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Blow Out

June 6, 2011

In 1966, Michelangelo Antonioni directed the impressively mod story of a London photographer who thinks he’s captured a murder on film in Blow Up.  After taking pictures in a park one day, Thomas Heemings investigates the film, enlarging the images until he sees what appears to be a body in the grass and a person with a gun in the woods. He’s convinced he’s captured a murder and attempts to get to the bottom of it. Less than a decade later in 1974, Francis Ford Coppola made The Conversation, an incredible psychological thriller reminding viewers at the time of the importance of sound in film. The Conversation follows Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who is asked by a client to record the conversation of a couple. While tweaking the sounds of the recording, Caul becomes unsure of the meaning of the conversation but suspects foul play. Fearing delivering the tape to his client, Caul becomes obsessed with finding out the meaning of the conversation and the danger, if any, the tape may have if released from his care.

In 1981, soon to be Scarface director Brian De Palma continued this plot device with his own version, Blow Out. An amalgamation of both The Conversation and Blow Up, Blow Out follows Jack Terry (John Travolta), a sound designer for B-movie horror films. His duties entail recording the separate sounds within a scene to dub over the weak parts in his films. While out one night gathering stock sounds for Co-ed Frenzy, the screeching of tires is picked up on Terry’s microphone causing him to record the audio of a car crash. As an eye witness, Terry rescues Sally Bedina (Nancy Allen), a woman still trapped inside the sinking car. He is later informed that the driver of the car was the governor and Presidential hopeful, George McRyan. The governor’s advisors quickly request that Terry keep his knowledge of the girl quiet for the sake of the governor’s family. However, as Terry begins to review the tape he realizes that the blow-out sound of a tire is preceded by a noise much sinister, a gunshot. Terry falls into an obsessive attempt to find who and why someone would attempt to kill the governor.

Sound is a major and impressive aspect Blow Out, but what it does differently from The Conversation and Blow Up is combine the importance of both visuals and sound, making both primary elements to discovering the truth. Terry doesn’t become obsessed with just the sound of the pivotal night, but also with the images of the crash taken by a photographer also there. Audiences can’t help but appreciate the art of sound editing throughout Blow Out as the film’s focus on the technique demands the audience’s awareness of it while also expanding their knowledge of sound editing. The film’s heavy use of editing is an impressive aspect on display seen within the first 10 minutes of the film as the opening credits beautifully foreshadow events to come.

Where The Conversation and Blow Up ended on somber ambiguous notes with the main characters in each doubting themselves and their perspective on what they thought they experienced, Blow Out takes a different route, resulting in the film’s major flaw. Blow Out doesn’t just focus on Terry, it instead attempts to be different from its predecessors by giving viewers an omnipotent insight into the goings on of minor characters’ lives, thus causing the film to lose its focus on the overall plot midway in. Blow Out at times seems to forget about that Terry is trying to prove foul play to the cops and figure out why the crash happened. Instead the film gets wrapped up in the side plot of “The Liberty Bell Serial Killer,” a killer targeting young women resembling Sally and stabbing them in the pattern of a liberty bell.  The audience is rewarded early on with the knowledge of whether or not the blow-out was intentional or not, however, we are never given enough information on the killer (John Lithgow) to explain why he’s choosing to such an over-the-top way to cut loose ends.

Travolta is the highlight of the film and impressively portrays the evolution of Terry’s obsession with the tape. He starts the film a happy-go-lucky charming guy, but by the film’s end becomes a guilt-ridden wreck that’s angrier, more paranoid, and psychologically damaged. Nancy Allen’s performance, however, is one of the most crippling aspects of Blow Out. Her character starts off as a fresh faced doe-eyed girl in the wrong place and the wrong time, but later Sally quickly becomes an annoying squeaky voiced dingbat who talks aimlessly about nothing and who would trust a man in a pencil thin mustache and a van with the word “free candy” painted on the side to give her a ride. By the time the film reaches its climax and Sally delivers what’s supposed to be a powerful and emotional scene, her voice and very being becomes so annoying that her death becomes something desired by viewers, at least this one.

Although it’s unfocused at times and has been done much better in the past, Blow Out is still impressive and an entertaining film to watch. If you’re looking to see an interesting, superbly directed film featuring John Travolta in his prime, then let Blow Out be your choice but don’t have too high of expectations.

SEE IT. But don’t expect a masterpiece.

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