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Wednesday, August 26, 2009
The passing of Ted Kennedy has inspired at least two bloggers to recall Brian De Palma's Blow Out, which had definite echoes of the infamous Chappaquiddick incident from 1969. In that incident, following a party on Chappaquiddick Island, Mary Jo Kopechne was found dead inside Kennedy's overturned car, which was submerged in a tidal channel. Kennedy had left the scene of the incident, and later said that the night before, he had taken a wrong turn and accidentally drove off a bridge and into the water. A scandal quickly took hold, and Kennedy's presidential hopes seemed forever scarred by the whole affair. Conspiracy theories emerged, as well, as Kennedy had apparently driven down the original road (before he made that "wrong turn") on several occasions, and also altered his story in a televised address about a week later.

Jordon Hoffman at UGO Movie Blog today wrote a "thank you" to Kennedy "for Brian De Palma's Blow Out." After listing several TV and films that feature Ted Kennedy-types, Hoffman writes: The death of a prostitute and its subsequent cover-up in Fredo Corleone’s brothel in Godfather II was certainly meant as an echo to the Chappaquiddick incident of 1969.

One film, however, took Chappaquiddick and ran all the way with it. And it’s a great film, too. Brian De Palma’s Blow Out from 1981 is, for me, the swan song of the great paranoid political thrillers of the 1970s. These films, kickstarted by John Frankenheimer with The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds include The Parallax View, The Conversation, Chinatown and Three Days of the Condor. If you haven’t seen all of these titles, see them now. They are fantastic. The genre still exists (Enemy of the State, David Mamet’s Spartan and Eagle Eye all have their value) but Blow Out was the last true masterpiece of the genre.

So, what is Blow Out? Wasn’t that a show about a hair stylist? Blow Out, starring the not-yet-embarrassing John Travolta, is a true film-lover’s film. In it, Travolta plays a post-production sound engineer for low budget horror pictures - working out of Philadelphia of all places. One night he is out recording ambient sound on his Paleolithic analogue sound equipment and he witnesses an auto accident. A Governor with Presidential aspirations and his pretty young thing end up in the drink. What at first seems like a tire blowing out is soon discovered to be a gun shot.

Travolta then uses the power of cinema to expose a massive government conspiracy. Indeed, not until 2009 and the release of Inglourious Basterds will we see the nuts and bolts of pure cinema so deliberately conquer evil.

But as our hero is splicing, mixing, animating still photos and changing reels (AVIDs be damned! Fetch me my razor and sticky tape!) De Palma exposes another great conspiracy: how the magic of the movies is made. Once we get to the final act, and the split-screens, color saturation, tracking shots and slo-mo are flying in ever direction, we find ourselves in pure film lover paradise.

So, yes, Teddy Kennedy. I know I should be thanking you for the health care reform and the advancement of civil rights. But I’d be lying to myself (and to you) if I didn’t say that you’ve touched me most by inspiring Brian De Palma to create Blow Out, one of my favorite whacked-out thrillers of all time.

In a brief post titled "Ted Kennedy and the Cinema," the New Yorker's Richard Brody recalls how Kennedy's presidential hopes were dashed in 1980:

I remember the hope that we liberal Democrats held, in 1980, that he’d prevail in a floor fight at the Convention. It wasn’t so, and Ronald Reagan was the result. So the tight chain of causality seemed to my callow young self, at least. Well, he wasn’t President, but the next year, he was a movie: Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, starring John Travolta as a sound recordist who (shades of Antonioni’s Blow-Up) studies a tape for evidence that a Chappaquiddick-like accident he coincidentally recorded was actually a plot. In De Palma’s film, it’s the politician who dies and his female passenger who survives; I was happy to see Travolta in a new sort of role, but disappointed that De Palma didn’t stick closer to docu-drama. Sometimes an accident is just an accident; the randomness of life is what the cinema, or, rather, its screenwriters, have more trouble with. And maybe what people everywhere have trouble with: there’s the desire to think of history as the product of intelligent design, too, even when its presumed designers are often malevolent.

Posted by Geoff at 11:58 PM CDT
Updated: Thursday, August 27, 2009 12:02 AM CDT
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