Friday, August 21, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Blow Out (1981)

"Well, the box-office failure of "Blow Out" was, I think, a tragedy for De Palma and for John Travolta -- it's just about the best work each of them has ever done. But it probably served as a warning to some of the people who might have wanted to do something politically sophisticated. It's as if people get penalized for sophistication."

- Pauline Kael, on
Blow Out (1981)

If -- as Brian De Palma has famously stated -- "the camera lies 24 times a second," then how often, we must wonder, do politicians lie?

And if our national leaders lie about important things -- like life and death -- then, in some fashion, is American liberty itself...a lie? If the history we all know and learn in school is merely "comfortable" fiction, then what do all our glorious symbols (like Old Glory and the Liberty Bell) and slogans (like Patrick Henry's "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death") really signify?

In blistering, paranoid fashion, Brian De Palma's Blow Out (1981) delves deeply into this frightening conundrum. Indeed, this cerebral, Reagan-age thriller starring John Travolta and Nancy Allen focuses on a political conspiracy that stabs at the very heart of the Great American Experiment, and at the heart of American democracy itself. It depicts a country in which holding on to power is paramount, truth is irrelevant, and justice is just another loaded word.

De Palma's caustic, blunt film makes clever use of real life, historical national conspiracies and cover-ups, including the JFK assassination, the Chappaquiddick incident, and Watergate in order to spin a tale of America the Corrupt, America the Fallen, and most certainly not America the Great, post-Camelot. Intriguingly, Blow Out makes this case by focusing on the technological medium of film itself -- particularly a fictional surrogate for the Zapruder film -- as Entrenched Power's vehicle for selling "The Big Lie."

Though a dramatic failure at the box office, Blow Out remains, perhaps, Brian De Palma's most successful film in terms of critical approbation. Roger Ebert noted in his 1981 review that "this movie is inhabited by a real cinematic intelligence," and that "
De Palma is more successful than ever before at populating his plot with three-dimensional characters." The late Kael, of course, lauded the film as "a great movie" in her famous New Yorker review entitled "Portrait of the Artist As A Young Gadgeteer."

With De Palma -- an incomparably skilled filmmaker who operates in several modes and genres successfully (mainstream, thriller, crime, war...) -- it's difficult to pick favorites or select one "best film" from among so many triumphs. Yet Blow Out represents something of a consensus favorite: an unimpeachable thriller rich in homage to film tradition (in this case to the canon of Michelangelo Antonioni). It's also gorgeously self-reflexive, focusing on the manipulative power of movies by taking us -- literally -- through the building blocks of film production.

And finally, Blow Out also boasts a heavily ironic use of powerful images, particularly iconic symbols of Americana. Thus the visuals brilliantly reflect and augment the film's paranoid content. Also, the ending here is particularly unforgettable: haunting, bitter and nihilistic.

The Biggest Thing Since The Zapruder Film

Blow Out is the tale of a sound expert named Jack Terri (John Travolta). Following a tragic incident in his past working for law enforcement (on the Kean Commission), Jack has retreated to crafting sound-effects for sleazy, low-rent slasher films, like his current project "Co-ed Frenzy."

Unluckily for Jack, even that job isn't going so well. He just can't find the "Perfect Scream" to accompany a shower scene murder in the horror movie. His temperamental director wants other original sounds too, because he's grown tired of library effects and "canned" material.

To appease the filmmaker, an intrepid Jack heads out by night to a remote country road and records with his microphone several new sounds: an owl hooting; a frog's call, even the night wind rustling leaves in the trees.

But then, suddenly, Jack records something sinister: the sound of a terrible car "accident." Appearing as if out of nowhere, a car races off the unlit road, into a deep creek. In seconds, it sinks beneath the placid sruface. Jack rescues one passenger, a floozy named Sally (Nancy Allen), but the driver inside the car drowns.

That dead driver turns out to be Governor McRyan, an up-and-coming politician who was about to announce his candidacy for President of the United States. All the national polls suggested that if McRyan ran for high office, he would easily unseat the current, unpopular President. If this were but a simple accident, McRyan's fate surely would be considered tragic.

But there's more to this incident than meets the eye (or ear). While listening to his sound recordings, Jack hears a very distinct gun shot precede a tire blow-out...meaning that this "accident" was actually a political assassination. Unfortunately for Jack, the authorities are not even mildly interested in this "truth." The police cover-up Sally's presence in the car that night, and fail to check the car's blown-out tire for signs of a bullet strike. Even as Jack begins to build a story of what actually occurred that terrible night by using a film of the accident photographed by the sleazy Manny Karp (Dennis Franz), officials begin to erase the real story from history. Better to settle for a comfortable lie, than expose a dangerous truth.

And worse, the villainous assassin, Burke (John Lithgow) is still nearby, cleaning up loose ends in homicidal fashion. As the Liberty Day Jubilee approaches in the Philadelphia, Jack enlists Sally to help him seek out the truth behind the conspiracy, unaware that Burke is also stalking her...killing lookalike women so that her eventual murder will be ruled part of a serial killer's psychotic pattern, not a "hit" in a far-ranging political conspiracy.

I Don't Watch The News. It's Too Depressing

Like all great art, Blow Out reflects the time period in which it was crafted. Writing for Slant Magazine in 2006, critic Paul Schrodt provides some of that historical context in his review:

"America had fallen into a deep funk by 1981—the year of Blow Out's release and Ronald Reagan's presidential inauguration. Still hung over from the Vietnam War and dealing with inflation on the brink of recession, the public's election of Reagan, on a platform of optimism, suggested a desire to move on and leave the past behind.

De Palma, as anti-establishment as ever, suggests this in itself is another lie. When Jack Terry (John Travolta) inadvertently records the assassination of a presidential candidate, everyone politely asks him to leave his conspiracy to himself. But he can't let it go....Everyone else would like to believe it was just "a freak accident," so the nation can quickly heal again. (Maybe De Palma was prescient: Five years later Reagan would secretly and illegally sell arms to Iran in order to free U.S. troops, only to then deny he ever knew about the deal, retaining his bright image.)"

In other words, what candidate Reagan was "selling" the electorate in 1980s was a "new morning in America" (post Carter-malaise) when, in fact, nothing really changed at all. As I wrote in my review of Body Double, Ronald Reagan was the all-time champion of image-making, an affable Hollywood actor skilled at saying one thing and doing another thing all together. In his inauguration, Reagan stated boldly that "Government is the problem," but during his two terms, Reagan actually grew the government dramatically. Reagan's sunny demeanor also involved a "New Patriotism," and "New Confidence" in America and its institutions, and that 1980s trend is the very image that De Palma repeatedly and successfully undercuts in Blow Out. The film is dominated by stirring images of America and American patriotism...but these images are the background for horrible, monstrous events. The symbols of American freedom are mocked, because in this setting, they are empty representations.

For instance, the finale of Blow Out is set against the backdrop of "The Liberty Bell Jubilee," the first instance in a century that the Liberty Bell has been rung. All too quickly, this patriotic parade and celebration of American history becomes an opportunity for the psychotic Burke (Lithgow) to stalk and murder Sally.

Ironically, this vicious killer views himself as a patriot, and it is strongly implied that he serves at the pleasure of the President (the man, ultimately, who would benefit from the death of McRyan). How do we know? Well for starters, Burke wears a Jubilee Button that reads "I Love Liberty" throughout the film's final sequence. It's not difficult to extrapolate that Burke is a fictionalized version of zealous, right-wing thugs such as G. Gordon Liddy, the enthusiastic criminal who was convicted for conspiracy, burglary and illegal wiretapping for his supervisory role as a Watergate "plumber" during the Nixon Era.

Liddy's mission was to keep Nixon in office, and Burke serves the same function in this fictional tale, offing the President's competition before he can prove dangerous to political continuity. Again, in real life, Giddy (who served eight years in prison for his crimes), also considered murder (of Jack Anderson) -- at least according to his own autobiography -- to preserve Nixon's hold on power. (Liddy, G Gordon, Will. St. Martins Press., 1996) pp. 208–211.

At the conclusion of Blow Out, Burke drags Sally up the steps of a grand building as glorious fireworks explode in the heavens above. Then, he strangles her to death against the backdrop of a colossal American flag.

There can be no question about the significance of these particular images. As Sally dies before Old Glory, the red, white and blue lights of the fireworks suddenly turn lurid, sleazy and ugly...soiled by those who kill in America's name. By positioning Sally's death against these powerful and patriotic symbols, De Palma successfully makes the point that the "reality" of America is very different from the glorious imagery that dominates her landscape, and inspires such fervent nationalism.

In attempting to rescue Sally, Jack accidentally runs his jeep into a storefront window that is decorated with the American legend, "Liberty or Death." This is, again, a literalization of Jack's agenda. He is in search of truth...or he will most certainly die, at the hands of a corrupt government. When Jack crashes through the transparent glass window housing that legend, he is literally crashing through the illusion of American liberty.

Even Burke's murder of a hooker in a train station bathroom is framed deliberately so as to feature a message about freedom and liberty. The most prominent object in one high-angle shot of a bathroom stall is actually a tampon dispenser decorated with the brand name "Stayfree." "Stay Free?" How can people stay free if the truth is hidden?

In Blow Out's most ironic and mocking use of iconic American imagery, Jack arrives too late to save Sally from Burke, but De Palma's camera triumphantly spins around the tragic duo nonetheless. As an "average" citizen dies below so the powerful may continue to "serve," in the heavens above fireworks explode with orgasmic glee and abandon.

The illusion of freedom and liberty are alive for all to see in the sky, even if Sally (and the truth...) die right here; their ends acknowledged only by Jack.

Sally's personal story in Blow Out also serves as a metaphor for disillusionment and disenfranchisement in America. Sally begins her journey as a disinterested observer, just minding her own business trying to make a buck any way she can. She doesn't even watch the news "because it is too depressing." When Sally finally does get involved in the "political process," in a quest with Jack to reveal the truth about this conspiracy, what happens? She is brutally murdered.

In this case, a murdered innocent in a movie may very well represent a disappointed, disillusioned electorate in real life. Most people don't get involved in politics, and those activists who do so inevitably face disappointment because things don't seem to change, or get any better. The parties in power may alternate, but the entrenched interests don't. Killing Sally in Blow Out is, essentially, killing hope in the democratic process; it's killing political involvement. From a certain perspective, there are no reak "good guys" in Blow Out because even the guy in "search of the truth," -- Jack himself -- exploits the simple-minded Sally (representing the American electorate) for his own purpose. He ruthlessly uses her for his ideological agenda...and she ends up dead, even though that agenda was inarguably noble.

Writer Rob Nelson, of Minneapolis Movies wrote about Blow Out in 1996 that:

"Jack's increasingly selfish and obsessive sleuthing reflects an '80s tide turning away from political action and toward selfishness and misogyny: A woman whom he'd saved from the crash, a makeup artist named Sally (Nancy Allen), becomes no less a pawn of Jack's scheme than the villains'. The film is full of male manipulators bound together in a vicious circle: The dead man's political rival had used Sally in an attempt to frame him; a smarmy TV news reporter manipulates Jack; and Jack in turn exploits Sally by subtly goading her into wearing a wire for her meeting with the killer...In the amazingly hyperbolic finale, DePalma conflates patriotism, dirty tricks, violence against women, and slasher movies into a single sick joke, one that's all the more dark for how fully it resonates with the real zeitgeist."

Indeed, this is where some critics detect misogyny on De Palma's part, but as I offered last week, I see this as the director's commentary on misogyny. Sally is brutally used. Buy one political side (the assassins) to discredit a "good man." She is then used by the opposition ("Jack") to get at the truth. After she ends up dead, she is, finally, used again, this time by the media. Her "perfect scream" (her scream at the moment of her death...) gets exploited by filmmakers to be enjoyed in a bad slasher film. This is a comment on exploiting women in the culture all right, but it isn't De Palma who is doing the exploiting. He's exposing the exploitation. And I don't think he's talking about slasher films either: he's talking about our predilection to be distracted by tits and ass, bread and circuses, while the business of the nation passes us by.

I Didn't Hire Her For Her Scream. I Hired Her For Her Tits

As Vincent Canby wrote in his New York Times review, "more important than anything else about ''Blow Out'' is its total, complete and utter preoccupation with film itself as a medium in which, as Mr. De Palma has said along with a number of other people, style really is content. If that is the case, ''Blow Out'' is exclusively concerned with the mechanics of movie making, with the use of photographic and sound equipment and, especially, with the manner in which sound and images can be spliced together to reveal possible truths not available when the sound and the image are separated."

Canby is correct to note Blow Out's obsession with the technical aspects of filmmaking. Early in the film, De Palma provides a split-screen image of Jack hard at work at his Independence Film offices. On the right side of the frame is a TV news story covering Governor McRyan. On the left hand side of the frame is an insert shot of Jack at a sound editing machine, adjusting levels, labeling tapes, etc. The implication here is one of routine, tech-ish multi-tasking. The eye goes to the report on the TV, while the hand goes to the work of sound cutting. This is before the car accident/assassination occurs...and so Jack still handles his job in a work-a-day, routine fashion...not thinking about the serious implications of what he does.

When Jack goes out to the creek to record various sounds, De Palma also reminds us of the breadth of our technology, revealing in detail how a directional microphone picks up authentic sounds from great distances. A series of staggeringly beautiful long-shots join the percipient and the perceived within the same frame. We thus see Jack connected (in the background), to a majestic, hooting owl (in the foreground). Yet importantly, these "real" sounds are soon to be placed over unreal events; ones staged especially for movies. And movies, of course, are false narratives. It's another explicit reminder from De Palma that movies do lie; both in images and sound. That although the sounds may be "real," their context has been altered in ways we can't begin to imagine by the time they reach our ears.

Later, we watch in detail as Jack creates a sort of film strip of the car accident by utilizing photographic film stills (featured in a popular magazine). We watch him laboriously photograph these stills one-frame-at-a-time, and the result -- when we watch it assembled -- is a visual record of the governor's car accident; one that gives the incident new life, new shape. Yet, as illuminating as these visuals remain, without the sound of the accident, there is no hint at all of a gun shot; only the accidental "blow-out." The truth is not in the film. At least not obviously.

But the important thing here is that De Palma is including us in the process, just as he did with the split-screen multi-tasking. He's showing us the building blocks of film so we can understand how pictures, how sounds, can be created and manipulated. This is the crux of the story, of the conspiracy.

In one beautifully-crafted scene, Jack returns to his studio to find every single one of his reel-to-reel tapes blanked out...erased. De Palma shoots this scene in novel fashion by spinning his camera around the studio in a series of sequential, overlapping (time lapsed) circles, as though we are positioned on one of those damaged reels ourselves. This round-and-round movement of the camera mimics the movement of the reel tape; and we get the idea that Jack is "spinning" on his heels himself; ambushed by Burke's erasure of the critical sound recording.

The film's punch-line, of course, marks the (grim) line between the film's "reality" and the "fiction" within the film. Jack spends much of the film trying to locate the so-called "perfect scream" for the horror movie he is working on. The director brings in several actresses to record new screams...but they are all lacking in some fashion. They lack passion. They lack authenticity. In the end, Jack uses Sally's death scream in the slasher movie. Her scream is blood-curdling because it is real. It is the voice of terror. It is that real scream which is applied to the fictional film-within-a-film to lend the shlocky enterprise some sense of authority or gravitas. The horrifying truth, of course, is unknown except to Jack. It's sort of a small-scale conspiracy balanced against the national conspiracy. But nobody seems to care about the truth anymore...

In the film's last shot -- slowed down for emphasis -- Jack hangs his head low, hands over his ears, as the scream repeats. Jack was a man who wanted to "hear" the truth, but ended up hearing too much. Now he just seeks silence. He wants to hear no evil.

The fetishistic attention to technical detail (editing, sound recording, etc.) in Blow Out reminds us that nothing in the art of film is what it seems on a simple viewing. The component parts -- the parts coming together in a final cut -- can literally be anything. The truth can be exposed...or hidden in film depending on the whim of the director. Or the President of the United States...

You'd Be Amazed What Some People Would Do For a Story Like This.

An obvious foundation for Blow Out is the similarly-titled 1966 Antonioni film Blow-Up, which concerns another artist (a photographer, instead of a film's sound engineer...) becoming embroiled in what he perceives to be a crime...a murder.

In that film, the lead character, played by David Hemmings, begins to lose focus on his "real" life. He begins to obsessively question reality itself. In some senses, that's also the journey of Jack in Blow Out, but he starts to question political reality -- the images of patriotism and nationalism so proudly displayed.

De Palma's other sources here arise not from movie history, but from conspiracy lore. The setting of the car "accident" at a creek -- and the presence of an unmarried woman in the passenger seat of a married politician's automobile -- clearly recall the July 18, 1969 Chappaquiddick incident involving Senator Ted Kennedy.

The Karp film, which -- because it lacks sound -- cloaks the truth of the conspiracy rather than exposing it, recalls the much-debated, much-analyzed Zapruder Film. In this case, Manny Karp, the originator of the McRyan film, had foreknowledge of the car "accident," so he could be present at the creek to film it. That fact retroactively raises questions about the late Zapruder, and how he came to be filming the Kennedy assassination. Indeed, some people have suggested a connection between the late Zapruder...and the CIA. And, as I mentioned above, Burke is pretty clearly a model of the Watergate Plumber, namely the most infamous of the lot, Liddy.

In referencing all of these terrible incidents (JFK's assassination, Chappaquiddick, and Watergate), De Palma asks the viewer to consider the tumultuous and bloody nature of modern American history, and how much we really "know" for certain about it. Indeed, Blow Out was released just months after the attempted assassination of President Reagan by another lone gunman (and friend of the Bush family...), John Hinckley.

Just ask yourself, how would history have been different if an unvarnished Ted Kennedy -- having no Chappaquiddick incident to mar his personal history -- had run against Nixon in 1972? How would history have been different if Reagan had not survived his first term, and George Bush ascended to the Presidency in 1981? I believe what De Palma was prescient in Blow Out, making us feel that kind of paranoia as a sort of palpable fear. We begin to understand how politicians and the media can manipulate images and sounds; manipulate truth using certain indelible images.

The attacks of 9/11? Dukakis in a tank? Bill Clinton hugging a beret-wearing Monica Lewinsky in a crowd? Willie Horton's mug shot? Bush Jr. with a bullhorn on the rubble? "Terrorist" fist bumps? "Let's Roll?" "The Fundamentals of the Economy are sound?" These "clips' were brought to you by a selective corporate media. Why?

In Blow Out, De Palma delves into a dark place, one where seeing and hearing is not necessarily believing. He tells us, again, that film can be a powerful and insidious tool in the court of public opinion. But trenchantly, the master manipulator himself shows us the tricks of the trade this time. De Palma lifts the curtain and reveals how the magic works. And it's not all in the wrists.

It's in the microphones, the editing bay, the scissors, and the camera lens.


  1. Thanks for this detailed appreciation, esp. the political anger behind this film. But you kind of glide over the emotional devastation behind Jack's final act: using Sally's actual death screams in the slasher film. He initially retreated into low-budget filmmaking after his malfunctioning equipment got an undercover agent killed. At the end of the movie we find him retreating once again following Sally's death--but that horrible final shot makes it clear that now he's an utterly destroyed man.

    Metaphorically, of course, turning Sally's scream into slasher-movie fodder can be read as a commentary on how our media culture exploits real-life tragedy. But what I think the audience responds to is Jack the idealist's final transformation into Jack the nihilist.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful look at my favorite DePalma movie and one of the modern classics of suspense. This movie is so rich with ideas and imagery that it's almost impossible to stop finding new details in it to appreciate. As with Carpenter and The Thing, the failure of DePalma's most mature and accomplished work came at a cost to his evolving artistry. He still went on to produce some outstanding films but I wonder how much more he would've felt emboldened to try had Blow Out been a greater success.

  3. Another great analysis. I agree with Steve about the significance of Jack's final retreat; I think that it's a complex conclusion that signifies many things, bolstered by a fine Travolta performance... for example, one can see Jack's retreat into low budget filmmaking and use of Sally's death scream as a comment on capitalism itself... and, perhaps, on DePalma's own "retreat" from the overtly political films of his early years into crowd-pleasing entertainments (some would say). Perhaps he suspected how the film would be received (and my memory is that it was actually lambasted by most critics, with maverick exceptions like Ebert).

    Refresh my memory, someone: didn't photos of the JFK assassination play an important role in "Greetings"?

  4. Hey everybody,

    Thanks for commenting!

    I think I probably ought to have noted more deeply the finale of Blow Out, which represents the second time Jack has "failed," a metaphor perhaps -- like Sally's journey -- of disillusionment towards and disenfranchisement from the system (The political system).

    DLR: I love your notion of self-reflexivity; that Jack's retreat is representative of De Palma's fear of retreat from more daring filmmaking; very interesting and worth exploring further.

    And Steve, your notion about the media exploiting tragedy is also fruitful, and prescient on De Palma's part. The 1990s represented the decade of tabloid television, Amy Fisher, Joey Buttafuoco, Sally Jessy, Geraldo, Jerry Springer, etc...where tragedy was turned into fodder for the masses on a daily basis. I think De Palma saw it coming.

    And Jeff -- I agree with you that the failure of Blow Out probably put the brakes on De Palma's development, at least for a time. Dressed to Kill (1980) had been an unequivocal hit at the box office -- the first movie to unseat The Empire Strikes Back at number # 1 -- and if Blow Out had succeeded on that level...who knows?

    He went on to do Scarface next -- which was only a modest success, even though it is absolutely beloved today.

    But the great thing about De Palma is that he brings his skill to whatever genre he practices. Casualties of War is stunning. The Untouchables is stirring. And on and on.

    But Blow Out represents him at his post-modern finest, I think. Although, on a recent re-watching, I also found (the unpopular) Raising Cain incredibly complex, incredibly intelligent, incredibly rewarding...


  5. What a fantastic, in-depth analysis of my fave De Palma film. I love a good conspiracy thriller and this one deserves to be ranked right up there with likes of THE PARALLAX VIEW, which I always felt would make a good double bill with BLOW OUT.

    Watching this film again reminds me of what a great actor Travolta was early on in his career. He was really quite good in this film and you find yourself with him every step of the way as he obsesses over this political assassination.

    Great stuff!

  6. I'm really enjoying your De Palma essays, John! My neck hurts from nodding in agreement. Keep 'em coming!

  7. A movie that really fits this one is the 1974 movie The Conversation, starring Gene Hackman. In it, he plays a character similar to Travolta's who did/does similar work for the government, get burned, and retreats into himself. A similar conspiracy happens, and his skills become the centerpiece of the movie. You should check it out along with Blow Out.

  8. Hey guys,

    Thanks, J.D. for bringing up PARALLAX, and Lionel, for bringing up THE CONVERSATION. If you wanted to have a "conspiracy" marathon, these films, in conjunction with BLOW OUT, would indeed be ideal!

    And Peet: thanks for letting me know you like the De Palma essays. I'm keeping 'em coming. I'm having too much fun to stop...

    best to all,
    John Kenneth Muir

  9. Have you ever read the 24LiesASecond pieces on De Palma? I used to run the website, which also hosted a De Palma-centric forum. All our essays are currently part of The House Next Door:

  10. Peet:

    I have not read those piece; but now that I know about them, I definitely will. Thank you for pointing me in their direction!

    best wishes,

  11. This film was no doubt influenced by the events of the 70's and is lock step in tradition with the great conspiracy films of that decade. 'Parallax View' and 'The Conversation' were rightly mentioned.

    But also, 'Winter Kills, The Boys From Brazil, Capicorn One, Three Days of the Condor, and even Klute are in this vein of a big-picture conspiracy, (not necessarily political). This also might have been Travolta's last notable performance until 'Pulp Fiction'.