Blow-Up is one of my favorite films and seeing it on the big screen
at The Film Forum was a real treat. There’s nothing like being
crammed in a theater that actually shows a film print instead of a
The film is unique among art house flicks in that it has enough
guideposts for viewers to fashion a personal meaning. This is rare.
Lynch’s Mulholland Drive pulls it off. Lost Highway does not.
Despite the abstract nature of some of the storylines, nonessential
dialogue and shots, there is a narrative cohesion that holds the film
A talented photographer, (Thomas, played with gusto by David
Hemmings) is bored by his success. His commercial work is an endless
stream of vapid models, as interchangeable as their outfits. He
yearns for more, but has trouble articulating what that is. He wants
to buy an antique shop for no particular reason. Is he yearning to
connect to the past, or to escape from the present? On impulse, he
purchases the wooden propeller of an antique plane. If it’s old, it
must be significant.
After his purchase, he is struck by the gorgeous light over a nearby
park and grabbing his camera from the glove box of his Rolls-Royce,
snaps away. The sound of leaves rustling in the breeze has a hypnotic
effect, nicely interspersed with the click of his camera shutter.
Thomas notices a couple. An older man and a young woman are
(arguing? flirting?) in the distance. He does what he does throughout
the film when confronted with the visually intriguing: he takes
The man, dressed in a suit, seems unphased by the photographer’s
intrusion. The woman, played by Vanessa Redgrave, panics and
demands the roll of film. Thomas senses there is something strange,
perhaps even sinister afoot and refuses to give her the film. There
are other photos on the roll and cannot part with it. The woman runs
away and he instinctively snaps her dramatic exit.
The film maintains and builds the atmosphere of duplicity. Things
are not as they seem and not as they appear on an “objective”
photograph. When Thomas develops the pictures, he sees a man with a
gun lurking in the bushes. Is he responsible for the fuzzy image of a
corpse that shows up in subsequent photographs?
Since he was at a great distance when he snapped the photos, Thomas
is forced to blow up the pictures to enhance detail.
It turns out to be an exercise in frustration. The bigger the photo,
the fuzzier the image. This seems to correspond with the theme of the
film: the more you look at something, the less you understand it.
Who stole the prints? Why does the woman in the park want them so
badly? The photos point to an assassination: when Thomas goes back
to the park at night, he finds a corpse. It looks like the man he saw
earlier in the day, but is it? The photographer has enough doubt not
to call the police.
The above is at the level of plot, but Blow-Up contains many more
elements to elevate it. There is the photographer’s treatment of
women, for instance. He exploits them (his models), he desires them
(his friend’s girlfriend), is intrigued by them (woman in the park),
and plays with them (two young models-to- be who crash his studio).
He is intrigued by Vanessa Redgrave’s character, but asks her no
personal questions. He wants her, but doesn’t care to get to know her
(or any other woman in the film for that matter). It would be easy to
dismiss him as a misogynist, except that his feelings toward women
are too complex to pin down with a label.
His only consistent trait is his yearning. At times he seems to want
things because other people do. He fights for a piece of a guitar
smashed at a show, only to abandon it later. His vague yearning is
unresolved and much has been said about the inconclusive, indeed
baffling, conclusion of the film.
According to the Film Forum write up publicizing the film, the
ending is the biggest fuck you in cinema history. I disagree. It’s
true, that the group of mimes who storm a tennis court is out of
place, but that’s only if you consider their presence from the point
of view of plot. The photographer watches two mimes play a set of
There’s just one problem. There is no ball. We judge its trajectory by
the reactions of the mimes who act as an audience. Thus, as viewers,
we are twice removed from the action. We watch a group of people
watch a game of imaginary tennis. What are we to make of it?
More importantly, what is Thomas to make of it? Even though he has a
camera, he takes no pictures. This is the first time where he has a
unique reaction to seeing something intriguing. Instead of fixing
it to an image, he simply watches, almost sadly.
His demeanor only changes when one of the players gestures for him
to throw back the invisible ball which lands far away from the court.
Thomas walks to the ball, picks it up, bounces it once and throws it
back to the players.
He acknowledges the existence of the game by playing along with it.
Reality is what most people agree it is. Whether the “reality” is
mimes playing tennis, or people looking at a photograph and seeing a
corpse, doesn’t make a difference. What is real is built by consensus
and there is no objective set of rules. A camera which records
“reality” is confined by the angle and the limitations of the person
pressing the shutter.
In this way, the ending recalls a moment from Mulholland Drive. In a
theater, music plays, but there is no orchestra. A woman sings on
stage, but it is someone else’s voice that comes through the speakers.
One of the last images of Blow-Up is Thomas’s face watching the
tennis game. We hear the sound of a ball against racquet, but that is
not possible, since we know the ball exists only in the imagination
of the players and their audience (which includes us).
Blow-Up is a great film in that it allows viewers in despite the fact
that not everything makes sense. Contrary to the conclusion that it
gives the audience the middle finger, it treats them with great
respect. It invites them to take their own picture of the film.