1966 // UK - Italy // Michelangelo Antonioni // February 2, 2011 // DVD - Warner Brothers (2004)
[Note: This post contains minor spoilers. Blow-Up was screened on February 2, 2011 as a part of Strange Brew, the Webster University Film Series' monthly cult film series at Schlafly Bottleworks.]
There is a crucial moment about two-thirds of the way through Blow-Up, a moment that signals definitively, I think, that Antonioni's weirdly exciting film is evolving into something more profound than "just" a giddy depiction of London in the Swinging Sixties, or "merely" a remorselessly ambiguous thriller. David Hemming's obnoxiously self-assured fashion photographer Thomas, having revisited the public park were he unwittingly documented a murder on film, returns to his studio to pore over the successive enlargements that seem to storyboard the dastardly deed. Unfortunately, the studio has been ransacked by an unknown party; one grainy enlargement remains, wedged between two pieces of furniture. Thomas explains to his neighbor Patricia (Sarah Miles) that the print depicts the murder victim's body lying prone on the grass. However, she sees nothing of the sort, just a collection of dots that resembles one of the abstract expressionist spatter paintings created by her boyfriend. Context is everything, and without the other images, Patricia cannot see what Thomas sees, even when he points out the body in the print. This scene foreshadows the film's most devastating moment, when Thomas, having floundered his way through a nocturnal London landscape of indolent rock concerts and pot-fogged parties, returns to the park in the morning, only to discover that the body has vanished. Has Thomas been conned, or has he conned himself?
Nearly a decade later, Hemmings recalled his role in this film with Deep Red, which also features a protagonist who sees a clue he does not understand. Where Dario Argento is fixated on the inadequacy of memory and the intellect, however, Antonioni's cynicism is directed towards our imperfect organs, both biological and mechanical. The eye and the camera are to be mistrusted. Blow-Up serves as a marvelous time capsule of an unmistakable pop cultural moment, but its obsessions go far beyond the mod bric-a-brac that litters the frame. Just as Michael Haneke would do forty years later in Caché, Antonioni is engaged in a cinematic dissertation on artifice, and on the limitations and vulnerabilities of observation. The world of fashion emerges as a natural backdrop for the film's deeply skeptical stance towards images as a substitute for reality, and towards humankind's ability to discern truth with its own lying eyes. In this, there are echoes of Blow-Up in later works as diverse as JFK (recall that bravura sequence of the Life photo forgery) and the documentary Standard Operating Procedure, but Antonioni's film is novel in the manner in which is at once revels in surface imagery and undermines it at every turn.