Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up makes its way back into the Criterion Collection (previously receiving a LaserDisc edition from the label) with a new Blu-ray edition that presents the film in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a new 4K restoration conducted by Criterion and scanned from the original 35mm negative.
I continue to be very pleased with the Criterion/Warner relationship because—short a few titles—the restorations and presentations have been really incredible. I’d say Blow-Up is probably one of the better ones. Though you could say the film looks like there’s a constant overcast (even indoors) the mod colour scheme really jumps out here, with some sharp reds, violets, and blues. Skin tones look nice, whites seem nicely balanced, and black levels are pretty rich and deep, with crushing nowhere near a concern. The restoration work appears to have been absolutely methodical because, other than a couple of stray hairs that would have been there during filming and a few specs that I noticed during the closing shot, there isn’t a noticeable flaw anywhere else. This has been painstakingly cleaned up and looks so fresh and new.
The digital presentation itself is also impressive. This image really looks like a projected film, handling grain nicely, which is mostly very fine but there are a few shots where it gets a little heavier (the opening credits and the final shot in particular). Fine object detail is spectacularly rendered: the pattern of a crosshatched shirt worn by Hemmings early in the film is principally clear and crisp, even in the longer shots, and impressively I didn’t detect a shimmer or other digital anomaly. Edges are sharp and clean, and softness, other than with some shots near the end, is not an issue. It’s just a sharp, crisp, and clean image, very film-like overall and easily the best the film has looked on home video. 9/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
Audio on the old Warner DVD was a little bit of a mess, and I think most attributed it to the original recordings. Though music and effects were generally okay dialogue was a bit hard to hear, sounding to have been recorded (or at least mixed) at a lower level. It was also a bit tinny and edgy and was just generally unpleasant. True, there isn’t a lot of dialogue I guess, when taken as a whole, but the talkier scenes were a bit frustrating and I recall turning the subtitles on.
I think Criterion has resolved that here as I found this experience much more pleasant. Presented in lossless 1.0 PCM mono, the mix is better and it wasn’t necessary to crank the volume to hear dialogue, the audio sounding a bit more natural and cleaner. There can a bit of a harshness to the dialogue at times, and there is still bit of a flatness to it as well, but it’s still not as bad as the Warner disc.
Fidelity and range overall is also noticeably better. As I mentioned music and effects weren’t too bad on the Warner disc but I found them to still come off better here. A sequence near the end featuring the Yardbirds playing a club sounds pretty great for a mono presentation, but the stand out moments would have to be the film’s key park scenes. Throughout these scenes the wind is continuously rustling the trees, and it’s a very arresting sound. The DVD handled this well itself, but I found the detail in the audio here to come off far crisper and lifelike. With these sequences coming off so immersive even in a monaural format it’s actually almost (almost) a shame not to have a surround upgrade as an option.
On the whole the track sounds pretty good but it’s those park scenes that really surprised me. 7/10
As one would hope, especially for what is a really big “get” for Criterion, this a nicely loaded special edition, though it is oddly missing one significant pre-existing feature.
The supplements begin with an excerpt from an interview with director Michelangelo Antonioni filmed in 1967 after his Palme d’or win (the notes make it sound like the excerpt was lifted directly from a 2001 documentary Michelangelo Antonioni: The Eye That Changed Cinema). Antonioni compares the experience of making this film to his other films, and how he employed similar techniques here that he had on Red Desert, the act of painting settings to get the colours he wants. The most intriguing takeaway from the 5-minute clip, though, is that Antonioni apparently met with President Kennedy to talk about making a film about the moon landing. Despite its brief length (with footage from the Cannes ceremony) Antonioni is very forthcoming about the film and his future prospects, especially making films in America.
One of the big features to be found here is the 2016 making-of documentary, Blow Up of “Blow-Up.”, featuring interviews with a number of the film’s participants along with admirers, historians, and others familiar with the period of the film. For the most part the 54-minute feature is your standard recounting for the production history of a film, though has the added benefit of revisiting the various locations of the film: short the wooden fence, which could have admittedly been placed there by Antonioni for the film, the park looks about the same, while other locations have been redone or cleaned up significantly. But the documentary breaks out of the bounds of just looking at the film and—while covering the research that Antonioni put into the film—offers a great examination of the London scene of the 60s through the various photographers, artists, writers, gallery owners, models, and more interviewed here, which helps significantly lift it above your average talking-heads documentary.
Criterion then digs up two interview excerpts featuring actor David Hemmings. The first is a quick 5-minute one from 1968, filmed on the set of Larf. He shares his thoughts on London and talks about the effect Blow-Up has had on his career. The second interview is 20-minutes of footage from a 1977 episode of the Canadian show City Lights, hosted by Brian Linehan. Here Hemmings talks about his overall career, focusing quite a bit on that time period that would have followed Blow-Up, where he admits to a number of bad decisions. He also talks about the 60s and why he feels the period spawned such creativity in the arts and the styles, but the best part may be when he recalls a rather funny story about his first couple of days in Hollywood and a black-tie even he attended with Vanessa Redgrave (where everything that could go wrong did go wrong).
Also included is a new interview with Vanessa Redgrave conducted by photography historian Philippe Garner (who keeps popping up in the features on this edition) recorded for the film’s 50th anniversary in 2016. It’s a surprisingly dense (and lengthy) 45-minute discussion, Garner trying to pry as much information out of her on what it was like working with Antonioni while getting more insights into his directing style. They talk extensively about how he directs, his use of space, and her having to adapt to his way of direction. They talk a little about her career at the time, get into a little about her co-star, David Hemmings, before talking quite a bit about Maryon Park (which she doesn’t remember much about outside of the film), other settings in the film, and just Antonioni’s attention to detail. Garner admits right off that he is a big fan of the film, and at times he can come off a bit fanboyish I guess, but he does keep the conversation going with some decent questions and Redgrave keeps the whole affair fascinating end informative, with some nice bits of humour.
Closing off the interviews is Jane Birkin (credited as “The Blonde” in the ménage à trois scene), who next shows up in an excerpt from a 1989 interview. Here she quickly talks about how she was cast and the “scandal” of sorts that followed after the infamous threesome scene. It runs 9-minutes.
The disc then includes a couple of academic features under Antonioni’s Hypnotic Vision: a 16-minute piece featuring David Alan Mellor on modernism and how it relates to Antonioni’s visual style, and then a 30-minute one on the film’s presentation of photography and photographs from the film, with Phillipe Garner and Walter Moser. Mellor’s contribution is fine as he covers the film’s look and the artists and artwork that play a sort of influence but I found myself more engaged with Garner’s and Moser’s feature. Here the two not only go over Antonioni’s research into photography in London in the 60s and how the film presents it (along with who inspired Hemmings’ character) but they also talk about the equipment used within the film, look at how the blow ups were created, and even go over the photographs taken during filming, whether for use in the film or made for publicity reasons.
The disc then closes with the teaser trailer and a theatrical trailer. The real gem to the release, though, is a 64-page. David Forgacs opens it with an essay on the film and this is followed by an excerpt from an upcoming book by Stig Björkman, this excerpt recounting his experience on the set of Blow-Up and the discussions he had with Antonioni. Mentioned throughout a number of the disc features is a questionnaire that Antonioni sent to photographers as part of his research, asking them a number of questions about their craft and life style, and Criterion includes a reprint of that questionnaire here. The nicest inclusion, though, is the short story by Julio Cortázar, which influenced the film. The story does differ significantly from the film, with the story’s protagonist trying to decipher photos he took around a woman, a boy, and another man. He recounts the events as he saw them at the time but then ponders how the scenario changed as he looks at the photos he had taken. Criterion had actually included the story with their LaserDisc edition of Blow-Up, so I’m guessing it wasn’t too hard for them to attain, but it’s still a terrific inclusion.
So Criterion has put together a really sharp special edition and there isn’t a lot to complain about, yet they have oddly not included the audio commentary by Peter Brunette that was available on the Warner DVD. I never did listen to this track (I rented the DVD through Netflix) so can’t say anything to its quality, but considering Criterion has actually ported over Warner tracks from other releases like The Asphalt Jungle and Cat People it’s odd they didn’t feel so inclined here.
Still, there is a lot of good material here, most of it engaging and illuminating. 9/10