I’m going to be perfectly honest. I hate art house. I think it was one of the worst, most pretentious genres to ever come down the pike. I can’t say enough bad things about it.
However, there is one art house film that I adore, and that would be Blow Up (1966) by Michelangelo Antonioni. I would even say that it’s the only one worth seeing. This was the only art house film that, though it was about something highfalutin (the nature of reality, self and perception), didn’t have its head up its ass, had something genuinely insightful to say and was something that everyone–not just film snobs or hipsters–could enjoy.
So what’s it all about? The movie spends a day in the life of Thomas (David Hemmings), a highly successful fashion photographer. The guy is not only successful, he’s a huge part of the Swinging London scene, which was literally the epicenter of Coolsville in the 1960s. On top of everything, he’s got rock star looks (he literally looks like a distant relative of Paul McCartney). Because he’s drop dead gorgeous, he is highly sought after by beautiful young women, some who are willing to strip naked for him. So the guy pretty much has it all–looks, success, fame and women.
In spite of everything, he’s disenchanted by it all. You see, he doesn’t want to shoot fashion anymore. He wants to break into the gritty world of social realism and shoot laborers, poor people and derelicts. Part of his reason might be that he wants to be seen and taken more seriously as an artiste. But a larger part of his disenchantment with fashion is that it’s all airy fairy nonsense, having nothing at all to do with reality. He wants to now capture reality at its grittiest and rawest, not deal with fantasy anymore.
Also, there’s a suggestion in the movie that he sees fashion photography as something for “poofs.” He’s very macho when dealing with women. He barks orders at a group of female models like a drill sergeant, and shoots another model in a sexually aggressive manner. Later on, he frolics with a pair of half-naked teenage groupies and struts around shirtless when another woman visits him and bears her breasts. It’s almost as if he engages in this behavior as a form of overcompensating for what he feels is a sissy profession. Small wonder, then, that one of the first things he does to try to break out into social realism is to go into disguise as a factory worker. Not only does this give him the opportunity to take gritty photographs, he can engage in so-called “dirty work” like a real man would.
At some point in Blow Up, Thomas goes out to the park to take some random snapshots. He sees a couple there and starts snapping pictures. There’s nothing all that extraordinary about their behavior, but they look like they might be a pair of lovers having an illicit affair. It’s not until later, after developing the snapshots, when he realizes that it looks like there’s a dead body in one of the bushes and that the man he saw earlier might have been killed by the woman and an accomplice. However, he can’t be sure, so he keeps taking the negative of the photograph and blowing the image up as many times as possible to see it better.
Unfortunately, the larger he blows the image up, the fuzzier and the less detail it gets to the point where it looks like an abstract painting. He tries to investigate further, but the more he investigates, the more any evidence eludes him as to whether there was even a body or not.
After hunting in vain for confirmation or proof of what he saw, Thomas finally gives up the next morning. In the last scene, he’s a different man from the cocksure, macho jerk we saw in the opening of the movie. Instead of screaming at people or arrogantly strutting around, he walks forlornly near a tennis court like a sad, little boy. Suddenly, street performers–mimes– emerge out of a car and pretend to play tennis at a tennis court nearby. An imaginary ball falls by his feet, and he dejectedly throws it back at them. The End.
Many people think that Blow Up is nothing more than a stylish murder mystery. But it’s something much, much more. It’s an exploration into the nature of self, reality and perception. You see, we all take it for granted that we and we alone determine what is real or not, using our own minds and five senses. For example, if there’s a dog in the room, we all think, “I know there is a dog, because I can see and draw the conclusion that there’s a dog right here in this room. I don’t need anyone else to tell me it exists to know that it’s there.”
Blow Up challenged this belief by suggesting that we’re nowhere near this self-reliant when it comes to knowing what is real or not. To put it another way, it’s saying that we don’t just decide what’s real or not on our own; we also tend to look outside ourselves for validation. If we don’t get enough validation in the form of evidence or others confirming what we saw, we start to doubt ourselves and maybe even wonder if we didn’t imagine the whole thing.
On the surface, this seems like a bit of an overstatement. If we’re this needy for validation, how are people able to know what happened or not when there’s no one around? For example, if you’re alone in the house and there’s a power outage, you don’t need anyone there to help you know that there’s been a power outage. You can see and understand for yourself that this is the case. You can see that the lights have gone out suddenly and that none of the electrical items can be powered on.
Blow Up isn’t really talking basic, everyday incidents like this. It’s talking about incidents far more extraordinary. Generally, yes–we don’t need others to validate something we’ve encountered if it’s something within the realm of normalcy. It’s only when we come across something that’s very strange, unusual or confusing when we start to go, “Okay, I see this thing but you know, it’s so bizarre, I need more confirmation to make sure.”
In the case of Thomas, at first he’s 100% certain that there was a murder. But because the circumstances under which he discovered the dead body are so unusual, this has him immediately seeking validation. Unfortunately, the less validation he is able to get, the more his conviction that he witnessed a murder wavers. By the end of the film, the murder may as well have not existed and now he’s not even sure anymore whether it was all just a figment of his imagination or not.
Blow Up doesn’t just explore the nature of self and perception. It’s also a statement about a cultural trend that was really popular at the time in art and film. In the 1960s, posers began believing that film was a mystical tool that they could use to gain deeper insight into reality. Thomas, in the beginning of Blow Up, is one of those posers who thinks the same. He thinks, “Hey, if I take gritty street snapshots of every day life, I’m going to be able to finally capture reality in a way that most people would never be able to see with their own eyes.”
He sings a different tune, however, when he tries to use his camera to confirm whether a murder had taken place. When it doesn’t help him one bit, he realizes how vain this notion of using the camera to discover reality is. After all, if his camera couldn’t even help him figure out whether there was an actual murder or not at a public park, what truths could he discover about reality itself by becoming a street photographer?
These themes about self, reality, perception and the camera is what set Blow Up apart from the standard art house film. These were legitimately thought provoking ideas that you as an average person could understand and apply to your own life, not the type of pretentious fluff in art house that often tried to pass itself off as being thought provoking but was just pseudo-intellectual nonsense.
Another great thing about the movie that set it apart is that its symbolism actually made sense. Art house became notorious for serving up a bunch of nonsensical, avant-garde images that were supposedly open to interpretation but in reality were meaningless. The mimes playing at the tennis court looks exactly like the type of pretentious art house symbolism that was thrown in for pretentiousness’ sake in the 1960s. But there was real meaning this time.
You see, the day before the murder, had Thomas encountered the mimes, he would’ve just sneered at them, “FU. I see there is no ball, so there is no ball.” But after his experience with the dead body, he now thinks, “I don’t see a ball. But I can’t say for sure until the mimes validate what I’m seeing. Until they do, the ball might as well exist.”
It’s not that Thomas is confused about whether the ball is real is not. He knows it’s imaginary. It’s just that he’s accepted the uncomfortable truth that so much of his strong convictions about reality were really built on the validation of others. So when the mimes throw the ball at him, he doesn’t arrogantly dismiss them like he would have before his run in with the dead body. He plays along. He says in so many words, “I get it. I’m not as sure-footed about reality that I thought I was.”
One last reason why I love Blow Up is that it works on multiple levels. The problem with so many art house films is that they only made themselves accessible to a very elite crowd that just loved to analyze scenes and prattle on about their theories about what they meant. Many times, these films had their heads so up their asses that they were never accessible to the average moviegoer. Cohesive storytelling, characterization and other things were often nonexistent and people who complained about these issues were often put down as not “getting” the film.
Blow Up is one of the few art house movies that you can actually enjoy watching even if you don’t get or care for symbolism or philosophy or don’t even understand the movie’s subtler themes. If you love cinéma vérité and movies that take place in real time, you’ll enjoy immersing yourself in Thomas’ life as he goes about his daily affairs. If you’re into murder mysteries, you’ll enjoy the subplot involving the dead body in the park. If you’re a fan of the 1960s, the film is a perfect time capsule of that era, where you get a taste of what Swinging London was all about. So Blow Up has something for everyone, which makes it–in my opinion–the only art house movie worth watching.