Is Blowup the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

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 @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Mystery Train the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

In February of 2019, musician Julien Baker was interviewed by a publication in New Zealand. The interviewer asked about Baker’s hometown of Memphis, and specifically about cultural associations of Memphis like Jim Jarmusch’s film Mystery Train. Baker gave a long answer that you should read all of, but she said “The Memphis that people imagine and the thing that Memphis really is are sort of the same and sort of not. They’re sort of this quirky caricature of each other.”

Baker’s full answer includes two specifics: a local weirdo named Prince Mongo and a semi-landmark called Graceland Too. I grew up in Memphis and lived there for more than twenty years and both of those have deep history and are really resonant for me. Baker didn’t mention Mystery Train at all, but did tell the interviewer that people assume the experience of Memphis is like the film Hustle and Flow. I wasn’t familiar with Jarmusch’s portrayal, but I can vouch for Baker’s quote and say that the Memphis that I’ve seen on screen and in reference isn’t completely “not Memphis” but it isn’t exactly right, either.

Mystery Train is a fascinating choice for the interviewer’s prompt because it’s about people bringing their own notions of Memphis to Memphis and what they actually experience. It’s very literally a movie about examining the prompt the interviewer provided Baker with and how Memphis changes their ideas in exactly the way Baker answers. I have no idea if Julien Baker has seen Mystery Train, but there’s almost no better summary possible.

Mystery Train is a triptych where all three stories happen in Memphis and involve foreign characters. “Far from Yokohama” shows us a Japanese couple that wants to take in the music scene through Graceland and Sun Studios. “A Ghost” finds an Italian woman stuck overnight as her flight home with her husband’s coffin is diverted. “Lost in Space” follows three characters as they get drunk after a night gone wrong. All three sets of characters stay in the same hotel on the same night, which combines their stories very slightly.

Jarmusch says he didn’t try to find abandoned sets, but that in a search for bleak locations in Memphis he found the city to just feel like it was abandoned. In Criterion’s Q&A he talks about ghosts and the feeling that he had to make a movie with few extras and no traffic because that’s how he experienced the city. Any Memphian will be baffled by the traffic piece, especially, but the director is making a point about the part of Memphis Mystery Train is focused on exploring. This is a dangerous part of the world, is the suggestion, as the only times characters meet anyone outside of the hotel, something negative happens.

The Japanese tourists want Memphis to be a romantic version of a musical time gone by, but we also see them get off the train and hear that they’ve been to lots of places on a similar journey. This is what they do, is the suggestion, so their view of Memphis tells us more about them than it does the city. It’s still a smart introduction to Memphis, especially given the direction Jarmusch wants to take the story.

The widow speaks more of the local language than the Japanese characters, but she’s unavoidably not from around here. A shopkeeper nudges her into buying a comical stack of magazines, but it’s a particularly colorful grifter at a coffee shop that tells us what we need to know about this woman. He tells her a story about the ghost of Elvis needing a ride and telling him he would meet a woman bound for Rome. It’s hardly designed to be believable, but our heroine pays the fee anyway and tells him it’s in exchange for the story. Things break a little bad and the whole thing gets fairly magical, but she ends up back in the hotel with a new companion and certainly a complicated view of town. “I feel a little discombobulated,” she tells the hotel staff, and they commiserate and agree.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Cinqué Lee are really unforgettable as the staff. Hawkins is a larger-than-life figure in the music world but only had a few acting roles. It simply wouldn’t be a movie with anyone lesser in this role for Mystery Train. The pairing of capable boss and put-upon bellhop is nothing new, but there’s something about how Hawkins plays the role that reflects what’s actually the story of Memphis. Most of the characters get a confusing or frustrating experience, but they do okay by the hotel, more or less.

The final trio of Rick Aviles, Joe Strummer, and Steve Buscemi ties everything together, but I don’t want to say everything that happens there. The gang knows the staff and needs a place to lie low, and their drunken conversation feels more like what other directors would do with a plot like this. Aviles plays a character named “Will Robinson” and they discuss life, love, and the guy from Lost in Space. It finally goes somewhere, but it takes a long time to get there.

There are no great revelations in Mystery Train, but that is exactly the point. All six characters leave the hotel changed, largely by what Memphis isn’t rather than what it is. The Japanese characters are disenchanted by Sun Studios, or at least by the fast-talking, rote speech they get on their tour. They wanted something unique, something truly Memphian, but they got something they probably are likely to get on every music tour. The mysticism of Memphis is enchanting for the Italian woman, but she also experiences the darker side of Memphis and her best experience with a local is still pretty mixed. The three guys talk about the job market falling out and how nearly everyone they know is out of work in Memphis.

The reality is that Memphis is two things. It is a historical center of the music world, filled with history you can still really access and a world worth walking around in. It also is a rough part of the world that’s seen much worse days and wears those days in ways that are unavoidable, especially around the hotel the film is set in. Mystery Train wants us to want the exciting hope of what Memphis represents but to wonder why there aren’t any people or cars anywhere in certain parts. When Steve Buscemi’s character is hesitant to enter a poolhall and says he’s uncomfortable in this neighborhood, he tells us a lot in one line. When Joe Strummer pulls out a gun confidently but casually in the same bar, he tells us even more.

Mystery Train isn’t Memphis, but neither is Hustle and Flow. It’s not really just Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley, either, even if you’ll be consistently bombarded with The King if you go there. Even the Memphis of Mystery Train is more complicated than just that, but that’s the whole point of showing us slices of different experiences in the same place. There’s more to say, always, even just down the hall.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I do think this is better. When Marnie Was There is a strange movie to compare to Mystery Train because they really don’t have anything in common. I’ll always have a place in my heart for When Marnie Was There, but it’s a pretty messy movie even though it has a ton of heart in it.

Is it the best movie of all time? This is very close, but I think I have to stick with Badlands. Jarmusch’s film is frequently funny in a really surprising way and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins simply demands your attention, but Badlands is just so beautiful. You could make a really strong case here and my love of Memphis makes this hard for me to do, but if I pick “the Memphis one” we’ll be stuck in a loop here forever. Badlands really is a special movie, even if I think Mystery Train is more likely to make more people happy with the experience if they were to watch both.

You can watch Mystery Train on The Criterion Channel (subscription required) or on Amazon Prime for $3.99 at the time of this writing. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

The Book of Mormon Musical and Being Offended

The Book of Mormon

Jonathan May

The Book of Mormon was written by Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez.

It took about three years for The Book of Mormon to arrive in Memphis from its original Broadway premiere. I didn’t listen to one second of the music during that whole time because I wanted to be surprised by the lyrics and story. Needless to say, the story itself is fairly simple; two young Mormon missionaries are sent to Uganda for their two-year stint. Having lived in Zimbabwe as a child of Christian missionaries, I can safely say the experience the two have upon arrival is eerily and comically perfect. Africa, though presented by some of its worst qualities, shines through as a tough place where real shit goes down, which it is. Therefore the jokes about men raping babies made most in the audience uncomfortable because, deep down, they knew (or became aware of then) that things like this happen.

I was insanely entertained by the whole show, being a fan of South Park. Those who would claim that the show just attacks Mormonism are simply missing the point; the show ultimately posits an absurdity in holding any system of religious belief. Parker and Stone, like many before them, make the point that religions are nothing more than metaphors by which to guide one’s life. This idea comes up often during South Park: that strict dogmatism often leads to unhappiness. So while Mormonism is the prism through which this idea is viewed, I argue that the musical deals ultimately with much more than the one religion. People who take offense at such things often miss that the creators of South Park have taken great care over the years to offend everyone equally, regardless of belief-oriented affiliation.

The Book of Mormon parodied many elements and traditions of musicals, as the creators are wont to do. Many of the songs contains leitmotifs or riffs from other famous musicals in order to further the meta-narrative quality of the production. By no means is this a family show, in the traditional sense. Cursing and “real talk” are par for the course, and no one shies away from all possible outlets of sexual and religious conflation for comedic effect. (One line that stands out, regarding baptism, is when a female character states she is “wet with salvation.”) If you are easily offended, I don’t know why you would consider going in the first place, but you should go. It’s easily the funniest Broadway show I’ve ever seen, and it does challenge one’s sense of humor. I laughed out loud steadily, but several moments gave me pause.

The realistic portrayal of the hardship of missionary work and the even harder quotidian circumstances for Africans undeniably make this musical what it is; without those, it might amount to nothing more than the sum of its jokes. But the leads (the two Mormon missionaries and the young African woman they attempt to convert) and their doubts are some of the strongest moments of this unforgettable show.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at

Tough Questions: If You Had to Move Tomorrow, Where Would You Move?


Every week we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:

If you had to move tomorrow, where would you move?

Rules are simple: get out of here. People are obsessed with movement and change. This week we ask everyone to pack their bags and move away. You’ve already got the wanderlust, where are you going?

Alex Russell

I love Chicago and I do not want to leave. It’s about to get to the oppressively hot part of the year here, though, and I’m one of the few people that hates the city in the summer more than I do in the winter. I moved here to get away from the 103 degree summers of the South, so I don’t appreciate when Hoth gets hot for a few months.

I’m not a beach guy, but I was in Santa Cruz, California on July 4th in 2008. This picture does not do it justice, but something about the weirdness of one of the last great beach towns in the country really, really stuck with me. Everyone was what you can only call “specific.” It’s not somewhere I could live for a decade, but there are worse places to turn 30, I think. There are definitely worse places.


Jonathan May

New Orleans! I love everything about the city: the food, the people, the connection to the water, the art. Since my friend Tyler moved down five or more years ago, I stay with him a few times a year, and it’s always a magical time. I love how close a lot of things are; you can do a lot of great walking and people-watching. The museum has some real treasures in it, and their cafe puts golden raisins and dill in their chicken salad (so good!). But most of all, just being in the city, with the susurrus of the crowd along the sidewalk and in the street, you lose yourself in the beautiful history of people promenading along the boulevards slowly with coffee or booze, in no great hurry to see the world that day, just one beautiful slice of it. I’ll there for July 4th this year, and I can’t wait!

Andrew Findlay

This is confusing to me. Am I being chased? Has a job opportunity opened up? I would either go to Memphis, where rent is about thirty percent of what it is here, or to Paris, where things are awesome. D.C. is great and all, but it’s kind of an in-between city – not as cheap as some, not as astounding as others.

Brent Hopkins

I would probably move to Busan, South Korea if I had to move tomorrow. I have been missing the ocean recently and also generally having a metropolitan area to roam around in. I have been slowly making my way south in the peninsula may as well pull the band-aid off and go all the way south.

Gardner Mounce

San Francisco. Does it matter that I’ve never been? No. I’ve seen pictures and I’ve watched Full House, and everyone agrees that it’s the most beautiful city on earth. This is a picture of me in San Francisco, but as another person.


See how happy I am?