Patron Pick – Blow Out

This is a special reward available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 a month levels. Each month those patrons will pick a film for me to review. If they choose, they also get to include some of their own thoughts about the movie. This Pick comes from Matt Harris.

Blow Out (1981)
Written & Directed by Brian De Palma

In 1966, Italian director Michaelangelo Antonioni wrote & directed Blow-Up, a mystery film about a fashion photographer who believes he may have caught a crime on film while shooting in a park. When director Brian De Palma was working on Dressed to Kill, he started to think about reframing Antonioni’s film around sound rather than images. By late 1980, De Palma was shooting Blow Out in his hometown of Philadelphia, working alongside many recurring collaborators. The result is a film made in the vein of dozens of 1970s political thrillers, wrapped up in the post-Watergate paranoia that has fueled Americans’ minds ever since. 

Jack Terry (John Travolta) is a sound technician working primarily on low-budget horror movies. His producer thinks his sound library has become too stale, so Jack heads out to a park one night to record some wind effects. While standing on a bridge, he sees a car careen off the road and crash into a nearby creek. Jack can save the female passenger, Sally (Nancy Allen), but the male driver is already dead. Later, at the hospital, Jack learns the driver was Pennsylvania governor George McRyan who’d recently been making a bid for the White House. Sally was an escort McRyan hired, and now his people are attempting to cover up the potential scandal.

When Jack goes back to listen to his recording, he hears a gunshot just before the car tire blows out, leading to the crash. By coincidence, a film hobbyist named Manny (Dennis Franz) also happened to be in the park that night. Frames from his footage of the car are published in the paper, allowing Jack to make a film of both the images and sounds to see & hear what happened. Meanwhile, a man named Burke (John Lithgow) is stalking Sally, and his connections to what happened that night could explode American politics. To keep things tamped down, he has designs on murdering Sally, but not before piling up bodies of similar-looking women to make it look like a serial killer at work to the authorities.

From a purely technical level, Blow Out is a fantastic film about the meticulous nature of sound mixing. There is a considerable amount of time spent on Jack cutting the images and sounds together, going over them repeatedly, and slowing things down until he captures the blast of a gun. I also think it highlights the importance of documentation and curation, experts in these technical fields are essential to bringing the truth to light if the system allows them. Unfortunately, Jack does not get a fairy tale ending where he’s lauded as a hero, the conclusion is exceptionally bleak here, but we see Jack as an unconventional hero who used his audio skills to help vulnerable people.

De Palma always wants to play with the audience’s perceptions, and the opening of Blow Out is masterful in that regard. The opening is a scene from the slasher movie Jack is doing sound on, but we don’t see that immediately. If you had been in the theater and unaware, you might have thought you had walked into the wrong screening. De Palma lets the scene go on for a while before clueing us in by one of the victims having a scream that doesn’t sound right. Then we move into the sphere of reality the actual film takes place in as Jack’s producer tells him he needs a better scream. This could just have been what it was, a clever way to open the picture. However, the conclusion ties back into the demand for a “better scream.” Now the opening bit of humor becomes a chilling coda, leaving Jack in a place that will haunt him for the rest of his life.

Blow Out is so unlike many of De Palma’s other films. It derives its tone from the director’s beloved Hitchock, but there’s a lot more happening here. De Palma spoke about shooting Blow Out “straight,” shooting without light diffusion that softens the image. You can look at pictures like Carrie or the aforementioned Dressed to Kill to see the director’s use of that cinematographic technique. It gives the film a hazy, dreamlike quality, making what happens to feel surreal. De Palma explained that while this isn’t the way he likes his movies to look, the grittier tone ultimately worked with the type of story Blow Out is telling. 

There are also no major set pieces like in many of De Palma’s other pictures. Two reels of footage from the Liberty Day parade that makes up the conclusion were stolen, and only parts could be reshot, so that would probably be the closest the film had to a set-piece. I think it works better that way; the final confrontation with Burke plays out reasonably quickly. Nothing is drawn out unnecessarily for dramatic effect. That quick, harsh plot beat that ends the story hits harder. We cannot escape into some lavish sequence with tons of extras and the surrounding streets. The main characters collide a few yards away from the parade, its fireworks still framing the events but something distant. It’s the only moment of the film where you get that De Palma surreality, the light of the fireworks playing off of characters’ faces. While there are still effects like split-screen and impressive overhead shots, they don’t feel as silly as they could come across in De Palma’s earlier work; they have a weight to them this time because of the nature of this story.

The ultimate lesson of Blow Up seems to be a lamentation on the limits of technology to better mankind. You can have the means to hold the truth inside the amber of audio & video, but you must still face a brutal authoritarian establishment that will simply grind you up and toss you away. We see this now with cold-blooded murder at the hands of police caught on smartphones, only to have the police and everyday reactionaries twist themselves in pretzels to justify these heinous actions. It’s not enough to have them on record anymore; they’ve just adapted to putting on blinders, living in their echo chamber.

American paranoia didn’t begin with the assassination of JFK or Watergate. These are watershed moments in the amplification of that paranoia. It has existed in Americans since the moment they double-crossed an indigenous person, well aware of what they deserved in return. It was felt in the brutal slave masters living in constant fear of an uprising. Some saw it play out in the Red Scare witch hunts of the 1950s, where communists and their ideologies were forever redefined incoherently by reactionaries. Paranoia is a form of guilt, and the paranoia we feel as a result of what happens in politics is partly a sense of guilt that we haven’t stopped it, mixed with fear of what they will do next. Jack lives in that mix, guilt about what he could have done and helplessness in the Lovecraftian knowledge of the darker powers that rule over things.


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