Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.11: Brian De Palma's Blow Out

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. April’s director is the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, Brian De Palma.

Grade: 98 (A)

Brian De Palma never reached the heights of Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, or even George Lucas. That’s what several film historians would have you believe, considering that he’s never been nominated for an Academy Award, he’s become a whipping boy in certain circles, and none of his films seem to be canonically regarded as an all-time masterpiece. It isn’t true. After the success of Dressed to Kill, De Palma got a chance to make an even more ambitious and personal film: Blow Out.

Blow Out was not the success it should have been: foolishly released in the summer of 1981, its tone clashed with the blockbusters of the day, and the film flopped financially. But Pauline Kael, the greatest of all De Palma defenders, gave Blow Out a rapturous review, comparing De Palma’s achievement to that of Robert Altman with McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Nashville, or to that of his friend Francis Ford Coppola with the first two Godfather films. It’s not an exaggeration. Blow Out is a masterpiece, one of the finest thrillers ever made, and the best film of Brian De Palma’s career.

Philadelphia: Jack Terri (John Travolta) is a sound-man for cheap, sleazy horror movies. One night, while recording sound for a new project, Jack accidentally witnesses a car plunge into the river. There are two passengers: one male, one female. Jack saves the girl, a dizzy make-up artist named Sally (Nancy Allen); the man drowns. Jack doesn’t think anything of it- it’s just an accident- until he finds out that the man was the governor of the state, and likely the next president. Jack starts to listen to the tapes, and he realizes he’s recorded an assassination. He becomes obsessed with the incident, and it seems that only Sally is on his side as he tries to tell the truth. But they’re both in danger- the assassin, a creepy professional known only as Burke (John Lithgow) has it out for both of them.

From day one of his career, De Palma was a master at pulling the rug out from under the audience’s feet and defying expectations. The film’s opening scene takes the point-of-view of a mad slasher as he stalks a group of college co-eds. It’s a shot that had been beaten to death in the wake of hundreds of Halloween knock-offs, but De Palma’s use of the shot is completely winking. The opening scenes are patently ridiculous- two girls dance in lingerie to loud funk music. Another studies…in her underwear. The killer looks in on a woman having sex with her boyfriend. The killer someone manages to get inside the sorority without us knowing how. He watches a girl masturbating. He even goes into a shower (because nobody has ever done a shower scene murder. No, of course not) to kill a particularly buxom girl. It’s all horrid, misogynistic trash, but that’s the point.

When the doomed girl screams in an unconvincing fashion, the film cuts to John Travolta’s Jack Terri as he laughs at what he’s seeing (great sarcastic line: “I’d like to think that this is our finest film”). He’s a talented sound man, but he has no illusions that he’s making anything more than garbage. De Palma tweaks his nose at the awful slasher movies of the early-80s (just as he had with Dressed to Kill), and we know what world we’re in and how down-and-out this guy is. It’s a living, but it’s a pretty crappy living. It also spells out the difference between De Palma and the De Palma/John Carpenter imitators- in the sleazy movies of the 80s, the audience is meant to side with the killer and chuckle at the deaths of the victims. De Palma is firmly on the side of the innocents.

The fake slasher film is intentionally cheap looking, but the rest of Blow Out looks absolutely gorgeous. Shot by ace cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (who shot Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and De Palma’s Obsession), the film is bathed in vibrant colors- most notably red, white and blue- and is technically astonishing. De Palma had shown his mastery of visual storytelling in past efforts like Sisters, Carrie, and Dressed to Kill, but he outdoes himself here. His use of deep focus is incredible- attentive audience members can watch as De Palma doles out information in the background while the main action happens in the foreground. Jack records a couple, who don’t take too kindly to this “peeping tom”. De Palma uses match cuts to pan out as Jack hears a noise (be it a bullfrog or a strange zipping noise) and tries to find out where it’s coming from. When Jack dives into the water to save Sally from the car, attentive viewers can see Burke running away on the bridge.

De Palma had used split-screen and split-diopter techniques before to dole out information at quick rates, but what’s remarkable about Blow Out is how he calls attention to something early in the film, almost as if to say to the audience, “Hey, pay attention, this is going to be important.” When Jack listens to the news while he cuts together a scene, it seems like background noise, but when the scene goes to split-screen and zeroes in on Governor McRyan’s campaign (and a rival politician saying “we’ll see”), it gives the information immediate relevance. Later, when Jack realizes that the car crash was no accident, the screen splits to A. his face as he realizes the implications of the sound, and B. the tire as it’s shot out, with smoke and a gunshot barely visible in the bushes.

More glorious still is De Palma’s bravura use of tracking shots. They’re impressive scenes, but they never distract from the story. One shot follows Burke as he switches out the crashed vehicle’s tire to make it look like a blown out tire. Another circles around Burke as he conspires to kill Sally and make it look like a series of killings.  One of the most overwhelming tracking shots in the history of film comes as Jack starts looking through his tapes only to find they’ve all been erased (Burke’s handiwork). Jack races around his studio as he finds that everything he has is gone and he’s going to look like a crackpot. There’s a kinetic energy and desperation to the scene as the camera swirls. The world has gone mad, and now setting it right just got harder. You can practically hear Jack’s mind melt.

De Palma works for the fourth time (after Carrie, Home Movies, and Dressed to Kill) with composer Pino Donaggio, but this time they’re not just riffing on Hitchcock. Blow Out features Donaggio’s finest score. The music covers the wide range of emotional territory of De Palma’s finest film, and of the varied Philadelphia settings- goofball “creepy” music for the cheap slasher film, exhilarating thrill-ride music for Jack’s rescue of Sally, a series of frightening themes for the murderous Burke, and driving, fun, rock and funk based music for scenes of Jack putting the pieces together or going to the rescue. The most famous piece, a love theme between Jack and Sally, has been used more recently in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (Tarantino has gone on the record to call Blow Out one of his all-time favorite films), but its original context is the most moving. The theme is at once sweet, sad, and longing, with a strong sense of swooning romanticism and a hint of tragedy that grows more pronounced as the emotional climax approaches.

Watching John Travolta’s career high-points (Saturday Night Fever, Carrie, Grease, Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty), it’s dispiriting to see all of the blown chances and big duds (Battlefield Earth, anyone?). He hasn’t been in a good film in ages. Watch Blow Out, however, and the feeling hits after the film is finished (the actual viewing is too gripping): this guy really blew it. In her review, Pauline Kael compared his “physical sensitivity” to Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. The comparison is apt, and it only makes his subsequent career more depressing. He could have been one of the all-time greats.

Travolta’s disappointing career aside, Blow Out features career-best work from him. Jack is perhaps the most complicated character in De Palma’s oevre- an intelligent man slumming in his career, a charming rogue who captures something important, and a professional wracked with guilt. Travolta brings a specificity to his physical movements (he looks like he really knows his way around the sound board) and a world-weary emotional maturity beyond his years. He has no pride in the sexist films he puts together (Jack and De Palma have a better sympathy and understanding for women than people give them credit).

Jack’s story features perhaps the best manifestation of De Palma’s exploration of guilt- we see a flashback when Jack worked for the police. His carelessness got a good man killed, and he can’t move on. Now, he gets a second chance (like Cliff Robertson in Obsession, but more effective) to do right. When he races to save Sally at the end of the film, the stakes are at their highest- he can’t let another innocent person die. This plotline is clearly taken from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, but while Jack and Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul shared a sense of Catholic guilt, the stakes are even higher here: this is a woman Jack loves.

Nancy Allen’s final film with her then-husband De Palma is her finest work. Allen is one of the most underrated actresses in all of cinema- her work in Carrie, Dressed to Kill, and even the unsuccessful Home Movies shows an unrecognized talent. She was always at her finest across from Travolta, however (as in Carrie), and with Blow Out the chemistry between the two is at once sweet and wistful. She’s another lost soul- an apparently ditzy Philadelphia girl (terrific accent) with a guilty conscience over McRyan’s death and shame over how she’s been forced to make a living: getting paid to sleep with powerful men in order for her partner (a wonderfully sleazy Dennis Franz) to get pictures. Franz’ character has no shame over what he’s done, but Sally is a good person. She tries to ignore the implications of her deeds, but she’s pared with an intelligent and moral man in Jack, and the two known that something has to be done. De Palma never judges her choices- she did what she had to do, and now comes her chance to make right.

 De Palma always knew how to evoke the feelings of his locations, be they the seediest sides of New York (Greetings, Hi, Mom!, Dressed to Kill) or suburban California (Carrie). His choice of his hometown of Philadelphia for Blow Out has a greater purpose than exploring another seedy location, however- this is the birthplace of America. De Palma’s political convictions were always at least in the background of his thrillers, but with Blow Out he creates a bracing political thriller and satire. The man who would be president has been killed, but what really happened (the fact that authorities deny there was a girl there in order to preserve McRyan’s memory, the whole conspiracy bit) doesn’t seem to matter. The cops aren’t interested, McRyan’s associates just want to put it behind them, and his rivals want to sweep justice under the rug. Nobody wants to know the truth, so Jack and Sally have to bring it to the world. There’s several political connections here, from an assassination shrouded in mystery and conspiracy theories (JFK’s assassination) to recordings and shady cover-ups (Watergate) to a car crash with horrifying implications (the Chappaquiddick incident). De Palma never spells these connections out, nor does he tell the viewer what to think. It’s up for us to decide.

The paranoid Watergate feeling carries over from The Conversation, but De Palma gets a lot of mileage out of Burke, an assassin whose meticulous nature is an antiseptic, calculating contrast to Jack’s film technique- one uses his skills to bring clarity, the other to obscure. Lithgow brings a nerve-jangling coldness to Burke, a man seemingly without political convictions- only a sense of purpose. He’s the ultimate hired gun of political thrillers (see: Jackal of The Day of the Jackal, Joubert of Three Days of the Condor). His mission is clear, to him at least: cause a crack-up with McRyan (he had always wanted to kill the man when his superiors just wanted a sex scandal), make the witness look like a crackpot, and “terminate” the survivor (unremorseful, cold language there). He doesn’t want to make it look conspicuous, so he decides to kill several women who look like Sally in order to make her look like the unfortunate final victim rather than a primary target. It’s a monstrous, -blackly comic (we’re talking pitch-black) look at how professional men ostensibly “working for the country” (leftover Nixon-era criticism) sever the loose ends to their botched jobs. It’s not enough to scare Sally away. She’s got to go.

As with any De Palma film, voyeurism comes to the fray, here in the most horrifying sense. The slasher film scene shows an inherent thrill of watching someone, but Jack’s voyeurism is all either A. unintentional (the car crash), or B. in order to keep someone safe. When we see the world through Jack’s eyes (or hear the world through Jack’s ears), we’re forced to put things together with Jack. When a flashback shows Jack’s failed attempt to keep a cop safe, we feel his helplessness. Later, when Jack tries to keep Sally safe by making her wear a wire, there’s a feeling of trying to make things right this time- he can watch her and save her from peril. But there’s only so much a voyeur can do. Similarly, when the film takes Burke’s perspective, there’s nothing the audience can do to stop his killings. We’re in on his cover-up and his murders, and it’s all horrifying. But all we can do is watch. When Sally casually tosses-off the line “I don’t like being observed” in the beginning of the film, it shows the flipside- it might be a thrill to watch, but being watched is terrifying.

De Palma’s ongoing fascination with the filmmaking process reaches its culmination in Blow Out. He gives a meticulous virtual how-to on the editing process as Jack puts the sound of a film together. There’s an inherent artificiality to all of it- Jack’s syncing his sound with pictures of the accident that he didn’t take- but it’s thrilling nonetheless. Jack’s not the only character with film on the mind- Sally wants to do make-up for the movies, Jack works for a shitty horror movie director, and Sally’s photographer friend Manny took a Zapruder Film-like document of the crash. Jack and Sally gradually learn that focusing on the details of a film doesn’t clear anything up- it makes everything seem fuzzier and out of focus, and as obsession takes over, rational thinking loses its grip. But it’s intoxicating nonetheless. De Palma’s early slasher movie footage shows the inherent artificiality of the film- he calls attention to the fakeness of Blow Out in a Brechtian sense. But even if it isn’t real, it’s hard not to get caught up in it.

Caught up in film is what De Palma has been his whole life, and Blow Out shows him paying tribute to his various influences over the years in a grand fashion. He uses Hitchcockian suspense to great effect while knocking imitators in the fake slasher film. He documents the seedy side of Philadelphia like Martin Scorsese did with New York in Taxi Driver. He features a gripping, tense car chase that mimics William Friedkin’s The French Connection. His fascination with film and his bold use of colors echoes Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (another voyeuristic movie). Most notably, De Palma synthesizes the plots of two influences- Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (in which a photographer accidentally witnesses a murder) and Francis Ford Coppola’s intensely political The Conversation (in which a sound man with a guilty conscience realizes he may have doomed a young couple). The first film was about sight, the second about sound. Sight and sound equals the movies.

SPOILERS TO THE END: Blow Out is filled with bravura set-pieces, but the final twenty minutes are as devastating as any sequence in any movie. Jack and Sally are to meet a reporter (actually Burke) with the original footage of the assassination (which Sally obtained earlier). Jack wires Sally up so he can follow her and keep her safe, but Burke is on to them. Jack (and, by proxy, the audience) realizes that Sally is in danger before she does, but he loses track of them. Jack races across the city to find them while triumphant, driving music gives off a sense of heroism. But it’s a false sense. Burke disposes of the evidence as Sally finally sees the trouble she’s in. Sally’s screams are covered by Philadelphia’s Liberty Parade (alluded to earlier), which is full of spectators, music, and marchers. Jack can hear Sally’s screams, but he can’t do anything. It isn’t until Sally reaches out towards the crowd, screaming for help, that Jack notices her (as an American Flag looms on the building behind her).

The tragic theme strikes up as Jack races to save Sally. De Palma switches to an agonizing slow motion tracking shot as the festivities mask the horror happening not far from the parade. Jack kills Burke…but it’s too late. Once again, Jack was helpless to save an innocent person, and this time it’s someone he loves. Jack cradles Sally’s lifeless body as the parade reaches its peak. In a bitter irony, the American public celebrates, blissfully unaware of the tragedy, conspiracy, and lies that surround them as a the implications of the deaths of a high-ranking politician and an innocent woman remain unknown. Fireworks explode behind Jack and Sally. They’re bathed in red, white, and blue light. The crowd cheers.

Had the film ended here, Blow Out would already be the high-ranking tragedy in De Palma’s oeuvre. But the film goes on a few beats longer, extending the tragedy to the film subplot. We see Jack on a park bench, haunted by ghosts of the past (in a shot that recalls Al Pacino in the final moments of The Godfather Part II). He listens to the tape of Sally’s screams. The film backtracks slightly to Jack editing the sound of the tapes- he’s now dubbed Sally’s screams in his cheap horror film. De Palma’s movie has gone full circle, and now there’s something real in the fake, trashy films he makes. But Jack is the only one who will ever know that it’s more than just a “good scream”, and in the film’s final freeze frame, he covers his ears. He cannot listen anymore.

With Blow Out, De Palma reached his creative peak. He would make great films in the future, but few films in any director’s filmography are as resonant with thrills, satire, film love, and tragedy as Blow Out. It’s a film about how reality and artificiality can blur, how America leaves innocent people to die and be forgotten, and how a film can affect someone without featuring “real” people. If there’s another thriller that consciously explores the wide range of emotions of celluloid as effectively, it’s difficult to recall it.


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