The essence of art cinema is ambiguity. Some art films lead you down winding narratives, lining up different perspectives for scrutiny (a la Rashomon) or throwing out much semblance of a plot altogether (a la Mulholland Drive). Others leave the morals of their characters up in the air, forcing the viewer to render a verdict (Bicycle Thieves). Most art films play with perspective, trying to undermine the sanctity of the disembodied camera recording unnoticed that Hollywood ascribes to. Very often, the camera adopts a disorienting or subtly prejudiced view of an art film’s characters, or otherwise encourages a meta-cinematic reading, meaning that terms like “voyeurism” and “the gaze” enter the conversation.
Brakhage, of course, aspired to convey a new way of seeing throughout his life. An early effort like Desistfilm has the the capacity to shock today, over 60 years later, because it disorients us in a familiar space. Who thought we could find a college party more nauseating through film than through actual witness and participation? Yet the energy of Brakhage’s buzzing, flying camera not only throws the visual plane in scrambles but also leaves the possessor of such a perspective unclear. Is he trying to simulate the revelry of the twentysomethings of his time, or trick us with a visceral satire of how alarmist adults viewed the rebellioius James Deans and Natalie Woods that were their children in the 1950s? It is difficult to depart with a final answer, yet the meta-cinematic style assures us we keep asking these questions. As Brakhage puts it, “Very often people look directly at the camera and sometimes even flash a smile. Or I would include references to the fact that it was a film—flares, scratched titles, etc. ... I believe most artists whose work has any lasting value to a culture put out warning signs like these to say this is not a window into reality but an art work” (Ganguly 141).
Antonioni based the foundation of his art on the act of seeing: “My narratives are documents built not on a suite of coherent ideas, but rather on flashes, ideas that come forth every other moment” (91). He knows a disciplined, inquisitive viewer will question the images shown on screen, accepting each shot not as some objective truth of a diegetic moment but more a revealing or a concealing in service of mood and theme. Story as well, but in such a plot-light film as Blow-Up, we do not decode what happens so much as how it happens.
In fact, Antonioni seems to deliberately flaunt any forward progression of narrative throughout most of Blow-Up. When the photographer shoots a few models, he gets bored and does something else. When he gets Vanessa Redgrave to come over and undress, he leaves the room to spend time retrieving a useless boat propellor. Seymour Chantman says, “In Blow-Up, distraction is no longer simply a bad habit: it has become a way of life” (140). The fleeting impermeance of the events leads us to grasp onto the mostly staid, contemplative cinematography to find our meaning. Yet “even the surfaces have become deceptive,” as the memorable fade-out in the last shot proves (Chantman 142). The photographer and the epiphany he reaches — I personally think he is seduced back to the fantasy life, away from the worrisome burden of vigilante investigation — matters less than the conclusion the viewer reaches, regarding the act of watching Blow-Up.
“I just watched a film that tricked me,” a viewer can conclude, “yet the arrogance to which it meets that goal astounds me.” We are seduced by naked bodies that are “neither erotic nor vulgar” (Antonioni 91). We are riveted by a murder story that goes nowhere. We are pulled in yet left at a distance. The clinicality of Antonioni’s images contain meaning on their own, as we have discussed in class already. But these images ultimately prove the power of cinema — art cinema, specifically — lies in the potency we presume all cinematographic images to have, even as we never think twice about what we see through our very eyes.
Antonioni, Michelangelo. The Architecture of Vision: Writing and Interviews on Cinema.
Chatman, Seymour. Antonioni or, The Surface of the World.
Ganguly, Suranjan. "Stan Brakhage: The 60th Birthday Interview." Experimental Cinema: The Film Reader.