Signs and Meaning in Blow-Up: From Cortazar to Antonioni: Marvin D'Lugo

Michelangelo Antonioni 1966

David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave 1966

There comes a moment of crisis in Julio Cortāzar's short story "Blow-Up"[1] as Roberto Michel, a translator photographer, now distanced from an event he had previously observed and photographed, looks back at an enlargement of the scene only to discover that his original manner of construing characters and situation was really a lie, a falsification of personal experience only belatedly realized. The same traumatic revelation of the photographer's error is given central importance in the Michelangelo Antonioni film, loosely based upon the Cortázar story. Both versions suggest in strikingly similar terms the inauthenticity of certain forms of representation of reality; each reveals a growing dissatisfaction with the very processes of articulation – verbal and graphic languages – which have reached such a schism with the content they presume to express, that they come ultimately to betray that reality.[2]

In both works we find a character who, at the moment of external challenge to his way of being, voices a statement in his own defense. "I am a photographer." This revealing assumption of personal identification with the technological means of reproducing images is one which forces us to consider a series of essential relations and values emanating from the peculiar way in which each protagonist looks upon his experience and upon himself.

The photographer considers himself to be a communicator of what is for him a problematic reality emerging from his experience of seeing. He investigates that reality. From the vantage he has defined for himself he struggles to sort things out, as though deciphering a message from some long-forgotten language; eventually he attempts to convey the meaning he sees in the events and objects he has examined. In the film the pattern of the detective story, first suggested to the photographer by his friend the painter,[3] becomes an analogy to his task of photographing and then arranging the details of the world in some coherent order. The photographer's compilation of a book of photographs, to include a picture of a couple he saw embracing in a deserted park, becomes a further manifestation of his rage for order in seeing and experiencing the world. Cortazar's photographer is concurrently involved in the task of translating a legal treatise into French, yet another parallel to the idea of sorting things out and transforming them into a special order.

At the heart of both story and film structure there is a scene which the photographer has witnessed and subsequently photographed. From the camera angle, both scenes, clearly different in scope and setting, appear to be forms of seduction. Cortazar's photographer sees a woman and an adolescent boy on a quay on an island in the Seine; an older man is seated in a nearby car, pretending to read a newspaper but actually observing the pair. Roberto Michel surmises that the scene is one of a seduction of the youth by a prostitute. In the Antonioni version the photographer views a young woman and an older man in sensuous embrace in a deserted London park. As each photographer takes his picture, the click of the camera alerts his subjects to his presence. They glance up at him as he is observing them; in both instances an argument ensues in which the characters attempt to retrieve the film from the photographer.

Curiously, in both versions the photographer casts himself from the very start in the role of voyeur to what is seen, emphasizing what will later become apparent as his constant referral to a surrogate position to his own experiences. His attitude to these events he has observed is an important indicator of his perception of life as a photo-ontology; he implicitly transforms his experience into a static photograph, making no distinction in his mind between the elements of his personal environment. People and things are perceived as immobile objects; all experience is made the static image before his camera lens.

As photographer-protagonists, both men share a common identity, a similar technological mask. Indeed, the proximity of the camera lens to the photographer's eye, the literalization of that mask, demonstrates the crucial lack of distance between the man and his technology. He comes to confuse his own identity with that of the camera, falsely believing himself unattached to the observed incident. The photographer defines his own role in the photographic analogy to life as that of an impersonal camera consciousness, apprehending the images of inert objects, defining the proper perspective of the camera to those objects, finally imposing an order and meaning upon the object world. He does not suspect that his relation to the world around him is a little less distant, and indeed considerably more intimate than his camera-man analogy suggests. He does not see, or does not choose to see, the signs of affinity between himself and what appears through the impersonal mediation of the camera lens.

Technology is more than a simple artistic metaphor for each man's identity. The rapprochement of his personal perspective to that of the camera has reached a critical impasse in which his very consciousness as man is subsumed by the camera syntax. The transformations of human experience into the photographic image is always necessarily at variance with the dynamics of personal circumstance. The camera paralyzes that experience into static impressions on a photographic plate. By aligning himself to the camera ontology, in both the act of photography as well as in his relations with the outside world, the photographer is violating the very sense of human experience. Michel declares in a phrase the implicit credo held by both men in this redefinition of reality: "My strength has been a photograph (p. 114)."

Thus the blow-up, central symbol for both Cortázar and Antonioni, will itself signify the protagonist's distortion of perspective and consciousness; the enlargement of the shots of seduction will loom more vividly in his mind than will the actual incident. His fixation with his own technology will cause his experience of the world to be deformed, ultimately to be displaced by that technology.[4]

Each photographer tacitly structures his external environment as would the camera lens, that is, in terms of the relevance and meaning of objects dictated by a detached angle of vision. Each man actively pursues that angle of detachment: Michel stations himself on a bridge overlooking the couple on the quay; Antonioni's photographer will similarly view the world around him as though it were the raw material with which he is to build the parts of his book of photographs. The nature of the crisis which develops out of this photographic imposition over the real world comes ultimately to reveal the basic contradiction in the assumption of the photo-ontological universe.

By imposing the subject-object cleavage of viewer to viewed, the photographer is afforded a momentary control over his external circumstance. But at crucial junctures, those moments when the objects look back upon the viewer, he encounters a troubling reality. A radically different system of relations emerges and the photographer's sense of authority is challenged. In this new system relations are reciprocal, subject and objects are interchangeable states of being, reflecting a more human and less mechanical structuration of experience and response.

Through a deeply-rooted identification with the technology of everyday life – the camera as generalized symbol for a vast array of mechanical artifacts – the photographer has become the embodiment of a technological Narcissus figure, drawn to what he thinks to be a reality beyond himself; neither man apprehends at first that the objects of his concern are really images of himself.[5] The initial crisis depicted within the story and the film is, therefore, one of the non-recognition of the reciprocal facets of human experience and identity. Camera-man has effectively amputated his own experiences from his body as well as from his psyche. He cannot read the signs of his affinity with the world beyond his camera and therefore struggles unsuccessfully to move that reciprocal reality into the less troubled subject-object mold.

The camera becomes the basis for the photographer’s apprehension of meaning in the signs of his experience. André Bazin has noted: "All the arts are based on the presence of man, only photography, through the instrumentality of the nonliving agent – the camera – derives an advantage from his absence."[6] So, significantly, the assumption of the camera identity and the camera syntax, distanced and immobile as points of reference to the physical world, signifies a negation of self for each protagonist, while the objects of his scrutiny provoke his crisis of consciousness through their reciprocity to each other, and to him. The human body, characterized through the erotics of human experience and response, reflects the viewer's state of self-denial and thus becomes the object of his concern. The relation of bodies to the camera provokes his eventual traumatic revelations.

In Cortâzar's story the rebellion of the object world is precipitated as the woman and the older man look back at Michel taking their picture; their image pursues him, even to his studio as he enlarges the picture of the encounter on the quay and is seized by the horrifying recognition of the true nature of the relation: the woman had been sent to procure the youth for the older man. Michel is transfixed by the blow-up of the woman and the man peering at him as they move toward the camera. Their glances are directed toward him from within the enlargement he has tacked on his studio wall, and thus he can feel himself to be the exploited object of their observing eyes. It is only from this new arrangement of objects to the viewer – when in effect Michel is transformed into the double of the youth by standing in relation to the seducers where the boy would have stood – that the fullest sense of the subject-object tyranny is brought home to him. By reliving the incident in place of the boy, the photographer is forced not only to concede the technical error of his distortion of experience, but more importantly, he is made to feel the impact of personal violation through the observer presence of another.

Homosexual seduction, like the camera-man analogy, reveals the essential violation of truth and self; both patterns of relations stand as indictments of Michel's attempt to distance himself from the very locus of his experiences. The photographer comes to realize that the nature of the observer-object relation is. in effect, an act of exploitation. Just as he had exploited the experiences of others by attempting to photograph the seduction, he now feels himself exploited and violated by the menacing glares of the two seducers. At the heart of Cortâzar's story is the recognition of the process of violation of the individual's instinctual reality by the distanced "other," who appears to encroach upon the physical and spiritual autonomy of the individual.

Antonioni's film follows the same broad contours of interaction between camera and body. The woman in the park engages the photographer in an argument hoping to retrieve the roll of film of her embraces with the older man. This first reversal of the subject-object relation, a parallel to the Cortázar version, is less traumatic for the photographer than it was for Roberto Michel.

It is only as the characters from the park incident encroach on the photographer's mind that his crisis of identity intensifies.

First a man peers at the photographer who is seated in a restaurant talking to his publisher. The viewer becomes the object viewed and is immediately shaken by his loss of control over his experience. When the anonymous woman from the park appears in his studio, attempting to offer herself in exchange for the roll of film, the crisis deepens. This encounter, unlike the original park scene, is curiously devoid of erotic overtones, as Antonioni equates the exchange of the roll of film, a product of one kind of sexual exploitation, with the sex act, another form of bodily exploitation.

After she leaves, the photographer enlarges the park shots, believing himself again to be in a superior and controlled position; as subject-observer he thinks he has detected a gunman in the bushes observing the couple as he had been, possibly the same man who had followed him to the restaurant. The photographer concludes that by taking the photograph and thus precipitating an argument with the woman he had actually saved the older man's life. This response is an echo of Roberto Michel's justification of taking his own picture; he had thwarted the seduction and had given the boy an opportunity to escape.

But the conscience-soothing rationalizations are short-lived. After a nude frolic with two aspiring models (yet another link in the chain of body eploitations), the photographer, lying prostrate on his studio floor, looks up at one of his enlargements of the park photographs. He thinks he now sees the older man lying dead in the bushes, possibly shot by the gunman. The dead man's body lies extended in the bushes as though a mirror reflection of the photographer who is sprawled in the identical position on his studio floor. Thus, the observer is momentarily transposed into the picture, as the object of his own contemplation. The implicit analogy of the two bodies in the same position brings the photographer to deduce the falsification of his previous manner of seeing. Again, as in Cortazar's original version, lucidity is achieved through a forced reciprocal arrangement of perspectives.

When he enters the apartment of his friend, the painter, in order to relate his discovery of the murder, he finds the painter and his wife making love; instead of leaving, the photographer remains and observes. As he stands there the painter's wife looks up and returns his glance. This erotic parallel to the viewer-viewed relation of the park incident recapitulates the two stages of the photographer's response to the instinctual stimuli around him: first he is voyeur; then his presence is transformed into the object of another's scrutiny. Again the exterior circumstances have converted his identity of subject-observer into an indictment of his own personal inauthenticity. His manner of being, his experiencing of his environment, becomes a transgression of the instinctual values of others. He exploits his own experiences, betraying the intimacy of others and of himself.

For this photographer as well as for Cortazar's protagonist, sensual experience allows for only two possible identities, those of participant or of voyeur. In their insistence upon the subject-object reality of the observer to the world each has denied himself the very instinctual gratification which he subliminally pursues through the lens of his camera. The sexual act in its many variations in story and film becomes a sign of the personal authenticity whose significance the photographer cannot apprehend until it is too late. Both men see the sexual act as an object, the human body as something devoid of human instinct or emotion.

Camera-man moves toward the surface of instinctual reality in the scenes of the life processes of others – old men in a public dormitory, seduction, love-making – yet implicitly the mask of the camera lens becomes the safeguard for each man, a self-imposed obstacle to the fruition of personal desire. A revealing example of this process comes early in the film when the photographer prepares to photograph a famous model in various sensuous poses. With camera in hand he approaches the undulating body of the model in an effort to excite her into more intimate gesticulations. The scene intentionally suggests a mock copulation with the camera serving as a substitute sex organ for the man. Throughout the film seeing becomes a subterfuge for the realization of personal desire. The photographer can only exploit, and his exploitation involves his own body as well as that of others.

For Antonioni's protagonist the impasse is finally reached when the dead man's body, detected in his now stolen photographs, also disappears. Corporeal reality, the one proof of the photographer's world and of his own identity in that world, is thus obliterated. In that mysterious disappearance the photographer realizes that his own existence has been invalidated; he comes to acknowledge falsification in his experiencing of his world.

The story and film reveal a remarkable consistency in their treatment of the aesthetic crisis of perception and its ensuing psychological complications. Three stages of challenge and response serve to anchor both variations of the same thematic development: 1) the isolated scene and the participants' reaction; 2) the eventual recognition by the photographer of his error and his subsequent effort to reconstruct the experience through the blow-up; 3) a reaction by the photographer to the full implications of his photo-ontological inauthenticity. It is primarily in this third stage where, as Cortázar states, Antonioni's interpretation appears distinct from that of the original story.

In the story the process of self-revelation is intensified as the three stages indicated are carefully reduced to a single painful present tense of action and lucidity; Roberto Michel sorts out and reevaluates his experience as he views the enlargements on the wall of his Paris studio. Attempting to reconstruct the events on the quay he comes to realize that he has become so deformed by the process of verbal and graphic deceits that he cannot retrieve himself from the depersonalization with which he has become so aligned. In the final passage of the story camera-man recedes into the total consciousness of the camera, immobilized as the camera is; he confuses the images of birds and buildings outside his window, thinking them one more photograph on his wall. Cortazar's message is thus the defeat of technological man, his inability to be reborn in the world of reciprocal humanity he has viewed. In the last sequence of the story all humanity is absented; Michel has become metamorphosed into the very lens of the camera as it views the world as a photograph.

In the Antonioni version, the final message is perhaps more optimistic, for as the photographer comes to acknowledge the defeat of his previous manner of seeing and of being, he manages to effect what appears to be the beginnings of change within himself. This scene moves back to the park where the traumatizing embrace occurred and from where the dead body had mysteriously disappeared. The concluding shots take place at dawn, a recurrent Antonioni image of hope and rebirth. The photographer views a group of students dressed for rag week, simulating a tennis match. When an imaginary tennis ball is hit off the court, the players gesture to the photographer to retrieve it; making a motion of picking up the ball, he throws it back to them. After a while he can even hear the sounds of the invisible ball as it is hit from one racket to the other.

Still observer, voyeur to life, he is freeing himself slowly from the literal dimensions of his former reality. In the final act of throwing the ball and in hearing the sound of the rackets he is at last moving into a realm of more reciprocal experience, one symbolized by the very reciprocity of the tennis players on the court before him. At last, it would seem, experience is a direct function of himself, unimpeded by the imposition of the alien technology.

But the scene is not without its ambiguity. Antonioni adds an ironic twist in the self-conscious manipulation of the film medium. The photographer's moment of lucidity is framed from above by Antonioni's camera, showing the photographer set against a field of grass. In the last image of the film the field of grass is shot from a different camera angle. The photographer has disappeared, transformed into an object by the camera, just as he had previously transformed the reality of others into the objects of his own scrutiny. Having chosen too late, the photographer has lost his aesthetic reality as man.

The body and the camera define the coordinates of the struggle for Cortazar and Antonioni. Human instinct vies with the depersonalized instrumentality man has erected for himself, supposedly as a communicator to humanity but which has become the isolator of humanity from him.

The dilemma of the two photographers is thus an explicit depiction of this struggle as a tension of choosing personal or peripheral identity in the world. Man must pause at the crossroads of his own existence and ponder the alternatives to his own future survival as man; he must choose between a new erotics of experience, or the hermeneutics of the experience of others. The crisis therefore becomes the imperative to choose, and, in the act of choosing, to assume one's authentic identity as man.


1   "Blow-Up" is the English translation of "Las babas del diablo" by the noted Argentine short story writer Julio Cortazar. The Spanish title, literally "In the Devil's Drool," is a colloquial phrase meaning to be in a dangerous situation. Page references in the text refer to the English translation: Blow-up and Other Stories, translated by Paul Blackburn, Third Printing (New York: Collier Books, 1968).

2   The nature of the similarities between story and film is, in part, explained by Cortazar himself: "... he (Antonioni) had recently happened to buy an Italian translation of my stories, and had found in Las babas del diablo' an idea that had been pursuing him for years; an invitation followed for me to meet him in Rome. We had a frank conversation there; the central idea of my story interested Antonioni, but its fantastic developments left him cold (also he had not fully understood the end), and he wanted to make his own film, make another invasion of the realm that was natural to him. I realized that the result would be the work of a great cinematographer but that I should have very little hand in the adaption and dialogue, although Antonioni was courteous enough to suggest a collaboration in the actual filming; so I let him have the story, ( . . .) I left Antonioni absolutely free to depart from my story and follow his own ghosts; and in search for them he met with some of mine" (Rita Guibert, Seven Voices [New York: Vintage Books. 1972]. p. 29).

3   The painter explains his relation to his own creation in terms markedly applicable to the film as a whole: "They don't mean anything when I do them, just a mess. Afterwards, I find something to hang on to (pointing) – like that leg. Then it sorts itself out; it's like finding a clue in a detective story.”

4   In the film the photographer's fascination with an airplane propeller is yet another example of those artifacts of technology whose original function and identity are obscured, but whose presence alter the course of events. When the deliveryman arrives with the propeller at the photographer's studio, the mysterious woman is able to make her escape with what she thinks is the roll of film.

5   For an extended discussion of the "self-amputated Narcissus figure'' see Marshall McLuhan. Understanding Media. 7th Printing (New York: McGraw-Hill. 1964). pp. 51- 56.

6   André Bazin. What is Cinema? translated by Hugh Gray (Berkeley and Los Angeles: U. of California Press, 1967), p. 13.