Criterion Crash Course: Moviemaking Lessons from Criterion’s Blow-Up

Whether you’re a moviemaker, critic or devoted film collector, lovers of cinema can all agree: A Criterion Collection release is a stamp of cultural importance.

How can the arthouse distributor’s releases be used as tools to help independents hone their craft? Criterion Crash Course, our series focusing on new Criterion titles, considers every aspect of Blu-ray/DVD packages, from the film itself to its special features, as weapons in a moviemaking arsenal. Explore the moviemaking lessons from these packages—gifts that keep on giving.


Blow-Up (1966)

As David Forgacs, author of an essay included with Criterion’s new Blu-Ray of Blow-Up, reinforces, Michelangelo Antonioni’s film is “not about a murder but about a photographer.”

This was a sentiment passed down from Antonioni to famed critic Roger Ebert and relayed by Forgacs now, 51 years later. As can be expected from the director of famed anti-mystery L’Avventura, Blow-Up isn’t concerned with a murder as much as it is with how this murder stands for a crack in the seams of one man’s existence. Lead character Thomas (David Hemmings) lives a comfortable life as he bullies around his models, buyers and co-workers. When he discovers a murder in the background of one of his pictures, he begins to realize that this murder is a loose string in the fabric of his existence. As he begins to pull on it, everything falls apart.

It sounds gripping and, on its own wavelength, it is. But Blow-Up operates on a different plane of existence from nearly every other murder mystery—even those that it influenced, such as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981). Where those two films tied their lead characters to their obsessions, allowing the central mysteries to grow in stature until they completely consume their main characters, Antonioni prefers his mystery to shrink in stature and importance until, in the film’s very final shot, his main character disappears with it. This makes Blow-Up a unique experience—one that is both deliberately unsatisfying from a narrative standpoint and immensely satisfying in how it takes a hammer to the status quo, unafraid to examine with an unflinching eyes that which seems new and enticing.

Blow-Up remains a brilliant film but the reasons behind its brilliance are so all-encompassing that it can be a hard film to examine. To celebrate the new The Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray restoration, let’s take a look at just one part of the film: Carlo Di Palma’s cinematography, specifically the shot composition and depth of field that he creates.

Lessons on Depth of Field and Composition

In an early scene from Blow-Up, a character explains that, inside Ian Stevenson’s 1957 painting “Still Life Abstraction”—a prototypically modernist painting, he has to search for a subject to grasp on to, “like a detective in a murder mystery.” Of course, it helps to know what this line means in the greater context of the film, if one knows where Antonioni’s modernist/post-modernist masterpiece goes in its second half but, even on first viewing, it stands out as something of an enigmatic key to the film. Mystery is likened to art and nearly every image in the film begins to reflect this, with Antonioni training his audience to pay attention to the entire focus of the image, from objects in the very foreground to the far background.

As Blow-Up progresses it becomes clear that it is a film where the devil is in the details—specifically, hidden within the depth of field in each shot of the film. As with all of Antonioni’s works, Blow-Up is a critique of the modern generation, with their cool and detached demeanor swallowing up any sense of meaning or place in the world around them. Throughout the film, David Hemmings’ Thomas wanders through a constructed and immaculately dressed world–yet, there is always something in frame boxing him out. Pieces of furniture, planes of glass, car doors and windows as well as other people are constantly pushing him out of the central focus of the frame and relegating him to the background. In these shots, we pay attention to him but we are also drawn towards every part of the frame, mystified by the off-kilter pastel colors, the pieces of art hanging on the walls and the worn-down, poor characters who populate the backgrounds of Thomas’ world.

Blow-Up is more concerned with a dissection of the image, with each frame pulling apart the depth of field and the composition in order to create something that is both modernist and a comment of modernism’s tendency to alienate. A similar cinematographic effect was achieved recently with Carol (2015), in which cinematographer Edward Lachman shot through partially obstructed ‘frame objects’ to craft what a photograph looks and feels like. That film sought to represent a world of repression and oppression and, in many ways, it feels in debt to Blow-Up. The world of Blow-Up is one of repression, with a sense of liberation hiding an empty bewilderment underneath it. The more that is packed in to each frame, the less we understand. The more cluttered each image becomes, the more we understand what this world really is.

Thomas (David Hemmings) shoots his models in Blow-Up. Image Courtesy of The Criterion Collection

Special Features

Criterion’s edition of Blow-Up is a packed disc, with a wide array of supplements, covering almost every aspect of the film’s production as well as pieces of its legacy.

In addition to an hour-long making-of documentary, there are new and archival interviews with actor David Hemmings, actress Vanessa Redgrave and director Michelangelo Antonioni. Hemmings is very candid and offers some great points about the ending of the film while Redgrave also talks about why Anotnioni’s use of color and light remains second to none. Antonioni’s interview is fascinating, as he talks about the film at the 1967 Cannes Film Festival, where Blow-Up won the Palme D’Or. One of the most interesting bits of information is that each set was fine-tuned through painting in order to get the colors and compositions just right. Indeed, Blow-Up is truly immersed in the world of painting.

In two informative video essays, photography experts Phillipe Garner and Walter Moser examine the film’s use of the titular method, while art historian David Allen Mellor examines the use of painting both within the world of the film and as an inspiration for it. Mellor also examines the modernist movement as a whole, in order to create a canvas on which to project the film. If we look at the film through the lens of modernist painting then we can see just how divorced splashes of paint, dots and lines can be brought together to create a jagged and alienating yet entirely cohesive piece of art. After viewing this fascinating interview, it almost feels as if we should immediately dive back into the film and examine it through this lens, looking at the divorced composition of each image as a way to show what modernism represents.

As David Forgacs writes in the bonus essay, the very final enlargement of the image that Thomas creates “shows the enlarged head and torso of the corpse, but seen out of that context it can look… [like] an abstract image composed of dots and blotches”—much like the pieces of art examined early on in the film. The true power of Blow-Up comes from the fact that Hemmings’ character cannot parse the whole from the pieces. He is ultimately unable to grapple with the murder in any meaningful way and he is, perhaps, unable to draw a semblance of meaning from this world. This interpretation of the film feels incomplete without the writings and views of scholars such as Forgacs, Mellor and fellow art historians Phillipe Garner and Walter Moser, all of which are provided throughout the release.

Perhaps the most fascinating addition to the release is also included in the accompanying 64-page booklet. Throughout the extras, multiple people mention a form that Antonioni would send out to photographers and painters while he was developing the film. The questionnaire is actually included and it provides a perfect look at exactly how Antonioni sought to develop an interdisciplinary examination of art within his film, as well as how he sought to use painting as a means of examining an era of disillusionment.

The Takeaway

Blow-Up is masterfully shot and complex enough to give you a headache for a week. If Anotnioni’s film teaches us anything, it’s that the composition of each shot and the structure of these shots can allow us to tell our stories in their own unique ways. In diving into the new Blu-Ray release, we can see all of Antonioni’s inspirations for the visual style as well as gain a greater appreciation for the meaning behind his aesthetic choices, specifically how he sought to express the modern trends of contemporary art. If you’re attempting to craft a unique visual iconography for your film, sometimes the most helpful place to look can be—not in film itself—but in other forms of art, such as painting or photography. MM

Blow-Up was released by The Criterion Collection on Blu-ray and DVD March 28, 2017. All images courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

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