Blow Out

Blow Out ★★★½

Sandwiched between the release of Dressed to Kill, Brian De Palma’s problematic-yet-enthralling Hitchcock-giallo hybrid, and Scarface, his immortal cocaine-and-testosterone explosion, Blow Out might be De Palma at his least reluctant to call attention to himself, or, perhaps, at his most joyous over the pure possibilities of filmmaking. Split screens, split diopters, disorienting wide-screen compositions, and paranoia-inducing, voyeuristic camera moves abound. And John Travolta! Here in the prime of his first-wave strength — both as an actor and a physical specimen — he needs no embellishment, though that doesn’t stop De Palma from photographing every millimeter of him from every angle.

As sound effects editor Jack Terry, Travolta is the avatar for De Palma’s myriad cinematic compulsions: A Hitchcockian wrong man; an emotionally burdened obsessive; an unconcealed descendent of Blow-Up; a proud contemporary of The Conversation; a highbrow filmmaker with lowbrow tastes. Most poignantly, De Palma asks Jack to expose his fellow Boomers’ abdication of their once-rebellious agenda. To wit:

While out recording wild sound for a low-budget horror movie (the opening slasher parody is worth the price of admission) Jack witnesses, and captures the audio of, a political assassination: A lone gunman shoots at a prominent Presidential candidate’s car, which flies off a bridge and into a river. The candidate dies, but Jack manages to rescue a woman trapped in the car. She is, of course, not the candidate’s wife. And so we have the fall of 60’s idealism bookended in one quick sequence: the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the ingnominy of Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddic incident. Leaders destroyed, leaders exposed. As we’ll learn, the people behind the killing didn’t mean it to go so wrong; they just wanted what they wanted, and didn’t consider the consequences. Sound familiar? Jack, like De Palma, is still a troublemaker with wide-open eyes (and ears) and he’s here to expose his generation’s scandalous abdication of moral responsibility. 

Nancy Allen plays the woman Jack rescues, Sally Badina, and unfortunately she doesn’t get as substantive a metaphorical assignment. In the previous year’s Dressed To Kill, Allen played a competent, sharp-witted prostitute; here she gets downgraded to a gum-snapping cocktail bunny. She’s game, as ever, and her comfort with Travolta as they become a detective duo (they starred together in De Palma’s Carrie, of course) keeps her from disappearing — but her born yesterday role doesn’t carry much thematic or cinematic weight. (It may be an actual tribute to Born Yesterday, since she seems to be doing a light Judy Holliday.) In one problematic scene, Jack gently explains to her what sound effects are and smiles condescendingly as she discusses the nuances of applying makeup. (She’s an aspiring makeup artist, too.)

Other professionals use Sally for their ends as well. They include Manny (Dennis Franz) a sleazeball photographer for whom Sally lures married men into extortion-worthy tableaus, and Burke (John Lithgow) a rogue hitman with plans to involve Sally in his own bizarre scheme. (In one scene Burke mewls pathetically into a payphone to mislead the police while maintaining narrow-eyed surveillance of his surroundings. And so, Lithgow shows us the acting equivalent of a flashy De Palma tracking shot). So much offhand disregard for Sally’s humanity is thematically necessary, but it would have been nice to see her as more than an object to point a camera at. Then again, De Palma himself loves pointing his camera at Allen — they were married when they made this movie — and their mutual enthusiasm becomes ours.

De Palma reserves the most pure excitement for his depictions of pre-digital film editing craft. The tactile pleasures of cutting film, marking tape with grease pencils, rewinding, fast-forwarding, threading reels, dropping film off to be developed — and nudging the overworked grouch behind the counter to hurry it up — play with almost sexual urgency. For the modern viewer, it’s a museum-quality record of a lost trade, and a reminder of how much purpose, commitment, and training was required just to sync some audio to images. To do it, the movie tells us, you have to want to do it, even need to do it. 

Jack is one such obsessive, and this quality compels him both to learn the truth and to disregard the welfare of those he enlists to help him. Sure, De Palma says, if you behave this way you can hit your mark, get your shot, reveal something new. But is it worth it? That’s a question someone like Jack will never ask.

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