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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Blow Up (1966)



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When the end credits of Blow Up roll, there's often a lot of head-scratching. First-time viewers frequently wonder what it's all about. Discussion of the film is often focused on what it's not about, as that's an easier question to answer. It's not about the culture of London in the sixties. It's not about fashion photography. And it's not about a murder, either, that the main character, a photographer named Thomas, thinks he has photographed in a park one day as he's snapping pictures. Don't be misled by the expectations you may have with your familiarity of conventional plot formulas. Blow Up defies expectations, including those it seems to create itself, and demands to be taken on its own terms.

For starters, there are no answers. If there were, they would not be interesting. It's like what Douglas Adams said about the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. The answer is 42 -- meaningless information out of context -- but if you knew the question, ah, then you'd have something.

Finding meaning in Blow Up is all about figuring out the questions. Once you've got those, you don't need the answers at all. What is it all about? I think it's about how skewed one's perception of reality can be, and, since perception is the only way we can gather information about reality, we ultimately can't discern it. Consider how difficult it can sometimes be in a court room, where figuring out the reality of the situation depends upon hearing diverse, sometimes conflicting accounts of pieces of it. At least if you have several perspectives, though, you can compare and contrast them. Blow Up presents us with only one perspective, and the story, what there is of a story, is his engagement in his craft, which, by nature, is to capture and preserve a view of reality. But is an image captured on film any less a skewed perception of reality than our own vision of it in the moment? At least part of the film's agenda seems to be to explore that very thing.

Blow Up was the first English language film of director Michelangelo Antonioni, whose L'Avventura regularly makes critics' top ten lists. For more reasons than the ideas it so eloquently explores: it's also an amazingly acted and directed film, visually subtle but wonderfully inventive. The first twenty minutes, for example, show Thomas at work, photographing various models. It's such an alive, vibrant, engrossing sequence that's a virtuoso acting showcase and must have been a ridiculous challenge to direct, yet it masterfully accomplishes a number of different goals: it sets up the central character, sets up the joy he finds in his work, and sets up attitudes and themes. It is particularly telling to contrast this with the sequences that follow: when he's not working, his life is pretty aimless and half-hearted.

Blow Up is considered one of the defining films of the 1960s, a statement that may be technically accurate although misleading. London in the sixties, though marvelously captured, is used by the film merely as a backdrop for more universal themes. Though there is no other film quite like it, it influenced the work of many to come: Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation can trace its ancestry to this film, and Brian De Palma's Blow Out seems to be what more conventionally minded viewers wanted this one to be.

A connection less often mentioned is with director David Lynch. I don't know if he was directly inspired by Blow Up or not, but if Lynch was making movies in 1966, I would imagine he'd come up with something like this. But whereas something like Mulholland Drive is a puzzle about answers -- which can be obtained if one can accept some leftover pieces -- Blow Up is not meant to be solved so much as pondered.