Monday, December 20, 2010

Blow Out


Brian De Palma's Blow Out is the director's idiosyncratic take on Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up, blending it with elements of Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation and, as usual for De Palma, a host of other cinematic reference points. De Palma's film unmistakeably twists its source material to the director's aesthetic and preoccupations, making it for good or ill its own work, separate from the films it's remaking. Like its predecessors, Blow Out opens with someone inadvertently witnessing a murder, in this case the movie soundman Jack Terry (John Travolta). Terry is out late one night near a lake, recording sounds for a film he's working on, when he sees — and hears, and thus records — a car get a blow out in its tire and crash off the road into the water. Terry jumps into the water and rescues the car's passenger, Sally (Nancy Allen), though the driver is already dead. It's only later that Terry realizes that he has witnessed a murder, that someone lurking in the woods had shot out the tire on that car, causing the crash. And it's only later that he realizes that the man who died in the crash was a governor and a prospective presidential candidate, and that the passenger was not his wife. Terry finds that the politician's friends and allies are now pushing for a cover-up, suppressing the fact that Sally had been in the car when it crashed, and hurrying the investigation through without looking too hard at anything.

Blow Out distinguishes itself from its antecedents by shifting the emphasis away from process and onto the thriller aspects of the plot. In Antonioni's Blow-Up, a photographer takes what he believes, initially, to be some innocuous photos of a couple in a park, but over time, as he examines the photos and becomes obsessed with them, he comes to believe that the images hide, in their details and shadows, the evidence of a murder. In The Conversation, similarly, Coppola focuses on a sound engineer who slowly zeroes in on a fragment of a recorded conversation that, he believes, is suggestive of a murder plot that's set to be enacted soon. In both films, the emphasis is on the slow process by which these men discover what they believe is the decisive evidence; ultimately, the films become psychological and internal, embroiled in nuances of image and sound more than concrete facts.

De Palma dispenses with this angle almost entirely. The mystery in Blow Out is not psychological or internal, and De Palma leaves no doubt about its concreteness by periodically diverting from Terry's perspective to show the actions of Sally and the photographer Manny (Dennis Franz), or the psychopathic Burke (John Lithgow), who committed the initial murder and who continues killing to cover it up. The result is that Blow Out becomes more of a straightforward thriller. Interestingly, where the films that De Palma draws upon placed the audience into the subjectivity of the protagonists' experiences, De Palma consistently allows the audience to be one step ahead of the protagonist. Even during the accident scene, while Terry races to jump into the water after the car, De Palma stages the sequence in a long shot to reveal a shadowy figure in the background, skulking behind Terry and then running away across a bridge at the top of the frame. This will turn out to be Manny, escaping after taking pictures of the accident, and later De Palma will show Sally going to see Manny, revealing that the two of them had been working together to set up the dead politician as a cheater. At other times, De Palma follows the creepy Burke as he plots to cover up the evidence of his crime and eliminate the remaining witnesses.


De Palma might sacrifice the claustrophobic psychological intimacy of Blow-Up and The Conversation, but he gains the propulsive forward momentum of a thriller. The film is taut and tense, centered on Travolta's casually effective performance, which really has the feel of an ordinary guy inadvertently caught up in a conspiracy that stretches far beyond his understanding. In the scenes after the accident, as the police question him, Terry reacts with annoyance and confusion as their questions seem to be steering him away from the facts of what actually happened. Things only get worse from there, and De Palma's decision to incorporate events other than those that directly involve Terry creates the impression that the soundman is caught up in a vast network of shadowy dealings and violence.

This is especially true of the hints one gets of the actions of Burke, a truly chilling character whose role in the film gradually becomes more prominent. At first he's simply a shadowy form, his face unseen, but the more he appears, the creepier he seems. He begins staging a series of sexual murders of women who are the same type as Sally, with the understanding that she'll eventually be slotted in as the final victim in the series. De Palma's staging of the crimes in a bright red light, often filmed from above, sets up the pulse-pounding finale, in which Terry desperately races to get to Sally before Burke kills her. Sally, framed against an American flag, bathed in its red glow, an ironic commentary on the film's political and patriotic backdrops, cries out to Terry, screaming, in one of the film's most bracing and memorable images. Another of the film's most affecting images is a dizzying 360-degree pan around Terry's studio as he realizes that someone — the sinister Burke, though Terry can only pin it on the ubiquitous and mysterious "they" — has erased all of his tapes, including the recordings of the car accident. As Terry scrambles around, putting on one tape after another, filling the room with the empty hum and hiss of blank tapes, the camera turns and turns, tracing a circle around the room to show all these machines playing back the sound of nothingness.

De Palma takes such obvious joy in these kinds of touches that it's obvious that the aesthetics are, in some ways, the real point and subject of this film. Like all of De Palma's films, this is a film that is as much about the texture and style of moviemaking as it is about anything else. There are several sequences where Terry, trying to produce a record of the car accident to prove that there was a shot fired, assembles a movie by marrying a sequence of still frames to his own soundtrack of the incident, creating a movie from these constituent parts. De Palma has taken a lineage of films about sound and images and made a film that celebrates the artistry of the movies, the ability of the cinema to deliver thrills through elements of style. The frantic, fast-paced, over-the-top chase sequence that ends the film makes this point powerfully enough, but then De Palma can't help but offer up one last bitterly ironic twist, as in the film's final moment, when a genuine expression of despair and terror is repurposed, through the magic of moviemaking techniques, as a cheap effect in a shoddy, exploitative B movie. This is perhaps De Palma's cynical joke on himself, on his own process of translating the movies of his forebears into this propulsive thriller. Blow Out may not be as sharp or as deep as the films it channels, but it's a tense, stylish, satisfying thriller in its own right.

15 comments:

DavidEhrenstein said...

Can't say Ienjoyed it as much as you did. As a giallo stylist DePalma has a lot goijg for him technically. But it works best when tied to a strong narrative and characters as in Carrie and The Fury.
While lithgow is always good, DePalma gets the best out of him in Raising Cain.

Curiously the film he's most celebrated for these days is Scarface -- a genre exercise of quite a different kind.

Nancy Allen doesn't get nearly eniough work. Ran into her recently at Book Soup where Sam Irvin was signing his teriffic Kay Thompson bio. Allen looks teriffic. (I like her best in 1941)

Ed Howard said...

I mean, I'd never say it's an amazing movie or anything, but as a slick thriller it's pretty solid. As you say, it has a lot going for it technically. Like De Palma in general.

Jeffrey Goodman said...

A wonderful piece, Ed, on one of my favorite films.

I agree with you that the visceral impact of the De Palma film separates it from both the Antonioni and Coppola works which inspired it.

I also love what you have to say about BLOW OUT's formal qualities:

"De Palma takes such obvious joy in these kinds of touches that it's obvious that the aesthetics are, in some ways, the real point and subject of this film. Like all of De Palma's films, this is a film that is as much about the texture and style of moviemaking as it is about anything else."

I completely agree with you about De Palma's concerns about form here, and personally rate this as his most spectacular formal achievement. Here's my short piece on it from earlier this year:

http://cahierspositif.blogspot.com/2010/04/1981-blow-out-brian-de-palma.html

Thanks, Ed, for another wonderful write-up. Always great and instructive to have your perspective.

J.D. said...

Excellent piece. This is definitely of my fave, if not my fave film by De Palma. While it certainly isn't on the level of BLOW UP or THE CONVERSATION, it is an exceptional piece of filmmaking in its own right and one where De Palma's style doesn't get in the way of story proper as sometimes happens with him.

It also reminds one of just how good an actor John Travolta used to be. This, and SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, really showcase his acting chops in a way that he has progressive gotten away from and Tarantino seemed to understand that when he cast him in PULP FICTION and reminded us all of how good he could be.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, Jeffrey & JD. It seems like I didn't connect to this film quite as deeply or intensely as you guys have, and I'm also not as well-versed in De Palma in general, so maybe that has something to do with it. But it's undoubtedly a fascinating and thrilling film, and probably the best De Palma I've seen so far.

I really liked Travolta's performance, too. It's not showy or overtly dramatic, but conveys this character's growing desperation in the most subtle of ways.

Adam Zanzie said...

Ed, you should read Tarantino's interview with De Palma. QT tells the man right to his face that his three favorite films of all time are Rio Bravo, Taxi Driver and Blow Out. De Palma's reaction: "Wow, quite a list. And I'm on it!"

Odly enough, as crazed of a De Palma fan as I am, I didn't immediately love Blow Out. I've had to watch it twice just to like it a little more, and I expect for my appreciation for it to grow with repeated viewings. You've heard about the rumor that Criterion might be planning a new DVD of it, right? I sort of wish they had gone for another, lesser-known De Palma title first (like Hi, Mom!, for example), but it'll be nice to have a new Blow Out DVD, I guess. The original one has no special features except a theatrical trailer. And it's out of print.

The 360 shot when Jack is scrambling for his tapes is incredible, isn't it? One reason why I've loved De Palma ever since my preteens and middle school years (back when I was obsessed with The Untouchables--moreso than I am now) is because his movies allow even the most amateured cinephile in the audience to notice that they're watching a directed film. That they're watching great filmmaking and not just a great entertainment.

Off-topic, but: have you seen Redacted, Ed? I made a lot of noise last year regarding my love for that film, and have (hehe) found few friends over it.

Ed Howard said...

Adam, that 360-degree shot really is great, probably the best shot in the film. You really feel Jack's dizziness and confusion as the camera just stoically pans around and around. I love it. As Jason said in our Aronofsky conversation, some movies just seem to loudly announce, "this was directed!" - and most of De Palma's work seems to fit into that category, which can make for some great moments like that as well as some unsubtle overkill.

I haven't seen Redacted yet. As I've said, my viewing of De Palma is pretty spotty, so I have a lot to catch up on.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Redacted is in many ways a more interesting remake of Casualties of War (a DePalma that Kael was crazy about but not me.)

Femme Fatale is a very good example of what you're talking about, Adam. Eespecially the tour de force opening scene. ike Argento, DePalma is all about scenes

A side note: DePalma is an iveterate film fan. Jonathan Rosenbaum, who only cares for a handful of his films, says that De Palma is invariably present at international film festivals, very much including those where his films aren't being shown. He REALLY keeps an eye on what's going on in world cinema in ways that match up with his contemproary, Marty.

DavidEhrenstein said...

DePalma directed THIS VIDEO of Frankie Goes To Hollywood singing "Relax" for Body Double.
I for one think it's better than the film itself.

Emmitt said...

One of my favorite movies. That 360-degree shot blew my mind when I first saw it.

I'm a sucker for movies about movies and scenes in movies where a process is methodically shown in detail (be it counterfeiting, drug making, whatever) and Blow Out happens to include both. I love that it shows Jack recording sounds that will be decontextualized and recontextualized in a sleazy slasher movie. I love that it ends with Sally's scream being used in said slasher movie. Really supports DePalma's quote about the camera lying 24 times a second.

For my money, it's also the movie that most accurately reflects the time it was made in.

Adam Zanzie said...

Yeah David, Femme Fatale is another swell example. All in all I think this decade was pretty nice for De Palma: he had two great films (Femme Fatale, Redacted) and two "flawed great films" (Mission to Mars, The Black Dahlia). That probably shows all of you how much of a fan I am!

That's cool what Jonathan Rosenbaum has said about De Palma going to a bunch of international film festivals. I'm going to Sundance in January; I realize it's not international, but I hope De Palma will make an effort to drop by.

It's true, though: Rosenbaum doesn't like De Palma much. In fact, I think the only De Palma movie Rosenbaum has ever enjoyed a heck of a lot is Snake Eyes--and precisely because with that movie, De Palma is basically making fun of himself. Then again, Rosenbaum doesn't really like ANY of the "Movie Brats": he's never been a fan of Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola and the rest of that whole gang.

Ed Howard said...

Emmitt, I love movies about movies too: the sense of self-awareness in directors who work on that meta level often makes their films thrilling and fascinating. That final scene, where the scream gets used in the cheap slasher flick, is just chilling, and one gets the sense that De Palma is being self-critical there, making a dark joke on his own use of primal emotions.

Everything I've heard about Femme Fatale makes me really want to see it. It's near the top of my Netflix queue now.

Emmitt said...

By the way, have you read John Kenneth Muir's review of the movie? He argues that Sally's death scream being used in the slasher flick is actually commentary on sexism in media. Sally is exploited by different factions throughout the movie until she finally ends up exploited by the media.

http://reflectionsonfilmandtelevision.blogspot.com/2009/08/cult-movie-review-blow-out-1981.html

DS said...

Ed, have you seen De Palma's 1976 film "Obsession?" I think it's by and far his greatest film.

Ed Howard said...

Emmitt, thanks for pointing out that review, that's a great point about the scream.

DS, no, I haven't seen Obsession. I'll add it to my list, I definitely need to see more De Palma.