Blow-Up deals with the themes of transience and elusiveness. How do you develop such a theme in a movie? Well. You make a lot of things transient and elusive.
I recently wrote about The Lobster and how it’s a conclusion based on philosophy rather than narrative. The movie brings us to the point of a character needing to make a choice. When it ends, we’re left wondering what the character chose to do. Which is a way for the film to ask us, the viewers, what we would do.
The Lobster is similar to Blow-Up in that neither have narratively fulfilling endings. Not in the way that something like…Schindler‘s List has. Or A Knight’s Tale. Or Lion King. Or even Titanic.
But Blow-Up differs from The Lobster in that it doesn’t bring us to the point of a final decision. It’s not like Thomas has to choose whether or not to turn the woman in for murder or let her go because she was an unwilling pawn. It’s not like he has to decide to run away because his life is in danger or stay his ground because that’s where his life is. Thomas doesn’t arrive at a crossroads at the end of the movie.
So when we don’t have an ending that resolves the plot, we need to look if it leaves us with a question. If the ending doesn’t leave us with a question, the next thing we can do is look at what happened and the thematic reasons it may have happened.
In this case, we have Thomas in the middle of looking for a dead body, trying to solve a murder mystery. Then a bunch of kids who are mimes show up and start a game of tennis. Two play, while the others cheer. And it’s probably the best miming I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Like, the two seem to have perfect timing with their “tennis rackets” as you can almost imagine the exact trajectory of the ball based on the force they use. So the one person hits it with a medium power. And the other person times it perfectly. To where it doesn’t feel rushed or late, but perfectly on time, as if a ball was right there. The crowd reacts appropriately. A shot “hits the fence” and the mimes there react, again, with immaculate timing.
Even the camera gets into the game. One of the players “hits” the ball over the fence. And the camera follows the arc of the imaginary ball. Watches it bounce and bounce, moving up and down to keep in frame a ball that isn’t actually there. Each hop gets shorter and shorter. Until the ball is just rolling through the grass. Then the camera slows its speed as the ball would be slowing. Keep in mind: there is no ball.
After Thomas throws the ball back, we keep a close up on him. We can now hear an actual tennis ball being struck back and forth.
Then we cut to a wide shot of him in the grass. Then he vanishes. And it’s just the grass. And the movie ends.
This is seemingly nonsense. But once we give it context it makes more sense.
An intro to transience
Transience is in full-swing with Thomas and his photoshoots. The poses are brief. The work itself flickers in and out of being work. Is it work? Is it play? How serious is Thomas as a photographer? In the middle of a shoot he just…walks out. Goes about his day. Has the models wait and wait. I mean, look at the gif below. Thomas goes from doing his job to suddenly necking with the model. Transience, man.
While watching these scenes, it can be difficult to grasp what the purpose is. Especially since they come early in the movie when we’re looking for a larger plot to latch onto. Is this setting up some drama? Are we establishing character…but just doing it over an extended period of time? What are we, as viewers, supposed to take away from this?
This is a serious question because movies train us to look for plot points. To recognize the story that’s unfolding. Yet, Blow-Up doesn’t really give us those narrative threads early on. Will the plot have anything to do with the photography? Will it have anything to do with any of the models? Then suddenly Thomas is talking to someone about buying this antique shop or at least property near the antique shop. What does that have to do with the story? What even is the story that’s being told?
We finally get some threads to latch onto when it comes to the weird encounter in the park. Thomas photographing the woman and man leads to him being followed to a restaurant by someone else, his car being checked out. It leads to the woman showing up at his studio. To his studio being tossed. To him finding a dead body. We have a full blown murder mystery on our hands!
In a typical movie, one that is plot focused, we’d expect this story to have an escalating conflict. And we get the inklings of this. Someone breaks into Thomas’s studio and removes all the evidence of the murder, all the photographs he had blown-up. All of the film. Oh shit.
At this point, we should be heading towards some final confrontation. Some revelation of information. What happened. Why it happened. Thomas, as a character, would have to make a choice. And he does make the choice to pursue this. He tries to discover more and find more. Thomas, the good viewer surrogate that he is, wants to bring this plot to a final confrontation.
An intro to elusiveness
All of Thomas’s efforts are foiled. He discovers nothing. Where should he even begin? Who in the world actually cares? A man’s been murdered and…what? No one seems to notice or mind.
The movie ends without any resolution to the plot. Which could anger some viewers…as you’re left with nothing narratively satisfying. What happens next to Thomas? Is he in danger? Will this bother him for the rest of his life? Will he not care at all and just continue with things? How does this affect him? The answers Thomas sought are elusive, never to be found. And we are in a very similar spot to Thomas: without answers and without any seeming way to get them.
If Blow-Up was a movie focused on narrative, then these questions would matter. As is, when a movie ends like this, it’s either because it’s a bad decision or it’s not a narrative-focused movie. Instead, it’s a movie focused on thematics and/or philosophy.
Advanced transience and elusiveness
What is happening in that final scene with the park and tennis and mimes and what have you?
First, Thomas’s murder mystery is being interrupted by an imaginary game of tennis. Then, for a brief bit, he can “hear” what really isn’t there. No one is hitting a tennis ball. Following a cut to an aerial long shot, we see Thomas as a small figure in a large field of green. Then he fades away.
Interruption. Imaginary. Hearing what’s not really there. Reduction. Fade away.
Those things all fit with themes of transience and elusiveness.
The murder seems like the most important thing in the world to Thomas, yet this ethereal tennis game that’s not really happening can distract him from it. This dynamic of “interested” and “uninterested” plays out throughout Blow-Up. Look at the Yardbirds scene. Jeff Beck throws his broken guitar neck into the crowd and people go fucking crazy over it. They tear at each other to get this shattered guitar because it belonged to Jeff Beck of the Yardbirds. Thomas is the lucky winner of the dog pile. He manages to grab the neck and is chased out of the venue. As soon as Thomas is outside he loses interest in his prize, drops it on the ground, walks away. Then we see someone else pick it up, give it a look over, decide it’s junk, and toss it back to the ground.
That scene is impressive because it shows how this one item can be considered so valuable when given a specific context, but out of context it’s just considered trash. The value of the guitar neck was as transient as everything else in Blow-Up.
We’re all just dust in the wind
Thematic endings tend to reinforce minor moments we’ve witnessed throughout the movie, but bring them to a thematic climax. So while most of Blow-Up had transient and elusive things happening in Thomas’s life, the ending begs the question: what’s the ultimate point?
Well, what’s the final thing we see? We go from a close-up on Thomas’s face, to a long shot of him standing in the grass of this park. To Thomas vanishing.
The implication here would be that not only are the things in our lives transient and elusive, but that each person is ultimately transient and elusive. That they come and go as quickly and as simply as anything else. What we’ve witnessed is nothing more than a “blow-up” of a human being. We’ve zoomed in on their life for a little bit. All we’ll ever have is this “photograph” that gives us the context of a moment but nothing earlier and nothing beyond.
I guess it’s fitting if instead of wrapping this up in a satisfying way if instead I just