Instead of talking to my loved ones during the current quarantine period we all find ourselves in at this moment in time, I’ve been doing the sensible thing and trying my best to fill in the cracks of my film knowledge. (Very sensible.) When creating my own Quarantine Film Festival of sorts, an obvious double feature — one that includes two movies I had never seen — became the headliner, Blow-Up and Blow Out.
Seeing both of these movies unlocked a sprawling web of film influence. Antonioni’s curious and extremely European Blow-Up being a heavy influence on not only Blow Out itself, but many other films and film titans, while changing the course of Hollywood’s relationship with edgier content. Blow Out, meanwhile, wears all of its influences proudly. Not just Blow-Up itself, but other clear allusions to Coppola, Hitchcock, and some of our juicier real-life political scandals. Not to mention it begot its own massive list of influences as the next generation of filmmakers came into the industry.
Despite both being riffs on the same central concept, Blow-Up and Blow Out are also intensely different movies, making such a comparison that this article hopes to create somewhat of a fallacy. But hey, it’s a lot of fun!
For the purpose of this exercise, I have again scientifically broken down the conversation into a few key categories that will help declare a definite winner with which I’m sure everyone will agree and have absolutely no rebuttals:
The Main Characters
David Hemmings’ Thomas fucking sucks. Big time. He the sort of pretentious, self-important artist you had to deal with in your creative arts courses, who becomes even more annoying when you learn that he has actually become successful. He waltzes around London in all his pomposity, tosses women around like rag dolls, and says every word with an unbearable amount of smarminess. Thomas also never finishes his drinks, whether he poured them himself or ordered them at a pub. (Seriously, for the first drink he pours for himself, he takes one sip and then bolts out the door. My mild OCD was on FIRE.)
His character is also deeply fascinating. Antonioni focuses on Thomas’ obsessions as an artist, using him to comment about the inherent absurdity in how many artists work. Look no further than how he treats women: he obsesses over their form…until he’s found an arbitrary endpoint in their artistic relationship and then tosses them aside. Ironically, he refers to them merely as “bitches” when he was wholly consumed with them shortly before. The idea of the artistic lens as a point of dominance over another being, whether it be a filmic or photographic lens, is also richly embedding into his character.
As for John Travolta’s Jack Terry, well, he sure is handsome ain’t he? Brian De Palma uses him more as a vessel to tell his grand story of politics and salaciousness colliding at a grand force, whereas Antonioni’s focus is clearly in an intense character study of Thomas. Jack is a character for a movie star performance — his edges are smoothed down, allowing Travolta’s white-hot charm of the period to shape Jack in his image. There’s nothing wrong with letting early-80s Travolta cook, but it’s probably a less interesting interpretation.
For another demerit against him, Jack asks Nancy Allen’s Sally out for a drink while she is still at the hospital in her gown, hopped up on serious pain medication! Dude, find your chill and wait at least a few hours before shooting your shot.
My vote goes to Thomas and Blow-Up.
Blow Out: 0
The Artistic Conceit
Photography for Blow-Up, sound design for Blow Out. I can’t entirely find a fault with either, except maybe that Antonioni took his sweet old time getting to the hardcore photography aspects of Blow-Up as Thomas gallivants around town buying propellers and failing to finish his drinks. However, that deliberate pacing is key — the introduction of the blown-up pictures, later on, signifies Thomas’ break from reality as he sinks deeper into the maybe-it’s-real-maybe-it-isn’t murder.
On the other hand, the use of sound in Blow Out is virtuosic, isn’t it? The bridge scene alone as Travolta searches for the right wind sound effects to use in his latest schlocky, exploitative horror movie is enough to swing the needle in Blow Out‘s favor. De Palma manages to use it in a few dynamic sequences sprinkled throughout the film — you can’t get much better than the 360-degree spinning shot of Jack Terry’s sound room full of erased tapes. It’s certainly showier, but boy is it thrilling.
Blow Out FTW!
Blow Out: 1
The Female Leads
At the risk of being labeled a crackpot, there’s enough evidence to get away with thinking that Vanessa Redgrave’s character in Blow-Up, Jane, doesn’t actually exist. The interaction between Thomas and Jane is deeply curious: after Thomas takes pictures of her in the park without her consent and holds them over her at his studio, Jane unbuttons her blouse and seduces Thomas rather abruptly after they stop for a second to smoke a joint. The simple (and probably sane) conclusion is, knowing that Thomas is a slimy, self-aggrandizing artist, the quickest way to destroy the photos is to sexualize herself and play into his unspoken demands before writing down a fake phone number and slyly sneaking away.
But something about their interaction doesn’t sit right with me. In a movie that is so opaque, Jane acts so cleanly and without hesitation — those two pieces seem directly opposed. Blow-Up is largely about the artist’s perception as he breaks from reality. He may or may have not imagined a murder, so what’s stopping him from imagining the encounter with Jane altogether? Let’s look at the facts:
- We never see Jane interact with anyone else except Thomas, except the unknown man in the park, and we know that the circumstances surrounding him are nebulous at best.
- Their confrontations at the park and in Thomas’s art studio are the only interactions they have. Jane quickly exits the movie afterward, never to be heard from again.
- No one else sees the photos — the two girls who come to Thomas’ apartment after Jane never take a second to look at them. The pictures are later destroyed, ensuring that no one else but Thomas sees them. It stands to reason that Thomas could be imagining more than the murder itself within the frame, but the people themselves.
- Following Jane’s exit is when Thomas severely retreats inward and Blow-Up enters a dreamlike state.
- The movie ends with mimes playing tennis…including tennis sound effects as if they’re actually hitting a ball. That alone speaks to the surrealism of the movie. Such a scene allows for more speculation as to what is real and what isn’t.
Or, Jane is very cunning and knows exactly how to get control over Thomas when many others do not — and she eats away at him as the one woman he can’t control. Either way, I’m very interested.
As for Nancy Allen as Sally in Blow Out, she’s the tragic, sacrificial lamb caught in the middle of the turmoil. She’s mostly unaware of the moving parts around her; by design, she’s more of a passive character. Frankly, I’m not a huge fan of her performance, either. Travolta tends to blow her off the screen with his overwhelming charm, while she occasionally dips into the realm of unintentional comedy. Sadly, in what is a key flaw I find in Blow Out, I don’t buy their relationship, or that her death would have such a lasting impact on Jack. Each of their scenes together feels too one-sided.
Another point for Blow-Up.
Blow Out: 1
For everything stated above, Blow-Up is purposely frustrating and fascinating. This Antonioni guy is going places!
Blow Out is an entirely different animal. What starts as a political thriller later converges into a slasher flick. The two ends meet chaotically, as if the violent, more sensational aspects of the film are forcibly taking over the spotlight — a pretty great allegory for the uncertainty of the time.
Both films are also great representations of their eras, with Blow-Up capturing the swinging 60s and Blow Out rooting itself in the political anxieties that plagued the 70s and echoed into the 80s. Travolta also wears a shirt-pants combination that boasts two different shades of red — it was a different, simpler time.
It’s a tie!
Blow Out: 1.5
I imagine an overwhelming majority has the following reaction when watching Blow-Up‘s final scene for the first time: “umm, what the hell???” Two mimes playing tennis as the larger group watches from the other side of the fence, cheering silently, is head-scratching, to say the least. Much has been said about Blow-Up‘s ending over the years, with many incredibly annoyed and others oddly enraptured. I belong to the latter camp: the utter nonsense of the ending is a perfect endpoint for the slow degradation of Thomas’ mind and artistic purpose. He’s lost all meaning in the images he’s captured himself, and the world itself reflects that beautifully.
De Palma’s ending, having Jack Terry include Nancy’s scream in the horror movie he has been working on after failing to save her from the Liberty Bell Killer (played by a young John Lithgow), is overwhelmingly cynical, and again, virtuosic. Jack is forever haunted by her, but everyone else will be blissfully unaware of her tragic fate.
Each is understandably iconic. Another tie!
Blow Out: 2
So, Who Ya Got?
We’ve come to a 3-2 win for Blow-Up, but what does it all mean? I’ve come to the following conclusion: Blow-Up is the better film, but Blow Out is the more rewatchable film.
Okay, so maybe that’s that not the most revolutionary statement I’ve ever made, given that Blow-Up has 45 minutes of David Hemmings idly taking pictures or staring deeply into them and Blow Out has a character known as the Liberty Bell Killer. But understanding that idea does place each film into perspective — Blow-Up being the influencer of Blow Out and so many other films and Blow Out using its influences to recontextualize an important moment in the United States’ history. Blow-Up is cleaner, but it’s also the more internal film, riddled with individual conflict; Blow Out is the exact opposite, throwing everything at the screen and getting enough to stick for the good to strongly outweigh the messy.
I wish more reimaginings would take this approach — becoming something entirely different but in concert with the original. Together, they’re a mighty pair.
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