in striving to get it to cross over to more general audiences that were catching the buzz that this pompous Italian had come up with a mystery, in English, no less, that they might want to check out.

A look at Premier Picture’s marketing campaign only reveals that much of what we decry modern Hollywood for (cynical cross promotion and crass product placement within the film) was pretty much in full effect in the mid-20th century; nevertheless it does seem to have been a more agreeable, less cynical exertion of capitalist instincts than what has progressed in its wake. When they sell cameras and have radio contests in tandem with Blow-Up‘s release, Premier makes it feel like they’re agreeably letting everyone in on the capitalist fun, as opposed to a targeted, militaristic corporate attack on humanity’s overburdened senses.


From the pressbook: In the first dates of “Blow-Up,” we have found that the majority of the audience attending is predominantly of college-age (imagine that? All my college-students are going to see is Ant Man and Avatar). You should concert a major effort with all of your college contacts for this film….many colleges have film societies (do they still?) – they will want to now all you can tell them about Antonioni’s masterpiece. Invite an Antonioni expert to discuss the meaning of the film with the press – to represent the age group with which the film is involved.

“Blow-up” Blow-Ups

As Premier helpfully explains, theaters can order “blow-up” stills of common household objects, available from National Screen. “Use them as a basis for a “Blow-Up” contest run on heralds or with a newspaper.”  They also decided ‘a radio contest is also feasible, if you can find a central place to display this set of stills. It works like this: whoever can identify ALL of the objects should be given guest tickets, and a lottery should be held to decide first prize, being promoted cameras, a night on the town, or merchant donations.”

Images included the “End of a cigarette”; “Eyeglasses hinge”; and a “lipstick print.”

The Camera Contest

They also recommended Camera Contests, where whoever submits the best amateur photographs on a fashion scene could win, as long as the theater supplies a model for their efforts (!), with the winning still displayed in the theatre.

The Fishbowl Contest

A large glass bowl containing film negatives (or scraps from your projectionist’s cutting booth) is prominently displayed in the theatre lobby, and ask listeners to send post cards to a radio station guessing “how many BLOW-UPS are in the bowl.”

Product Placement!

It wasn’t just Bond! As the pressbook helpfully points out “The Hasselblad single lens reflex camera is used in the studio scenes of “Blow-Up” – “supply your local stores with stills and posters for window and in-store displays.”

“David Hemmings used the Nikon camera…throughout the picture. Although the Nikon home office does not do national film promotions, they have sent their sales staff letters announcing the local opportunities for promotion.”


Be sure to send some stills featuring mod clothing to the Carnaby Street shops in your town.

Every fashion editor in your city should receive a set of stills from “Blow-Up.”

A theatre fashion show was never more appropriate than for “Blow-Up.” Contact your area’s designers and fashion salons to see if they would be interested in previewing their mod spring line on your stage, say opening night!


The youngsters are wearing the wildest in eye and body make-up. Have a make-up artist promoted through your local beauty salon present at your opening (or a special ladies day).


Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles and David Hemmings each recorded open-end interviews for “Blow-Up.” Each 7 ½ minute included a script for an announcer to duplicate “live” proceedings.


The up-to-the minute, lively music composed, conducted and played by Herbie Hancock for “Bow-Up” has been recorded by MGM records.

We are told “The Yardbirds are an English pop music group on Epic Records that are doing well on the national charts. They appear in the film in the rock and roll night club sequence. Make sure local disc jockeys plug the film each time they play one of the group’s records. At the time of this writing, their single “Happenings Ten Time Years Ago” is at number 30 on the country’s record polls. I checked; the song rose no higher than that number 30 position, so I don’t know how many plugs theatres were able to squeeze out of local DJs playing it. Good idea, though.


As David Hemmings writes in his 21st-century autobiography, published after his death, “Antonioni’s earlier films…are deservedly regarded as masterpieces. But Blow-Up has humour…it stands in stark contrast to the mood of Fellini and Visconti and it’s not Italian in the sense that their films are…maybe its humour looks odd, often unfathomable, and, some might say, difficult to enjoy but there is something eternally haunting about it.”

Odd, unfathomable and eternally haunting. I’ll sign off on that David, and won’t even bring up your indifferent dismissal of the brilliant Deep Red in the same book as it would color (or, ahem, colour) the moment.


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