August 13, 2006

Pods, holograms, and Antonioni

Are you sure you saw what you saw?
- Magneto, X-Men

Last fall, I saw the Michelangelo Antonioni film, Blowup, for the first time. Francis Schaeffer used this movie in one of his books as an example of good art preaching a bad worldview (in Blowup's case, existentialism).

Wanting to understand Schaeffer's argument better, I was interested in seeing the film for myself. I was expecting an intellectual film to be fairly talky and "arty". So I was quite surprised at the very visceral reaction I had, rather than the semi-disinterested, I'm-sitting-in-a-lecture one I was anticipating. In fact, Blowup fascinated me so much that I watched it through three times in the week I had it.

At the time, I had started writing a review and analysis, altlough it evetually came to nothing. (I may still revisit it in the future.) But after I spent so much time last weekend viewing grainy images of airplanes, "pods," and "flashes" in 9/11 conspiracy documentaries, Blowup was practically the first thing that came immediately to mind.

David Heddle plays a successful fashion photographer, jaded by years of dealing with emaciated models and teenage "birds" who strut around him hoping to bed a famous celebrity. In his spare time, he starts working on an art project: photographs of brutality, violence, and poverty. While strolling through a quiet park one morning, he encounters a young woman (Vanessa Redgrave) flirting with her older boyfriend. He steals a few candid photographs, but the girl discovers him and demands that he give her his film - even attempting to seduce him for it.

David1, wondering what has Vanessa so upset, develops the film. Making bigger and bigger blowups of the details of the photos, he makes two shocking discoveries: a man hiding in the bushes and holding a pistol, and a body under a tree. This set piece is one of the most gripping, fascinating pieces of cinema I have ever seen. Antonioni shows image after image in complete silence, effectively "storyboarding" the sequence of events that David thinks occurred during his chance encounter with Vanessa: He has inadvertently witnessed a murder.

It appears that Blowup has become a mystery story. But rather than solve that riddle, Antonioni uses it to make a broader point about the nature of perception (and ultimately of reality, though that is beyond the scope of this post). David has an artist friend, Bill, who paints abstract, Jackson Pollock-esque canvasses. The more David enlarges his photos, the more they begin to resemble Bill's paintings: The details get lost in the grain of the film. David tries to get good, solid evidence of the murder, but continually fails. By the end of the story, we're left to wonder whether anything had happened at all. Had someone really been killed in the park? Or was the egotistical David, smugly thinking himself a hero, just seeing what he wanted to see?

Now consider this. On September 11, 2001, thousands of people witnessed the planes smashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

At least some of those eyewitnesses used video cameras to record the attacks.

Those tapes were given to, and copied by, major news outlets.

Those copies were broadcast on television.

The same networks had their own cameras aimed at the WTC, showing the attacks live.

Millions of people witnessed the events of 9/11 on their TVs.

Some of those people taped the news on their VCRs.

Some of them wer conspiracy-minded persons, keen on investigating the attacks from their own perspective, so they copied and traded those videotapes amongst themselves.

Some of those tapes were digitized and uploaded to the Web.

Some of those clips were made available in low-bandwidth versions, on YouTube and Google Video.

Meanwhile, other conspirinauts started making 9/11 documentaries, in which they included taped, copied, or downloaded video footage.

To illustrate their point, those clips are often zoomed, colour-adjusted, slowed down, or otherwise "enhanced."

These documentaries are digitized and transferred to DVD.

Sometimes those DVDs are ripped to DivX format and made available on BitTorrent or another peer-to-peer network.

Low-bandwidth copies are again downloadable from YouTube, Google Video, or the Internet Archive.

Get the point? By the time a video clip of, say, Fight 175 crashing into WTC 2 goes through a conspiracy theorist to your eyes, it is probably at least four to six generations removed from direct, eyewitness observation. And each successive generation erodes the image quality a little more. Entropy increases. Information is lost that can't be put back.

Nonetheless, conspirinauts like Dave vonKleist actually want us to believe that we are seeing "irrefutable" proof that there was some sort of "pod" protruding from the belly of Flight 175, or that both flights 175 and 11 produced a "flash" immediately before they impacted the tower:

Extremely blurry image of airplane and WTC 1

even though the images have been magnified, manipulated, and distorted so badly by this time, that you can't even tell where the plane ends and the building begins.

Other conspirinauts like to allege that there was no plane at all: Rather, it was some kind of cruise missile, shrouded in a holographic image of a jet. Some even say there was no plane at all: The Boeings were added to the footage later by CGI. They point to video footage where the plane's wings supposedly disappear, as though there was some sort of technological glitch marring the illusion. There are alternative explanations: The wing may be too fine a detail for the camera's resolution at that moment. It might be obscured in a digital compression artifact. And so on.

Is there really a pod? Does Flight 175 really shoot a missile that creates a "flash" immediately before impact? Does the plane's wing really disappear because of a holographic bug? Or are the conspirinauts just like David and his blowups: imagining meaningful patterns in the noise they themselves have created?

There's another way that life imitates Antonioni. Blowup has an existentialist worldview. David is jaded and apathetic, and his life is a meaningless cloud of pot smoke and loveless sex. His attempt to find significance through art photography fail, because his pictures are banal. That changes when he encounters Vanessa in the park. His accidental discovery of the murder, and his attempts to reconstruct what he thinks he saw, are the significance he yearns for.

Similarly, one thing that seems to be a constant about conspiracy theorists is that they are never "insiders." Certainly they aren't all the stereotypical janitors and taxi drivers (though some are). But even influential filmmakers like Oliver Stone, or groundbreaking academics like Noam Chomsky, are far away from the real power brokers. I can't help wondering if concocting elaborate conspiracy theories is a way of constructing significance - by claiming to be "in the know" about events they were not a part of, perhaps the theorists get to live vicariously in the halls of power.

There is one way in which I'll agree with both Antonioni and the more radical 9/11 conspiracy theorists. The camera can lie as easily as tell the truth. It can be used to create illusion. I submit, for your consideration, the recent scandals at Reuters over Adnan Hajj's "fauxtography," and Hezbollah's staged images from the bombing in Lebanon, featuring the ubiquitous "Green Helmet."

And, in the words of the protagonist of another classic existential film, that's all I have to say about that.

Footnotes

1 The Footnote that Dare Not Speak Its Name: In the credits, the two principal characters are called "Thomas" and "Jane," but since neither name is spoken in the script, here I refer to them simply as "David" and "Vanessa."