Criterion Prediction #34: Blow-up, by Alexander Miller
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Cast: David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles, John Castle, Julian Chagrin, Claude Chagrin, Veruschka von Lehndorf, The Yardbirds
Synopsis: Amid the excess of London during swinging sixties, Thomas (Hemmings) – a high-profile fashion photographer – grows tired of his indulgent lifestyle. After walking out of a model shoot he goes for a walk in the park and takes pictures of couple necking in the distance, Thomas enlarges the image to realize that he may have unwittingly captured a murder plot. Thomas’ growing investigation is obscured, just like the grains of film in his picture, each time he enlarges the photograph the more blurred the lines become.
Critique: All three films in Antonioni’s alienation or isolation trilogy (L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse) are astounding works of cinematic art, and I would make the case that Blow-Up is the strongest of the directors English-language pictures. While The Passenger (1975) epitomizes the director’s fascination with existential abandonment, there’s Zabriskie Point, which is uninvolving and wouldn’t be half as memorable had it not been for the (literally) explosive finale. Both films have great visuals but require a degree of patience on the viewer’s part. Antonioni is an unrivaled artist, but even his most ardent followers will admit that his films move at, shall we say, a deliberate pace. Blow-Up is tonally consistent with the filmmaker’s modus operandi, but it elaborates on themes that are more exciting than relying solely on internalized emotional turmoil as it combines externalized motifs such as art, murder, sex, and pop-culture. Blow-Up stands out in the director’s oeuvre because the stakes feel higher, the terrain is different. Instead of the emotionally-vacant Italian upper class, our focus is shifted to London’s fashion savvy, rock n’ roll scene, a historically (at the risk of pointing out the obvious) explosive time for music.
Although Antonioni originally wanted The Who in the film (after all, who was the first to smash their guitar on stage?), The Yardbirds were the bigger name at the time, and it’s a marvel to see them in action. This finite period in their career not only features Jeff Beck but Jimmy Page cranking out loud, muddy, distorted guitar riffs from “Stroll On” to a trance induced crowd due in part to the performers who, like Antonioni are breaking barriers and conventions.
Antonioni’s Italian language films emphasize the loss of human connectivity with female protagonists whereas, Blow-Up and The Passenger take on this quandary from a male point of view. David Hemming’s character is a bit of a lech, but his actions reflect the indulgent lifestyle permeating London’s fashion scene. Thomas’ superficial existence is so invasive the only way to connect with people outside his social stratum is to masquerade as a vagrant to shoot pictures inside of a boarding house. Antonioni is unconcerned with providing easy answers (if any for that matter), opting out of elaborating his characters for the viewer. They’re metaphysical representations of emotional circumstances, and for his dissonant and affecting form of expressionism, it serves his material well. Blow-Up will leave you with more questions than anything else, but the experiences is gratifying.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: For Blow-Up, it comes down to a case of “why is this not in the collection?” Blow-Up is a quintessential arthouse classic, from a director prominently featured in Criterion’s catalog. The only way to see it is through a streaming service or a Warner Bros snap case DVD. Those of us familiar with their early generation releases will also remember how average (I’m trying to be nice) they are. Since Criterion acquired the rights to Badlands (another WB title), Blow-Up could follow. I don’t think the money made from Antonioni’s 1966 film is keeping the lights on down at Warner Bros. Speculating on the director’s presence in the Collection, his contribution to the world of cinema, and Blow-Up being one of his strongest films, it’s fair to say this movie would be a great seller as well as a welcome addition. Even those who might not be a fan of his work can’t deny his significance as a director. Criterion hasn’t hinted at releasing Blow-Up to my knowledge, but at this point it seems like an inevitability, rather than a prediction. Perhaps not in the next few months, but there’s a good chance this or The Passenger will get the Criterion treatment. On the flip side, I would have never guessed that Brian De Palma’s remake (or revision) Blow-Out would have beaten Blow-Up into the collection. It may be more entertaining, but Blow-Up is the more “artistically relevant” of the two pictures.