Blow Out

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 8, 2015

Writer-director Brian De Palma is kind of a jerk, at least if his films are any indication. And he may occasionally aspire to decency, as a few of the films definitely demonstrate. Maybe he even gets there once in a while. Then he goes back to making things like Scarface.

That’s as much the story of Blow Out as its ostensible or explicit plot. The opening sequence is De Palma all over, all ostentatious/obnoxious camera mobility/virtuosity in the service of objectifying titillation, that inevitably turns into violence toward women. But wait. Ha-ha—this isn’t sex and murder after all, but just the attempted production of an exploitation film! Still, the naked girl’s scream shows us how faked and ridiculous this kind of thing is, or maybe how heartless and inhuman. It’s the ghost in the machine of film futurism: which is that the sick culprits might just have intimations of the striving. Okay, sound guy—go out and get us a real scream for this picture.

Now we get distracted from metatext (or pretense) for a while as we follow Mr. Travolta around on this quest. (You look at him in this film, and remember that he could have and should have been an actual movie star during all those lost years. He’s charismatic, attractive, adept, capable, in the right hands and the right circumstances, of being deeply sympathetic. But it’s so much easier to be James Caan than Tom Hanks, isn’t it? Too bad!) This is a pretty crafty move, and it’s really quite well managed, quite well maintained for quite a stretch of time.

That maintenance has a lot to do with the fact that De Palma, De Palma and his collaborators are some filmmakers! The extended sequence in which Travolta/Jack goes out to record some random sounds and then actually documents an assassination is quite spectacular. (Diopters!) The impressive thing is that the sound collecting, the devotion to and affection for craft, is just as arresting as the conflict and jeopardy that follows. It’s this versatility that allows them to actually do right by Michelangelo Antonioni (something of an empty formalist himself, and maybe something of a jerk too), his own murder film, even his frosty world view. (Blow Out very consciously and even very ostentatiously references, replicates and updates Antonioni’s Blow Up [1966]. For the clearest expression of Antonioni’s cold vision, check out him, 1960, 1961, 1962.)

It turns out the senator was with some floozy, and his handlers want to cover it up. And this Jon Lithgow character is lurking around… You can see the cruel contrivance a mile away, though the more cruel conclusion may come as a surprise, or even a shock. It’s what’s wrong, and a bit of what’s redeemable about the picture. It may be a trashy thriller, but they’re making Art too. And underneath all of that vaunting and vulgarity, there’s also the feeling that comes as a consequence of craft.

The sequence in which Travolta discovers that all of his recordings have been erased is pretty great, given that the excessive round and round of the camera actually enhances the meaning and feeling of the thing. The murder of that first woman—one-upping Hitchcock’s concept of the wrong man—is a sure-handed move toward catharsis, not only cinematically impressive (stunning, actually), but also fearsome and pitiable.

On the other hand, that murder sequence is also just sadistic. Such contradictions and inconsistencies continue as the Blow Out continues. Nancy Allen is not very effective. (That would be the director’s own then-wife being objectified and endangered here.) The Dennis Franz stuff is really unattractive, and worse, outright ineffective. There’s a place for the Lower Depths, but this is plain unpleasantness, and that unconvincingly. Like we said at the beginning of this discussion, that’s the back and forth of this movie—something admirable runs right into a more or less default jerkiness.

Forgive the strange intertext, but the climactic sting operation is very Harry Potter 5—forced and illogical and implausible, solely designed to push us into an inorganic, basically manipulated and manipulative climax. But then again, some climax! Most movies, like most people, are only sort of successful. But at the same time, or in this, they can still be sufficient, or more.

The Bicentennial/1976 stuff provides a tremendous, virtuosic gathering of the threads, and leads us to a tremendous, virtuosic plot climax. It mostly signifies as spectacle, and as an impediment for Jack trying to get to the endangered Sally. It’s a pretty successful impediment, setting us up for some parallel montage that’s as simple and as effective as D.W. Griffith’s. And maybe it leads us to a bit of a reasonable semi-insight into the relationship between blithe surfaces and the darkness that really does so often lie beneath. It certainly leads us to a terrible conclusion—he didn’t make it, and neither did she.

Here the pessimistic/nihilistic 70s thriller returns to its metatextual, Rear Window concepts about voyeurism and sadism and the real life consequences thereof. Sally’s dying screams are dreadfully affecting. But do we remember the Travolta character’s original assignment, his original quest? Well look at that. He’s succeeded after all. Sally’s dying screams are now cut into that objectifying sex film they were making way back at the beginning of this movie. At that point De Palma and the titillating torture films that he was satirizing were mutually implicated. Now, at this shattering climax and conclusion, that objectification, nakedness and humiliation just fall away. Blow Out is an unholy mess, until it ends up accomplishing real tragic heft! One life lost, another ruined, and the world spinning heedlessly on. This is a bad one. After that, in the end, this is a great one.