Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Blow Out. (1981) Brian De Palma

I'm an audio kinda guy. Always have been. From the time I was sixteen rocking metal for Mr. Jesus; to eighteen going solo with a four-track recorder (and likely a mirror, Narcissist Little Me); to a mid-twenties tormented artiste with Swedish buddies and copious amounts of two-inch tape; to my current love of digital surround sound and the iPod on which I groove, I marvel at the possibilities of Time and Sound in a captivated sensorial type of way.

I once wrote a fifteen page college paper, probably after reading way too much John Cage, on my theory of dimensional black holes lying in-between the notes we actually hear. Diagrams and dimensions and everything. Figure 1-A between G and G-sharp. The paper got an A, with one word from the prof on the cover of my report: "Brilliant!"

I guess I tricked good ol' Professor Brubaker. With that kind of ability, perhaps I should have stayed in school.

I wrote and toured my own songs but also worked in sound solely for others, and I remain fascinated by everything from the chord structures and rhythmic stylings of Radiohead and Blonde Redhead, to the vocalizations of Bon Iver and Iron & Wine, to the layered synth meanderings of Mates of State and The Knife, to the unzipped-pants-rawk of the somewhat spiritually downtrodden Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Starflyer 59.

I was destined to, at the very least, appreciate Blow Out, a film that is essentially about sound. It's about an audio guy with a political conspiracy on his hands and proof of the Reality on tape. (Those who visit here often enough also know I have a thing for Reality. Capital "R.")

I was destined to appreciate this film.


For a film about sound, it sure has some crappy sounds in it. There are some awfully dated moments when background filler sounds like early 80s Spirogyra, a schmaltz-like fusion with half-distorted guitar licks sprung out of 70's-era porn.

And, it's a lot to wade through to get to those final mesmerizing fifteen minutes of pure pop movie bliss. Sure, the ending is killer. But there's a lot of filler to get to the killer.

I don't really get why this is the De Palma film everyone seems to love. It's -- eeh, it's OK. As I've noted in all my De Palma adventures over the course of the past few weeks, the cinematographic style is in moments as self-aware as it is astounding; certain shots are a visual feast. One in particular that stands out spins our eyes around a room where John Travolta discovers all his tapes have been altered. He frantically tears through tape after tape that he's backed up from an original, only to find all of his tapes mysteriously erased. But we only see him poking in and out of frame in his maddening hunt. The camera continually spins in 360 showing us the room, the blanked-out evidence, with Travolta caught in the chaos of his loss and the sounds of all the tape machines, each having been erased with a different mechanical sound. Stylistically, the shot is a great choice, but it ends with a greater exclamation point. We cut to an edit from above, a God's Eye on Travolta, looking down on a defeated man exiting the room, the tapes still playing blanked-out white noise, tape and audio equipment all over the floor.

Travolta as sound man Jack Terry is actually pretty good, and in moments, his sidekick Sally (Nancy Allen with a voice like a feminine abrasive) brings a nice chemistry to their scenes together. They met when he saved her, nearly drowned after the car she was in had a tire blown out and was thrown from a bridge; we learn as we go that a presidential candidate was also in the car with Sally. The tire was no accident, there are tapes with a shot ringing out. The candidate is dead. Sally and Jack could be next.

But are these real characters, like Roger Ebert wrote in his four-star 1981 review? Or are they, to borrow a phrase from a recent article in cineaction, animated simulacra, characters which seem real but serve the simpler purpose of advancing a film's trajectory?

In terms of story, the trajectory feels to me kind of like a dot. Once the blow out takes place, probably around twenty minutes in, it's mostly the same story from there to the end of the film. Little surprise happens. No big reveals. The conspiracy theory at the heart of the story is fun, but by today's conspiracy theory standards, it's actually a little bit tame.

What may save a good portion of the film in my mind is that I love the idea of conspiracy in and of itself. I'm inclined to believe that the media is its own message, and the message is often false. I thoroughly enjoy the stuff of juicy unknowns: the Zapruder tape, the 9/11 documentaries, secret societies and the X-Files. I am certain there's always more going on behind the scenes than we know, and at its best, Blow Out shows exactly how a political cover-up might take place in real time. In that aspect the film is golden.

But once again, even though Travolta is decent in this role, I find myself watching a De Palma film where characters are suffering from under-exposure. Not that we don't see them enough, but they're used so much in advancing the plot that we never know them enough to care about their lives. De Palma, ever masterful on the visual level, injects an incredible amount of style into the film - just not enough to trick me into believing that his style is his substance.


  1. "But once again, even though Travolta is decent in this role, I find myself watching a De Palma film where characters are suffering from under-exposure. Not that we don't see them enough, but they're used so much in advancing the plot that we never know them enough to care about their lives."

    This is where we depart on the film. BLOW OUT is one of the few De Palma films where I do, in fact, find myself caring deeply about the characters.

  2. Which characters? I guess it would only be Sally and Jack. I can't see it. What is it that makes you care?

    I did admit that there's a small bit of chemistry there, and I think it is easily seen in the diner before he convinces her not to leave when he tells the story of how he failed in the police, and later in the car before he wires her to go out and meet the "reporter."

  3. "What is it that makes you care?"

    Their humanity, which is very nicely given very casual presentation by De Palma. No showboating here, just quiet, subtle displays of character. The scene with Sally, groggy in the hospital, is just splendid. So sweet, so touching. And so many of their later interactions have that same quality. It is the tenderness of their relationship that lends the film its interest, and grants the ending its gut-wrenching power.

  4. You know, I can at least understand that point of view. I agree about the scene in the hospital. But Sally's voice -- Nancy's Allen's grating, whiney-ass voice -- really disrupts a lot of that mood for me, causing me to not like the character nor most of her interactions with other characters.

  5. I enjoyed your review. This is a film about toward which I was lukewarm when I first saw it, and I grew even colder when I finally saw Blow-Up; repeat viewings of The Conversation have also diminished its appeal. I seem to recall feeling that the whole story was a bit convenient. I like the idea of an Everyman butting up against a high-level conspiracy, but it seemed like I could see De Palma pulling the strings as this random sound guy got *so close* to uncovering the whole thing... and then is slapped down as hard as possible. The scope of the tragedy was well-realized, and I appreciated the smoothness of De Palma's style, but the narrative was still clunky. Coppola and Antonioni dealt with that difficulty by emphasizing the elements that get in the way of an Everyman's quest; they were character pieces with moral centers. This one is also a morality tale, but it's so conventional that it's almost like De Palma can't conceive of an American tragedy outside the structure of a very regimented set of conventions. I'm still not sure that's what the problem is, but something about the whole exercise just felt a little off. I like how you characterize the story as a dot. The whole thing is lockstep precision, wholly expected, right up until that climax, which could go either way (but goes the way you don't want it to... which is totally appropriate). There's little advancement that doesn't feel obligatory.

    One of the best favorable analyses I've read on the film is by Bryant Frazer: http://www.filmfreakcentral.net/dvdreviews/blowout.htm. It has convinced me that I should at least give the film another look. But I suspect that my reconsidered conclusion won't differ much from yours.

  6. Thanks for the thoughts, Matt! And thanks for the link to Frazer's review. I'll be checking that out for sure. I'm more interested in checking out a positive review since I know Ryan likes this one, but we don't always see eye to eye. (In fact, it is rare, but I love the guy, and when we're "on," we're really "on".)

    Sadly, I have yet to see both Blow Up and The Conversation. People have told me to see them for years, especially The Conversation, as it was a part of a previous film board discussion on 70s films. I suppose I should get to those sometime this year, especially in light of some of your thoughts regarding Blow Out.

  7. The Conversation is a reworking of Blow-Up, and Blow Out is a remake of The Conversation. They're all very distinct films by auteurs with distinct visions, and if nothing else, I think Blow Out is more fascinating to see how far from an original vision someone can take a concept. Movies like that justify the tradition of remakes, in my opinion. Even if I'm not a fan of Blow Out, I at least respect De Palma's craft enough not to dismiss it as a studio cash grab. I hope you do check those other two films out. They're both favorites of mine.

  8. I will check them out and blog them here, when I get finished with June Lite.

    ... But at the rate I'm going, I might still be doing June Lite in September! ;)


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