Understanding Antonioni has always been difficult for me. So maybe I can get some insights into his style by pondering this image from 1:00:00 into his 1966 masterpiece Blowup. As in most Antonioni films, the plot is incidental: an unnamed photographer (David Hemmings) goes about his life – spending the night with bums, buying a propeller, aggressively shooting models, etc. During a jaunt in the park with his camera, he snaps several photos of a couple enjoying themselves. However, the images he captures contain more than initially meets the eye. What, exactly, do they contain? It’s never made clear. Possibly a corpse, possibly nothing, and in the end the photographer metaphorically contents himself with illusions. [Ashley reminds me that, on the more literal side, he does go and see the corpse in the park. But soon after, it’s gone, and the questions resurface.]
This may all sound extremely self-referential, since it’s a film about the nature of images, and it is. As Wikipedia puts it, Antonioni was an “Italian modernist film director,” and you pretty much have to understand his work within the context of cinematic modernism. In his films, characters aren’t just uncertain of what the truth is; they’re also unsure whether there is truth in the first place. (And the kinds of truth he addresses are manifold: aesthetic, epistemological, social, religious, moral, sexual, etc.) For example, in his first real hit, L’avventura (1960), a woman goes missing on an island. Her family and friends look for her, can’t find her, and eventually give up. Her best friend and boyfriend have an affair out of nothing so much as uncertainty.
That’s the sort of structure Antonioni’s movies have. The surface questions most movies would go after – where’s the woman? Why is there a dead body? – are abandoned because answering them, Antonioni seems to say, won’t really solve anything. The real questions are much harder, and the films get at them not through dialogue or narrative but visual style. With that in mind, let’s turn to this image from Blowup, which is actually the photographer about to blow up an image. He’s just had an encounter with the woman from the photos (Vanessa Redgrave), who wanted the negatives, and now he’s driven to look closer at the photo’s he’s taken. This little action says so much when framed within the wider film.
The title, after all, is Blowup. It’s a curious phrase, especially since it can refer to an explosion or to the creation of something larger. There’s also an implication that, since the film is superficially a mystery, blowing up a photo is a method for reaching a deeper truth. Photographs are supposedly objective reproductions of the physical world, so to look closer is to gain new insight into the world itself. To solve the mystery. (Cf. Bazin’s “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.”) But scene after scene, Antonioni undermines all of these assumptions, throwing the photographer out into a modern wasteland of subjectivity.
A lot of the photographer’s artistic hubris is present in this particular image. He thinks that with his technology and his grid, he can master and map out reality. But Antonioni shows that reality is much more slippery than he thought. Ironically, with the way he’s framed here, the photographer himself is one who’s been mapped out. In a film that frequently equates the photographer’s camera with sexual power, this is possibly an indication that now he’s the one who’s been fucked. I’m still not sure how highly I personally regard Antonioni’s work, especially since it’s full of unlikeable, emotionally distant characters. But he was definitely a master at incorporating his ideas into every frame of his films, both in form and content.