Blow Up (1966)

Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni


Blow Up was Antonioni’s biggest hit.  It’s a film that seems as immersed in the 1960s youth, counter culture movement as any other I can think of.  Other films like Bonnie & Clyde (1968) likely benefited from a growing audience born out of this time period, but Blow Up seems like it couldn’t have been released at a better time.

It’s a story that follows a vulgar, power-tripping fashion photographer who looks like a cross between Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange and the evil kid from The Karate Kid.  He’s not macho in the way you might expect of a leading actor, instead he’s small, scrawny, his hair a little scraggly like he’s Dennis the Menace all grown up and a little strung out.  He’s no one you aspire to be like, but similar to the version of Bob Dylan we see in Don’t Look Back (1967), he feels like a character that would appeal to a younger audience in the 60s.

Now maybe that’s speculation on my part, but a character such as Blow Up‘s Thomas (David Hemmings) seems like the character you shouldn’t aspire to be like, but does have qualities people may have admired at the time.  He seems to trust and respect no one.  He’s an artist, and he knows no boundaries.  He’s aggressive and slimy, but he’s also presented as maybe the most intellectual or spiritually engaged person in the room.  His models just want to be on camera.  Their smiles are plastic, their posture even more so, and it’s Thomas who has to mold them into something resembling art.  That being said, this is all from his point of view where the slightest imperfection in posture is a mortal sin.  To us it’s hard to see the difference between what a model does that angers him versus what pleases him.  But we’re in his world.

So I think Thomas taps into something felt by so many young adults in this time period.  He’s not angry at anyone in particular, but he does seem defined by his anger.  He has no real human connection in his life, but he doesn’t seem to seek it out.  All he cares about is his photography, and that passion, while likely interfering with a healthy, well-balanced life, is seen as something to admire.

The premise of this film is that Thomas unwittingly photographs a murder.  Were this a more plotted movie, we’d expect some kind of investigation into the possible murder, much as you get in Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981), a film in which a man records (audibly) a murder, but in a more overt way.  That film, as you might have guessed, is heavily influenced by this one.

So in Blow Up, Thomas does photograph a murder, but he doesn’t realize this until well over halfway into the film.  The first half of the story focuses on his character as someone who needs a good talking to.  As I mentioned earlier, he’s a power-tripping photographer whose photographic tendencies really take advantage of the model in front of the camera.  In one scene, the one on the poster in fact, he crouches over a model on the ground, much as if they were really having sex.  When he’s done he stands up and leaves her to herself, alone and slightly humiliated on the ground.

Then he photographs a man and a woman in a park, and the woman, Jane (Vanesa Redgrave), demands the photos back.  This is a long sequence in which he refuses to hand the photos over, she starts to undress herself, and they have a weird, something that could only happen in the sixties or at a Boogie Nights party type of naked interaction.

There seems to be so much going on symbolically here.  There is a common, consistent theme of the naked body and of the male gaze.  Throughout the story, Thomas doesn’t just look at a woman, but he really studies her, like he’s looking for something he isn’t even sure is there.

Later he ‘blows up’ the photos he took in the park, and he sees something before we do.  He takes a 35 mm print and enlarges it so that whatever he stares at is so intensely meaningless and disfigured.  Their just ink blots, like a rorschach test.  We see nothing, but he’s sure he’s found something.  That something is a man with a gun, and it’s not like we’re supposed to think he’s crazy, we see it too, but the image quickly loses meaning to us while it never does to him.

Thomas becomes obsessed with the image, casting aside everything that may have once mattered to him.  There is something here about how death makes everything feel a little more clear.  Thomas is suddenly a silent detective, someone with a goal and the drive to follow that goal.  He is, basically, the opposite of who he was in the first half of the story.  And with that in mind, it seems to me like Antonioni’s goal in the first 60 minutes was to create a character as vain, self-centered and egotistical as possible, just to show that even he is enraptured by something that could possibly hold greater meaning in life.  The image he looks at might as well be that of God, a grainy, hard to make out God but God nonetheless.

It’s not that Thomas cares about the murderer or the possible murder victim.  It’s more about the act of murder that captures his imagination.  Later he returns to the park where he does indeed find the murder victim, confirming his suspicions.  I have the feeling that it’d be better if he never found out definitively whether a murder was committed because it never matters who the victim was, who the killer was, or why the murder happened.  The murder serves the same purpose as Anna’s disappearance in Antonioni’s L’Avventura.  It’s not about what happened but about how the characters react to it.

The final act of Blow Up follows Thomas as he wanders through the town.  In one scene he follows Jane, whom he sees on the street, into a club where a punk rock band struggles through a song.  The problem is with the connection between their guitar and the amp.  Frustrated, the lead guitarist smashes his guitar onstage, Thomas, in the ensuing fracas, grabs the broken handle of the instrument, runs outside, but once there he just drops it on the street, done with it.  A bystander picks it up, curious, but then he too tosses it back down.

Everything, it seems, is worth some degree of inspection, just not a whole lot of it.  Now this is the same as Thomas’ inspection of the photograph to almost insane levels.  The story, as Antonioni said, is about investigating a moment: “The photographer in Blow-Up, 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.”

So what Thomas is searching for is truth.  Death, much like birth, is something that transcends what could be called, for lack of a better term, the bullshit of everyday life.  This might be a more cynical view of life, something the opposite of what is celebrated in a Linklater or Jarmusch film, but it seems to be the perspective held by Thomas and Antonioni.

Thomas breaks free of his own self-assigned restraints, opening his worldview, and he can only do this by photographing the murder.  Later he wanders through town, ending up in a park inhabited by a bunch of mimes, I suppose, who we opened the film with.  These mimes, in the beginning of the film and the beginning of this final scene, are loud and rambunctious.  They race through town, too many of them crammed in an old truck, but once out of the vehicle they fall silent.

They go to a tennis court where they play with an invisible ball and an invisible racket.  The way they move, and the way the camera anticipates the movement, suggests that maybe what they see is actually there.  The question, then, is what is real?  This is a film, after all, and while the point of the film may not exactly be an investigation into the film medium, it still attempts to question what is real for us as an audience, for Thomas in his reality, and for us in life.

At least, that’s what I got from it.  The easiest way of watching this would be to discredit the mimes.  They are performing a part, a routine, so why bother examining what they’re doing?  We don’t see a racket or a ball, so they must be pretending.  Which they are, I guess, but the camera moves with the ball, showing some kind of connection between the characters and the lens, and when the ball gets too close to the watching crowd (of other mimes), they all flinch in unison.  The only way they could orchestrate this moment would be either to have rehearsed it exactly (certainly possible) or to genuinely be experiencing the same thing, even if we can’t see it.

Thomas watches this whole thing, his camera present but now an afterthought, and he seems taken with their behavior.  He’s fascinated by them in a way we haven’t seen him fascinated by the subjects of his own photography, implying that this moment is more real than the staged scenes he’s been concerned with in the first half of the film.

When the mimes lose the ball, they gesture for Thomas to go grab it.  He walks to the patch of grass where the camera waits, grabs the invisible ball and tosses it back.  The mimes resume playing.  So again, Thomas could just be acting alongside them now, or maybe he really sees the ball.  He probably doesn’t, but he’s at least more open to this silliness than he was before.  The Thomas of act 1 would be more likely to dismiss these characters than to share in their behavior.

So the point is that he’s changed as a character.  Everything else doesn’t matter, the plot, the murder, etc.  What I love about art films such as these (and this is an art film, right?) is that everything is in service of the character, so much so that plot lines could be completely abandoned and it wouldn’t matter.  In a modern movie, a good modern movie, there is both character and plot, and they work together, but I really love the boldness of a movie like this, and so many other European works, to make the complete focus of the film the character and how he or she changes.  Because plot, I suppose, will always be filtered through our own perspective, but by funneling the theme through a character, we have to understand that character’s worldview, and I’d argue that there is more empathy that way.  Okay, I’m confusing myself again.

The film ends with a very wide shot of Thomas on the bright green grass (which Antonioni allegedly had painted green for more vibrant color).  Right before “the end” comes onscreen, Thomas fades away so that an empty field is all that is left.  Maybe the reality of Thomas is the same as that tennis ball.  If one is real, then they both are, and vice versa for if they’re not real.

Or who knows, it’s all subjective, but there’s so much to explore, and it’s great.  The story as a whole seems to be about searching for truth and reality, and the final point might be that you shouldn’t look too closely because there’s nothing to see.  It’s like me writing about this right now.  What does Thomas’ disappearance mean?  Well, probably nothing.  Antonioni might be trying to tell us to back off a little.  It’s good to search for something, possibly, as long as we’re okay with whatever that search yields.

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