Features and Columns · Movies

Through a (Camera Lens) Darkly: The Art of Abstraction in ‘Blow-Up’

Sometimes searching for order in chaos only leads to more disorder. Also smile, you’re on camera.
By  · Published on August 11th, 2021

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay on how Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up distorts the conventions of the murder mystery-thriller.

Blow-Up was Michelangelo Antonioni’s pop culture breakthrough. It was the first film that the arthouse auteur made outside of Italy. One of three English-language projects of his to be released by MGM. The stakes were thus: for a philosophizing director known for elusive, visually enigmatic meditations on modernity, like L’Avventura and La Notte, to make something that could still be a commercial success.

Despite failing to secure approval from the MPAA Production Code and being condemned by the National Legion of Decency, Blow-Up wriggled its way to North American cinemas in 1966 via a subsidiary distributor and was a massive hit. As Time magazine’s Richard Corliss put it in his 2007 retrospective, Blow-Up‘s financial success “helped liberate Hollywood from its puritanical prurience.” Funny, isn’t it? How the powers that be will drop their morals for the right price?

But lest ye of little faith think that Antonioni “sold out” his cynical thematic edge, rest assured, behind the guise of its digestible murder mystery format lies thematic preoccupations as twisty and enigmatic as Antonioni’s previous work.

The film follows a successful London photographer named Thomas (Deep Red‘s David Hemmings), whose life of easy sex and mod fashion has become a bit, well, superficial. Then, one day, he accidentally photographs a murder, a fact he himself doesn’t realize until he blows up his negatives. Thomas becomes enraptured by the mystery and dead-set on putting the pieces of the puzzle together. And he falls deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. Blowing up smaller and increasingly abstract elements.

As the video essay below explains, Blow-Up is fascinated by and highly suspicious of the core backbone of its own enticing genre.  It continually calls attention to the blurry line between objective reality and unreliable construction. To Thomas, as to any mystery-lover, the promise of stable, clear-cut answers is worth the maddening deep dive. Leaving Antonioni to ask whether the search for order in disorder can reveal anything but distortions of the truth.

Watch “Blow-Up | Murder in The Abstract”:

Who made this?

This video on Blow-Up comes courtesy of The Discarded Image, a video essay channel created by Julian Palmer. The channel began with a deconstruction of how Steven Spielberg creates suspense with the beach scene in Jaws. It has steadily grown from there. You can check out The Discarded Image’s video essays here.

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Based in the Pacific North West, Meg enjoys long scrambles on cliff faces and cozying up with a good piece of 1960s eurotrash. As a senior contributor at FSR, Meg's objective is to spread the good word about the best of sleaze, genre, and practical effects.