In the following essay I will look at Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blowup trough the lens of the revelationist tradition – and ask whether cinema can reveal something that the human eye of nerves, flesh and blood cannot see by itself? Image copyright Michelangelo Antonioni; fair use for illustrative purposes.
Four influential filmmakers and film theorists from the 1920s onward indeed believed the cinemascope had a power to reveal things unseen by the eye, not unlike the telescope and the microscope. The British film theorist Malcolm Turvey coined a name for this tradition in cinema – “revelationism”.
In his critique Turvey re-constructs the positions on cinematic revelation of Jean Epstein, Dziga Vertov, Bela Balazs, and Siegfried Kracauer – the Revelationists – and then proceeds to disprove their positions in hopes – as he himself argues – of leading film studies towards a future where terminology is used with analytic precision. I subsequently advance an analysis of the potential for revelation in Antonioni’s 1966 film Blowup in the light of arguments set forth by Turvey, Bazin, and Benjamin – and argue that cinema indeed does have a revelatory power but not that of Turvey’s constructed revelationist tradition – but one that is erotic in the sense of the third gaze of the camera – pertaining to interest in relationships unseen by the eye but revealed by the camera between spaces, objects, and people.
The Revelationist Tradition
The question of revelation has been relevant to discussions of film studies since the beginning of the history of cinema. Perhaps best manifest in drawing the popular distinction between documentary non-fiction filmmaking and fiction filmmaking. But also relevant specifically within the domain of fictional filmmaking. For instance Bazin argues that between 1920 and 1940, there are the directors “who put their faith in the image” and those “who put their faith in reality” (Bazin, 2004, pg 24). The former exemplified by Eisenstein’s editing and German Expressionism’s dramatic sets and lighting is an oneiric illusion, where “the creation of a sense or meaning [is] not objectively contained in the images themselves but derived exclusively from their juxtaposition” (pg 25). And the latter – the revelationist cinema – commanding where the “image is evaluated not according to what it adds to reality but what it reveals of it” (pg 6).
Using the analytic philosophy of Wittgenstein and Ryle, Turvey argues that the inaccuracies in the language used by revelationist filmmakers, for example the comparisons between the cinematic camera and the instruments of scientific enquiry: microscopes and telescopes – are profoundly misleading; reaching the conclusion that human sight, even though fallible, “is not limited to the extent that theorists in the revelationist tradition claim” (lk 113). Turvey argues that while cinema can and does lead attention to specific parts of the scene, thinking that it reveals something unseen to the human eye constitutes a “category mistake” (lk 72). Turvey proposes in his critique that Epstein, Vertov, Balazs, and Kracauer mean their arguments literally, not as mere metaphor, and ventures to speculate that for the revelationists, “cinema had the potential to be an art of mass enlightenment, and this is why they held its revelatory power in such high regard” (lk 8).
The Slow Motion & The Close-up
I propose the human eye is fallible in 2 categories. One: size – an enlargement of a small object invisible to the naked eye at a standing distance will be visible through a cinematic close-up; and two: time – a slow motion capture of an event reveals higher resolution information than the eye in its natural state is unable to see (and the brain to process). The logic of the fallibility of the human sight lies behind the existence of speed cameras, cameras in department stores, and it’s solution is the job description of police investigators who shift through hours of film footage, looking for minute details that could reveal hint.
Like the introduction of sound in it’s heyday, recent technological developments such as ambient surround sound, higher resolution capture superseding film, 3D images and large-screen theaters such as IMAX, the push by James Cameron to increase projection frame-rate to 48 frames per second – are each a step towards building stronger engagement with the viewer, bringing the experience closer to reality. However, independent of the content, documentary, or fictional, technological prowess is always an impeding trend for the traditionalist. For instance Balázs worries that with the introduction of sound, people are less and less attentive when watching a movie and get carried away by the “word culture” (Turvey, 2008, pg 39). With each layer of technological complexity added to the film, the more dire the consequences are for Balázs. A film using complex media will direct our attention more, with the viewer more strongly led by the director through sound and imagery. The shot length has been getting shorter with each decade – we have less time to look. Things are revealed to us: less and less it’s us who are doing the revealing. It feels safer to be in the arms of a film/director that leads us, that keeps our attention and understands the pacing and emotional structure necessary to never lose us. But we have less time to think. A silent film, much like the later cinema of Jacques Tati and Michelangelo Antonioni, needed our full, awakened attention to the expression of the characters to understand what was happening. The movies of today, do not – as we are led.
Cameras that capture images at up to 4000 frames per second (such as Weismann) do allow cinema do reveal aspects of reality that remain unseen to the naked eye when played back at normal speeds, resulting in a slow-motion re-production. The wings of a bee, the flight of a bullet, a rain droplet hitting the surface of a pool of water, the breaking balloon, the legs of a galloping horse (the original example of Eadweard Muybridge), the behavior of new materials, such as gelatin, the study of explosions, the conclusions of a sports race sports replay, the study of human movements – but most relevant to cinema: the fleeting microexpression of joy or pain on a person's otherwise emotionless face. Businesses use the beauty of slow motion images to sell products: the flowing motion of melted chocolate is appealing to the consumers; the curvature of the foam visible in slow motion as a freshly opened beer falls into a glass induces thirst. These images can only be captured through a camera and remain invisible to the naked eye.
Regardless of its merits before physical sight, a camera can lead our attention – film, arguably to a greater extent than reachable by any other medium, save perhaps video games, leads through indexality: movies can direct our attention to things that we did not pay attention to previously and reveal the relationship of such things to other things. The understanding of the power relationships within the images become as apparent to us as photogénie is to Epstein when the cinematic object becomes “alive with character”, as a personal object, through which we – “see our hopes and memories” (Turvey). It is like Duchamp taking an object such as the toilet and putting it into a museum for everybody’s attention. It’s not the object that matters: it’s our perception of it. When you think you see someone but when they come closer you recognize that that’s not them: a Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit.
Blowup’s protagonist – fashion photographer Thomas (figures 1 and 2) – is obsessed with a series of photographs (figure 3) he took in a park of what he believes is a dead body (a murder?) visible within the images. By day a fashion photographer working with models the grade of Verushka, this is a new type of preoccupation for him. Fashion photography is concerned with the appearance of the body with objective to sell more clothes, in the context of the capitalist system. But Thomas is now visibly disinterested in his work and prefers to take pictures of the lives of workers – and now this mysterious predicament. This is a revelation of Thomas’ relationship towards his work, and his connection to his true passion in photography. Thomas dresses like one of the workers to be able to take pictures of them for a picture book that he is developing – a hint at people’s perception of him and the reality being different.
Blowup lends itself to a study of “not only the photographic object but also the position of the viewer/voyeur” (Healy). Thomas spends the length of the movie making enlargements of the photographs that he believes contain clues about the attempted murder that his camera witnessed. The fallacy highlighted by Turvey is represented in the film, as if somehow by blowing up the image more and more, getting into finer and finer detail, reality will reveal itself. But that’s not accurate, as the film “will just get grainier” (Brunette, 2004). In the course of these approximately 24 hours Thomas returns 4 times to the park where he captured an image of the dead body. Always seen with a camera, a photographer by nature, he’s now shaken to the extent of forgetting to bring his camera with him – and when he returns, the body is already gone. This is a revelation of his character; the camera allows us to make the connection between the images we see of Thomas as a professional; and of Thomas as a human being in a frightening situation (figure 9 on page 8).
The film is sensual in the sense of appealing to senses (figure 3); Thomas looks, touches, and with each of those acts reveals a relationship. In the park, Thomas moves as a dancer, ducking and hiding between the trees to capture the images. As noted by Manning: dance, more than other mediums, and exemplified by the choreography of Keersmaeker, with bodies moving together within an empty space, creates a relationscape: famously filmed with a camera by Thierry De Mey that seems to move with – in a separate dance, a choreography of the image. The entrance of a body creates the room. “My movement creates the space I will come to understand as “the room.” The room is defined as my body + the environment, where the environment is an atmospheric body. Without that particular moving body that particular environment does not exist” (Manning, 2009).
The serial nature of the images allows the camera to demonstrate a story, narrative, not just a single image. Thomas arranges photographs into a series, because this highlights the relationships between them (figures 4-6), hoping that it reveals what happened. In the park scene, we see Thomas from the point of view of the movie-camera. And later, when we see the photographs of Thomas, we see his point of view. The camera is always the third gaze, highlighting the relationship between people, spaces, and objects. Within the space of the park, there is the lady – Jane; the unnamed older man; the bushes the gun; and then, in a later photograph: the (dead?) body in the bushes, highlighting the sequentially of what happened – the timeline of the event.
Moreover, in the park, the relationship between the photographer and the society becomes revealed in the confrontation between Thomas and Jane; Thomas says he’s only doing his work while Jane feels her privacy has been violated. It is not only what the camera can see, but also what parts of reality the society allows the camera to see.
Studying the underlying text to Antonioni’s screenplay for Blow-Up (co-written with his long-time collaborator Tonino Guerra): Julio Cortàzar’s short story “Las babas del diablo” – The Devil Drools released in Buenos Aires in 1959, exposes particular insights. “Cortazar and Antonioni both have their respective photographer/hero go out into the field to capture “reality” – only to come back with “no” (Porcari, 2010). Filmed from above, the cinematography provides the third person narrative used in the story. The writer is the supposed master of his story but “the story fights back and hanging in the balance is nothing less than Truth itself” (Gold, 2008). We are left with a question, whether to trust the story/cinematographer or to trust the writer/photographs.
Thomas’ friend Bill continuously paints new images on canvases without any understanding what they mean. He claims one day he will understand what they mean. This is an example of how meaning is created with the human cognition making sense a posteriori, after the fact of creation – just like Thomas is trying to make sense of the content of his photographs (figures 7-8). That is to say, human eyes and cognition are poor in real-time; the cinematic medium allows for time to reflect on the images and ponder on their meaning. Perception versus reality develops to the climax: it is only in the process of analysis and editing, that the superior power of the human brain becomes useful. What one sees in real-time is perception – the human sight is poor in recognizing detail that is so fast in passing: being there at the right moment, putting together relevant pieces of what the eye sees. “Photography reveals another nature to the eye, bringing into experience details and spaces which typically elude apperception” (Benjamin, 2009).
This is the job of the filmmaker: to direct the attention towards specific themes in social reality that the viewer may be unaware of and their relationship with it. Cinema is utopia, as the relationship with any individual with any other individual may be displayed. It destroys the normal curriculum of life as alternative ways of living become apparent – and can be pointed to, highlighting the indexical nature of cinema. A mechanical recording serves as a shared proof of reality as the memory of people is fallible and only available to the person: cinema allows one to share memory. Erin Manning creates the notion of relationscape, spaces with relationships between objects, spaces, ideas and people in movement. The bodies of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker in Rosas danst rosas, bodies in relationships, movements in movement and in relationships. Relationships are what cinema can and does reveal, and thus cinema is always erotic in terms of being interested in relationships.
Turvey convincingly rebuts the theories of the revelationist tradition. But cinema does have a revelatory power in another sense: to capture and to point out relationships. Mulvey concludes in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema that “cinema satisfies a primordial wish for pleasurable looking” (2009, pg 8). The gaze satisfies a psychological relationship of power. The spectator experiences “fascination with likeness and recognition: the human face, the human body, the relationship between the human form and its surroundings, the visible presence of the person in the world” (lk 8). Filmmakers such as Tati and Antonioni have used that power sparingly, leaving the viewer with a question mark: an ability to make the choice what to look at and to form their own ideas about what is related to what. Hitchcock is known for misleading the viewer, creating relationships that might now be untrue, and then surprising the viewer with a revelation. There is a dichotomy between Hitchcock and Antonioni, one leading the viewer, the other refraining from leading. In that choice or lack of choice, lies the power of filmmaking to lead the vision, even if the camera is “merely and thing that objectifies reality” (Branigan, 2006).
Perception requires participation, and cinema’s use of “close-ups, editing, slow motion, etc. present this nature to attention” (Fay, 2008,pg 53). The “unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man” (lk 53). Cinema has the erotic power of the gaze to show realities we have little access to – the relationships between things, spaces, and people. Terence Donovan’s series Strippers that depicts women who work in clubs. “But the pictures [show] them walking home after work, shopping for groceries or watching television at home” (Porcari, 2010). Who would spend their time following strippers back to their homes to see how they live? And who would get that access. Through utopic access, shot selection and editing, a film curates the world for us, selecting the pieces and describing relationships between them – which may be fictional – as demonstrated by Hitchcock and Kuleshov.
Finally, today, with expanded cinema that includes movies made by amateurs: lovers, in the original sense of the world, with small cameras, and mobile phones – allows cinema to be shared. This underlines the increasing erotic nature of cinema, as the gaze of someone can be shared with friends: people will know what I look at – and through online means, with a potentially global audience of followers and commenters. The movie is increasingly a social object, like a photograph. The recent acquisition of Instagram, a mobile photos haring application, underlines the trust media and technology industry leaders put into this phenomenon. It’s also an indicator of the continued convergence of media, where technology and art move forward in a dialectical fashion, one making the other possible, and meanwhile the other pushing the former forth – in a dance that allows all of us to share our erotic gaze – in the future tense: our memories.