When Antonioni Blew Up the Movies

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Vanessa Redgrave in Blowup, 1966.

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The first was that the movie seemed to inhabit a genre, the mystery, that promises a solution. Antonioni wasn't sporting. He said that real life isn't an Agatha Christie novel. Stories end; life goes on. "I can feel the weariness of certain mechanisms that are resorted to in conventional films," he told a journalist. "I think those mechanisms are false." The old formulas had become as stylized as kabuki, as stale as week-old breadsticks. Hollywood stuck to boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl, but Antonioni didn't see why he had to. How about, in L'Avventura, boy-loses-girl, boy-finds-another-girl-and- gives-up-searching-for-the-first-girl? (In fact, the film has not only a twist ending that is both sardonic and poignant but a big display of emotion: hot tears of remorse or self-pity, take your pick. If you haven't seen L'Avventura, it's worth getting the Criterion DVD to find out.)

The second objection would be to the film's pace. There were long stretches when stuff just didn't happen. Antonioni had an answer for that too: "In certain moments, life has different rhythms. At times it's dynamic, at other times static. So why should we avoid the static moments to concern ourselves only with the dynamic ones? If a film is to take account of reality... it must also consider the rhythm of this reality." In other words, he was just being a realist. Or a neo-neo-realist.

One could have argued that the film proceeded so slowly because every image was so beautifully composed, so full of visual drama, that it was worth contemplating as one would a Piero della Francesca portrait. The dimensions of the movie screen, Antonioni suggested, have less in common with the stage proscenium than with the frame of a painting. Films are pictures on a wall, and Antonioni was one of the first directors working within the commercial cinema to make museum movies. One didn't watch his films so much as gaze at them — at a duration determined by him.

Here, then, was a film that upended narrative, set a new tempo for serious movies and aspired not to theater but to painting. The combination of these innovations, or affronts, made L'Avventura a precedent-setting movie. So did the fierce debate surrounding it. Indeed, you could say that at that Cannes festival — as the professionals loved or hated, puzzled and argued over this beautiful, forbidding artifact — modernist cinema was born.


However elitist his films or his audience might seem today, in the 60s the word of his eminence spread far and wide, and quickly. For instance, when he let it be known he hoped to make a film about astronauts preparing for the moon voyage, he found a powerful supporter: President John F. Kennedy. "He welcomed the project with great enthusiasm," Antonioni said of JFK. "He invited me to the White House to talk about this film." This was long before Blowup, when the filmmaker was still a caviar taste in the U.S. (I'll bet Jackie urged her husband to spend some time with the dapper Italian.)

Antonioni might be an art-film director, but he was no fool. He knew that making films in English would help him reach a wider audience; hence Blowup, Zabriskie Point (1970) and The Passenger (1975). He spoke Hollywood's language without ever going Hollywood. Death Valley, the location for Zabriskie Point, was as close as he got to La-la Land.

Even the controversy about the mysterioso ending of L'Avventura could be seen as good showmanship: give 'em something to talk about on the way out of the theater. Antonioni's films soon became famous for their endings. The last 7-1/2 mins. of Eclipse comprises a series of static, underpopulated street scenes in which none of the major characters appear. Blowup we'll get to in a moment, and Zabriskie Point ends with the shot of a house ... that blows up. The next-to-last scene of The Passenger is one continuous, wildly elaborate tracking shot that lasts for 7 mins.

He also lassoed bigger stars, when he wanted them; he knew that marquee names would help raise financing and lure audiences. He would go for the hot new actor: Delon after Rocco and His Brothers, Richard Harris after This Sporting Life, David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave in their first bloom for Blowup and later, in 1975, Jack Nicholson for The Passenger.

Most actors did an Antonioni film as a solemn duty, not for the laughs. A sworn enemy of bombast, visual or behavioral, he made his performers reveal more with less. This was particularly tough on his compatriots. Italian actors, and Italians in general, speak with their bodies; each conversation is a performance using the most lavish and vigorous hand gestures. Antonioni stripped them of these flourishes — he either refined the natural tendencies of these actors or he straitjacketed them.

Some actors slipped the confines. Delon, who at this early stage in his career often exuded a feline passivity, is a live wire in Eclipse, where he plays a stock market trader who catches the attention of Vittoria (Vitti), who has just broken up with her rich boyfriend. During the frenetic bidding or in a cafe afterward, Delon is constantly on the move, going nowhere fast, and Antonioni gives him a long leash to display his ruthlessness and his boyish charm.

The director first cast Vitti, a little-known stage ingenue, as a voice double for another actress in the 1957 Il Grido. "We became friends," Antonioni later said. "Then things evolved. A relationship was born and a series of films." With a husky voice, a mop of blond hair and strong features that caught the camera's eye even when she wasn't center-screen, Vitti starred in five Antonioni pictures, instantly becoming their anguished or volatile face, their always human soul. She was so acute a revealer of depression, disappointment, despair, that it was a shock to see her in other Italian films as a bubbly, expert comedienne. In 1964, when Antonioni won the Venice Film Festival Golden Lion for Red Desert, he paid tribute to "someone close to me who has collaborated with me courageously and most valorously. I'd like to thank her publicly. That person is Monica Vitti."


The gentleman from Ferrara wouldn't consider it among his signal accomplishments, but with a couple of seconds in Blowup, he changed Hollywood history. The movie was produced by Carlo Ponti and was to be distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the stately old lion of American film studios. But the industry ratings board wouldn't give the picture a seal because, during a photo-shoot romp, the model Jane Birkin allowed the briefest display of pubic hair. Instead of trimming the scene to the board's specifications, MGM honored Antonioni's version of the film, invented a subsidiary, Premier Productions, and sent Blowup out under that logo. The film was a surprise hit and ushered in the era of permissive American cinema. For about a decade, thanks to Antonioni, Hollywood movies had permission to be enigmatic, unflinching and adult. Permission was denied when Jaws and Star Wars proved that kids, not adults, were the engine that drove profits.

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