‘Blow-Up’ captures disconnect from reality in search of art

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The first English-language film from prolific Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, “Blow-Up” relies heavily on the audience’s relationship to the camera to disturb reality in London’s blossoming counterculture. As the film’s protagonist lives his life through his viewfinder, the audience lives vicariously through him, and what seemed like a swinging party mutates into a paranoid nightmare. The objects that the lead character has distilled into his personality begin to incubate an ideology where the camera is king, and whatever it produces must be the coldblooded facts.

“Blow-Up” follows Thomas (David Hemmings), a fashion photographer trying to find the one perfect and serene shot to complete his coffee-table book. As Thomas wanders through one of London’s mundane parks, he stumbles upon a charming couple — enjoying their day isolated from the bustling streets packed with protesters, mods and, oddly enough, mimes —  and snaps their picture without them knowing. Upon developing the photos, Thomas uncovers a criminal conspiracy, which he can only see when enlarging the prints or, in photography terms, by “blowing them up.” Aided by a jazzy soundtrack from legend Herbie Hancock and a special appearance from the 1960s rock group the Yardbirds, “Blow-Up” is a swanky mystery thriller indicative of a time when trust was a rare commodity, and people began to depend on their instincts alone.

Thomas can wield authority in his studio because he is the one who commands the camera. He controls his models’ bodies and emotions, and as he gets drunk on power from the tiny apparatus that is the camera, he begins to lose his grip on what he was supposed to photograph in the first place: reality. 

Thomas exploits his profession to fulfill chauvinistic tendencies and is given immunity for disgusting behavior because it is all in the service of the final product. It is uncomfortable to see Thomas leverage and belittle other people, behavior that signifies the patriarchal relations of the time. But the only thing Thomas loves in the world is his camera. Thomas feeds the lives of others through his lens, as if he is subordinate to it. Though the camera gives him unprecedented access to locations, such as the slums, he alienates himself from the people surrounding him, as he becomes more camera than human. 

“Blow-Up” is a statement by Antonioni on a medium that tracks in visceral terms, such as “shoot” or “cut,” and the relation of these terms to violence itself. Thomas devotes his life to make photography seem smooth and idyllic, but in doing so, everything else crumbles around him, and he is set adrift in a world he can never truly interact with. Photography is supposed to expose the truth, but the film explores the paradox of only feeling comfortable with facts if they are delivered through a camera. Thomas goes around trying to make his companions believe in his photographs, but people only see what they want to.

Contact Jake Lilian at [email protected].