Blow-Up (1966)
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Blow-Up (1966)

1966 was an incredible year for a nascent cinephile and although I was just entering that precarious time of life we all must transverse the teen years. My tastes in movies were beginning to broaden from the science fiction, spy films and action flicks preferred my friends. I still enjoyed mainstream movies of those categories whichpremiered that year. Watching movies such as ‘Fantastic Voyage,' ' ‘The Plague of the Zombies’ and ‘Murderers' Row.'filled the seats with my friends but for those of us destined to devel deeper into the artistry of the cinema many enduring classics were premired. Iconic works including ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,' ‘Seconds’ and the movie under consideration here, ‘Blow-up.' As a foreign film, it was unnoticed by most of my classmates tempered only by the fact that it recieved the C’ rating, condemned, in the weekly movie listing appearing in the Catholic newspaper, ‘The Tablet.' It was handed out by the nuns each week, but the only reason a teenage boy had for it was that list. Any movie condemned by the church for contentent including violence, nudity, and inappropriate language were deemed ideally targeted by us for are forays to Times Square that weekend. While I did accompany my friends on those incursions, I also ventured forth to Greenwich Village were a select group of Art House theaters specialized in independent and foreign films that were becoming increasingly attractive to me. ‘Blow-Up’ will always hold a treasured place in a movie that significantly impacted the viewing preferences that would remain with me for many decades. This film was my introduction to the renowned auteurs of Europe specifically, Michelangelo Antonioni. It was fortunate that this director, screenwriter, and editor took a respite from his usual work in Italian to apply his considerable ingenuity and vision to a British murder mystery. As a kid from Brooklyn with an affinity for spending countless hours in the darkness of a movie theater this experience as transformative, opening a vista that continues to grow half a century later.

The sixties was an explosive period of change unlike any the world had seen in many years. Fashion had permeated youthful generation combining with popular music, anti-war protests a psychotropic experimentation creating what had become known as ‘the counter culture.' Thomas (David Hemmings), was one of the new breeds of high fashion photographers who at attained a rock star-esque social status. This character inspired by one of the most influential artists in that profession, David Bailey, one of the founders of the ‘swinging’ social scene that exploded out of London to take over the generation a; over the world. Thomas was imbued with the ‘Mod ’vision that turned photos usually restricted to glossy fashion magazines into highly sort after works of high art. Thomas effortlessly traveled in the rarefied social circles dominated by such pop icons as Mike Jagger and Andy spite of the wealth and extravagance his association conferred on him Thomas has just spent time in housing that we would refer to as a flophouse. He was compiling photographs for a book he was assembling.

Usually, films created by Italian filmmakers were exceptionally intense psychological dramas or driven by beautiful and enigmatic imagery. Many audiences were clamoring for action, particularly the growing trend of spy movies that would dominate much of the decade and exist as a viable genre for decades afterwards. Can the success of this film be in its pacing, Signor Antonioni demonstrated his great insight into the movie as an artistic expression by setting the time span for the story to be a day in the life, Thomas. Such a restriction on the chronological boundaries of the story places lots of pressure on the filmmaker. There is room for any extravagance; no film seemsed to help establish the exposition or develop the characters. Every frame of this masterpiece was integral to the plot providing the audience with clues to the mystery to the subtle manipulation of the nuances of every aspect of making the film from the lighting, set design and costuming. This reflects the driving force of the mystery, a nearly in detectable detail in one of the many photos Thomas took that day.

Thomas was late for a high profile photo shoot one of the first supermodels of our time; Veruschka von Lehndorff would work some of the most incremental people of the error including one of the most prominent papers in the surrealistic movement, Salvador Dali. Adding to the authenticity of the film Veruschka played herself. This is not the only use of people contemporary fame found in the film. Devotees of classic rock will be thrilled by the infusion of performance by the Yardbirds into the movie. So the founding members of rock ‘n roll were present including the seminal group, Keith Relf and Chris Dreja and arguably one of the more exciting rare performances by rock legends Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. An altercation during the performance contributes to the fickle and temperamental major great artist that contributed to the incredible changes that occurred in that decade. Thomas becomes bored while shooting Veruschka and wanders off. Before leaving the studio, he is approached by two teenage girls hoping to be models, a brunette (Gillian Hills) and a blonde (Jane Birkin). Both of these young women were well known especially among the youth as singers, actresses, and popular personalities. There is a seem to photographs being taken against the backdrop of purple paper that has become one of the more memorable scenes in cinematic history, demonstrative of the growing freedom of sexual expression permissible in the film.

While meandering around the streets of London Thomas comes across a pair of young lovers in Maryon Park and takes some candid photographs of them. A young woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), notices him and becomes upset with such an intrusion upon the privacy. Thomas sets off to meet his agent Ron (Peter Bowles) for lunch but becomes very uneasy as he notices a man following him. Upon returning to his studio, Thomas is approached once again by the woman who is adamant in her demands for the film that he took in the park. He comes to realize that something is drastically wrong, Thomas hands her a different role film retaining the images he took at the park. She reciprocates the deception by giving him a telephone number to contact her. Convinced that there’s something on one of those pictures that Jane desperately needs to recover he develops the film, scrutinizing it at first to the magnifying glass which reveals something suspicious in the background. He begins to make some enlargements, blowing up the frame that despite the grainy appearance eventually can make out what is undoubtedly a dead body in the grass nearby somebody holding a gun. This movie is a mystery in the classic sense of the term requiring the audience to pay attention to every detail meticulously placed by the filmmaker. Underlying the entirety of the narrative is the concept that reality is a construct of perception. The idea that ‘seeing is believing’ is often not as axiomatic as commonly understood. The stark realities surrounding murder with a touch of surrealistic conservatism demonstrated when Thomas watches mimes, (Julian and Claude Chagrin) in the midst of an imaginary game of tennis. When one of the mimes ‘misses’a volley,' Thomas bends over to pick up the imaginary ball and return it to the mines. Also so heavily dependent upon imagery for its construction including the scene at the film’s conclusion is both exceptionally crucial to the story and frustrating to the audience. An imaginary construct has become real to a man who has built his career and life around depicting aspects of reality on film.

This is Signor Antonioni’s first foray into English-speaking film. It was also his only commercial success as he was so successful in juxtaposing his renowned artistic ability within the framework of a story that provides a commercially viable framework of the storyline. The character of Thomas represents the prototypical creative genius of the time, nihilistic, moody and bored with his enviable lifestyle and being rich and famous. Many would envy the life he is built for himself earning incredible sums of money taking photographs of beautiful models for high fashion magazines. When not surrounded by beauty professionally Thomas finds no shortage in exceptionally attractive young women to engage in his routine of casual sex and recreational drug use. Typical elements of a classic murder mystery seamlessly woven into the fabric of the story. When Thomas returned to the park to examine the area captured he does indeed find a corpse which disappears before you can return for verification and further investigation. This movie is a classic, the epitome of the increasing influence art house film has continued to have on commercially produced movies. It was noteworthy because it crystalized the effect of the youthful counter culture had upon what was once regarded as commercially viable films. It became a substantial element of a new use of film infusing a mainstream progress with the cutting edge aspects of the ephemeral art festival offering. It has deserved its long overdue induction as a member of the lauded Criterion Collection of the most influential.

bulletNew, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
bulletNew pieces about director Michelangelo Antonioni’s artistic approach, featuring photography curators Walter Moser and Philippe Garner and art historian David Alan Mellor
bulletBlow Up of "Blow Up," a 2016 documentary on the making of the film
bulletConversation from 2016 between Garner and actor Vanessa Redgrave
bulletArchival interviews with Antonioni and actors David Hemmings and Jane Birkin
bulletPLUS: A book featuring an essay by film scholar David Forgacs, an updated 1966 account of the film’s shooting by Stig Björkman, the questionnaires the director distributed to photographers and painters while developing the film, and the 1959 Julio Cortázar short story on which the film is loosely based

Posted 03/28/2017

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