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Criticwire Classic of the Week: Brian De Palma’s ‘Blow Out’

Criticwire Classic of the Week: Brian De Palma's 'Blow Out'

Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled
out for attention. This is the
Criticwire Classic of the
Week
.

“Blow Out”
Dir: Brian De Palma
Criticwire Average: A

John Travolta is presenting at the Oscars this weekend, no doubt in an attempt to make fun of that “Adele Dazeem” slip-up that stopped being funny about a week after it happened. Before he became an irrepressible ham and punchline with questionable taste in scripts, however, Travolta was one of the most exciting stars to emerge in years, and he got the best showcase for his talents in Brian De Palma’s masterpiece “Blow Out.” Mixing the hooks of Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” (murder mystery caught via photograph) and Coppola’s “The Conversation” (murder plot uncovered via sound recording), De Palma made his best film about the power and the limits of film and voyeurism, as well as his most emotionally devastating work.

Travolta stars as Jack Terri, a sound man for sleazy slasher movies who witnesses and records a car accident that kills a potential presidential candidate. He saves Sally (Nancy Allen, De Palma’s wife at the time), a prostitute who was in the limo with the man, but finds evidence in his recording that he’s witnessed a political assassination. Soon he and Sally are pursued by the fixer who orchestrated the accident (a creepy John Lithgow).

Travolta plays a charming, intelligent man who’s slumming until he finds something that he needs to believe and someone he needs to care about; his physical sensitivity in his scenes with Allen are some of the quietest, most effective moments of his career. Allen’s equally strong as the good-natured Sally, whose disarming sweetness belies her guilt over her involvement with the assassination. Their emotionally direct work simultaneously grounds and elevates De Palma’s baroque stylings, which have never seemed more purposeful. A terrific scene that shows Jack putting the accident together in his mind bit-by-bit as he listens to his tapes illustrates the director’s ingenuity with visual storytelling, as well as Travolta’s precise work (he really looks like he knows his way around a sound board). A celebrated shot that continuously revolves 360 degrees as Jack realizes his tapes of the incident have been erased conveys the desperation and sense of hopelessness as his mind and body race, trying to find any sign of what he’s recorded. 

De Palma orchestrates some of his greatest set-pieces in the film, from the slow burn that leads up to the accident to the hilarious parody of bad slasher films that opens up the film, only to reveal it’s the latest bit of schlock Travolta is working on. The film gets a good laugh out of how none of the actresses called in to do the scream in the film-within-a-film are convincing, but De Palma brings that moment back at the film’s gut punch ending and epilogue. Jack has spent the whole film focusing on details without being able to clarify it for anyone else and observing without being able to fully protect those he cares about, and an American celebration in Philadelphia carries on as another tragedy occurs. Jack is able to bring some emotional truth to a phony scene, but at a great cost that only he can know. It’s a bitterly ironic, tragic ending, and De Palma’s creative peak. 

More thoughts from the web:

Vincent Canby, The New York Times

Yet 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. Read more.

Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times

Best of all, this movie is inhabited by a real cinematic intelligence. The audience isn’t condescended to. In sequences like the one in which Travolta reconstructs a film and sound record of the accident, we’re challenged and stimulated: We share the excitement of figuring out how things develop and unfold, when so often the movies only need us as passive witnesses. Read more.

William Goss, Film.com

It’s a rightfully cynical perspective for De Palma to take, and one ripe for all of his thriller machinations to play out. Characters are constantly framed by windows and backed by mirrors, either always watching or always being watched, and every suspicion takes place against the backdrop of patriotic celebration in Philadelphia, previously the center of colonial resistance when enough men took umbrage with their deceitful government. Alas, Jack is all alone, fighting against parades and fireworks and smiling faces to get to the truth, to explain a death and save a life. He ultimately gets that perfect scream he needed, at too great a cost, and as De Palma returns to that schlocky horror movie from the beginning, he perfectly contrasts movies that reveal the truth against those which avoid it – a blood-drenched yet stake-free slasher vs. the far more insidious horrors of all-American living. Read more.

Eric Henderson, Slant Magazine

In “Blow Out,” Jack’s mission and strategy are always crystal clear—to him. It’s the rest of the world that seems eager to trip into the oblivion of permanent political amnesia. As he continually attempts to blow the whistle on what increasingly appears to have been an assassination, he’s repeatedly told, “No one cares.” Activism, awareness, and anarchy alike are all atrophied. Read more.

Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

“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. Read more.

Michael Koresky, Reverse Shot

Nancy Allen’s never been sweeter than in “Blow Out,” and the audio recording of her final moments is as memorable for her Philadelphia-girl gum-snapping earnestness as for her pleadings for mercy (we remember the way she pronounces “Sugah-babies,” as much as anything else). But her glow can’t be sustained: ultimately “Blow Out” is so much more than an expression of individual impotence—it’s a filmmaker’s admittance of his own culpability in an exploitative genre and industry. “Dressed to Kill” ended with a horrified shriek, as Nancy Allen’s haunted prostitute Liz wakes up from her final nightmare, gripping her throat where she dreamed she’d been slashed. The unrepentantly grim provocations of “Dressed to Kill,” which incited accusations of misogyny from understandably outraged factions who didn’t appreciate the nearly erotic hyper-stylization of the razor-slashed deaths of philandering housewives and loose hookers, lead straight to Blow Out’s opening joke, but also to its grim conclusion. By connecting his own aesthetic to exploitation films, De Palma asks what exploitation really means. Read more.

Paul Schrodt, Slant Magazine

“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. Read more.

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