Studio: The Criterion Collection
Mar 29, 2017 Web Exclusive
There is a scene early in Michelangelo Antonioni’s first English language film, Blow-Up, that captures the value of revisiting films – or art in general. It’s also one of the few moments that provides elucidation on the film’s themes through dialog. A painter friend of photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) explains the ever-changing meaning of his work. He says that at the time of creation he’s never sure what it is that he’s done or what it means, and that the truth of the art only becomes apparent in the subsequent years. This is a brief scene, and one that could easily be forgotten upon an initial viewing, but it plainly describes a central thematic thrust of the film – looking at something carefully, or repeatedly, can change it.
Thomas then finds himself in a situation where he looks closer and closer at a series of photographs he took of a couple in a park. The woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave) accosts him in the park and again at his studio to get the film from the camera. He gives her a decoy, takes a stab at seduction, and she leaves him her fake telephone number, another decoy. As he develops the film, he notices Jane’s surprised gaze in one photo is not in his direction but toward the bushes. By blowing up the images, he sees a man with a gun, and later the body of the man Jane was with.
Later movies like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out have also explored an individual stumbling onto a murder through an act of recording, though both of those focus on the nature of hearing and audio, while this leans more on visuals. The biggest difference between Blow-Up and those other (also wonderful) films is plot, or lack thereof. The expectation may be that the murder becomes the story’s thrust, which it is in Coppola’s and De Palma’s, but here Thomas only figures it out around in an incredible, wordless sequence an hour in. It’s casual at first, David examining the art of his photographs and the beauty of capturing candid, secret lovers. Only then does curiosity set in. His painter friend also said that when meaning within his paintings comes to him, it’s like “finding a clue in a detective story.” The same happens to Thomas.
It makes sense that a film centered on photography would rely heavily on visual composition. Every shot mimics this notion and could be framed as its own, individual still image. This isn’t just artistic flair on display, it’s furthering the idea that this is a story being told in a hyper-visual medium. The dialog is largely secondary, short, or borderline nonsensical. This is not a Quentin Tarantino film where you memorize full passages to spout off to your friends, and it’s not even a murder mystery. It’s a moving puzzle and a glimpse into a photographer’s life when a little extra chaos gets lumped in on him. Perhaps his own observation that “nothing like a little disaster for sorting things out,” is true in his own sense.
Disaster and chaos as a jumpstarting thrust provides a frenetic energy that is almost punk-rock in nature – the back of the DVD refers to the film as a “countercultural masterpiece” after all – and the sequence featuring the Yardbirds concert is definitely more that vein than the 70s rock machine they influenced. Combine that with an effervescent jazz score from Herbie Hancock and there is a lot happening in terms of tone and mood, and again it’s done mostly without spoken dialog.
Initial reluctance for Antonioni’s style would not be entirely surprising. Like his Italian films – perhaps even moreso – Blow-Up eschews much of its verbal exposition. His later film, The Passenger with Jack Nicholson, was similar with both its sparse plotline and almost languid pace. A first viewing of Blow-Up was underwhelming for me eight years ago, but I’ve longed to revisit it. Other Antonioni films like The Passenger and La Notte have worked very well for me, and it was important to grow accustomed to his style. The Criterion Collection’s restoration, and treasure trove of extra features – including an excellent companion booklet with essays, and the Julio Cortazar short story that inspired the film – has made this a welcome return. Like the painter said, art reveals itself over time and Blow-Up unravels its mysteries in a compelling, and curious way requiring the viewer to understand where Thomas is coming from even though his spoken thoughts expose him as a harsh, arrogant, and selfish man. But, he’s also a talented one and while his initial reaction is one of glee, his almost wordless descent is perfectly handled frame by frame.
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