Commentary Magazine


Illusion & Reality

To the Editor:

I am just as eager as Robert Garis was in his review [April] to avoid reducing Blow-up to a banal moralism: by so reducing it, one simply blinds oneself to its newness and violates it completely. But that does not absolve one from dealing as best one can with what is palpably there. Perhaps Mr. Garis is more influenced by the illusion-reality ambiguity than he realizes. He rightly dismisses the theory that the murder might only have taken place in the hero’s imagination. Yet at the end of his article he comes close to denying that this crucial and, I daresay, central episode is really part of the film. He does acknowledge its presence, but since it can be only tangentially related to what he narrowly takes to be the point of the film (the photographer’s character taken almost in isolation), he treats it as if it were somehow peripheral and minor: “It is, then, just a special and single event, obviously exciting and puzzling, but just as obviously unrepresentative and perhaps inauthentic.” Unrepresentative of what? That it is unrepresentative of the photographer’s life, or of people’s lives in general, does not make it unrepresentative of Blow-up, especially since about half the film is devoted to it. In a similar way, and for similar reasons, Mr. Garis also dismisses the two scenes involving the mimes which frame the film.

Writers frequently use the phrase “of course” as a substitute for reasons. “It is, of course, nonsense,” writes Mr. Garis of the whole episode involving the murder, “to say that this mysterious melodrama is the real life of significant human relationships into which the photographer cannot enter responsibly. On the contrary, this event conveys almost no depth of feeling, nor does the character played by Vanessa Redgrave. . . .” This seems to me preposterous, unless Mr. Garis has some special definition of “depth of feeling.” (By using such phrases as “depth of feeling,” “significant human relationships,” and “enter responsibly,” although it is hard to find better ones, Mr. Garis tends to beg the question by making those who disagree with him sound like Dr. Rose Franzblau.) The Vanessa Redgrave character is obviously desperate to get hold of the pictures the hero has taken—to the point of obsession (and although we never know her precise role, the murder makes this obsession entirely plausible). This is certainly feeling in depth if not in breadth. It is the photographer who, whatever his compensating charm, lacks depth of feeling. Unmoved by the girl’s desperation, or rather moved only to callow adolescent cruelty, he first taunts her with his possession of the film (“I need them,” he says of the pictures with chilly audacity, when they are clearly a hundred times as important to her as they are to him), then tricks her into giving herself to him (partially if not entirely) in return for a phony roll of film. We cannot know what would have evolved between them if he had been sympathetic and cooperative, but certainly he makes any relationship between them impossible until she disappears and it is too late.

An imagined tennis ball which is treated as real; an abstract painter whose pictures yield their meaning to him only several days after he has painted them; a mysterious murder for which all the evidence (body, photographs, girl) has disappeared; a rich hero who pretends to be a bum in order to take pictures of real poverty to be relished for their aesthetic value in a book for rich people, and who plans to close the book with “something peaceful” which is in fact the scene of a murder involving the most intense feelings—these elements may not combine with the exactitude of a mathematical equation, but they certainly arouse certain feelings and thoughts connected with reality and unreality: thoughts and feelings all the more authentic, intense, and new in that the film eschews all the cinematic clichés of mystery and unreality (black and white film, shady composition, dark castles, and weird characters) in favor of presenting ambiguities which exist in full color, in broad daylight, and in modern dress. To put all these elements to one side because they cannot be fitted into a strictly logical pattern is as much an error as to force them into such a pattern.

Blow-up is certainly a difficult film, but the difficulty lies not in denseness or complexity—it is actually a very simple and transparent film texturally—but in its “openness.” When I went back to it a second time, looking consciously and deliberately for the answers to various questions, I saw almost nothing on the screen which I had not seen the first time—and the questions remained as puzzling as before. The elements of the film, although neither gratuitous nor unrelated to each other, just do not form the kind of closed system which can be reduced to a simple paraphrase of theme or moral. The film thwarts our attempts to situate and have done with it, and this is why it stays on, alive and resonant, in the memory.

Paul Warshow
New York City

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Mr. Garis writes:

According to Mr. Warshow’s interesting letter, my treatment of the illusion-and-reality theme in Blow-up was narrow and unfair because I was imposing my own inappropriate interest in neat logical organization on the movie—I am said to want a movie to be a closed system. On the contrary, it is Antonioni who, in the episodes involving the pantomimers and the question they pose about illusion and reality, has imposed the neat structure. I argued that these episodes were not worth taking seriously, and when Mr. Warshow says that I “rightly” dismiss the theory that the photographer only imagined the murder, he is agreeing with me that the question posed by the pantomimers isn’t something that “stays on, alive and resonant in the memory.” And I think he would agree with me too that this question intends to bring to focus, and to fruition, all the earlier hints of the theme. For Mr. Warshow these earlier hints remain alive and resonant despite the failure of the ending. For me, they are not impressive in themselves, and whatever life or resonance they might have had in another kind of structure is completely killed off by the shallow trickiness of the structure which Antonioni has in fact imposed on them.

My object in discussing the photographer and his way of life was exactly to point to and describe what seemed to me genuinely alive and resonant in the movie, not just what was intended to be. This is not being narrow but, rather, relevant; it is not only a legitimate way of proceeding but in fact an obligation. Mr. Warshow seems to me insensitive to the distinction between what an artist intends to achieve and what he actually achieves.

On the other hand, Mr. Warshow is quite right in saying that my treatment of the murder and of Vanessa Redgrave was not fully enough argued. Yet it seems to me that he has read my few remarks on these subjects without common sense, and again without interest in the distinction between artistic intention and artistic achievement. When I called the murder “just a special and single event” and so on I was defining its quality in relation to the photographer’s uncommitted way of life, not saying anything about what proportion of the movie was devoted to it. And actually I gave it due emphasis by saying that it helped define that way of life in a “particularly interesting way” because it was “convincingly hard for the photographer to deal with.” Mr. Warshow finds it much too easy to deal with. Despite protestations to the contrary, he takes a decidedly moralistic attitude toward the photographer, as for instance when he arbitrarily resolves Antonioni’s tentative questioning by deciding that the pictures of bums in the doss-house are “to be relished for their aesthetic value in a book for rich people.” And the same heavy moralism is apparent in his judgment that the photographer should have been “sympathetic” and “cooperative” with the Vanessa Redgrave character. I don’t find the photographer’s behavior here admirable, but there is a lot to be said for his point of view. He takes pictures of a man and a woman innocuously romancing in a public park, whereupon the woman imperiously demands the film with sensitive upper-class remarks about his invasion of her “peace” and privacy—this is how the episode appears to him, which is to say that the woman appears to him to be an obvious phony and a snob. When, back at his studio, she explains that the publication of the pictures might bring her tangled personal life to the point of catastrophe, his advice is that catastrophe helps you sort things out—debatable advice, but surely a serious and sincere statement of his own code of life. His code has elements of adolescent callowness, granted, but from his point of view her code is artificial and inauthentic, which is to say that her reasons for needing the pictures don’t seem as important to him as his reasons for needing them. That Mr. Warshow should dismiss his reasons so easily seems to me another instance of the flat moral-ism that the movie tries to discourage.

But all of this, as I said in my review, depends on how you take the Vanessa Redgrave character, and I discussed my uncertainty about this in terms which still seem to me clear and relevant. I don’t understand why Mr. War-show is so puzzled by them. By “depth of feeling” I mean what everybody means by the common phrase, including the implication that there are such things as feelings that are highly visible but not deep, that some people are capable of deep feelings, others not, and that the former are more considerable than the latter. Which kind of person was the Vanessa Redgrave character?—that was my question. She does indeed register the feelings of anxiety, and desperation; so does—to offer what seems to me the right comparison—Anna, the girl who disappears, in L’Avventura. But in that movie the force and intensity of the actress’s performance, and the way Antonioni timed and shaped the scenes, made one powerfully and painfully aware of and sympathetic with the depth of Anna’s suffering. This is exactly what I was not aware of in Vanessa Redgrave’s performance, and I remain uncertain as to whether Antonioni intended this negative effect. Mr. Warshow apparently disagrees with me about the quality of the performance, and he may well be right. But such disagreements are exceptionally difficult to argue out, and Mr. Warshow is mistaken if he believes he is really arguing with me when he says that “the Vanessa Redgrave character is obviously desperate to get hold of the pictures”; just as he would not really be arguing with me if, when I said that there was no depth of feeling in a 1938 MGM soap-opera, he countered by telling me that the Joan Crawford character loved her husband deeply and was in agony about his affair with his secretary.

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