Blow-Up: The Unearthing of the Artist

This piece will serve as an entry in my ongoing series of reviews centered around films in the Criterion Collection. For those who are unfamiliar with the Criterion Collection, think of it as an international film club, full of films that represent the best that cinema can offer. The collection covers a variety of eras in film, through a host of languages and countries, contemporary and classic. For dedicated cinephiles, the curious moviegoer, or just someone who desires inherent value in their experience of watching film, these reviews will explain and dissect these achievements of cinema.   

 

Blow-Up (1966)

Dir.: Michelangelo Antonioni

 

 

 

 

One recurring theme in many arthouse directors’ arsenals that I find always interesting is that of the search for passion and purpose within the confines of art. Sometimes, these films occur in too small a scope and with too personal a screenplay to achieve widespread recognition. In other, much rarer circumstances, that film might just win Best Picture, as was the case with Iñárritu’s kinetic opus Birdman. Even rarer still is the case of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow-Up. This film not only achieved retaining a personal bent, small scope, and acclaim; it also succeeded triumphantly as the Italian auteur’s first English language film. Most English-language debuts from foreign auteurs come across as alright (Chan-wook Park’s Stoker comes to mind,) but fewer still could be considered instant masterpieces. Blow-Up takes its time establishing its central conflict, but through meticulous character-building, insanely gorgeous set design, effective cinematography, and an undeviating focus directly propelled through the mind of the consumed artist, Antonioni describes and rejoices in the power that images can conjure, and of the importance of finding the inherent beauty in the mundane. It’s a film that refuses to concern itself with a larger narrative, content with showcasing its splendor with incredible visuals, immersive camerawork, and a killer soundtrack from the beginning of the golden age of British rock and roll.

The crux of the narrative conflict of Blow-Up surrounds a fashion model photographer who embarks upon an impromptu shoot of a couple in a park, only to discover later that he may have unwittingly photographed a murder. This conflict does not establish itself early on as a go-to point for the viewer to focus on, as it instead chooses to involve the character with the psychology of protagonist Thomas, played by David Hemmings. Antonioni carefully builds up his narrative centrally surrounding Thomas, and the viewer is slowly engulfed in the high-minded art world of ‘60s Britain. Once the nature shoot occurs, Vanessa Redgrave enters the picture as Thomas’s foil, and she provides a compelling portrayal of an infinitely anxious woman who is forever reluctant to show her hand to Thomas. Under Antonioni’s direction and his meticulous sense of pacing, the character development that occurs for Thomas remains compelling and visually splendid until the final shot. The camerawork in this film is timeless, as it rivals and even surpasses many films this day. The soundtrack feels compelling, with a mix of jazz and old-school rock and roll, and the brief cameo from The Yardbirds helps to transport the viewer into that time period, further immersing him/her into the underground British art world. By the time the film’s final scene occurs, the viewer is hit with a profound message of perspective, and how one’s perspective can change upon experiencing a grand discovery through the meticulous study and immersion of one’s art. Whether it be by profession or by the exploration of a dedicated hobby, one can learn a great deal about himself or herself through sheer, complete immersion into an artform such as photography, film, and other avenues. For better and for worse, the search for meaning in art is a universal theme that can consume as much as it can provide, and it’s a grey area that always feels interesting when displayed on a cinematic canvas, even moreso under the masterful guidance of directors like Antonioni. This is a profound achievement in cinema that has stood the test of time for over fifty years.

The special features on the Criterion Blu-Ray are in-depth and cover a variety of topics involving the making of the film, as well as Antonioni’s process. An excerpt from the documentary Michelangelo Antonioni: The Eye That Changed Cinema shows footage of the filmmaker winning the Palme d’Or for the film, as well as discussing his shooting process for the film. A documentary titled Blow Up of “Blow Up,” filmed in 2016 and released for this collection, features different crew members and historians describing the film’s impact on cinema. Interviews with actors David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Birkin provide insight into Antonioni’s direction, their auditions, and their experiences with the director while shooting the film. One other short feature split into two parts, titled Antonioni’s Hypnotic Vision, describe how Antonioni’s approach towards modernism and photography contributes to the film. Finally, a book containing extra supplements, including the short story upon which the film is loosely adapted, questionnaires Antonioni distributed to photographers and painters working on the film, an account of the film’s shooting process, and an essay by film scholar David Forgacs, ensures that the impassioned cinephile has plenty of material to read to further contemplate the makings of the film, the impact it has had, and Antonioni’s cinematic intentions.

Antonioni has proven over several decades to be an auteur concerned not just with crafting quality films, but also with displaying his passion for cinema, and in this film’s case, the merits of the arts in a way that any serious moviegoer can understand. His influence can be found across the world over several decades, with successors such as Scorsese, Iñárritu, Lynch, Altman, the Coens, P.T. Anderson, and many more owing a great cinematic debt to the director’s work. Blow-Up stands as a further testament that his work reaches across cultural and social boundaries, as despite being his English language debut, it remains one of his most acclaimed and one of his most well-known films to this day. He made his stake on cinema with early black-and-white productions such as L’Avventura and La Notte, but this film shows growth for the auteur, proving his style to be equally versatile and transcendent. Blow-Up is a necessary film for Criterion collectors and cinephiles of all backgrounds, as still to this day it presents a fabulous look into the mind and ambitions of the creative like few others that have been cinematically relayed.

Blow-Up holds a place in the Criterion Collection, and would be a worthy addition to any cinephile's personal library. It can be found at our affiliate link by clicking the link below: