Blow Up Review
A Note On Spoilers It's not really possible to 'spoil' the film by giving too much away, as you will know if you've seen it. The narrative element is not really that strong but the following review does contain some small points that you might prefer not to know about until you've seen it for yourself. This particularly relates to the section that deals with the Commentary.
Michelangelo Antonioni's 'Blow Up' is a film that is something of an enigma. It's rich, satisfying and demands much from the viewer. Antonioni's first film in English, and for a major studio, it's come to be acknowledged as a bona fide classic and, rest assured, its status is still well deserved. The plot is fairly simple, a photographer (never named but played by David Hemmings) comes across what he thinks is a murder, buried in the background of some fairly innocuous looking pictures. From this simple, yet intriguing, premise, Antonioni uses the slim narrative framework to pose some pretty profound questions on the nature of art, vision, commerce, power, sex and, ultimately, life itself.
Has it dated, you ask yourself, and the answer is, of course it has, but that doesn't matter one jot because the over riding themes Antonioni plays with are, perhaps, more vital now than ever before. It most certainly fails the PC test, with references to 'poofs', 'birds' and 'bloody bitches' throughout, but they are uttered by the photographer and it's clear that, although the audience is, to some extent, asked to empathies with him there is no doubt that Antonioni is painting an absolutely reprehensible character. He is arrogant, rude, cynical and driven by power, as we shall see. He is also cool, suave and sophisticated. It is to David Hemmings credit that he succeeds in balancing the fine line between being an absolute shit and someone that has more charisma than any other character on screen. He is the cold, cynical heart of the modern commercial artist brought to life.
The notion of power, especially male power, is one Antonioni plays with throughout the film. The photographer is portrayed as being a character whose sense of self is built upon the power he has over others. This is a constant theme, and Antonioni suggests his power is based solely upon commerce; this becomes a constant battle for him. Early on in the film, he visits an antique shop and is frustrated by his inability to buy neither a painting nor the shop itself from its female owner. In desperation, he buys a propeller because 'it is useless' and insists upon having it right away rather than have it delivered. Even in this, he is frustrated, as it will not fit in his car. This is an extremely interesting, and vital scene, as it mirrors, almost exactly, a scene later in the film where the subject of a photograph he has taken tries to buy a negative from him. Watch out for the way Antonioni uses recorded music as a device, it's quite delightful, playful and profound and especially watch out for the contrast between the reaction of characters to recorded music and to live music (The Yardbirds) later in the film.
Essentially, the film is about the consensus reality we all share. Pre-empting the quantum physicists by some thirty years, Antonioni seems to be suggesting that reality as we know it is merely a shared illusion, with no certainties and no solid foundations. Can we believe what we see with our own eyes, is the question raised, and Antonioni, ultimately, leaves the answer for the viewer to decide. The final scene, a celebrated mimed tennis game and the last, vital shot of 'The Photographer' seems to suggest that Antonioni is, at the very least, somewhat suspicious of our shared reality. But this is one film that lends itself to multiple readings, and you will derive hours of frustrating fun from this.
Antonioni also succeeds, where many others have failed, in making London look as cool as, say, a European city. To watch 'Blow Up' is to watch an absolute master of the celluloid canvas at work. Watch for the way he loads a silent scene (the scene where the subject of the photograph wishes to buy the negatives) with unbearable tension simply by placing the camera at certain angles and having the actors make almost subconscious hand gestures. Again, the scene where 'The Photographer' is examining the negatives is silent but the viewer is absolutely on the edge of the seat. It's wonderful to watch, as is Antonioni's masterful use of colour and slight camera shifts that litter the film from the very first frame to the very last. It is, for anyone interested in the art of the director a sheer treat from start to finish.
Picture quality is, by and large, very good. Some of the footage looks a little grainy, but nothing worth complaining about and it lends strongly to the cinematic feel. No damage to speak of, but there is a small anomaly which is worth pointing out. About half way through the film, and for about thirty seconds (54.40 - 55.10), there is a small, black scribble which looks as though a piece of black cotton has become attached to the screen, and no, a small piece of black cotton did not in reality become attached to the screen, thorough checks were made. It's at the bottom of the screen, just right of centre. It's not annoying, and could well be deliberate, but if it's a mastering error, it should be pointed out.
Sound is also very good. No surrounds, but the mono soundtrack is clear and well defined with no hiss and good dynamics.
Fairly slim on extras, but you do get two trailers, a teaser trailer (1.00) and theatrical trailer (2.38), neither of which contain spoilers but consist of still scenes from the film. All in anomorphic and subtitled, the teaser trailer is simply an edited down version of the theatrical. The Music only soundtrack provides limited fun, but it is by the legendary Herbie Hancock, so much kudos for providing that.
The Commentary, by academic and 'Michelangelo Antonioni expert' Peter Brunette is interesting enough, but he lends a rather literal reading of the film when there's so much more going on. You might well disagree strongly with his final conclusions which is forgivable and par for the course with such a rich, complex and multi-layered film. What is more annoying is that he often makes rather obvious mistakes. Far be it from us to question his authority, but just to give one small example, where his camera is stolen for it's negatives he states that 'of course, he's already taken the pictures she's interested in out'. Well, he hasn't, because we see him do that a few scenes later on.
Again, and more unforgivably, he states that a member of The Yardbirds smashing up a guitar is 'part of the act and a precursory nod to the punk scene' (?) when it quite clearly isn't 'part of the act' at all. Antonioni goes to great pains to show it isn't merely 'part of the act' and arises as a result of frustration caused by faulty equipment. To claim it's 'part of the act' is nonsense. The malfunctioning of the equipment, the subsequent guitar trashing, and the sudden necessity of the band to play the song again to cover up the problems is extremely significant given Antonioni's use of pre-recorded music earlier on in the film so, there you go, Peter, you can have that insight for free.
At other points, he freely admits to 'not really being sure what's going on'. One such example is the re-appearance of a set of clothes 'The Photographer' has earlier asked someone else to burn. It's very big of an academic to admit confusion, but surely a guess could be attempted? Antonioni could, for example, be dropping the first hint that what we see should not be trusted. Alternatively, Antonioni could be suggesting that the consequences of his decisions are not so easily discarded and his position of power is not quite as solid as he believes. A consequence of decisions is a fairly strong theme in the film and the consequences of seemingly random decisions often return with very significant consequences, for example, his spur of the moment purchase of the propeller, interrupts a vital scene later on when it is delivered. Other intriguing points are simply ignored, such as 'The Photographer' and 'The Gunman' sharing certain aspects of location and stance (The Photographer crosses a fence to hide amongst the trees and mirrors the 'Gunman' image he thinks he sees later on). Nevertheless, the commentary is mainly a good one, and he does provide some good insights and, to his credit, it's never dull.
For your cash you get a mostly good transfer of a classic film from a director with a sublime sense of the visual, that absolutely deserves the status and one that has lost none of it's power to tantalize and tease. A wonderful soundtrack and superb performances are merely the icing on the cake. Extras are slim, but the commentary is fairly good and, at the very least, always interesting. There could be so much more included, there must be many, many supplements that could be provided but, well, they haven't been, so the choice really is yours. It would, however, be a crime to miss it.