Antonioni's Blow-Up: Implicated Artists and Unintentional Art
David Hemmings, Michelangelo Antonioni 1966
Fifteen years have now passed since the release of Antonioni's Blow-Up, and the controversies that first engulfed the film show little sign of disappearing. But whereas the film's original critics were often (and, I think, correctly) preoccupied with determining what happened in the film (and in what order), more recent critics have tended to argue that this is a moot point. Terry J. Peavler, for instance, has recently contended that Antonioni is primarily interested in questioning the nature of reality. Like Cortazar (whose short story he adapts), Antonioni combines two artistic forms, cinema and still photography, to explore a series of events that remains intractably ambiguous: "There is, in fact, so much evidence to prove or disprove the reality of almost anything that occurs in either work that the debate could rage endlessly without resolution," and Peavler singles out the murder in Blow-Up as "the single best example of ambiguity" in the film. Peavler believes that "it is difficult, if not impossible, to find two readers, or two viewers, who concur on what happens either in the story or in the film, much less come to agreement on what, if anything, it all means." But the problem with this kind of approach to Blow-Up is that, much as it focuses our attention on the film's epistemological questions, it simultaneously severs the connection between the process of knowing and the value of what is to be known. The narrative events in Blow-Up are surely not arbitrarily chosen; the terms in which Antonioni frames his drama here are no less moral than in his earlier films. As Antonioni has himself insisted, one of the major themes of the film is "to see or not to see properly the true value of things."
In Blow-Up, Antonioni asks us to consider not only whether the camera remains a merely neutral observer or reflector of reality, but also whether it affects the humanity and accomplishment of the artist behind the lens. Intention and control are crucial in artistic terms as well as in the narrative sequence in which these aesthetic problems are posed: does the anonymous photographer have the ability (or the willingness) to act within the surprisingly violent world in which he suddenly finds himself? The photographer first believes he has prevented a murder from taking place; he later realizes his mistake, visits the body, attempts to pursue the murderer's accomplice, but becomes sidetracked in his quest; finally, admitting his failure, he disappears from the screen, a figure as inconsequential as the force of his actions. Antonioni's focus, however, is not simply on a man who refuses to protect a traditional social or moral order. The film suggests that the photographer is also implicated in the events his camera captures. He resembles both the actual murderer and, to the extent that he aspires to some artistic success, the other contemporary artists in the film. In large measure, his inability to comprehend what he has witnessed in the park is directly tied to his reliance on the technology of his art, a dilemma that the filmmaker – whose own medium of artistic expression is itself technological – must also face.
Antonioni's films open with ominous contrasts, often between the old and the new or between humans and a threatening background. Blow-Up, characteristically, opens with the jarring spectacle of a student "rag" group, vividly painted and dressed, miming its way through a once staid and formal London. Our introduction to the photographer-protagonist is no less unsettling or confusing. He is one of many overnight occupants of a London doss-house, only gradually does the camera isolate him from the rest of these drab and down-at-heels men, but his separation is startlingly complete when he tosses his newspapers (and camera) into the backseat of a Rolls Royce and drives away. We realize that he is a professional photographer, however, only when he arrives at his studio, which teems with suggestions of fashionable, frivolous life.
These two early images of the doss-house and the studio are connected, of course, by the photographer's vocation. The chic, remodeled studio represents the commercial world of fashion photography. The doss-house provides a setting for a different series of photographs of a more artistic (or at least more serious) nature, designed to form part of a book on the violence and poverty of contemporary English life. The photographer clearly has artistic ambitions, but his attitude toward the shots he has taken of these aging men is uncomfortably close to his glib and self-congratulatory patter about his fashion work: "Why, they're fabulous! Go on. Yes. Yes. Great." These photographs-which we later discover to be of sick and emaciated men-are "studied" by the photographer as he finishes shaving and praised as he presents his grimy clothing (another link with the doss-house) to his assistant: "Here, you can burn that lot." The photographs are brutal, dramatic, and effective; but we sense that the men themselves have merely been exploited, their old age, frailty, and poverty converted into "art" by the young.
We encounter this same tension between the possible uses of the camera in the sequence that links the studio and the park. The photographer is lured to the park by a commercial possibility: he is interested in acquiring an antique store, protected by an old man but soon to be sold by its young proprietor. The photographer is excited by the store only as a business venture, but his presence there sparks two rare moments of spontaneity in the film. He decides he "must have" an enormous vintage propeller he finds buried in a corner of the shop: "I can't live without it." The propeller is a trendy technological prop whose design, now that it is no longer functional, becomes a symbol of the escape he craves. Eventually resting on the studio floor, the propeller keeps company with large photographs of a skin-diver and a parachutist, on the second floor, a photograph of a camel caravan stretches along one of the walls. Like the fashion model (Verushka) and the girl who owns the antique store, the photographer has "gone off" London; he desires escape into a new world, even if he admits to the girl that other places, like Nepal, are "all antiques."
Even more seductive than the propeller, however, is the lush park that faces the store. Camera in hand, the photographer begins to explore this quieter world. He first passes a groundskeeper, a woman dressed like (and curiously resembling) a man. He will eventually discover that other appearances in the park are also misleading. As he stalks a group of birds, "shooting" them with his camera, he shifts his attention to a pair of lovers, headed for another region of the park. The photographer discovers the couple conducting their dalliance amid an incredibly green and luxuriant world. Sensing the beauty of the scene, he crouches behind a wooden fence and photographs the young woman and her much older lover. He later creeps closer to his quarry, stalking them tree by tree. Finally, as he attempts to withdraw from the drama enacted before him, he is followed by the young woman, now obviously distraught. She demands the roll of film he has taken, but he refuses to give it up. She is persistent, but suddenly flees when she notices that her lover has disappeared. The photographer watches her run to the spot where the couple had previously embraced. There, at her feet, is the body of her older lover. But the photographer notices only the woman, now running out of the picture. His camera, however, has recorded the entire scene.
The photographer is intrigued by what he has witnessed, but his attention is soon diverted by the giant propeller in the antique shop. Only when he joins his agent for lunch does he return to the drama he has seen. He tells Ron that these photographs of a peaceful and lyrical moment will represent a "truer" conclusion to his otherwise depressing and violent book. But just as he tyrannically orders lunch (he seems never to finish a drink or meal), he notices a young man who peers into the restaurant at him and then inspects his car. From the back, at least, this young blond man closely resembles the photographer; he is, we later surmise, the young woman's accomplice, the actual murderer in the park. Roused again by interest, the photographer carefully leads the woman back to his studio. Hoping to unravel the mystery, he parks his car in the alley as the camera draws our attention to the conspicuously painted "39" of his address (an apparent allusion to Hitchcock's mystery The Thirty-Nine Steps). But his encounter with the woman solves no puzzles; it only whets his appetite. After considerable parrying, they apparently make love. As she leaves, they exchange false confidences: she gives him an incorrect telephone number; he gives her the wrong roll of film.
The photographer's curiosity has been aroused. After developing the roll of film, he becomes intrigued by the direction of the young woman's gaze as she embraces her older lover (this is one point at which Antonioni carefully follows the text of his otherwise changed source, "The Devil's Spittle") and discovers that her eyes point directly to something hidden in the bushes behind the wooden fence. Reproducing each section of the film and eventually enlarging each frame, he finally sees the source of her anxiety: concealed by the foliage behind the park fence stands a man pointing a revolver at the young woman's lover. The photographer finally breaks the spell of tension and excitement that Antonioni has carefully woven in this scene. The walls of the studio, filled with the glossy enlargements, have provided a natural stage for this drama. Antonioni's camera, panning back and forth from photographer to photograph, has become a skilful narrator, providing a temporal framework for the frozen characters of the blow-ups. The photographer's response to his discovery is euphoric. He calls his friend and agent, Ron, to share his excitement: "Something fantastic's happened. Those photographs in the park... fantastic.... Somebody was trying to kill somebody else. I saved his life .. " But the photographer's conclusion is premature. The dead man's body can be seen among the enlarged photographs; the photographer has only begun to comprehend fully the drama he has witnessed or to analyze the photographs he has taken.
Our discovery of why the photographer has failed to "see" correctly is crucial to our understanding of the film. His misprision begins in the park. Because he does not order or design the scene he films, he is at first able to see only so far into the drama enacted before him. Design, order, control, intentionall the elements we normally assume the artist to possess-belong more properly here to the murderers. The photographer has only accidentally stumbled upon the scene; he simply documents it with his camera, accepting it at face value. And this in turn poses critical (and often pedagogical) problems for us as viewers of the film. Because we also have difficulty spotting the dead man's body on the ground-even when we freeze the film in a frame-by-frame analysis-we may claim that Antonioni places unrealistic demands upon both the photographer's and our own abilities. In believing this, however, we miss Antonioni's point: the photographer has become, like us, a merely passive viewer of the scene before him. Even the design and control he exercises in his fashion photography now elude him; he sees only so much and counts on his camera alone to preserve it.
But the camera, of course, sees and records much more. In this case, at least, the photographs have preserved the entire drama. They are neutral documents, however; the photographer must interpret them himself. And this, it seems, accounts for his second failure in perception. Examining the series of blow-ups, he is slowly able to piece together the puzzle. The photographs have preserved what he, as viewer, had missed. In calling his friend Ron, he in effect congratulates himself. In "solving" the puzzle, he believes that he had earlier (and unwittingly) prevented a murder.
But the photographer, of course, has uncovered only part of the drama's entire design. His discovery of the body in the photographs – and with it the discovery that his own knowledge has been acquired too late – comes to him only after his sexual trysts with the two aspiring models. Antonioni's ordering of events is revealing: he seems to argue that impediments to full understanding still remain. The two girls literally interrupt the photographer's progress; sizing them up, he almost forgets that he has been sharing his discovery with Ron on the telephone (and Ron, of course, has long since hung up). We realize how easily the photographer is sidetracked. But the girls' arrival is not a simple interruption: their sexual diversion suggests moral implications. The photographer suddenly sits up and sees the body in the blow-up only after he has finished with the girls. He is framed by a girl on each side and, in the foreground, by two of the enlarged photographs. As Charles Thomas Samuels first pointed out, Antonioni emphasizes the connection between this sexual diversion and postponed discovery by his careful use of color: the two darkrooms the photographer uses to develop his film have green and purple doors; the two girls wear green and purple tights.
The photographer now appears before us in a diminished capacity. His own limitations and the temptations surrounding him have prevented him from understanding the deadly intentions behind a seemingly innocent and pastoral drama. His inspection of the dead man's body proves his camera to have been correct, but the rest of the film documents the moral impotence of his sidetracked quest. Accidentally spotting the female murderer in a ticket line, the photographer parks his car and enters a rock club, yet another dead end in his pursuit. Here, however, he is caught up in the crowd's excitement as the Yardbirds begin to destroy their musical instruments. Ever competitive, the photographer emerges from the club with a fitting symbol of his quest: the broken neck of an electric guitar, another useless artifact (like the propeller), this one to be quickly discarded. The subsequent scenes at the pot party reinforce his frustration and ultimate complicity. Unable to persuade Ron to help him, the photographer also succumbs to the temptations of drug-induced escape. Rising alone in the stately house the next morning, he views a scene of devastation seemingly modeled on the "morning after" plates of Hogarth's "progresses." Finding that the body has been removed from the park, he once again visits the area near the tennis courts where he had earlier photographed the birds. As the actors mime a game of tennis, the photographer first appears aloof, then pleasantly cooperative as he throws an imaginary tennis ball back into the court. Finally, and unmistakably, his eyes betray a more serious interest in the game, and the soft "pucks" of tennis balls on the soundtrack suggest that he has joined the charade in earnest. Appropriately, the camera distances us from him by raising us above the green swath of the park. The photographer is isolated, like the dead man's body, against a ground of green; and, like the dead man, he suddenly disappears.
The photographer's final visit to the scene of the crime and the suggestive closing shots of the film clearly emphasize Antonioni's insistence that the protagonist is implicated in the events he records. Antonioni suggests at several points that the photographer shares a moral complicity in the drama his camera observes. His photographs of London's derelicts both capture their plight and explain it. These older men remind us of the central drama of the film in which an older lover is destroyed by the young. The photographer, who is both young himself and shares the sexual mores of the young, makes love – or at least intends to make love – to the murderer's accomplice. Significantly, as he compliments her on her posture and composure, he models her against a purple backdrop in his studio. Later he will make love to the two younger girls on this very "set." Purple becomes the ground on which sex and sexuality are framed; similarly, green becomes the ground on which murder is framed. The opening credits portray a sinuous, writhing dancer viewed through the holes of a grass-green screen. The photographer shoots the birds against a green plot of grass. The body of the murdered man disappears from a similar plot. The final shot is of the photographer, framed against a similar background from which he finally, and mercifully, disappears.
The narrative thus suggests that the photographer unconsciously places himself in the role of the murderer. He resembles him in appearance, as a lover, and as a stalker in the park. (Antonioni even stresses their similarity by having each quickly swoop by the window of the restaurant.) At the root of their similarity is their mutual reliance on a mechanical object- revolver or camera-pointed through a wooden fence at an unsuspecting quarry. Both "shoot" their subject; both are overshadowed by a mysterious neon sign that vaguely suggests a giant gun. Even the language of photography suggests the shared violence of this association: the enlargements that make the photographer's discovery possible are innocently called "blow-ups."
Antonioni thus finally suggests the broader implication of the artist who loses the ordering force of his art and, with it, the ability to exert a moral force as well. The artist finds himself at the mercy of his artistic medium. Although reality is neutrally presented to the artist by his camera, the camera no longer merely serves him as an artistic tool. In a sense, Antonioni's photographer serves the camera; the artist's limitations place him in a subservient position where he must wrestle to achieve an understanding of the properties of his own art. Uncontrolled by the artist's ordering intelligence, observed reality on the other side of the camera will conform to other designs and intentions. The artist becomes a mere interpreter, unable to exert his own influence on the scene his camera captures.
The photographer, however, is not alone in his dilemma; Blow-Up provides two striking parallels in contemporary painting and music. The photographer's friend Bill, who lives across the alley, is a derivative painter whose canvases suggest a dripping or splattering technique similar to pointillism. Analyzing his works, Bill reveals an ignorance of their initial conception and development that is precariously close to the photographer's: "They don't mean anything when I do them – just a mess. Afterwards I find something to hang on to.. like... like that leg. And then it sorts itself out. It adds up. It's like finding a clue in a detective story." Like the painter, the photographer must also sort things out. In his case, the arm of the murderer and the body of the murdered man finally put his canvas in order. And, as the painter's wife points out, her husband's work resembles the dotted configurations-the screen-of the photographer's enlargements. The painter and photographer, moreover, share their limtations with musicians. The Yardbirds also find themselves at the mercy of their electronic equipment. When it fails them, one musician destroys his guitar in frustration (and as a conscious performance). Significantly, the violence of his action finally generates excitement among the audience. Music, like painting, punctuates the film. The songs of the soundtrack actually summarize the action (and inaction) of the narrative: the models are photographed to the sounds of "Did you ever have to make up your mind?"; the receptionist's radio wails "Didn't know you had troubles / Got my feet in the water"; the Yardbirds sing "Stroll On."
The focus of the film, however, is appropriately on photography. In large measure, Antonioni's film is an exploration of the possibilities and dangers of the photographic image. The photographer wields a peculiarly modern means of expression, and Antonioni's analysis of its strengths and limitations mirrors Siegfried Kracauer's discussion of photography in his Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. Summarizing early beliefs about photography, Kracauer claims that this new artistic form holds three distinct appeals for us: it produces documents of unquestionable authenticity; it produces discoveries unavailable even to the photographer himself; and it provides a source of beauty. Kracauer's discussion of this second point nicely captures the drama of Antonioni's film: "Think of the satisfaction people are deriving from the scrutiny of an enlargement in which, one by one, things emerge they would not have suspected in the original print-nor in reality itself, for that matter. This too is a typical reaction to photographs. In fact, we tend to look at them in the hope of detecting something new and unexpected – a confidence which pays tribute to the camera's revealing faculty." And continual discovery, Kracauer argues, visits both the viewer of the photograph and its maker.
Kracauer's analysis of the photographic image provides an interesting perspective on Blow-Up, even if the book's general arguments have not held up as well. Parker Tyler has intelligently questioned Kracauer's work, but Tyler's analysis of Blow-Up in this context seems not to penetrate far enough: "We perceive, if we detect the true meaning of Antonioni's device, how vain would be Kracauer's protest that Blow-Up vindicates his conception of the photograph as self-sufficient chronicler of reality." Tyler points out that Antonioni's photographer is really a second-rate maker of fantasies and high camp, but in a sense he misses the point. This photographer is neither a redeemer of physical reality nor a successful artist. On the one hand, his camera actually does record what he fails to see; attempting to understand his photographs, he continues to encounter limitations in his "vision." The photograph does lead him to a real body; it does bring him to a heightened sense of his own deficiencies; but it does not, finally, change the nature of a man unequipped to act (or create) in a decisive way. On the other hand, the photographic image is more than a mere recording of the physical world. But the protagonist is a fashion photographer, fashionably disaffected, pursuing a career designed to celebrate that which is ephemeral (like the architect Sandro in L'Avventura, he bases his work upon a principle of planned obsolescence). He appears to be good at what he does, but even the quasi-sexual encounter with Verushka suggests his chic but cheap counterfeiting of "reality." His intended volume of serious photographs is both callous and imitative. It reveals an eye for brutality that we have no reason to believe the photographer himself possesses. His own world is too easy; the photographs are merely "super." Their casual brutality reflects his own contemptuous language and behavior. Even in the choice of a final image for his volume he misunderstands the nature of his work: because he fails to acknowledge its brutality, the image of a seemingly idyllic moment becomes the most ironic and damning fact in his book.
If this argument has occasionally seemed too stark a simplification of the film's rich texture, we must remember that Antonioni often forces us to think in general, almost abstract terms. Beneath the lively surface of the film we are asked to view the almost allegorical nature of the characters and their actions. The very namelessness of the characters demands that we awkwardly refer to them as "the photographer," "the murderer," "the victim." And, perhaps to the embarrassment of our critical discourse, even the events must be carefully summarized and unfolded. But even this attempt to elucidate the general argument of the film has its limitations. Antonioni never explicitly links the photographer and the murderer: he relies on the implications of his narrative and images to make his point.
Throughout the film Antonioni carefully weaves a web of intentions in which moral and artistic control are implicitly linked;his characters intend to do one thing but almost always end up doing something else. The photographer's search for the girl, the murderer's accomplice, is subverted much like Sandro's quest for Anna in L'Avventura. The photographer intends to follow the girl by entering a rock concert, but he is soon caught up in the violence and hysteria of the crowd. He intends to ask his friend Ron for assistance, but instead succumbs to the temptations of the party. Verushka intends to fly to Paris, but instead finds her Paris through drugs. The photographer does not intend to have sex with the girl when she offers it in exchange for his roll of film; later, when he does harbor sexual intentions, the action is interrupted by the arrival of the propeller. The photographer exercises full control over himself and his "art" only when he photographs the models in his studio. There he carefully orders their poses and background and then intentionally leaves them with their eyes tightly closed. His strict control over this narrow world is neatly captured in his first encounter with the two aspiring models: his trick with the coin mirrors his control over himself and the girls' expectations. But in the more serious and deadly aspects of the action-photography in the park and prevention or solution of murder – his intentions are never fulfilled. His moral imperative to do something is, like Sandro's, easily blunted; escape lies too comfortably at hand.
Ironically, the achievement of Blow-Up lies in Antonioni's ability to create a film that ultimately refutes the very dangers and limitations it exposes. Whereas Antonioni's protagonist is unable to order the elements of his art, Antonioni himself exercises the strictest control over his camera, screenplay, soundtrack, actors, and technicians. Although L'Avventura is often said to explore a new language for the cinema, Antonioni has been rather conservative in his experiments with cinematic technique. His first use of the flashback occurs, surprisingly, only in his latest film, The Passenger; he waited until Deserto Rosso to introduce color. But in each case the result has been well worth our wait and the filmmaker's painstaking care. The flashback sequence in The Passenger is one of the most brilliant in film; characteristically, Antonioni's use of color in Deserto Rosso became, in its own way, part of the film's actual subject.
Antonioni's control over the backgrounds of Blow-Up has been justly celebrated: the entire park was painted a luxuriant green for the specific effect he desired (this in contrast, of course, to the photographer's casual use of the grassy plot as a background for his own "work"). Entire neighbourhoods appear to have been painted, as well as the cars and buses that run through them. The photographer's studio is a study in skillful composition. Even the brown wooden supports against which the characters lean suggest the enigmatic neon sign ("FOA") that Antonioni erected above the park. Much of the film's importance derives from the ambition and richness of its own subject. But, as the film's own themes suggest, such ambition and richness are wasted if they cannot be tightly ordered and fashioned by the artist's controlling intelligence. Within this larger irony lies yet another: in the celebrated "orgy" scene, just as our attention is riveted on the photographer's exploits with the two girls, we can see one of Antonioni's workmen in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. Antonioni has acknowledged the workman's accidental entry into the film, and yet the filmmaker remains amused rather than disturbed. In a sense, this one flaw functions both as an ultimate irony in the film and, because it is an exception, as a reminder of the stringent artistic control that marks Antonioni's ultimate success.
1 Terry J. Peavler, "Blow-Up: A Reconsideration of Antonioni's Infidelity to Cortazar," Publications of the Modern Language Association 94 (1979): 887-93 (I quote from p. 888). Peavler, like John Freccero (see note 9), is best when discussing the self-conscious nature of Antonioni's film; he sees Blow-Up as the equivalent of Fellini's 8 1/2 or Bergman's Persona. Much of the best criticism on the film has been collected by Roy Huss, Focus on "Blow-Up" (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), including Charles Thomas Samuels's "The Blow-Up: Sorting Things Out," to which I am indebted at many points. I have also profited from Marsha Kinder's sensitive discussion of Blow-Up in the context of Antonioni's career; see "Antonioni in Transit," Sight and Sound 36 (Summer 1967): 132-37, reprinted in Huss, Focus on "Blow-Up," pp. 78-880.
2 Quoted from "Antonioni-English Style," "Blow-Up": A Film by Michelangelo Antonioni, Modern Film Scripts (London: Lorrimer, 1971), p. 14, my emphasis.
3 All quotations are from the filmscript.
4 This appears to be the one fully ambiguous moment in the film, even if the intentions of the two characters are finally clear. Peavler asks if the photographer makes love with anyone (the accomplice, his neighbor Patricia, or the teenage girls). There is clearly no indication that he makes love with Patricia, much as she might wish him to; his dalliance with the girls, on the other hand, appears fairly certain, especially when we remember the codified restraints within which Antonioni was working in 1966.
5 Charles Thomas Samuels, "The Blow-Up: Sorting Things Out," in Focus on "Blow-Up," p. 23.
6 Henry Fernandez, "Blow-Up: From Cortazar to Antonioni: Study of an Adaptation," Film Heritage 4, no. 2 (1968-69): 30, argues that as the film and story close, "both men have learned the limitations of their media and will now move in a world beyond the grasp of their cameras." But this is surely not consistent with Antonioni's insistent diminution of his character at the end of Blow-Up.
7 Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (London: Oxford University Press, 1960), p. 21.
8 Parker Tyler, "Masterpieces by Antonioni and Bergman," in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Gerald Mast and MarshallCohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 55.
9 John Freccero begins to approach this interpretation in his suggestive essay: "Thomas [the photographer] is perhaps the portrait of the director as a young director and his failure is Antonioni's subsequent triumph." See "Blow-Up: From the Word to the Image," Yale/Theatre 3 (Fall 1970): 15-24, reprinted in Huss, Focus on "Blow-Up," pp. 116-280 (I quote from p. 19). The photographic image differs, of course, from the cinematic image (or sequence of images), and Antonioni appears to acknowledge this difference when his photographer attempts to make sense of the blow-ups in his studio. In many ways, this is the most intriguing and daring scene in the film; even the accompanying sounds of jazz fade out as the photographer is forced to exercise his vision for the first time. The scene is stark, silent, and intellectual. The individual photograph, however, cannot reveal the entire drama. The photographer relies on the narrative formed by succeeding photographs and blow-ups; we, in the audience, rely on Antonioni's cutting between photograph and photographer. On a small scale, photography "becomes" cinema as the protagonist struggles to put these separate images together, to recreate a narrative he only partially understood in the first place.