The emblematic texture of Antonioni's Blow-Up.
This habit of scanning images for latent narrative, while it never died out in Western art, experienced a resurgence with the invention of cinema--a return, in a sense, to the image-making windows of the middle ages. Not only did both fashion wordless images from a process of translucency but they also used incidental details to establish status and identity, the aureole of a saint anticipating the white hat in a cowboy film. Medieval glass had even made some primitive attempts at narrative, as in the typological coupling of lancets that showed manna falling on the left, and the last supper being eaten on the right--the first ever essays in montage. At the time that cinema came to birth, the monolithic code established and guaranteed by the church had long broken into fragments, but the habit of constructing larger meanings from hints and clues remained engrained. It was exploited by film makers from the start, and the very silence of early cinema enhanced its importance. And even as the form evolved and encompassed the eclaircissement of sound, the emblem mode lost none of its potency in the hands of film-makers (Antonioni among them) who habitually subordinated the word to the image. While, therefore, some readers might feel an instinctive resistance to the enterprise of this essay--looking for emblems in an art essentially modem and secular--there can be no denying their presence, often subtilized out of recognition, in frame after frame of twentieth-century film. The case of St Agatha proves that an unambiguous narrative can founder on the fuzziness of a detail, but Antonioni's Blow-Up works in reverse. It embeds its blurred and ambiguated storyline in a texture of emblems--broken, partial, intact--that silently shapes and directs the viewer's take upon it.
Notwithstanding the proto-narrative of medieval windows that cross-referenced Old and New Testament events (Elijah's assumption; Jesus' ascension), credit for inventing the story board must go to William Hogarth--and with that, by implication and in potentia, credit for inventing the narrative film. Masters of the quattrocento such as Sassetta had squared dynamic plot with static image, but only by a process of implausible superimposition, as when, in The Meeting of St Anthony and St Paul, the same character figures three times over within the frame. Michelangelo achieved a more coherent pictorial narration in the Sistine Chapel, but by turning Genesis to discrete tableaux, he presupposed a knowledge of the original text and made no attempt to build causal bridges between the stations of the narrative. Hogarth, on the other hand, novelized pictorial art into something proto-cinematic. His sequential frames, though widely spaced in time, have the evolutionary cohesion of leap-cut stories,j and offer themselves, at the same time, as transcriptions of everyday experience. Just as Defoe had begotten the novel on "factual" journalism, so to Hogarth purported to relay rather than distort.
But if Hogarth looked ahead toward the cinema and sideways toward the novel, how did he manage the question of tone, easy enough to inflect by words, less so by images? One answer lies in the emblems and topoi that "gusseted" his comments into his pictures. His emblems differ from those we encounter, say, in Crivelli's Bache Madonna--an "unmotivated" juxtaposition of cracked parapet, fly, goldfinch, and vegetables in a largely dehistoriated space where instruction triumphs over plausibility. Those emblems are arbitrary marginalia; Hogarth's are "real" pictures on the wall. The madonna is located nowhere and everywhere, but the rake belongs in Augustan London, and the emblems that shape our responses to him are the plausible fixtures and furniture of his environment. Not only that, but sometimes the topoi of the pictures themselves are replicated in the real-life action of the painting, as when, in Ronald Paulson's words, Hogarth presents the rake "in the familiar pose of the Choice of Hercules" (Commentary on Plates 31 and 32, no page reference).
These pictorial topoi were also taken over by film-makers in the course of time, as witness Bufiuel's figuration of the Last Supper in Viridiana and Hitchcock's of the Deposition in The Lodger--and they also play an important role in Antonioni's Blow-Up: the balletic manipulation of the models (suggesting Versailles, and the frivolity of the ancien regime); the allusion to Lewis Morley's iconic Keeler photograph, picked up by Jane's fist-play in the studio, which hints at a "honey-trap" scenario for the events in Maryon Park; and the ironic glimpse of the Noli me tangere motif (Mary Magdalene kneeling before Jesus) when she tries to wrest Thomas's camera from him. And of course, the film is studded with inset pictures, all of them serving the same commentative purpose that they do in Hogarth's narratives.
Sam Rhodie implies that the play of Antonioni's camera is divagation for its own sake--"the wanderings of the camera in Thomas' studio in Blow-Up, intent on framings, on objects, on surfaces, on changing perspectives" (79)--but while such wanderings might seem to refuse the portentousness of emblem--a form designed to instruct and regulate response--they cannot avoid developing a thematic charge. The moment the camera dwells on an object, it introduces a definite article into its annotative flow, and, with that, triggers an emblematization, the process by which an "a" yields to a "the." Obviously it has been planted, but it reads serendipitously into the film, for which reason I shall talk about "emblemes trouvees," recalling the "chance" framings that allowed Duchamp, say, to recontextualize a urinal as a fountain. Antonioni choreographs Thomas's journeys through London in order to "chorograph" the space, building his paratactic sentences shot by shot. At the same time, however, he is also setting up hypotactic patterns of cross-reference, allowing individual items to interconnect in many different ways in the explicative manner of emblem. Sometimes the data might be deliberately modified or even constructed ad hoc, but they always seem to swim into our ken as "trouvees," significations netted by a casual, untendentious trawl of the camera.
Approaching the film as I would a Hogarth canvas, I have found it difficult to organize my findings. One can make a systematic tabulation of a painting, but Blow-up is a dynamic tissue, "built not so much on [a] plot as on cumulative episodes, linked by a common theme or principle of composition" (Cameron and Wood 126). Everything connects with everything else, sometimes over wide narrative spaces. A diachronic examination of the images as they arrive on the screen soon stalls into the synchronicity of cross-reference, while organization by image-type as rapidly falls victim to the linear connection of their "seeding" throughout the film. So I have modelled this essay on a musical suite--offering sustained but discrete meditations on the emblematic charge at four nodes of the film. While I shall frequently note interconnections within each of these "movements," I shall not interrelate the meditations themselves-a task impossible within the limits of my space.
Let us begin with the opening credits, inscribed upon the grass of the park, which recurs at the end of the film. The effect would be cyclic were it not for a difference in lettering, the characters transparent at the start, those of "THE END" an impenetrable black. The latter tag is deliberately crude, ironizing the idea of teleology and narrative closure in a film that has refused them, and it doubles up as an emblem--"end" meaning "mors" rather than "finis"--this after Thomas has melted into the grass, an allusion to Isaiah 40.6--"All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field." Antonioni here offers a blow-up of a different sort, a silent, bloodless disintegration that turns "THE END" into an "inscriptio," one of the three components of traditional emblem. These are the subject, announced by an "inscriptio," its illustration by a "pictura" (in this case, the dissolution of Thomas into the receiving grass), and the "subscriptio" or explanatory epigram (here implicit equation of the dissolving man, the receptive lawn and the idea of death). Superscribing "THE END" on grass, Antonioni has both embraced and subverted the emblem mode, for it also images the green (or blue) screen by which false or physically unfeasible images can enter the documentary matrix of moving film. Thomas's dissolution is achieved by double exposure rather than by greenscreening, but it belongs to the same vein of trickery.
The ending bears on Thomas's third visit to the park, so let us turn our attention to Blow-Up's haunting anagnorisis, the moment when a sense of insignificance comes home to a man hitherto invulnerable and powerful. One of the best accounts is provided by William Arrowsmith:
The shot of the grass is immediately followed by Thomas' upward look toward the rustling sound overhead, then a lingering shot of a leafy branch, waving in the dawn breeze. Thomas looks down again, at the ground where the body lay; nothing there but grass.... The meaning, the image, could not be more plain, evoking as it does all the old great texts of human transience. (119-20)
This scene is moving in way that over-emphatic and tricksy "END" isn't, and yet, for all that, it too has an emblematic charge. The moving branches recall those at the start of David Lean's Great Expectations, the point where Pip has that cognition of death that is the beginning of wisdom, his "first and most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things" (Dickens 35). Unlike Lean's threatening trees, however, Antonioni's branches intimate less the fact of death (that is left to the grass in the film's dying moment) but rather the inscrutable nature of the universe, and the wholly incidental relation obtaining between ourselves and it. Since Blow-Up functions in part as a Rorschach Blot, allowing us to fill its half-empty images with subjective meaning, one could argue that the tree in question--Platanus orientalis--works as a rebus or emblematic pun. The plane ironically puns on "plain" at the very point that the film gives up hope of solution. Also, by recalling the "platano amato" of the "Largo" in Handel's Serse, it introduces the first words of that aria as an additional, unironic epigraph: "Ombra mai fu" ["Never was such shadow"].
More rebuses enter the film in the tennis match that follows. The game derives its name from "tenez," (imperative of "tenir"), but here there is nothing to hold--neither ball nor racket nor epistemological certainty. Although properly called "lawn tennis," this game is played on a hard court fenced from the grass into which Thomas is about to melt. This barrier excludes him from the notional reality of the match as the little boy (his emblematic surrogate) has earlier been excluded from the garden of Bill and Patricia, and he clutches its chain-link texture in a situation unchained and unlinked. "Lawn tennis" is so called to distinguish it from "real" (="regal"), but the epistemological homonym dances mockingly over the "unreal" activity of the mimes. The male player, another Thomas surrogate, loses the first point with a score of love, tennisspeak for "zero." This too is a (mimic) rebus for the idea of nothingness, an idea evoked by the other emblems' negation and circular futility that have clustered round him during the film--the headboard beneath which he spends his night of drugged oblivion, the bank of unused plates in his kitchen, the coin that travels across his fingers to no purpose when he taunts the would-be models.
One can also make a nonce modulation from the tennis score ("love" deriving from "l'oeuf") to the infertile eggs in Thomas's kitchen--also a "mimed" reality. Their unhatchable, semi-precious substance emblematizes the sterile beauty of his world, and they link in turn to the spheres on his coffee table, three of them in his code colors of white and blue. They look ahead in their tangible irrelevance to the absent balls of the tennis match, just as the headless ceramic figures in the antique shop have a displaced connection with the rococo busts in the studio (things belonging across space but unfixed by contiguity--delayed raccords, as it were). Those decorative balls also evoke Faberge eggs (a hint of Romanov decadence to match the Bourbon kind in the Louis Quinze plaque), cross-referring the Midas eggs in the kitchen, and also, perhaps the photograph of a chicken on the wall. This is no ordinary chicken, however, but an infertile lusus naturae with a poodle's head. If I read it correctly (the image is not distinct enough for certainty), it vectors a hint of the two gay men and their poodle outside the antique shop. The sixties would also have construed these as emblems of sterility.
After being waylaid by one of the film's many chains of inter allusive meaning, let us return to Thomas's anagnorisis shortly before the tennis match. It is here that the mysterious neon sign switches off against the dawn sky, an emblem of extinction as potent as Macbeth's "Out, out brief candle" (5.5.23). As it happens, the sign also signifies nothing (and everything). One first becomes aware of it when Thomas is driving toward the antique shop: it looks like the screen of a drive-in cinema--a screen unable to function in the broad light of day. This is a false clue, but a productive one, since the legibility of neon also depends on darkness, a sign that becomes meaningful only in a context of obfuscation. But it takes several viewings to decide what exactly the sign seems to be advertising, a decision ultimately frustrated by the director himself. At first glance it seems like one of the emblematic "subscriptiones" that the camera picks up out of the urban context. There are several of these dotted throughout the film--the juxtaposition of Leisure and Permutit, which, with an orthographic wrench, generates a macaronic command--"permutet" being the jussive subjunctive of the "permutare," "to change." Let leisure change, pointing to the frivolous, uncentred hedonism of Thomas's jet set. Antonioni once said that the problem "of the future world will be leisure time. How will it be filled up?" (Cottino-Jones 150). Then there is the department store name--Robinson and Cleaver--which hints at the violence of "rob" and "cleave" even as it presents glittering consumer goods to view, and also the plaque for Heddon ("Hidden") House, pointing to the film's encryptiveness, which is ironically answered by a notice to "Keep Clear." These are emblemes trouvdes, really there. However, the neon sign is totally factitious, Antonioni claiming that he "didn't want people to be able to read that sign; whether it advertised one product or another was of no importance" (Cardullo 89).
On close inspection (made possible by the luxury of the pause button), the characters can be seen to verge on merely graphic shapes, shapes that are literally non-literal. They provide a Rorschach Blot (akin to the film's own open-ended mode of signifying) for a range of possible constructions. Two of mine (on successive viewings) were "Trona" (alluding to the Italian "trono"="throne"), which seemed to underscore the "Bourbon" frivolity of Thomas's lifestyle; "Toa," a garbled "tua" that seems to assign the fact of death to Thomas ("tua la morte") and William Arrowsmith appears to land on "TWA": "When Thomas returns to the park at night to find the body, his way is lit by the neon sign--advertising an airline, I take it" (110). As a generic advertisement, it represents the commutability of consumer goods notwithstanding the way we fetishize our brands. But if the extinction of the neon in the dawn presents an emblem of mortality, could we not also construe the letters as a defective anagram of "Thomas"--THOA? Think of Maria's anagram manque for Malvolio: "And the end: what could that alphabetical position portend? If I could make that resemble something in me! Softly! 'M.O.A.I.'" (Twelfth Night 2.5.119-22).
When Hogarth uses pictures within pictures to generate meaning, he is availing himself of secondary or synthetic emblems. The pictures in Blow-up discharge an identical function, and we have already touched on the decor of Thomas's studio in the first movement of this suite. Let us devote this, the second, to completing the inventory. The photographs on the walls illustrate the extent to which images require context for our comprehension: the camel caravan, for example, black blotches on a white ground, reads at first as birds on a wire, not least because there is no clarifying color. (If Thomas had been using polychrome film in the park, the corpse would have registered from the start as a pink and blue subject on the green grass.) There is a great deal of visual information missing from the camel picture that the viewer must supply, not least the horizon implicit in the sequence of their feet. This phenomenon--aspection--has been pondered by Gombrich and Wittgenstein, and one can test it through a diagram that reads inter alia as a lampshade, a square tunnel, or a lopped pyramid. That the "puzzle" is almost identical with the lines of Thomas's blowup chart is a coincidence that requires no comment. Once the camels have declared themselves for what they are, they act as a referential as well as an epistemological emblems, as another image of sterility. In La traviata, Violetta calls Paris a "popoloso deserto" (64), in Our Mutual Friend, Dickens mentions "a tract of suburban Sahara" (bk 1, 33), and is it wholly coincidental that the owner of the antique shop should want to escape to Morocco? Float though they might in an uninflected space, the camels also represent a principle of connection, parodically restated when clips that hang from the empty lines after the theft (recte reclamation) of the park photos--a polysyndetic sentence emptied of its nouns. Our sense of their suspension links them to the parasailer and diver, both of them humans out of their element, both frozen at a dynamic moment, a static "unreality" that must necessarily "tease us out of thought." We will never know why the parasailer wore an Edwardian bathing suit, or whether the frogman was destined for swimming pool or sea, or why indeed Thomas should have hung these prosaic images of jet-set leisure on his walls.
His paintings offer comment no less trenchant. Although we never enter his bedroom, we glimpse a seated boxer on its wall, indicating the combative and athletic (rather than tender) nature of the activity it witnesses. The sitting room is decorated with a Post-Painterly Abstractionist canvas in the manner of Kenneth Noland, reading all at once as a stylized lunar rainbow, a camera lens, and a nest of ciphers. Just as the parasailer and frogman represent clumsy attempts at flight or escape, so too does a neo-Primitivist painting of a butterfly. Its abnormally long abdomen trails along the ground like a drag, a disablement that connects it with the disconnected propeller in the antique shop. Butterflies usually evoke levity or metamorphosis, but this picture, rereading the transformed body as an earth-bound caterpillar's, negates the ideas of flight and change. It is flanked by a graded structure that alludes (apparently) to Jacob's ladder and, by indirection, to the studio staircase up which Antonioni tracks the aspiring models as they climb toward the orgy. This image links in turn with the marble tablet commemorating a staircase "Ornamentum ac civium commodum"--both ornamental and convenient to citizens (citizens, it should be recalled, to whom even basic necessities had been denied). The ablative absolute--"Ludovico XV in Galliis regnante"--suggests that the Bourbons are come again, and that frivolity triumphs over social engagement as much in 1966 as it had in 1725. Thomas's world, no less than in Louis', trumps commoditas with ornatio, as witness his turning the propeller from a purposeful to an abstract structure, capable only of meaningless rocking when he nudges it with his foot (while the circumference of its rotation would describe yet another cipher).
Louis XV's frivolity was manifest in the rococo style to which his court gave birth--and this style has entered the studio as two alabaster heads a la Joseph Morin (1717-1825). They first figure as book-ends to Verushka's reflected image so as to suggest a continuity between the eras, and they have a (semblant) connection with headless figurines in the shop--another macabre Bourbon touch, especially since the angle of the studio beams recalls that of the guillotine blade. Thomas's orgy likewise brings to mind the prophetic aphorism of the Pompadour--"Apres nous le deluge"--though this trivial antimasque of things to come is played out in a deluge of expensive clothes and mauve paper waves. Indeed, there is even a parallel to be drawn between Thomas and Marie Antoinette, established in part by the millinery of these saccharin sculptures. Its loose flimsiness belongs to the dress code of Le Petit Trianon, which the Bourbon queen set up as a pseudo-pastoral escape from the formality of Versailles. Very much in the spirit of l'autrichienne, Thomas visits the doss house not to extend his sympathy, but to spice an over-privileged life by slumming with the social "other." Thomas as deus absconditus takes nothing from the experience beyond a set of stolen images like those brought home from the park. There is a disconcerting cynicism about the way he gets behind the wheel of his Rolls-Royce in his homeless disguise. The vehicle's inclined bonnet figurine (the so-called "Spirit of Ecstasy") precedes him wherever he goes, its Art Nouveau idiom an avatar of the studio rococo. It derives from the Nike of Samothrace, and imparts a cheap triumphalism to his progress through the city. The kenosis of the "god" who drives his showy car away from the "manger" of the doss house is made the more ironic by the number-plate, "EVN" being "heaven" with a Cockney drop of the H. Not only do the crude wings of the mascot recall the unaerial butterfly of the studio, but the forward tilt becomes emblematic in and of itself, figuring also in the script of the neon sign, the postures of the models, the spectator mimes at the tennis match, and in Thomas's own body angle when he snaps the shot. Indeed, the camera itself conforms to its over-eager inclination when Thomas parks his car outside the shop, and the latter is made to beetle over the street--a proleptic glimpse of its probable (explosive) blow-up if the property deal goes through.
And since we have arrived at the antique shop, let its inventory in turn provide the third movement of our suite. While Chatman is no doubt right in claiming that it "corroborates the theme of distraction" (57), it functions above all as a repository of cross-referential emblems. Most striking are the decapitated ceramic figures, and the stereopticon placed beside them. The latter, with its boxy shape and stylized "eyes," acts as a displaced head, one that might have served Ned Kelly in a Sidney Nolan painting. By promising the illusive experience of "real" space, it offers an incidental footnote to the trompe l'oeil moments in the film. The birds in a glass case echo our first glimpse of the mannequins at the window of the upper studio, the point where Thomas cries, "Bring the birds down," as if uttering a command to kill them and produce the same stilled, museum-like simulacrum of life. Literally, of course, the call is for them to descend the stair-case--that faux Jacob's ladder. The shop also abounds in busts, partial representations of the human form, and therefore the sculptural equivalent of a subject-cropping blow-up. They provide a rebus for the idea of fracture, allowing a verbal shift from the Latin "bustum" (a funeral monument) to the Old English "bersten" (to burst). The studio's several polychrome equivalents establish a Wahlverwandschaft with the vulgar clown head (emblem of the artist vagabond), and also with the colored ceramic bust at Ron's party. Unlike the polychrome clown head, the other busts are chastely fashioned parian ware. Some of them hem in the landscape that Thomas wants to examine, and, as he unpacks them, we glimpse the features of Abraham Lincoln, a hinted critique of the enslavement of model by photographer. Most landscapes contain staffage--tiny, nondescript figures designed to fix its scale--but the busts are Brobdingnagian in relation to the picture they block from view. Because they are out of scale with the sub-Wilsonian mountain picture behind them, their removal takes on the force of a parable, given the fact that Thomas is about to enter Maryon Park. There, tight close-ups will yield to long shots, and claustrophobic clutter and containment will give way to the liberty of an al fresco environment.
So much for found art. For our fourth movement, let us turn to film's images of art in the making--or at least its trivial approximation. This idea is contained by the street mimes whose antics bracket the film, and by the models from which Thomas fashions his fashionable imagery. Antonioni connects them by palette and pallor, different instances of an art suborned and functionless in itself, but meaningful in the unwitting social commentary it provides. The mimes are first seen in a soulless, commercial space, and the people who invade it are the very converse of the bowler hats one would ordinarily expect to find there. This juxtaposition activates an implied tension between conforming society and the artist vagabond, upon whose activities Mr Podsnap--archetypal merchant--sets firm limits in Our Mutual Friend:
"Music; a respectable performance (without variations) ... sedately expressive of... going to the City at ten. Nothing else to be permitted to those same vagrants the Arts, on pain of excommunication" (bk 1, 128). But the students provide only token emblems of anarchy, their mindless screams eventually taking form in the word "money." Like Mardi Gras or the feast of Saturnalia, their rag "stunt" amounts to a sanctioned, provisional chaos, its energy inoculated by the system it challenges. Antonioni underlines this by giving them a crypto-military Land Rover instead, say, of the players' wagon we see in Petit's Les Forains. Religion and militarism--props of the lost British empire--figure in the nuns (a Catholic rather than an Anglican metonym that reveals the director's Italian hand) and the busbied soldier, but the mimes do not overturn these icons of social oppression; they simply eddy around them.
It is only in the tennis-match coda that the representatives of the "vagrant arts" offer a commentary comparable to that of the players in Hamlet. Nor is the "art" produced by Thomas's studio any more potent, being conceived both as a record and an embodiment of consumerist luxury. Just as rococo issued from social indifference of the Bourbon court, so Thomas creates his colorful and glamorous images--stylized, abstract clothes on stylized, abstract figures--within striking distance of a monochrome doss house, a fact that the mimes have been impotent to change or even to illuminate. Their manic activity for activity's sake equates, as something equally futile, with the immobile decorativeness of the living mannequins in the studio. Here everything is controlled and geometric, the lucite screens recalling the perspectival coulisses of the Bibienas (though they also look ahead by a delayed raccord to the irregular "wings" of the park from which Thomas takes his voyeuristic photos). One senses an allusion to medieval pageants of the deadly sins, and, although only one figure (tricked out in peacock feathers) has affinity with representations of "Superbia," others are, even so, glimmeringly emblematic. A transvestite jockey recalls the demimonde of Hogarth's rake, and an outsized chasuble and parodic mantilla the oppressive vestments of Catholicism. But none (in my opinion) is presented as the object of a "dominating male gaze" (Brunette 113), this kind of artifice having no truck with the sonsy pin-up, destined as it is for Vogue rather than Playboy. The gaze is certainly oppressive, but it actually has a feminine locus.
Some of the mannequin postures are balletic, picking up Verushka's immaculate a la seconde and a la quatrieme croisee, and linking indirectly to the film's "Bourbon" element--the five positions of ballet having codified the deportment of the Sun-King's court. These poses point to the artifice of swinging London, and also to its decadence, as witness the presence in the living room of that Louis Quinze tablet. The Verushka sequence, which Antonioni sandwiches between the doss house and mannequin episodes, does, however, have a glimmer of life within its artifice. Unlike the mannequin models, Verushka is sensual, and therefore deserves Brunette's stricture about the male gaze. But there is, even so, a measure of consensuality, and Thomas does not manhandle and bully her as he does the others. Indeed, his "petite mort" cry--"Make it come"--delegates the act of climax and, incidentally, invites a cross-reference to the "Go away" of the anti-nuclear placard, the model directing her body at a lens, the protester sounding a note of petulance rather than social outrage. The anti-nuclear protest amounts, in fact, to an allomorph of the rag antics-as uncommitted, unimpassioned, and numerically feeble as they--and the mushroom cloud on a banner matches the tower of ostrich plumes during the Verushka shoot, their smoky, fiery colors trivializing the weapon as an "accessory," an artifact constructed from the trappings of the Bourbon regime. Antonioni, for his part, superimposes Thomas on a triad of these plumes. As the emblem of the Prince of Wales, they signify a frivolous and uncommitted life (we need only think of Prince Hal, George IV, and Edward VII), and impart a mordant irony to their implied "subscriptio" of service ("Ich dien").
Although "emblem" is often used loosely as a synonym for "symbol," it differs from the latter in its didactic clarity. We have already noted the way in which Antonioni slips signage into the film to approximate its traditional "subscriptiones," but there are also other ways to make an image work in an editorial--which is to say an emblematic--way. Brunette remarks that the "intercuts between the merrymakers and the homeless men" are "heavily, almost didactically, oppositional" (110), and Arrowsmith that "what we see is emphatically informed by the context, the black-and-white photos of flophouse displayed against a glass of wine, napkins, plates of food" (111). "Heavily," "emphatically"--the didactic deictic that we find in traditional emblem, where images are explicated point by point: "that square & specked stone ... / Is Patience" (Herbert 66). However, one can make "instructive" equations not only through intercuts and delayed graphic matches but also through alignments within single shots. When the homeless leave the doss house and a little girl runs between them, she supplies a Blakean note of innocence by moving in an energetic and graceful curve through a shapeless, shuffling mass. There is also, perhaps, a political dimension here, even if the film's position might strike Brunette as being "less than obvious" (110). Could not the running girl present the promise of social renovation, like the gracile sapling we see a few seconds later? Brunette makes the latter the "skinny" signifie of "depressed urban surroundings" (115), but as I see it, it is not so much malnourished as newly planted-taking root a world hitherto neglectedly grey and treeless. While on matters vegetable, I would also take issue in passing with Brunette's suggestion that the grass of the titles is "sickly looking" (115). Variegated with weeds, it is the very essence of ecological health, and much to be preferred to the even, poisonous emerald of a golf course. Its patchiness expressly countervails the even green fabric, the sterile "lawn" of Thomas's carpet.
Another Blakean chord is struck by the boy behind the gate when Thomas visits Bill and Patricia. He is the emblem of the former's notional exclusion (as an artist manque) from the creative space he is about to enter, and also of Patricia's unavailability. This "garden of love" has been proscribed, and "Thou shalt not writ over the door" (Blake 212). Bill's "fertile" green door contrasts with Thomas's black one, the street number of which--39--amounts to an ancestral voice prophesying war. Plants grow in the artist's studio, and its kitchen offers nourishment (as witness the Chardinesque still-life at one point) whereas Thomas's provides only burnt toast, coffee, and inedible eggs. Yet another Blakean note is sounded when he exits the park, unwitting bearer of mortal images inside his camera, and a woman wheels a pram up the hill. Those pictures, intended to provide a "peaceful" epilogue to his chronicle of doss-house London, will show that death exists even in a context of pastoral innocence--the ancient lesson of "Et in Arcadia ego." In a pattern of contrary motion, experience in the form of Thomas descends from its hill of revelation, and new-born innocence rises toward it, each striking dissonance off the other as they pass.
The claustrophobia of studio and antique shop is offset by the three life-altering excursions to Maryon Park, and some thoughts on this space will constitute the last movement of my suite. The entry into the park marks a point of transition, for Thomas is carrying his old assumptions of power into an environment where they no longer obtain. It is significant that the four Tilia cordatas have been symmetrically aligned and paved up to their trunks with macadam of the same purple-black as the paper of the Verushka shoot--a studioview of the natural world, in other words, and predicated upon the same imposition of artifice. Properly to escape that world, however, he has first to traverse a staircase (the Jacob's ladder motif again), for Maryon Park comprises a graded system of wildnesses. Its first and most artificial level (the macadamized circus, the rolled lawn, the court, and the formal beds of flowers) is guarded by a uniformed attendant, an authority figure related to the nuns and soldier near the start. Her ill-fitting clothes and over-ample hips disqualify her as a subject for Thomas's camera--still at the mercy of his "fashionable" eye--but Antonioni follows her attentively with his as she struts into the distance. A compound familiar ghost of Oliver Hardy and Charlie Chaplin, with a refuse spear instead of a walking stick, she echoes the bowler-hatted clown in the shop, an alignment that groups her, for all her uniformed officialdom, with those commentative "vagabonds"--the rag students and protestors. She represents the self-importance of authority, and, as its unconscious self-parody, she deconstructs it. Antonioni offers another implicit rebuke to Thomas when, still in studio mode, he tries to bully the park pigeons into flight. This crude exercise of will has no result, and looks ahead to the moment when he scatters a "flock" of West African men by driving his car through their midst. The one thing needful in this new environment is patient receptivity. This attitude Antonioni has in abundance, and it is he who films the arc of pigeon flight when he turns his camera to the left. The montage makes it clear that this moment has been lost to Thomas's camera, notwithstanding Arrowsmith's claim that he (Thomas) "focuses on one--one bird in free flight" (113). The bird in question (signature of benediction) originates in the natura naturans of the upper terrace, very different in character from the natura naturata of the lower. Here a picket fence keeps at bay a dense mass of hawthorn, an interface of ungovernable impulse and artificial regulation. The effect of this is compounded by the changing character of the pickets, regimented on the path that leads up from the circus, malformed and rusticated on the plateau. It is in this space that Thomas will finally lose control of his life and be brought to a cognition of his helplessness.
Even the crispest emblems in Blow-Up pose heuristic problems. Sometimes they are sufficiently framed to solicit interpretation on their own terms; sometimes, arriving in the continuous texture of accidents, they are more equivocal. But then again--a fact that the film itself dramatizes--is intentionality essential to meaning? Isn't it possible for analysis--the analogue of a photographic blow-up--to retrieve what was artistically intuited rather than formulated in the conscious mind. These doubts and questions are cognate with the questions raised by the plot of the film, questions quite as difficult to answer. Did Jane's "lover" die of fright when he saw the gun? Did he die of a wholly unmotivated heart attack? Was there ever any intention to kill him, and was the gun trained on Jane to force her through the odious task--a Cold War episode akin to the recent Keeler scandal? As is the case with Keats's urn, the answers will never come--indeed they cannot--and we are teased "out of thought" (Keats 210). It is significant that, in the lingering shot of the orgy bedroom near the end--a glossy approximation of the doss house near the start--we see a detail of the Sistine Madonna on the wall. We have no idea what the putti on the parapet are looking at, cropped as they are from their larger context. Painters ordinarily use these cherubs as repoussoirs (attention-directors), and we assume that their function will become apparent in context. But it turns out that the bigger picture offers no solution at all. They are looking neither at the virgin nor at Catherine, but rather at something wholly unknown to us, and outside our field of vision. And that, in an emblematic nutshell, is the audience experience of Blow-Up.
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--. Our Mutual Friend. Intro. E. Salter Davies. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1952.
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--. Twelfth Night. Ed. J. M Lothian and T. W. Craik. London: Methuen, 1975.
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(1) The glossary of film analysis lacks a term to describe the sequential connection of markedly disjunct frames, and many writers are forced to misapply "jump cut" to fill the void. So I have neologized "leap cut" as a stop-gap term for the phenomenon.
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|Title Annotation:||Michelangelo Antonioni|
|Author:||Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2011|
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