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Why De Palma’s ‘Blow Out’ Tops Antonioni’s ‘Blow-Up’

The scene everybody remembers in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up comes around the halfway mark. Thomas (David Hemmings), the photographer at the story’s center, is developing some pictures. He took them earlier in the day, in the park, believing he was merely capturing a private moment in a public place between two lovers. The woman in the coupling (Vanessa Redgrave) follows him home, insisting on taking the film. When he looks at the pictures, he understands why — he sees something. Her worried glance. Another figure, in the bushes. He grabs a magnifying glass, marking off sections, blowing them up, peering into the bottomless blacks and the fuzzy grain. He sees a gun. And later, a body.

It’s a virtuoso sequence, as Carlo Di Palma’s camera follows eyelines from one image to another, Hemmings (and Antonioni) situating the photographs around the room to recreate the scene, moving between them and juxtaposing them to tell a story (similar, as many a film critic/student has noted, to the work of a film director). And as it captures the then-nascent Kennedy assassination obsessives, who would themselves blow up and peer in to Rorschach-like images of that crime, it’s a timeless piece of cinema — which contrasts it starkly against the rest of the picture.

Blow-Up is a wildly influential movie with a couple of truly marvelous sequences, and a whole lot of dead air. It’s been vaunted to the status of classic, yes, but the films it inspired have proven far more durable, movies that still play as vibrant works of art rather than time-capsule curios. One of those films, Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, screened last night in the Revivals section of the New York Film Festival; a look at both confirms that, reputations aside, the De Palma is the superior picture.

Blow Out, released in 1981, is one of the few films where De Palma is paying homage to someone other than Hitchcock (though, amusingly, Mel Brooks’ 1977 Hitch spoof High Anxiety features a scene sending up Blow-Up, which I guess makes it Hitchcock-by-association). He tells the story of a murder accidentally captured in sound rather than picture, by Jack Terry (John Travolta), a sound-effects man for exploitation movies. In fact, Blow Out opens as a film-within-a-film, a scene from Terry’s latest movie Coed Fever, its heavy-breathing, knife-wielding killer, point-of-view camera, and copious nude and near-nude nubiles a none-too-subtle bit of shade from the filmmaker at what passed for suspense (and eroticism) in the slasher-happy early ‘80s. We then move outside that frame, to meet our hero and his director, who tells Jack they need new outdoor effects and a new scream for the sequence’s conclusion. The former mission incites the action of the film; the latter, its powerful closing scenes.

While out recording nat sound, Jack accidentally witnesses (and records) a car going off a bridge and into a lake. That car is carrying and older man and a younger woman (Nancy Allen); Jack dives in and manages to save the girl but not the guy, who turns out to be Governor (and presidential frontrunner) George McRyan. He’s told the car left the road due to a tire blow-out, but he heard something else — something that, upon closer examination, sounds a lot like a gunshot.

The sequence of Jack at work in the wild is a little masterpiece, with De Palma brilliantly orchestrating his sound and his images into a dialogue with each other — actions mimicked by Travolta, who uses his stick microphone like a conductor’s baton, and replicates those movements with a pencil when he listens to the tape later, rebuilding the scene in his eye (and De Palma’s lens). In that scene, and later variations in which Jack matches up his tape to still photos and a home movie, De Palma’s affection for the tape, the film, and their machinery borders on fetishistic. They also reverberate with cultural touchstones, from the aforementioned Kennedy assassination (a far more popular obsession, by this point), Chappaquiddick, and the closing cycle of ‘70s conspiracy thrillers.

Those scenes most closely echo the centerpiece scene of Blow-Up (and of Francis Ford Coppola’s earlier sound-centered Blow-Up homage, 1974’s The Conversation). The difference is that the film around them is equally gripping, filled with memorable characters, snazzy set pieces, and incomparable momentum. Blow-Up, on the other hand, is duller than any portrait of Swinging London has any right to be, spending a day in the life of a smug prick photographer, alternating its compelling murder plot with unsettlingly mirthful scenes of sexual violence, a moralist’s head-shaking journey through scenes of zombie-fied youth in fully alienated flower, and multiple scenes of mimes.

It feels as though Blow-Ups admirers have, in their memories of the film, edited out those and other huge swaths that don’t work at all — an act Steven Soderbergh made literal when he recut the picture (taking particular pains to excise the mimes) for his Extension 365 website. (It was removed shortly thereafter, predictably.) In losing the mimes, Soderbergh had to reconfigure the film’s oh-so-existential ending, yet another moment bested by De Palma; rather than having an unlikable jerk care about something briefly and realize its pointlessness, Blow Out gives Jack the chance to right a past wrong, and has him blow it again (see the old saw about doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome). That’s a message of meaninglessness that tops any of Antonioni’s self-satisfied ennui, boosted even further by the bleary desperation of Travolta’s exhausted performance, and the dead-eyed crumbling of his closing lines (“It’s a good scream. Good scream”) and actions.

Godard famously said that in order to criticize a movie, you must make another movie. I have no idea if De Palma — whose debt to Godard is often overlooked due to the Hitchcock influence — was thinking of that quote when he made Blow Out. But it wouldn’t surprise me.

Blow Out screened last night at the New York Film Festival, in conjunction with the premiere of the new documentary De Palma.