Cultural & Cinematic Depictions of Corruption

Fifteen years apart, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-up (1966) and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981) are an unlikely though oddly symbiotic couple. Antonioni, the master of the modern malaise, is distinctly different in both substance and style than De Palma, a director acutely focused on using terror to highlight the complexity of the human condition. Despite differing sensibilities, De Palma and Antonioni both created films that exhibit man’s struggle against the growing presence and influence of corruption in the modern world. What makes comparing these films so fascinating is the opposing, yet still complimentary ways they go about communicating the same message. Whereas Antonioni’s Blow-up presents an examination of corruption as an internal phenomenon, De Palma’s Blow Out posits itself as a deeply sardonic depiction of the external nature of the same evil. Through these contrasting approaches, the films reveal differing cultural attitudes toward societal corruption.

At the center of each of these rests a discovery that defines the rest of the film. For Blow-up, this is the protagonist’s discovery of a murder captured in photos he took while spying on a lovers. In Blow Out, this is the protagonist’s discovery of the cover up of a Presidential nominee’s murder through a sound recording. The modes by which each film lead the audience to these discoveries are similar. In Blow-up, Thomas – a renowned photographer – develops a series of photos, hangs them up around his home, then blows the photos up into larger variations of the previous size. In trying to make the image larger, Thomas distorts it, but convinces himself that he sees a dead body and a man holding a gun in the trees. This discovery sequence is highly methodical – focusing on the process of developing film – as a way of highlighting the product he creates. Blow Out takes a similar approach, focusing not on sight, but sound. The audience watches as Jack works to isolate the sounds on a tape recording, discovering the sound of a gunshot preceding the tire blow out – revealing that the Presidential candidate’s car accident was, in fact, quite the opposite of an accident.

David Hemmings as Thomas in Michaelangelo Antonioni's Blow-up (1966).

David Hemmings as Thomas in Michaelangelo Antonioni's Blow-up (1966).

These discoveries – though depicted similarly – are counterpoints to one another. Antonioni’s protagonist, Thomas, is made to be an active and complicit participant in corruption; he takes the photo, he blows it up, he distorts the truth. This is markedly different from De Palma’s protagonist, Jack, who is a bystander to corruption; he simply overhears the truth by happenstance. Understanding the nuance embedded within these processes is crucial in understanding the way Blow-up and Blow Out characterize the nature of evil; Blow-up’s Thomas operates freely with autonomy while Blow Out’s Jack struggles to attain any – this is demonstrative of the internal and external corruption operating within these respective films.

Antonioni’s decision to conflate corruption with the individual is highly reflective of European cultural attitudes following World War II. The rise of fascism in Europe in the first half of the 20th century and the mass genocides that resulted from regimes in Italy and Germany served as evidence for how easily the perspectives and morals of the individual could be warped. Antonioni uses Blow-up as an examination of that moral distortion – demonstrating how easily a smart and successful person can fall victim to corruptness.

Alternatively, Blow Out presents a distinctly American perspective of corruption as influenced by Watergate. Released less than a decade after Nixon’s resignation, it’s hard not to examine the politics of De Palma’s Blow Out as anything other than a direct consequence of American attitudes following Watergate – a fresh scandal that revealed the corruption that existed among those who led the country. The film follows Jack Terry as he works to expose the crooked actors that arranged the murder and its cover up of a presidential candidate and, in the process, finds himself the prey of those very same actors.

John Travolta as Jack Terry in Brian De Palma's Blow Out (1981)

John Travolta as Jack Terry in Brian De Palma's Blow Out (1981)

In short, Blow Out makes tangible that which Blow-up does not; De Palma’s depiction of corruption is one that can be caught in the act, handcuffed, and persecuted. In this way, Blow Out operates as a sort of reassurance – that corruption, though threatening, only exists in bad people who seek to do bad things. Blow Out contributes to the American narrative that evil is external and therefore curable – this is a sentiment considerably dissimilar to that posed by Antonioni’s Blow-up.

There is, perhaps, no better illustration of this philosophical divide than a comparison of each film’s respective climax. In Blow-up, Thomas seeks to find the dead body he believes he discovered in his photographs and finds nothing, thereby revealing his own fraudulent perspective to himself and the audience. In Blow Out, Jack’s journey to expose corruption leads to the murder of his friend Sally at the hands of those he sought to reveal. These climaxes represent the philosophical perspectives of their respective films. Thomas’s discovery of nothing weighs just as heavily as Jack’s discovery of Sally’s dead body – one is the internalized corruption of the individual, the other is the consequence of powerful external political actors. These climaxes serve as representations for the different cultural attitudes towards corruption as influenced by major political and social events in history.

Blow-up may be the pinnacle of Antonioni’s depiction of the individual. It is a film consumed by the portrayal of one person’s perspective. Antonioni gives Thomas agency and through that agency, the audience watches as his own corrupt perspective warps the truth of his world. Blow Out takes an alternative route, focusing instead on the darkness within society and the powerlessness of the individual. There is a poignancy in the duality of these films. Independently, they stand as great films from impressive filmmakers. Together, however, they form a near perfect philosophical union that can be used to explain and better understand cultural attitudes towards the evil operating within Western societies around the world.