Truth and Clarity: Antonioni’s 'Blow-Up' and the Melancholy of Discovery
Blow-Up taunts its viewers with a significance that never manifests, a Truth that always recedes.
Blow-UpDirector: Michelangelo Antonioni
Cast: David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, John Castle
Distributor: Criterion Collection
US release date: 2017-03-28
John Searle famously declared: “If you can't say it clearly, you don't understand it yourself." This is a dictum to be taken very much to heart, for clarity is of the utmost importance in communication, particularly the communication of difficult ideas. Truly understanding something requires that you are able to see it from various angles, to illuminate it from various points of view.
When something is stated clearly, it emerges from obscurity and seems to set the speaker aside, to reveal itself in all its lucidity and transparency. The person articulating truth with clarity seems almost incidental. That is the trick of clarity: the more clearly you state something, the less integral to that statement you appear to be. The clarity seems to speak for itself. No wonder that the term “clarity" in Middle English is connected to “divine splendor" -- something stated simply and precisely falls upon us as though it were divine revelation. And when we hear something we perceive as particularly perspicuous, we respond “I see", as though the truth of the matter had materialized before our eyes, readily apparent for all to behold.
From the fact that understanding requires clarity, many thinkers have extrapolated the notion that the things to be understood must also be marked by clarity; that is to say, clarity is not only the mark of understanding but also the mark of truth. That which is clear (relatively simple) is true. The most celebrated version of this argument is perhaps the “cogito" argument set forth by René Descartes.
Descartes believed that the defining characteristic of truth was that it appeared to us as “clear and distinct"; that is, we could perspicaciously discern what the “true" thing was and it appeared as sufficiently set apart from the remainder of the world. Clarity, in this sense, pertains not simply to our understanding; rather, it is the intrinsic characteristic of truth that allows it to be understood.
Historically, this ideal of truth has borne significant fruit. For one famous example, consider the case of Ptolemy's brilliantly flawed Almagest, in which the ancient Greek scientist has two fundamental cosmological assumptions: 1. the basic motion of celestial bodies is spherical (largely true); and 2. the Earth is at the center of the cosmos (which we now know to be false). Ptolemy devised an ingeniously clever system of celestial motion that justified mathematically the notion that certain planets were momentarily in retrograde. It is an utterly convincing account until one throws out the second assumption, as Copernicus did. Then we are left with one basic assumption: celestial motion is spherical (without retrograde motion) and the celestial bodies now can be understood to move in the proper elliptical motions once the sun is placed in the middle. The truth seems to accord with the simpler model.
But there is another view of truth, one that assumes it is a false extrapolation to say that the clarity required by understanding necessitates clarity as an essential feature of truth itself. In this view, truth is inherently complex, mysterious, and evasive. It doesn't reveal itself all at once, striking the mind in a clear and distinct Cartesian manner, but rather demands our groping painstakingly toward it, running down blind alleys only to reverse direction and try again. Truth, in this sense, remains entirely beyond our grasp. That is not to say that we cannot come to an understanding of things that are true but rather that truth in its fullness, Truth in the large sense, always recedes before us, drawing us on to deeper inquiry, always promising but never fulfilling that promise. This view of Truth as seductive but elusive is at the heart of one of Michelangelo Antonioni's most successful films (critically and commercially): Blow-Up (1966).
In 1964 (two years before the release of Blow-Up), in an essay entitled “Prefazione a Sei film", Antonioni wrote what might now be considered a skeleton key to his vision of the world, one that reveals the ontological theory that informs Blow-Up:
We know that under the revealed image there is another one which is more faithful to reality and under this one there is yet another and again another under this last one down to the true image of that absolute mysterious reality that nobody will ever see or perhaps not until the decomposition of every image, every reality.
Notice that this can be read as an inversion of the Cartesian ideal. The “revealed image" is what Descartes would have to regard as “clear and distinct". The word “revealed" is significant here in that Descartes ultimately justified the veridity of these clear and distinct ideas through his assurance that they were provided and endorsed by God.
For Antonioni, the revealed image is just that: an image, deriving from the Latin “imago" meaning “a copy or imitation", not the thing itself. So, Antonioni suggests that behind the image lies a deeper image (but still an image) “more faithful to reality" and then another beneath that and another. Underlying it all is yet another image (still a copy and not the thing itself) of “absolute" reality -- a realm that one cannot access except “perhaps" through the decomposition of reality itself and all of its images. Now, of course, Antonioni seems to be using the term “reality" equivocally; that is, in one sense, he means what we perceive as reality (that is the “every reality" at the end of the passage) and, in another sense, Reality as such. Notice he never claims we can get at Reality itself and we can only arrive at the closest image of that Reality by stripping away what we take to be reality through “decomposition".
“Composition" -- literally, “putting things together", com-position -- is a central concern of Blow-Up. The main character, Thomas (David Hemmings), is a fashion and art photographer. Steeped in ennui and sick with disgust for his fellow human beings (particularly the women meant to serve as his muses and sexual conquests), Thomas only finds relief from his ever-abiding boredom with life through his absorption in his craft, in his search for a picture that perfectly combines setting and subject. Indeed, one might suggest that Thomas is obsessed with beautiful form. He is surrounded by gorgeous models (many of whom are more than willing to throw themselves at his feet), takes almost cloyingly refined photographs of the impoverished for an art photography book he hopes to publish, and purchases a propeller from an antique shop owing to the visual allure of its stark simplicity.
David Hemmings and Veruschka von Lehndorff in Blowup (1966)
But form by itself seems to have soured for Thomas. He seeks content within that form. The first inkling of this appears in a scene when Thomas visits a painter, Bill (John Castle) in the latter's studio. Bill, looking at one of his own abstract paintings (a sort of combination of Cubism and pointillism, with perhaps a gentle allusion to Jackson Pollock), claims that the paintings “don't mean anything when I do them. Just a mess. Afterwards, I find something to hang on to, like that… quite like that leg. Then it sorts itself out and adds up. It's like finding a clue in a detective story."
Bill describes the emergence of content out of what began as mere form. Beauty gives way to meaning but notice that meaning doesn't simply emerge; it requires exertion, it demands pursuit and perseverance in that pursuit. As long as the paintings are merely form, they are meaningless. The painting does not change in any measurable, quantitative manner once Bill teases the meaning out of it by finding “something to hold on to". All the paint remains where it was. And yet the painting is altered qualitatively; there is a difference not by degree but rather in kind. Where there once was simply the “mess" of form, now there is content, something that makes sense, that “adds up". And yet the truth is not revealed as such, Bill merely suggests that he finds a clue. Meaning withdraws and draws the artist on, demands that he follow, and this meaning becomes an issue at all because Bill requires it. Mere form is not sufficient.
Thomas takes this lesson to heart in his own disaffected, disheartened manner. Perhaps it is not surprising then that he soon plays Bill's detective game with some pictures he takes in the park of a mysterious young woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), and what appears to be her lover (an uncredited Ronan O'Casey). As Thomas leaves the park, Jane pursues him and demands he hand over the film. He puts her off, claiming he has other things on the roll he wishes to preserve. She later appears at his studio, renewing her demands and in order to convince him, removes her shirt (because, why not?). This time he allows her to leave with the wrong roll of film and then develops the pictures that she seems so desperate to prevent from being seen.
At first, they reveal little: a man and a woman flirting in a park, cavorting and hugging. Upon closer examination, however, two photographs of the woman begin to stand out. One has her gazing anxiously and alarmed at the cameraman while the other appears to capture her glancing furtively over toward some shrubbery. Thomas then blows up portions of the photographs. In a hypnotic sequence, the camera moves between the blow-up of the woman looking anxiously to the side and the area of fencing and shrubbery that seems to have caught her attention. We are caught in Thomas's inquiry, the obsession of it, the need to discover. What appears to be a man with a gun materializes in the area where the woman's gaze falls. Thomas now believes he has prevented a murder. In this emergent detective story, he hopes to play the hero.
But as he continues the process, the images become increasingly grainy and abstract. Precisely at the moment that Thomas seeks to read these photographs, to draw out their cryptic content, they become illegible. The face of the “killer" is nearly indistinguishable from the dappled effect of the foliage in the blown-up image (although the gun seems uncharacteristically distinct). Later Thomas blows up a portion of the final photograph he took of Jane in the park, when she was running off from him after he refused to give over the roll of film, to reveal what looks to be a corpse. The grain of the film is so coarse at this point that one of Thomas's friends (Sarah Miles) notes that the blown-up photograph looks quite similar to Bill's paintings. Indeed, Thomas plays the same game with his photos that Bill plays with those paintings -- formulating a detective story to draw content out of form, to find something to “hang on to", to vouchsafe meaning in an increasingly nihilistic existence.
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But in pursuit of that meaning, in following it in its withdrawal, in stripping away the surface images in order to arrive at “the true image of that absolute mysterious reality" (still an image!), Thomas is engaged in an act of decomposition -- the falling apart of things that were put together. This notion echoes through a later scene where Thomas witnesses a performance of the Yardbirds. The audience mostly stares vacantly in some semblance of a narcotic state as the band plays. Then Jeff Beck, frustrated with a malfunctioning amplifier, smashes and stomps his guitar. He throws the severed neck of the instrument into the crowd, which suddenly and inexplicably surges to life in a Dionysian frenzy, as though the tearing apart of the guitar was the mod manifestation of the Dionysian rite of sparagmos, the cultic dismemberment of a living sacrificial animal or human. Thomas is at the center of the melee and he too grabs and fights for the fragment of the guitar.
The contest for the guitar neck is surprisingly intense and Thomas only wrests it away from the grasp of others through considerable violent force and a foot chase. He emerges from the club victorious, prize in hand. But then he casts it down on the sidewalk as worthless trash. A young man walks over, picks it up, and then he too throws it back as mere rubbish. This quasi-cultic item that moments ago warranted such spirited defense and inspired such vehement desire now meant nothing. The truth (here symbolized by the fractured guitar) that was arrived at through decomposition (through the tearing apart of what was once whole and the severance from the context that gave it form) no longer holds worth as an object -- by losing form and coherence, there is no there there, the object dissolves. It is only the process of engagement (the fight in the club for the guitar neck, the eager involvement in the craft of photography during Thomas's detective game) that vouchsafes significance.
Truth in this film, that which lies behind its mere images (its copies, representations, and imitations), is not an object at all. There is no thing to hold on to, in the end, despite Bill's insistence. The act of blowing up those photographs is the dissolution, the decomposition of thingliness, of form. It is an attempt to extract pure content from form, pure meaning from beauty. But beauty and form resist content and meaning. Or better yet, content and meaning (in this film, Truth) is constantly deferred, always withdrawing. The only way to maintain Truth is to engage in the impossible task of pursuing it. This is why Thomas can answer his agent's query of “What did you see in that park?" with an affectless “Nothing" despite the fact that we had just witnessed Thomas finding the actual corpse lying in the park right where the blown-up photograph indicated.
That “nothing" and the final scene of the film, during which Thomas observes a group of young people miming a tennis match, drive home the melancholy of discovery that underwrites the film. After all, with the recognition of the corpse, Thomas is no longer a hero, he is a failure. The material reality of that corpse, which Thomas touches in his return to the park, concretizes the decomposition involved in the pursuit of Truth in a macabre fashion.
Thomas's engagement with Truth -- ever-receding, ever-promising but never fulfilling, insistently calling one forth to a realm where distinction breaks down, an empire of the decomposed -- breaks off not because Truth is unimportant but because in its repletion it is unavailable. It is true that a man has died, but the Truth that underlies that fact is beyond experience.
Thomas seems to realize that the detective game that he was playing was of no more import than the mimed tennis match he witnesses -- both were simply acts of “going through the motions" without any hope for an end, an answer, a purpose. Seeing the futility of it all, Thomas disengages, returns to his ennui. He plays along with the mimes, returning their “ball" to them when one mime hits it over the fence.
He then hears the sounds of play (the ball hitting the rackets) which are not there. Soon, he is no longer there. He dematerializes before our eyes -- content disappears to vouchsafe the formal close of the film.
As is so often the case with Antonioni, we are meant to feel that something important has occurred but we are unable to unlock the riddle. We are taunted by a significance that never properly manifests. To discern a glimpse of a realm of meaning and to recognize that you have no purchase upon it is indeed a melancholy discovery.
Criterion Collection has recently released a new Blu-ray edition of Blow-Up that beautifully renders this gorgeously filmed work. The disc comes with several extras. There is an interesting 2016 documentary on the making of the film titled Blow Up of “Blow Up", discussions with scholars of photography Walter Moser and Philippe Garner and art historian David Alan Mellor concerning Antonioni's artistic approach to the film, a 2016 conversation between Vanessa Redgrave and Garner, and old interviews with David Hemmings and Jane Birkin (a model featured in the film) concerning their work on Blow-Up.
The booklet is quite extravagant here. It includes several essays, the questionnaires Antonioni distributed to learn more about photographers and artists of the milieu while he developed the film, and the short story by Julio Cortázar on which the film is based.