Thoughts On: Blow-Up (1966)
Tom, a photographer in London, haphazardly stumbles into his own personal whirlwind of murderous mystery.
Blow-Up is a significant film for quite a few reasons. The first is the controversy it stirred amongst the National League Of Decency in the late 60s – which led to its condemnation that ran parallel to its disapproval by the MPAA under their Production Code. This all, of course, comes down to its use of sex, nudity and drugs. Nonetheless, MGM gave Blow-Up a theatrical release, and such signified to many the coming revolution of New Hollywood. Added to this, Blow-Up was received incredibly well, making back its budget many, many times over and speaking well to audience and critics alike – who praised it at length. This resulted in Blow-Up being considered one of Antonioni’s best works, and also a hugely important modernist film. In such, it ranks way up their with behemoths such as Persona, Hiroshima Mon Amour, 8 1/2, Ordet and Last Year At Marienbad because of its formal approach to film that truly tried to differentiate itself from all of the classics that came before.
Beyond this, Blow-Up is a pretty unique cinematic experience. This is one of the most frustrating and befuddling, yet masterfully subtle, mind-benders ever made. When we consider ‘mind-benders’, a few films immediately pop up: Memento, Donnie Darko and The Matrix. These films don’t really have much on Blow-Up though as they have explanations to be researched and huge chunks of exposition to be analysed. This means that, whilst people will proclaim that films such as the ones mentioned are mind-benders, they only really say so to preface their explanation of it. I’m not going to do that with Blow-Up – I don’t think I can. This is because Blow-Up doesn’t really mean, or build to, anything in the same respect that Memento and Donnie Darko may. Blow-Up is simply about something. And by this I mean to say that I can write essay after essay on hidden meanings in films – for instance, Donnie Darko isn’t just about tangent universes and time warps, but teenage suicide. However, Blow-Up pretty much dares you to muster up the confidence to state what you think it exactly means, all whilst deliberately juxtaposing non-sequitur after non-sequitur to make you doubt absolutely everything.
This all means that one moment Tom is poor and living in a dosshouse (cheap accommodation for homeless people), and the next he’s using a plethora of expensive kit in his huge apartment. Moreover, one moment Tom is highly sexual and flirtatious with the models he shoots, the next he’s an absolute asshole. I could go on and on, picking out sequence after sequence in which Tom, as a character, almost dissolves into nonsense and ambiguity because of needless contradiction that is never incorporated into his character arc. In fact, I don’t think Tom can be said to have an arc as he just exists at the whims of the script; he wanders from one plot to another, and then away from it and into a drama, then back into a murder-mystery, but then into a romance before stumbling elsewhere again. This all creates utter incoherency in Tom as a figure, distancing him from us as an audience who ultimately only means to figure out the who, what, when, wheres and hows of him – not even of the mystery and the myriad of other illusive figures. And this is the crux of Blow-Up in my view. Before this is a romance, a mystery, a thriller or a drama, Blow-Up is a simply character piece. The heart of this film then lies only in the questions we may ask of Tom, what he wants and who he is.
This all syncs up pretty well with a previous post in the Perish Series on Tarkovsky’s Mirror. In this post, we discussed character and how dreams are a great device in relation to them. Blow-Up, whilst it doesn’t really mean anything, is about reality as a person perceives it. And in such, it conveys Tom’s life as something of a day dream. With reality as a day dream, Antonioni creates quite a profound commentary on the world, but also a brilliant approach to character.
As we’ve already mentioned it, and have even covered it in this series, we may as well bring it up again. The Matrix. This film also confronts questions of reality – however, in my opinion, very poorly. In such, The Matrix has us question our own reality and what it’d be like if we, the audience, were in the Matrix – but, never does it dive too deep into questions of reality and the matrix itself; we only get Morpheus telling us that Neo is the one who will save humanity and re-establish reality. Many narratives will question reality from a pretty definite and polarising stance like this. Using philosophy and ideas of existential purpose, we are then often told that reality is something solid and precious (as in The Matrix), or that we find our own purpose in a life where reality may only be a question (a recent example of this would be Ghost In The Shell). Blow-Up, either because it is ultimately an unfinished film, or was edited to convey this, has nothing that even hints at some kind of definitive quip in this respect – it only shows us the face of a man as he finds his own way of making sense of a world where variables can sometimes be so sparse and nonsensical that you can’t bear to try and make sense of things.
This is all conveyed through Tom’s own actions that never match up due to us never being shown a flow, or swing, to his changing moods, but also through the nonsense he sees in the world around him; he stumbles into a shop, then out, meanders toward a nice shot of romance – which turns out to not be something to idolise – but then uncovers what could be a murder within this. Did he will this all to happen? Did he imagine conspiracy and drama from nothing? Is their a sensible explanation to be found? Is their even a mystery to be solved? Is Tom just recognising a malicious and salacious pattern to the fabric of his perceived world, as symbolised by his photograph, because of an inherent dysfunction within himself?
Any of these questions could be answered with a yes, but, it wouldn’t change the fact life often leaves you lemons? In other words, maybe these questions are futile; maybe this is why Tom just walks away from it all: he’d never have found out the truth. Even if he did, what would this grant him? This, in my view, is what the pantomimed tennis match represents; Tom engages with the ambiguity of the world and decides to embrace it for no other reason than futility – and the fact that its fun to think of life as just a game at times. So, by refusing to continue his pursuit of meaning and truth – the meaning of the murder, the truth of who the many figures who blip in and out of his life are and what they want – Tom accepts that he can only characterise the world with his inner emotions; in turn, this is the only way we can know him or see the film as about something. And I think there’s an irrefutable profundity to be found here when we consider that the whole world and narrative of this film, like the narrative of Mirror, is entirely a reflection of our protagonist – who, in both films, we never really get to know, only struggle to through empathy.
Ultimately, this is what makes Blow-Up special in my view; its building and projection of a character. We strive throughout the narrative to know Tom, but can only do so by stepping back and taking a look at the world around him as he seemingly perceives it, which all leaves the question and commentary on ourselves: are there any better ways to learn about a person than to try and step into their shoes?
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