Film-Philosophy

International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 32, June 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elena del Rio

 

Antonioni's _Blowup_:

Freeing the Imaginary from Metaphysical Ground

 

 

Antonioni's approach to filmmaking provides a clear example of philosopher Wilhelm Wurzer's notion of *filming*, a term Wurzer uses neither to signify the specific practice of filmmaking, nor in the sense of a 'quantitative proliferation of images' that carry out the calculative and productivist goals of the visual in a technocratic society. [1] *Filming* denotes, among other things, 'an imaginal mode of discerning which releases the imagination toward radical disinterestedness . . . imagination's fall from the principle of *telos*', and the possibility of representation being 'free of the explicit dominance of subjectivity'. [2] In this discussion I would like to examine a few scenes from Antonioni's _Blowup_ (1966) that consistently enact the representational features just mentioned. By radically deconstructing notions of illusion no less than those of reality, Antonioni ultimately demonstrates that the psychoanalytic notion of the imaginary -- adopted by Christian Metz and others, and based on the persistent opposition reality/illusion -- is no less implicated in a metaphysical dynamics of presence than any naive notions of realism.

 

_Blowup_ compellingly addresses and challenges the most fundamental aspect of the Metzian paradigm: the imaginary status attributed to the cinematic signifier. [3] The story of _Blowup_ may be summarized as follows: Thomas (David Hemmings) is a successful young London fashion photographer who derives quite a sense of control and mastery over the objects he photographs. One day, while walking aimlessly through a park, he sees a couple flirting and takes pictures of them. The woman (Vanessa Redgrave) sees him and rushes over to demand the roll, but he adamantly refuses, claiming his right to exercise his aesthetic vision in a public place. Later, she appears at his studio, still hoping to retrieve the film. He gives her another roll and develops the original. Through a series of enlargements, he is able to discern the fuzzy image of a gun jutting out of some bushes as well as a nearby corpse. He rushes to the park and touches the body, but he has not carried his camera with him this time, and therefore cannot fulfill his desire to corroborate the corpse's existence by means of photographic evidence. Back at his studio, he discovers that the prints and negatives have been stolen. When he returns to the park, the body, too, has disappeared. In the last sequence, we see Thomas watching a group of mimes play an imaginary game of tennis. In a subtle, yet unmistakable way, this closing scene confirms a transformation in Thomas's habitual perceptual and epistemological position. Yet, this final moment, which resolves the conflict for the central character through his acceptance of a decentered position, is prepared by the film's ongoing discourse on vision in general, and on photographic vision in particular. I will now examine some of the moments in the film that anticipate its final and categorical dismissal of realism and idealism alike as viable ways of assessing the world's phenomena and the subject's relation to these.

 

Led on by his professional and personal investment in the photographic image (as a means of capturing, fixating, and controlling *reality*), Thomas becomes unexpectedly involved in investigating a murder to which he has been a kind of absent witness. To be more precise, Thomas's photographic camera has captured a sign of this murder, yet he only becomes cognizant of it after the fact. Even at this fundamental level of the narrative, Antonioni departs radically from the Metzian presuppositions concerning the status of the cinematic signifier. Metz assumes that it is of the essential order of the cinematic signifier to make up for the lack of spatial and temporal coexistence between the viewer and the objects, places, or people projected on the screen -- that the imaginary signifier, in effect, restores the level of co-presence that the cinema, unlike the theater, in actuality lacks. This assumption posits the cinema as a limited and limiting modality of mimesis. The cinema is thus considered as separate and lacking in relation to a *more real* world out there, yet, in a move that is at once logical and schizophrenic, the cinematic signifier is nonetheless forced into a relation of resemblance and correspondence with the *real* object.

 

At the core of the Metzian account of cinema as an inherently mimetic medium is its disregard for the crucial function of temporality in shaping visual and perceptual events. [4] The identitary relation between imaginary signifier and *real* object is predicated upon simultaneity -- the idea that this imaginary construct is *in essence* capable of reproducing the illusion of presence in time and space. A number of narrative and perceptual clues in _Blowup_ strongly contest the closing off of time effected in the Metzian model.

 

Early on in the film Thomas visits his neighbor and friend, a painter whose apparently casual remarks about his own artistic practice both provide a significant contrast with Thomas's attitudes towards his photographic trade and serve as a premonition of Thomas's later involvement as a *detective* in a mysterious murder case. Looking at an old painting of his ('That must be five or six years old'), the friend remarks: 'They don't mean anything when I do them. Afterwards, I find something to hang onto, like that leg [his finger traces two vertical lines on the abstract-impressionistic painting], and it sorts itself out. It's like finding a clue in a detective story'. By pointing out the difference between the moment of the painting's execution and the moment of its reading or revelation, Thomas's friend inadvertently asserts the momentous role that temporality plays in working out the conditions for a particular perceptual disclosure. In stark contrast with this attitude, that lets the work *be* as it becomes something other, Thomas's dictatorial stance, as made evident from the voyeuristic and appropriative point of view he displays in his photo sessions, may be described as an instrumental and productivist approach to vision, knowledge, and life in general. Thomas is under the illusion that he knows full well what his eyes and his camera can and will deliver; the act of taking the picture is for him identical and simultaneous with the act of grasping and mastering the *real*. No time intervenes for him between the execution and the understanding, no indeterminacy, no change or ambiguity. The film's narrative, however, forces Thomas into a confrontation with, and a recognition of, the fact that temporal and spatial co-presence with the objects of the world is merely an illusion.

 

_Blowup_'s central mystery episode, Thomas's *absent* witnessing of the murder incident and his subsequent failure to restore his own presence to the scene after the fact, does not merely, and in Metzian fetishistic fashion, substitute absence for presence. Rather, it unsettles notions of presence and absence well beyond simple dichotomous formulations. Thomas is empirically present at the murder scene, and yet he is perceptually and epistemologically absent, as his gaze, fixated on the woman as the graspable object of his photographic masculine desire, fails ironically to grasp the more sensationalist event taking place at the same time. The objects are all in a sense present to Thomas, as Thomas is to the objects, and yet there is an element of invisibility, an impossibility of full apprehension, which renders crude notions of presence or absence wholly irrelevant to the visual and epistemological conditions involved.

 

The revealing/concealing dynamics of the scene just described call into question Metz's notion of the imaginary signifier as a substitutive mode of presence -- present absence -- founded upon visibility. But if this were not sufficient, Thomas's fetishistic attempts to reinscribe his own presence into the scene *a posteriori* are further indicative of Metz's problematic assignation of presence, however veiled or qualified, to the cinematic image.

 

My comments concerning the second part of the film's story -- Thomas's photographic rewriting of the murder scene -- may be even more relevant to Metz's theoretical focus, for they engage directly with the status of the technologically reproduced image. Unlike his friend the painter, Thomas reaches the clue to his own detective story through a process of selection that involves successive fragmentations and blow-ups of the image. This whole process is, moreover, motivated by rational and teleological aims. In contrast to his friend, Thomas does not let the photograph disclose its secret, but rather predetermines this disclosure by superimposing his own questions onto it. Thomas thus forces the photographs into a disclosure that he appropriates as corroboration of his masterful relation to the *real*. Insofar as he believes in the photographic image as a direct delegation and replica of the real, Thomas in effect behaves very much like the film viewer described by Metz. The way the narrative increasingly distances Thomas from any solid distinctions between reality and illusion, however, acts as an antidote against the monolithic imaginary subject theorized by Metz.

 

As a medium for accessing and domesticating reality, the photographic image in _Blowup_ proves at one and the same time alluring and disappointing -- an indication of possibilities which nevertheless resist full disclosure or deliverance to the eye. This double status of the evidentiary power of the photograph is articulated in Thomas's frantic interrogation of the shots taken in the park. By creating syntagmatic relations among the photographs -- relations of spatial and temporal contiguity -- Thomas tries to restore these images to their phenomenological continuum. Yet the process of temporal re-construction runs parallel to a process of spatial de-construction or dissolution whereby, through successive enlargements, the image exponentially loses in its signifying function and gains in its capacity to resist meaning. Through successive enlargements of selected portions of different photographs -- taking pictures of pictures, blowing up a fragment, looking through a magnifying glass -- Thomas eventually gains access to the object of his scopic desire: a grainy mass of indistinguishable contours which, from former clues, we are encouraged to identify as a dead body. This approximation towards certainty is thus simultaneously accompanied by a decomposition of the image, insofar as the latter's *visible presence* remains stubbornly opaque, indecipherable, and resistant towards certainty. Thus scopic and epistemological mastery recede at the same pace at which they seem to be established or confirmed.

 

The mimetic impulse is thwarted still further. If the photographic image has failed Thomas in its promise to deliver the real and present object, realness and presence have to be reconfigured by recourse to the crudest notions of reality and presence. That is, Thomas is compelled to return to the *original* scene of death and desire. Seeking to confirm the presence of the dead body, Thomas goes back to the park, and, once there, he touches the dead man's face. Thomas's recourse to visiting the *real* park and his gesture of touching the *real* body mark the peak of his fetishizing drive: supplementing vision with touch, Thomas attempts to contain and ascertain the most elusive of human events -- death itself. The act of touching has thus been invaded by the same fetishistic, compensatory dynamics of his vision: although it points to an apparent achievement of closure -- the physical union of desire with its object -- the use of touch simultaneously intimates the inability to achieve closure exclusively through scopic means.

 

While the circuit between reality and the image/the image and reality seems temporarily closed and resolved through Thomas's touch of the corpse, the story in effect further develops along lines which indicate the impossibility of closure. Thus the two-way circuit established in the film between reality and the image fails in the end to achieve full correspondence. Fulfillment is thwarted at the point where the film identifies Thomas's desire as the discourse of the other, that is, at the moment Thomas seeks to establish the veracity of the image/reality circuit yet a second time by appealing to an *other* as witness. Thomas asks his agent and friend, Ron, to accompany him to the park. Drunk and stoned, Ron dismisses Thomas's obsessive proposal. Not only does this dismissal prevent a satisfying confirmation of his sight -- a confirmation always relegated to an other -- but Thomas returns to the scene on his own only to find that the body has disappeared, leaving no traces to confirm its ever having been there. Thomas's desires are thus frustrated at the point where they are most vehemently solicited. Sameness or identity, the film seems to suggest, cannot withstand repetition. The drive for mastery that fuels the reenactment or repetition is outmaneuvered by the basic existential principle of temporality, which, by introducing the wedge of difference, disseminates identity and deconstructs the mechanisms of mimetic representation.

 

With the events immediately preceding the last moments of the film -- Thomas's *encounter* with the absent dead body in the park -- Antonioni not only contests the reliability of the human eye in the immediate visual presence of physical objects, but he also confirms the vast and irreducible difference between the photographic object and the immediately perceivable object. Antonioni, however, does more than show us the frustration of a desire that is solely predicated upon mastery and control: he performs the possibility of another desire that transcends the visible and the invisible, thereby freeing both these polarities from their oppositional entanglement. Prepared for by the aforementioned events in the film, the final scene of _Blowup_ strikes a definitive *blow* at the Metzian notion of the imaginary signifier as a visible, yet illusory, replica of the *real* profilmic object. The scene does away with all analytic efforts at demarcating reality and illusion, presence and absence, as separate ontological domains operating in a binary relation of mutual containment.

 

As Thomas leaves the place in the park where his desire has been fixated for much of the film's story, the viewer is presented with a displacement that is metaphorical and psychical no less than it is literal and physical. Fixation is thus about to give way to movement. The reappearance of the young *mimes* (whom we had seen briefly at the film's beginning), randomly and joyfully cruising through the park, brings the film full circle: this reappearance announces the fall of *mimesis* as exact reproduction of the real and the advent of *mimesis* as play; a mimesis without ground or *telos*. As is apparent from my underscoring of words here (mimes, mimesis), Antonioni could not have chosen a more effective way of deconstructing mimesis than by reference to an *other* form of mimesis -- one whose lack of tangible ground or real origin solicits the imagination's capacity to create; a mimesis, in other words, whose absence of ground is not deemed an obstacle but rather an asset.

 

Just as Thomas reaches the tennis courts, the mimes begin to play a game of tennis. Fellow observers follow the movements of the invisible *ball* from side to side with their eyes and heads. Standing behind the fence, Thomas's look inadvertently joins in the movement of the game. Someone in the audience pretends to have been hit by the *ball*. The camera itself then jumps in the game, as it starts following the trajectory of the unseen *ball* back and forth between the players. Suddenly, the *ball* flies right out of the court and lands nearest the place where Thomas is standing. The camera exposes an empty stretch of grass where the *ball* has fallen. As the players and audience watch expectantly, Thomas, still visibly reluctant and suspicious, walks toward the *ball*, grabs it, and then, as though suddenly transfigured, with the look of total belief and excitement spreading all over his countenance and bodily gesture, throws it back at the players inside the court. The reality of the game/the playful nature of reality are lent further consistency here through Antonioni's manipulation of the soundtrack. The unmistakable sound of a tennis ball as it is alternately hit by each contestant echoes and embodies this ball, giving it a materiality that transcends the limits of visible form. Thomas is now fully involved in the game; close-ups of his face reveal a relaxation of his former restlessness, a softening of his sour-tempered features. The film ends with an extreme long shot of Thomas picking up his camera and merely standing still on the grass. [5] In the last moments, he also dissolves into the landscape and is seen no more.

 

The scene that I just described takes Metz's notion of the cinematic signifier as an absent presence of the represented object to a radical level where the distinctions between presence and absence are no longer available for demarcation or appropriation. Thus the imaginary game of tennis in _Blowup_ may be read as offering the possibility of a visual and epistemological paradigm that widely differs from the Metzian account of the imaginary signifier. At the simplest level, one may construe the invisibility of the tennis ball -- this very small, yet all-important object -- together with its undisputable effects on the participants and observers of the game, as an incident that reverses the Metzian definition of cinema's signifier as *absent presence*. The Metzian account assumes a profilmic object that is actually present, one for which the cinematic signifier is merely a ghostly and insubstantial double. Inasmuch as it insists upon the status of the cinematic signifier as a forgery of presence, Metz's theory may therefore be justifiably seen as characterized by a decidedly Platonic bent. The narrative in _Blowup_, by contrast, progresses towards a radical disinvestment in the very ground which makes possible the double -- the profilmic object as origin of the mimetic act of filmic representation. Instead, _Blowup_ builds the subtle yet effective resolution of its last moments upon the ability of absence itself to gain a consistent voice and presence through the observer's imaginary investment. It is then here a question of an *embodied and present absence*, one which has, moreover, significant implications for a theory of spectatorship as well. For, countering the disembodiment and passivity imputed to the viewer in the Metzian model, the imaginary advocated in _Blowup_ is wholly dependent upon the viewer's embodied and engaged participation in the perceptual event. [6]

 

As it represents the possibility of an active and imaginative production of meaning, _Blowup_'s closing scene is symptomatic of yet another crucial difference between phenomenological and psychoanalytic film theory, namely, the phenomenological emphasis on the body as the frame and foundation of perceptual acts. By encouraging Thomas to substitute bodily movement and engagement for his former habit of epistemological abstraction, the mimes implicitly dismiss the exclusively ocular and disembodied grasp of the object upheld by the whole history of Western representation as the dominant form of interaction with the world. During the game of tennis, the camera *mimics* the mimes' imaginative act of disclosure by incorporating their neatly executed movements and gestures into its own perceptual and embodied intentionality. The absence of a visible tennis ball does not cancel out the exercise of intentionality. On the contrary, the participants' bodily intentions and projections are still recorded -- and in a sense, embodied -- by the camera's own intentional movements. [7] Even the mimes' looks are never abstract, but, instead, are given a specific quality, whether of surprise, attention, joy, or disappointment. This qualification of the look thoroughly confirms the inextricable bond between vision and the concrete weight and materiality of both world and body. Ultimately, then, the camera's mimetic incorporation of movement affirms the preeminent role of the lived body over the positing of objective visible realities.

 

Not unlike many traditional stories brought to the screen, _Blowup_'s narrative revolves around the lure that mimetic relations exert upon the human subject. Yet, mimesis in this film is not taken as a given, but rather as a problem that is both worthy of investigation and suited to the exercise of the imagination. In the axis formed between Thomas's studio and the park, the search for mimetic correspondence between immediate and photographic object is crucial. And yet, the outcome of this search diverges at some very fundamental level from the model of mimesis instantiated by the specular scenario of both Metz's film theory and Lacan's mirror stage. The continuous displacement between park and studio/studio and park, together with the film's refusal to bridge the gap between these two sites, suggests that the mimetic paradigm in _Blowup_ is no longer governed by the model of the double. In lieu of being confined to binary relations or doublings of an original, the examples of mimesis in the film extend into an indefinite number of derivative sites and modalities of reflection which preempt the belief in or the need for an original event. This fantasy of an original moment is refracted, disseminated, and lost in a chain of reflections which, the film suggests, have the potential to continue ad infinitum.

 

University of Alberta

Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

 

 

Notes

 

1. Wilhelm Wurzer, _Filming and Judgment: Between Heidegger and Adorno_ (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1990), p. 36. Wurzer argues for a kind of representational mode that exhibits what he calls 'imagination's excessive possibilities' over and against the containing and constraining polarities of metaphysical thought. Free from the principles of ground and telos, *imaging* -- also referred to as *filming* in this work -- brings forth the disruptive potential of the image in its capacity to surpass dichotomies such as truth and illusion. Wurzer's account contests the Lacanian reductive proposition of the self-image as merely a domain of illusion.

 

Although Wurzer's notion of *filming* refers to a broader representational arena than the specific parameters of the cinema, at some points he comments on different modes of filmmaking and their representational status. Wurzer claims that the majority of mainstream cinematic practices are still caught up in binary forms of thinking: 'It is clear that images of films . . . are largely determined by a socio-mimetic impulse. *Mimesis* is still the core of filmmaking, and, to be sure, of film theory. Filming, however, cannot be guided by a mimetic act' (102). 'Filmmaking today, especially the Hollywood film-ontology typifies a common, infrastructural, ideological transformation of the coating peculiar to the dialectic insofar as the world is shown from the perspectives of good and evil, a viewing always in binary dimensions' (106).

 

2. Wurzer, _Filming and Judgment_, pp. 3 and 41.

 

3. Christian Metz, _The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema_, trans. Celia Britton, Annwyl Williams, Ben Brewster, and Alfred Guzzetti (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982).

 

4. Although Metz necessarily has to take account of temporality at the level of narrative linearity, his account of the signifier disregards the temporal dimension of the image at the ontological level. At this level, temporality is the movement of difference that prevents Being from ever becoming a fixed entity. The Metzian imaginary signifier lacks this kind of differential movement; its status as present/absent is determined in advance and essentialized.

 

5. Some commentators have read the tennis game at the end of _BlowUp_ as an inconsistent and disturbing conclusion, falling short of the soothing reassurances and compensations the cinematic institution usually delivers to its spectators. (Harrison Carey, '_Blowup_', _Sight and Sound_, vol. 36, no. 2, Spring 1967, pp. 60-62). Other critics even interpret this ending as Thomas's deplorable surrender to illusion. Cameron and Wood, for example, argue that Thomas's retrieval of the *ball* 'marks his final surrender: his grasp of objective reality fatally undermined, he is a lost (because disintegrated) soul. His face is that of a man near the verge of insanity' -- Ian Cameron and Robin Wood, _Antonioni_  (London: Studio Vista, 1968, p. 138. Yet another commentator argues that 'in the final scene nothing of the real is perceived. Man's creative dominance has chosen to ignore reality . . . has elected to play life. The final grass shot of the film is symbolic of the all-prevailing reality that exists with or without man'. With their humanist rhetoric -- objective reality, soul, the threat of a reality that exists with or without man -- and their negative evaluation of play and imagination, these critics seem to be missing precisely on what is most radical about Antonioni's filmic project -- the human acceptance of a place *within* the world as opposed to our claim of sovereignty *over* the world. This dissatisfaction of some critics with the conclusion of _Blowup_ echoes Sam Rhodie's account of the disappointment experienced by some critics upon the release of Antonioni's first feature films: 'What was genuinely new and valuable in Antonioni's work was taken as a shortcoming in so far as it fell short of a hypothetical and seemingly betrayed neo-realism' -- _Antonioni_ (London: British Film Institute, 1990) p. 69.

 

6. Even though the Metzian viewer may be construed as psychologically active, the psychic mechanisms and structures attributed to him derive from conditions that are deemed essential to the cinematic situation. The viewer's so-called psychological activity is therefore subordinated to the order of speculation and theoretical presupposition. Moreover, Metz takes the spectator's relative physical immobility and interprets it as a veritable exile from the body. The viewer's participation in the film is predicated on the conflation between psyche and eye, and remains wholly disenfranchised from the body as a whole. Immobility becomes the most prominent characteristic of this viewer, since movement is only conceived in the crudest terms of visibility and objectivity.

 

Similarly, although Metz's theory of disavowal regarding the viewer's relation to the image may also seem to imply a kind of unresolved fluctuation between presence and absence, disavowal in Metz is entirely motivated by the fear of absence (i.e. I know it's not there, but I believe in it because I need it to be there in order to sustain me as a subject). Antonioni, on the other hand, does not reject absence by putting in place a series of fetishistic investments, but rather seems to embrace it as a point of departure for imaginative play.

 

7. This scene accurately illustrates the phenomenological perspective on the foundations of perception, namely, embodiment, motility, and intentionality. Just like the human body, the film's body is distinguished by its motility. While movies are usually conceived merely as pictures of moving things, _Blowup_ makes a statement in this scene about the investment of the film's body in the act of perceiving the world. It is therefore not simply the objects photographed that move in the film, but the very act of picturing and representing those objects. Thus the film makes explicit reference to the open circuit that runs through the bodies of human figures inside the film, the spectator's body and the film's body. While irreducible to each other, all of these sites share a common engagement in acts of perception and expression, an immersion into the *flesh* of the world. For a full account of the contributions of existential phenomenology to a theory of film ontology and spectatorship, see Vivian Sobchack, _The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience_ (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).

 

 

Copyright Film-Philosophy 2005

 

 

Elena del Rio, 'Antonioni's _Blowup_: Freeing the Imaginary from Metaphysical Ground', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 32, June 2005 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n32delrio>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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