Blow-Up is the epitome of a 1960's art house film. Directed in 1966 by celebrated Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni Blow-Up is at once unexpected and enigmatic, simple yet riveting.
The set up is a lot like a Hitchcock thriller but the mystery is only secondary to what really happens. The film's set up is somewhat dubious: an alienated photographer in 1960's swinging London begins to investigate what he believes to be a murder and in the process he finds himself.
David Hemmings plays Thomas a hard working but somewhat antagonistic and aloof photographer who photographs everything he sees. So much so that it's safe to say his reality is couched safely from behind the lens of his camera.
After taking photos of a man and a woman (Vanessa Redgrave) in a park he goes to his studio flat and develops the roll. In the process he discovers something in a few of the photos. He begins to blow them up and hone in on various sections of the photos, which reveal a mystery to him. What he finds is that he has unwittingly been witness to a murder attempt. It's enough to almost change his life. I say 'almost' because there is really a question as to whether or not Thomas has learned anything. He has confronted and been taken aback by what he has witnessed [actually his camera witnessed it] yet he doesn't know what to do about it.
The first clue that Thomas has been profoundly changed – and one of the most important but subtle scenes in the film – occurs in chapter 20 of the DVD when Thomas returns to the park without his camera. This is significant because it shows that Thomas has been so shaken by what has happened that he forgets the one thing that has defined his reality for so long. It is as if he realizes that in order to really experience something he needs to see it with his own two eyes – not from behind the camera lens.
Even though Blow-Up was made in the 1960's when most artists were questioning the status quo it is worth noting that Antonioni and screenwriter Tonino Guerra have a detached yet moral conservative view of the world. The films they made together (such as L'Avventura, L'Eclisse and Red Desert) are a commentary on the modern world of the 1960's. A world where the older generation had become spiritually and morally bankrupt due to the alienation brought on by new technologies, post war European malaise and decadent living. It was a world where it was perceived that the older generation tended to ignore real pressing personal, political, spiritual and social issues. In reality it was primarily the younger generation who tapped into this yet Antonioni and Guerra seem to question their commitment as well; as if the younger generation were so hooked into the here and the now that they lost all perspective on history.
In Blow-Up the photographer could be seen to stand in for upper middle class England; slightly smug and not too interested in anything that doesn't match up with their particular reality. And therein lays the crux of the film as well as the Guerra-Antonioni paradox of critical detachment because Blow-Up is mostly about the perception of reality. Thomas' reality is viewed from behind the lens of the camera not in front of it. And when he is confronted with something as serious as a murder he doesn't know what to do. In most Hollywood films he would simply pursue the mystery until it was resolved. But in an Antonioni film the murder mystery is just a device used by the filmmakers to comment upon modern man.
Besides the under-riding social messages Antonioni's films are an exercise in formalism. The best example in Blow-Up is when Thomas goes to the park to take photos. There is very little talking and (thankfully) no music guiding us along and telling us how to think. Instead it is dominated by a creepy but mesmerizing rustle of leaves in the wind and long shots of people, grass, trees and bushes in the background. Yet in this naturally bucolic world the trees are still neatly lined up so that Thomas can hide behind them and pursue his subject.
Even if audiences are perplexed by Blow-Up [it should be noted that it is Antonioni's most mainstream film] there is no denying that it has a series of really fine (and now famous) scenes. The aforementioned park scene is one. But others include a simulated sex scene in which Thomas straddles one of his models (Verushka) to get a closer shot with his camera, another is a nightclub scene that starts with a group of London's youth catatonically staring on while listening to a spirited song by the Yardbirds and ends with them going into a riot wrestling for a broken guitar neck thrown into the crowd, another is the very absorbing ten minute silent scene of Thomas blowing up his photographs and investigating them up close, yet another is a sex romp that Thomas has with two teenage girls; apparently the film did boffo box office for this scene alone.
Blow-Up poses a few unresolved questions and has a good number of just plain peculiar (and funny) scenes. The most salient enigma is Antonioni's symbolic use of Ragweek mimes who show up at the opening and closing of the film giving us both food-for-thought and ambiguity. Much has been written about the meaning of the mimes – and particularly the final scene – but this ambiguity is an agreeable aspect to the film because it becomes a talking point for most people who watch it. Best of all Blow-Up is very engaging once the mystery sets in not only because we want to know what happens but because Antonioni challenges the audience to make meaning of the scenes. When filmmakers do this you realize that even if they are playing with the audience a bit they do respect the intelligence of the audience. That's reason enough to highly recommend Blow-Up.