Blow-Up (1966): A Mystery Dissolving Before our Eyes

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With time it’s become more and more ironic that Blow-up, the film having become synonymous with the Swinging London scene of the 1960s, came from two Italians: Carlo Ponti and Michelangelo Antonioni.

In the picture, Antonioni casts David Hemmings as a kind of snarky, scruffy hero of the London street scene. He’s a fashion photographer armed with the testosterone-fueled vigor of a 25-year-old. Without mincing words, he’s a bit of a hedonistic brat.

We soon come to understand his day job has a volatile intimacy to it as he shoots gorgeous models up close and personal, barking orders at them, commanding their every movement, all so he can capture their look.

But if we give him a long hard look, his heart isn’t in this kind of glossy mainstream work. He’s intrigued by the art, and it’s hinted at that this is the kind of lucrative crud he takes on to fuel his passion project. So he is a true artist. After all, commerce fuels art. However, Blow-up is hardly a commentary or a simple mediation on the artistic experience. So what is it about?

Perhaps we’ll get our answer when Thomas takes a fateful detour to an all but deserted park. Although both of these descriptors might give the wrong impression. It’s fateful in as much as it takes over his thoughts and the consciousness of the movie. It’s also not entirely deserted; there’s a couple making out, and he starts wildly flashing photos of them like a voyeuristic maniac, leering from behind fences and trees. It’s almost compulsion that draws him in.

Finally, the girl (Vanessa Redgrave) chases after him desperately wanting them back — could they be compromising to her career? He gives her a vague promise to give them back. Still, he needs them for his passion project.

If it’s not obvious already, every so-called expositional answer is evasive — about wife and kids or anything personal — and so all we have to go on is the visual depictions, although eventually, even these will begin playing tricks on us too. For the time being, the woman appears at his apartment unannounced, and he’s intrigued by her, slightly obsessed.

He complains to her “even the beautiful girls you look at them and that’s that. I’m stuck with them all day long.” Like a calling card of the old noir archetype, his mysterious woman all but evaporates. He blows up the images of her and her man in his darkroom and pastes them up all over his studio to study them frame by frame.

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Has he uncovered a plot? Somebody was trying to kill someone else. The images are so blurry we can’t possibly tell with any definitive proof, though Thomas tells a friend over the phone, “I’ve saved someone’s life.” He seems to believe it wholeheartedly even as Antonioni’s movie starts dissolving as fast as it formed.

The young photographer returns to the scene — he feels scared (maybe implicated), and flees as quickly as he arrived. Back at his flat, he flies around, snacking and grabbing and whipping around — there’s an almost animalistic fight or flight to his every movement. This frantic energy carries throughout his performance, and it’s extremely telling.

So much of the movie is built out of the pace of Hemmings’s footsteps. Because certainly you have the striking images and Herbie Hancock’s jazzy compositions, but the movie is indebted to its use of sound.

Hemmings and Sarah Miles, his neighbor, have a curious relationship fraught with a kind of disaffecting malaise. I’m reminded of the scene where he admits to her he’s seen a murder. “Shouldn’t you call the police?” she inquires. And already distracted he wonders why they shot the man. There’s a kind of spellbinding inaction to them. It’s either apathy or helplessness or a bit of both.

Instead of facing the circumstances, Thomas runs away again. This time down into a basement concert with a bunch of similarly catatonic youth imbibing the Yardbirds (Jimmy Paige and Jeff Beck both rocking away) complete with a Pete Townshend-inspired guitar demolition.

It sends the entire room into a mad frenzy of emotion. Thomas races away from the mob clutching the remnants of the guitar — making it back out to the street — and then proceeds to drop the guitar neck on the street corner. Suddenly, it’s become a piece of junk again, another meaningless token, in another meaningless sequence, in another meaningless life.

It’s at this point where dialogue is little more than ambiance. Take as a fitting example the party Thomas shows up at acknowledging his acquaintances and making his way through the rooms, eyeing all the people. I’m not sure if there’s one word of intelligible dialogue, but it gives us a sense of the environment full of strung-out dead heads. So he goes to meet his colleague.

At first, it seems like he’s looking to fess up — they’ve got to go back and find the body — still, not to tell the police, but to take more photos of it! This insanity too falls on deaf ears. It’s yet another dead end. So Thomas returns to the park alone — no one prepared to support him or corroborate his story, we never see neither hide nor tail of the woman again, and now the body (if there ever was a body) is gone. Again, the whole plot has literally degenerated in front of our eyes. We have crossed over into an entirely new stratum.

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If his dilemma wasn’t plain already, our hero resigns himself to watching a pair of Mimes playing tennis, eventually losing their ball over the chainlink. He goes to fetch it for them with nothing left to do but dissolve into the background himself. It’s become evident reality as we know it has totally disintegrated. It’s a terrifying thought and you can either fret or blindly make peace with it.

One of the taglines for Blow-up is surprisingly apt. It goes like this: “Antonioni’s camera never flinches. At love without meaning. A murder without guilt.” If you think about their essence, romantic love is a very comforting force because we can make it into a kind of ultimate thing that can fill the void — making us complete in some manner — whether this is entirely practical or not.

Then, we have the narrative construction of murder mysteries. There’s something satisfying about them because we know the culprit will be found out. There’s closure and some form of justice, a reestablishment of order in an inherently disordered world.

Antonioni is not having any of that and his explanation of Blow-up — this metaphor of photographed images extended to life — proves a telling way to make sense of what he is doing on a very conscious level. He explained his ambitions the following way:

“By developing with enlargers…things emerge that we probably don’t see with the naked eye….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. This was in part the meaning of Blow-Up.”

Photography, Swinging London, models — all these things become immaterial — the film’s not really about any of them at all. It’s about how all truth, all meaning, whether subjective or objective, has dissolved in front of our eyes. By the end of the film, there is nothing of the sort. The murder is a figment of his imagination. Love as a romantic concept with any real sway is also dead. Frankly, it sounds terrifying.

Because films cannot be totally stripped away from their worldview, and they become one and the same. Either you agree with them, you disagree, or they can become a kind of trojan horse entering into your psyche. But Blow-up leads us right into the middle of the modern man’s dilemma. At this point, it feels like more than a mere cultural artifact. It calls for some ideological response from every viewer.

4/5 Stars

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