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.


Blake said...

Another great entry, Mr. Peel. I too get tired of hearing the same old criticisms of De Palma, I think he's a wonderful artist whose love for movies comes through in just about everything he does. Wish I'd seen this double feature, though I did catch Dressed To Kill a few years back at the NB (with Carrie!) and it was a lot of fun. Also, I think John Lithgow plays one of the flat-out scariest villians in cinema history in this film--and to think, the guy can do slapstick comedy, too! Now that is talent.

TERRENCE said...

EXCELLENT BLOG! I really wished I could've gone.

le0pard13 said...

This is another great review to add to your canon, Mr. Peel. As much as I appreciate De Palma films, this one had me a bit depressed exactly for what you've written here (including Reagan... Bush). If it's on, I'll watch it for a bit. But, since I remember taking this in when it first came out, I remember it too well it seems. Still, Brian is still quite the artist and his works (from whatever era) are worth remembering. Thanks for this.

Unknown said...

"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)"

This is an awesome observation and one I hadn't thought of before but once you mentioned it, it made perfect sense. BLOW OUT is definitely right up there as one of my fave De Palma films and one I enjoy revisiting frequently. He really knows how to crank up the tension in a given scene and does this through the editing and the music - at times, it is almost unbearable, like when Lithgow's character almost kills Allen that first time. I still white knuckle it at key moments even though I've seen the film numerous times.

Staci Layne Wilson said...

Thanks for another great overview of not only the movie, but the fun and education at the New Bev. I do wish I could have found the time to go, but... now I feel just like I was there! I caught Blow Out while channel surfing a few weeks ago, and even though I've seen it many times it hooked me again. That's the thing with De Palma: even when he's bad (hello, Black Dahlia!), he's very, very good.

Unknown said...

"...a lone nut hired by the conspiracy who engineers his very own plot against the wishes of those allegedly pulling the strings."

It reminds me of another film from the same period, VIDEODROME.

Great piece.

Don Mancini said...

For me, BLOW OUT has so much that's legitimately brilliant, I persist in loving it despite its flaws. I agree with Dennis Cozzalio that the first 20 minutes contain some of De Palma's best work ever. CO-ED FRENZY is a hilarious parody of early-'80s slashers. (I especially love the masturbating co-ed, and the glimpse in the mirror of the knife-wielding-yet-ridiculous-looking maniac.) In the next scene, I love how De Palma, with his jump cuts, isolates the labeled sounds on the instrument board. I also love the very funny dialogue and interplay between Jack and his crass director. ("Know any good screamers?" "I got a few ideas.") The VU-meter title presentation is one of the most thrilling uses EVER of such graphics. Then, the split-screen sequence is incredibly stimulating in its precision, the way De Palma (and Hirsch?) take care to maintain opposing visual scales on either side of the split (extreme close-ups of the sound equipment on the left; medium and long shots of people on the right; and the whole collage always popping, changing, evolving, with the sounds on the left often amusingly commenting on the people on the right). The sequence on the bridge is also stunning, with its thrilling use of De Palma's patented jump cuts to slowly disclose, and continuously expand, Travolta's (and our) understanding of the environment and the locations and sources of the various sounds.

But my biggest problem with the film is that the entire plot is specifically dependent on the stupidity of Nancy Allen's character. This is not a knock on Allen's often very funny, stylized, Judy Holliday-esque performance. And the character does become legitimately touching late in the game, when she finally admits that she has had a hand in murder, and wants to set things right. But the plot's contrivances begin, as Mr. Peel points out, with Travolta's illogical insistence on wiring Sally -- a course of action which previously led to disaster. Now, I think we might be inclined to give this a pass, on the grounds that Travolta is reenacting some sort of existential tragic flaw. But then, this contrivance is compounded by Sally's ignorance: She doesn't know what Frank Donahue looks like, since she doesn't watch the news ("It's too depressing"); hence, she can be handily fooled by an imposter. My problem is that THE PLOT ITSELF is utterly dependent on these TWO contrivances, working in tandem. Plus, I think the film would have more impact if Sally had been less an idiot, nattering incessantly about make-up and movie stars. Certainly Travolta's attraction to her would seem more plausible. As it is, I find it hard to believe that he's sincerely attracted to her; instead, it seems like he's manipulating her in order to get to the bottom of things, and I don't think that was the intention. Maybe Nancy Allen felt that playing Sally as a smart, street-wise cynic would have been too similar to her character in DRESSED TO KILL. And Mr. Peel makes a valid point about the danger of Sally's character seeming too similar to Jack's. (I remember reading De Palma's treatment for the script, then called PERSONAL EFFECTS, in the now defunct Canadian film magazine TAKE ONE. In the treatment, Sally's character wasn't ditzy at all.)

ALSO: Although I find Lithgow's performance creepy and amusing, I don't really buy him as a character (or even as a human being, for that matter).

FINALLY: When Jack insists on driving his truck into the parade crowds at 60 mph, he seems quite insane (or stupid).

And yet, despite it all, it's a great movie, or nearly so, a brilliantly stylized pastiche expressing the political paranoia of the era.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Thanks very much, glad you liked it. And yes, his clear love for movies and what he's doing is much of what I respond to in his films.


THANK YOU! That really means a lot. Sorry you couldn't be there!


Thanks to you, but as I mentioned it depressed me a little as well. And yet, if it were playing somewhere right now, I'd still go see it again.


Many thanks to you for that. With how a movie like this is pieced together through his work with Paul Hirsch and that fantastic music--hell, even when it's slightly dated like it is sometimes here--you truly feel all the elements coming together and it makes me want to see this again and again.


Thank you so much for checking in. Very sorry you weren't able to be there but glad you got such a strong feeling of the night! BLACK DAHLIA is a movie that actually fascinated me a little (please note: I'm not saying I think it's good) and I've thought about writing something on it but so far I just haven't had it in me. In the case of this director for now I'd rather focus on the films that I love, like this one.


My thanks to you. That means a great deal.


I may think that some of the behavior can be rationalized but that doesn't mean that I think these criticisms are without validity. So am I reaching, trying to avoid seeing flaws in a movie that I love so much? I'm not sure.

Funny, I've seen some pieces out there referring to Lithgow as a G. Gordon Liddy type, acting on his own for what he believes is the greater good of the country, as shown by the Liberty button he wears. It always feels to me like there are enough unspoken elements of Lithgow's persona that I can buy him as a character--but as a human being? I'll think about that one.

But I'll flat out admit that I totally, completely agree with what you say about Jack driving into the parade. That stuff may bug me more than anything else. Anyway, many thanks to you for your fantastic comments!

Don Mancini said...

Mr. Peel -- I don't think you're necessarily reaching. One could argue that Sally's ignorance was very much De Palma's point, that the almost WILLFUL ignorance and media-fed vapidity of many people, like Sally, is an insurmountable problem in our democracy, and one of the reasons "the bad guys" can manipulate the system. It's just that for me, in this particular film, Sally's dopiness somewhat lowers the stakes vis-a-vis the drama. And, as I said, her vapidity makes it harder for me to buy Jack's attraction to her.

Thanks again for your great review, and for starting a discussion about this endlessly fascinating movie.

Unknown said...

I had the pleasure of meeting you that night at the Beverly, and I have to say that it was indeed a great night and a fantastic crowd for the event.

I hope you also write about Femme Fatale. Your take on the ending was particularly revelatory.

Robert H. said...

There was a film magazine in the late 70's - I think the title was TAKE ONE - that featured DePalma in an issue; there was a pretty lengthy interview, an article about the making of HOME MOVIES, and BLOW OUT in treatment form. The issue was released sometime in 1979, I think.

Unknown said...

Mr. Peel:

I also wanted to add that I just bestowed the Versatile Blogger Award for all the great work you do on your blog:

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


I totally get what you're saying, I suppose that for me by a certain point in watching the film the portrayal of Sally and how endearing she is just works. Very glad that you liked the piece!


Great meeting you there as well. Thanks for liking what I said about FEMME FATALE. I still don't know if I have it in me to try writing something about that one!


I've heard vague mentions of that article on line but have never seen it. I wonder if it can be found somewhere out there in the world.


Many, many thanks to you for that!

Ned Merrill said...

Probably my favorite De Palma film...I saw it as a teen just when I was really getting to appreciate film as art. Luckily, this was just around the time that BLOW OUT was released widescreen on laserdisc so I've managed to avoid P&S screenings altogether. I can see the flaws that have been mentioned here and they have bothered me, but I'm mostly able to look past them because of how clearly and refreshingly De Palma's mastery of the medium comes through. I am continually mesmerized by the sequences in which Travolta reconstructs the pivotal event through his expert knowledge of the cinematic medium...maybe the best proof for the "Jack as De Palma" theory.

And, I know and love the Donaggio score, and the limited edition soundtrack that was released several years ago is a prized possession. Love those source tracks, which belie Donaggio's pop roots, particularly "Coed Frenzy Disco," which I always hit repeat on when it plays on my Shuffle.

I have a family connection to a prolific session guitarist who it turns out played on the soundtrack recording (all the musicians are credited in the liner notes, which is how I learned this), but he, alas, only recalled it as one of many jobs at the time.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I LOVE that score but all I've got are the several tracks on that De Palma/Donaggio compilation CD. "Coed Frenzy Disco" is a pretty damn infectious piece of music in the film.

It's been several weeks now, but you've got me thinking again about how much I love this film.