Director: Brian de Palma
Writer: Brian de Palma
Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond
by Jon Cvack
Taking inspiration from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up ('66) and its deconstruction of images, Brian de Palma introduces us to the craft of sound design, told within a highly progressive Hitchcockian structure .
Blow Out’s a movie that’s best watched without knowing a single thing about it. The opening scene alone is one of the best in cinematic history, precisely for how seamlessly it captures the essence of slasher films and teen scream sexuality and objectification. To think this movie preceded the onslaught of 80s slashers films, understanding the formula before the formula ever reached its zenith, is worth appreciation. The film opens up in the POV of a voyeur who’s looking at a cop who’s peeking through the windows of a sorority - contrary to horror convention, we are looking at the person who is looking rather than being the looker. We move to two women dancing with their breasts gratuitously revealed through their thin pajamas, another is masturbating on the floor, we find another girl who’s having sex with a man, and finally we enter the showers and the voyeur stabs a woman in pure Psycho style. We then cut out and see that we’ve been watching a Slasher Film the whole time; that it was all fictitious. The over-the-top sexuality and objectification was deliberate.
We’re now with a sound designer Jack Terry (John Travolta) who’s criticizing the woman’s scream as ineffective. This is just the MacGuffin of what will unravel into a multi-layered narrative. This small and seemingly insignificant scream will return again and again. And yet, beyond the scream, the Producer (Dennis Franz) hates the generic wind noise that he’s heard used ‘a thousand times.’ He wants the real deal and sends Jack out on location. Jack heads back to his studio to prep the materials. While doing so and the credits roll, we see that the Philadelphia Governor is running for President, facing a significant challenger on the other side. Jack then heads off to a nearby park to capture the sounds.
In a great Hitchcockian moment, we see Jack shifting his shotgun mic from the wind whistling in the trees, to a couple talking of their prurient desires, to a bullfrog down in the riverbed, and finally to a car that’s roaring down the road and then crashes off a bridge and into the river. He races down and into the water and rescues Sally (Nancy Allen) from the wreckage.
At the hospital, after Jack asks Sally out, not being aware of the situation’s enormity, he’s pressed by the Governor’s former Chief of Staff to keep things quiet. Turns out the girl was with the adulterous governor in the car. Jack is confused, but Travolta’s eyes say it all. He struggles, knowing it’s wrong. In a brilliant moment of internal struggle, it’s no wonder Tarantino tapped him years later for Pulp Fiction.
Later at the studio, Jack discovers a gunshot on his recording. With a photographer coincidentally being there to capture the accident on splash mode, Jack syncs up his sound with the photography. Brian de Palma walks us through the arduous process of yesteryear’s sound editing, and you can’t help but have an appreciation for the tedious craft that today’s world no longer forces upon its designers. Soon, he gets the sound synced up and sees the gunblast from the woods, which shot out the tire and crashed the car. It was an assassination.
A lot of filmmakers who take inspiration from Hitchcock often fall far too short. They end up feeling like second hand rip offs, in which sexual and violent elements are given priority over the cinematic. Blow Out pushes the bar. It takes all Hitchcock’s formulas and style and advances them in imaginative ways. Reviewer Sabbir Parvez Shohan says, "De Palma has sprung to the place that Robert Altman achieved with films such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Nashville and that Francis Ford Coppola reached with the two Godfather films—that is, to the place where genre is transcended and what we're moved by is an artist's vision.... “ While clearly inspired by the thriller format, there is so much put into this film in terms of pastiche, theory, cinematic and American history, that you feel as though you could watch it all over again, paying attention to different details, and seeing the film in a completely different light.
Blow Out is a film about how movies are made, introducing us to the structure of sound design. And yet as we watch the climactic sequence, and all the other sound-heavy moments, we are paying more attention to the story than the elements that comprise them. Although we now understand the laborious process, we miraculously remain in the story, differentiating between ‘real’ and ‘fake’, when in fact, it’s all fake. De Palma’s method of film grammar meta-analysis has the rare quality of never drifting into distraction. I’m aware of it, but the film is so great that I can easily shift between considering how it operates and what it means, and appreciating the great story.
BELOW: Blow Out's steadicam operator Garret Brown on using his invention for the film
Thoughts on films, old and new
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