The recently released Criterion Collection Blu-ray Special Edition of Michelangelo Antonioni’s masterpiece Blow-Up is a thing of pure beauty. From the gorgeous packaging to the wonderful and thoughtful full-color booklet to the plethora of bonus features, they’ve given one of the best films of all time superb physical media treatment. Blow-Up is a true study in cinematic cool-factor, and it will always be one of my absolute favorite films. It radiates sex and style and class and sophistication and the way Antonioni primarily used images to tell his story will always fascinate me to no end. You get David Hemmings in one of the quintessential screen performances and Vanessa Redgrave in all of her beatific splendor, not to mention an absurdly talented (and rather photogenic…) supporting cast. This was the first of three movies that Antonioni made for MGM (Zabriskie Point and The Passenger are the other two), and it remains one of the most influential, form-busting movies of its era, a wild romp through London’s swinging 60’s, with the out-sized exploits of famed fashion photographer David Bailey serving as a character influence. I can’t stress enough how sexual vibrancy just flows all throughout this film; the photo-shoots were directed, shot, and preformed as if the actors were simulating lovemaking, and when you look at the faces of everyone in the hot-stuff cast, you get the sense that the carnal feelings being felt may not have been phony.
The plot was adapted by Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, and Edward Bond from the short story The Devil’s Drool by Julio Cortazar, with Hemmings portraying a cocky, womanizing photographer, and revolves around a series of photos that he snaps out in the park one afternoon, which may or may not contain the identity of a killer and a murder in progress. Brian De Palma would do a riff on this material with his classic 1981 thriller Blow Out, which starred John Travolta in one of his best performances as a movie sound mixer collecting sound effects near a river when he inadvertently witnesses and records the sounds of a car crash which may be more than it seems. But back to Blow-Up; this is a film I’ve viewed multiple times, and I love how it’s come to mean so many different things to me as a person each time I encounter it. The film has a bewitching nature, a dreamy quality (but not hallucinatory), and it sort of resembles a methodical thriller without the conventional ending that we’ve all come to expect after years of Hollywood shoving plot contrivances down our throats. Antonioni, a master filmmaker who loved to subvert his audience at every opportunity (I adore this man’s work), was clearly fond of the open-ended finale, a storytelling device that can be extremely effective when properly handled, but can also feel amazingly cheap and artificial in the hands of lesser filmmakers. Here, because Antonioni has set so much up and given the audience so many tantalizing bits to examine, the fact that the film ends the way it does shouldn’t provoke anger, but rather, further mystery with the potential for more discoveries on repeated viewings.
Herbie Hancock’s jazzy score punctuates the film in all the proper ways, but what Antonioni excelled at best was silence, and how it can be used in so many ways to evoke so many emotions. The cinematography by Carlo Di Palma is absolutely brilliant, each shot informing the one previous and the one following, with an expert sense of camera placement, color, and space within the frame. The fluid editing by Frank Clarke plays with time, expectations, and the specific way visual information is presented, and ultimately serves as a textbook example of how not to over-cut your picture. And then there’s the parade of gloriously beautiful women that are trotted out for Hemmings to flirt, photo, and party with, with one extremely memorable sex scene clearly ranking as one of the best ever put on film. Hemmings gives a fascinating performance, filled with self-assurance then self-doubt, all the while displaying a unique resentment towards women despite his glamorous job, with a stare that could cut glass and shake anyone off their guard. He’s a man who has become jaded by his lifestyle, but when he’s offered the chance to do something with true meaning, he becomes re-energized by the possibilities that his craft allows and by the random nature of life itself. Blow-Up isn’t a movie where you’re going to learn all of the plot points in an easy fashion, and in many instances, Antonioni leaves his audience to interpret what they’ve seen and what he’s shown. For me, that will always be the mark of a GREAT artist – that rare ability to create something rich and complete while still allowing for room to grow and rediscover.