Monday, December 2, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #232 - Blow Out (1981, dir. Brian De Palma)

Back in 1981, director Brian De Palma followed up his hit thriller Dressed To Kill with something darker and grimmer, gave John Travolta his best on screen role ever (that's right, ever), took a none-too-unbelievable look at American politics, and created his finest film. That film is 1981’s Blow Out, and despite critical acclaim at the time of its release, it was a box office failure, probably in large part due to the film’s bleak outlook - and probably also, as Nancy Allen suggests in the bonus materials contained in the Criterion release of the film, that an intellectual, personal, and political work was released and expected to compete in summer blockbuster season, rather than in the fall, when “critics’ films” tend to come out. But time has been kind to the film, and it's shown itself to be among the smartest and best-made of the run of 1970s political thrillers. It might help that it actually came after the end of the 70s, with Watergate and its aftermath in the rear-view mirror, rather than being released in the thick of it when everything was still unfolding; the kind of behind-the-scenes machinations that power Blow Out no longer seemed like far-fetched paranoia.
The film starts out as a cheesy horror flick, quickly revealed to be a screening of Co-Ed Frenzy, a low-budget slasher film-within-the-film for which cop-turned-soundman Jack Terry (John Travolta) needs to record new sound effects (and which provides a running joke that turns gut-wrenching in the film’s final moments). Out at night recording, he hears (and records) a blow out and sees a car careen off a bridge and plunge underwater. Diving in to save the woman inside, Sally (Nancy Allen), he becomes embroiled in a plot to derail the upcoming presidential election, but due to the constant movement of the shadowy antagonist Burke (John Lithgow) he finds it difficult to convince others that a conspiracy may be afoot.
The film is De Palma's finest - the place where his thematic ideas about voyeurism and watching (and here, listening) and systemic violence perpetrated against women mesh with his virtuoso filmmaking in a dazzling array of traveling Steadicam work, split screen, slo-mo, 360 degree pans, and other effects that all heighten and work in service of the story being told, rather than merely drawing attention to themselves. And beyond his famous camerawork, the sound design of the film is marvelous - as befits a movie about a soundman - with the visuals we see and the sounds that accompany them often providing an ironic complement or counterpoint. Even in the seemingly innocuous opening credits sequence where Jack is cataloging his stock effects - gunshots, glass breaking, a body falling to the ground, and so forth - these are played over a split screen montage of a TV broadcast of an event for a presidential hopeful whose car is, unbeknownst to him, about to end up at the bottom of a river, and the entire sequence conveys a lot more than the names of the crew. And later in the film, the disparity between TV news reportage and events we've seen firsthand always provides a chuckle.
And as fine as Travolta is in the film, he's matched scene for scene by Nancy Allen, who as Sally attempts to control her own destiny only to be swept away by forces beyond her control, and those of Travolta’s attempts to protect her. And it would be a disservice to not tip the hat to De Palma regular John Lithgow, whose chameleon-like bow as the villainous Burke keeps the film's seemingly implausible menace feeling very real indeed, or to another De Palma fave Dennis Franz, perfectly sleazy as photographer Manny Karp.
If the film were merely a clever thriller, it would be enough to recommend it, but it's more than that, refracting recent political history - Watergate and Chappaquiddick particularly - through De Palma's ideas to arrive at a fully integrated - dare I say it? - work of art. The film looks at sordid post-Watergate closed-door dealings, with the subsequent mistrust of government coloring the cynical proceedings in a film that endlessly looks outward to the modern political landscape and reflects it darkly back on itself. One wonders what sort of grim thriller could be made out of the raw material of today’s political events.
- Patrick Brown

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