Antonioni’s Blow Up And The Chiasmus Of Memory

The conventional wisdom on Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up is that it questions the possibility of perceiving “reality” non-reflectively; that active signification, semiotic interpretation and conceptual meaning-production necessarily interject between the perceiving subject and the perceived object.  By this reading, the true meaning of the events in the park in Blow-Up can only be brought to light through the mediating function of Thomas’s (David Hemmings) photographs, and their reconstitution in the form of a semiotic narrative.  In this way, brute reality must first be textualized (through representations) before it can offer up meaning.  The meaning of the world is thereby inextricably constructed as a hermeneutic, as well as an embodied, mnemic relation.  Seymour Chatman, for example, argues that there is a direct parallel between Thomas’s storyboarding of the photographs and Antonioni’s enunciative practice as the film’s ostensible author.  Both activities involve the creation/production of filmic texts.  Thus Chatman describes the photographs as,

forming a narrative array, a ‘textualization’ or ‘entexting’ of what would otherwise be a random group of photographs.  Indeed, much of the film can be seen as an account of the artist’s effort to textualize a puzzling experience…Narration is both the readiest and the most dramatic way of explaining an otherwise incomprehensible group of events. 1


Jurij Lotman goes even further, arguing that Blow-Up is a meta-semiotic text, a film self-consciously concerned with the problem of interpreting signs as itself a problem.  In other words, the hermeneutical nature of our intentional engagement with the world is itself self-reflexively constituted within a further hermeneutical double bind.  As Lotman points out,

Ordinarily both the historian and the criminologist see their task as the establishing of life from a document.  Here a different task is formulated: to interpret life with the aid of a document, since the audience has seen for itself that direct observation of life is no guarantee that profound mistakes will not occur.  The ‘obvious’ fact is by no means so obvious.  The director has convinced the audience that life must be deciphered.  The deciphering is carried out in a manner which bears striking resemblance to structural-semiotic analysis.2

Much of this argument comes about because of Blow-Up’s interjection of Thomas’s photographic apparatus as constituting a secondary hermeneutic field within the usual primary embodiment/hermeneutic relation of spectator-camera-world.  This interpretation is a direct reflection of Blow-Up’s specific theoretical context, namely the historical (mid-1960s) intersection of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology with apparatus theory.  The primary correlation between spectator and film is thus structured as entailing two different intentional directions.  The spectator perceives the film viewing (i.e., is directed to a noematic object that is the filmic apparatus itself), while the film views itself viewing (i.e., it self-reflexively directs the look back on itself as a noetic viewing).  The two viewing views then coincide because they share the same intentional destination: i.e. the film’s self-reflective view of the world.3  If we follow Vivian Sobchack’s breakdown of the relationship of the spectator’s body to the film’s body,4 Blow-Up would produce the following schema:

In this system, the spectator’s viewed-view (articulated image or noema) would be the combination of Antonioni’s camera’s viewing view and Thomas’s photographic viewing view (active perceiving agencies or noeses).  According to Chatman and Lotman, this layering of discrepant viewing-views could result only in a viewed-view that was inextricably mediated and inter-textualized.  For this reason, almost all accounts of Blow-Up focus on Thomas’s hermeneutical process, his textual reconstitution of events in the park via the mediating viewing view of the entire photographic apparatus – snapshots, enlargements and cropping.  The actual events in the park (we say “actual” even though they are themselves staged – they are thus always already a text) are therefore conveniently reduced to a mnemic and perceptual misrecognition, a sign of the innate fallibility of both the spectator’s perception and of Antonioni’s camera.

The proof of this assertion lies supposedly in the differences in our perceptual noesis between our first viewing of the film – when it literally unfolds as a becoming-text – and subsequent viewings, when we perceive the events in the park with the retrospective knowledge of what we already know to be there.  In the latter instances, we are aware that the sequence should be read semiotically, so that is in fact what we do.  Our perception and memory recall is thus all the more hermeneutically acute.  However, given Lotman’s argument, the only real difference between seeing the sequence as it is first encountered and seeing it with fore-knowledge is that, in the case of the former, we are unconsciously (or, more accurately, however paradoxical, pre-consciously) reflective, in the latter, hyper-consciously reflective.

Given the film’s own investment in this semiotic/hermeneutic stranglehold, one wonders whether it is possible to perceive Blow-Up with a fresh perspective, whether one can in fact regard it pre-reflectively at all.  If Chatman and Lotman are correct, then a phenomenological analysis of the film, with its necessary bracketing (epoché) of pre-conceived knowledge and natural attitude, would be always already forestalled.  Blow-Up would thus seem to be a zero-degree text demonstrating the impossibility of a phenomenological reduction.  The pre-reflective and the reflective, embodied and hermeneutical relations with the world, would thus imbricate themselves in a chiasmus of endless reversibility.  To separate them into simple binaries would be impossible.  In this respect, the film’s qualified essential structure would be this chiasmus.

However, if this is true, the proof of the ontological pudding would lie in our ability to synthesize this chiasmus at a higher level of thematization.  This is where an analysis of the different types of memory employed in the film can help us far more than either the structuralist-semiotic paradigm of Lotman and Chatman, or the phenomenological reduction of Merleau-Ponty and Sobchack.  It also obliges us to make a closer study of the one sequence that the semioticians in particular neglect, largely because it is seemingly superseded by the hermeneutical properties of the blow-up sequences and their overt construction of meaning.  This sequence is the “actual” inaugural events in the park, where Thomas first photographs the embracing couple.  Less open to overt semiotic reduction because of its seemingly pre-reflective “innocence,”  the scene is nonetheless narratively constructed with great complexity, for it offers considerable disjuncture between the mechanical recording of Antonioni’s camera and the subjective perceptions of Thomas.  What we in fact discover is that the film’s essential mnemic structure is already in evidence in this scene, so that the subsequent blow-up sequences merely thicken our initial perception of the perceptual process itself.  The key to the film lies in the park, as we always thought, but in temporal as well as spatial terms.

If we break down Blow-Up’s park scenes into a chronological, spatial development of viewing and viewed views – mnemic/embodied as well as mnemic/hermeneutic — we can discern five clear, seemingly autonomous segments:


This sequence presents both Antonioni’s camera’s viewing view, which also includes the active agency of Thomas’s viewing view, both via the mnemic traces recorded in his own brain, as well as through the mechanical “memory” of his camera.  Although the sequence is carefully choreographed by Antonioni and therefore highly self-reflexive for the semiotician, for the average viewer Antonioni’s camera acts largely as a pre-reflective window on reality.  Thomas, in contrast, acts reflectively vis-a-vis the couple he is photographing – the shots he is selecting will make a peaceful epilogue to his otherwise violent and disturbing book-in progress – but pre-reflectively in regard to what we subsequently find out is also happening in the scene: that a murder is being committed.


This sequence offers us Antonioni’s camera’s viewing view of Thomas interpreting his camera’s viewed view.  This first hermeneutical exploration of the photographs results in Thomas discovering the gunman in the bushes.  Opting to trust the mechanical, representational memory of his camera over the dynamic nonrepresentational memory of his perceiving body, he believes he has saved a man’s life.5


Following the sexual interlude with the two girls, we now see a continuation of the first hermeneutic exploration, but this time it results in the discovery of the corpse.  Thomas’s first investigative revelation is thus proved wrong, although it serves to reinforce his trust in the camera’s memory rather than his own.


Armed with the textual evidence of the photographs, Thomas returns to the park to confirm the corpse’s presence.  It is indeed there, as the photographs disclosed, at the foot of the tree.


Having forgotten to take his camera during “4,” Thomas returns to re-confirm his hermeneutically derived discoveries by producing more photographic textual evidence, only to find that the corpse has been removed.  He begins to doubt his own hermeneutical and ontological perceptions, as the mnemic traces of his perceiving body and mechanical apparatus create an epistemological aporia or impasse.  The development of stages 1 through 5 suggests a movement from a pre-reflective, embodied perception of the world, through the hermeneutical, to a loss of textual evidence and the subsequent questioning of both representational (i.e., the camera’s image) and nonrepresentational memory as any guarantee of the “real.”  However, a closer reading of “Stage 1” suggests something more complex is also going on.

Antonioni once said of Blow-Up, “I think this is another way of making cinéma vérité – to endow a person with a story, that is with the story which corresponds to their appearance, to their position, their weight, the volume they occupy in a particular space.” 6  In the initial park sequence, the filmmaker chose to use 43 separate shots to construct this phenomenological volume in space-time.  It is not so much the quantity of shots that is important, but rather the variation in, and modulation between, their viewing views.  It is worth looking at these modulations in some detail, because if intentionality is defined in terms of bodily motility in relation to a world, then we find considerable discrepancies between the cinematic and photographiccamera’s intentionalities, more specifically as discrepancies in different types of memory.  These initial slippages act as a mnemic dress rehearsal not only for the subsequent enlargement scenes in Thomas’s studio, but also for the ontological meaning-production of the film as a whole.

Any analysis of the sequence needs to ask the following questions: what is the mnemic relationship of Antonioni’s camera to the park, to Thomas as a perceiving body, and to Thomas’s perceptual and mechanical relationship (via his still camera) to the couple?

SHOT 1. Antonioni’s camera is already in the park.  It frames Thomas in long shot between the trees as he enters the space and walks toward the camera.  There is the sound of leaves rustling, a sense of open space and animated movement.  Significantly, the cause of this animation — the breeze — is invisible.  We perceive only the indexical trace of its presence in the movement of the leaves and branches.  The significance of this chiasm between what is visible and what is invisible proves to be one of the main mnemic issues of the film, as we shall see.

SHOT 2.  A medium shot of the female Park Attendant collecting litter.  The camera pans left to follow her as Thomas enters from the left.  He moves forward to fill the frame, thus replacing the Attendant as the focus of the camera’s viewing view.  Thomas moves off to the right of the frame, but the camera doesn’t follow him.  Antonioni has thus already indicated a significant autonomy between what he chooses to show and the importance of Thomas’s active body as a character in the diegesis.  Faced with a choice between the Park Attendant and Thomas, the camera seems, for the moment at least, non-commital.

SHOT 3.  The camera pans left across the tennis courts in long shot.  It holds on a flower bed in the foreground.  Thomas enters from the left in middle ground, then walks alongside the tennis court fence into the background of the shot.  Thus, following Shot 2, the camera has already jumped to where Thomas will move next, as if anticipating his movements but acting independently of them.  In this way, the camera can explore terrain, like the flower beds and tennis courts, that are of little interest to Thomas.  We now have a sense of two completely autonomous reflective intentionalities and the concomitant memories that they will lay down for future analysis.  How far they will coincide and/or deviate as the scene progresses remains to be seen.

SHOT 4.  Medium shot of Thomas as he approaches the camera.  Once again, the apparatus has jumped ahead of Thomas’s movement, to meet him at the next place before he gets there.  The camera’s motility always seems to anticipate Thomas’s, so that their two intentionalities are now more synchronous but still slightly out of phase.  Thomas looks around, takes two pictures of something behind the right side of the camera.  We don’t see what he is photographing and Antonioni’s camera doesn’t seem to care.  It seems now to be more interested in Thomas as its intentional object than in recording the mechanical memory of Thomas’s camera.

SHOT 5. A long shot of Thomas taking pictures amid the pigeons.  He crouches, stalking them like a cat, not only creating a sense of space as he moves, but also forcing the pigeons to move.  We get a sense of wide open vistas, of sky, and of limitless depth, as if all the world were Thomas’s oyster to photograph.  The obvious questions become: what to photograph, how and why?  This multitude of intentional possibilities is also true of Antonioni’s camera, which now includes Thomas in its own even wider view.  The camera’s autonomy suggests that it may stay on the photographer, or suddenly take off and record something else.

SHOT 6. A closer shot of Thomas among the pigeons.  Now the camera seems to be as interested in them as he is: it pans left and up to follow one of the birds as it flies across the sky from left to right.  In making this movement, the camera catches a glimpse of the heads of a couple in the lower left hand corner of the frame, and also takes in some houses overlooking the park.  On subsequent viewings, we discover that this couple is the couple who will figure in the subsequent murder.  Thus, although Antonioni’s camera chooses to pay them little heed at this point, re-viewing the film underlines the fact that the spectator’s memory is always a dynamic system shaped by selection and suppression, depending on the different hermeneutic contexts of our analysis.

SHOT 7. Once more interested in Thomas, the camera watches him as he walks away from the pigeons towards us.  He looks off to the left.

SHOT 8. THE CAMERA SHARES THOMAS’S PERCEPTUAL VIEW FOR THE FIRST TIME.  If we follow the logic of continuity from the end of Shot 7, this would be Thomas’s subjective view.  For the first time, both the viewing views of Antonioni’s camera and Thomas are directly aligned: to see the couple moving up the slope in front of the trees.  The girl (Jane) pulls the man up the slope, kisses him.  She seems playful, but it’s unclear whether she is pulling him up the slope for some purpose or merely enjoying tugging at his body.  Retrospectively, we re-interpret the scene employing different intentionalities, thereby superseding this original (embodied) mnemic view with a hermeneutic reading: she’s probably leading him toward the copse where the gunman lies in wait.

SHOT 9. Long shot of Thomas as he leaves the tennis court area.  He runs, jumps and skips up the stepped path, from right to left across the frame.  He’s frisky, bouncy, animal-like, a free spirit, a body in fluid synch with its surrounding space.  In contrast, the camera is predominantly static, a marked contrast in motility.  The camera seems intent on watching Thomas’s movement rather than exercising its own, or catching up with the couple.

SHOT 10. Tighter shot of the path as Thomas runs up the steps toward the camera.  He slows down, arms swinging freely.  He looks behind him, holds onto the picket fence as he walks up the steps, as if out of breath.  Antonioni’s camera is now completely focused on Thomas.

SHOT 11. Close on Thomas at the top of the path, his head concealed behind the leaves of a tree.  He pulls down the branch, looks carefully ahead. He looks through his viewfinder, stares thoughtfully again at the scene, looks to the left:

SHOT 12. FROM THOMAS’S PERCEPTUAL POSITION: The camera again shares Thomas’s viewing view of the couple in long-shot, facing each other, holding hands.  Jane drags the man towards her.  The camera pans right to include a tree that was previously out of shot, as if to frame the scene more symmetrically.  Jane laughs.  The camera tracks right as the couple move left.

SHOT 13. Medium shot of Thomas, walking to his right (our left), so that Shot 12 is marked retroactively as his moving point-of-view.  What we assumed to be the camera’s autonomous movement is now sutured into Thomas’s diegetic subjectivity.  For the second time (shot 8 is the first), the camera’s viewing view, motility and mnemic intentionality coincide exactly with that of Thomas.  As we shall see, this is not a common occurrence.

Thomas walks slowly, stops, suddenly interested in the couple.  He jumps behind a picket fence for a more concealed shooting position.  Of course, Antonioni’s camera doesn’t feel the need to do the same because, unlike Thomas, it is diegetically invisible to the couple as well as to Thomas.  However, it is not invisible to us, because we depend on it exegetically for constructing our own memory of the events for future analysis.  The shot, analyzed phenomenologically rather than semiotically, thus underlines the varying degrees and relationships of visibility and invisibility between characters and apparatus.  Thus, within the diegesis, Thomas’s camera is visible vis-a-vis the couple; outside the diegesis, Antonioni’s camera is invisible for all three characters, while we have an imbrication of visible and invisible between our viewed view and their varying intersecting and diverging viewing views.  In this sense, our own perception of what is visible and invisible is dependent largely upon Antonioni’s camera — he can show us Thomas’s view or not, depending upon the directionality and terminus of his intentionality.  However, this perception is also partially dependent upon our own intentionality — we can focus on Thomas, the couple, or simply look at the trees if we choose to.  It is this chiasmus between our embodied relationship and the camera’s hermeneutic relationship to the world that lays down the different possibilities of memory that will ultimately influence our ontological relationship to Blow-Up as a whole.

After Thomas jumps behind the fence, the camera tracks left to decenter Thomas to the right of the frame, as if distancing itself from him and what he is about to do.  It also gives us a subtle clue to the fact that what follows will not guarantee a complete synchronization between what Thomas and his camera sees and what Antonioni’s camera shows.  We thus have an inkling that Antonioni will leave us stuck within the aporetic gap between the two viewing views, thus opening up a mnemic space for subsequent hermeneutic activity of our own.

SHOT 14. Close on Thomas, taking pictures.  We cannot see what he is shooting.

SHOT 15. Diagonal shot along the fence.  Thomas is still behind it, moving slowly, crab-like to his right, toward the camera.  He ducks under some low-hanging foliage, looking intently off to the right.  His viewing view is thus shown as harder to accomplish, requiring more work — because it needs to conceal its own visibility — than that of Antonioni’s camera, which is assured of invisibility because of the diegetic conceit.  Thomas is completely absorbed in his work now — he sees only the couple, just as Antonioni’s camera sees only him.  Thomas refocuses.

A long shot of the couple holding hands at arm’s length, with a tree in the right foreground.  We hear off-screen clicks of the camera shutter, as if we are literally inside the camera(s)’ viewfinder.  The two mnemic apparatuses — Thomas’s and Antonioni’s — are now seemingly synchronous for the first time.

SHOT 17. A medium frontal shot of Thomas behind the fence.  The large trunk of the tree in the center foreground is presumably the same tree as in shot 16, indicating that the camera has jumped 180 degrees.  We have switched from Thomas’s viewed view of the copse to become the copse’s viewing view of Thomas.  The latter hops over the fence and crouches/scurries toward the tree.  In contrast, Antonioni’s camera is quite static and firmly placed: again, it doesn’t have to hide.

Thomas kneels behind the tree and focuses his camera directly at Antonioni’s camera.  We are thus looking at Thomas looking literally at us (but diegetically at the couple).  Again, there is a discrepancy and slippage between what we actually perceive and what we interpret because of the exigencies of the diegesis.  This raises an important difference between the phenomenological view and the semiotic in terms of apparatus theory.  Suture — the binding in of the viewer into the diegetic narrative — can only be accomplished successfully when the hermeneutic view is pre-conscious, that is, part of the natural attitude.  When we perceive film phenomenologically, we are more acutely aware of this innate discrepancy between viewing views so that the diegesis loses its narrative seamlessness.  We become aware instead of the disjuncture between different mechanical views of the world, and the mnemic gap or slippage that opens up between them.

In this shot, for example, phenomenologically we assume a viewing view that makes Thomas our viewed view, and we remain invisible to Thomas.  At the same time, diegetically, we are placed (through shot-reverse shot suturing mechanisms), into Thomas’s position vis-a-vis the couple: he sees them but is also invisible to them.  In this way, the film sets up a reversibility between embodied and hermeneutical being to the point of making them chiasmically inseparable, yet at the same time different, because we can always place ourselves, as spectators, outside the diegetic conceit.  In short, because of this aporia between the phenomenological and the semiotic, embodied perception and hermeneutical perception are simultaneously different and relationally deferred, in the sense of Derridean différance.

Thomas takes more pictures.

SHOT 18. A medium shot, from the rear, of Thomas behind the tree in the foreground, taking pictures of the couple kissing in the background.  The camera has now left Thomas’s viewing view and reasserted its autonomy, placing Thomas’s viewing view within its own viewed view, reiterating once more its separateness from the diegesis as an independent intentional body.

SHOT 19. An empty space of grass from a slightly elevated position between 2 trees in front of the picket fence.  Thomas moves from frame right, crouches/moves to the tree at the left and kneels behind it.  He takes more pictures off to the left, into the space behind the camera.  The camera is further asserting its autonomous power to create space and to envelop Thomas within it.

SHOT 20. THOMAS’S PERSPECTIVE. The couple kiss in the lower left of the frame, two large trees behind them.  Jane pulls away, looks around.  She turns 360 degrees, then looks at “us.”

SHOT 21. A long shot of Thomas moving to our right to hide behind another tree.  There is now a large expanse of grass between the camera and Thomas, suggesting a bias toward the couple’s viewing position.  This also suggests that Thomas may soon be the object seen.

SHOT 22. THOMAS’S PERSPECTIVE. A long shot of the couple moving to the left of the frame.  They kiss again.  We hear the leaves rustling.

SHOT 23. A repeat of Shot 21: as if to underline that it’s now a question of conflicting viewing views: Thomas’s vs. Jane’s.  Thomas moves out of frame to the right.

SHOT 24. A side view of the couple in the middle of the copse.  As if to reinforce the perspective of Shot 23, Jane has spotted Thomas.  She strides off determinedly, angrily, to the left.  The camera follows her, panning left as she runs down the slope of the copse toward Thomas, who makes for the path and a quick exit.

SHOT 25-38. The confrontation between Thomas and Jane on the stairs follows a conventional choreography between the two bodies, with the camera’s position favoring Thomas’s control of the scene.  Antonioni’s camera eschews a simple shot/reverse shot editing schema in favor of a more distanced modulation with both characters usually in the frame at the same time.  This tight connection of the two bodies under a single viewing view continues until…

SHOT 39. Close on Jane, backing away.  She seems anxious:  “No we haven’t met.  You’ve never seen me.”

SHOT 40. Thomas picks up his lens hood from the ground after Jane’s attempt to grab his camera.  This seems to be shot from Jane’s perspective given her close-up in the previous shot.  However, Antonioni’s camera pans left to include Jane in the shot.

This is an overt attempt to subvert expected shot-reverse shot editing, and further underlines that the camera’s viewing view is not automatically “sutured” into the characters’ respective looks (and, by extension, their memories).  In fact it is clearly autonomous of them, denying access to their subjectivity.  This suggests that Jane’s diegetic viewing view may hold secrets “invisible” to those of both Thomas and Antonioni’s camera.

Jane and Thomas look off to the left, out of frame.  In retrospect, she is probably looking at the corpse at the foot of the tree.  She looks at Thomas, then runs off to the left, seemingly for no reason.  She is presumably afraid, or aware that she needs to get out of the park quickly in case the body is found.  Once again, out retro-active hermeneutical perspective provides perfectly rational reasons for what at first seems to be ambiguous and erratic behavior from a different (i.e. pre-reflective) position.

SHOT 41. Jane running away into the copse.

SHOT 42. A side shot, 90 degrees from “41,” of Thomas taking 2 photographs.

A long shot of Jane, back to the camera(s), standing by the tree and bushes.  She looks around (SFX: CLICK), runs off into the background to the right of the tree.  SFX: trees rustling.

SHOT 44. Thomas is approaching the antique shop, framed from inside the shop door.  We hear Hawaiian music.  A woman pushing a baby carriage passes him on her way into the park.  This is a reversal of the set-up that opened the sequence.  There is a contiguous connection between the Park Attendant and the woman with the baby because they both represent motile extras at the margins of the diegesis whose lives are not considered hermeneutically important enough for Thomas’s camera, and only marginally for Antonioni’s camera.  Yet, as perceptual mnemic beings, we are now appreciatively aware that their lives could be important as part of an, as yet, invisible scenario.

It is in this chiasm between hermeneutically important and unimportant details that the mnemic  significance of the whole sequence lies.  We have seen in some detail that the relationship between Antonioni’s and Thomas’s viewing views is by no means predictable.  Antonioni’s camera is at times completely autonomous of, and even indifferent to, Thomas’s perspective, and on other occasions coincident with it.  This perceptual and intentional gap between them opens and closes until Thomas becomes reflectively absorbed in the couple.  Only then does the cinematic apparatus merge with Thomas’s photographic apparatus.  Yet even here, we’re unsure whether Antonioni’s camera is showing us more or less than Thomas’s.

Later in the film, when Thomas enlarges the photographs and begins to interpret them semiotically, what we see seems to be less important than the fact that it is a frozen, static representational image, a viewed view that opens up duration as a hermeneutic ally.  During the “real” park sequence, in contrast, duration is controlled by Antonioni’s camera.  The cutting, the constant displacement of spatial and perspectival values, the moving in and out of different subjectivities, means that we can never catch our breath long enough to keep a watchful eye on what we’re perceiving.  Duration is always running ahead of us so that we are scurrying to keep apace.  It is only on subsequent viewings, when our hermeneutical knowledge allows us to focus on the “important” information, to edit out the interference, that time seems to slow down.  We now have the conceptual space to stare at the foot of the tree and “see” the corpse in real time and space, to know more than Thomas, perhaps even more than we thought Antonioni knew when we first saw the film.  What was once completely invisible and outside of space-time, is now firmly placed within it because of the dynamic, nonrepresentational nature of the spectator’s memory.

It is this chiasmus between selection and degeneration, clarity and indistinctness, that Merleau-Ponty calls depth:

Depth is the means the things have to remain distinct, to remain things, while not being what I look at at present.  It is pre-eminently the dimension of the simultaneous.  Without it, there would not be a world or Being, there would only be a mobile zone of distinctness which could not be brought here without quitting all the rest — and a ‘synthesis’ of these ‘views.’  Whereas, by virtue of depth, they coexist in degrees of proximity, they slip into one another and integrate themselves.  It is hence because of depth that the things have a flesh: that is, oppose to my inspection obstacles, a resistance which is precisely their reality, their ‘openness,’ their totum simul.  The look does not overcome depth, it goes round it.7

It is depth that ensures that at no time do either Thomas or Antonioni “see” and subsequently recall the whole picture.  Indeed, as the blow-up sequences suggest, in certain instances Thomas’s apparatus perceived more.

What Blow-Up seems to suggest is that for every moment made visible there is another that becomes invisible in a reversible interchange.  The sequence in the park is in many ways a model working out of this truism through heightening our awareness of the parallel, discontinuous and limited nature of different mnemic recordings.  Even the combination of Thomas, his camera, Antonioni’s camera, and our own acuity give us only a partial picture.  It is a clear indication that the semiotic-structuralist and phenomenological readings of the film are only part of the story, for memory cannot be entirely reduced to representational language or the nonrepresentational powers of interpretative and intuitive recall.  As Merleau-Ponty makes clear,

The perceived thing is not an ideal unity in the possession of the intellect, like a geometrical notion, for example; it is rather a totality open to a horizon of an indefinite number of views which blend with one another according to a given style, which defines the object in question….Thus there is a paradox of immanence and transcendence in perception.  Immanence, because the perceived object cannot be foreign to him who perceives; transcendence, because it always contains something more than what is actually given.8

Even with our hermeneutic knowledge after the fact, our creative mnemic insight can be just as much an obfuscation, because we become blind to anything in the scene that doesn’t relate to the murder.  However, it is in and through these secondary blind spots which occur as a result of hermeneutic insight, that, as Paul de Man points out, we may discover truth,

in the form of a constitutive discrepancy…between the blindness of the statement and the insight of the meaning…The blindness can then be diagnosed as a direct consequence of an ontology of unmediatedpresence.9

It is here perhaps that we can find a place for the punctum, as that “hidden side [that] is present in its own way.”10

We are now in a position to synthesize our findings by relating them to the meta-hermeneutic level of the blow-up sequences themselves.  In this section of the film, intentional interest passes from the objective perception of the park to the photographs of the park, from a noetic representation produced by Antonioni’s camera to a representation of a representation mediated and produced by Thomas’s camera and enlarger.  In short, we have moved within the hermeneutical world of the apparatus itself.  Yet, far from disclosing a different phenomenological reality, we find a clear parallel to that of the original park sequence, once again defined by the chiasmus of the visible and the invisible.

The world within the apparatus is expressed in part by the hermetic nature of Thomas’s studio.  Here we are aware of an enclosed world, one of aesthetics and art rather than the “real” world outside.  The film also makes us question not only whether all the “evidence” is retained in Thomas’s perceptual and mechanical memory, but also whether the whole scenario is not one big aesthetic contrivance on the part of Antonioni.  After all, it’s his camera’s viewing view and his post-synch sound that determines what we see and hear.  In other words, the measure of the “real” against which we test Thomas’s perceptual hypotheses is itself not real but cinematic art.  The question thus becomes a matter of whether the real can actually exist outside the hermeneutical/ aesthetic register, or whether the hermeneutical/aesthetic can operate without or beyond the real.

Thomas’s hubris lies perhaps in his belief that the memory of mechanical art is somehow more real than that of brute perception.  Antonioni seems to suggest that they are both products of an equally problematic phenomenological chiasm.  The film’s object is thus to set up this very reversible chiasm between these two types of memory to show that neither one has all the information, nor indeed all the answers.  The chiasm of real/“real” is thus less important than that of representational/nonrepresentational memory, for it is the latter that becomes the creative agency of both art and reality’s ontological becoming.

Chatman is quite right to stress the semiotic nature of Thomas’s hermeneutic exploration.  We see the shots as negatives on Thomas’s light table, arranged in the order in which they were shot.  The objective of the blow-up sequence that follows is to rearrange this order to create a hermeneutically-driven narrative (see the accompanying table for a list of the photographs and Thomas’s narrative reordering).11  Thomas also looks at them through a magnifying glass, establishing the enlargement paradigm that will follow.  The sequence also affords Antonioni the opportunity to comment on the hermeneutic nature of the apparatus’s memory.  This is what we could call the central perceptual studium of the film.  Thus, in one instance, Thomas enlarges a detail of one photo against his enlargement screen, projecting the light of his enlarger onto the carefully positioned emulsion paper.  This acts as a static parallel to the actual movement of the film we are watching projected, as light, onto the cinema screen, the site of our viewed view.  Thomas stands in relation to us as the spectator of a viewed view, just as the enlargement stands in relation to Blow-Up itself.  This intersection of viewing and viewed views within the all-encompassing field of the apparatus is a profound one, because it reiterates the visible/invisible chiasmus that we have already discussed.  We and Thomas can see the apparatus from which he creates his enlargement, but only we are aware of another (invisible) apparatus that makes Thomas’s image possible at all: the cinema projector and screen.  We could therefore read this shot as the film’s first hermeneutical studium of the world viewed as an ideological construct of apparatuses.  Jean-Louis Baudry would perhaps read this seeming defamiliarization of the film’s apparatus as a baring of the device of the illusion/Imaginary by incorporating it into the broader semiotic schema of the Symbolic.  Yet we are already aware that this is an extremely limited perspective, for the film has a bigger phenomenological agenda than this, a more ontological exploration of becoming itself, of the essential chiasmic relationship of memory to memory.

The framing of a second studium occurs when Thomas enlarges the final photograph, which results in his discovery of the corpse.  Antonioni frames the shot frontally in a series of parallel planes, interjecting Thomas’s camera between us and the photograph, so that its rear viewfinder frames the section that is being enlarged.  Our memory of the park is thus mediated (at least) four-fold: through the photographic enlargement, through the rear of Thomas’s camera, through Antonioni’s camera, and through the projection of film onto the screen by an invisible projector.  We are also aware of several layers of overlapping frames and screens.  Moving from the front of the movie theater, we see “reality” framed in turn by the cinema screen, the back wall of Thomas’s studio, the photograph pinned to the wall, the rear viewfinder of the enlargement camera, Antonioni’s camera, and finally our own embodied perception.  We can thus establish a chain of intentional viewed memories that would look something like this:

This is the studium of Albertian perspective, arranged around a central cone-of-vision for the hegemonic viewing “I”/eye of the spectator.  Yet there has been something important added to this conventional Renaissance natural attitude: the necessary interjection of the enlargement camera itself.  Thomas, of course, no longer views the park using the memory produced by his own eyes, but through that of his apparatus.  It is the apparatus that creates/produces these closer perceptions that penetrate deeper into the ontology of the world (a notion very akin to the theories of André Bazin).  Thomas’s embodied/hermeneutic Being is thus dependent upon the camera’s embodied/hermeneutic Being for his greater perceptual insight.  What the enlargements create is no longer visible in-itself with the naked eye as brute being, for only the apparatus can give us this enhanced visibility via its specifically mechanical memory.

Yet the chiasmus of memories recorded from the original park sequence is not overcome via this mechanical perceiving apparatus, but merely reiterated on a more hermetic hermeneutic level.  Thus, as the blow-up sequence continues, we find ourselves drifting further into the invisible rather than the visible, with Antonioni’s camera as a knowing accomplice.  For example, as Thomas explores the connections between enlargements, the camera movement, as well as reiterating the autonomy of its own viewing view, also creates an optical analogy to both Thomas’s viewing view and his increasingly analytic, hermeneutical view.  Thus the movement that connects Jane’s gaze in one image to the enlargement of the picket fence in another implies a closer reading of the connection between them.  The camera follows Thomas’s hermeneutical lead, as well as acting as an independent, objective viewing view of his activities.  The camera views and picks up on its subject’s hermeneutical discoveries, driven by a combination of Thomas’s and his camera’s independent and interconnected memories.

As Thomas starts to piece the series together in the form of a new narrative — in short, producing an alternative reflective view in addition to his earlier one — the film encourages us to move this semiotic construction out of the hermetic realm of art back into the real world.  As the murder narrative comes alive in Thomas’s imagination and its implications become evident, we hear the rustling of the breeze through the trees superimposed on the photographs, as if to connect this hermeneutic reality with the original embodied-cum-hermeneutic memory of the park itself.  In this way, time comes into the spatial equation.  We discover an extra-diegetical linkage of hermeneutical perception (the present) to the embodied, differently-reflective perception of the park (the past).  Meaning is thus a folding of the actual into the virtual, the point of present into the sheet of past, through the dynamic becoming of both representational and nonrepresentational memory.

Yet, the film shows us that perception and intentionality are not quite as simple as a mere diegetic inter-folding of time and space.  The temporal element — the difference between Thomas’s mediated relationship to the park in the present to his unmediated relationship in the past — is also applicable, extra-diegetically, to the spectator.  Looking at the blow-up sequence on many different occasions, we look for the corpse in the photographs.  In retrospect we know, and can now see, albeit vaguely, that the corpse lies inert at Jane’s feet.  How much of this is pre-reflective perception and how much of it is highly inflected by the reflective attitude of our subsequent knowledge is open to question.  At the very least it raises important questions about the power of suggestion and ex post facto knowledge on both perception and the shifting dynalics of different types of memory.  The film seems to suggest that these perceptual and mnemic traces can exist in parallel realms, unbeknownst to each other.  Thus, when Thomas calls his friend Ron to tell him of the discovery of the gunman, he reveals the limits of his knowledge:  “Somebody was trying to kill somebody else.  I saved his life.”  This is, of course, a premature conclusion, for Thomas hasn’t yet completed the whole investigation and looked at everything that is there in the photos.  Retroactively, although our smug knowledge of the corpse allows us to feel superior to Thomas, phenomenologically we must also doubt whether there is an “everything” there to be found.

Indeed, as the sequence progresses after the interruption by the two girls, Thomas appears to discover this “everything,” only to find it disintegrate into the invisible.  Working solely within the parameters of the apparatus, we and Thomas view the final blow-up, the disclosure of the presence of the corpse.  He is impatient, almost urging his body to catch up with the pace of his brain.  He pins up the photo.  It’s an extreme close up of the corpse.  Yet it is so enlarged that all detail has been lost.  It resembles a horizontal morass of black and white flesh, a seared corpse in negative.  Thomas must now step back and regain some distance, reframe this carnal flesh in terms of depth and conceptual perspective.  As it stands, this apparatus-derived memory is too close for comfort.  It’s clear that the mechanical blow-up — the perpetual enlargement of reality — doesn’t necessarily make the world clearer, for it can also make it disintegrate.  As if to underline this point, Antonioni pans left to a more distanced view of the same shot, where the grain tightens to form a discernible body.  The remainder of the grainy flesh turns out to be grass.

The apparatus has thus brought us face to face with the carnal constituency of Being, a constituency that is itself both visible and invisible, creating at one moment a discernible corpse, at another, what Chatman describes as “a general atomic welter.”12 Thomas’s hermeneutic and semiotic activity thus results not in a greater meaning-as-truth, but in a fuller realization of the ontological carnality of Being, in which mind and body, pre-reflective and reflective uses of memory, are the unreliable (but also creative) measures of the fleshly world.

This carnal ontology of inside-as-outside, outside-as-inside is evoked by what is perhaps the film’s hidden punctum.  As Thomas examines the blow-ups of the corpse, he moves back to get a better perspective, sitting on a sofa behind his glass-topped coffee table.  In the foreground, we see his stereo, a pile of blue granite balls, and a pink rock on the table-top.  As if to duplicate Thomas’s own need to get a better perspective, Antonioni’s camera also moves back to get a broader view of Thomas.  It is then that we notice the coffee table supports for the first time.  They look exactly like the picket fence in Thomas’s photographs.  This revelation, that what was outside in the park was always already inside Thomas’s interior world, is a major discovery, further evidence that, as Merleau-Ponty states, “the flesh is…the dehiscence of the seeing into the visible and of the visible into the seeing.”13 Subsequent re-viewing of the film shows that this coffee table/picket fence was visible all along — it is there during the Verushka photo shoot, and during Jane’s visit.  It was simply invisible to a reflective attitude predicated on a different hermeneutical and mnemic agenda.  Now it seems to be jumping up and down and waving its arms in the air for attention.

If we apply this notion of the reversibility of the visible/invisible, representational/ nonrepresentational to the closing passage of the film, when Thomas discovers that the corpse has disappeared and later joins the rag week students miming a game of tennis, we can offer a far more optimistic view of Thomas’s ontological predicament than Chatman’s:

The tennis game seems like a commentary on the inevitability of illusion in art.  Thomas says nothing, and the expression on his face is open to a variety of interpretations.  I see in it concern about his own sanity but also rueful resignation about the limits of art’s power to interpret…And the illusion exists only because the artist allows it to, because he gives it permission, so to speak.  Under such circumstances, is it a wonder that the artist becomes so concerned about the possibilities of madness.14

This might be a concern if we are thinking epistemologically, but if we read the sequence ontologically, as we have tried to do with the rest of the film, Thomas could also be seen as accepting the chiasmic reversibility of different types of discrepant memory as a necessary catalyst for living different states of reality.  As an artist he can join the students and interpret the mime as real, even to the point of “hearing” the sound of the ball on the rackets, just as he “heard” the rustling of the wind in the trees as he was interpretating the photographs.  It is thus a positive transgression, a reaffirmation of the visible/invisible nature of the carnal, for Antonioni’s camera to make Thomas “disappear” at the end.  As an intentional body, Thomas has fulfilled his ontological role in the narrative, and must now give way to the dehiscence of another visibility.  He has not died, or faded away, but become present-as-invisible, in a reversible chiasm with the flesh of the park as present-visible.  The film is the essential imbrication and reversibility of these different, contingent and necessarily limited perceptual and mnemic views.  No one, or combination, can tell the whole story, but Thomas has played his part in telling part of it.  He has every reason to celebrate the art of illusion and join the tennis game, because it firmly re-aligns him with the mnemic becoming of the world.


a) Jane pulling Victim to left, hands to hands.
b) Couple embracing in long shot, man’s back to camera.
c) Close-Up of b): Jane looking off to the Right.
d) Picket fence and bushes — long shot.
e) Jane on steps holding up hand to face.
f) Jane and Victim stand together, Jane looking at camera.
g) Jane and Victim stand apart, Jane sucking her thumb.
h) Victim by himself, looking after Jane.
i) Detail of d): Fence and bushes.
Blur turns out to be a man’s face.
Detail: gun.
j) Long shot of empty park.
k) Long shot of Jane standing by tree, her back to the camera.
(corpse at her feet).
l) Another long shot of the empty park.
m) Detail from l): Extreme close up of corpse.
n) Detail from l): Close up of corpse.


a) Jane pulling the man to the Left. PAN RIGHT TO INCLUDE
b) Couple embracing, man’s back to the camera.
c) CU of b): couple embracing, Jane looking off to the right.
Thomas traces her gaze to the bushes to her right.
Thomas marks off an area in the bushes in b) for enlargement.
d) CU picket fence and bushes.
The camera pans from b) to d).
We see Jane looking into CU of the bushes.
A double pan from right to left ends with Jane looking at a light blurry path in the bushes across two enlargements.
e) Jane at the top of the steps, holding her arm up to her face.  f) Jane and the man: Jane looking at camera.
g) Jane and the man standing apart, Jane biting her fingernail.
h) Man solo, looking after Jane, presumably as she’s running toward Thomas.
Thomas stares at d) and e).
He spots a detail in d)
i) CU of d)
a) CU of a).
b) Couple embracing in long shot, man’s back to camera.
c) Close-Up of b): Jane looking off to the Right.
Pan from b) to fence and bushes.  White blur in the bushes.
i) Blur = a man’s face.
i) CU: Gun
f) Jane and Victim stand together, Jane looking at camera.
g) Jane and Victim stand apart, Jane biting her nails.
h) Victim by himself, looking after Jane.
g) CU — Jane biting nails.
e) CU — Jane arm up to face.
j) Long shot of empty park.
k) Jane standing by the tree with her back to the camera.
l)  Another long shot of the empty copse.
Thomas looks hard at photo a).
Thomas moves in to look at picture b).
Thomas looks at k) — long shot of Jane standing by the tree
Thomas shoots a close-up of l): long shot of the park.
m) CU of corpse.
n) medium long shot of corpse.

  1. Seymour Chatman, Antonioni or, The Surface of the World, Berkeley & Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1985, p 149.
  2. Jurij Lotman, Semiotics of Cinema, trans. Mark E. Suino, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1976, p. 100.
  3. See Vivian Sobchack’s breakdown the the Primary Correlations of the film experience in The Address of the Eye, A Phenomenology of Film Experience, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992, p. 279. Under Sobchack’s schema, Blow-Up would be an example of “g” ® “b.”
  4. Ibid, pp. 196-198.
  5. The distinction between representational and nonrepresentational memory derives from Gerald M. Edelman and Giulio Tononi, A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination, New York: Basic Books, 2000. See pp. 93-101.
  6. Michelangelo Antonioni, “Reality and Cinema-Verite,” in Blow-Up, London: Lorrimer, 1971, p. 13.
  7. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, Alphonso Lingis, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968, p.219.
  8. Merleau-Ponty, “The Primacy of Perception and Its Philosophical Consequences,” from The Primacy of Perception, trans. James M. Edie, ibid, pp. 15-16.
  9. Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983, p. 110-116.
  10. Merleau-Ponty, “The Primacy of Perception and Its Philosophical Consequences,” op cit, p. 14.
  11. For an excellent account/interpretation of this procedure, see Chatman, op cit, pp. 144-152.
  12. Chatman, ibid, p. 152.
  13. Ibid, p. 153.
  14. Ibid, p. 152.