Saturday, September 11, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)

All Star Trek fans can recite the pop-culture epitaph of the movie series by memory these days.

The even numbered movies (The Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home, The Undiscovered Country, First Contact, etc.) are the "good ones."

And the odd-numbered Star Trek movies (The Motion Picture, The Search for Spock, The Final Frontier, Generations, Insurrection, etc.) are the "bad ones."

Well, it's about bloody time this meme got retired.  Most importantly because it is not now -- nor has it ever been -- true.

The Motion Picture may not have been exactly what most Star Trek fans desired from the first feature film reunion of the original TV cast, but if it was "bad," (and it wasn't...), at least it was interesting, in large part because of Robert Wise's cinematic, wide-screen approach to the epic material. 

And by the same benchmark we're supposed to believe that the tenth Star Trek movie, Nemesis (2002) is good?

But Exhibit A refuting this pop culture shorthand must be 1984's highly-entertaining, incredibly affecting entry, The Search for Spock, a widely-underrated franchise film directed by Leonard Nimoy and written by Harve Bennett. 

To put it bluntly, The Search for Spock functions ably as good cinema, and simultaneously as great Star Trek. 

I've never understood the reasons for its lack of popular acclaim amongst the Trekkies, and simply chalked  it up to positioning.  The film is sandwiched between films that are considered high water-marks of the franchise, The Wrath of Khan (1982) and The Voyage Home (1986). 

Clearly, that isn't a very comfortable or easy place to reside.

Despite such unfortunate placement, however, The Search for Spock remains one of the most intimate and emotional of all the Star Trek movie dramas: a tale of loss and friendship, and most importantly, of aging gracefully in a culture that seems not to value experience and wisdom.  The film's narrative involves the main characters grappling with mortality; first Spock's and then, even, their own.

Although Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) also explicitly concern spiritual matters at least to some degree, Star Trek III does so in what is perhaps a more nuanced and human fashion. 

In recovering Spock's soul, Kirk also saves his own.  And in saving his  own soul, the audience comes to understand that it's not only Vulcans who possess a "living spirit," but human beings too. Maybe that "spirit" or soul is born in the crucible of friendship.  Or perhaps in duty and loyalty.  But it is there, the movie implies, if not as easily detectable in humans as in a Vulcan "katra."

The Word is No.  I am Therefore Going Anyway...

Soon Captain.  Quite Soon...
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock picks up not long after the events of The Wrath of Khan

The battle-damaged U.S.S. Enterprise is on her way home to Earth, following the heroic death of Spock (Nimoy). 

Dr. David Marcus (Merritt Butrick) and Lt. Saavik (Robin Curtis) are transferred to the U.S.S. Grissom to investigate the newly formed Genesis Planet, leaving Enterprise understaffed. 

Meanwhile, a rogue Klingon commander, Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) wants to capture the "secrets of Genesis" for the Empire and -- using a cloaking-device-equipped Bird of Prey -- probes deep into Federation space, undetected.

Aboard the Enterprise, Admiral Kirk (William Shatner)  grieves for his lost friend, and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) begins to exhibit unusual behavior...speaking in Spock's voice and demonstrating a keen if uncharacteristic knowledge of Vulcan landmarks (like Mount Seleya). 

Once back at Space dock in Earth orbit, Kirk learns that the Enterprise is to be decommissioned, and Mr. Scott (James Doohan) is transferred to the new Excelsior as Captain of Engineering.  An era of space exploration is over, and a new one has begun.

Spock's father, Sarek (Mark Lenard) visits Kirk in San Francisco, and informs him that he must bring Spock's immortal soul -- his "katra" -- back to Vulcan, along with  his body...which was left on Genesis.  Kirk realizes that McCoy is the keeper of Spock's soul, and requests permission of Starfleet to return to Genesis with the Enterprise.

When Starfleet Commander Morrow (Robert Hooks) refuses permission, Kirk, Chekov, Scotty, Bones, Uhura and Sulu hatch a plan to steal the Enterprise from space dock...and get to Genesis anyway. 

These heroes have no way of knowing that Grissom has been destroyed,  that the Genesis Effect has regenerated Spock's body, and that a Klingon Bird of Prey hides in planetary orbit...

This Entire Crew Seems on the Verge of Obsessive Behavior Concerning Mr. Spock: Grieving Aboard the Starship Enterprise
The Needs of the One...Outweighed the Needs of the Many.
Grief, for lack of a better definition, is the human response to the death of a loved one. 

As many of us know only too well, grief can be quite severe an emotion, and that's exactly what is depicted to a large degree in The Search for Spock. 

Early in the film, Captain Kirk importantly notes that the Enterprise crew seems on the verge of "obsessive" behavior about Mr. Spock.  He further notes that the death of his friend feels "like an open wound."

What Kirk and also McCoy experience, in some way, is actually known as complicated grief.  McCoy "hallucinates" that he is Spock himself (the result, actually of a Vulcan mind meld...), and Kirk -- in keeping with the psychological condition of bereavement -- is forced to go over the story of his loss, again and again.  He just can't get past that final moment with his dear friend.  It returns over and over to haunt him.  He can't escape it.

If the crew of the Enterprise exhibits "obsessive behavior" concerning Mr. Spock, then the same might be said for the film's director, Leonard Nimoy, who, throughout the film, visually expresses Kirk's on-going grief by -- in almost fetishistic detail -- taking us repeatedly through the final moments of Spock's life. 

The film opens, for instance, with a small black-and-white image in frame center.  It is a two-shot of Kirk and Spock -- separated by glass barrier -- as these longtime friends say farewell.  "Ship, out of danger?" Spock asks, his voice hoarse.  Kirk nods, and Spock tells him not to grieve; that his sacrifice was logical. 

As the scene develops and Spock slumps...dying, the image in frame center grows larger to fill the entire wide-screen, as though Spock's death is looming larger and larger in the imagination; coming to the forefront of thought (both Kirk's and the audience's).  The black-and-white visual slowly bleeds into full color, and the traumatic event of the past metaphorically becomes the living present...the day of grief.  This is the movie's opening note.

Later, Bennett's screenplay and Nimoy's direction force Kirk to endure Spock's death a second time-- again word for word -- during the admiral's intimate mind-meld with Sarek. 

Here, Nimoy deploys extreme close-ups of Shatner's expressive face to capture the emotional undertone of the scene, displaying Kirk's extreme grief and pain at the loss of his friend.  One shot is so close, in fact, it's just a view of Shatner's left eye and eyebrow.  And yet -- as the eye opens wider and wider with pain; and starts to moisten -- it carries a devastating effect.  We know exactly what Kirk is visualizing in his "mind's eye" at that moment, and the scene ends on an even darker note.  If Spock died without transferring his katra, then "all that he was, all that he lost."

Not even half-way through the film, Spock's death in the engineering section of the Enterprise is repeated once more, this third time utilizing a "flight recorder visual" that, oppositely, distances us (and Kirk) from the pain and grief he is feeling, and allows the good captain to look for clues in the moment of trauma.  Here, we see Spock's mind-meld with McCoy, and the mystery is resolved. Now it is time for action, and that is often how we, as human beings, overcome our grief.  By acting; by doing something constructive so that the pain of the tragedy does not overcome or paralyze us.

Finally, during the climax of the film at Mount Seleya on Vulcan the final conversation between Kirk and Spock in engineering --  the death scene from The Wrath of Khan -- is repeated a fourth time, but with a re-constituted Spock and Kirk going through the motions of the past...and finally moving past the grief into new territory. 

These two men recite the same familiar dialogue ("Ship out of danger?") -- again, rather obsessively -- and then the movie really gets clever. 

In moving past the death of Spock, the film playfully inverts the main thematic arc of The Wrath of Khan.  There, Spock relinquished control of the Enterprise to Kirk in a crisis because Kirk was a better captain (that's his first best destiny, after all).  Spock undertook this act with no regards to his ego and established the axiom that "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." 

And Kirk added "Or the One," hoping to get a rise out of the dispassionate half-Vulcan.

Well, in Star Trek III, Kirk tells the revived Spock, that "the needs of the one...outweighed the needs of the many." Meaning that Kirk and his crew have sacrificed everything (his ship, his son...their careers...) on the off-chance that Spock's life could be saved.  Sometimes, one friend must take priority.

Yet in dramatizing Spock's death scene (in four sequences; in four separate and evolving contexts), The Search for Spock handily explores the human grief cycle in a unique and intelligent fashion, leading the viewer from the initial pain and denial (and perhaps even anger...), up through some form of acceptance and catharsis 

Of course, in this case -- because this is science fiction and not reality --  it is easy indeed to move on because the "dead man" returns to life (though not entirely whole), and Kirk's specific loss of Spock is mitigated. 

But the events of the film (the destruction of the Enterprise and the death of Kirk's son, David Marcus) assure that Star Trek remains in a universe where mortality is a certainty.  Kirk has traded one instance of grief for another.  In other words, Spock may live...but there are costs for that life.  Kirk has paid a high price indeed.

The man who "cheated" and who "doesn't believe in the no-win scenario" has again had to face loss and personal pain.

This Planet is Aging in Surges.  And Spock With It.  Or Maybe That's Okay...for Someone whose Career is Winding Down: Battling Ageism on the Final Frontier

Sir...someone is stealing the Enterprise!
If the theme of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is grappling with mortality...with the aging process and the loss that ultimately goes with it, then it is fascinating to witness how the entire film "obsesses" (there's that word again...) on the cycle of life and death, with aging.

And this isn't just the thematic drive of the movie, it's an expression of where Star Trek the franchise had positioned itself in the fast-moving, MTV pop culture of the mid-1980s. 

At that point in American history, the oldest man ever elected to the Presidency, Ronald Reagan, was seeking re-election...and his age was actually an important election issue.  In a debate with candidate Walter Mondale, Reagan memorably joked "I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I'm not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience."

Similarly, Hollywood was realizing the potential of the youth audience for perhaps the first time, consequently skewing blockbuster films younger and younger.  MTV had premiered on cable TV the previous year to high ratings. And  in the very summer of Star Trek III, a new MPAA rating was "engineered" called PG-13.  It was designed exclusively so that younger audiences could access more mature, violent films (meaning the oeuvre of Steven Spielberg).  Indeed, the summer of 1984 was dominated by the youth market, in fact, who flocked to (great, classic) films such as Ghostbusters, Gremlins and Purple Rain.

But critically-speaking, mainstream movie reviewers had begun to develop an adversarial relationship with the 20-year old Star Trek franchise. More and more the tone of criticism was "the Over-the-Hill gang" returns.   The age of the stars very much became the elephant in the room. It wasn't the specific merits of the movie being reviewed, so much as the wrinkles, waist-lines and expanding girth of the actors. 

In some ways, the third Star Trek film anticipates, reflects and comments on all of this cultural noise.

The unstable Genesis Planet, just recently born, ages and dies in the short span of the film, of course, but more than that, the film seems to depict a Star Trek universe in burgeoning middle-age, where our beloved crew is facing a turning point, a mid-life crisis of sorts.   

After all, "rapid aging" (the ailment of the Genesis Planet) is the order of the day in the self-consuming pop culture, for franchises like Star Trek, isn't it?  

Here today; Twilight tomorrow...

Specifically, in Star Trek III, Admiral Morrow explains that after 20 years in the limelight, the Enterprise's "day is over" and that a slick, ready-made replacement, The Excelsior stands by...ready to break her "speed records" with the spanking new "transwarp drive."   The accomplishments of the past mean nothing in the fast-moving, high-tech future.

The Enterprise herself feels like a "house with all the children gone," per Kirk's own haunting description...making the cherished vessel sound like a person firmly in middle-age: a parent who is missing his or her kids.  And the glorious starship looks worse than we've ever seen her before too; her hull pitted and scarred from Khan's devastating phaser attacks.

More importantly, our beloved crew members and heir much-decorated history are treated rather shabbily by the forces in power at Starfleet, as if -- like the Enterprise herself -- their day is over too. 

Uhura is told her career is "winding down" by an obnoxious and callow transporter officer, derisively dubbed Mr. Adventure (Scott McGinnis) in the credits. 

Mr. Sulu is dismissed as "Tiny" by a hulking Federation prison guard. 

McCoy is bound for the "Federation funny farm" by another guard's cruel terminology, after Bones has already been told he is going to rest for a "good, long time" by a security agent. 

There's another word for that.  Retirement.

And Kirk is relentlessly hectored by Morrow about his place -- his legacy -- in the history books.  "Jim, your life and your career stands for rationality, not intellectual chaos.  You keep up this emotional behavior, you'll lose everything.  You'll destroy yourself..."

Scotty has what is perhaps the best and most cantankerous response to all of this ageism and derision from younger officers; the 23rd century equivalent of "Get off my lawn," but uttered to an insufferably cheery computer voice in an Excelsior turbo lift. 

"Up your shaft..." 

But as the film so ably depicts, this diverse collection of middle-aged officers succeed against all the odds (through the old fashioned virtue of team-work, specifically...).  They steal a starship from Federation headquarters, get in the first licks against a heavily-armed bird of prey (while it is cloaked, even...), capture a Klingon vessel, and, in the end, save their friend's life. 

How do you like that...Tiny?

Being a cast member of Star Trek himself, Leonard Nimoy shoots his team -- Shatner, Kelley, Nichols, Takei, Doohan, and Koenig -- with an authentic, deep sense of love and devotion.  He heavily (and I mean heavily) accentuates close-shots of their middle-aged but never-less-than interesting (and beautiful...) faces.  Some critics and Trekkies see this approach as a detriment to the film, overall. You''ll encounter plenty of reviews that note Nimoy's background in television, and his TV-style approach to the film (focusing heavily on close and two-shots) at the expense of an epic scale. 

Yet, I'd say this approach not only works, it reinforces, ultimately, the themes of the film. 

These men are not young (like poor Mr. Adventure)...but they are certainly experienced.  And in their own way -- and in the full blossom of maturity -- they are still engaging, charismatic personalities.  Nimoy doesn't romanticize their middle-aged looks; but he repeatedly shows us their experienced faces in close-up, in their middle-aged glory.  We have known all these characters (and actors) for twenty years, and perhaps their hair has greyed or thinned...but we still love them. In part for past glory, in part because we still love what they're doing now, in the moment.  We want them to live forever...but we know they won't.

Nimoy's loving close-ups represent an affectionate and authentic approach to depicting the aging actors (and characters), and somehow registers to the audience as extremely intimate.  Yes, these characters are -- as always -- larger than life, but in this film they feel more human, more recognizably flawed,  more vulnerable then ever before in Star Trek's storied history. 

That's why I state the film is an emotional roller-coaster ride.   Oft-times, we are just left gazing  at these glorious, fifty-year old faces as they react movingly to grief and loss, pain and ridicule  And suddenly -- firmly -- we're on their side as never before. 

Every time we see their expressive, older faces magnified on the big screen, we bring twenty years of history  to this current storyline.  For lack of a better word, it's extremely...powerful.  Just look at Doohan's affecting reaction shot  after Scotty sees Kirk stumble and fall from his chair (at news of David's death).  Watch Nichols' expressive, open face as she says to Admiral Kirk, "all my hopes" or greets him with a saddened hug on Vulcan.  Look at Koenig's face stiffen and then freeze for a second as Kirk initiates the Enterprise's destruct sequence.  Watch Shatner's eyes go to another place all together, as Kirk hatches a plan...even as Morrow hectors him.

Quite simply, this is some of the best acting this group has ever done.  And it comes not in huge, mind-blowing action scenes, but in these gorgeous character close-ups, these little grace-notes that Nimoy has assiduously set-up for his co-stars.  As a director, Nimoy knows exactly where to look; where to place the camera so that he captures his cast mates at their best.

So (in this case, anyway) screw "young minds, fresh ideas."  Screw "be tolerant."

With age comes wisdom and experience...and those are the tools, ultimately, which carry the day for the crew in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.  From Scotty's rigging of the Enterprise to work on automation ("a chimpanzee and two trainees could run her") to Kirk's daring gambit against Kruge (destroying the Enterprise), to Uhura getting Mr. Adventure to "eat out of her hands," this Star Trek movie is about a team of men and women -- with some age and wisdom behind them -- operating at peak performance, in the best interest of their friend, with enemies surrounding them.

I remember watching CBS's Dennis Cunningham describe the crew of Star Trek III as "lugubrious" in his negative review of the film back in 1984, but that's not the case at all here. I have never connected more personally or fully with the Enterprise crew than in The Search for Spock.  Kirk may not be as handsome, dashing and fit as he once was; Uhura may not be as drop-dead sexy, either...but again, just look at those weathered, emotional faces on that big screen bracing disappointment, failure and hope. 

Other Star Trek movies may feature more epic or more engaging stories, but ask yourself this pertinent question: does any other film in the series really get to the nature of these people (and their bond with one another) more ably, more intimately, or more compassionately than Search for Spock does?

If the price of this intimacy is a few grand establishing shots; a few amazing "cinematic" moments or big special effects sequences, so be it. 

And oddly enough, I remember that this was precisely the response of the audiences I saw the film with back in 1984.  I remember vividly that when Sulu announced "we have cleared space doors" (while stealing the Enterprise), people in the audience whooped and hollered as one.  And, as I discussed with a friend and reader, Tom Pederson, on Facebook this morning, you could have heard a pin drop in the theaters during Kirk's confrontation with the Klingons and his decision to destroy the beloved starship Enterprise.

I remember that so vividly.  A hush descended over the audience as we all waited, desperately, for the resourceful Kirk to pull another rabbit out of his hat, to save his friends and his crew one more time.  When he had to resort to destroying the Enterprise -- the love of his life -- it was a victory, to be sure...but one of great price.

The Enterprise is herself a character in Star Trek, of course, and perhaps the most beloved of all of 'em.  The moment that gets me and leaves me with a lump in my throat -- and that I've never seen remarked upon anywhere -- involves Kirk and crew's final beam out from the transporter room before the ship explodes. 

Watch closely the blue beam effect.  Kirk and his friends de-materialize on the platform, and then -- for the merest of seconds -- they re-appear one last if the Enterprise is reluctant to let them go; knowing that this is the last time they will all be together.

You Don't Have To Believe.  I'm Not Even Sure I Believe: Vulcan Mysticism, Klingon Honor, Destruct Sequences..and Tribbles.

In my opening to this review, I noted that Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is good in terms of cinema, and great in terms of Star Trek. 

First something on the former front: Nimoy is a good director, and he's on solid footing in his presentation of the cast (in numerous, expressive close-shots), and in his decision to obsessively, repeatedly, re-parse Spock's death sequence.

Where Star Trek III: The Search for Spock falls down, in terms of cinematic presentation, is in the editing.  It's just downright sloppy.  In one moment featuring Lt. Saavik on the Genesis Planet, a Klingon warrior can plainly (incongruously...) be seen for a few seconds, dealing with an exploding tree.  Why this shot was inserted here is a mystery...but it's noticeable even to the untrained eye.

At another critical moment, the rock precipice upon which Commander Kruge dramatically teeters over can be seen to awkwardly -- and mechanically -- slide down (or be dragged down...) the mountainside; a clunky, on-set effect that fails to convince,  and which ruins the dramatic effect of the moment. 

Some of the studio-sets (depicting a forest of cacti in the snow, for instance) also do not hold up particularly well today.  But again, you could go over every Star Trek movie and pinpoint such flaws in execution.  What The Search for Spock gets right is far more important the relatively unimportant moments it gets wrong.

And, as a Star Trek film, the Search for Spock exceeds all expectations.  The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan each have plenty of merit, but neither one seems to take advantage of the vast background material established by the series.

The Search for Spock rectifies that omission, and does so in spades.  This film delves deeply into series lore, featuring, word-for-word the destruct sequence as featured in the third season episode, "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield."   Themovie brings up the concept of Pon Farr (from "Amok Time"), provides a cameo for a tribble ("The Trouble with Tribbles"), suggests the Vulcan physiologiy's capacity to separate from corporeality ("Return to Tomorrow"), re-introduces the concept of the cloaking device ("Balance of Terror," "The Enterprise Incident") and even brings back Sarek, Spock's father ("Journey to Babel.")

In its intimations of "galactic controversy," the discussion of "The Federation Council" and great special-effects depiction of Space dock (along with other Federation ships such as Excelsior and Grissom), The Search for Spock suggests the larger background universe that the earlier movies did least not to such a degree.

And, one can also look at The Search for Spock as the foundation for the modern interpretation of the Klingon Empire (later depicted in Next Gen, DS9, Enterprise, etc.)  This is the first Star Trek effort to mention honor in specific conjunction with this warrior race.   Kruge tells Valkris before she dies that she will be remembered with honor for her part in acquiring the Genesis secret.

Well, before Search for Spock, Klingons were known for their lack of honor.  The Klingons were originally described this way in The Making of Star Trek, co-authored by Trek creator Gene Roddenberry: "Their only rule in life is that rules are meant to be broken by shrewdness, deceit or power. Cruelty is something admirable, honor is a despicable trait." (page 257).  The Search for Spock gave the Klingons their new template vis-a-vis honor, and that's what later Treks adopted.

In terms of characterizations, The Search for Spock delves deeper than the other movies as well.  In a quiet moment aboard the Bird of Prey, for instance, McCoy recognizes -- perhaps for the first time -- the depth of his friendship with Spock.  And Kirk really goes through the wringer here, losing his ship and his son, in addition to his best friend. 

You wonder, how does Kirk survive in the face of such losses?  The answer (as spoken to Sarek...) is simple.  If he hadn't tried "the cost" would have been Kirk's soul.

And I suppose that's what I really admire about The Search for Spock.  When you get down to it, Star Trek has always been at its best when it describes some important aspect of the human condition; when it reflects something beyond "the final frontier" and about our lives here on Earth, now.  Here, the context isn't political (as it is in the superb Undiscovered Country), but spiritual.  There's a cost to our psyches (if not our souls) when we don't do what we know is right.

If Spock's katra is not returned to Vulcan, then all that he was; all that he lost.  Well, that's a tragedy, but that's exactly what happens to humans when we die, isn't it?  Our souls don't live on at Mount Seleya, able to undergo the "Fal Tor Pan" (the re-fusion) if the body lives.   When we die...all that we know is lost, right?

Well, not exactly, states Star Trek III.  Ultimately, our human immortality, the disposition of our "souls" if you will, shall be decided by our actions in life and how they are remembered.  Kirk could have followed orders...and Spock would have lived.  Instead, he risks everything for a friend...and his soul is secure.  Likewise poor David.  He will be remembered for giving his life to save Saavik and Spock, not his misguided use of protomatter in the Genesis matrix.   

Star Trek III is filled with great Star Trek moments about these virtues...about the human condition.  The most beautiful -- and highly cinematic -- finds Kirk and his crew standing on a mountaintop on Genesis, watching as the beloved Enterprise becomes a shooting star...and burns up in the atmosphere, her life over.

"My god Bones, what have I done?"  asks Kirk, gazing skyward. 

"What you had to do.  What you always do," replies Bones (or is it Spock talking through Bones...?) "Turn death into a fighting chance to live."

That's the human being's mission every day, living this life on Earth, isn't it?  Death is inevitable and always around the corner, but every day we try to live life to its best; to turn death into a fighting chance to live...and live well.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock may not be the most action-packed move in the franchise.  It may not feature the best special effects.  Some people may even find it slow.  Perhaps other entries do indeed deserve to be thought of as better than Nimoy's directorial debut.

But this third (and odd-numbered) adventure is in no way a bad film. 

Of all the Star Trek movies I have encountered in my travels -- and  in many profound ways -- The Search for Spock is the most...human.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The House Between at Sci-Final

Hey everybody, my 21-episode si-fi web-series, The House Between (2007 -2009), is highlighted today at the great site, Sci Final, "The last-stop for independent sci-fi online."  

There's this awesome banner (above) splashed on the home page there, celebrating the show.  And I'm also featured in interview at the creator's corner, here.

Some of you may not remember, but in 2006, I set out with The House Between to make seven half-hour original episodes of a sci-fi series on a budget of seven hundred dollars just seven days

I wanted to prove that you didn't need a ton of money, two years, or Hollywood connections (or Hollywood special effects, for that matter...) to create something interesting, original and exciting online. 

We repeated the "experiment" for two additional seasons of the series, in 2008 and 2009. 

In the end, the series was nominated for "Best Web Series" twice, in 2008 and 2009, at Sy Fy Portal/Airlock Alpha. 

In 2008, we came in second place to a Star Trek film "Of Gods and Men" by a margin of  less-than 100 viewer votes.   Now the series even has an official soundtrack release.  

And to this day, I still get e-mail from the series' small but devoted fan base, asking me when season four is going to start. (Short answer: when I can afford the time/budget again....)

So, in addition to my book deadlines on the horizon, I'm currently working on re-editing the entire web-series (all 21 episodes) for an upcoming DVD release (replete with lots of behind-the-scenes material about the experiment...).  More on that project as I know more.

But in the meantime, here's a little of the interview at Sci-Final:

Where did the idea/concept for your web series come from?

Well, I wanted to tell, in microcosm, the story of man on this island Earth. In essence, we're all strangers trapped in a house surrounded by blackness (outer space), forced to consider how to get along for the common benefit of the species. As a starting point, I re-read Jean Paul Sartre's 1944 existentialist play, No Exit. I wanted to play with the idea that "Hell is Other People" and do variations on it; see if the proverb holds up.

Name some of your sci-fi influences. Any favorite movies, TV shows, novels?

For the grainy, primitive look of the series, I sought to emulate TV classics One Step Beyond (1959-1961), The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) and The Outer Limits (1962-1964). I shot in black-and-white, added film grain, scratches and dust... and basically wanted audiences to get a timeless feeling or vibe from The House Between. Like you had turned your TV on at 2:00 am and suddenly intercepted this weird broadcast from who knows when, and who knows where. That was my experience growing up in the 1970s, first encountering late night fare like One Step Beyond. It seemed piped in from another universe.

Tonight on the De Palma Thrillers: Raising Cain (1992)

Movie Geeks United brings its stellar, five-night critical-analysis and retrospective of director Brian De Palma to a close tonight at 10:00 pm with an installment on the director's underrated thriller, Raising Cain (1992).

In the meantime, here's a piece of my review of Raising Cain.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the fantasy of the American man being a "hero" or "conqueror" -- or even the sole bread winner in a traditional nuclear family -- was being torn apart at the seams.

Terms like "Mr. Mom" entered the pop culture lexicon in the mid-eighties after a 1983 comedy starring Michael Keaton unexpectedly became a hit. The nickname was utilized, often derisively, to describe a man who stayed home to raise children while his wife went to work outside the home and functioned as "the hunter-gatherer."
Could a man still be "a man" in the 1990s if he didn't hold down a job? If he stayed home and raised the children? Would women find this 1990s breed of man attractive, absent the more rugged qualities that had made him The Dragon-slayer in generations past?

In her book Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era, author Susan Jefford argued that "the masculine way has almost run its course...the point at which no alternatives are left" (Rutgers University Press, 1994, page 176). Because of scandals (including Iran Contra and Astrology-Gate), American alpha males -- including President Reagan -- had been transformed from icons of laudable masculinity to mock-able figures of fun: imbecilic, daft, and confused. The new President, George Bush, was disregarded far and wide in the press as a "wimp."

Meanwhile, women had not only made significant in-roads in the workplace, but had also served with great distinction in the American military during the Gulf War (1991), further blurring traditional definitions of gender. Another dividing line for the nation also occurred in 1991, when Clarence Thomas, a nominee for the Supreme Court, faced a contentious confirmation hearing. He had allegedly made lewd remarks to a female co-worker, Anita Hill. But were his actions the very definition of sexual harassment, or was he enjoying dirty jokes, and flirting with a female colleague? I'm not going to take sides in that debate, but this was part and parcel of the crisis in masculinity. What could a man safely say in the 1990s, in the presence of a professional woman? Where was the new line of "appropriateness" to be drawn?

Others viewed the "crisis in masculinity" in a different fashion (and indeed, you can see this opinion reflected in 1999's Fight Club). In particular, author Brian Baker noted in Masculinity in Fiction and Film: Representing Men in Popular Genres, 1945-2000, that the failure of masculinity in modern America was a result of men not being too assertive, but of men not being assertive enough. The men of the 1980s and 1990s were simply "re-capitulating the mistakes" of their fathers, men of the post-war generation (Continuum Literary Studies, 2006, page 123).

In other words, inadequate father figures and a new a culture promoting "sensitivity" had de-fanged a generation of men. The culture was becoming...feminized. Again, I'm not coming down on one side of this argument or the other, just noting that it was a topic of the times and as such, part of Raising Cain's context.

And indeed, this social concern plays out explicitly in the film. The kindly Carter is a touchy-feely milquetoast who lives in thrall to the real alpha male in his life: his father (a robust, arrogant man of the post-war generation). His dad is a world-renowned achiever; Carter just a "regular" psychologist. Carter is indeed a loving father, one who spends more than mere "quality time" with his daughter, Amy. And yet his wife, Jenny is not at all happy with him about his sensitivity and caring. One small, outward sign of this festering problem: Jenny doesn't even take Carter's family name...calling herself Jenny O'Keefe instead of Jenny Nix (forecasting, perhaps, the whole Hilary Rodham kerfuffle...)

At one point in the film, Jenny laments that Carter, the successful child psychologist, has given up his profitable practice for child-rearing...leaving her to work full time outside the home. The freedom she has secured for herself (to be either a career woman or a mother, at her discretion), is not one extended to Carter. Because he has forsaken the hunter-gatherer role, she no longer respects him. And because she no longer respects him, she also no longer sees Carter as sexually desirable.

Early in Raising Cain, Carter attempts to make love to Jenny, but stops suddenly when he hears Amy crying in her nearby bedroom. Jenny is angry with Carter over this act of coitus interruptus, and soon has an adulterous affair with Jack...a man who clearly has his "sexual" priorities straight. Despite the fact that Jenny is married (and the mother of a small child), Jack brazenly makes love to her in a park. In fact, Jack and Jenny first shared a kiss at the exact moment that Jack's sick wife passed away in a hospital room...just feet away from them (and within the dying woman's line of sight!) So Jack is a throwback, the kind of man who society tells us is not supposed to be cherished anymore...but clearly is some women. In fact, Jack is seen as sexually powerful, whereas Carter is a wimpy cuckold.

Carter's many alternate personalities also expose further the crisis in masculinity. Cain is seen as inherently disreputable. He's a smoker for one thing (another big no-no in the Age of Political Correctness), and he's also, well, psychotic. Yet, Cain is the "man of action." Carter outsources his dirty work to Cain, because as a "sensitive" modern male he is deemed incapable of protecting himself or his family. When Carter gets into trouble attempting to subdue Karen, a local mother, Cain suggests that Carter kiss her to allay the suspicions of passers-by. This is something that would never occur to the diffident Carter on his own; but a solution which jumps out immediately to Cain. Cain is Id, through and through. The voice we all hear, but rarely act upon.
Yet another of Carter's personalities, Josh, has regressed to boyhood. He's a terrified child, one constantly fearing the wrath of his father. Again -- not entirely unlike Carter -- Josh is an image of masculinity reverted to a "harmless" or impotent stage, pre-adolescent, and therefore pre-sexual.

Yep, that's a crisis in masculinity, all right.
Raising Cain is thus a satire, exposing the schizophrenic, contradictory messages sometimes sent by our culture to men of the day. They were expected to "cowboy up" and "be a man"...except when they were supposed to be "sensitive" and "express" their feelings. They were to support the family financially; except in those cases that a woman wanted to do so herself. They were supposed to be committed fathers; but never usurp the sacred role of the primary parent: the mother. In Raising Cain, Carter is crazy, splintered into a million pieces over the competing pressures conspiring against him. Ultimately, the only way he can self-actualize is by becoming, literally, a woman.

Throughout the film, Carter is almost constantly besieged by images of perfect women. After kidnapping a little boy, he drives to his idyllic, fairy tale house, and a gorgeous woman pushing an ivory white baby carriage is seen walking across the sidewalk. She is society's image of a perfect parent...something Carter can never be; at least not until he becomes Margo.
Later, Jenny appears briefly inside a heart-shaped icon on a TV set at a local shop celebrating Valentine's Day. This image reminds us that Carter -- the milquetoast -- can never capture his wife's "heart." Indeed, in that very scene, Jack returns to stake his claim on it. Jenny's friend, played by Mel Harris, states that Carter is the "perfect man," but Jenny is already thinking of ways to get out of the marriage to be with Jack, the man who really makes her heart go aflutter (even if he doesn't take care of children). So Carter's final transformation into Margo is a sort of twisted joke on the old proverb "if you can't beat 'em, join em."

In some very important sense, Brian De Palma suffers the same existential crisis as Carter Nix in Raising Cain.

Both men toil under the expansive shadows of their famous "fathers," either biological or spiritual. De Palma is always being called "The New Hitchcock" or "The American Godard," but these labels always contextualize him in terms of other filmmakers; of spiritual cinematic patriarchs. Rarely is he seen as the pioneer, the trail-blazer. Only the second-comer.
In Raising Cain, De Palma once more acknowledges his debts to such cinematic "fathers" with several deliberate homages. Think of this, essentially, as Carter going to work in the same profession as his dad.
Foremost among these homages, De Palma pays tribute to director Michael Powell and his film, Peeping Tom (1960). That movie involved an adult man, Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) who was actually a murderer. His violence stemmed from the fact that Mark's father experimented on him as a boy, testing his responses to fear, horror, and death. His Dad then recorded those responses on camera, fostering a strange pathology in Mark, one involving cameras. Importantly, Mark's father was also a psychologist, very much like Dr. Nix.

In Raising Cain, young Carter is also experimented upon, essentially made into a multiple personality case. Like Mark, all of Carter's responses are charted, dissected and recorded. And also like Mark, Carter enters "the family business" after a fashion, even installing cameras in his daughter's bedroom, to gauge her responses. This may be De Palma's expression of the insidious nature of child abuse: a cycle of violence that passes from generation to generation. But regardless of the thematic similarities, it's clear that Carter of Raising Cain and Mark of Peeping Tom are both "weak" sons abused by "bad fathers." Both are carrying on in the family biz; both are mad as hatters.
Almost universally, De Palma develops his homages a step beyond the source material rather than merely imitating them, and that is also true in Raising Cain. Mark ultimately kills himself in Peeping Tom, but Carter -- in Raising Cain's final moments -- doesn't die. His blood is never spilled to satisfy society. Instead, Carter is (willfully) sublimated inside the matriarchal protector, Margo. It's a place where he can finally feel safe; behind the protector and "Big Sister." Carter may no longer be the primary personality, but he is not wiped out either. Instead, his journey may even be one of self-actualization. In Margo's body, he can be the loving, protecting mother that we must presume that Carter never had.
Another spiritual father to De Palma is, of course, Alfred Hitchcock; and again we see him paying homage here. Once more, Psycho appears to be the well-spring for De Palma's creativity since we get a variation on Norman's disposal of bodies (in a swamp), and also the re-appearance of a man dressed as a woman (also deployed in De Palma's Dressed to Kill). Again, it's important to stress that this is not just mindless or rote repetition of familiar Psycho sequences.

Instead, De Palma takes the material and twists and turns it to new purpose. For instance, after apparently dying in the Half Moon Swamp, Jenny surprisingly re-emerges to challenge Cain...something which never occurred to Marion. And far from being a villain (like Mother Bates), Margo -- the man as woman -- is Raising Cain's undeniable hero. She single-handedly rescues the children from the evil Dr. Nix.

What's more interesting, perhaps, than the homages to the "fathers" (Hitchcock, Powell, perhaps even Bunuel...), is the clear self-reflexive aspect of Raising Cain. Here -- after a dramatic career failure, -- De Palma is seen as taking up his life's work, which -- not coincidentally - was the life work of Hitchcock: the formalist cinematic thriller. Just as Carter takes up Nix's work; De Palma resumes his Hitchcockian phase. But, just as Carter transforms, De Palma transforms too. He takes this Hitchcockian thriller to an apex never before imagined, and he does so by giving the film not just one perspective, but many.
Finally, the guardian of the children is the personality named Margo. Importantly, Margo is female. Margo rescues Amy, destroys the Elder Dr. Nix, and restores order. It is a woman, therefore, who finally usurps the role of "hero"/"conqueror" in modern America. Carter can only become a hero when he is...female. The film's valedictory shot is of a looming, powerful Margo, standing heroically behind his family (Jenny and Amy). Carter could only be himself (a caring individual and care-giver) when in the personality and guise of a woman...and the last shot explains this visually. Margo is not menacing; not evil. She is triumphant.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Tonight on The De Palma Thrillers: Blow Out (1981)

The team at Movie Geeks United has been putting on a hell of a good show (or series, actually...) this week, leading up to the 70th birthday of iconic film director Brian De Palma.

Tonight at 10:00 pm, the analysis continues with an up-close look at the film that most critics and audiences agree is his masterpiece, Blow Out.  You can listen to the show here.

And here's a chunk of my Blow Out review from last year.

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.

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.

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. By 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.

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...