One of the promises of cinema has always been the recording and preservation of objective reality. Even as the world changes and splinters like never before, video evidence is still touted as something that can clear the fog of uncertainty. An event occurred, the camera captured it, and now everyone can see that event in the same way. This promise has held true to some extent, but it has obvious shortcomings. No camera is completely objective, and even acknowledging the choices that are made within every frame, it’s possible to miss something that was there all along. Into the turbulence of the 1960s came Blowup, a movie that closely examined the photographic image and, instead of objective reality, found modern art. Fifteen years later, Blow Out, the title of which makes the homage clear, borrowed the earlier film’s central conceit, turned up the volume on the political themes, and explicitly put the filmmaking process itself under the microscope.
Our protagonists, Thomas (David Hemmings) and Jack (John Travolta), are both employed in the visual arts, one as a fashion photographer with an artistic streak and the other as a sound technician for a low-rent movie studio. The two building blocks of cinema going back at least to 1927 — sight and sound — are isolated in the two films to highlight their powers. While on the job, both Thomas and Jack witness a death, which they capture on their respective equipment. Upon a painstaking review of the evidence, they conclude that it was murder. Invisible forces conspire to wipe out this evidence, and the men are left alone with their knowledge. These are not happy stories, but the precise distinctions in tone and attitude between the two films are profound.
Blowup premiered in the U.S., featured a British cast and locations, and was directed by an Italian, Michelangelo Antonioni. European cinema was riding the crests of several New Waves at the time, but as far as the influence of art film in North America went, Blowup was a major breakthrough. Its presentation of mod culture and uncompromised divergence from Hollywood storytelling spoke to young audiences. The word perhaps most often ascribed to Antonioni’s work, “ennui,” is in full evidence. This is a film of stillness and silence — the story is never in any particular hurry, even when Thomas blows up a photograph showing a gun tucked away in the bushes. The scene in the park when the sinister deed is done is handled in long shots, the audience given Thomas’s limited vantage point. The question of who killed the unnamed man, and why, is shrugged off. Just a speck in the background, the body, when magnified, resembles not so much a person as one of the Pollock-esque drip paintings of Thomas’s friend. Only in sequence with the other photos on the film roll does the image’s meaning become clear. As the saying goes, it’s something Thomas can’t unsee.
While the murder is shrouded in unarticulated meaning, Blowup takes off on tangents to explore the art scenes of Swinging London. Fashion photography is the primary subject, naturally, with its bored models exhibiting themselves in sterile studios. One photo shoot is made unmistakably analogous to a sexual encounter — the film’s most famous image is of Hemmings straddling a supine Veruschka von Lehndorff — emphasizing the penetrative aspects of photography. No less alienating is the club where the Yardbirds perform near the end of the film. Never before or since has a rock concert been attended with such reverent stillness, at least until Jeff Beck smashes his guitar and tosses the neck into the crowd. Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the mimes, those joyful anarchists who appear at the beginning and ending. Having now seen Blowup twice, I think I’ve come around to loving the fact that it ends with a couple mimes playing a game of shadow tennis. The viewer must decide either to be amused by the stubborn ambiguity, or not.
Brian De Palma’s Blow Out is a much less quiet affair, more of a high art slasher film, one of the director’s many variations on Hitchcock. This film’s villain, played by John Lithgow, is a force of extravagant evil, assassinating a presidential candidate then murdering several other people to cover up his involvement. Both he and Jack are significantly more engaged in the proceedings than any of Antonioni’s characters. The killer shoots out the tire of the candidate’s car, sending it into the river, and Jack dives in to try to save the occupants. He manages to pull out Sally (Nancy Allen), and, with her help, sets about tracking down the person responsible for the “blow out.” Whereas Thomas stumbles upon the killing after the fact (Blowup wryly notes that he was looking for a “peaceful” image), Jack’s highly trained ears immediately notice that a separate bang preceded the explosion of the tire. His recording equipment verifies this. But visual evidence is necessary to convince people with less aural sensitivity. Luckily, a man with a movie camera was also on the scene, for reasons that will significantly complicate the situation.
There was certainly a cinematic quality in Blowup‘s presentation of the photographs, which, when placed in sequence, told a story about what happened in that park. Blow Out goes further, beginning with a continuous sequence of sound, from the shot and blow out to the car skidding and crashing into the water. Jack’s player reels the tape back and forth to find the crucial moment. He then gets a hold of the images through a news magazine that prints all the individual frames. Covertly using his studio’s equipment, he synchronizes the sounds and the pictures. There’s still just the faintest hint of deniability in the resulting film, but the addition of motion and sound makes the evidence a lot harder to misconstrue. And De Palma throws in a scene of Lithgow’s character sneakily changing the tire of the fished-out car so that there’s no mistaking what happened.
The hopelessness of these films lies in the fact that the audience sees what the protagonist sees, knows what he knows, and neither party can do anything about it. Blow Out takes this revelation to a point of great anguish, as tragedy strikes amid a colorful patriotic celebration in Philadelphia. The irony is laid on thick; De Palma didn’t prize subtlety. But the force of his technique, the split screens and spinning camera, moves me a lot more than Antonioni’s detachment. There might be a generational divide at play — the howl of pain at the viciousness of life vs. the fatalistic shrug at same. De Palma was perhaps trying to shock away the numbness that had set in after a couple decades of political corruption and mayhem. In any case, these films pull off the trick of being somber affairs that simultaneously get me excited about the process of filmmaking — specifically editing, delving into the tiny details. They both affirm that cinema can indeed provide a way to see the truth. It’s just that seeing the truth isn’t enough.