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It is hard to find people who will readily defend this movie these days. It
is commonly thought of as pretentious, overly artsy, and lacking coherence.
If you don't connect with the film that is fine, but to call it trash is a
mistake. Many people try to pin this as being a 60's statement. It is not
however. Antonioni was a veteran filmmaker who got lumped in with the new
wave scene because he was around at the same time. This was initially a hit,
though that probably had little to due with it's actual merits as a film.
It is the story of an artist. The photographer Thomas, who has lost all feeling of passion for his work. He hangs around London taking fashion photographs. He is cruel to his models and other women in his life. He seems interested in other's art but cannot be roused to create any of his own. He will soon be releasing a book of photographs, all of which are uninspired photos of the poor, sick and dying. While in the park he takes a series of shots he hopes will be a nice epilogue to his collection. They are of a couple playing in the park. These pictures, however, are not what they seem.
Antonioni makes great use of insinuation. He tantalizes us with the possibility of what could have been. In us he insights the same passion that is in Thomas. In the end, I don't think he disappears so much as he returns. He does not return as the same person, though. He is changed by the passion for his art and the challenge of reality. He is no longer playing the game of catch the murderer, or faking the motions of being a photographer, or posing as a deep artist by taking sad pictures. He is now truly inspired.
Today many people hate Thomas. And with good reason. He is definitely not a nice person, but he is one of my favorite anti-heroes. There is a scene many people may miss. It is short. He is driving in his car, I think after speeding off from some want to be models, he turns on the radio, and starts bobbing his head and making funny faces to the music. This is the scene that redeems his early self to me. When he is alone, we see he still has an innocent streak despite his cruelty.
All that being said, I only recommend this to the more serious moviegoer. 10/10
I would recommend that people who are considering watching this film for
first time not read the following. I don't mention the film's ending, I
just believe its far more satisfying to let the films potent details
nervously sink into place on their own.
It is not about cameras. It is not about seeing. It is about our perception of our individual world. It throws shadows on the very judgments we build our lives upon. Without mentioning the obvious references to illusion (the mimes, the abstract picture of the corpse, etc.), I offer the following expert signposts Antonioni leaves for us to find.
1) The guitar neck David snatches at the rave-up has value only until he is not being chased for it, whereupon he discards it in the street. The pedestrian who then picks it up sees it only as junk.
2) Dialogue with his model friend at the pot party: DAVID - ` I thought you were in Paris.' THE GIRL - `I am'.
3) Appearances and Disappearance (2 of the many). The Lynn Redgrave character pops up as he arrives at his apartment. His question `How did you find me' is not explained. Later in the story, it is notably odd when David wakes up the following morning after the pot party that there is no one to be seen in the party house. Even the decorations like the clothes hung on the statue the night before have vanished.
4) David teaches the affectations of smoking to the woman. She must create an impression.
5) His painter friend describes his painting. `They don't mean anything to me while I work on them. Its only later that I ascribed something to them. Like this leg.' Whereupon he points out a place in a painting that might be a human leg. When he paints, he is tapping subconscious language, something apart from subjective and objective reality. Its as if Antonioni is offering us an even further vantage point to the events to come, dream reality.
6) The rambling diversion of events shows David's inability to `focus' on working through his mystery.
7) So much is hidden from the viewer. Its almost suggested that the real end to the narrative takes place someplace after the movie has already finished, jarring our sense of story, insinuating an ending we never get to `see'.
8) David announces at one point to his friend, `If only I had more money I'd be all right.'. Meanwhile he drives through the whole movie in his Rolls Royce.
This is a very remarkable film. I was irked by the pacing and the diversions as I watched it, but that was exactly why it all kept coming and coming at me for hours after until finally in bed it all rushed through me like a gorgeous musical event. I know for certain there are many more hidden corners to it, but this is what I got in my first viewing. Just that gut feeling that I missed something, I believe, is exactly where Antonioni was going. You always miss something.
Antonioni's Blow-Up was the biggest hit of the Italian director's
career, the superficial elements of the fashion world, Swinging London
and orgies on purple paper ensuring its commercial success.
Models such as Veruschka (who appears in the film), Twiggy and fashion photographers at the time have complained about its unrealistic depiction of the industry and claimed that its central character, Thomas (played by the late David Hemmings) was clearly based on David Bailey.
To look at Blow-Up as an analysis of the fashion business in the Sixties is to misunderstand the film's intentions. In any case, when watching this film it may be difficult to tell what its all about if you're unfamiliar with Antonioni's films but it obviously has little to do with the fashion world which is merely the setting for the story and nothing more.
Antonioni made the clearest statement of his motivation as a filmmaker at the end of Beyond the Clouds when he talked about his belief that reality is unattainable as it is submerged by layers of images which are only versions of reality.
This is a rather pretentious way of saying that everyone perceives reality in their own way and ultimately see only what they want to see.
With this philosophy in mind, Blow-Up is probably Antonioni's most personal film.
Thomas' hollow, self-obsessed world is shattered when he discovers that he may have photographed a murder when casually taking pictures in a park. He encounters a mysterious woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave) who demands he hand over the film and when he refuses she appears at his studio, although Thomas never told her his address.
When the evidence disappears shortly afterwards, Blow-Up seems to deal in riddles that have no solution. Redgrave re-appears and then vanishes before the photographer's eyes, Thomas returns to the park without his camera and sees the body. The film concludes with Thomas, having discovered the body has disappeared, watching a group of mimes playing tennis without a ball or rackets in the park where the murder may have taken place.
It is only in the final scene of the film where the riddle is solved. Thomas throws the imaginary ball back into the court and watches the game resume. The look of realisation on his face is all too apparent as the game CAN BE HEARD taking place out of shot.
There is a ball, there are rackets and this is a real game of tennis. What we have seen up until this point is the photographer's perception of reality: the murder, the mysterious woman in the park, the photographic evidence and the body.
The following exchange between Hemmings and Redgrave is the key to the film:
Thomas: Don't let's spoil everything, we've only just met.
Jane: No, we haven't met. You've never seen me.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Is an image really there when you see it in closer zoom-ins? Or does it
become even more indistinct, confusing the eye even more? Was there or
wasn't there a crime being committed in the middle of the day in a
London park? Are there any answers, and is this whole "mystery" even
worth even investigating? These are questions that are the root of the
matter, and Michaelangelo Antonioni toys with what happens, and what
doesn't happen, what is, what is not, what is real, and what is unreal.
The story, if there truly is one, moves slowly and deliberately: David
Hemmings portrays an unsympathetic fashion photographer -- he is
credited as Thomas but we never hear him called this way -- who seems
to wallow in his own prowess as a photographer. He treats women like
mincemeat -- to him, they're only objects for his lust as when he meets
Veruschka and practically rapes her through a photo shoot -- or
mannequins who can't pose worth anything and only fuel his anger. He
also has a painter friend who's girlfriend (Sarah Miles) seems to have
a certain interest in him, but whom he ignores, like all other women
who come in contact with him. After what turns to be a lousy photo
shoot he does some meandering and comes to a park, and from a distance
witnesses a woman and a man (Vanessa Redgrave and Ronan O'Casey), in an
apparent, romantic interlude, enjoying the day and the semi-privacy
within the park's confines. He takes pictures, walks closer, takes more
pictures, walks even closer... almost predatory so, much like a voyeur.
That is, until she sees him and demands he return to her the film roll -- he can't take pictures just like that, and is against her consent. He declines so and gives her a different film (after almost having her beg for it). And a little after halfway through the story, he develops his film... and sees what looks to be like a body on the ground, the outline of a man with a gun hidden within some thick bushes. And her reaction, full of angry surprise.
Has he truly photographed a murder in progress? Is he privy to more than he should be, and could this have some danger in store for him? Antonioni toys with the audience, never letting in on Redgrave's character, but letting us experience the world through Hemmings untrustworthy eyes and superficial values that momentarily seem to have been thrown out of whack due to this disquieting incident. The problem is, what Hemmings sees may or may not be true -- a classic shot where he tries to find Redgrave and he sees her in the middle of a walking crowd and she literally makes an about-face and disappears from view. Just like that. And his grasp of the mystery emanating from his brush with her at the park, like even Hemmings at the end, is gone, dissolved into the grass.
This is not a film for people looking for action and adventure as quite the opposite happens here. It's a film that echoes the French New Wave as it tells a story about an antihero who has a moment of crisis and decides to (maybe) take action, and is left suspended at the end. Influential for Coppola's THE CONVERSATION, this is a fascinating puzzle which is missing its last, vital piece.
BLOW-UP is the story of a successful fashion photographer, Thomas (David
Hemmings), who, whilst scouting for fresh subjects in a park one
photographs a mysterious couple in 'flagrante delicto.' Upon returning to
his studio loft later that day, he develops the pictures and discovers
he has inadvertently stumbled upon a murder. Antonioni is not interested
the details of the murder itself, as in a typical detective story, but
rather with how the protagonist's perception of the world, and his
relationship to it, is altered by this event.
As a fashion photographer, Thomas is a creator of illusions that define a certain kind of young urban lifestyle and Antonioni's flagrant use of the loud, splashy, attention-grabbing colors of billboard advertising -- a visual association elevated to an unholy apotheosis in his next film, ZABRISKIE POINT (1970) -- brings to the surface the transient sensation and hollow artifice that lies at the heart of all pop culture consumerism. In his previous work, RED DESERT (1964), Antonioni spray-painted both the man-made décor as well as the natural setting as a means of giving concrete expression to the heroine's neurotic state of mind and her ameliorative aestheticizing vision of a world despoiled by technology and pollution. He does the same in BLOW-UP, painting doors, fences, poles, and the façades of entire buildings to emphasize the exhilaration and alienation that characterizes life in a large modern city.
Psychedelic colors make the 'real' world of the film seem exaggerated and hyperbolic like a fantastic 'surface' reality, while the 'captured' and reconstructed world of the photographs appears ominously stark, grainy, and documentary-like -- the bare, denuded 'essence' of reality. In the central montage sequence of the film, the camera -- in place of Thomas' eyes -- slowly moves back and forth from one photograph to the next, and likewise, Antonioni cuts back and forth from the pictures to the protagonist looking at them. Since the act of looking at these enhanced images effectively reconstructs an event that the protagonist -- and the audience -- never actually saw with the naked eye in 'real life,' technology is shown to reveal a new surface of the world that is normally hidden from view. Antonioni's own particular brand of phenomenological Neorealism is concerned primarily with the process of seeing through a camera as a way of exposing an ultimate truth, or a lack thereof, that underlies the surface of the world.
The curious self-reflexivity of this scene is an epistemological hall of mirrors: Antonioni's camera looks at Thomas looking at photographs which are blown up larger and larger so that eventually they become merely an abstract collection of dots, a Rorschach test in which almost anything can be read. Like the Abstract Expressionist paintings of the tormented artist son in Pasolini's TEOREMA (1968), the received cultural baggage and semiotic referentiality of the image is eliminated until all that remains is purest subjectivity of the spectator. And so, picture-making technology mediates reality only up to a point: once the threshold of referentiality has been crossed, the suspicion of a murder in the park gleaned from a series of enlarged photographs would seem to say more about Thomas' own paranoid state of mind than what his camera may or may not have recorded.
This subtextual aspect of the film has been compared to the controversy surrounding the various interpretations of the Abraham Zapruder film as a definitive and reliable record of the Kennedy assassination -- and particularly, the mystery of the notorious 'grassy knoll.' Also, the possible incidence of adultery and The Girl's desperate efforts to retrieve the film suggest the scandalous fallout of the Profumo affair. Vanessa Redgrave, with her thick, dark brown hair and affected temptress-naïf manner, hinted at by a schoolgirl outfit and arms folded seductively over her breasts, seems meant to evoke, for a British audience at least, then-recent memories of Christine Keeler.
BLOW-UP is full of visual and verbal non-sequiturs and nearly all the scenes are composed of long-takes with plenty of 'longeurs' and 'temps mort.' This real-time approach -- often fragmented by abrupt and seemingly arbitrary cuts -- faithfully simulates Thomas' experience and the mechanical routine of his creative process and its fleeting moments of sudden inspiration and frenzied excitement. All throughout the film there is a recurrent pattern of relationships left unconsummated and work left undone. Just as he appears on the verge of establishing meaningful contact with someone or about to finally resolve himself to some efficacious deed or another, he is immediately distracted by something else that pops up.
Thomas resembles Odysseus in the way he is continually thwarted by chance encounters, which cause him to lose sight of his mission. Indeed, the film's meandering, episodic plot does seem to have elements of classical epic: the rock concert and the marijuana party afterward all suggest a ritual journey through a modern 'Land of the Lotus-Eaters.' Ironically, it is just when he discovers a sense of emotional commitment and social obligation in his life that his self-justifying cynicism and arrogant indifference toward others is replaced by a growing sense of impotence and defeat. In the final scene, speech is phased out of the film entirely, leaving only a silent form of physical communication unmediated by language and social pretensions.
BLOW-UP was the Antonioni's greatest commercial and critical triumph and the film's narrative -- an odyssey through a modern city, following the protagonist from feigned poverty to the false security of wealth and ending on a note of final lingering doubt about one's place and purpose in the world -- seems itself a trenchant comment on the nature of success and what it does to people. By transposing to 'Swinging London' the Marxist concerns of his Italian films, Antonioni demonstrates once again that this malaise of modern life is not caused by technology and consumer culture but rather by man's failure to adapt to the conditions of the new environment he has created for himself.
Antonioni was not a director that worried too much about people completely understanding his films. In fact I'd bet that he actually hoped they didn't understand everything. So I did not find it strange or surprising when after finishing the movie I felt quite confused. But the movie made me think for a very long time, which in my opinion is what a good film should do. There are so many aspects to this film that if you give them a chance and think about them, they will keep you reeling for hours on possible interpretations. The first and probably most important aspect of this film dealt with love. From what I have seen of his films, love is Antonioni's favorite subject. But this love was different than that of past films; it is much more shallow and un-centered. Thomas, the photographer, is surrounded by women, he goes from one to the next without thinking twice, treating them like dogs the entire time. But he can do this and get away with it because he is a famous photographer and can make the women what they all desperately want to be, Beautiful. For The first half of the movie I honestly did not like his character whatsoever. Whereas in the past the director has chosen mainly to explore the ups and downs of married life, or the problems of being hopelessly devoted to one person, he now points the camera at the single, care free, over sexed, youth of the sixties. Half an hour into the movie I found myself wondering what the heart of the film was going to be. We were introduced to Thomas and his world, but there seemed to be no conflict driving the story forward. Then came the quasi-murder mystery. This is what is really interesting and unique about this film in my opinion. Antonioni for a while leads us to believe that the movie is going to turn into some suspense thriller, or murder mystery, but never seems to quite get there. He has all the elements ready to go, but never follows through with them. He introduces this alluring and mysterious woman who is in on the murder and then never brings her back. The murder victim is discovered, but his identity is never revealed, nor a motive given for his murder. Thomas, after a very energetic and exciting photo investigation seems to not really care too much as to what happens with the investigations results, only telling a couple of his friends who couldn't care less. Antonioni seems to have used this whole murder mystery convention as some sort of glue to hold the rest of the real story together. The story of a mindless, beauty obsessed, celebrity idolizing, drug addicted, and violence obsessed culture. Probably my favorite scene in the film is after fighting over the piece of broken guitar with the other fans; Thomas just discards his prize as garbage. Something that kept bugging me was the antique shop. I kept wondering what in the world it had to do with anything in the movie; it stuck out like a sore thumb. But I knew it that there was some major purpose or explanation for its existence in the film, and then it just kind of clicked. Upon his first entry into the Antique store Thomas encounters an angry old man who we eventually find out is not the stores real owner, the true owner is a beautiful young woman who is planning to sell the old place and travel the world in search of something new. All this stuff she owns, the gold of past cultures, is old and useless now. She has a hard time making a living because nobody wants the stuff any longer. Here is where I think Antonioni's major message is hidden: That is the way life is, it moves on constantly, things change, people die, cultures evolve and the only thing that remains in the end is nature itself. Antonioni finishes the film beautifully, Thomas stands alone in a large field of grass, the only thing heard is the wind and the trees, as the camera backs away slowly, he disappears leaving nothing but the grass blowing in the wind, for like all the antiques and all the people that created them in the past, eventually Thomas's life will end and so will the current popular culture in which he takes part. Change is life's only constant.
If you believe that the ending makes the movie, Blowup is for you. The first 30 minutes seem aimless and wandering, but they set up the main character and what is he is to discover about himself, about his occupation and about art in general. Antonioni builds tension (or frustration as you're watching it) not with plot, but with anti-plot. You want to scream at David Hemmings's character to: focus! screw those models! do something! But as the film unfolds you will see why Antonioni chose this actor, this profession and those girls. A wonderful manifesto about the dangers of voyeurism and what it does to a man's sexuality that is 40 years ahead of its time. The symbolism might get heavy handed at times (mimes, a broken guitar), but the sets are so full of creativity and the actors so beautiful (this will give my age away, but Vanessa Redgrave, who knew?) that you forgive Antonioni (he's Italian after all). Hemmings is Hugh Grant before Hugh Grant, but in this role at least, much more interesting. He's highly sexual, but unlike his painter roommate, his chosen art form represses him, all in the name of the shot. And when he finally gets the perfect shot in the perfect light, it's so perfect that someone steals it, and for good reason. Did those events actually take place or just through his camera lens? When the photos are the proof of what you see, then when that proof is taken away, did you see?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Spoilers; limited review due to word limit.
This film is an intense character study, essentially about emptiness in life. Thomas feels that everything in his life is superficial, and he wants to do something more than just take photographs. If he could solve a mystery, then his life would have a definite purpose. Therefore, he sees what he wants to see, and invents a mystery from one of his photographs.
What he sees is essentially part of his imagination. There are many factors that indicate this, such as his friend the artist who mentions that a detail in a painting "is like a clue in a detective story". Thomas plays detective in the film, however life is full of distractions, and ultimately he is unable to solve the mystery.
Time management is a key idea through the film, as Thomas is a procrastinator. He knows that there are many things that he needs to do, and he uses them as an excuse at one point, saying "I haven't even got a couple of minutes to have my appendix out", even though he fiddles with a coin, and just before that he had visited some friends. He has lost his dedication to his work. He does things because they need to be done, not because he wants to. He indulges himself in antiques, then on the spur of the moment, goes to a park.
Ultimately, Thomas wants to escape from his life. Reminders of escapism follow him about, such as a sign that a protester places in his car, with the words "go away" on it. The sign later falls out and is run over by another car, indicating how futile trying to escape life is. He meets an antiques dealer who wants out her job, and from her he purchases a propeller - a device that can be used to fly away with.
Thomas is often presented in an isolated environment, whether it be running down alleyways or wandering through a park. He is removed from the world, with no real friends or family. At one point he says that he has a wife, then he changes his mind and says that they just have kids together. Then, he admits that he has no children, and that his wife is not beautiful, but just easy to live with. Following this, he changes his mind once again and says that she is not easy to live with. Thomas wants a family, but he does not have one. He wants a wife (who need not be beautiful, since the models who he photographs are superficially beautiful) and children.
Thomas feels that his life is empty, and his photography - his work - has replaced his sex life. In one scene he photographs a model by sitting on top of her in a sexual position, and the things he calls out could be used as expressions during sex. However this is not pleasure for him - it is work. He later indulges himself with group sex, but after watching two of his friends making love, he realises how meaningless sexuality is for him.
For all these reasons, Thomas sees what he wants to see - a possible murder - something that he can take credit for. Much of the film involves this notion of seeing what one wants, which is represented by the mimes. The mimes are contrasted in the opening sequence against the gloomy England workers. At nighttime, Thomas visits the park where he photographed the supposed murder, and lo and behold, a corpse is lying there. This scene is unrealistic, as it is highly unlikely that someone would leave a corpse lying around, or that no one else had spotted it yet, however Thomas is seeing what he wants to.
After visiting the park, he tries to find someone who he can confide in about the body. He treks through a building where a rock band is playing along his journey. The fans are mostly just standing or sitting around with blank expressions. Their lives are as empty as Thomas feels that his is. They idolise rock musicians who are crazy and smash their guitars. From there, he goes to a party for sophisticated, upper-middle class people, however they are mostly smoking dope and wasting away their time. Their lives are empty too.
In the morning, Thomas visits the park again, but he is no longer as excited as he was before, and this is shown through his slow pacing and long distance photography. After seeing that others have empty lives - and are happy with them - he is unsure if he should be happy too. In the park, there is no longer the body, as he not seeing what he wants to see anymore.
The mimes return, and Thomas watches them 'play' tennis. The camera follows the imaginary ball around. The mimes seem so happy, and therefore, Thomas joins in when he has a chance. After he throws "the ball" back to them, we can hear tennis rackets hitting a ball. Thomas is still alone and isolated, even though he is finally seeing what he wants to see. His life is still empty. There is not much of a resolution to the film, and from what there is, it is bleak, but as a character study, it is engaging stuff.
The technical side of the film is great - especially the sound in some scenes, showing how isolated Thomas is that he can hear soft sounds. Every shot is set up with care, and Hemmings is superb. 'Blowup' is not the type of film that will satisfy every taste, but it has quite a lot to it.
'Blowup' is frequently mentioned as one of the most influential movies of the twentieth century. And I believe it is. But it is no dry and dull document that the viewer must force himself to "appreciate" while he stifles his yawns. Like 'Citizen Kane', 'Breathless' and 'Psycho' it is not only an important movie milestone, it is still a living and breathing work of art that will fascinate and impress any movie lover who approaches it with an open mind. 'Blowup' lures you in with its snapshot of swinging 60s London, and it's tease of being a murder mystery, which it really isn't, but by then you're hooked. This movie is a puzzle with no solution, a text with any interpretation the viewer cares to bring to it. That may sound heavy going and off putting, but this is a surprisingly watchable movie. Even the "boring" sequences are interesting! Anyone who enjoys David Lynch, Dario Argento (whose 'Profundo Rosso' deliberately referenced this), Nic Roeg or Jim Jarmusch, movies where atmosphere and visual images are more important than characterization, plot or dialogue, will appreciate this 60s classic. I think it gets better with every viewing.
Blow Up is the quintessential 60' s movie with a roster of talented British actors, colourful mod fashions (now back in vogue), dreary post-war London locations and empty streets, groovy music by American composer extraordinaire Herbie Hancock and an Italian director and writer in love with the whole scene. Blow Up is the cinematic equivalent of the TR4 cabriolet, designed by Michelotti and manufactured by Triumph during the same period, and mixes the best of two rather different cultures. The movie offers the right amount of nudity, sensuality and perversion without offending the prude status quo of swinging Olde England. David Hemmings plays a character who is by all accounts snobbish, homophobic, prejudiced, rude and macho. This pseudo thriller/whodunit unwinds rather slowly and with little dialogue and, I think, is just an excuse for Antonioni to show how weird the English were. A must see flick for the ones nostalgic or who missed the 60' s completely.
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