Much has been written about Antonioni’s 1966 Blow-Up, but many analyses miss what I feel he was truly trying to convey in the film: a critique of Western artists’ inability to launch an effective response to the era’s violent upheavals the Vietnam War among them.
Many reviewers note the film’s stark portrayal of the listless Swinging London Town, full of moping faces and sense of ennui but fail to mark how the ‘hero’ of the film (Thomas) and the action are speaking to the zeitgeist.

Thomas is an Artist, a producer of pop culture and implicitly a narrator of the times. As he sees, he aids to inform others how to see themselves, others, the world. Despite all the power that is rightly or wrongly given him, he chooses to be powerless. His true impotence and fragility in the face of life is masked through his bullying, his sadistic treatment of his models, his ‘rockstar’ front complete with top-0f-the-line sportscar.

Thomas speaks of his ‘wife’ and though it is not clear exactly if she is partner, love interest, or wife , we can assume it is perhaps an ‘open marriage’. We see the theme of Thomas’ frustration where he sees her enraptured in making love to another. We see his confusion and his hurt as he exits the room. His energies and pathos we can imagine are poured into his other sexual adventures–famously a trio where full frontal nudity was first shown in England.

There is another hint at Thomas’ theme of potential that is lost to capricious aethesticism: his purchase of an airplane propeller. Just as his art is all the Mod rage and affords him groupies as expendible sexual experiences but does not further London’s society in any tangible way in the sense of values, justice, or artistic depth, so too does he own a symbol of flight without the power (or more appropriately interest) to do so.

The Spirit of the era bookends the film. We open to a band of revellers, a literal truckload of chaos swinging through the (eerily quiet) London streets. The city seems a blank slate with the Young staring at it, dreaming of what to do next. This Merry Band will close out the movie but I’ll get to that later…

The film operates as a suspense or mystery but cleverly undermines both in their conventions. There is no ‘payoff’ to either genre’s expectations, but as in many mysteries the ‘hero’ is explored as much as the crime. In Blow-Up, not only is Thomas searched out, but he is ‘solved’–that is, he comes to a conclusion.

His peers are seen to be as equally irresolute and aimless as Thomas. The antique shop worker wants to go away to Asia where there will be ‘no antiques’ in a quest for the new for the sake of newness. When Thomas goes to seek counsel about his photographs and to search for the mysterious woman in them, he is brought to a joyless music concert and an ornate mansion that has become a hollowed out drug den. The ‘scene’ is exactly that: flat and unconvincing scenery that appears not to fulfill or satisfy. 

At the concert, Thomas receives a piece of the band’s recently smashed guitar. Though he is suddenly mobbed by the crowd as though zombies going after brains and must fight his way just to get out of the concert hall he drops the guitar neck on the ground–what had been priceless and sought after one minute was garbage the next. What of their culture was lasting, worthwhile, truly valuable?

The ‘blow-up’ and the event it chronicled (crime or no?) are really a background to the ‘action’. This is a great trick of mystery films–a red herring to get the audience to look one way while under their noses the story’s hinge points go unnoticed. The park’s events and players whatever they are, can only be a point of conjecture (and I’d love to hear yours!) but we can make some solid statements about Thomas, which is The Who of what the film is about.

He does not call police or any authorities’ help. It is a project of the ego for him and more than that, an artistic endeavor. I see him not trying to ‘solve’ a crime, but seeing the potential ‘artistic’ value to a possible crime. He stares at what might be a new Zapruder film, a story of passion gone wrong. I see him more likely than not selling the pictures to a glossy magazine for the shock factor and whether or not the ‘case is solved’ is of no consequence to him. Surely he could be motivated by a distrust in authority but I venture it is an artistic ego that stands in the way of acting socially responsible. 

The only way Thomas does act upon the filmed event is to use it as leverage to gain sexual adventure. Make no mistake, his blackmailing Jane into sex over the pictures places Thomas low on the moral spectrum and is another hint that the film’s subject is not the ‘Park Event’ or the pictures. It is Thomas as he functions as a critique of culturally inactive and morally bankrupt Artists of the late sixties.

The final ‘conclusion’ of Thomas comes when he is confronted by the MerryMakers, the same truckload of mime-painted clowns we saw in the beginning. They meet in the park and the mimes take to a tennis court ‘playing tennis’ without ball or rackets. They are Chaos personified, the tide that sought to overwhelm the age, with antics that while high in gaiety and art were low in meaning, relevance, prophetic voice to their struggling culture.

He gives in to the chaos and plays by their rules as he ‘picks up’ the tennis ball and throws it. The magic takes over as the imaginary ball makes a noise–the dream has become reality and we the viewers have in a sense also crossed over with Thomas.

Any ideas about the Peace Protesters and the “Go Away!” sign?