by Peter Tonguette
His most memorable film? Don’t ask that of Paul Hirsch, ACE. The Academy Award-winning editor does not believe in the concept, and a quick perusal of the more than 40 films to his credit suggests the futility of that exercise: Is it Carrie (1976) or Star Wars (1977)? The Empire Strikes Back (1980) or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) — or something else? For his part, Hirsch is philosophical about the business of picking and choosing among one’s life work. “It’s a little like asking a parent who their favorite child is,” he says. “Calling one out as opposed to the others invites invidious comparisons that have nothing to do with a film’s worth.”
Even so, there are films that stand out from the rest, and Blow Out (1981) is among them — not because it is better or more successful, but because of what it represents. The film was Hirsch’s eighth collaboration with writer-director Brian De Palma, a notable milestone in and of itself. “He was my mentor, and my teacher, as a beginning film editor,” Hirsch says. But Blow Out was not simply one film among many — it had something more, as was perceived by film critic Pauline Kael in her review in The New Yorker: “I think De Palma has sprung to the place that Altman achieved with films such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville and that Coppola reached with the two Godfather movies — that is, to the place where genre is transcended and what we’re moved by is an artist’s vision.”
Time has validated Kael. Quentin Tarantino ranked Blow Out among his 10 favorite films, and (in an interview with Sight & Sound the year that Pulp Fiction was released) praised the handiwork of star John Travolta as “one of my favorite performances of all time, I mean of all time.” The film is also one of only two of De Palma’s to be afforded the honor of being released by the Criterion Collection on DVD (the other being 1973’s Sisters — also edited by Hirsch).
The road to Blow Out began in 1968, when De Palma was finishing his third feature film, Greetings. The co-writer and producer was Hirsch’s brother, Charles. Through that connection, Hirsch was hired to edit the film’s trailer. Though he had majored in art history at Columbia University, Hirsch developed a passion for film during a summer trip to Paris following his senior year. Back in New York, a friend helped get him a low-level job at Dynamic Films, from which he worked his way up to negative cutter. After six months, he moved on, and within a year was cutting trailers, commercials and documentaries — “basically, anything I could get my hands on,” he says.
When De Palma made his next film, Hi, Mom! (1970), Hirsch was made the editor of both the feature and its trailer. “He gave me opportunities when no one else did and endowed me with a lot of confidence,” Hirsch reveals. “I cut five pictures for him before working for anyone else, and his support was extremely validating.” The filmmaker was also not shy about sharing the editor — Hirsch says that De Palma not only recommended him to George Lucas for Star Wars, but also negotiated his deal. The two grew together. After Greetings and Hi, Mom! — comedies made on low budgets — De Palma developed and refined his virtuosic talent for telling stories in the absence of the spoken word, a feature much praised by critics. “He calls this ‘pure cinema,’ and pursues it in all his films,” Hirsch explains. Think of the bedlam brought about by Carrie White in Carrie or the agents sneaking into the computer room in the Hirsch-edited Mission: Impossible (1996) — sequences which depend on what Hirsch calls “audio-visual” qualities for their terror or tension.
In a way, Blow Out reflects De Palma’s belief in these principles. In the saga of Philadelphia sound engineer Jack Terry (Travolta), the film makes a compelling case that images and sounds contain deeper truths than words. When a politician is killed in a mysterious auto accident, his advisers can manipulate words, and they do. Fortunately — and tragically — Jack can bypass the lies: Just before the accident, he was recording assorted sounds for one of the tacky horror movies on which he works. The accident (which he has also recorded) doesn’t sound right to him — does the sound of a bullet precede the blowing out of the tire? With the politician in the car is a prostitute, Sally (Nancy Allen), a fact that deepens Jack’s hunch that something is rotten in Philadelphia.
“Blow Out reflected the feeling of distrust that began to pervade American life in the aftermath of the Kennedy and King assassinations,” Hirsch says. “The Zapruder film was considered too graphic for viewing by the public, but Life magazine published many, but not all, of the frames as stills.” In a brilliant scene, Jack pairs his audio with magazine stills, which document the accident. He takes scissors to the stills as he recognizes that he can recreate the accident by re-photographing the stills and yoking the resulting film to his audio.
“John had to learn how to handle editing equipment in a believable way, and Brian sent him to me for lessons,” Hirsch explains. “I showed him how an editor would scrub the sound to find the exact perf where a sound would start, and how to mark the film and sound to put them into sync with each other.” Travolta was a quick study, but after De Palma shot the sequence, Hirsch had the slightly surreal experience of editing it. He likens the experience to being inside a print by M.C. Escher. “I would be editing a piece of film showing Jack’s hand making a mark on the film with a grease pencil, and I would be looking at my own hand marking it with a real grease pencil,” Hirsch recalls.
It was equally bewildering to deal with the numerous shots of Jack running the film he has created of the accident backwards and forwards — which he does time and again, as he tries to unfurl what, exactly, occurred. “I would be running this back and forth, too, also searching for the right frame,” Hirsch continues. “It became so confusing at times that I had to stop and look at my hand on the joystick to see which way I was running the film.”
Blow Out earned its reputation on many bases: the assurance of De Palma’s direction, the novelty of its plot and the appeal of Travolta’s and Allen’s performances. But among them is the now-outdated means by which Jack does his investigative work. Comparing Blow Out with Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up in a 1981 interview with Films & Filming, De Palma said, “Both pictures deal with a kind of technical way of finding out about a crime.” As used by Travolta (under the direction of Hirsch), the reel-to-reel tape recorders and Moviolas in Blow Out have the same nostalgic quality as the tap-tap- tapping of the typewriters in All the President’s Men (1976). “We had inadvertently taken a snapshot of a work process that is now obsolete,” Hirsch says. “All those tools and methods that were my life’s work for 25 years are no more.”
While De Palma was conversant with editing, and took editing credits on several early films, he left it to Hirsch to implement his vision — or to crawl his way out of the Escher print, as it were. “Sometimes, on viewing my cut, he would simply sign off on it,” Hirsch relates. “He does not get lost in fine detail, fussing over frames.” When he did identify a problem, he trusted Hirsch to come up with the answer. “I once called him on location and told him I was unsure how to use a particular shot I saw in the dailies. ‘You’re the editor — you figure it out,’ he told me.”
Of course, on a Brian De Palma film, occasionally the “figuring” simply involved choosing which iteration to use of one of the long takes for which the director is famous. “When directors do scenes in more than one take, it is usually the last one that is the best,” Hirsch opines. “The crew and the actors work to refine the shot as they shoot, until they finally get what they were aiming for.”
In addition to Hirsch, the crew on Blow Out was made up of many old hands — producer George Litto, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, composer Pino Donaggio, and supervising sound editor Dan Sable had worked with the director before, as had assistant editor Gina Roose. Hirsch and Roose (joined by apprentice editors Lisa J. Levine and Mark Rathaus) edited in New York while the company completed principal photography in Philadelphia. But the production’s collegial, family- like atmosphere was interrupted by what Hirsch describes as “a catastrophic occurrence.”
Blow Out was processed at Technicolor in New York, but the film was sent to Los Angeles for negative cutting. Four days’ worth of footage was shipped on a Friday, but on the following Monday the phone rang in the editing suite. The footage had gone missing. “Apparently the truck driver who collected the cartons from the lab the previous Friday had stopped to make another pick-up on 57th Street,” Hirsch says. “While he was inside, the truck was broken into and thieves took the four cartons. They probably didn’t even know what they were stealing.”
The purloined footage was never found, necessitating re-shoots — to the tune of $750,000, but covered by insurance, De Palma told Films & Filming — of one of the film’s most important scenes: the chase set against Philadelphia’s Liberty Day Parade, as Jack desperately tries to stop Sally from becoming the latest casualty stemming from the conspiracy that killed the politician. The scene was first shot over winter, but now it was summer. “But in the end, we were able to patch all the holes in the film,” Hirsch reveals. “Although you can see that the trees have leaves on them in some of the shots.”
Most memorable? Maybe not — but, with its enduring quality and unique backstory, Blow Out has to be up there.