Friday, May 10, 2013

Blow Out (1981)

USA, 107 minutes
Director: Brian De Palma
Writers: Brian De Palma, Bill Mesce Jr.
Photography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Music: Pino Donaggio
Editor: Paul Hirsch
Cast: John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz, Peter Boyden, Curt May, Deborah Everton

Brian De Palma is not shy about naming the root sources of this great paranoid political thriller in the interview with Noah Baumbach that's on the Criterion DVD, and they are the obvious ones: Antonioni's Blow-Up, Coppola's The Conversation, and, more generally, media treatment of the JFK assassination, energized by De Palma's own evident personal obsessions. Actually, the first root source is probably his own movie of the previous year, Dressed to Kill, which also cast Nancy Allen and Dennis Franz in key roles, is also a self-consciously derivative sexxee thriller, and incidentally made a surprise hit. De Palma says he intended Blow Out to be a small film but when John Travolta expressed interest it soon became big.

It's true the narrative gets rickety if you think about it, but Blow Out is so calculatedly cinematic (the De Palma touch) that, once engaged, its powers are practically irresistible. It opens on a scene from an ultra-low-budget slasher, famously one of the earliest and still most effective uses of steadicam technology. It's also one of the great trick openings to any movie, and a complicated set piece in its own right, with a dormitory at night, a knife-wielding maniac lurking outside the windows (also a random peeping Tom), while inside hot college coeds are dancing, squabbling, masturbating, having sex, walking around in their underwear past doors labeled "Shower," etc.

Thus the hook is set. John Travolta plays Jack Terry, a techno geek in Philadelphia trying to make it as a sound guy in the movies. He's on a mission at night to collect new sound effects. (Another great trick of this movie is giving away one of the great tricks of making movies, which is sound effects.) With his tape recorder running in a satchel slung over his shoulder, wielding a shotgun mike, Terry stands in a park at night collecting sounds, whatever is available. It is a beautiful sequence: clicking from a frog, a pair of murmuring lovers strolling by, an owl. Eventually, that night, Terry records an auto accident that is actually a political assassination, which sets the narrative in motion proper.

From the brief, terrific titles to the use of split screen to the many complicated sequences involving long takes, a moving camera, and many people, De Palma appears to be always in full control of a creative set of tools. In the Criterion interview, in fact, he makes it clear how much control he attempts to assert over every scene in every picture—and also how difficult and frustrating the enterprise can be to actually accomplish anything. When he and Baumbach talk about the impossibility of shooting schedules the conversation is at its most insidery interesting.

Just so, perhaps, Blow Out is at its most watchable and interesting for me when it discloses plain cinematic construction technique. There's a great long sequence where Terry is assembling frames from a film of the assassination printed in a magazine (yes, and from a magazine printed the next day, it appears there was a good deal of credibility and ignorance about these things in the wake of the Zapruder film, but never mind) and synching them to his recording. Watching him in his studio assemble and work the pieces until he has produced a scant few seconds of pure magic—well, that is magic itself, and additionally feels like discovery.

There are a good many points about Blow Out worth savoring. The screenplay generally takes a downbeat trajectory, which hurt it at the box office and in the opinion of many, but delivers a good many payoffs along the way, including one of the most cruelly satisfying primary narrative arcs ever in Terry's search for a chilling female scream. De Palma uses a lot of split diopter shots, which, I have learned, are more or less split screens with an invisible line, with one half depicting a close-up and the other half a much longer shot, both in crisp focus, which produces an unsettling effect.

The villain Burke, played by John Lithgow, is one of the screenplay's best inventions, and actually quite comic. Lithgow really puts him over, with probably the best performance in the picture. Burke is some kind of rogue black ops agent, methodical, efficient, and wildly over-talented. "I do admit I had to exceed the parameters of my authority somewhat but I always stayed within an acceptable margin of error," he reports in to the panicked political operatives who hired him, shortly after the mayhem has begun. "I've decided to terminate [the girl] and make it look like one of a series of sex killings in the area."

Burke also enters Terry's office off-camera and erases all of the tapes in Terry's library, which produces an epic scene as Terry discovers this, rummaging in an increasing rage through his stacks. The camera is planted in the center of the room and slowly, slowly wheeling around and around, which only enhances the dizzying mood of futility and doom. Blow Out is always, in the end, pointed toward doom. It is an overheated fantasy, but continually seems to find another way to string you along. It is intentionally, deeply derivative—the title alone makes clear no one is trying to kid anyone here or say anything simple about originality. At the same time, it works always on the level of a thriller, managing to make so much hinge on scraps of celluloid and audio tape.

For something intended to be a small movie, it reaches some impressive operatic heights, particularly the climax, and of course the coda, at which De Palma does seem to be very good. The soundtrack from Pino Donaggio is outstanding. I haven't really registered the name before and he's as responsible as any for his share of the memorable moments here. As is cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, and Lithgow, and John Travolta and Nancy Allen are serviceable enough. It is one of the happy movies by Brian De Palma—bleak trajectory notwithstanding—in which more often than not his experiments and risks have paid off. It's a nifty little thriller and a whole lot more.

Top 10 of 1981
I believe this is widely considered one of the worst years in movie history by consensus, right? I know the Raiders franchise and, more widely, the slasher genre both have certain affinities for 1981 (which I don't particularly share), but otherwise not much going on. Though certainly some bright spots. I love the first four with all my heart, and after that it's at least very good. At any rate, once again I had a hard time picking out five titles I truly dislike; this time it's Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains and Pennies From Heaven that must suffer the damnation of faint praise simply for the vanity of symmetry in these lists of five. They aren't bad!
1. Blow Out
2. Gregory's Girl
3. The Evil Dead
4. The Road Warrior
5. Diva
6. Smash Palace
7. The Howling
8. Lola
9. This Is Elvis
10. Prince of the City

Didn't like so much: Chariots of Fire; Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains; Pennies From Heaven; Raiders of the Lost Ark; Reds

Gaps: Das Boot, Cutter's Way, Mephisto, Modern Romance, On Golden Pond


  1. Not sure you count miniseries in these enterprises, but Brideshead Revisited has become one of my favorites from '81. Also a huge fan of My Dinner with Andre which would be my #1. Notice you did include it in the top 10, "didn't like so much", or gaps category. Does it just skim in the 11-20 range?

  2. I don't know BR at all but just added to my queue. Looks interesting. I probably need to see Andre again -- I liked it at the time, and have heard from people who are quite wild about it. I suspect it improves -- I know I just like Shawn in almost everything. So yeah, ultimately ranked 19 for '81 and the 11-19 goes: Coup de Torchon, Thief, Gallipoli, Body Heat, Scanners, Time Bandits, My Dinner With Andre, The French Lieutenant's Woman, Pixote.