Julio Cortázar “Blow-Up,” in The End of the Game and Other Stories (New York: Pantheon,
Michelangelo Antonioni and Tonino Guerra (writers), English dialogue by Edward Bond, suggested by a the story by Julio Cortázar, Michelangelo Antonioni (director) Blow-Up / 1966
Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up begins with an image of deception. Released from either prison or a flophouse (several reviewers have suggested the latter), Thomas, along with other denizens of the place, moves slowly through the gate. The skuzzy young man—whose face, somewhat like Pound’s metro image of “petals on a wet, black bough,” stands out (he is played after all by the photogenic actor David Hemmings) against the gauntly determined faces of the others—carries a small paper sack like a treasure, keeping his distance from his fellow inmates, seemingly resisting their friendly (we hear none of their conversation) advances. The moment they have walked away, Thomas turns and walks in the other direction, settling into a convertible and throwing the bag, containing what we now perceive as an expensive camera, into the back seat. If we haven’t guessed, we might at least suspect something is not as it seems—and, indeed, we later discover that the central figure of this film has been on a secretive “shoot,” snapping shots of the men inside the institution for a book of photographs he is planning to publish with the help of his friend, Ron (Peter Bowles).
A quick visit to his artist friend Bill next door reveals similar issues of deception and self-delusion. Bill clearly is deluding himself about his relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Patricia (Sarah Miles), as we perceive through her and Thomas’s intense glances, a relationship that later is more revealed in her quick visit to her neighbor after having sex with Bill. The artist also iterates what will be a major theme of Antonioni’s work: that his art often seems empty until he can extract an image or idea from it. In other words, what seems to be empty may come to have great meaning if looked at long enough or from various perspectives.
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 drive through London—giving Antonini 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 in 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 go awry when he
notices Hemmings with his camera and fears that Hemmings has photos
of her. As it turns out, he has.
In a luncheon meeting with O’Casey—whom his friends know as Case—I pointed out that the original story upon which this film is based is far more disjunctive and disorienting. In Julio Cortázar’s masterful tale—which, according to the credits, “suggested” Antonioni’s work—the photographer comes upon a woman and a young boy (15 years of age) apparently engaged in a romantic tryst. He imagines the boy’s excitement and fear as the older woman toys with him, entertaining possible endings of the story: the boy may join the woman for sex, the boy may get cold feet and run, etc. But suddenly he notices something else: a man waiting in a car nearby. His camera catches the movement of the man toward the couple, and he suddenly recognizes the horror of what he has witnessed: that the man himself is involved in the affair, that he has perhaps used the woman as a decoy, has, at the very least, been the cause of her flirtation. What lies ahead for the boy is not an innocent “first love,” but that “the real boss was waiting there, smiling petulantly, already certain of his business; he was not the first to send a woman in the vanguard, to bring him the prisoners manacled with flowers. The rest of it would be so simple, the car, some house or another, drinks, stimulating engravings, tardy tears, the awakening in hell.” When the man spies the photographer, the boy escapes, the man responding, perhaps, by shooting the boy (or woman): “…the man was directly center, his mouth half open, you could see a shaking black tongue, and he lifted his hands slowly, bringing them into the foreground, an instant still in perfect focus, and then all of him a lump that blotted out the island, the tree, and I shut my eyes, I didn’t want to see any more, and I covered my face and broke into tears like an idiot.” Cortázar’s story is not so much about deception—although the couple certainly attempts to deceive the boy—as it is about misperception, the impossibility of ever understanding the whole of any story, and the dangers of believing what one thinks he has perceived. In a sense, I suggested, we should be thankful to Ponti that Antonioni was unable to bring his film to even greater coherency, for then it might have lost any relationship to its purported source.
Los Angeles, August 21, 2007
Reprinted with the previous essay as “Looking Back on the Adventure” Nth Position [England], (October 2007).