Blow Out (1981) & Blow Up (1966) – Revisited
I’ve been curious about Blow Out (1981) for a while now upon learning that is was Brian De Palma response and remake of Michelangelo Antonioni‘s seminal film Blow Up (1966) which I reviewed a few years ago, finding it quite profound and left me contemplating how we deconstruct images that we capture on a daily basis, what lies under the surface of them. If we delve further are we prepared for what we find once we explore. Do we want to see and accept the hidden truth. Questions I hope to revisit and maybe find some answers in my join revisit review.
Moving forward 15 years to De Palma’s remake, a really clever reworking even on the surface level, a film in its own right away from the more obvious connections in terms of title and the protagonists discovery, audio or photo-chemical, it plunges them into a world they never wish they intended to enter. Jack (John Travolta) a sound-recordist for low-budget Hitchcockesque slasher knock-offs is working on his latest collaboration with Sam (Peter Boyden) whose advised that the scream of his shower victim is pathetic to say the least, leaving his film without the impact that he wants or really needs to sell the shower murder which opened up the film. Leading to Jack going out on a late-night sound recording session for the long list he’s been given.
The recording scene has strong links to The Conversation (1974) which saw reclusive anorak Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) on an intensely observed and documented recording of a couples seemingly innocent conversation. Carefully positioned kit from high above and around the square, picks up all the said conversation. Jack again is on a job, more isolated on a bridge with his exposed recording equipment, no need to hide as he points to what he wants to capture on tape. He’s a pro and takes a joy in the process, even getting a thrill out of catching a lovers conversation, carrying on even when they know he’s there. An audio peeping tom you could say, capturing what he wants for his own pleasure. It’s here we see the even that the rest of the film hinges on, a car-crash that carried presidential candidate Governor McRyan (John Hoffmeister) plunges to his death. On the surface it’s a straight-forward incident, until Jack jumps in to save them, finding a woman Sally (Nancy Allen) fighting to stay above the rising water level.
It all starts to get murky when we get the hospital, not yet knowing the identity and position of those involved in the car that careened off the road into the river. There’s a sense of urgency as a cover-ups suggested, for the Governor to be known to be in a car with a woman, a prostitute that could have jeopardized his political chances. The plot literally thickens with Sally being involved, her part is hushed up, and hopefully Jacks too. The role of the women is questionably changed from Jane (Vanessa Redgrave) wanting the film from snooping photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) who very easily fobs her off with a blank roll. Sally is more submissive, more agreeable to be told to get out of town for a while, let the situation blow over. Jack unlike David is more proactive, wanting to understand what’s going on.
Technology plays a bigger role in the remake, sound being the main evidence to explore, Not only has he got to be sure of what he’s hearing, he has to prove that to the Police who want to close the case as an accident. I was fascinated how he synchronised photographs that were taken (by peeping tom Manny Karp (Dennis Franz)) which brings the evidence to life. There’s more immediacy to not just prove his theory right but also act on it, inform the police, or even the press who will make even more noise. The sense of urgency is palpable here, where as Blow Up is more secretive, more investigative, wanting to know for sure himself before doing anything, or nothing, instead changing his perception.
Jack’s perception of the worlds more open, aware of the corruption in the world thanks to his past job working with undercover police to fight corruption. This discovery has to be acted on, hoping if he does it right he can redeem himself and save himself from more guilt. I’ve not even mentioned Burke (John Lithgow) a rogue element whose acts on his own for the corrupt opposition, creating his own trail of bloody murder to cover his tracks. An extra element that was only suggested in the original that creates real tension, an unknown element to Jack for the majority of the film.
Blow Out is a near perfect thriller that goes a bit too far at times, the 360 degree camera moves really should have been more restrained at times, becoming too literal, yes we get it, everything is out his his control. I found the addition of Burke’s murders of women who looked like Sally being killed, manipulating the audience to the point of pushing us over the edge, always seeing the victims from the back before he goes ahead. Now I look forward to revisiting the original, how will my memories hold up and else will I discover. It was a sparse and shocking film even then, next time I’ll be looking at the relationship between the two.
It’s been over two months since I sat down for Blow Out, before returning for the original Blow Up (1966) inspiring De Palma to remake it, which on reflection is a fitting tribute and really has built on this almost silent thriller. I remember being fired up by the film, going off the recommendation at Art school to seek this one out. I was very pleased with the end result. I had forgotten the begging as our photographer Thomas exits a factory at the end of what appears to be the working day. However his is just getting started. We’re given the wrong impression about him, he’s not just another worker, the Rolls Royce is a clear indicator that he’s a successful man who is able to support himself. Yet is self-conscious enough to hide his car, from the workers or just the his in. Back at his studio he becomes what could be Weinstien-esque artist, working with his latest model, wanting to get the best out of her, showing little respect for the woman herself. As the poster misleads me this time, she’s the model he’s enjoying through his camera, reaching an almost sexual climax.
He treats his models much like he does his staff, with little respect, they are just glad to be there, and little attention is given to them in the film. Just supporting him in the studio and his whims, allowing him to live the life of luxury and creative freedom. Coming and going as he pleases, during his next shoot he asks his 5 models to close their eyes, whilst he leaves the studio to chat with his painter friend Bill (John Castle) whose enjoying his own creativity and the attention of his lover/muse Patricia (Sarah Miles). They are all enjoying the bubble that is the swinging sixties. Creatively it looks amazing to been a part of that moment that’s depicted here as something that then takes a horrible turn to the darkness of reality.
On his comings and goings, after buying a wooden propeller he ventures to the local park, just see whats there, getting carried away he becomes a member of the paparazzi, or a peeping tom documenting what looks like an affair between an older man (Ronan O’Casey) who we always see from a distance. The first of a number of scenes films dialogue free, only the wind interrupts this intimate intrusion into the private lives of these lovers. The minimalism of the scene allows us to really get lost in what is happening in this section of the park, we are now as bad as Thomas who happily captures this private moment. We are complicit in this voyeuristic act and we’ll have to pay for that later on. Until Thomas’s spotted, causing Jane (Redgrave) to chase after him, rightfully wanting the film that has caught them in the act of something quite private.
On his return to the studio, we are as surprised he is to found Jane’s found him, out of nowhere, everything is a surprise in this film. Antonio has layered with characters throughout his film that keep appearing out of nowhere, unexpected visitors that come in and out of the photographers day slowing him down, or should I say wearing him down the images in the park begin to unveil a dark secret that he wished he never discovered. The mime artist who he meets on the road, happily given them money, creatives support or sponsorship, it’s very vague. Two young girls who will do anything to model for him reappear, whose innocence’s taken advantage off. Jane’s time however is most compelling, Redgrave’s treated with more respect, yes she undresses, in hopes of securing the roll of film. Yet we never see her breasts, I thought I had from memory, however she’s photographed more respectfully than the other actresses who’re treated like models. She indulges as best she can, clearly out of her depth with the photographer whose not about to give up on his latest roll.
Now the fun really begins, I say fun, the darkness of his latest photographs make themselves known to him. Again we go near silence as he develops and investigates the work, getting deeper, more curious to what is going on in the images. What at first could be a couple uncomfortable at a peeping tom becomes more sinister. He can’t give up, instead he continues to investigate, blowing up sections of the stills to understand the hidden landscape that he was capturing. It’s haunting to see the reveal in near silence, as he learns we learn to. A discovery that can no longer be hidden away, they can’t become part of a body of work, as they document a crime, the photographer an unwitting witness to something he wasn’t expecting.
Where Thomas is alone in his world, Jack is more vocal in Blow Out, the film allows more time to investigate and reach out to others. The original is built upon, allow is to move away from the initial shock of the discovery to look at the wider consequences, how they can affect others. We don’t really know what happens to Jane after she leaves, does she know her lovers dead or is she just relieved to know that her little secret won’t get out. Instead see just the beginning and the effect is has on someone who really shouldn’t have been there.
The end of the film has left me feeling pretty much the same, the mime artists playing tennis, lost in their own world, their craft. Thomas looks on wondering how he now fits into this world that he believed was part of. It’s just increased, revealing a far darker side, one that he has hoped to escape. Even the middle class trappings of his own have hidden him from life. The world of sex, drugs and rock and roll (courtesy of The Yardirds) he has to reassess his position, his perspective. Does all his work hide something lurking under the surface, He captures what he sees through the lens, ignoring the world around him. Unlike Jack who was more aware of the world around him, but chose to escsape it for the world of low-budget films, creating his own reality. Having seen both films, I can clearly see how De Palma has built on a minimalist film about the truth of our reality, how an artist who can be lost in the world of their work can be brought back to reality through the work they make.