Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Better Scream: Criterion's DVD release of Brian De Palma's Blow Out (1981)

Contrary to popular opinion, there have been far too few good political conspiracy thrillers over the years. Most, like The Parallax View (1974), are so content creating faceless and sinister cabals that we become helpless pawns in a predetermined chess match. While there have been some imaginative and daring experiments like John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962), or fast-paced exciting melodramas like Costa-Gavras' Z (1969), none have had the prescience and the personal obsession of Brian De Palma's consummate thriller Blow Out (1981). Released today by Criterion (on both regular and Blu-ray DVD), in a sparkling new digital transfer supervised by the director, Blow Out is the sharpest, most devastating, American conspiracy picture. It's also one that audiences and critics either ignored (or dismissed) when it was first released thirty years ago.

Although Brian De Palma was part of the American film renaissance of the seventies, which brought us such gifted and original directors as Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver), Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show), Hal Ashby (The Landlord, Shampoo), Francis Coppola (The Godfather I & II), Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), he never quite achieved the critical (or audience) acclaim that his peers did. People weren't exactly indifferent to him. Often he would inspire scorn. Even violence. When I took a good friend on opening night to see Blow Out, at its conclusion, when I asked him what he thought, he took a swing at me. Luckily, I was quick to duck.

Director Brian De Palma.
Throughout his career, De Palma has had to do some ducking of his own. From his earliest underground political and social satires (Greetings, Hi Mom!) to his expressionistic horror thrillers (Carrie, The Fury) and the sexual reveries (Dressed to Kill), De Palma (unlike his contemporaries) presented himself sardonically as an ironist. Where Martin Scorsese treated violent dramatic subjects with a reverence for the art form, De Palma chose a more irreverent attitude. He treated film history as a form of farce pulling the rug out from under our more hopeful expectations. But unlike Michael Haneke (Caché), who plays intellectual abstract games with the audience (while emotionally distancing the viewer), De Palma brought a sweeping emotional intensity to his work that seductively drew you in. When he sprang sublime jokes in the climax, he cleverly implicated us in our very basic desire to watch, to indulge our forbidden desires.

Like Hitchcock before him, De Palma uses voyeurism as a dramatic strategy, not an end game. But where Hitchcock employed that strategy to provide sophisticated thrills (ones that ultimately made him a popular master of suspense), De Palma went deeper and further into darker considerations of what constitutes suspenseful entertainment and what are its costs. Not a recipe for box office (or critical) success. When he made Blow Out, De Palma had been already developing a suspense style that was both cheeky and riveting. Sometimes the horror would be oddly funny (which would only intensify the suspense). Sometimes the comedy only made the suspense more heart-stopping. In Blow Out, he fused the underground political attitudes of his early work with the horror genre techniques he'd been perfecting in Carrie, The Fury and Dressed to Kill. In doing so, he created an explosively cunning dramatic style that stripped away the irony from his intent and questioned with frank honesty a key romantic impulse; one where the artist believes he can use the technology of his craft to undo a political crime.

John Travolta as Jack Terry.
Jack Terry (John Travolta) is a sound-effects man who works on exploitation horror movies. One evening, he ventures out to record fresh sounds for his latest picture. While doing so, he records the sound of a car going off a bridge and careening into a small lake. Diving in, he rescues Sally (Nancy Allen), a woman trapped in the vehicle. But the male driver is already dead. After taking her to the hospital, he discovers that the man was Governor McRyan, a leading candidate for President. Though the Governor's aides convince Jack to keep quiet about the presence of the lady (to protect the Governor's honour with his family), he soon discovers that this was no accident. He hears a sound on his tape that suggests that the tire was shot out by a gunman. Instead of a blow-out, he suspects a political assassination of a popular candidate. Jack soon employs Sally to help him uncover the conspiracy, while Burke (John Lithgow), the hired shooter, sets out to make Jack appear like a crank and kill Sally as part of a series of sex slayings to tie up all the loose ends and preserve the crime.

Nancy Allen as Sally.
Blow Out arrived shortly after the election of Ronald Reagan as President. While the texture of the story is filled with tissue samples of the Kennedy assassination, Chappaquiddick, Watergate, the Zapruder film, the tone of the film anticipates more the political inertia of the coming Reagan era. When Jack tries to get investigators involved in using his tapes to uncover the crime, the authorities are more interested in preserving the memory of the fallen Governor than bringing to justice the people who murdered him. The news networks are more concerned with the sensational side of Jack's story rather than the evidence and what it reveals about the current state of the country. Blow Out anticipated a decade where Americans began to sleepwalk through their history along with a President who took refuge in nostalgia.

James Stewart in Rear Window.
But De Palma isn't just indicting his country's passivity in Blow Out, he's also pointing the finger at himself. It's no accident that the movie takes place in Philadelphia, the birthplace of the United States as well as that of the director. In this movie, De Palma is asking serious questions about what genre techniques are for and what do they ultimately mean. Blow Out opens with a clip from Co-Ed Frenzy, the schlocky sex-horror picture that Jack is working on, where sex and murder are nothing more than the familiar conditioned shocks of a tired genre. De Palma cleverly shows how our own Pavlovian response to this cheesy horror flick is no different than that of his unquestioning nation (a nation acquiescing to the pandering news media). He portrays Jack as a victim of his own fantasy. Resembling James Stewart's photographer in Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), Jack hides within his craft. In Rear Window, Stewart (who is injured and incapacitated in a wheelchair) distances himself from the intimacy of his relationship with Grace Kelly by taking cover gazing through the lens of his camera and watching his neighbours. When he thinks one of them has murdered his wife, he gets involved by trying to solve it. But it's Grace Kelly who takes the physical risks in uncovering the evidence of the crime. Since Stewart is physically crippled, though, we can still conveniently sympathize with his passivity. But Jack Terry isn't in a wheelchair. When he lets Sally take the risks, as he hides behind his wire and headset, his fate has far darker consequences than James Stewart's in Rear Window.

John Lithgow as Burke.
Despite Jack's flaws, though, John Travolta imbues him with such casual warmth and intensity that he floods the screen with empathy. It's clearly his strongest screen work. Nancy Allen, who was De Palma's wife at the time (and who had acted opposite Travolta in Carrie), brings a softly seductive openness to her easily corruptible callgirl. You understand immediately why Jack is taken with her; her escapist enthusiasm is the other side of the coin to Jack's cloistered cynicism. John Lithgow is eerily effective as the clean-up man, the psychopath who spouts rationalizations out of G. Gordon Liddy. He's Jack's shadow side using his craft to cover up the crime. And he's just as detail oriented. When Burke discovers at one point that he has time to kill before meeting his intended victim, he casually decides to kill someone with his free time, adding to his rising body count.

The Kennedy assassination is the perfect crime to appeal to Brian De Palma - both politically and aesthetically. From an artist's view, you have multiple perspectives of a killing, seen by witnesses, an unwitting filmmaker (Abraham Zapruder trying out his new 8mm camera), and a television news media discovering how much their medium has visually dramatic possibilities. We get all this information, all these conflicting views, but we still seem uncertain as to what is really the truth.

Blow Out is also about movies. De Palma's idea is inspired by both Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966), where a photographer unwittingly photographs a murder; and Francis Coppola's The Conversation (1974), which stars Gene Hackman as a surveillance expert who secretly records a conversation that may precipitate a murder. But Blow-Up, in the classically glacial style of its director, imposes its ennui on the folks of swinging London. They move, as British writer Paul Coates once described, "like the drowned under water." In The Conversation, Gene Hackman's skilfully adroit performance simply reveals a man who's so hermetic that he has no inner life to expose. But Blow Out has a boldly colourful vibrancy where, at the centre of the film, there's a man whose world is shaped only by his art. Vilmos Zsigmond's night shade cinematography, which uses bold pastel colours - reds, whites and blues - has the city rain splatter those colours across windows, creating a nightmarish storybook of the country's legacy. (At one point, Jack's car careens into a window display of Nathan Hale featuring Patrick Henry's "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death.")

The picture's unnerving and uncompromising conclusion no doubt led to my friend needing to take a shot at me. It also doomed the film. But the ending is key to understanding the urgency of the picture. The opening moments of Blow Out allowed us to laugh at the recognizable genre clichés indulged in Co-ed Frenzy. Murder has become a predictable component of screen entertainment. It doesn't exact a price. But part of Jack's goal throughout the movie was to find a better murder scream to authenticate a woman's death in Co-ed Frenzy. He does find that better scream. It comes however at a terrible human cost. Murder soon recovers its true potency, its pure horror, rather than remaining a horror movie trope. Writing in Rolling Stone when Blow Out was released, critic Michael Sragow (who contributes a new essay on the film in the DVD booklet) remarked, "The movie starts out like a game of 'What's wrong with this picture?' and then adds another game: 'What's wrong with this sound?' Then it dares to ask the most puzzling question of all: 'What's wrong with this country?'" So what happened in the years that followed? The country continued to sleep. Blow Out is a passionate wake-up call.

**The DVD also includes a rather rambling, unfocused interview with De Palma by film maker Noah Baumbach (Mr. Jealousy, Margot at the Wedding); a charming and informative recent discussion with Nancy Allen; a lovely collection of photos from the set by Louis Goldman; a funny interview with steadicam cameraman Garrett Brown (who shot Co-Ed Frenzy); along with Michael Sragow's essay is Pauline Kael's original New Yorker review; and the bonus is the remastered re-release of De Palma's 1967 feature Murder à la Mod (which is partially seen in Blow Out on Manny Karp's TV).**

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Courrier continues his lecture series on Film Noir (Roads to Perdition) this Tuesday at the Revue Cinema in Toronto at 7pm. His five-part lecture series, Forbidden Desires: The Films of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma, begins at the JCC Prosserman on Wednesday, April 27th from 1pm-3pm.

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