Dusting Off... Michaelangelo Antonioni's 'Blow-Up'
If there's one thing we do well at hmv it's knowing our back catalogue. Our new 'Dusting Off...' series aims to shine a light on forgotten, underrated or just plain classic films and music from the past. To kick things off, we go all the way back to 1966 and take a look at Michelangelo Antonioni's mod classic, Blow-Up.
What’s the background?
By the time Blow-Up was released in cinemas in 1966, Michelangelo Antonioni was already becoming a filmmaking legend in his native Italy. His trilogy of films on the discontents of modern life – L’Avventurra, La Notte and Eclipse – won him a range of awards, including two Cannes Film Festival Jury Prizes, and helped inspire a generation of filmmakers in Italian cinema’s ‘golden period’ of the 1970s.
Blow-Up was the first and by far the most successful of only three English language films he ever made (the other two being 1970’s Zabriskie Point and 1975’s The Passenger) and caused much controversy and discussion on its release. Firstly, this was the first major film with explicit sex scenes to be released in the UK, which proved too much for the more prudish sections of the British media. Mostly though, the heated discussion amongst critics revolved around disagreements over what the film was actually about. Antonioni’s approach to filmmaking eschewed action in favour of contemplation and tension, with much of the film’s narrative left open to interpretation.
So what’s it all about?
Set in the ‘Swinging London’ of the 1960s, the story centres on Thomas (David Hemmings); a photographer who may or may not have accidentally captured a murder in a park while taking some photographs of a woman (Vanessa Redgrave) and her lover. Thomas discovers his photos feature a body lying near a bush and a man who appears to be holding a gun creeping around in the trees. He tries to piece together what happened, hanging the photographs in his darkroom to reconstruct the event. When he returns to the park, the body is gone.
Thomas spends most of the film looking bored and hanging around with the various ‘birds’ that drop by hoping to be photographed. There is an emptiness to his life despite the apparent glamour of his job and as he struggles to work out if the event in the park actually happened, Thomas begins to wonder if he is merely trying to fill a void in his life. Has he witnessed a murder, or is he creating a narrative from the photographs that doesn’t really exist? Despite the intentional vagueness of the film’s narrative, most critics agree that the film deals with the themes of the emptiness of modern existence and the fallibility of memory.
Who will enjoy it?
Blow-Up was described by one critic as a “mod masterpiece” on its release and was the first ‘art film’ to become a hit at the box office. The film also features a cameo from The Yardbirds in a nightclub scene that features Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page smashing up a guitar. Herbie Hancock’s soundtrack also provides a suitably psychedelic backdrop.
While the film is very much ‘of its time’, the cinematography is stylish and the long, tense sequences without dialogue are a clear influence on later films such as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. If you are a fan of Kubrick’s early work and enjoyed films like Quadrophenia and the original version of The Thomas Crown Affair, this is a film well worth revisiting.