I was actually surprised to learn that Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up was not already in The Criterion Collection and simply making its Blu-ray debut. This 60’s classic tells a great story that defies convention by subverting the plot any viewer was expecting to see, while also presenting a good look at Swinging London. The result is a film still held up its style, direction and contemplative nature. Not hurting is how exciting the film is to watch. There may be a character facing a sort of existential crisis at its center, but this is a hip film that has now come to Criterion, looking better than ever and featuring plenty of extra content.
Taking place over one 24-hour period, David Hemmings stars as a photographer only identified as Thomas, thanks to the credits. The loose plotting surrounds Thomas’ belief that he has taken pictures of an attempted murder and a dead body. There are eventually efforts made by Thomas to figure out what has occurred and get anyone’s attention, but the majority of the film is focused on how Thomas conducts himself in Swinging London. It means seeing his photo sessions, having him deal with a woman (Vanessa Redgrave) who was surprised to be photographed by him, visiting music clubs and speeding around town in his convertible.
Featuring a diegetic soundtrack provided by Herbie Hancock, Blow-Up is the sort of film that has a distinct feel throughout, as Antonioni’s hands are deftly gliding you through all that is taking place. It’s important, as the film is not hard to follow, but it does want you to be more caught up in the photographer’s mind more than his actions. The film tests its audience by letting them grab onto a familiar murder plot, but the sooner one lets go of a traditional expectation, the sooner they get to enjoy this tour through the times.
I may not have lived through the 60’s or been a resident of London, but the film does plenty to show you what this version of the city is like from the perspective of a noted photographer. Watching him zip through town in his car or walk around, largely unnoticed, while taking photographs and observing the culture tells you so much about the life. And when you’re not trying to deconstruct the psychological mystery going on with the photographer, feel free to enjoy the cameo by The Yardbirds, who put on a musical performance and embed you deeper into the London scene at the time.
Revisiting this film, I also could not help but notice how much visual storytelling was taking place. There is dialogue here, but it’s fairly sparse and only used as a means to an end. Some brief conversations add minor amounts of shading, which makes sense given the span of time seen in this story, but for the most part we observe. It’s only fitting how the film’s final minutes heavily involve a mimed sequence of events.
With that in mind, the film becomes all the more effective for taking away a familiar component. Given the use of improve to help put together scenes, the audience is allowed to really take in the surroundings we see and music we hear. Characters don’t need to be seen as deep because of what a screenwriter allows us to hear them say. Instead we can meditate on their dispositions. It’s all about the presentation, which is what Blow-Up handles so well.
The narrative may be quickly summed up as a thriller of sorts, but know that Blow-Up has more going on. It’s an interesting look at a man who is absorbed into this culture, attempting to get something out of it. Confidently made and paced well enough to hold the interest of anyone thinking this is some stuffy arthouse film with pretension written all over it, Blow-Up is a great film to look back on and help use as an example of fine cinema.
Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Clarity/Detail: As expected from Criterion, Blow-Up features a brand new 4K digital transfer scanned from the original negative. The process allows for a fantastic new look at the film, free of dirt and debris, while preserving the original cinematic presentation. The results a great, as this 50+ year old film looks of its time, but quite clear. You can take in all the details of the London environments, including Thomas’ studio and the park area that serves as the site of some pivotal scenes.
Depth: As Thomas lingers around the frame, you get a great sense of dimensionality between him those who surround him and the environment he is in.
Black Levels: With some notable scenes set at night and the instances of darker spaces making up some of the photography scenes, we get to see some deep and rich black levels throughout the film.
Color Reproduction: Colors are another area where this transfer shines, as there is so much to the costume design and various locations. The photographer’s studio is once again another standout area, given the number of changes we see to that environment when it comes to the people or layout presented. That same pivotal park also allows for ample amounts of green and sky to show well. For a film that at times feels like pop art coming to life, the colors here really pop.
Flesh Tones: Facial textures are great. We are treated to plenty of shots of the photographer doing his job, which in turn lends itself to the film’s ability to capture further detail.
Noise/Artifacts: There are some artifacts that essentially come as a residual effect from the film’s age, which is basically a non-issue. This transfer is clean and wonderful.
Audio Format(s): English LPCM 1.0
Subtitles: English SDH
Dynamics: It continues to be impressive when it comes to how great these monaural tracks from older films sound on Criterion Blu-ray. The remastered audio does a fantastic job in making the viewer aware of all the auditory detail that comes with this film. That Herbie Hancock music, in particular, really sounds great in this film, on this Blu-ray.
Low Frequency Extension: There’s really nothing to push the LFE channel, save for that Yardbirds cameo.
Surround Sound Presentation: Given the nature of the audio track, there isn’t much to take in on a surround level.
Dialogue Reproduction: When people actually speak, it is all easily heard.
Even with the lack of a commentary track by a possible film historian or something similar, this is still a packed set. Even the booklet is thicker than normal, given the lengthy essay and the original short story that inspired this film. On the video supplement side, there are some great archival interviews and a terrific new retrospective that digs into this film’s impact. And that’s just some of what’s in store for viewers.
- Michelangelo Antonioni (HD, 6:00) – An excerpt from the 2001 documentary Michelangelo Antonio: The Eye that Changed Cinema, specifically going into Blow-Up’s place in Antonio’s career.
- Blow Up of “Bow Up” (HD, 54:00) – A 2016 documentary by Valentina Agostinis, who examines the filmmaking behind Blow-Up an features many interviews by those involved and those influenced by the film.
- David Hemmings – A couple archival interviews with the film’s star.
- 1968 (HD, 6:00) – Hemmings goes over the time and place of the film.
- 1977 (HD, 21:00) – Hemmings goes over his career following the film’s release.
- Vanessa Redgrave (HD, 45:00) – Filmed during a 50th anniversary celebration of Blow-Up, photography historian Philippe Garner interviews Redgrave and goes over the various methods of making this film, the importance of it and much more.
- Jane Birkin (SD, 9:00) – An archival interview from 1989.
- Antonioni’s Hypnotic Vision
- Modernism (HD, 17:00) – Art historian David Alan Mellor discusses why Blow-Up was so significant for its time.
- Photography (HD, 30:00) – Historian Philippe Garner and Walter Moser discuss the nature of photography and how it plays a role in Blow-Up.
- Teaser (HD, 1:00)
- Trailer (HD, 3:00)
- Plus: An illustrated book featuring an essay by film scholar David Forgacs, an updated 1966 account of the film’s shooting by Stig Bjorkman, the questionnaires the director distributed to photographers and painters while developing the film and the 1959 Julio Cortazar short story on which the film is loosely based.
Blow-Up continues to be an exciting look at Swinging London, seen through the lens of a man who saw too much through his actual lens. The film is assembled with plenty of skill and style, which is easily seen on this fantastic new Criterion Blu-ray. The famed collection comes through with another terrific release that also features a great set of extras to further delve into the film’s impact. This is another great release that earns its place and is certainly worth picking up for those keeping up with this sort of cinema.
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