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Anatomy of a Murder: Bazin, Barthes, Blow-Up

By Asbjørn Grønstad

Asbjørn Grønstad recently submitted his dissertation on the aesthetics of violence in American cinema, and is currently associate professor with the Department of English, University of Bergen. Having published a number of articles on film theory and on various topics within American film, Grønstad is currently preparing a study of transgressive visuality in contemporary American and French cinema."

 


While the protocols of metafiction and narrative self-reflexivity have become the order of the day in much contemporary mainstream cinema, there is scant evidence to suggest that there has been a correspondingly self-conscious problematization of film's material basis. This is a rather peculiar omission, given the current rapid conflation in many feature films of the digital and the photographic. In her book Prosthetic Culture (1998), Celia Lury points out that photography and computer generated imagery (CGI) represent and entail two fundamentally different ways of seeing, founded on and required by the ontological specificity of each image-yielding practice. (1) On a similar note, Kevin Robins worries that postphotography will alter "the epistemological structure" of our culture. (2) It might have been a comparable uneasiness that in a 1999 issue of Sight and Sound prompted Peter Matthews to advocate film theory's return to the enigmatically realist philosophy of André Bazin. (3) As you may recall, Bazin argues first that the principal purpose of the filmic is the mummification of change itself, and second, that the ethics of photographically-based art involves nothing less than the emancipation of memory from subjectivity. "The aesthetic qualities of photography," Bazin famously writes in "The Ontology of the Photographic Image," "are to be sought in its power to lay bare the realities." (4) Bazin promotes the concept of celluloid memory as a superior and in fact more ethical alternative to individual memory, steeped as the latter is in the cosmetic modifications of our own private recollections. For a vivid enactment of the principle at the core of Bazin's commemorative poetics, consider this somewhat lengthy excerpt from Don DeLillo's Americana (1971):


"I took the camera from my lap, raised it to my eye, leaned out the window a bit, and trained it on the ladies as if I were shooting. One of them saw me and immediately nudged her companion but without taking her eyes off the camera. They waved. One by one the others reacted. They all smiled and waved. They seemed supremely happy. Maybe they sensed that they were waving at themselves, waving in the hope that someday if evidence is demanded of their passage through time, demanded by their own doubts, a moment might be recalled when they stood in a dazzling plaza in the sun and were registered on the transparent plastic ribbon; and thirty years away, on that day when proof
is needed, it could be hoped that their film is being projected on a screen somewhere, and there they stand, verified, in chemical reincarnation, waving at their own old age, smiling their reassurance to the decades, a race of eternal pilgrims in a marketplace in the dusty sunlight, seven arms extended in a fabulous salute and to the forgetfulness of being. What better proof (if proof is ever needed) that they have truly been alive? Their happiness, I think, was made of this, the anticipation of incontestable evidence, and had nothing to do with the present moment, which would pass with all the others into whatever is the opposite of eternity." (5)

Although rarely approached by the discourse of films, this evidential incontestability that the photographically filmic is said to promulgate is of course nothing if not contestable. One of the few films that grapples explicitly with the semiotic and mnemonic ambivalences of photography, as well as with the difficulty of the process of seeing, is Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up, a quintessential text of 1960s art cinema just recently released on DVD. Widely regarded as a film which exposes both the schism between appearance and reality (6) and the occasional indistinguishability of observation and deception, (7) Blow-Up is also a metapictorial work of introspective filmicity which in effect foregrounds the conditions of its own deconstruction. Moreover, in this process Blow-Up becomes not film theory but a theory film, its discursive method laid bare (as Bazin's reality) as a form of what one may term cine-thinking. (8) But, the complex procedures and movements of the film's rhetoric aside, what exactly is it that Antonioni's stylish narrative shows us? What, in short, is the film a theory of? Blow-Up, first of all, reveals not only the materiality of film but, more importantly, the attendant opacity of its images. (9) Secondly, Antonioni's centerpiece-the David Hemmings character's intense examination of the pictures he took it the park-allegorizes the ontological specificity of photographic film as opposed to for instance computer-animated film. What inscribes this difference, what phenomenologically underwrites photographic visuality, is the promise of the aleatory, the fortuitous-the correlative of which may be something along the lines of Roland Barthes's notion of the punctum, or the "contingent subzone of the still image." (10) This I shall return to shortly.

There is something about Antonioni's aesthetic forensics in Blow-Up which vaguely reminds me of certain segments in other films, moments of indeterminate anxiety which test the viewer's perceptual resilience. One such moment is the opening shot of Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah 1971), in which we first see a menacingly fuzzy image-unfocused and impenetrable - gradually becoming legible as a high-angle shot of a group of children playing games among the headstones in an English churchyard. The indistinct quality of this initial image creates an impression of density-of material substance-not so readily associated with the clearly defined image of conventional cinematography, which we tend to think of as supremely and even blissfully transparent. Furthermore, Peckinpah's nebulous opening image connotes decomposition, a suggestion which the diegetic proximity of the cemetery accentuates.

The density of the photographic and the latency of death are likewise drawn together in another film that came to mind as I was watching my new DVD version of Blow-Up. This film was Bill Morrison's Decasia (2002), a conceptually ambitious project in which the filmmaker uses found archival footage in various stages of deterioration to meditate upon the transient materiality of film stock. About to dissolve before our very eyes, these spectral images come to inhabit a volatile signifying space, precariously perched between representation and abstraction, visibility and blankness. We glimpse, among many other objects, the contours of parachutes set against the backdrop of a broken sky, a caravan of camels traversing a deformed desert, Wall Street in the throes of a conflagration, and a boxer fighting back a corroding image. Reminiscent of Michael Snow's To Lavoisier, Who Died in the Reign of Terror and Peter Delpeut's Lyrical Nitrate (both 1991), Decasia evidently demands to be seen as an aestheticization of processes of decay. At the same time it is impossible to overlook the extent to which the film reconstitutes itself as a rather unrelenting essay on the subject of film preservation (Paolo Usai, noted conservationist of the moving image and author of The Death of Cinema (2001), is even mentioned in the credit sequence).

The drama that Morrison's film stages is that of the disintegration of the ephemeral surface of the image and the viewer's resultant apprehension of the fragility of the profilmic event. It is precisely because the photographic image possesses a measure of material solidity that it also becomes vulnerable to the forces of decomposition. Blow-Up can be read, I think, as a literalization of what I have elsewhere referred to as film's "illusion of transparency." (11) What filmic opacity ultimately means, then, is that the diegetic world envisioned by a filmmaker is neither less inscrutable nor more mimetic than that of the painter or the writer. (12) Antonioni himself seems to have grasped the non-transparent texture of film images intuitively:

We know that under the image revealed there is another which is truer to reality and under this image still another and yet again still another under this last one, right down to the true image of reality, absolute, mysterious, which no one will ever see or perhaps right down to the decomposition of any image, of any reality. (13)

Like the story by Cortázar (himself etched onto the film as one of the homeless men) on which it is based, Blow-Up's narrative seems to thrive on the conflict between observation and comprehension, on a dynamic Heisenbergian tension that derails story progression and carries the film unapologetically over into the realm of theoretical speculation. This happens at the moment when the film starts to move in on itself, turning inward, approaching its own material source, emerging from photography only to return to it, thus closing the circuit. As David Hemmings's photographer grows increasingly obsessed with what his camera might have captured in the park, the Blow-Ups come to dominate the screen, threatening to overpower the cinematic. The film assumes a hermeneutic of pixelation, a pixel hermeneutic, if you will. Thomas (he is named Michel in the short story, why does Antonioni call him Thomas?) the photographer appears to have forgotten all about his larger project, which is to produce a photo-book of London and, perhaps, pursue the painter's girlfriend. And what causes this narrative disruption is something as ostensibly inconspicuous as a glance in a photograph. Tracing the sightline of Jane's apprehensive gaze, Thomas subsequently discerns the indefinite shape of what he thinks might be a body partially occluded by the shrubbery. Immersed in the mystery that his camera inadvertently has recorded, Thomas enlarges the image until its fuzziness becomes too overwhelming. The anatomy of this murder cannot be extracted from the Blow-Up's pixel logic, but is something that Thomas has to piece together in his own mind.

At one point in Cortázar's short story, the narrator, who is a translator and an amateur photographer, tells us that in photography he has found a means with which to fight nothingness. Yet this vaguely existentialist stance is accompanied by an acute awareness of the seemingly insurmountable problems of telling and of seeing. To paraphrase slightly a statement made by J. Hillis Miller, seeing itself "is extraordinarily hard work. It does not occur all that often." (14) For Cortázar's translator, as for Antonioni's photographer, storytelling takes over where seeing leaves off. Michel invents the young boy's biography, fashioning a sordid little drama out of the behavior and the gestures which constitute a chance encounter. Thomas makes up his own murder mystery on the basis of patches of pixels that are dubious and even potentially deceptive.

In retrospect it is not difficult to read Thomas's and Blow-Up's key narrative premise as epitomizing the 1960s art-film conventions of the cinema of ambiguity. What above all defined this "festival film" (of which Antonioni himself was a principal exponent, along with directors like Bergman, Fellini, and Godard) was a peculiar synthesis of the modes of objective realism, expressive subjectivism, and authorial commentary. (15) A sense of indestructible uncertainty thus became the raison d'etre of films like Blow-Up. Much as we may still be able to admire Antonioni's accomplishment, however, his purposeful orchestration of the ambiguous now seems, if not dated, if not too studied, then at least somewhat routine (as does the plethora of psychoanalytical readings-centering on Thomas's voyeurism and misogyny-that the film has invited over the years). (16) Watching the film again these days, what has probably become more immediately commanding is that which sequentially brackets the sense of narrative ambiguity, that is, its material source and epistemological prospects. All this may seem as fuzzy as the photographer's enlargements, but the point, anyhow, is merely that what strikes us as Blow-Up's most salient achievement nowadays is not its ambiguity but rather its contributions in the field of film theory. In a word, Blow-Up is not just a narrative but a treatise, a film that pictures theory, to speak in the Mitchellian vernacular. Antonioni brings to the surface that tantalizing semiotic opacity of which all of the visual arts partake but which so infrequently gets articulated. What is more, the film flaunts the contingencies of visual hermeneutics, it emphasizes the inter-relations of photography, corporeality, decomposition, and death, and, most obviously, it configures the instability, the limits, of photography's truth. The complex presence of the film's corpse pinpoints this perennial interpretive dilemma: "we are certain that we see it, but we cannot be certain that what we see is real." (17)

Blow-Up, finally, also delineates what we perhaps somewhat conservatively would want to claim is a decisive attribute of the photographic, namely, the aleatory. This concept, I would argue, is closely connected with what the French call l'insolite; that is, a curious, incongruous element within a given totality. Both the aleatory and the incongruous-with reference to the photograph-are redolent of the punctum, though not entirely in a Barthesian sense. As you will remember, the punctum is the second "theme" that Barthes finds in the photograph and is that aspect which transcends the "unconcerned desire" of the studium to "pierce" the viewer. (18) Though the idea of the punctum has been largely over-discussed by now, it may nevertheless be worthwhile succinctly to review its basic tenets as described in Camera Lucida (1980). Barthes himself appears to put forth an affectionist point of view with regard to the punctum, which he conceptualizes in terms of for instance a wound, a prick, a mark, a sting, or a cut. (19) The punctum, he says, is a detail "which attracts or distresses me," (20) hence, it is a phenomenon the possibility of which hinges on its emotional impact on the viewer. But the existential mode of the punctum is aleatoric. It is, as Barthes writes, something that simply "happened to be there," something "offered by chance and for nothing," (21) much like the blurry outline of the dead body in Thomas's photograph.

What animates Antonioni's narrative, then, is the intrusion of this l'insolite, the random occurrence. Thomas's impassive lens, to use a Bazinian idiom, mechanically chronicles a lovers' tryst and the choreography of their embrace and what might or might not be the protruding legs of a corpse. Photography does not discriminate, the particles of the profilmic are nonaligned and disinterested. That which is before the camera, Antonioni says, is permeated by "the same marginal details, the same excess of material. By making a selection you are falsifying it. Or as some would say, you are interpreting it." (22) But, in making such a selection, it is difficult to eliminate the delicate and subtle interruption of the fortuitous. The aleatoric in Thomas's photographs is not like Barthes's understanding of the punctum, but it does nonetheless comprise a kind of punctumicity, conceived as the space in which the opacity of the visual and the hegemony of the accidental converge.

It is clear that, for Thomas, the world can only be seized through form, yet the film is ultimately about the failure of that ambition. (23) Thomas's search for reality in the image is Bazinian at heart. Like Bazin, he waits for the contingent to unveil itself in the image. Truth, however, is frustrated not only by the faultlines of perception or interpretation but, perhaps just as importantly, by the insufficiency of form itself. After all, a Blow-Up signifies not only the enlarged photograph which becomes a metaphor for Antonioni's film, (24) but can also mean an explosion (maybe like the one which concludes the director's subsequent film Zabriskie Point?)-a destructive discharge that pulverizes the object. In the end, the photographer's Blow-Ups represent the limits of the visual field and thus convey to us that "the photographic event is the form of something other than itself, something deeper, more mysterious, dark, mutable, and finally indecipherable." (25) And if not by "launch[ing] desire beyond what [they] permit us to see," (26) how else would photographic images continue to fascinate us?


Notes

  1. Celia Lury, Prosthetic Culture: Photography, Memory and Identity (London: Routledge, 1998), 3.
  2. Kevin Robins, "The Virtual Unconscious in Postphotography," Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation, Ed. Timothy Druckery (New York: Aperture, 1996), 156.
  3. Peter Matthews, "Divining the Real," Sight and Sound 9.8 (1999): 25.
  4. André Bazin, "The Ontology of the Photographic Image," What is Cinema? Vol. 1 (Trans. Hugh Gray, Berkeley: U of California P, 1967), 15.
  5. Don DeLillo, Americana (New York: Penguin, 1971), 254.
  6. Thomas Harris, "Rear Window and Blow-Up: Hitchcock's Straightforwardness vs. Antonioni's Ambiguity," Literature/Film Quarterly 15.1 (1987): 61.
  7. Terry J. Peavler, "The Mimetic Paradox in Contemporary Narratives: Cortázar and Antonioni," Philosophical Papers 30 (1984): 100.
  8. See Éric Alliez, "Midday, Midnight: The Emergence of Cine-Thinking," Trans. Patricia Dailey, The Brain is the Screen: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Cinerma, Ed. Gregory Flaxman (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2000), 293.
  9. For a sustained argument concerning the subject of filmic opacity, see D.N. Rodowick, Reading the Figural, or, Philosophy After the New Media (Durham: Duke UP, 2001).
  10. Garrett Stewart, Between Film and Screen: Modernism's Photo Synthesis (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999), 141.
  11. Asbjørn Grønstad, "Transfigurations: Violence, Death, and Masculinity in American Cinema" (Diss: U of Bergen, 2003), 87.
  12. Other critics have also pondered the significance of the "opacity of the artifact" both in Blow-Up and in the Julio Cortázar story ("Las babas del diablo") which inspired the film. See for instance David Grossvogel, "Blow-Up: The Forms of an Esthetic Itinerary," Diacritics 2.3 (1972), 51.
  13. Charles Thomas Samuels, "Michelangelo Antonioni," Encountering Directors (New York: Capricorn Books, 1972), 23.
  14. J. Hillis Miller, The Ethics of Reading: Kant, de Man, Eliot, Trollope, James and Benjamin (New York: Columbia UP, 1987), 3.
  15. David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1985), 205.
  16. See for instance Robert Eberwein, "The Master Text of Blow-Up," Close Viewings: An Anthology of New Film Criticism, Ed. Peter Lehman (Tallahassee: The Florida State UP, 1990).
  17. Micheal Pressler, "Antonioni's Blow-Up: Myth, Order, and the Photographic Image," Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities 5.1 (1985): 53.
  18. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Trans. Richard Howard (London: Vintage, 2000), 26.
  19. Barthes, 27.
  20. Ibid, 40.
  21. Ibid, 42.
  22. Michelangelo Antonioni, Blow-Up, Trans. John Matthews (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1971), 11.
  23. Grossvogel, 51.
  24. Richard Lee Francis, "Transcending Metaphor: Antonioni's Blow-Up," Literature/Film Quarterly 13.1 (1985): 48.
  25. Pressler, 49.
  26. Barthes, 59.


Bibliography

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(1985): 42-59.

Robins, Kevin. "The Virtual Unconscious in Postphotography." Electronic Culture:
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