By Sven Mikulec
In 1966, the Italian maestro Michelangelo Antonioni, already famous as one of the most prominent European auteurs of his time, reached a far wider audience with his second film made in color, and the first one in the English language. There are multiple reasons why Blow-Up achieved the success it did in the sixties and why it’s still considered a landmark movie of the period. On the ground level, the direct consequences are obvious. It was Michelangelo Antonioni’s commercially most successful film. On less than a $2 million budget, it made ten times that much at the box office, and the rising Italian filmmaker suddenly became a commodity sought worldwide, even being offered to direct such blockbusters as Peter Pan afterwards. From a critical point of view, Blow-Up got Antonioni the Palm d’Or at Cannes and two Oscar nominations. Moreover, David Hemmings, who worked on films and theater since the 1950s, achieved stardom with this film, growing into one of the biggest British stars of the decade. But these are just superficial affects visible on the surface. The bang that Blow-Up made and the cut it left were far deeper. Since MGM released the film without the Production Code’s blessing, due to several straightforwardly filmed sex scenes and open representations of the sixties’ decadence, Antonioni’s film utterly undermined the authority of the long-upheld code that finally had to make way for the more nuanced and understanding MPAA rating system. In this way, Blow-Up played a vital role in the liberation of the Anglo-American cinema, freeing artists from the puritan chains that belonged to a locked chest in the basement of history.
Simultaneously, the influence that this picture wielded was astonishing, as Blow-Up inspired future generations of filmmakers and artists with its untraditional storytelling, captivating, hallucinating visuals and its deep, thought-provoking attempt at disclosing and exploring the perceptive nature of reality and the often baffling relationship of truth and perception. The two films that followed in Blow-Up’s footsteps and flourished in its tradition were, of course, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and Brian De Palma’s Blow-Out, both substituting the photography aspect with their stories of two sound experts. If you want to look further and in a more than slightly different direction, perhaps you’ll remember Austin Powers and the way it plays with the Swinging London fab and groovy ambiance.
The screenplay was written by Antonioni himself and the great Italian poet and writer Tonino Guerra, with the English playwright Edward Bond hired to write the English dialogue. The story itself, however, is based on Julio Cortázar’s short story called ‘The Devil’s Drool.’ To help him achieve the desired visual identity of the film, Antonioni hired the skilled cinematographer who worked with him on Red Desert, his first color film. Carlo Di Palma’s photography plays a pivotal part in Blow-Up, as Antonioni’s modus operandi relies heavily on telling the story through images rather than dialogue. The celebrated American pianist Herbie Hancock provided the diegetic score overflowing with some great jazz material, making Blow-Up the first in a series of acclaimed film soundtracks that the composer recorded. The aforementioned Hemmings had wonderful support from fellow actresses and actors such as Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles and John Castle, while the film was edited by Frank Clark, with unavoidable assistance from Antonioni, who always claimed it was the editing room where he first developed the ideas for what his movies were actually about. “Believe in me, Peter,” Antonioni told his skeptical actor Peter Bowles, who was agitated when Antonioni cut his speech out of the film. “I am not God, but I am Antonioni.” It’s a good thing the filmmaker reassured his crew of his human essence, since all who worked with him couldn’t help but notice they were in the presence of someone far from ordinary.
This article is enriched by the addition of a very rare scan of Antonioni, Guerra and Bond’s script of Blow-Up from Simon and Schuster’s 1971 ‘Blow-Up: A Film’ (Modern Film Scripts), a book that has been out-of-print for decades and only exists in the few available copies still left. For educational and research purposes only, the readers of C&B now have a unique chance to examine it carefully, and we urge all of you to do so.
A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra & Edward Bond’s screenplay for Blow-Up [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Interview with Michelangelo Antonioni in Rome, July 29, 1969 by Charles Thomas Samuels. Courtesy of zakka.dk.
The living room of Antonioni’s apartment, where this interview took place, reflects intellectual restlessness rather than a desire for comfort. Except for a plush couch, the room is sparely furnished, yet everywhere there are books, records, a wild array of bric-a-brac. One table holds a collection of arrowheads, knife blades, and other antique weaponry. Crowding the windowsills is a profusion of objects trouves, including the television circuitry to which he refers during our conversation. Even the low glass coffee table is covered with an assortment of boxes, fragments of statuary, enormous ashtrays, and other items, some unidentifiable. Overwhelming the whole are striking, sometimes garish paintings, particularly the Lichtenstein he mentions and an enormous Francis Bacon of a semi-human figure installed in an easy chair but, for all that, apparently losing its innards. We talked for four hours, despite the intense heat and his preoccupation with editing Zabriskie Point. My questions were posed in English, although, for speed’s sake, I invited him to answer in Italian. My wife, who is fluent in that language, was present for on-the-spot explanations of anything I failed to understand. Subsequently, a full transcript was made and translated at Antonioni’s expense, since he refused to let the tapes out of his hands. He explained that an uncensored conference recorded with students had been broadcast without his knowledge, thus putting at his producer’s disposal certain comments he did not want publicized, including-to his later discomfort-some negative remarks about the producer. Moreover, he does not like the sound of his voice and prefers to limit its circulation.
The voice is soft and toneless, the eyes are lugubrious, and though the face and body are far younger than his sixty years, Antonioni’s apparent virility is belied by an extremely austere manner and by a series of nervous tics that become more intense as he finds himself struggling for words. A week after the interview, at lunch, he showed his capacity for wit and relaxation, but as we talked now, he seemed burdened by his earnest attempt to answer my questions. Having been forewarned that he would find answering difficult, I began with something familiar and general.
You are quoted as saying, “Once one has learned the two or three basic rules of cinematographic grammar, he can do what he likes-even break these rules.” What rules were you referring to?
The simplest ones: crosscutting, making the actor enter from the right if he had previously exited to the left of the frame, etc. There are hundreds of such rules which are taught in cinema schools and which have value only until you actually begin making films. Often I have shot something simply to show myself how useless they are. You break one and no one notices, because the audience only sees the result of your “error.” If that works, who cares about rules!
Cronaca di un amore, your first feature film, has more inventive and innovative camera work than your second film, La signora senza camelie. For example, in La signora you regularly track into a character when he moves toward the camera, which is certainly playing according to the rules, whereas in Cronaca, as in your later films, you are seldom so orthodox. Why is this so?
I can’t answer that question. When I am shooting a film I never think of how I want to shoot something; I simply shoot it. My technique, which differs from film to film, is wholly instinctive and never based on a priori considerations. But I suppose you are right in saying that La signora seems more orthodox than the earlier Cronaca because when I was shooting the first film, I made very long takes, following the actors with my camera even after their scene was finished. But, you know, Cronaca isn’t more innovative than what comes after. Later I break the rules much more often. Look at L’avventura and particularly Blow-up.
Blow-up is the most cinematographically unorthodox of all your films. But I was interested to notice precedents for the camera work of Blow-up in your short documentary L’amorosa menzogna, which is about making fumetti, or live action comic strips, and which contains almost as many trick shots as the later work. I think, for example, of the shot of a fumetti scene reduced to its reflection in the camera. Isn’t it more than a coincidence that the two films which contain your most complex shooting are the two that concern photography?
You are right to say that Blow-up is my most unorthodox film, but it is unorthodox in montage, as well as photography. At the Centro Sperimentale they teach you never to cut a shot during its action. Yet I continually do that in Blow-up. Hemmings starts walking to a phone booth-snip go a few frames-in a flash, he is there. Or take the scene in which he photographs Verushka; I cut many frames during that action, doing what the teachers at the Centro regard as utterly scandalous.
Is the rhythm of this scene meant to suggest the photographer’s emotions?
Up to a point. I wanted to give the audience the same sensations as the photographer feels while shooting. However, this sort of thing is fairly common in the cinema today. I began taking liberties a long time ago; now it is standard practice for most directors to ignore the rules.
Your cutting in the Verushka scene has now become a sort of cliche in TV commercials.
It doesn’t disturb you, eh? Well, let’s get back to this question of camera technique. Why do you so rarely use reverse cutting in dialogue scenes?
Because it is so banal that instinctively I find it irritating. But occasionally I do use it, even as late as Zabriskie Point. Normally, however, I try to avoid repetitions of any shot. It isn’t easy to find one in my films. You might, I suppose, see something twice, but it would be rare. And then, you know, every line requires its own kind of shot. The American method of shooting one actor continuously, then moving to the other, then intercutting both-this method is wrong. A scene has to have a rhythm of its own, a structure of its own.
Progressively during your career, you seem to efface the precise moment of cutting and to avoid obvious transitions, almost as if you wish to keep the spectator from relaxing. In view of the fact that your later films tell slow, deliberate stories, aren’t you trying to achieve briskness in the way you cut?
If so, it is instinctive. I don’t do anything deliberately.
That’s not true. You told Rex Reed that all your films were made with your stomach, except Blow-up, which was made with your head.
In Blow-up I used my head instinctively!
Checkmate. When you were interviewed by Bianco e Nero in 1958 you said that modern directors had eliminated the “problem of the bicycle.”
What could I have meant by that?
I supposed you to mean sociological motivation for the character’s behavior, and you certainly concentrate on the power of personality, of self rather than society. However, even though your characters aren’t caused by society, they are embedded in a specific social context, which is what gives your films their extraordinary richness. Therefore, I think that 1958 statement indicates what is really a false distinction.
You know what I would like to do: make a film with actors standing in empty space so that the spectator would have to imagine the background of the characters. Till now I have never shot a scene without taking account of what stands behind the actors because the relationship between people and their surroundings is of prime importance. I mean simply to say that I want my characters to suggest the background in themselves, even when it is not visible. I want them to be so powerfully realized that we cannot imagine them apart from their physical and social context even when we see them in empty space.
Because of your telling eye for detail, you do relate your characters to their background. In fact, as one goes through your films, he sees you relying less and less on dialogue and more and more on the physical environment to establish your characters.
Yes. The heroine’s neurosis sprayed out against the backdrop.
What did you mean in the Cannes manifesto that accompanied L’avventura when you said that man is burdened on the threshold of space by feelings entirely unsuited to his needs?
I meant exactly what I said: that we are saddled with a culture that hasn’t advanced as far as science. Scientific man is already on the moon, and yet we are still living with the moral concepts of Homer. Hence this upset, this disequilibrium that makes weaker people anxious and apprehensive, that makes it so difficult for them to adapt to the mechanism of modern life.
That much I understand, but I’m puzzled about some implications. Do you mean to imply that the old moral baggage must be thrown away? If so, is that possible? Can man conceive of a new morality?
Why go on using that word I loathe! We live in a society that compels us to go on using these concepts, and we no longer know what they mean. In the future-not soon, perhaps by the twenty-fifth century-these concepts will have lost their relevance. I can never understand how we have been able to follow these worn-out tracks, which have been laid down by panic in the face of nature. When man becomes reconciled to nature, when space becomes his true background, these words and concepts will have lost their meaning, and we will no longer have to use them. The hero moves against a backdrop of casual violence in Zabriskie Point.
Let me match your statement with a moment in one of your films. By the end of L’avventura, Sandro recognizes that his promiscuity is harmful to Claudia, with whom he has had the one intense relationship of his life, so far as we know. Do you mean us to believe that his ensuing guilt (inspiring him to tears) is an error because what makes him feel this guilt are conceptions of romantic love and personal responsibility that have become irrelevant burdens?
Sandro is a character from a film shot in 1960 and is therefore entirely immersed in such moral problems. He is an Italian, a Catholic, and so he is a victim of this morality. What I said awhile ago is that such moral dilemmas will have no right to exist in a future that will be different from the present. Today we are just beginning to glimpse that future, but in 1960 we lived in a country with the Pope and the Vatican, which have always been extremely important to all of us. There isn’t a school in Italy still, not a law court without its crucifix. We have Christ in our houses, and hence the problem of conscience, a problem fed to us as children that afterward we have no end of trouble getting rid of. All the characters in my films are fighting these problems, needing freedom, trying to find a way to cut themselves loose, but failing to rid themselves of conscience, a sense of sin, the whole bag of tricks.
I don’t think you’re proposing something that’s only a matter of time. Would it indeed ever be good to dispense with the bag of tricks, as you call it? I wonder if we shouldn’t be more proud of this tradition going back to Homer than of the trip to the moon. Speaking only for myself-no, I’m sure I speak for others, too-the ending of L’avventura is so powerful because Sandro has the conscience to regret what he has done. To feel such regret, one has to believe in the supreme importance of human responsibility, and I can’t conceive of art without that belief.
I would like to make clear that I speak only of sensations. I am neither a sociologist nor a politician. All I can do is imagine for myself what the future will be like. Today we find ourselves face to face with some curious facts. For example, today’s youth movement was born under the sign of anarchy. It has made anarchy point to a new society, which will be more flexible, based on a system that can, by degrees, concur with contemporary events, facts, necessities. On the other hand, these youths structure themselves in mystic groups, and I must confess this rather disturbs me. I don’t know what to think about it anymore… I don’t want what I am saying to sound like a prophecy or anything like an analysis of modern society …. these are only feelings I have, and I am the least speculative man on earth.
The implication of what you’ve been saying as far as Blow-up is concerned intrigues me. Aren’t you suggesting that you meant to depict the young people in that film positively?
Yes, Blow-up is favorable to the youth of that particular moment and place. I don’t know how I would feel if I were to start studying certain groups in Italy, for example, about whom I must admit only the vaguest knowledge.
But I find the film critical, and so do others. For example, recall the peace-march scene, where the young people walk by with placards reading “Go,” “On, on” “Forward.” That’s parody, yet you say you intended it to be favorable.
When a scene is being shot, it is very difficult to know what one wants it to say, and even if one does know, there is always a difference between what one has in mind and the result on film. I never think ahead of the shot I’m going to make the following day because if I did, I’d only produce a bad imitation of the original image in my mind. So what you see on the screen doesn’t represent my exact meaning, but only my possibilities of expression, with all the limitations implied in that phrase. Perhaps the scene reveals my incapacity to do better; perhaps I felt subconsciously ironic toward it. But it is on film; the rest is up to you.
Last week I saw for the first time your documentary on the superstitions of Calabrese peasants, and I was struck by the similarities between these peasants and the hippies in whom you have such faith.
The hippies are also superstitious. The peasants have their magus, the hippies their guru. Hippies wear talismans, just like the Calabrese. Are they really the future? Aren’t they bearing baggage even older than the moral tradition you find so burdensome?
I believe these similarities derive from the hippies’ desire not to reform present society, but to destroy it and, in destroying it, return almost to antiquity, to a purer, more primordial life, lessless mechanical… not based on the same principles as present life. Therefore, they return to the original source, and their gurus resemble the wizard in Superstizione. But I don’t believe that if they ever reach a position of power, these young people would reconstruct society along antique fines, for that would be absurd. They need to rethink society, and nobody knows the answers yet.
Therefore, both in Blow-up and Zabriskie Point you aren’t so much admiring their present behavior as hoping that they will produce something better?
More or less. They believe in the possibility of life; that is what they show in their primitive communities. But I think that technology will one day shape all our actions. I don’t think this can be helped, and there will be no chance to resist.
I’m still puzzled. You say that the future must be technologically controlled and, moreover, that you desire that. But so far as I can see, your films suggest a revulsion against technology. In Red Desert, for example, there’s a scene where Corrado talks to Giuliana’s husband in front of a factory. The noise makes it impossible to hear, and the smoke makes it impossible for them to see each other. Soon the smoke envelops them so that we don’t see them either. On the other hand, you painted the factory pipes so that they become rather attractive. On the one hand, you show that technological modern life is bad; on the other, you’re saying it’s good.
But I’m not saying that technology is bad, something we can do without. I’m saying that present-day people can’t adapt to it. These are merely terms of a conflict: “technology” and “old-fashioned characters.” I’m not passing judgment, not at all. Ravenna, near the sea, has a stretch of factories, refineries, smokestacks, etc. on one side and a pine forest on the other. Somewhere I’ve written that the pine forest is much the more boring feature. Look at this, for example. I find these components of a television circuit absolutely marvelous. Look! They’re wonderful. So you see, I’m an admirer of technology. From an outsider’s view the insides of a computer are marvelous-not just its functioning but the way it is made, which is beautiful in itself. If we pull a man apart, he is revolting; do the same thing to a computer and it remains beautiful. In 2001, you know, the best things in the film are the machines, which are much more splendid than the idiotic humans. In Red Desert, I also confronted this technology and these machines with human beings who are morally and psychologically retarded and thus utterly unable to cope with modern life.
You mean, then, that it is man’s fault and not the fault of the environment that he can’t adjust, is miserable, etc.?
Yes. Modern life is very difficult for people who are unprepared. But this new environment will eventually facilitate more realistic relationships between people. For example, that scene, that great puff of-not smoke-steam that blasts out violently between the two characters. As I see it, that steam makes the relationship more real, because the two men have nothing to say to each other. Anything that might crop up would be hypocritical.
OK. But isn’t it also possible to say that they can’t speak to each other because their environment deprives them of an inner life to communicate?
No. I don’t agree. In that case… Wait, let me think it over a moment. I think people talk too much; that’s the truth of the matter. I do. I don’t believe in words. People use too many words and usually wrongly. I am sure that in the distant future people will talk much less and in a more essential way. If people talk a lot less, they will be happier. Don’t ask me why. In my films it is the men who don’t function properly-not the machines.
That isn’t what we’re discussing; we’re discussing the cause. Is this something unavoidable in man’s soul or something located in a specific moment of history.
You are trying to make me into some sort of philosopher of modern life-which is something I absolutely cannot be. When we say a character in my films doesn’t function, we mean he doesn’t function as a person, but he does function as a character-that is, until you take him as a symbol. At that point it is you who are not functioning. Why not simply accept him as a character, without judging him? Accept him for what he is. Accept him as a character in a story, without claiming that he derives or acquires meaning from that story. There may be meanings, but they are different for all of us.
There is a difference between an anecdote and a story. It is interesting to hear the director whose films are most like stories and least like anecdotes asking me to take his characters as if they were anecdotal, people who are shown doing things without obvious significance.
I’m not saying that they have no significance. I am saying that this mustn’t be extracted from the film according to a preestablished scale of values. Don’t regard my characters as symbols of a determined society. See them as something that sparks a reaction within you so that they become a personal experience. The critic is a spectator and an artist insofar as he transforms the work into a personal thing of his own.
What if I transform the film into something wrong?
There is nothing in the film beyond what you feel.
Ah, that’s Berkeley: If a tree falls and no one sees it, it didn’t fall. You believe that?
Then the film is an objective fact and as such can be misapprehended. Unless you’re willing to grant a meaning that the film forces or should force you to understand, you’ve got to accept every silly thing anyone has to say.
What can I say? I saw a film made by a friend of mine that was panned by all the critics and withdrawn by the censor. So I wrote to the newspapers explaining why it was a good film. But I am the only one who liked it, the only person in Italy!
But you’re talking about evaluation, which is subjective. I’m talking about objective meaning. For example, is Sandra in L’avventura a weak or a strong character? Sandro is a fact, and the fact equals weakness. Right?
No, not right. In a way, he is a strong character.
In what way?
He is capable of giving up something he had never believed he would have the power to give up. You need strength for that sort of renunciation.
Why does he cry at the film’s end?
For several reasons. A man who kills people during a war-which is an act of strength and courage-can also have a crisis and break down and cry. But it doesn’t last long. Ten minutes later he will probably have stopped crying. But perhaps the crying will have released him from his crisis. Who knows?
If you think that Sandro’s crying doesn’t compromise him as a courageous character, I presume that you think that others of your characters possess courage. Yet most of them cry in the final shot.
The heroine cries at the end of Cronaca.
—and that’s the way one episode ends in I vinti, and Il grido means the outcry, which is what concludes the film…
And Nene in Le amiche…
And Sandro-and Vittoria in Eclipse…
No. That is a very optimistic film.
Optimistic? Why, the lovers don’t even see one another again, or do they?
No. They never meet.
If you wanted us to be so certain of this (let’s leave the question of optimism aside for the moment), why does our last glimpse of Piero indicate a change in his character? Whereas he is frantic and agitated throughout the film, at the end we see him refusing to answer his phones, leaning back in his chair and smiling, while the breeze (which has such important symbolic overtones) ruffles his hair.
There are people like that living all around me, full of contradictions, with weak and strong points, etc. My characters are ambiguous. Call them that. I don’t mind. I am ambiguous myself. Who isn’t?
Well, then, what of your statement that the film is optimistic? You once said that it illustrated these sentiments of Dylan Thomas’: “There must, be praised, some certainty, if not of loving, well then, at least of not loving.” Isn’t it stretching things to call that optimistic?
No. If these characters can give up an affair that is just beginning, it is because they have a certain confidence in life. Otherwise, to speak in ugly old words, if they thought they could not survive the grief of having lost love, they would not have renounced each other but would have met again.
But the film begins with a renunciation (when Vittoria leaves her first lover) which is one of the unhappiest scenes in your films. Why is that so unpleasant and the later renunciation a sign of optimism?
Because the last scene is Vittoria’s refusal to relive the first. That is, she doesn’t want to suffer again the pangs of love. That is more or less the sense of it-put into words.
What about the ending? Doesn’t it symbolize the end of the world: that house which will never be finished, those bricks lying on the ground, the rainwater pouring out of the barrel, the headline “Peace is weak”?
That only shows the error of this way of looking at films, because if we go back there, we will see that the house was finished!
All right. Let’s change the subject. In America, the pace and rhythm of Blow-up were surprising to audiences used to your previous films. Do you think, albeit subconsciously, that you made Blow-up a briskly paced film in response to criticism of your “slowness”?
Absolutely not. The film was cut that way because I felt that this story needed such a rhythm; these characters moved nervously. I never at any time thought of the critics because I rarely read them.
What is the function of the neon sign in Blow-up that can’t be understood since it isn’t a word?
I didn’t want people to be able to read that sign; whether it advertised one product or another was of no importance. I placed it there because I needed a source of light in the night scenes. Furthermore, I liked having the sign near the park. It is there for an obvious reason: to break up the romantic atmosphere.
Are you disturbed by critics who want to go beyond that level of explanation?
No, because, as I’ve said, every object in a film is an experience of the viewer’s. After all, what does the director do? He conveys what he thinks he has seen. But, good Lord, the meaning of reality, living as we do enclosed in ourselves, isn’t always clear to us. We could discuss for hours an episode or even an object found on the street. And the same thing is true of a filmed episode or object. Except that I never ask explanations from what I see in real life, but with a film I ask the director. But the director is only a man. Very often I cannot give an explanation because I see only images, and images are what I transfer to the screen. Very often these images have no explanation, no raison d’etre beyond themselves.
A moment ago you said you read criticism rarely. Are there no critics who seem important to you?
Sometimes I pick up a magazine and read a piece of film criticism-to the end only if I like it. I don’t like those which are too free with praise because their reasons seem wrong and that annoys me. Critics who attack me do so for such contradictory reasons that they confuse me, and I am afraid that if I am influenced by one, I will sin according to the standards of the other.
I’d like to get back to Blow-up. In the so-called orgy sequence one sees two men in the background behind the models. Why?
There is no reason for it. They are two cameramen whom I did not notice and so forgot to cut.
It seems to me that a statement you make in the introduction to the Italian edition of your screenplays has a particular relevance to Blow-up: “We know that under the image revealed there is another which is truer to reality and under this image still another and yet again still another under this last one, right down to the true image of that reality, absolute, mysterious, which no one will ever see or perhaps right down to the decomposition of any image, of any reality.”
I would say that this applies more to the finale of Eclipse than to Blow-up, but it applies to Blow-up as well. In the final scene of Eclipse, I was trying for a sort of decomposition of things.
You are quoted as saying that the two main components of your technique are the camera and the actors.
I never said such a thing. Where did you read it?
People are always misquoting me.
Like Rex Reed?
He made that whole interview up. I’ve never said what you report. I’ve always said that the actor is only an element of the image, rarely the most important. The actor is important with his dialogue, with the landscape, with a gesture-but the actor in himself is nothing. The search for reality in a photographed image provides the central plot for Blow-up.
Indeed, your films are vulnerable on this ground. For example, why do you use so many foreign actors whose voices need to be dubbed into Italian? Why do you use an actor like Richard Harris, who, in my opinion, is so inexpressive?
You must be painter who takes a canvas and does what he likes with it. We are more like painters in past centuries who were ordered to paint frescoes to specific measurements. Among the people in the fresco may be a bishop, the prince’s wife, etc. The fresco isn’t bad simply because the painter used for models people from the court of the prince who ordered and paid for it. At the moment I made Red Desert the Italian actor I wanted wasn’t free, or asked for too much money, or didn’t have an important enough name. Harris wasn’t right-but not because he was foreign. Still, I chose him, and the mistake is mine. But for the voice: Why shouldn’t cinema make such a change? The voice I dubbed in suited the role better than Harris’ own voice, which is soft, toneless. I needed a stronger voice to match the image of Harris’ figure. But I must repeat, when we find ourselves up against practical obstacles that can’t be overcome, we must go forward. You either make the film as you can or don’t make it at all.
Let’s talk about the camera now. How much independence do you give your cameraman? That is to say, does Di Venanzo or Di Palma etc. impose his style on the film he shoots?
No. I have always imposed my wishes on the cameraman. Moreover, I have always picked them at the outset of their careers and, to a certain extent, have formed them myself. I used Di Venanzo, for example, in my segment of L’amore in citt6. I remember that at the time he wasn’t used to handling photofloods, photospots-that type of lighting-he was still using projected lighting. I got him to use the other sort, to shoot in reduced zones, and to use a special bulb that produced just the quality I wanted. He was using the wrong sort of film until I made him use Kodak. Now he indicates in his contracts that he will shoot only with Kodak; I had to impose that choice on him, though he went on to make it his own style. Scavarda, the man who shot L’avventura, has never made another film that was as well photographed. In my short documentary N.U. I used Ventimiglia. His photography was superb. But I chose the shots, even the moments at which they should be taken. I would say, “We will start at twelve twenty and finish at twelve thirty-two, because after that the light won’t be any good.” Everything depends on what you put in front of the camera, what perspectives you create, contrasts, colors. The cameraman can do great things, provided he is well grounded technically. If a person hasn’t the raw material, I obviously couldn’t do anything with him. But all I ask of a cameraman is technical experience. Everything else is up to me. I was amazed to find that in America cameramen are surprised that this is the way I work.
In the interview you had with Alberto Moravia about Zabriskie Point you said that America was made up of two populations: two-thirds old and awful; one-third young and fine. Is that what you feel? A painterly composition with Richard Harris.
Well, perhaps I got the proportions wrong. Two-thirds and one-third is too absolute a statement, and I don’t know the whole of America well enough to say that. Obviously, in America as elsewhere, one finds contrasts in the population, but because it is such a violent country, the contrasts stand out. That is why I have said that Wallace and the hippies are brothers: They are each children of a country that runs to extremes.
You once said that critics should not speak of documentary elements in your feature films but rather of narrative elements in your documentaries. If you could, would you prefer dispensing with narrative?
No. I always want to tell stories. But they must be stories that evolve, like our own lives. Perhaps what I seek is a new kind of story. In my next films I am going to change the kinds of stories I tell and the way I tell them.
Do you find that being a famous director causes you to have difficulties with other people?
Yes. There are times when my being an observer changes the scene. The moment I appear, people feel a little intimidated, and that intimidates me. Because I would like to feel part of the natural atmosphere. Often I have had to resort to tricks so as to be able to see things in their natural state. But difficulties remain, and I find them very annoying.
Your films show a familiarity with Italian high life. Do you enter this world out of choice or to get material?
It is very hard to make a distinction. One doesn’t enter groups of people simply because one wants or needs to. One has an infinite number of opportunities that occur for no particular reason. Sometimes you feel a sudden unexpected pleasure at being where you find yourself. The reason may be frivolous-well, why not? I’m not the cold-blooded sort who carries a little notebook around and jots down phrases from the conversations he hears. I try to live an easygoing, natural life. What remains inside me is what I’ll need to draw on.
In an interview I had with him, John Updike said something that fascinated me: “Being an artist is dangerous because it allows one to turn one’s pain too quickly to profit.”
I couldn’t use that phrase today—”being an artist”—as if that were something exceptional. And if somebody transmutes his pain into profit, very good. I find that the most wonderful way to kill pain.
Why do you say “today”? Could you have used the phrase “being an artist” in some other period?
Yes, of course. I think that during the Renaissance everything was influenced by art. Now the world is so much more important than art that I can no longer imagine a future artistic function.
But today what is the function?
I don’t know.
You don’t know?
Then tell me.
You want me to tell you what the function of art is! No, you tell me what you think of Francois Truffaut.
I think his films are like a river, lovely to see, to bathe in, extraordinarily refreshing and pleasant. Then the water flows and is gone. Very little of the pleasant feeling remains because I soon feel dirty again and need another bath.
Do you mean his films pass away because their images aren’t memorable?
Yes, that’s part of it. No. His images are as powerful as those of Resnais or Godard, but his stories are frivolous. I suppose that’s what I object to.
But I thought you weren’t too concerned about the significance of a story.
Rene Clair told light stories, too, but they touch me more. I don’t know why Truffaut’s leave me unmoved. I’m not trying to say that he has no significance. I only mean that the way he tells a story doesn’t come to anything. Perhaps he doesn’t tell my kind of story. Perhaps that’s it.
Do you dislike his way of working because it so emphasizes tricky camera effects?
There is never an image that gives me a blow in the stomach. I need these punches. Godard, on the other hand, flings reality in our faces, and I’m struck by this. But never by Truffaut.
Let me get back to your films for a moment. At the end of L’avventura do you mean us to believe that Sandro and Claudia are drawn closer together by their experience?
No. I don’t mean to say anything at that moment except what the moment itself says: Here are two people who have their own stories—rather dissimilar ones-but who are, for the moment, rather close. What their future is I don’t know. I couldn’t say anything about it and wouldn’t be interested in the subject.
When I ask you about the last scene of L’avventura, you say you can’t tell me anything beyond it. Yet earlier, when I made a statement about the end of Eclipse, you countered me with a fact occurring in the real world after the film was finished. In one case, you’re insisting that the work of art stops and we only know so much as it tells us; in the other, you speak of the work as if its life flowed on into the life from which it came.
All right. I’ll go back to L’avventura. Let me tell you what I think the end means. Now Claudia has looked at Sandro, and she knows him completely. That’s all.
Yes. And it has no significance, no necessary effect on their future. Time and time again we bind ourselves to people whose limitations we know all too well, and so what? You are absolutely right. The story is over.
Why does Anna leave behind her the Bible and Tender Is the Night? Did you choose the latter simply because you like Fitzgerald, or is the book supposed to point to Anna’s relationship with her father?
No. I merely thought that Scott Fitzgerald was an author that a girl like that would read.
There are a number of long shots in the film that don’t seem objective, that rather suggest the perspective of an onlooker. For example, at one point Sandro’s car is in a piazza. Claudia and Sandro are seen moving around. Then we cut to a distance shot taken from the end of a street leading into the piazza, and we track into them. Is this supposed to suggest that Anna may be there?
That is the most ambiguous shot in the film. I think it is impossible to explain. I don’t know why I wanted it. I don’t believe Anna was there; I shouldn’t say so, at least. But it is a great effort for me to recall the mood I was in when I shot that. I felt the need for mystery, which the tracking-in produces. That’s what you feel, and that’s why you wonder about the way it moves. I knew that shot would create puzzlement. I don’t know what mystery was created, but some mystery was what I needed.
Whether or not you shoot a scene instinctively—
I always know where I want to go.
Yes. You’ve some sense of a desired effect for the spectator. What I’m trying to get at is the effect produced. Look, the spectator is discovering in L’avventura that Sandro and Claudia aren’t really searching for Anna, right?
They’re searching for her at the beginning, but, little by little, they forget her.
Exactly. Now, if that’s true, the spectator has to become aware of the widening discrepancy between their action and its ostensible purpose. We’ve got to keep feeling that they’re not doing enough, that they’re going through the motions but don’t really want to find her. So in the shot we’re talking of, the track-in makes us feel “Maybe Anna’s there. Why don’t they walk down the street and—”
Why should she be there?
Why not? We don’t know where she went. She could be anywhere.
Somebody told me that she committed suicide, but I don’t believe it.
I’d like to ask just one question about La notte. Even among critics sensitive to your work I’ve heard derogation of the last scene. They say they find it implausible that Mastroianni should be able to listen to so much of Moreau’s reading without realizing that she is reading his own letter. Moreover, even if plausible, the point made about the marriage has already been demonstrated and the letter reading is redundant. What do you think about this?
Nothing at all. The letter gives a precise portrait of the writer. It’s a modestly written letter, showing how correct he was to think his talent unsatisfactory. Perhaps I should have had it read so that the words could not be understood. But then one might have had the impression that it was a very beautiful letter, whereas it wasn’t even a nice one. And it is needed for the rhythm of the final sequence, which ends in a squalid, unnecessary act of lovemaking. Without the letter-the emotion it provokes—without the proof that he had forgotten it, that he was so drained of feeling, the action would have been too brutal and would have had a different significance.
Talking about La notte, I’m reminded of another subject I wanted to bring up: the question of repeated moments in your films. At the end of La notte the camera leaves the couple in the sand trap and pans to a new day dawning, with obvious irony. The same effect occurs in your first feature film, Cronaca di un amore, when the lovers meet in the planetarium. At precisely the moment when we first realize the hopelessness of their relationship, the lights go on, signaling a new day.
Not at all. It is only the light going on because the performance is finished.
What about ending both Blow-up and the English episode of I vinti with a tennis court?
People play tennis all over England. The two scenes have different purposes.
Why did you use the tennis court in I vinti?
Because it was near the courthouse and because I wanted to show this sort of life continuing while a man was condemned to death. A frivolous game.
But you’ve just pointed to a similarity of meaning. In both cases a murder has occurred, and yet we end up with a frivolous game.
It’s not frivolous. The game is serious.
Without a ball?
Yes, in a way.
In what way?
I don’t know in what way, but I know that it is serious. I shot it seriously.
I’d like to get your reaction to a criticism that has been made of your films from La notte on. For example, Dwight Macdonald, who was one of your most devoted admirers, eventually came to feel that you show effects in characters without detailing their causes. What do you say about this?
Is it important to show why a character is what he is? No. He is. That’s all.
I agree with that for all of your films except Red Desert. In the others we see normal characters at a certain moment, and all our questions are about that moment. But Giuliana is sick, and sick people always make us want to know how they got that way.
To answer that question, I should have had to make another film. How someone becomes neurotic is a long, complicated story.
But doesn’t the film show that her ambiance is, in some sense, the cause of her neurosis?
Yes, but nobody becomes neurotic if they haven’t a—I mean, neurosis attaches itself to a fertile ground where it can flourish. There is always a physical basis so that the environment plays its part only to the degree that the physical makeup of the person is susceptible to its influence. It doesn’t interest me to go into the origins of neurosis, only its effects.
But there are characters in Red Desert who resist their environment and don’t become neurotic. What typifies their makeup and is absent from Giuliana’s?
I don’t know, but Giuliana was more important to me than the others because she represents an extreme version of them. When I was searching locations for Red Desert I found myself among whole families of neurotics. One of them, for example, lives near an electric works whose turbines were going day and night. I found that noise almost unbearable, so that by the end of the day I thought I was losing my mind. However, the woman of that family never complained. Yet when we started up our generators, she came to the door and began to scream at us. Our generators were nothing compared to the turbines, but you see, they produced a new noise. That woman was a neurotic without knowing it. One day she will explode, just like Giuliana. In her, there is that basis for the environment to work on. Who knows why? Hereditary defects, maternal or paternal? There are a thousand reasons why a person is neurotic. Then one day the neurosis explodes. That explosion is what interests me.
In this film, am I right in thinking that the color represents Giuliana’s state of mind?
Yes. It is transfigured from the point of view of a neurotic.
But there are problems. For example, in the hotel scene, the plants etc. are white before she enters the lobby. That is, we see color distortions that don’t seem to be the result of her perspective.
It strikes me as an oversimplification to claim that all the shots from her point of view must be transfigured and those from anybody else’s not. The whole world around her is transfigured.
For us as well?
Not for us. I mean that she is aware of the whole world crowding in around her.
Let me pose a similar question about another shot. In your interview with Godard, he asked you about the sequence when Corrado is telling the workers about Patagonia. Suddenly we cut from him to the wall, and the camera pans, tilts up, etc. You said this was Corrado’s mind wandering to Giuliana. I find this difficult to accept. There is no other shot in the film from his perspective, and there is no reference to Giuliana made in his dialogue. How can the audience know that he is thinking of her just from seeing the shot of the wall?
I only said that he was distracted as he spoke and that he might have been thinking of Giuliana. Later he exits; what for? It seems likely that he is thinking of this love affair that has only just begun. After all, what does a man in love think about? It goes without saying that I could not insert a cut to Giuliana. Godard might have done that. I never could.
In the preface to the Italian edition of your screenplays you say, “The greatest danger for those working in the cinema is the extraordinary possibility it offers for lying.” What did you mean?
To give an interpretation that we know is untrue to life. Because at that moment it is more interesting or amusing to put something in, to forget the real sense of what we are doing in our amusement with the medium.
Here you are speaking of a standard outside yourself; usually you say your only standard is what pleases you.
Whenever I make a film, I have inside me a certain truth—”truth” is a bad word. Here inside, rather, I have a confusion in the pit of my stomach, a sort of tumor I cure by making the film. If I forget that tumor, I lie. It is easy to forget, even if I subconsciously realize I am forgetting. Very easy.
Do you mean lying so as to please the audience?
No. Suppose I have to film a character coming down those stairs. I want to focus on his face because his expression while seeing a second character is very important in this moment. So I make him come down, but then my fancy is caught by that Lichtenstein. I like that, too. So I make the character stand for a moment before the Lichtenstein, with its glowing greens and whites. I like that. I’m tempted by it, but it is a mistake. It means making the painting important at the very moment that the only important thing is the character.
You’ve been quoted as saying that Aldo in Il grido is an admirable character because he seeks to break out of his unhappiness. Is that what you believe?
So far as I can see, he’s a sort of egoist of grief. All the women he meets are much braver than he.
Am I correct in believing that you did not write the commentary that introduces I vinti?
I had a fight with my producers, and because of that, I was helpless. They insisted on an introduction and conclusion. I worked on it a little, but it isn’t mine.
Did you learn anything of value from your apprenticeship to Carne?
I was in general disagreement with him for temperamental reasons and because we came from such different backgrounds. His poetic world never interested me. Perhaps what he taught me was a certain method of framing in which he was especially good. But I think time has dealt badly with, his films.
I was surprised to read that you like Andy Warhol’s films. Could you tell me why?
I can’t say I like his films-some yes, the others no. I like his freedom. He does what he wants to and is fundamentally contemptuous toward cinema, which is usually taken too seriously. But I don’t mean to say that he is contemptuous toward his own films. He makes more films than paintings now, so he must like his films. What I admire are his means: His characters do and say what they want to and are, therefore, wholly original in contemporary films.
Who are your favorite Italian directors?
Fellini and Visconti. The only young man who seems very promising to me at the moment is Bellocchio. There are others who have possibilities—Maselli, for one-but they haven’t yet realized them. But I know all these men personally and so prefer not to discuss them.
Do you think any American directors belong in the front rank?
I don’t have any favorite directors, in truth. My taste changes according to my current interests. I was, however, very impressed by Easy Rider. There are many young men today who are breaking the rules of American cinema, and they interest me. I’ve noticed in their work the influence of underground films; this shows how fruitful that movement has been.
With the exception of Blow-up each of your films is about a woman who loses something for having placed her faith in some man. Why do you keep returning to this plot?
You are making me think of this just now. It’s very difficult to explain what I do. It is much more instinctive than you realize; much, much more. For example, I was amused by the articles I read about Joseph Losey, for I know how he works. He reads a book; if he likes it, he makes a film. But if a producer says, “Make another film,” he drops his own choice. For me, of course, it is different, but even for me, the reasons that make me interested in a subject are, how shall I say, fickle. Many times I have chosen, among three stories, one for reasons that are entirely accidental: I get up and think this one will be stupendous because the night before I had a certain dream. Or perhaps I put it better by saying that I had found inside myself reasons why this particular story seems more valid.
Joseph Losey is a dreadful director. You see this in Accident, which is a veritable parody of Antonioni, in which he does things you do but for no discernible reason. Now are you trying to tell me-leave the selection of stories aside-that when you film a story, you are as unconscious of motives as he seems to be? Or is it simply that you don’t wish to explain your motives?
I always have motives, but I forget them.
Sometimes you’ll explain something in your films and at other times you refuse.
You make me look for a reason. I had none.
But in some cases…
Maybe what I told you so far is completely wrong.
Sometimes you are willing—
I am never willing.
But you do.
Only when I am forced. Otherwise, I would prefer not to. —Interview with Michelangelo Antonioni
MICHELANGELO ANTONIONI: THE EYE THAT CHANGED CINEMA
Sandro Lai compiled interviews, talk show appearances, and award presentations from Italian TV for this 2001 film chronicling most of the director’s career. It hardly qualifies as in-depth analysis of either the man or his films, but it has a lot of historical flavor and some odd bits of trivia (Antonioni once visited John F. Kennedy in the White House to discuss a film about the projected moon landing). Apparently Antonioni shifted to color before much of Italian TV did, because the brief coverage here of Red Desert (1964), Blowup (1966), and Zabriskie Point (1969) is in black and white, and color arrives only with his disputed documentary about China. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
The Real Blow Up: Fashion, Fame and Photography in the ’60s—a look at the ’60s London that inspired Michelangelo Antonioni’s film. David Hemmings recounts the story behind his casting, and Terence Stamp recalls how he lost the coveted role. Opinions on the film’s merits are divided—”I thought it was a load of old rubbish,” comments Lewis Morley, whereas Philippe Garner, photography expert, notes: “Few films so perfectly capture aspects of the mood of the moment—of London in the 1960s.” The Real Blow-Up is a BBC production for BBC TWO.
Explore the narrative, stylistic, and thematic connections between Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out with this video essay entitled Cross-Cut by Drew Morton.
Gente del Po—which is available as a supplement on Criterion Collection special edition of Antonioni’s Red Desert—is a hushed, evocative, eleven-minute sketch of the daily toils of fishermen on the River Po. Even in this minor-key debut, with its plangent, gorgeous compositions, you can see the seeds of Antonioni’s style. “Everything that I made afterwards, either good or bad, starts from there, from this film on the River Po,” the director once said. Watch the entire film below.
In this excerpt from an August 1977 interview on the Canadian television program City Lights, David Hemmings recounts his experience auditioning for Antonioni and his reaction upon watching the film for the first time in Hollywood.
Portrait of Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni. In 1980 the great French philosopher and author Roland Barthes wrote an open letter to Antonioni. It is an appraisal of Antonioni’s place as an artist in the world. Barthes was a revolutionary thinker who, like Antonioni went beyond conventional modes of analysis. Dear Antonioni is linked by that letter, examines the life and work of one of the true masters of the cinema—with contributions and readings from Monica Vitti, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Vanessa Redgrave, Sam Shepard, David Hemmings, Furio Columbo, Alain Cuny, Christine Boissot, Carlo di Palma and Maria Schneider.
Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up is a masterfully constructed and paced exploration of the enigmas that challenge our interpretations of both the moving and the still image. Photography plays a key role at the very core of the film, providing the metaphorical site for the directors questioning of the relationship between reality and perceptions. Philippe Garner and David Alan Mellor’s ‘Antonioni’s Blow-Up’ provides a fresh and stimulating study of Antonionis masterpiece. It reassembles and re-tells through onset stills and the original blow-ups the films key narrative and pictorial strands in a focused visual investigation that is complemented by the authors analytical essays. These texts draw on new research and effectively situate the film in the social and creative contexts that informed Antonionis screenplay and art direction on the one hand through an account of the milieu of fashionable photographers and models and the media through which they became so vivid a phenomenon, and on the other hand through the revelation of the artistic and literary reference points that so pervasively enrich the film. —Steidl Verlag
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Photographed by Peter Theobald, Arthur Evans, Tazio Secchiaroli & Eve Arnold © Bridge Films, Carlo Ponti Production, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Turner Entertainment Co.—A Warner Bros. Entertainment Company—All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of Steidl Verlag. All original photographs are copyright to their respective owners. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations. To donate, please visit our donation page, or donate directly below:
Get Cinephilia & Beyond in your inbox by signing in