Caught on Camera

The photographic investigations of Blow-Up and (nostalgia)
by Michael Joshua Rowin  posted April 21, 2009
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A well-known through-line connects Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981). Film critics and scholars have for years called attention to how these films are related in their themes of voyeurism, surveillance, perception, representation, and the ambiguities and perils of power, control, reality, and truth. While Antonioni’s intention to pay homage to Rear Window is unknown, the latter two films were made with their predecessors firmly in mind: Coppola directed a New Hollywood update of Blow-Up and De Palma created a postmodern pastiche of Blow-Up and The Conversation, both films playing to savvy viewers by wearing their influences on their sleeves.

Whether homage was intended or not, connections between these films have been easy to spot because of their narrative similarities. Each film’s lead character is in the business of mechanically reproducing pictures or sounds, and he unwittingly witnesses a crime that the tools of his trade allow him to investigate. Also fitting into this lineage is Hollis Frampton’s 1971 avant-garde film (nostalgia). And yet because of its unconventional narrative structure, its unorthodox mode of address, and its refusal to provide typical fictional surrogates for the director or viewer, its place in this modern tradition of self-reflexive films has gone ironically overlooked.

Of the films mentioned above, Blow-Up has the most in common with (nostalgia). Completed just five years after Antonioni’s film was released, (nostalgia) seems to be directly influenced by it. Frampton’s black-and-white film comprises 13 overhead shots, each depicting one of the filmmaker’s photographs being burned to a crisp on an electric stove as a voiceover tells the story behind their conceptions and what they mean to him. Frampton complicates the otherwise straightforward concept by telling each story one vignette before the photograph to which it relates, thus creating a fissure between soundtrack and image that fosters the viewer’s nostalgia for prior information and echoing Frampton’s personal nostalgia for destroyed visual evidence of memories, events, and compositions impossible to tangibly retrieve. The direct connection to Blow-Up arrives in the very last photograph. As it burns, a description and account is told of the “next” photograph never shown: a dark alley in which a reflection of a reflection catches a tiny detail that when enlarged enormously (but rendered obscure because of the blow-up’s visual “noise”) becomes something that, Frampton confides, “fills me with such fear, such utter dread and loathing, that I think I shall never dare to take another photograph.” “Here it is!” exclaims the voiceover. “Look at it! Do you see what I see?” Cut to black, and then the “HF” emblem that acts as Frampton’s artistic signature.

Though at first glance Frampton’s film seems inspired in its avant-garde design (and running time) by Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), a film about unreliable memory constructed almost entirely out of still photographs, or Morgan Fisher’s Production Stills (1970), a first-person account of the real-time developing of a Polaroid, (nostalgia)’s concluding story clearly parallels Blow-Up’s, in which a London fashion and art photographer (named Thomas in the screenplay but never addressed or referred to by a first name in the film) begins to question the veracity of his medium when he accidentally photographs a killing in a park. At first he misinterprets the photographs he enlarges in his dark room as evidence of his successful interference with a planned murder. Later Thomas constructs a more accurate narrative from his photographs, but once they’re stolen and the corpse is removed he realizes he will never be able to truly understand the reasons for and meaning of an event he thought he had irrefutably “seen.”

Thus both films make their subject the “hopelessly ambiguous” (as the voiceover of (nostalgia) puts it) art of photography and act of perception. (nostalgia)’s last “scene” condenses Blow-Up’s story into less than three minutes including, at film’s end, Thomas’s possible relinquishing of his camera, which has served as his weapon in ordering reality (especially the women he controls through his gaze) and as his shield in keeping him numbly removed from it. Thomas’s ambiguous response to his newly unstable epistemological status (in the famous last scene where he interacts with mimes playing imaginary tennis) mirrors the variety of interpretations of the photographed murder, just Frampton’s ostensible destruction of his photographs and quasi-resignation of photography mirror his film’s invitation to imagine the photograph that is never shown. Both films are in this sense “participatory” to a degree that challenges the narrative and thematic resolutions of mainstream cinema. In the case of Blow-Up, its open-ended narrative and lack of firmly imparted character motivations adheres to art cinema’s modernist principles of multiple, unfixed meanings; in (nostalgia)’s case the unorthodox story structure and mismatched sound and image tracks adhere to structuralist avant-garde principles meant to invoke a radically different processing and understanding of cinematic information.

Antonioni’s first feature after the loose tetralogy of alienation comprising L’avventura (1960), La notte (1961), L’eclisse (1962), and Red Desert (1964), Blow-Up stands in marked contrast to those films in featuring a male protagonist. The significance of this change in gender focal point for Antonioni accompanied a move toward the personal, with the director declaring Blow-Up his “most autobiographical film.” The parallels between Antonioni and Blow-Up’s Thomas are quite clear: both see the world through the lens of the camera, both attempt to make sense of reality by forming tenuous narratives around ambiguous images, both indulge in decadent lifestyles (“I like the protagonist, I love the life he leads,” confessed Antonioni to interviewer Aldo Tassone. “When I was preparing the film I also led this kind of life and I had a lot of fun”), and both, perhaps, feel estranged from their modern surroundings.

And yet if Blow-Up is an autobiographical narrative, it is a curious one. Antonioni may have submerged himself in the hedonistic pleasures of swinging London during the film’s conception, but he also claimed to have done so for purposes of research (“It was an agreeable life, but one that I was leading in order to follow the character, and not because it was my own”). Gaps then open up between author and text: Thomas is a representative less of Antonioni’s life than of a role Antonioni played in life, an irony (as a parallel and as an opposition) considering that Thomas so often “performs” for others (his surreptitious job as factory worker, undertaken to capture documentary-style photos for his book; his chauvinistic, dictatorial prima donna role as fashion photographer at his studio) as well as so often watches performances by others that reflect back to him his cool, detached self-consciousness (his models, Jane’s setup to the crime in the park, a Yardbirds show attended by automaton fans, the mimes). Furthermore, Antonioni is Italian and Thomas is British—an obvious difference, yet also the kind easily forgotten when drawing distinctions between auteurs and their onscreen surrogates. Thomas is a fictional stand-in for Antonioni, but he’s one far more distant from his source than Marcello from Fellini in or any of the characters Woody Allen plays in his autobiographical films, in which the gap separating character from creator is almost effaced.

(nostalgia) is, on the surface, more directly autobiographical than Blow-Up—until Frampton pulls the rug out from under the viewer with a narration strategy typically gleaned only from extra-textual information. A viewer going into (nostalgia) with no knowledge of the film’s making or its contents will most likely believe it narrated by the director himself. The presumption is that Frampton, through the use of first-person pronouns, is directly relating to the viewer his experiences in photography and in life. Usually only later—unless one is aware that Frampton was American and picks up on the Canadian accent on the soundtrack—will the viewer learn that the narration is not read by Frampton but by Michael Snow, his friend and fellow filmmaker. (In one of the film’s more humorous moments, Frampton, via Snow, relates Snow’s disappointment with a poster made by Frampton for his show: “The whole business still troubles me. I wish I could apologize to him.”) This is another kind of performance, and again gaps open up between author and text: it’s difficult to trust the veracity of Frampton’s stories after learning about this ruse.

Whether the faux first-person voiceover is discovered or not, Frampton’s main objective is to create another incongruity, this time between narration and narrator, to complement the mismatch between text and photograph. But rather than throw doubt upon the filmmaker as a creator of seamless narratives, Frampton goes further with this layer of deception by throwing doubt on the filmmaker as creator at all. The director has instead become a dissembler, evoking the principal meanings of that pun: as a prankster not to be trusted with providing “the truth” of visual or narrative experience; and as the antithesis of an assembler of images, a deconstructionist who takes apart conventional cinematic codes to find ironies and contradictions within photographed “evidence.” It remains to the viewer to put the pieces back in place, or reconfigure them to arrive at new ideas about the possibilities of cinematic language. Not coincidentally, the only photograph not taken by Frampton in (nostalgia) is the last one, which accompanies the final description of the mysterious photograph never shown. It is described one scene previously, but since its origins in a newspaper remain unknown or forgotten, Frampton offers an interpretation: it is of a Texas fruit grower sadly surveying his ruined crops and looking back in a disgruntled manner at the intruding photojournalist. Earlier in (nostalgia) Frampton tells of “an imitation of a painted Renaissance crucifixion” that he ridiculously (with the help of Snow’s deadpan narration) reads into a photograph of two toilets. We see Frampton’s upcoming photograph as he instructs us to see it. But the Texas fruit grower photo is one step beyond, somebody else’s photograph, and experience, interpreted by Frampton, just as Thomas’s series of interpretations and assumptions convey to viewers their own activity while watching Blow-Up.

Antonioni achieves something similar by producing an alliance between Thomas’s camera and his own moving camera and then undermining their relationship. What’s shown through Antonioni’s camera in the park scene is often completely different from Thomas’s photographs, and various discordances between image and sound (Thomas’s enlarged photos and the return of the eerie sound of wind rustling the trees in the park; a disorienting, false point-of-view sequence in which Thomas discovers that the body has disappeared) foreground the primary shaper behind the narrative unfolding onscreen. Frampton distills the cinematic medium down to its essentials: photography (moving and still) and sound. Antonioni does likewise within the confines of a linear, and relatively accessible, fiction film. Silence plays a crucial role in Blow-Up, as if to highlight the arbitrary convention of wall-to-wall sound normally used to “prop up” the illusion of cinematic verisimilitude. The scene in which Thomas develops, blows up, and then builds a narrative from the pictures taken in the park, for example, hauntingly plays out with only the faintest accompaniment of diegetic noises, a metaphor for the separation of sound and image during the initial stages of cinematic conception. Antonioni concludes this scene with a montage of the photographs, regular size and blown up, that proceeds according to the eyeline matches and other continuities Thomas sees in their compositions. As Thomas assembles, Antonioni dissembles; as Thomas (and the viewer) imagine a flowing story to these wordless images, Antonioni orchestrates a major turning point in the narrative not to flowing images but photographic stills, tearing classical continuity down to its barest foundations.

Though on the surface completely dissimilar films, Blow-Up and (nostalgia) have closely related narrative and structural designs that point up converging aims of the art film and the avant-garde film, two modes of filmmaking that despite their anti-illusionistic refutations of classical narrative filmmaking have often been seen as at odds with one another. Blow-Up works in a relatively realist, linear vein, providing a fictional world the viewer can enter, and characters to which he can—at least to a degree—relate, but its aim is ambiguity and abstraction. Thomas’s friend Bill is an artist whose cubist and action paintings are metaphors for both Thomas’s abstract blown-up photographs and Antonioni’s uniquely “abstract” use of character, environment, and narrative. Inversely, (nostalgia) does away with an onscreen viewer surrogate and three-act story structure, but its first-person narration, though unconventional, provides the viewer with episodic stories and a thematic narrative (there is a chronological arc of sorts—the film begins with the burning of Frampton’s first photograph “made with the direct intention of making art” and ends with the story of the photo that supposedly persuades him to abandon photography altogether). Its minimalist visuals go radically far afield from classical shooting and editing, and yet the images are “readable” against the discordant soundtrack and our own changing perceptions. In other words, we can “follow” what Frampton wants us to see, even if we must remind ourselves to not necessarily take what we see at face value. 


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Courtesy Warner Home Video
David Hemmings and Veruschka von Lehndorff in Blow-Up, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
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Michael Joshua Rowin is a regular contributor to Reverse Shot, Stop Smiling, The L Magazine, and Cineaste. He currently resides in New York City.

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