My favourite film: Blow-Up

In our writers' favourite film series, Jon Dennis plays it cool with a chilling Michelangelo Antonioni tale set in swinging 60s London

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It was a real thrill, aged 16 and seeing Blow-Up, with its depiction of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, swinging London style. My enjoyment of the film's celebrated sex scenes was, however, considerably tempered by the presence of my mum and dad. Still, I was grateful to my parents for introducing me to the film – their knowledge of which revealed an uncharacteristic hipness hitherto concealed from me. It was the most sophisticated film I'd ever seen. Though I couldn't claim to have understood it, I knew I was on to something.

Blow-Up gave me kudos the next day at school, because all the coolest kids had seen it too. Even better, it turned out the "murder" scene was filmed at Maryon Park in Charlton, south-east London, a couple of miles or so from school – though I was an unadventurous boy, and sadly Blow-Up didn't inspire me to immediately visit the park and track down the filming locations. But while this was recognisably the same city, it was a different London from the staid, predictable one I'd grown up in.

On first viewing, the London of Blow-Up seemed to be full of secrets just waiting to be discovered, of beautiful and creative young people at the centre of the cultural universe. In the actual city where I lived, it was possible to have a fabulously glamorous life, to live in a converted warehouse, drive a sports car, watch the Yardbirds – and yes, cavort with naked would-be models.

Blow-Up
Blow-Up Photograph: Public Domain

But the film itself was also troubling. Did David Hemmings's David Bailey-esque photographer witness a murder? If he did, what happened to the killers? Blow-Up is inconclusive on the subject. The film's surreal touches – the mime troupe playing tennis with an invisible ball, the grass painted green in the park, Stockwell Road's maroon shops – give proceedings an air of unreality that undermines the seriousness of the crime.

I was too young to experience swinging London, but that hardly mattered – it didn't swing for everyone. Many people's lives in the 60s were just as dreary as the one they'd had in the 50s. In fact, it doesn't really swing in Blow-Up: early on, young revellers are juxtaposed with down-at-heel men filing out of a gate. For Blow-Up's Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni, too, Swinging London wasn't real – it was as intangible as that tennis ball. Its denizens are cruel, self-regarding and amoral. Hemmings's character isn't amused by his good fortune. He fights to retrieve a piece of Jeff Beck's guitar after an auto-destructive performance of Stroll On, then outside the club discards this precious pop artefact as worthless junk. It's his ennui that leads him to Maryon Park, and the ensuing murder mystery the only thing that motivates him or gives his life meaning. His indifference to the crime and his cruelty to women are symptomatic of society's degeneration.

Blow-Up
Blow-Up Photograph: Public Domain

Blow-Up is a film about a particular moment in the capital's history. It was made in London in 1966, which aficionados of 60s pop culture will recognise as the absolute perfect place and time. Imagine walking into a small club and witnessing that incendiary performance by the Yardbirds. Astonishingly, the Who, Tomorrow and even the Velvet Underground had been considered for the role. And look – the audience includes a young Michael Palin, and Janet Street Porter in a homemade silver dress.

But it also has enduring appeal, thanks to the music (Herbie Hancock's groovy jazz deserves a special mention), the director's ambivalence towards the subject matter and the "beautiful people", who are also repellent. It also reveals an enduring truth about London, my home town: it's never truly knowable. Who knows what goes on in the park hedgerows, in the converted warehouses, behind that nightclub door, where there's always someone hipper than you?

Contributor

Jon Dennis

The GuardianTramp

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