Thursday, June 17, 2010
A Good Scream
To dismiss Brian De Palma as nothing more than a Hitchcock imitator has always bored me. To dismiss BLOW OUT as nothing more than an imitation of other films makes me wonder if someone even bothered to see it. Yes, I’m aware of the whole BLOW UP/THE CONVERSATION thing and after all the times I’ve seen the movie a few issues still nag at me in the back of my head—Why doesn’t Travolta just take the film and drive right down to the TV station? Why doesn’t he just go inside the train station with Nancy Allen? And then…I forget about it. Part of the thing about BLOW OUT is that some of the problems that occur to me during the film seem to totally evaporate afterwards. Maybe it’s because of the ending. Maybe because I’ve just been dazzled by De Palma’s skill and confidence as a filmmaker, that feel of total cinema that comes from someone with his command of the frame. I would almost go so far as to argue that some of the issues that I or someone else might have with it—Nancy Allen’s performance, the clunkiness of some of the dialogue, the earnest naiveté expressed throughout—almost make sense once that ending hits and then a week later the damn thing still haunts me.
I can actually remember the film playing during the summer of 1981 when I went to see SUPERMAN II for the second time at Yonkers Movieland. Sure I was way too young to see it, but it’s amazing to think that it was playing right there. It almost makes me want to find a time machine and go back there to shout at people going into one of the other theaters and shout, “People, this is BLOW OUT! RAIDERS will still be playing for another six months! Go see BLOW OUT now!” I’ve gotten to see it in theaters a few times in the years since but I was definitely at the New Beverly to see it again at a double bill which paired it with De Palma’s borderline brilliant 2002 film FEMME FATALE, both showing as a part of Phil’s weeklong birthday celebration. Much like when DRESSED TO KILL was screened there several months ago some of the comments on the theater’s Facebook page didn’t hold back on expressing certain, um, opinions on the director—I say these are just angry, bitter people—but nevertheless the place was packed that night, as well it should have been. And some people there had never seen BLOW OUT before. You could kind of tell.
Philadelphia movie sound man Jack Terry (John Travolta) is in the midst of working on his latest film CO-ED FRENZY when, looking for some new sounds, goes out one night to a park to record some tracks. By happenstance he’s close by when a car careens off the nearby road into the lake right there and, acting quickly, Jack dives in and rescues a girl inside the car but the man at the wheel is already dead. It’s not until later at the hospital when Jack realizes that the man in question was Governor McRyan who many felt might have been elected the next president. McRyan’s people just want the girl Sally (Nancy Allen) to get out of town for a while to avoid embarrassment to his family but when Jack listens to his recording of the accident he becomes convinced that it wasn’t really an accident. Intent on getting the truth to come out Jack tries to enlist Sally to help him uncover just who is behind this conspiracy.
BLOW OUT sets itself apart from the other thrillers De Palma scripted himself partly in how it’s much more a complete narrative as opposed to the structural experimentation he often focused on. Even when the story seems to take a break for a few minutes for one of these sequences (mainly John Lithgow’s stalking of the hooker in the 30th Street Station) it does have a point in terms of the plot even if it’s somewhat obscured by all the other details—hell, even if you want to consider it a digression it’s still a pretty damn good one, coming complete with thirty minutes and thirty dollars. For all that people talk about what he’s lifting from other films De Palma’s work often does feel dosed with a strong touch of the personal, whatever that may be and this seems to be the case with BLOW OUT much more than usual. Travolta’s Jack Terry could easily be considered a stand-in for the director (or even the grown-up version of Keith Gordon’s character in DRESSED TO KILL) and with this character living in a building in the City of Brotherly Love with a neglected, tearing Washington & Franklin mural on the side seems to also place him as a surrogate for whatever De Palma had begun to feel about the world around him by the time he made this movie. What begins as a joke in this film—CO-ED FRENZY feels like him making his own joke of a De Palma movie as if he was giving everyone the coarsest version of all the sleaze they expected after DRESSED TO KILL—gradually transforms into something else as the director’s visual mastery takes hold. In its purely visual way of giving us information the storytelling is absolutely crystal clear in how it allows us to understand things that only a sound expert like Jack Terry can figure out, best exemplified in that simply awesome Scope shot where he pieces together in his head exactly what happened at the moment of the titular blow out. All hail Vilmos Zsigmond, while we’re at it. The economy of storytelling continues right up until the final minutes which always winds up lasting shorter than I expect it to, with just a handful of setups giving us a great amount of information but there’s no need to give us more than that. There’s hardly a wasted frame in the film.
And that joke we got in those several extended takes right at the start (slightly similar to something Tobe Hooper did in THE FUNHOUSE around the same time) gradually dissolves away, a small running gag in the film that seems to be forgotten about as the world closes in on the two leads. What becomes clear on those multiple viewings is that as much as we wish Jack would do a few things differently, there’s the overwhelming feeling that nothing can be done about any of this, the shadowy ‘they’ who are actually just as paranoid about everyone else yet still powerful enough to pull the strings. Frankly, it actually becomes kind of depressing for me to go over certain parts of the film again because of this. Coming from what was at that time over seventeen years of conspiracy talk surrounding the Kennedy assassination (using iconography from both that event and Chappaquiddick) against the bogus Americana of the Liberty Bell Jubilee he muddies the water to have it both ways—a lone nut hired by the conspiracy who engineers his very own plot against the wishes of those allegedly pulling the strings.
The biggest complaint people seem to have with the movie is the nature of the Nancy Allen character who in some ways is a case of having it both ways—a total innocent from De Palma’s perspective yet certainly complicit with being involved in ongoing blackmail schemes and who doesn’t watch the news because “it’s too depressing”. Of course, to make her more like Allen’s character in DRESSED TO KILL wouldn’t work since that would make her and Travolta too similar (I’ll bet that Liz in that movie didn’t pay much attention to the news herself beyond the financial page) and we need somebody like her—maybe not a complete innocent but one who’s ultimately completely unknowing to what’s really going on around her, somebody who we’ll always remember if we lose them. Maybe Travolta’s Jack Terry does make some stupid choices but even that seems to fall into the inevitability of it all—he’s only trying to get the truth to come out, after all. He doesn’t know what’s coming. I know that I have to admit that BLOW OUT isn’t perfect what with how Travolta seems to make the same rant about the truth coming out a few too many times and how that Pino Donaggio score feels half-perfect but also half-unfortunately dated. That still doesn’t mean I would change any of it. The continuous inspiration in every frame of BLOW OUT is a lot of what causes it to linger. It’s that feeling of De Palma’s aim of total cinema crashing into these real world events. How can you really reconcile the power of the image (and the sound that comes from it) with what’s really going on in front of you? When she reviewed the film Pauline Kael wrote one of those rare pieces where you imagine those who made the film weeping with joy after reading it, concluding with the simple statement, “It’s a great movie.” Almost thirty years after it was made, BLOW OUT still cuts deep. It’s still great.
It was probably a shock to see how good Travolta was then and it’s once again a shock now. There’s a true earnestness to his work here as someone making one final stab at redemption in spite of what has happened to him in the past and the genuine emotion that comes through in his performance was possibly never seen again in so effective a way by the actor ever again. It’s like his acting fire burned so bright that it could never quite get to that level again. Nancy Allen moves past the possible awkwardness of her early scenes to create someone who is completely endearing and she really does seem like somebody who it would be fun to go to New York with and see some shows, you know, like SUGAR BABIES and stuff. Dennis Franz oozes that J&B his character is drinking from his very pores and John Lithgow projects genuine danger in every scene he’s in—we really believe he’s capable of anything—and yet this was the very first time I picked up on a slight gesture he makes with a pay phone in one sequence which for me was one of the biggest laughs of the night.
The film’s editor Paul Hirsch appeared after the film for a discussion and while not offering much about how “personal” this film may have been to De Palma did discuss their mutual history (he cut eleven films for De Palma in addition to being one of the editors on STAR WARS) and also talked about how several reels of raw film from the parade sequence were stolen, meaning reshoots had to happen months after the fact (funny, something about the slo-mo of when Travolta’s jeep crashes through that window has always bugged me). Moving into general areas of their collaboration he responded to a question asked by Eli “The Bear Jew” Roth there among the audience about De Palma’s continued use of split screen through the years by surprisingly saying that he never liked the technique, thinking it was too intellectual as opposed to emotional. He also professed to dislike it because of how the way it sometimes affects stage direction and revealed that at one point during the climax of CARRIE he had the split screen slide from one half of the frame to the other to deal with this—the small revelations you sometimes get from these q&a’s. For the record, there was never any discussion about either BLOW UP or THE CONVERSATION by Hirsch—Chappaquiddick was mentioned briefly at one point and I couldn’t help but wonder how many people there had no idea what that was.
Several months ago when I wrote about seeing DRESSED TO KILL at the New Beverly I mentioned how based on the screams heard right before the ending the film was still able to get that reaction. The audible response of the crowd registering just what had been done by the film’s lead character at the very end of BLOW OUT, making it clear how many people there were seeing this for the first time, was considerably different and much more complicated, just like the movie. Looking at it now I thought of De Palma as this sixties hippie, getting burnt out, observing what had been going on in all those years since Dallas. I wondered it he was maybe using this ending as a statement to finally throw in the towel on all he once cared about, essentially saying, “we tried to make things better, none of it worked, you went and elected Reagan…just go fuck yourselves.” When something like November 7, 2000 comes to mind for me I think I understand and maybe BLOW OUT is about one final attempt by a person with regrets to engage with the real world, to truly do something to change it for the better, only to find out that such a dream is futile and you can never wipe what happened in the past from your brain. As it turned out FEMME FATALE, screened second that night at the New Beverly, was the ideal chaser to come after this, in a sense transforming all these regrets into a giddy vindication—both films, after all, conclude with the one of the leads finally putting the finishing touch on what he’s creating, something he’s been searching for the entire film. The revelation at the end of the second film is of course much more ludicrous, not to mention considerably more upbeat, but it also offers the feeling that maybe it is possible for a person to find some sort of peace within a work of art that they’re attempting to create. Maybe that was a conclusion that Brian De Palma himself, who after all is an artist, was able to come to in the intervening years, long after he made this bitterly cynical film in 1981. I was in a wonderful mood after this double bill, practically dancing out of the theater, although in the days since those final seconds of BLOW OUT have stayed with me, as I suppose I knew they would. I guess that’s the whole point.