Criterion Corner: Blow-Up (#865)

I admit: sometimes I find them intimidating. The classics, the cinema icons, the films that everyone says you should watch because they are just that good and the directors who made those films. What if I watch one of those films and I don’t like them – or, worse, they don’t do anything for me and barely evince any reaction whatsoever? (Somehow it’s easier to dislike an iconic film than to be indifferent to a supposed masterpiece of the art form.) Which may go some way towards explaining the big pile of Criterion films I’ve bought but haven’t watched yet. Of course I want to watch them, I will watch them – but not just yet. I’ll get around to them. Eventually. Perhaps there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to watch them so much as it wants to have watched them.

Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up was one of those films for a long time – but then my kindly co-baristas here at A Damn Fine Cup of Culture went and did a podcast episode about seeing our cities, the places we live (or have lived) in, on film, and Alan chose to talk about the London of Blow-Up. And at that point I couldn’t really not watch it, could I? (Mind you, it still took me more than seven months, but I think that this year has given me enough of an excuse for that sort of delay.)

Blow-Up is an odd duck of a film. To some extent, it feels like a Swinging Sixties counterpiece to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. There is a very similar sense of existentialist ennui . Both films follow their main character through a series of encounters that take on a dreamlike quality at times, and the person that Fellini’s protagonist (played by Marcello Mastroianni) turns out to be by the end of La Dolce Vita is not miles away from Blow-Up‘s photographer Thomas (David Hemmings): men who clearly have a certain appeal but who seem aloof to the point of disengaged arrogance. And both films work as mood pieces rather than as coherent pieces of storytelling, with a clear beginning, middle and end. Both of these films give off a vibe, one might say.

At the same time, there are key differences between Fellini’s film and Antonioni’s. The first of these is due to the cities that pretty much constitute main characters in Blow-Up and La Dolce Vita. Both films, and both places, express a modernist mood of exhaustion and disorientation, but the vibe is nonetheless a different one. Fellini’s Rome is still very much a post-war city, and the neo-realism of earlier Italian films (and earlier Fellini) is still there around the edges, even if night-time Rome is doing its very best to forget anything as uncool as war, destruction and poverty. Meanwhile, Antonioni’s London is alive with the pulse of pop and rock and surface cool, but there is still a sense that the party has seen better days and may not continue for much longer. (The scene in the rock club that Thomas goes to is a very literal expression of this. Destroying your guitars and loudspeakers has never looked less rebellious and more perfunctory and tired of it all.)

At the same time, while neither film is primarily focused on storytelling, Blow-Up is arguably more story-driven than La Dolce Vita, because while it may still largely consist of episodes that are only loosely connected, there is a single thread running through it: early in the film, Thomas takes photos of a couple in a local park, but when he develops the pictures in his studio, he realises that he was witness to a murder. Or was he? He sees something on the photos that may be a man in the bushes, a gun, a prone body, but the more he magnifies the pictures, the more ambiguous they become. Is that really a body? Blown up (see what Antonioni did there?), the grainy images become increasingly abstract, turning into black-and-white pointillism. At the same time, there is a lot of evidence that something sinister is going on: first, the young woman on the photos (Vanessa Redgrave) keeps pressing Thomas for the pictures, finally offering herself and her body in exchange for them, then the studio is ransacked and the pictures and negatives are stolen – except for one that could hardly be any more indistinct. Thomas returns to the park and finds the body, but when he returns it is gone. The Man Who Wasn’t There‘s Freddy Riedenschneider had it right: the closer Thomas looks, the less sense it all makes. You can blow the image up all you want, what you’ll find becomes more and more blurry and grainy, not just open to interpretation but increasingly dependent on it.

Differently from Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, a film clearly inspired by Antonioni’s London phantasmagoria, Blow-Up uses thriller elements but it doesn’t become a thriller – or if it does, it is much more existentialist than most thrillers. It is less interested in whodunnit than it is in destabilising its protagonist, its plot, its audience, even itself. The more Thomas tries to find out what happened, the less he understands. Something happened. Someone died. All he is left with is a memory of an image that became less clear the more he looked at it – and then it was gone. And while the film’s mystery plot ends unsatisfactorily (if indeed it can be said to end at all), Antonioni finds a startling, playful yet menacing coda to end Blow-Up on, one that is better seen than described. Plato’s Cave by way of pop art, and in the end, it is we who must colour in the blanks in the act of watching what may or may not be there. There’s an almost The Prisoner-like quality to the epilogue: is it funny? Is it ominous? Look as closely as you like, you won’t be able to tell.

Verdict: For a while, I was on the fence about Blow-Up. Its protagonist is arrogant and aloof, the sexual politics are unpleasant (which fits the premise and the characters, but the point remains that arguably the film largely uses young, sexually available women much as its photographer protagonist does), and the combination of sheer ’60s style and modernist ennui can grate. At the same time, Blow-Up is undoubtedly stylish, and it masterfully creates a vibe that is sexy as much as it is unsettling. It captures a mood that is both alluring and offputting, and it has no interest whatsoever in resolving these tensions. And any reservations I may have had about certain aspects of the film, the coda had me grinning with delight. It’s not subtle, but it’s a thematically perfect, unsettling joke: the film (and Antonioni) thumbing its nose at itself and at us.

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