AS WELL AS THE FILM'S POLITICAL & CINEMATIC MELTING POT OF INSPIRATIONS
Hello and welcome to the unofficial Brian De Palma website.
Here is the latest news:
a la Mod:
De Palma Masterclass, ------------- ------------ ------------
Casualties Of War,
and book signing
June 2 in Paris
Brian De Palma’s 1981 political thriller Blow Out was the first movie that dared address the events conjured by the single term "Chappaquiddick.” It was a generational provocation. De Palma, whose comedies Greetings, Phantom of the Paradise, and Hi, Mom! were obsessed with the JFK assassination, advanced to make a deeply emotional film reenacting a well-known loss of life (a supposedly disposable female victim played by Nancy Allen) and national disillusionment. De Palma raised that tragedy, involving both a callous political cover-up and society’s general naïveté, into larger concerns: Blow Out’s daring aesthetic examination of a film technician’s (John Travolta) cinematic-moral process that also expressed modern American despair. Blow Out is an overwhelming movie experience, a would-be classic if it weren’t all but ignored by today’s largely unprincipled film culture.
That’s why John Curran’s less flamboyant, more realistic approach in Chappaquiddick is such a moving surprise. Curran modestly takes on the historical events of the evening in 1969 when political campaigner Mary Jo Kopechne died in a submerged car, after Ted Kennedy accidentally drove the vehicle into the ocean. De Palma reimagined those incidents (including the cultural aftershock) with a combination of dreamlike intensity and paranoia. But Curran goes directly for the morally complex legend of the Massachusetts scion, to show how this political figure compromised himself.
In terms of both film and political history, Chappaquiddick is also a classic. Curran (and screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan) break away from the Kennedy legacy so beloved by mainstream media. But these filmmakers also oppose the Millennial tendency toward demonization. Maybe every media consumer should see this film to appreciate the humanity that Curran and company display. They commemorate Kopechne (Kate Mara’s performance blends simple sweetness and cagey ambition) and sympathize with Kennedy — balancing the motives of both follower and icon. This is the rare occasion when partisan animus is ignored to facilitate an understanding of human culpability. The movie doesn’t exonerate Kennedy, but it challenges viewers to ease off their judgmental reflex.
The cynical smartness that has afflicted contemporary journalism and made much recent cinema insufferable is confronted by Curran’s conscientious dramatic rigor. Condemning someone you disagree with has become the rage since the 2016 election, as too many people seek to justify their own prejudices and power, the nation be damned. Upon reflection, De Palma’s shot of Nancy Allen screaming before the backdrop of a defamed Old Glory may be the single movie image that is sufficiently magnificent and full of dread to sum up our political and emotional crisis. Chappaquiddick extends the irony of that image in its tale of a politician twisted by his damaged ego and the burden of responsibility.
Abu Hamdan’s vast works are politically focused, incorporating sounds in an interplay of noise and silence in conflict.
He unveiled his award winning work on the 21st of March, on the official opening of Art Dubai. “Walled Unwalled”, a single channel film projected on a glass wall covered in a special holographic foil that allows it to be reactive to light - dark elements of the image retain the glass walls natural transparency while the bright patches allow it to appear solid. The performance comprises of an interlinking series of narratives derived from legal cases that revolved around evidence that was heard or experienced through walls.
The Berlin-based artist has had marvelous successes over the years in using his knowledge and research in sound and surveillance technologies to produce works of art that translate well to a wide audience. His work is like nothing I have encountered before; it is moving, disturbing and raw.
A trained musician, fluent in the anatomy of audio production, Abu Hamdan is able to understand the causes of different types of distortion and noise, qualifying him to work on forensic audio investigations. His work and research mainly revolve around the manners of use and abuse of various kinds of audio.
He has compiled audio analyzes for legal investigations at the UK asylum tribunal, and advocacy for organizations such as Amnesty International and Defense for Children International. Forensic audio investigations are conducted as part of his research at Goldsmiths College at the University of London, where Abu Hamdan is a PhD candidate.
“It’s my formal training as an artist that has augmented this non-expert but proficient training in musical production,” said Abu Hamdan. “Think of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film ‘Blow-Up,’ or more aptly in this context, Brian De Palma’s 1981 thriller ‘Blow Out.’ In both, we see an artist (a photographer in ‘Blow-Up’ and a B-movie effects artist in ‘Blow Out’) become a murder investigator.
“The intensity with which these artist-protagonists see and hear the world in order to reproduce it — each paying very close attention to every grain of an image or every aspect of an audio track — is so great that both artists unintentionally find themselves in the position of being a forensic investigator.”
Abu Hamdan’s use of audiovisual installations expresses different themes, all of which revolve around the importance of bringing forth the truth. There is no room for lies or deceit, and we all know that science does not lie.
His work, “Saydnaya (The Missing 19db),” speaks of the struggles of surviving Syrian prisoners. The first of a series of articles of evidence produced by Abu Hamdan, it features people talking about their time in a prison where more than 13,000 people have been executed. Blindfolded most of the time, they developed an acute sensitivity to sound. Through their audio testimonies, Abu Hamdan is able to reconstruct the structure of the building and compile evidence of the torture and violence that took place there.
One of the most notable and moving aspects of this project is how the voice was heard before Saydnaya, and a gradual decrease as the voices are lowered at a 19 decibel drop — the disappearance of the voices and the voices of the disappeared.
Another project, “Earshot,” is an audio-ballistic analysis of gunshots recorded in May 2014, when Israeli soldiers in the occupied West Bank shot and killed two teenagers, Nadeem Nawara and Mohammed Abu Daher. The audio evidence aimed to determine whether the soldiers had used rubber bullets, as they claim, or broken the law by firing live ammunition at the two unarmed teenagers. The acoustic analysis, for which Abu Hamdan used special techniques designed to visualize the sound frequencies, established that live shots were indeed fired.
His 15-minute audio essay, “Language Gulf in the Shouting Valley,” captures the plight of the Druze split by the border between the occupied Golan Heights and Syria, where members gather and shout across the divide to family and friends on the other side.
“I see the role of the artist as documenting the world in an avant-garde way — a world that doesn’t yet accept these things as documents but will, at some point,” said Abu Hamdan. “What makes most sense for me as an artist now is to build on that, to believe that the forms of historical documentation and truth-determining we use today are inadequate, and to use experimental material and aesthetic practice as a means to produce new kinds of documents.”
Abu Hamdan goes on to explain that this method often involves focusing on what is in the background, the structural conditions, to propose a truth and to use the intensity of looking at and listening to the world, and to posit a different kind of truth-production through art — a truth-production that is not the law, that is not science, that has very different kinds of models of defining what the truth is. He believes that art offers a third way of doing that.
His focus and attitude toward his work is not like many artists. Instead of beautifying and simplifying his work, his experimentation with the physical and social effects of sounds in particular explores the plight of people and important issues in the region. His works are complex installations, difficult for some to fully grasp, but his emphasis on allowing sound to become more than just art allows them to become testimony is what is truly remarkable.
It all begins with a scream. Jack (John Travolta) is a sound technician working on a tawdry, low-budget slasher movie where the usual gaggle of photogenic teenagers gets hacked up by a knife-wielding maniac. The big problem for Jack is, the director doesn’t find the strangled, squeaky cry of the killer’s latest victim convincing enough. Jack and the director sit in the editing bay, glumly reviewing the footage, listening to the co-ed’s keening wail over and over again. Nope: it simply doesn’t work.
Jack’s quest to find a truthful-sounding, blood-curdling scream for the B-slasher provides the jumping-off point for Blow Out, director Brian De Palma’s mind-melting thriller murder, about political conspiracy and the power of the filmmaking medium. It also has what might be one of the most horrifying shock endings in 80s movies. I don’t mean horrifying in the sense of outright gore and violence, though Blow Out has more than a bit of that, as you’d expect from De Palma. No, Blow Out’s ending is horrifying in a psychological sense that hits you right between the ears; it’s the kind of conclusion that actively defies you not to sit bolt upright in your seat and say (or at least think):
“You can’t end a thriller like that. Can you?”
Yet as the credits roll, Blow Out leaves you to ponder what’s just happened. Jack’s final actions in the movie could be described as utter callousness, or more likely, the work of a man driven out of his mind by recent events and punishing himself by listening to the same piercing sound, over and over. The final scene could also be taken as an elaborate and incredibly twisted joke on the part of De Palma; a punch line to a gag which began with that first scream in Blow Out’s opening reel and paid off in its last. It says a great deal about the dark humour in so many of De Palma’s films that this latter reading is a remotely plausible one.
It was through thinking about my initial, knee-jerk reaction to Blow Out that I realised how carefully crafted and outright brilliant De Palma’s film is. I’d seen the movie before as a teenager, but I’d failed to understand the true gravity of that ending I’ve been talking about for two or three paragraphs already. Watching it again about 20 years later, I finally felt the weight and heft of Blow Out’s downbeat climax, its political cynicism and the totality of Jack’s failure in achieving the goals laid out for him as the film’s protagonist.
De Palma didn’t make matters easy for himself by giving Blow Out such a bleak conclusion (he wrote the screenplay as well as directed). When the film came out in 1981, audiences appeared to vote with their wallets, with the warm recommendations from critics falling largely on deaf ears. Yet De Palma remained true to the movie he wanted to make; in the final analysis, Blow Out’s conclusion is as vital to its construction as the desolate resolution of David Fincher’s Seven.
In fact, there’s another potential reading of Blow Out that its director may or may not have consciously placed there for us: the movie is a master class in how to craft the perfect shock ending.
Shifting gears, a little, I am a big Brian De Palma fan.
LITHGOW: Ah, great!
Actually, you’re in my favorite of his: Blow Out.
LITHGOW: Oh yeah, that’s correct.
I feel like I’m the resident De Palma blurb writer for lists on our website, but sometimes I have to spent extra time explaining why I don’t think we should be offended by some of his films. I’m wondering, considering gender and gender identity, how so much has changed since he made his films in the 80s does it feel difficult to go back and watch now? I love watching De Palma, but I feel like I can’t really recommend a number my favorite films of his—like Body Double, Dressed to Kill—to too many people, and to a lesser extent Blow Out too because there are so many caveats to put with it, because I know people would get upset by things that happen in it, how groups of people are treated, how lovingly deaths are filmed. I’m just wondering, with a bloated lead in, if you have any thoughts on that triggered nature when we go back and watch these very psychological and interesting films?
LITHGOW: It’s funny, I haven’t been back to see them. It’s pretty rare that I see a film that I did a long, long time ago. I remember being unsettled by Brian’s vision, for want of a better word, even when I was doing many films with him. But I really admired the fact that he went there. For example, in Blow Out his version of women getting carved up in that was very different and much more warped than even a standard slasher movie. You know, I played the Liberty Bell killer, and I murdered women with an ice pick. I [laughs hesitantly] basically drew a Liberty Bell on their torsos with an ice pick; several women, several prostitutes, as I recall, to make it look like I was a psychopathic killer—when in fact, all I was trying to do was rub somebody out, without any motivation. This was not Jack the Ripper. There was no gross statement. Just pure desire to kill and knowing it would be accepted more if there appeared to be some crazy person with a trademark etch behind it. A ghastly premise. Absolutely ghastly. And I think maybe time has moved on to the point where that kind of thing is completely unacceptable. It was appalling, then, don’t get me wrong. It was a nightmarish idea, even then. But Brian is an old friend. He told me the stories of his own life—you must know this if you know a lot about Brian—which so completely connect with his obsessions on film. And I had a real respect for that and I think he was very adventurous in the 80s and it would be hard to find funding to be that adventurous into dark areas now. To me, of all the movie directors I’ve ever worked with, he was the most—this will sound like a crazy thing to say—he was the most like a director like Ingmar Bergman, who takes his own obsessions and puts them on film.
I can definitely see that. If you had that response to the script, what was it like to work on it?
LITHGOW: Oh, I would do anything for Brian. And yes, it’s lurid, it’s psychological thriller in the mode of Hitchcock for mass entertainment. It was gleefully gory stuff. Truly horrific films, but they came out of such a need to make art that critiqued our glee at such sights. Really, it sounds pretentious, but I really had to admire Brian for that. He had the courage of his own compulsions, really.
His horror and erotic thriller films are so extremely icky that if we’re worried about misogyny and misogynistic depictions, his films are so extreme that way that it doesn’t make it look appealing, it’s perfectly ugly for something ugly that exists in the world, stares it right down and wants you to look away but we don’t. And I think that that’s why they’re still fantastic movies and deserve to be looked at in how he shoots misogyny not just dismissing as misogynistic. I was just curious about that because I re-watched a number of his films recently.
LITHGOW: I haven’t seen the documentary on Brian yet.
Oh, it’s great.
LITHGOW: I will catch up with that.
And here is where the film unfolds its most brilliant and memorable sequence, the part you want to watch over and over again. Alone in his dark room, our hero blows up the photos from the park and discovers that he may have recorded something other than a tryst. Cutting between the photographer and his pictures, Antonioni nudges us ever closer until we see the blow-ups as arrangements of light and shadow, a pointillistic swarm of dots and blots that may reveal a gunman in the bushes, and a body lying on the ground. Has he accidentally photographed a murder?
Contemporary audiences watching the way Thomas, the photographer, storyboards his grainy images into “evidence” would surely have been reminded of Zapruder’s film of the Kennedy assassination in 1963: the same patient build-up, the same slow-motion shock. When Thomas returns to the park he does indeed find a corpse. It’s the grassy knoll moment. We feel both his confusion and his excitement at turning detective – he’s involved in serious work at last instead of debauching his talent on advertising and fashion. But, abruptly, his investigative work goes up in smoke.
Next morning, the photographs and the body have disappeared. The woman has gone, too. This links to larger fears of conspiracy, a sense that shadowy organisations are hovering in the background, covering up their crimes – and getting away with it.
Blow-Up looks back to Zapruder but also ahead to Watergate and a run of films that riffed in a similar manner to Antonioni, with his inquiring, cold-eyed lens: Gene Hackman, stealing privacy for a living as the surveillance genius in The Conversation (1974); witness elimination and the training of assassins by a corporation in The Parallax View (1974); later still, Brian de Palma’s homage to the sequence via John Travolta’s sound engineer in the near-namesake Blow Out (1981). But these sinister implications are not on the director’s mind. Where we anticipate a murder mystery, Antonioni balks us by posing a philosophical conundrum. “It is not about man’s relationship with man,” he said in an interview at the time, “it is about man’s relationship with reality.”
Having created the suspense, he declines to see it through and sends Thomas off on an enigmatic nocturnal wander – to a party where he gets stoned, to a nightclub full of zombified youth where, bafflingly, he makes off with a broken guitar. (The film’s other symbolic artefact is an aeroplane propeller he buys in an antique shop). Finally, and famously, he encounters a bunch of mime-faced rag-week students acting “crazy” and playing a game of imaginary tennis on an empty court. We even hear the thock of the tennis ball, though there isn’t one in sight. Antonioni seems to offer only a shrug: reality, illusion, who can tell the difference? Whenever I watch Blow-Up, I feel a sense of anticlimax, of a road not just missed, but refused. Yet as much as it irritates, it still intrigues, and asks a question that relates not merely to cinema but to any work of art: can we enjoy something even if we don’t “get” it?
Newer | Latest | Older