The swinging sixties produced a number of things. Its music, film, television and art are defined as being from that period by their eccentricities, bold colours and hippy counter culture mentality. When looking for the work that stands out from the period, it’s often work that embraces the darker elements from the period; work that takes full advantage of the immaturity of its people and exploits it to show how impossible the movement’s ideals were. Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow Up is just that.
Though made at the very start of London embracing the swing, it uses these elements to tell a highly metaphorical story of identity and murder. Thomas (David Hemmings) is a trendy fashion photographer living in the very heart of London. His apartment and studio are littered with expensive items; he drives a Rolls Royce and treats people relatively badly unless they have some connection with making his photography better. While out on a whim, Thomas takes some photographs of a couple in a park, only to find that, once having blown up the images, he’s accidently captured the moments of a murder. Thus begins the paranoid questioning of his reality and where exactly he sits within it.
There a number of elements to discuss about the film. Antonioni brings his cool Italian photography to the picture and marries it to a dull, icy London with brilliant effect. The film seems distant because of it and this helps out massively with the narrative. London itself has never looked so beautiful on film. The city is largely empty, almost impossibly so (at least with today’s stats in mind). The streets have a handful of people roaming them while the park where the apparent murder takes place looks clean and nigh on deserted. This adds a haunted element to the film, as if Thomas is actually a ghost wandering about a deserted town.
A number of sixties clichés are here, though there’s no doubt that they were meant to be something natural. The models and girls in the film are all dressed in the most typical of 60’s gear and show a worrying naivety about everything that Thomas often takes advantage of. His character seems rather repellent but that’s part of the trick to this film. When the viewer first sees him, he may drive his expensive car, he may drink wine from a chalice and may have Fabergé eggs on his table, but he is dressed like a homeless man. This aspect is played upon further later on when he visits another client about some photos of homeless people for a magazine.
All of this starts to hint heavily that this is fantasy cooked up by a photographer fallen on hard times. The ambiguity of the film lends for many readings but the fantasy one is the most entertaining to be arrived at. This may perhaps also explain the lack of people in London, the lack of dancing at The Yarbird’s gig (which is a gem of music history as we witness Jeff Beck smash his guitar in anger at his amp breaking) and the constant group of mime artists that appear throughout the film.
This group were first seen at the beginning of the film and bookend it as they meet with Thomas again at the end, in the park where the mystery started. It seems unclear whether the murder happened. Though Thomas blew up the photos to greater and greater size showing minute detail, the metaphor for tunnel vision comes to mind with that, he may be seeing the murder simply to distract him from that fact that he doesn’t actually exist. When he meets the mime artists at the end, they encourage him to throw them back an imaginary tennis ball. In complying, it is clear that he realises that he is the same as the ball; a fiction. He then disappears as the end credits fly towards the screen.
Though Blow Up may at times seem distant, slow and even indulgent, it is an extremely nuanced film. Multiple viewings are essential to pick up more and more clues as to what exactly lies at the heart of this endlessly cool but very thought provoking film and there’s no doubt that we have all felt a little non-existent sometimes, just like Thomas.