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Orson Welles, who just about never met another director he couldn’t quip about, said that Michelangelo Antonioni’s long takes were boring and that the director believed that “because a shot is good, it’s going to get better if you keep looking at it.” Ingmar Bergman said that Antonioni’s best works were masterpieces, but he didn’t get the hype behind the rest of them or Antonioni as a whole.
Antonioni is generally listed as one of the greatest directors of all time, but it’s fascinating to read great directors trashing each other. Welles has dozens and dozens of examples of comments like that and you have to cut through the bluster to figure out how he actually felt, but it’s easy to see what he’s talking about with Antonioni in Blowup. Frequently, Antonioni wants us to look at something for what feels like an obsessive amount of time. As a viewer, you start to reconsider each scene to wonder why you’re seeing it. Why are we at a concert now? Why are these characters speaking? What am I expected to learn, to experience, to take from this?
The Conversation is one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s an absolute masterpiece in tension and the ending is, for my money, the best ending in all of classic film. Gene Hackman plays an audio expert who accidentally learns about a murder. He doesn’t have all of the details, but he has enough to obsess over the material and to get caught up in a complicated world he doesn’t understand. We see enough to be interested, but never enough to know more than Hackman’s character.
I could go on and on about The Conversation, but I mention it here because of the influence it clearly took from Blowup. Francis Ford Coppola says it’s an influence, but it’s a full-on inspiration. Blowup follows an obsessive photographer who accidentally learns about a murder and has to determine his moral responsibility and next steps based on shaky evidence. Both Hackman in The Conversation and David Hemmings in Blowup struggle with an incomplete picture. Both men know they have to do something, but what?
The difference is the world around them. They are nearly exactly the same length, but The Conversation finds time to complicate Hackman’s character. We learn he’s an asshole, really, and we’re asked to care about his mission more than the man. He can’t relate to others because he’s locked in himself. It’s a bold choice that really works, but you shouldn’t need me to tell you The Conversation is a treasure.
Blowup deliberately avoids this route. Hemmings also plays an unlikable bore, but in a totally different direction. Antonioni says it’s the story of a man who struggles with his relationship with reality, and that really comes through. No one matters in Blowup. Most people don’t even have names, and no one has a last name. Our main character meets a few people, wanders around, and panics. The relationships in The Conversation are there to show us how things fracture and change, in Blowup they are absent to tell us that people aren’t important to this story.
Hemmings plays Thomas (no last name, of course), a photographer who is bored with all the beautiful women who want to sleep with him. Two women in particular follow him around and have a private photo session with them that turns sexual immediately. The scene is long and ridiculous, and inspired a legend that one of the women was fully nude in a shot. Roger Ebert’s website includes a letter from another actor in the film that explains this as a shot that was removed from the commercially available film, so people were imagining it as more explicit than it turned out to be.
The letter is very graphic about this detail, but I’m more fascinated by the claim it makes about the plot. Blowup centers on Thomas wandering into a park and accidentally photographing a corpse as he shoots a potentially illicit meeting between two lovers. The woman in the photo tries to get the negatives from him and Thomas becomes more and more nervous as he contemplates if he’s really seeing what he thinks he’s seeing. The actor who wrote the letter was in these scenes and claims that Blowup was intended to be more straightforward and include the murder itself and more explanation. What’s on the page is “incomplete,” this actor alleges. It’s better this way, to be sure, but it wasn’t the intention.
I have to hope that’s not true. Blowup, explained, as a straight-ahead action film would be much less interesting than what it ended up being. The Conversation includes much more than Blowup, but even then we don’t see the act that drives the whole plot. It’s critical to both movies that we be at least a little confused and unsure if it actually happened or not.
Blowup is an experience. Antonioni wants you to feel Thomas struggling, but I had a hard time caring about his struggle. I found him most interesting when he was buying a huge, ridiculous propeller at an antique shop and least interesting when he was complaining about how London is just so lame now, y’know? I know the intention is to drop you into someone’s life that’s all routine boredom and see it shaken up, but Thomas really doesn’t experience that much change. Even as he struggles to get people to care about this murder, he’s still at fancy parties and having anonymous sex.
It is an unfair criticism, I suppose, to say he’s totally unchanged. He is changed internally, but does it matter? He goes to a concert and can’t connect with what everyone else is connecting with. He picks up a piece of a smashed guitar and absconds with it into the street, chased by rabid fans. He realizes that it doesn’t actually matter and drops it on the ground. A passerby picks it up and also realizes that it doesn’t actually matter and also drops it on the ground. You feel Antonioni demanding you to “get it” through the screen in this scene. It would be impossible to not understand this significance, but here it is twice, anyway.
Blowup is on all the greatest lists. Roger Ebert picked it as one of the most significant films of all time. It’s impossible to have The Conversation without it, but I still couldn’t connect with Blowup. The entire first half hour is designed to tell us that Thomas is a bore who hates what should be a pretty exciting life. When Vanessa Redgrave’s character from the park shows up to demand the negatives, she assumes he’ll be motivated by sex and takes her top off. There’s an extremely long scene that follows where she covers up in various ways without getting dressed. It’s all shot beautifully and it’s a fascinating concept, but it feels so very empty. Antonioni says he wasn’t making a movie about human interaction, but humans still interact on the screen. The panic and the fear feel real, but whenever Thomas has to talk to someone, it just doesn’t work as well.
Towards the end, Thomas struggles to get people at a party to understand that he’s got something really significant to tell them. “Someone’s been killed,” he shouts, and his agent says “okay.” The exchange is excellent and it’s a great summary of how Antonioni wants us to feel. Thomas wouldn’t care if someone in his life told him this story, and now that he has it to tell, he’s frustrated by how the world responds to him. The Conversation tells us that the truth might not be the truth and that you need to navigate waters you don’t understand carefully, but Blowup shows that if you spend your whole life superficially, when it starts to matter you might not be able to deal with it.
Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I liked Mystery Train more. I don’t think I’ll come back to Blowup, but I’m curious as I see more Antonioni if I’ll fall in with Welles or not.
Is it the best movie of all time? No. I obviously like The Conversation more, but I also think Badlands is a better film. I love a lot of the little touches in Blowup, though. When Thomas goes to blow up the image to look closer, he does so without explaining what’s happening. He never tells anyone anything, he shows all of it. This may sound like a stupid thing to praise, but I feel like any movie from the last twenty years would feel the need to have another character there asking about photography to give Thomas a chance to say what a blow up is and what he’s looking for and so many other things. Blowup is an experience and a great work from a great era, even if it isn’t exactly right for me.
You can watch Blowup on HBO Max (subscription required) or on Amazon Prime for $1.99 at the time of this writing. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.