Wednesday Editor’s Pick: “Blow Out”

by on April 12, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

4:30, 6:50, 9:15 at BAMcinematek [Program & Tix]


Michael Korseky for Reverse Shot:

“Anyone who denies De Palma’s humanity, or sense of tragedy, has a lot of explaining to do in the agonized face of Blow Out (1981), which manages to be at once the director’s most melancholy, gripping, and empathic work, a monumentally humane and grim film, perched ever so slightly on the edge of sadism. The scream is thus recorded, within and without the movie, played back, fraught with horrible memories; it’s the scream of all damsels in distress, the scream of every De Palma heroine, and most importantly, in the film’s world, it’s ‘real.’

…The closing images and sounds of Blow Out are horrible and definitive, and, with due respect to Antonioni, much more terrifying than the existential what-if miming that closes Blow-Up. De Palma wants to penetrate and shatter; with perhaps the exception of Carrie and Casualties of War, never have De Palma’s characters felt so vivid, dynamic, and therefore, cruelly snuffed out. Following Blow Out, De Palma moved into the excess pageantry of Scarface and the miserable meta-effects of Body Double, perhaps the end point in the erotic thriller, a film in which the very sight of a naked woman seems to give off the stench of rotten flesh. Blow Out now seems like penance for all of De Palma’s past and future cinematic crimes, as well as ours as viewers. I can think of no greater expression of the force of movie watching than Travolta sitting alone in a dark room in Blow Out’s final shot, covering his ears from the horror he has witnessed, recorded, and fed back to the world. A victim and perpetrator of his own crimes, he still can’t stop watching. And listening.”


Rob Nelson for City Pages:

“In the same year that the movie star-turned-president took a bullet from a man inspired by–what else?–a movie (Scorsese’s Taxi Driver), Blow Out featured a protagonist (John Travolta) who fails to prevent at least two politically motivated killings. It hardly made a summer splash, no doubt because it flew in the face of such recuperative adventures as Superman II and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Blow Out also exposed the limits of heroism and technology (the staples of ’80s films), while invoking the real-world horrors of rape, murder, and corruption; and it didn’t help that the main character was decidedly less than admirable. Having recorded the sound of a presidential candidate’s car plunging into a river, Travolta’s Jack Terry discovers that the car’s tire had been shot out; he then sets about constructing a mini-movie out of photos of the “accident” and his own audio tape. De Palma plays the details of Jack’s A/V prowess for maximum viewer pleasure, until it becomes clear that this guy is less interested in uncovering the truth than in piecing together a snuff film to rival Zapruder’s.


Indeed, 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. (Whether De Palma exploited his then-wife Allen isn’t clear, although the two never made another movie together.) 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.”


Paul Schrodt for Slant:

Blow Out is not known as one of Brian De Palma’s horror movies, but of all his films, it’s the one that feels most like a nightmare. Carrie and The Fury ended with orgasms—frustrated teenagers revenging their oppressors in phantasmagoric releases of pent-up sexual energy. This espionage thriller goes out quietly, with a slow-motion dwindle into personal and political hell. By the end, the viewer half expects to wake up sweating, as if from some terrible dream. De Palma underlines this disillusionment by setting the story up for a heroic conclusion in the traditional Hollywood mold. Instead, the famous “scream” climax and the haunting epilogue that follows serve as a reminder that with political progress always comes loss. Set against the hopeful red-white-and-blue fireworks of Philadelphia’s Liberty Day parade, this tragedy recalls Thomas Jefferson’s wisdom: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Good guys and bad guys both spill blood in Blow Out; one wrong is righted, many more persist. De Palma’s cinematic sentiment, in the spirit of Jefferson, isn’t cynical so much as it is refreshingly frank.”


Pauline Kael for The New Yorker:

“As Jack [in Blow Out], (Travolta) …has a moment in the flashback about his police work when he sees the officer hanging by the wire. He cries out, takes a few steps away, and then turns and looks again. He barely does anything—yet it’s the kind of screen acting that made generations of filmgoers revere Brando in On the Waterfront: it’s the willingness to go emotionally naked and the control to do it in character… Blow Out is the first movie in which De Palma has stripped away the cackle and the glee; this time he’s not inviting you to laugh along with him. He’s playing it straight, and asking you—trusting you—to respond… When we see Jack surrounded by all the machinery that he tries to control things with, De Palma seems to be giving it a last, long, wistful look. It’s as if he’d finally understood what technique is for. This is the first film he has made about the things that really matter to him. Blow Out begins with a joke; by the end, the joke has been turned inside out. In a way, the movie is about accomplishing the one task set for the sound-effects man at the start: he has found a better scream. It’s a great movie.”


Benjamin Mercer for The L Magazine:

“On paper, Brian De Palma’s 1981 conspiracy film Blow Out doesn’t seem like it could possibly cohere as a drama. Its exploitation-movie-within-a-movie opening telegraphs the artifice, and that initial movie-world falseness seeps into the film’s action proper, most evidently in its resolutely simplistic depiction of big-city organizations—the police department, the hospital, the political campaign, the local evening newscast, the small-time extortion outfit. The film’s premise, thrown into gear when a presidential hopeful, mistress by his side, drives his car into the drink, is rather obviously designed to evoke those proper nouns—Chappaquiddick! Watergate! Zapruder!—most deeply associated with the improper underbelly of American politics. And, of course, De Palma’s not shy about pillaging Blow-Up and The Conversation for rudimentary plot points.


Yet despite the transparently piecemeal setup and the visibility of filmmaking apparatuses throughout (the lead character, Jack, a sound recordist played by John Travolta, works for a Philadelphia-based B-movie production company), Blow Out is no mere mechanical thing.


De Palma manages to imbue the film with what’s missing from many of his scuzz fests and Hitchcock remixes: real (paranoid) feeling. Jack eventually cobbles together a film mockup of the politician’s demise by syncing his own audio recordings from the scene with a flipbook series of paparazzo shots he finds in a magazine. Jack’s reel suggests the accident was not so accidental, and the evidence likewise must be painstakingly ‘produced.’ De Palma’s nightmare here, underscored by the climactic Liberty Day fireworks backdrop, is of a country entirely in thrall to official-story dream factories.”

Original U.S. theatrical trailer:

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