The first time I saw Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up, I made the mistake of watching it as a simple narrative story and so by the end of it I was not only slightly confused but also a bit frustrated. It had a sudden, abrupt ending and some very odd scenes of shifting perspectives. For example:
1) Photographer Thomas (played by David Hemmings) is rolling around the floor with two young nubile models. As the expressions on the faces of the young women seem to alternate between happy and frightened, you become unsure whether they are participating in this willingly.
2) While at a club, Thomas witnesses the crowd fighting for the broken neck of a guitar which was thrown into the crowd by an angry Jeff Beck (while the rest of The Yardbirds – including Jimmy Page – keep playing). Thomas jumps into the fray, desperately grabs the guitar neck and dashes toward the door. The crowd follows him as if getting that broken piece of wood was the most important thing they’ve ever had to do. Thomas escapes to the street, looks over his prize, then tosses it to the ground and walks away.
I left the film with a frown on my face. But it stayed with me and it kept rolling around in my mind. What I came to realize was that those scenes only make sense if you look at them (and the entire movie) as showing different perceptions of reality depending on given contexts and points of view. So within that concert hall, the guitar neck is important – outside, not so much. Thomas thinks the young women are having a great time rolling around on the floor with him – the women, not so much.
This changing of one’s perception also goes for one of the best sections of the film. Thomas re-examines some photos he took in the park as he suspects they might help him unravel a mystery. He blows up a number of the pictures and scatters them on the wall. He looks from one to another, blows up some further portions and then, as he thinks he has put it together, we see a set of images from his photos in order:
It’s a terrific scene and it feels as if the narrative thrust of the film has just kicked in: will Thomas actually solve the mystery? In Thomas’ mind, he has now sequenced these photos to tell a story (not necessarily “the” story): a woman drags a man to the park as a setup for murder, notices the cameraman, becomes nervous and then approaches him. For the rest of the film, Thomas tries to follow up on his new found discovery and prove his story. If it all doesn’t quite go where you think it might or end with satisfying closure, consider again the main theme of the film – reality is what you make it within a given context.
Thomas has convinced himself that he has witnessed something. As he zooms his photos in closer and closer, we can see that everything becomes more and more blurry until, suddenly, we see a very clear picture of a hand holding a gun. But was it actually there or was that what Thomas wanted to see therefore making it much clearer in his mind then it really is on the piece of film? I was reminded of this scene recently while re-watching the fantastic Cafe De Flore and a scene right near its end which slowly zooms in on an old photograph. It’s supposed to immediately bring you back to another scene earlier in the film, but without that context it’s just a blur of black and white. So what does it actually show?
I admit I didn’t exactly “get” Blow-Up after my first viewing, but its many references to an individual’s reality being tied to their perception (e.g. the mimes playing tennis, the stoned woman, etc.) rattled in my brain for a few days and settled into what I felt was its common theme. It changed my view of the film completely.
At least that’s the way I see it.