Blow Up (1966) vs. Blow Out (1981)

I look forward to August in Vancouver not only for the welcome heat and sunshine but mostly because August means Film Noir at the Pacific Cinémathèque Pacifique, a local non-profit film institute known as The Cinematheque. There’s nothing quite like spending hot summer nights inside the cool and shady world of corruption, cynicism, and murder.

This year I skipped the usual hard-boiled classics and instead took in a couple of films from what The Cinematheque was calling “sidebars” to their series—The Psycho-Western and, The Paranoid Conspiracy Thriller of the ’70s. It was this second category that was of particular interest as it featured a Brian de Palma (hello, Scarface anyone?) film called Blow Out, a reworking of Michelangelo Antonioni‘s 1966 film Blow Up.

I thought I had long-ago watched Blow Up but if I had then it’s lost in the shadow of memory of Antonioni’s second English-language film, Zabriskie Point. Those of you who have already seen Zabriskie Point will know of what I speak.

Nice side note that I learned upon reading the Wiki article: Sam Shepard was hired to write the script for Zabriskie Point.

To prepare for the John Travolta (more on him soon) vehicle, Blow Out, I rented Blow Up from my local library. I get books from there too—support your local library!

Blow Up follows a day in the life of a photographer who comes to realize that he’s captured a murder on one of his frames and tries to, eventually (there are a lot of sexual interludes, parties, and falling asleep and waking up), bring a witness to the murder scene to prove the murder happened. Not only it is a murder mystery (one of my favourite genres of film) but it also takes place in the mod ’60s. As my friend Anne says of the film, “Those white pants!” I get it now Anne, I totally get it.

Despite the main character’s cavalier and misogynist attitude throughout, there were a few things in this film that I really dug. The first is the film score by Herbie Hancock and the fact that the music is diagetic (you only hear it when it’s active in the scene). Often what you think is extra-diagetic music is revealed to be diagetic, like a record player playing in a scene. Very cool. The second thing I like about this movie is the scene where the photographer follows his femme fatale, Vanessa Redgrave, into a club where The Yardbirds are playing live. It’s super mod, and super funny when the photographer ends up with part of the guitar that Jeff Beck has smashed on stage. The ending of this film is also pretty fantastic. I won’t ruin it for you, it’s worth a watch if only for the music and the white pants.

Blow Out is another bird altogether. I was expecting . . . something else. Something less Phantom of the Paradise and more Carrie. I should have known really, de Palma did, after all, direct Body Double (a movie I watched once, forgot about, mistakenly watched again because it was so campy I was enticed to re-watch it). Compelling in a how-am-I-still-paying-attention kind of way.

Travolta, fresh from his role as the mechanical bull-riding Bud in the film Urban Cowboy (LOVE that movie), is horribly miscast as a sound mixer who unwittingly records a murder in Blow Out. In one particularly unbelievable scene he tells Sally (his co-lead played by Nancy Allen) that he was the kind of kid growing up who won all the science fairs. COME ON. I also wonder if his hair is real. 1981, it had to be real back then right?

Besides contemplating whether or not Travolta has had hair plugs since the beginning of his career, the only other evocative feature of this film is John Lithgow‘s portrayal of the bad guy assassin, Burke, who becomes a serial killer in his attempt to cover up the political conspiracy. Lithgow is great when he’s funny and extra great when he’s playing a murderer.

The ending of Blow Out is terrible. I don’t mean how it wrapped up, I mean the actual final scene. I’m going to ruin it a little for you and tell you that I didn’t need to watch a full two-minute scene of the camera revolving around Travolta’s head while he tries valiently to portray what I can only assume is a multitude of emotions but comes across solely as constipation.

Oh, and the music. If the music and use of music in Blow Up is sublime, then the music and lack of interesting use of music in Blow Out is simply sub par. It’s like every genre of music was blended together to form a pulpy mass of brown goo that was then expelled at random intervals. For a movie who’s main character is a sound recordist it fares pretty low on engaging any devices that play with a viewer’s expectations of sound, and that was the real disappointment of this homage.

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