DIRECTED BY: Michelangelo Antonioni
PLOT: A hedonistic fashion photographer snaps some candid pictures of a couple in a park; when he looks at the negatives, he thinks he may have discovered evidence of a murder.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Blow-Up is only subtly weird, and its oddness only becomes truly apparent at the end. This site’s readers have never, to my memory, suggested this movie for review; and yet, Antonioni’s ambiguous examination of London mods in existential free-fall is something of a canonical art film that must be touched upon in a comprehensive survey of weird films.
COMMENTS: Let me put Blow-Up in a personal context. When I first saw this movie in my early twenties, I despised it. I can’t find my original review, but in essence, my viewpoint was that making a deliberately boring movie in order to critique the boredom of modern life—capped by the director dangling a single point of interest in front of the audience, only to snatch it away—was a reprehensible bit of auteurial sadism. Over time, however, I have to admit that several moments from Blow-Up lingered in my memory for years, like snapshots, indicating that the movie can’t be as bad, or as boring, as I originally thought it was. Seeing it again after a couple of intervening decades, I find I tolerate its (significant) longeurs much better; and, although I’ll stop short of reassessing it as a must-see masterpiece, I do reluctantly find its intellectual ambiguities (eventually) involving.
To understand the experience of Blow-Up, it’s important to point out that, for most of this film, nothing of significance happens. But a few scenes pop. There are, basically, four such sequences (leaving aside the opening where a gaggle of rambunctious mimes rampage through the streets of London, which might have been forgotten had they not returned in the coda). After a first half of the movie that features David Hemmings doing nothing other than snapping photographs of emaciated models, making snotty comments, and considering buying a propeller, the first scene of actual interest occurs when the movie is more than halfway over, when he looks at a series of photographs he snapped in the park earlier in the day. He thinks he sees something that might be a clue to a murder. What really “pops” about this scene is the photographer’s sudden look of interest as he peers at the blown-up negatives; mostly, he has appeared as bored as the audience up until this point. The fact that this monumentally jaded character is suddenly roused by this discovery makes it seem extra-important to us; the look of fascination on his face says to us “something is finally happening, the movie is starting!”
Indeed, the movie is starting, but not in the way we expect. As he blows up the photos, scanning for them for clues, the photographer is distracted by the appearance of two aspiring models, who bed him. It’s a hot scene, but the memorable part is when post-coital Hemmings suddenly glances at the photographs hanging on the wall, catches a new detail, and brusquely dismisses the birds to resume his investigation. Blow-Up‘s rhythm now requires that the photographer vacillate between intense commitment to solving the mystery and distraction by sex, drugs and the rock and roll lifestyle, so as he tries to investigate the suspected murder and convince his fellow mods to become involved, he finds himself wandering into a bizarre Yardbirds concert with a zombie-like audience. The final “popping” scene is the much talked-about finale, where, after having failed to solve the mystery, Hemmings encounters the hip mimes from the opening again. They pantomime a tennis game and ask him to fetch an imaginary ball in a final game that suggests that the thing we are seeking can be found, but we must know how to look.
Focusing on those key scenes and discarding the chaff makes Blow-Up a stronger film; the background noise of the photographer’s meaningless, fashionable mod existence is the texture from which the few meaningful moments pop. Although many movies improve on a second viewing, I can’t think of any that do so as dramatically as Blow-Up. Unlike Hemmings, the second time around we know what we are looking for. There’s nothing terribly obscure in the film’s overall design and sensibility, only in the maddening details and the quest to make sense of them. Blow-up is a foundational text of cinema d’ennui.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…Antonioni pulls a Marceau-like expressionist finale in this picture, one of those fancy finishes that seems to say so much (but what?) and reminds one of so many naïvely bad experimental films.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (contemporaneous)