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Tuesday Morning Foreign Region DVD: "Red Desert" (Antonioni, 1964); Blu-ray edition

Resolved: every video rendition of a film should be transfered and mastered and manufactured with as much technical expertise and care as humanly possible. Of course if that were the case we would have a lot less to talk about in features such as these, and maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing, but there you are. In any event, to return to the resolution, of course, that's what I've always thought. But in the course of my adventures in home video, some bad transfers, bad discs, and so on, hurt more than other bad transfers and discs. For myself, I've always felt particularly burned when encountering a less-than-beautiful video version of a Michelangelo Antonioni film. Sure, cinema is basically a matter of what is and is not in the frame, as Martin Scorsese once said, but with Antonioni, that dictum is cosmically true. Because, let's face it, what else is there in the Italian master's films? Witty, epigrammatic dialogue? Hilariously choreographed slapstick? Engagingly convoluted plotting? To say that Antonioni's film's lack such elements is hardly a dismissal. I bring it up merely to say that, for example, should one be forced to watch a mediocre transfer of, say, The Miracle at Morgan's Creek (which need not be the case anymore, but bear with me), one can hone in to other aspects than the picture quality.

So, over the years, I've had many disappointments with video renderings of Antonioni's work. There was Kino's 2000 disc of the seminal 1957 Il grido, which looked to have been mastered from a print that had been processed in a sand bath. There was a French version of Zabriskie Point with beautiful detail and color...except the widescreen film wasn't optimized for 16:9 displays. The in-many-respects admirable label NoShame ventured an extras-laden set featuring Antonioni's debut fiction feature, 1950's Story of a Love Affair, but dropped the ball on the PAL to NTSC conversion; the handsome transfer was marred by interlace combing. And there's more.

Fortunately corrections have been made in some cases. Eureka!/Masters of Cinema recently wiped up the floor with a staggeringly beautiful rendition of Il grido, and kicked in a wonderful version of La notte to boot. Warner U.S. released Zabriskie Point in a gorgeous transfer at the correct aspect ratio. But right now the pride of place among Antonioni Blu-rays must go to BFI's Region B Blu-ray of Red Desert, Antonioni's first color film.

The master was created from the magnificent 1998 restoration of the film supervised by Carlo DePalma. (I remember seeing the U.S. unveiling of said restoration, at MOMA, with Antonioni present. Woody Allen showed up to pay his respects before going to a Knicks game. Scorsese was supposed to introduce, but was at the hospital—for a happy occasion, the birth of his daughter Francesca. The screening of this magnificent rendition of the film was the ultimate capper to this night of revelations!) I have not seen the standard definition version, and I don't care to. I rate this at the very top of all the Blu-rays I own; it captures, with remarkable sensitivity, every nuance of the multi-leveled mise-en-scène of this staggeringly beautiful film. The "screen caps" here are not directly from disc but are photographs I snapped from my plasma screen. I did the best I could and think they work, but this is something you've got to see. As I've heard nothing yet of a domestic Desert Blu-ray, I consider this disc justification enough for the expense I went to in procuring a multi-region Blu-ray player.

The extras are few, but very fine: an excellent, informed, and never intrusive or presumptuous commentary by British academic David Forgacs, a hilariously inapposite trailer in the mode of the day, and a booklet with essays by Forgacs and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith.

I know I haven't discussed the film too much in this entry. Well...in some respects I find it problematic. It casts Richard Harris as an Italian (his character, last name Zeller, insists he's not German, just of very old-school lineage). For those who grew up with Richard Harris in Camelot, or singing "MacArthur Park," or of course in his career-making turn in This Sporting Life...this ain't your guy, and it's not just because he's dubbed. He literally suppresses his physicality in the film. The performance, witnessed today so many years away from what made him an icon, is startlingly good, but man, the dubbing...you can see him saying his lines in English and if you have any memory at all of his voice, you will hear that, and not even hear the Italian actor dubbing him, and be flummoxed at trying to match what you hear as Harris' voice up with Monica Vitti's refined Roman tones.

The film, in which Harris' frustrated industrial scion tries to initiate an affair with Vitti's emotionally disturbed industrial striver's wife, is stronger when Harris' character just isn't talking, when Harris himself is under the volcano that finally compelled him to throw a punch at Antonioni and walk off the set. A beautiful film, an exemplary work of modernism—as with Resnais's Muriel, the score is comprised of avant-garde contemporary classical music— and also, problematic. Not as seamless as what will come after. But in a way more beautiful, more balls-out revolutionary than the more polished works that would come after. Antonioni goes in the end for even more overt abstraction than he did in L'eclise, and in color yet, evoking Brakhage in the context of a narrative feature. The gesture is more than a gesture, and it still registers as admirably ballsy today.

In other words: You haven't seen it? You totally should! Don't these images make you want to? Anyway, maybe I'll have a screening party sometime. Lemme know if you want an Evite.

The problem with this Blu-ray, of course, is that it tends to make one rather vehement on the point that all Antonioni films should be on gorgeous Blu-rays.

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Glenn, that second photo: it’s out of focus. Is that your digital camera, or is the blur intentionally Antonioni’s (I haven’t seen this in a long time)? Opening the door through which Lucrecia Martel may have glimpsed inspiration?
I saw this picture at the PFA a long time ago and, blown away by those very Brakhage-like images you tip to, I ran to eBay and bought what has to be one of the worst out-of-print DVDs around (luckily, for very cheap, along with Pierrot le fou, also terrible image; this was 2005?), but I’ve never replaced it. I’ve also only watched it a handful of times. Which is to say, I definitely want to see this edition. *wink
Yes, I had that out-of-print dvd, too. Terrible! The colors were washed out, and for a film like this, that’s unacceptable. Send me an invite, too, But make sure it’s not short notice, because I live in Texas!
@KJ: The second picture is out of focus because the shot itself is, as are MANY shots in the film. I understand my current method of getting screen grabs from Blu-ray sources lacks, but I wouldn’t make such a thoroughly blatant mistake! And yes, Martel’s clearly studied this film, carefully!

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