Back Catalog Review: Blow-Up

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The Back Catalog is a series following my quest to watch all of the films I own. Check out the index, or follow the Back Catalog tag to see what I’ve watched and what I’ve thought of the films.

Movies are all, in one way or another, about looking. Even experimental stuff like Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight is about looking and seeing. But movies about photographers are perhaps the kind most likely to bring looking to the forefront of the movie-watching experience. The photographer protagonist will have an eye out for compelling compositions and the film camera will often emulate those compositions so that the film audience can experience some version of the act of photographing that the protagonist is partaking in. Movies about musicians have to go to great lengths to make you feel like you have an understanding of what it means to write or play music, but with a simple camera placement and a meaningful cut, audiences can be transported into the mind (or at least the eye) of the on-screen photographer. That ease of experiential transference makes movies about photographers particularly suited to the study of looking. Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) is one such film, a beautiful movie about what happens when you look too closely.

Set in mod-era London, Blow-Up follows a photographer, Thomas (David Hemmings) who shoots women to pay the bills as he tries to build a book of street photography. The film takes place over the course of a day or so, and it spends a lot of time on things that technically fall outside of the basic plot of the film. The dramatic thrust starts when he goes to a park and happens across a man and woman who seem to be reveling in their aloneness in such an open space. He shoots their tryst from afar at first but then gets closer and closer, scooting from behind a fence to a perch behind a tree out in the open. Eventually the woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), spots him and approaches him angrily, asking him to give her his pictures of them. But he refuses and she runs away. After some other excursions during the day, she finds him at his studio and obliquely offers sex in return for the pictures. He resists, kinda, and after some mild seduction, she leaves. Wondering why these pictures mean so much to her, he develops them and discovers a dead body and a man with a gun hiding in the bushes. The rest of the film follows Thomas as he tries to figure out what was going on in the park and what it means for him.

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Thomas is a bit of a misogynist jerk. Well, he’s a jerk and a misogynist and those two categories collide with his job in unfortunate ways. He sees women almost exclusively as bodies, objects for his lens. He does have a long term relationship, but he soon finds out that his wife/girlfriend (it’s unclear even to him, it seems) is her own person and exists outside the bounds of his possession. There is certainly a sense that his behavior is not exactly endorsed by the film, communicated via the camera’s attention to the women’s discomfort in his presence and plot details like Jane’s (correct-ish) assumption that he would like to sleep with her even though she’s only expressed anger at him. But movies can portray misogyny without being misogynist, right? Well, unfortunately the movie doesn’t treat its women much better, even when they aren’t being portrayed through Thomas’ sexist point-of-view. We see an antiques store dealer who doesn’t have a very good understanding of the world, two women who desperately want to be shot by Thomas and lure him into a maybe-consensual orgy as payment for his services in which it is ambiguous as to whether he goes too far in his treatment of them, and Jane’s mercenary motives and methods are her only real character traits. And those are just the women who aren’t his clients, whom he treats terribly in the name of art. Not all women in films need to be positive portrayals of morally good characters, but when there isn’t one such example in a film full of women and about a man whose job is to look at women, it becomes hard to ignore just how poorly they’re all portrayed.

As such, the movie Blow-Up becomes perhaps the best example of the idea it puts forth. Part of the process of discovering what he shot in the park has Thomas blowing up certain sections of the generally wide-angle pictures he took. This act of zooming in is perhaps the most important act in the film, it forms the centerpiece of the movie and after he zooms so far in on the dead body in one picture it becomes impossible to distinguish what the black-and-white blotches actually are. This intense zooming to the point of abstraction shifts Thomas’ vision for the remainder of the film. We see him wander around the city looking at things and people differently than he did earlier in the film, and in one famous scene, he takes the neck of a guitar smashed in an underground concert put on by The Yardbirds. He’s become focused so intently on the shape of parts of things–not the whole of them–that he becomes alienated from reality. This is not-seeing-the-forest-for-the-trees writ large. The trauma he witnessed registered only after the fact and through an intense process of diving too far into the world he made it his duty to capture. Like the photographer at the center of his film, Antonioni has captured something disturbing on film, a troubling sexism that, once glimpsed, becomes difficult to ignore. It’s too bad, the movie is gorgeous to look at and well-acted. I’m even more curious now to check out Blow-Out to see what Brian De Palma does with his remake of this film.

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