Unfinished Art: Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup

Antonioni’s 1966 classic leaves us feeling awed and confused. Is this a purposeful technique or the result of an incomplete work of art?

Photo Credit: David Hemmings in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup

Seminal American writer Ernest Hemingway said of his ‘Iceberg Theory’, “The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” Applied to prose, this theory puts forward the idea that the omitted part of a story strengthens the story as a whole, but only if the writer knows what they are omitting, what they leave underwater. Around the same time as Hemingway pushed this theory, legendary author of the true-crime book In Cold Blood, Truman Capote, was a struggling short story writer. He found success with his short story Miriam only by cutting out the ending, putting into practice the Iceberg Theory as a legitimate and effective writing technique.

When used in prose, Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory creates strength and weight within a story, a sense of broader meaning in what may seem base or unimportant. Yet this theory of storytelling has been little used in film, perhaps through fear of pulling viewers out of a story or destroying a good ending. After all, much of film lies in the drawing of strings together, and to leave strings untied would surely be to leave audiences disappointed.

After watching Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 mod-rock/mystery film Blowup, one can not help feeling at a loss, the story fading into an ending without resolve, relationships abandoned and a murder unsolved. Granted, the film itself is largely without plot. Based roughly on a short story by Julio Cortazar and partly on the life of London based photographer David Bailey, Blowup follows the life of Thomas, a trendy fashion photographer who accidentally photographs a murder in progress.

With David Hemmings as Thomas and featuring renowned actress Vanessa Redgrave as the murderess, the film flits from meaningless scene to meaningless scene, with drawn-out photography sessions and long walks through London providing the bulk of the movies action. Underneath the surface, however, lurks the sickness of humankind, both in the act of murder and in the indifference of those who witness and hear about it. This is the length of the iceberg hidden under the water, the moral of the story buried in its seemingly basic plot.

However, the film was not always meant to be so vague. Originally, scenes were shot showing the planning of the murder and its aftermath. These events are hinted at throughout the final cut, but create more confusion than resolution. This is the brilliance of the film, and what has cemented its popularity. The existential lack of meaning or meaningful resolution permeates the film like a mist, present from the opening shot to the credits.

When most films are abandoned or left unfinished due to budget problems or other issues, such as Marilyn Monroe’s untimely death during the filming of George Cukor’s Something’s Got To Give, the films are not shown, or at least not until reconstructed for historical purposes. Antonioni took his failures, his over-budget production, and decided to create an astounding work of art out of the rubble. Instead of abandoning his film, he cut it in a similar way to Capote and Hemingway with their prose, creating depth within a piece that seems to rely heavily on surface impressions.

Vanessa Redgrave, David Hemmings and Michelangelo Antonioni on the set of Blowup

When is art truly ‘finished’? It’s a heavily contested question. Some say paintings are never finished but only abandoned. The same principle can apply to all forms of artistic creation. Things left unsaid add weight to what is said blatantly. The thick and jagged base of the iceberg cements its pointed, polished tip.

Perhaps Antonioni says it best himself when he sums up Blowup thus, ‘The photographer in Blowup, who is not a philosopher, wants to see things closer up. But it so happens that, by enlarging too far, the object itself decomposes and disappears. Hence there’s a moment in which we grasp reality, but then the moment passes. This was in part the meaning of Blowup.’

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