Blow-Up Movie Review

The mid- to late-'60s were a heady time for art cinemas in America. While Hollywood was still saddled with content restrictions that forbade nudity, sex, and other bankable cinematic ingredients, less puritanical cultures like those of France, Italy, and Sweden were turning out highbrow features that played to the id and the intellect at the same time. At the art house, America pondered the role of faith in contemporary society, the bankruptcy of emerging cultural mores, the meaning or meaninglessness of life, and the breasts of European starlets. A new galaxy of superstar directors was introduced to audiences, and among its ranks was Italian Michelangelo Antonioni, who burst on the scene in 1960 with an amazing debut, L'Avventura. With a name like his, the proceedings were bound to be a little arty, and indeed the film was an open-ended, nearly plotless examination of the lives of the idle rich. In the films that followed -- especially La Notte and L'Eclisse -- Antonioni's style emerged as one in which characters wandered about, mankind's deepest emotions were rendered merely fashionable, and the lives on the screen were examined with the blankest imaginable gaze. And there was the frank approach to sex, too, and that helped keep audiences coming.

Blow-Up, released in America in 1966, marked a departure. It was filmed in English and in color, and, it aspired to something like a plot: a photographer in swinging London (David Hemmings) uncovers evidence of a possible murder in the background of a series of pictures he's taken of a couple in a park. (De Palma's 1981 Blow Out is an obvious homage: A sound man records evidence of a murder on tape while recording ambient sounds.) Initially he's intrigued, since this event carries so much more gravity than the activities of his daily life, such as photographing models, driving around in a sports car, and off-handedly buying expensive antiques. But as the clues dry up, his interest does too. And having lost interest (after most of the prints are stolen), he simply throws the last print away.

Like everything else in Blow-Up, the photographer's choice of non-involvement carries the weight of Antonioni's moral judgment; the film is decked out in indifferent youth who make the same choice on a smaller scale in every instance. Antonioni's insistence is that Blow-Up is a chronicle of a day and age in which disinterest and immediate gratification win out over deeper values every time. (A similar theme was explored in the three films mentioned above.) Every generation has a cautionary tale like Blow-Up -- films are always warning us that society's fiber is worn thin by amoral young people -- but Blow-Up is special even in this company for its hypocrisy; Antonioni clucks his disapproval of casual sex, for instance, while leisurely treating his audience to an "orgy" at a party at which pot (scandal!) is smoked. Like his hero, Antonioni has an interest in the fashionable, too, so that, like the early '90s films of Gregg Araki (such as The Living End), the cutting-edge hip portrayed on the screen is now hilariously coy. There's even a gay couple with a little dog. When I last saw the film on a big screen in 1980, the aforementioned orgy had the college-age audience rolling in the aisles. So much for the message.

Thus it is that Antonioni, who very likely modeled his anti-hero partly on himself, peddles in Blow-Up the same thing he condemns. The film was a hit nonetheless, no doubt in large part for its simulated sex, and critics went mad for the rampant symbolism (drugged young people forcing a nun off a sidewalk, for instance) which Antonioni conveniently allowed them to read as they liked. Watching Blow-Up today (it's now available on DVD with a commentary track from an Antonioni scholar), you can enjoy the mod scenery, David Hemmings's lithe good looks, and Vanessa Redgrave's surprisingly engaging performance. But its message is just as tired and offensive as it was in '66.

Aka Blowup.


Comments

Blow-Up Rating

" Grim "

Rating: NR, 1966

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