Richard Bowers and the Sound of Aircraft Attacking Britain.

The Velvet Lantern Part VIa: An essay on Michelangelo Antonioni's 'Blow Up'


Blow Up

The Velvet Lantern series:

The film, 'Blow-Up', was introduced to me in the early '80s when I was avidly soaking up 'art-house' cinema as a teenager. I think I knew that Antonioni was an important director because films like L'Avventura and L'Eclisse featured in the textbooks of the time that were my diet from the libraries of Gloucester and Cheltenham where I grew up. I don't know how I saw the film – it was almost certainly on television as there were no easy ways to see such films then and BBC and Channel 4 did a good job of educating us in the continental canon. So it would most likely have been in the pan-and-scan, degraded form that these days is unthinkable. I'm presenting a kind of pan-and-scan version here.

Degradation of the image is the theme in my reworking of the film. The thing that struck me upon seeing the movie for the first time was – and this came from personal experience of traditional photographic printing – how on earth would a professional photographer think that enlarging and, would you believe, re-photographing an image would get you closer to the truth; to perceiving better some hidden detail? The very idea is, of course, irresistible as it is preposterous: anyone with the slightest understanding of the photographic process would know the basic premise of the film is utter nonsense. I knew this back then and yet the fallacy presented itself favourably as an ingenious idea for a lazy detective story. And it presents itself today as a route into an exploration of the film's materials, similarly degrading the images and sounds, hopefully to achieve something more beautiful. The character Patricia notices that the blown-up photograph 'looks like one of Bill's paintings'. Indeed, Thomas's pinned up enlargements are presented to us as some kind of ad hoc site-specific installation – Antonioni is clearly re-purposing the quirky living-space-cum-studio that visually dominates the film as a kind of gallery, and the manner in which the large pictures are arranged within it feels like art.

Communication is a key theme. Nobody in the film is able to articulate their feelings effectively. Thomas communicates arrogantly with his staff over short wave radio, almost needlessly. Telephones are used to present half a conversation to us. Dialogues feel like parallel monologues and don't link up. Lines of conversation are awkward and unresolved (the dialogue was written by Edward Bond, so it's not a problem with translation: 'somebody was trying to kill somebody else' just feels like bad translation). Even one of the more thoughtful speeches is riddled with lies, evasion and uncertainty:

(Thomas hands Jane the phone)
Jane: Is it for me?
Thomas: It's my wife.
Jane: Why should I speak to her?
Thomas: (to his wife) Sorry, love. The bird I'm with won't talk to you.
(To Jane) She isn't my wife, really. We just have some kids ... No. No kids. Not even kids. Sometimes, though, it feels as if we had kids ... She isn't beautiful. She's … easy to live with ... No, she isn't ... That's why I don't live with her … But even with beautiful look at them, and that's that. That's why they always end up by … And I'm stuck with them all day long.
Jane: It would be the same with men.
Thomas: Have a listen to this. (Turns music up).

The film is also a portrait of impotence. Thomas has to bark and shout at his models, failing to get results. He 'fucks' his model through a lens and his romps with two aspiring models is more like children's play than sex. He is powerless in relation to the murder (he even deludes himself that he's saved a life) and is unable to muster support from either his agent or assistant to examine the crime scene further. He fails to acquire one of Bill's paintings – he doesn't seem to care and uses the refusal to poke fun at Bill, threatening to come and steal it. There is lethargy everywhere, interspersed with moments of comically explosive action: diving for the telephone; excitedly retrieving the propellor in the antique shop; shouting; driving aggressively, leaping in the park. He is impotent because he hasn't worked out what he is about: his work vacillates between documentary photography which hints at social comment and vacuous fashion photography. His disdain is everywhere evident: leaving his doss-house mates in the road only to jump into his open top Rolls; shouting at and abusing the women who are his bread and butter ('I'm fed up with those bloody bitches'). His failure to report the murder which he claims to have discovered smacks of self-gain; a new opportunity to make a serious body of work, perhaps. He is left - at the end - awestruck, recognising a potency in the mime artists' ability to express themselves without words.

So, images are blurred, words are missing or evasive, mismatched, out of sync. The modes of communication are degraded like the photographic enlargements. It happens with the fragments of sentences, the crackling of the short wave radio, the destruction of musical instruments.

In reworking the material I adopted a heuristic process. I began with the basic idea of following Thomas's lead by zooming in on details within the frame – exposing the 'hidden'. This suggested doing the same with the sound. I say the approach was heuristic, because beyond that initial 'conceptual' layer, my work is usually developed through making and discovering. I rarely follow a course of action from the top down; I almost always take the work on a journey of twists and turns – a mirror of Thomas' indecision and lack of direction. Or Bill's approach to painting, perhaps:

Bill: They don't mean anything when I do them. Just a mess. Afterwards, I find something to hang on to, like that … Quite like that leg. Then it sorts itself out and adds up. It's like finding a clue in a detective story … Don't ask me about this one. I don't know yet.

So, like the characters in the film, I'm conducting a search. My search takes place in both the development of the work and in the performance itself. In the former, I'm searching for methods for reworking the film – the equivalents of Thomas's re-photographing and enlarging techniques); in the performance I'm carrying out an investigation of the mise-en-scène using those tools – I'm being Thomas.

First of all, I cropped the film's dimensions to a 4:3 ratio – a bit like reducing it for television. Secondly, and in performance, I zoom into a segment of that smaller frame so that I can home in on details. Alongside this, audio segments are captured and their spectra are analysed so that they can be played back slowly or halted to expose their momentary constituent frequencies; the spectrum frozen in time. To me, this seemed the best acoustic equivalent of the photographic blow-up or enlargement. They might even sound like one of Bill's paintings looks. The indistinct galaxies of photographic grain, Bill's splatters of paint and my frozen or slowly-moving spectra have something in common - an abstract beauty. This connects to my fundamental approach to art, that ultimately I want to look at it or hear it – to experience it aesthetically, not intellectually.

But my approach results in detours. I chose, somewhere along the way, to abstract the dialogue from the soundtrack – further accentuating the disconnectedness of the words. This, in turn, yielded a soundtrack-without-dialogue which left me with beds of sound – car journeys, the leaves rustling in the wind and the birds in the park, the activities in the darkroom and studio – connecting with the mime artists that end the film with the silent tennis match. These beds are taken out of their contexts and placed in new situations so that we hear them better. And then I notice that Antonioni did the same thing: when Thomas is looking at the photographs of the park in his studio we hear the sounds of the park.

These beds of sound are programmed to change at the cuts between interior and exterior scenes. Rather than attempting subtle shifts of sound between different parts of Thomas's studio/apartment, say, I chose to use brute force cutting between inside and outside. I then associated this with the colour tinting of frames in silent movies to indicate night and day and the like. I like discoveries of that sort.

I decided to represent the words additionally as subtitles. I was conscious that I was making a piece that, being the length of the original movie, would be tedious if the original narrative was not visible through the noise to hold the viewer's interest. So, in that regard, the film can be followed so that it should at least broadly carry the narrative integrity of the original. The subtitles (although sometimes extending beyond the frame, truncated like the dialogue feels at times) are there to maintain the narrative – helpful, given that the speech is often indistinct.

Insofar as the movie is left largely intact, I regard my work as a collaboration with Antonioni. His sparing style is being fleshed out by my reworkings – he provides the canvas and paints, so to speak, and I render the audio-visual textures using Bill's exploratory approach.

With the support of Chapter / Experimentica