Blow Out is among Brian De Palma's very best films. It entertains a close relation with a very strong (and better respected) American film of the '70s, Francis Coppola's The Conversation (1974). Both these films are about the art and the act of sound recording; both are about the uncovering of conspiracies. Through The Conversation, De Palma reaches back to Michelangelo Antonioni's famous (and somewhat overrated) Blow Up (1966), where it was still photography that inadvertently uncovered a mystery.
All three films trace a sad arc of failure: the conspirators rise up and crush the would-be everyday investigators, with their cameras and sound recording machines. All are about the treachery of appearances, and the ease with which technological evidence can be tampered with (photos can be falsified, audiotapes can be erased), something which usually happens mysteriously, off-screen, in the dead of night. Finally, all three films, from the '60s to the '80s mark a certain kind of moral, or rather amoral mood. Their heroes, whether played by David Hemmings (Blow Up), Gene Hackman (The Conversation) or John Travolta (Blow Out), tend to have pretty soft, flabby, moral senses to begin with – they're cool, indifferent, cruising, sometimes repressing very effectively some past crisis or trauma. And although fate spurs all three into some daring action, they eventually take the blows of the world as some kind of sad, tragic or just matter-of-fact confirmation that no ordinary person can effect or change anything in this dirty world – so you may as well sink back into sloth, and keep drifting off to the big sleep.
De Palma is regarded by some of his non-fans as a mere copycat; copying Antonioni and Coppola in this case, mainly copying Hitchcock in the rest of his movies. Just about every key De Palma film, from Sisters (1973) and Dressed to Kill (1980) to Body Double (1984) and Raising Cain (1992), revels in Hitchcockian elements of plotting and construction and effect. Like Hitchcock, De Palma aspires to what gets called (not always wisely) pure cinema, a roller-coaster ride of image and sound, music and action events. In Blow Out, for instance, there's the trademark Vertigo (1958) element of a primal, founding trauma: sound recordist Jack Terry (Travolta) tells us in vivid flashback his backstory, in which a surveillance wire that he's planted on an undercover cop shorts out and starts burning a hole in the poor guy, causing him to be uncovered and murdered. And, a bit like James Stewart in Vertigo, Jack (in a superbly acted gesture) just stumbles away from this traumatic scene – hollowed out spiritually, numbed, after his encounter with the abyss and with the dire moral consequences of his own actions.
Yes, De Palma takes a lot of inspiration from Hitchcock. But I strongly believe De Palma's work has it's own unique character, its own force – and, especially, its own form, it's own play with cinematic and storytelling forms. Like the master Hitchcock, De Palma painstakingly constructs dramas out of key moments where something is seen or heard – or, on the contrary, is overlooked by the eye, or misheard, leading to painful or tragic consequences later. His films rope the viewer as well into this intricate, tortuous game of seeing or not seeing, seeing but not understanding, hearing but not comprehending – as, for example, in Mission: Impossible (1996).
Blow Out, more than any other of his movies, is all about splitting what characters can see from what they can hear – especially in the magnificent finale where Jack hears that his companion, Sally (Nancy Allen), is being viciously attacked, but cannot see through a crowd of people and a sky full of fireworks just where this is taking place. When seeing and hearing cannot coincide, action – taking action and changing the course of events – becomes a big problem.
But, in another way, this splitting of eye from ear liberates a kind of feverish imagination in De Palma's characters. What a wealth of florid mental images we get in his films: imagined or remembered views, hallucinations, reveries, dreams and nightmares of all sorts. And what a great moment in Blow Out when Jack, after listening to his tape recording of a car accident over and over, finally sees or conjures in his mind's eye a vision of a rifle in the bush blowing out a tyre.
In the wayward system of my filmgoing memory, I had classified Blow Out among conspiracy theory movies. (As does Jean-Baptiste Thoret in his brilliant book about the legacy of the JFK assassination in modern cinema, 26 secondes: l'Amerique éclaboussé.) But, in fact, the conspiracy in this movie is pretty simple, pretty straightforward; it doesn't reach the nightmarish levels of bottomless complexity that you get in movies like The Manchurian Candidate (1962, remade 2004) or The Parallax View (1974). De Palma skims off various potent elements from real-life conspiracy cases: a car accident involving a politician and a mysterious woman; a roll of amateur film that may or may not contain the key the mystery to whodunit. Blow Out also plays with that familiar hesitation between a vast government/underworld conspiracy and a lone madman acting out of his own crazy sense of order and efficiency. The latter option is pretty much the one that De Palma settles on, in the figure of the villainous hit-man Burke (played with immensely stylish menace by John Lithgow), an operative who decides he must 'exceed the parameters' of his mission, and to that end stages a string of serial killings.
Blow Out is not a truly complex conspiracy thriller – but it sure feels like one as you and watch and try to follow it. How does it achieve this potent, paradoxical affect, which seems so specific to cinema? It's because of the very particular way that De Palma spins his stories, always launching multiple plot threads separately, and then slowly drawing, locking them together. He is a truly a master at this form, and of all the spooky, hallucinatory affects that it can create. Watching Blow Out, I had a curious flash of a scene in a very non-De Palma-ish movie, Jean Eustache's French classic The Mother and the Whore (1973): a scene where the main character, Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud), sits in a Parisian train station restaurant and compares it to a film by the German director Wilhelm Friedrich Murnau. The station, he says, is a "locus of transitions", of multiple lives and stories threading in and out, crossing each other in specific moments and intersections. And then I realised how central train stations are to De Palma, how much he loves their possibilities as cinema. In The Untouchables (1987), with its Eisensteinian Odessa Steps type sequence, in the extraordinary finale of Carlito's Way (1993), and in a fine section of Blow Out, train stations allows this filmmaker free rein: paths and stories cross, the private and the public smash into each other (as do all manner of cops and guards, crooks and secret agents), escape routes open up or close up at every labyrinthine turn. And what possibilities for movement and sound as well, for lines of sight revealed or impaired, for bodies tensely in hiding or desperately making a last dash in plain view.
One sometimes hears the complaint about De Palma that finally, he's a rather minor director, because his films are all plots and structures and crazy camera angles and dazzling set-pieces. Consequently, there isn't much real, human drama there, no feeling for people or even for actors. De Palma is often portrayed as a mechanical kind of filmmaker, and an obsessive mechanic at that: everything in his films is excessively neat and systematic; everything goes around in circles, patterns, motifs; every tiny planted set-up detail gets its satisfying pay-off later on. Certainly, I wouldn't deny that there's a gleefully adolescent side to De Palma (just as there is to David Lynch), an adolescent, boyish side that expresses itself mainly in his comic touches, his parodies of other movies (even his own), and his fondness for side characters who are ugly nerds or ditzy bimbos.
I can see all of this in De Palma: the mad formalism, the mechanical neatness, the inane laughs. I see that there is not the relaxed breadth and depth of human types and behaviours, non-judgmentally observed, that you find in the films of Jean Renoir or Wayne Wang, André Téchiné or even Hitchcock. But I class De Palma more in a bracket with vigorous stylists like Sergio Leone, and I get the same exhilaration, the same thrill, sometimes the same poignancy and pathos from De Palma that I get from Leone.
De Palma is very fond of irony – not just in moments or scenes, but across an entire narrative and formal structure. Blow Out is constructed upon a particularly tough irony. The movie opens with a false start: a scene from a schlocky B movie that Jack is mixing the soundtrack for. This cruddy movie comes to a screeching halt when a nude woman about to be attacked by a psycho in a shower lets out a scream – and it's a really pitiful scream, completely destroying the illusion of horror and the atmosphere of suspense. So, at moments threaded throughout the story, Jack auditions various women, looking reluctantly and indifferently for that perfect scream, while the far more important real-world conspiracy unfolds around him.
De Palma loves false starts like this – a bit of a mocked-up, embedded movie-in-the-movie (Body Double also uses this device) – and he loves the ironic mirroring effects that they set in train. Every murder, every clinch of suspense, every vision of a nude woman or a serial killer that we're going to see will remind us, cheekily, of what we saw in such exaggerated form in that first scene. It's what narrative theorists call a mise en abîme, but De Palma was playing these self-reflexive games years before Wes Craven got to them in Scream (1996). But, ultimately, there's more to this particular game in Blow Out. After the whole horrific tragedy has played out, Jack will return to that B movie in the mixing suite, where he places Sally's real death scream over the fake image. There he will mutter, as he withdraws from the world and stops up his ears: "It's a good scream".
Blow Out gives me the kind of high or rush that I associate intensely with the more adventurous American films of the '80s, and with the high-wire heyday of De Palma's cinema. This feeling has a lot to do with the texture of the film: with its split-screens, its endless fascination with sound-tapes slowed down and replayed, its demonstration of how a strip of still images splutters into animated life, or how an image gets married to a sound – with all that so foregrounded, I feel like I'm right inside the guts of a film that's been itself slowed down, its mechanism jammed up, revealed, slowly resuscitated. This whole texture has its own curious sort of pathos. I remember the words of American critic Bill Krohn, who once celebrated the odd films of this period that told stories but told them weirdly: he described them as "films which display the erotic paradoxes of classical cinema (Hitchcock's cinema) and reflect its extinguished brilliance at quirky angles, and with a lunar pallor".
So there's some kind of Twilight of the Gods going down in Blow Out. Seeing it for the umpteenth time, 17 years after I first saw it on a big screen, I still feel the disquieting, apocalyptic thrill of those stars blinking out one by one.
© Adrian Martin December 1997