SLATE'S SAM ADAMS & GUEST CARRIE RICKEY DISCUSS 'BLOW OUT'
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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?
Film/Style is currently at capacity. To be added to the wait list or receive notifications about our next Courses offering (coming in Spring 2017!), please email Film Streams Education Director Diana Martinez.
Film Streams Courses is a new program of themed, multi-week seminars that will provide adults with an introduction to the tools of film analysis. Every participant will leave better equipped to analyze film aesthetics and examine the tremendously important role film plays in our culture.
Step in the vivid worlds of cinema’s most stylish films.
Instructor: Diana Martinez, Film Streams Education Director
Dates: Sundays, Feb 26 – Mar 26, 2017, 11am – 2pm
There is no art form more capable of provoking our senses than film. It can create fantastic places and expose the stark reality of life. Film/Style is an introduction to the aesthetic techniques employed by some of the most influential and challenging filmmakers in the medium’s history.
Film/Style will explore the complex interplay of mise-en-scène, cinematography, sound, and editing that shapes our viewing experience. An international tour of film aesthetics begins with a classic from Brian De Palma, and will conclude with a film by the great Chinese auteur Wong Kar-Wai, with films in between from Czechoslovakia, France, and Germany.
Frames: Blow Out 1981
Rhythm: Daisies 1968
Sound: Holy Motors 2012
Color: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant 1972
Texture: In the Mood for Love 2000
Cost: $125 General, $75 Film Streams Members, $100 Student/Teacher/Senior/Military Includes Course materials and snacks
Brian De Palma first used the Steadicam, with Mr. Brown as an operator, in “Blow Out” (1981) for the opening sequence, an elaborate horror movie parody in which a slasher attacks coeds. “Choreographing the shot, getting the psychopath to hold his knife up in front of the mirror at the right time — it was a kind of joyful evening,” Mr. De Palma said by telephone. He went on to use the Steadicam in many films, including “Raising Cain” and “Carlito’s Way,” showing in the Film Society series.
For Mr. Brown, who taught himself filmmaking, movies came after a folk-singing career (as part of the duo Brown & Dana) and a stint selling Volkswagens. He found himself working in commercials at a time when the only way to create smooth camera motion was to put the camera on a dolly, in a camera car or on a crane. He was pained by the unwieldy setup of a 12-pound camera on an 800-pound dolly.
“The sight of that pinheaded little camera on that huge dolly and the attendant difficulties of schlepping it around on pickup trucks and laying my paltry rails here and there outdoors really was so absurd,” Mr. Brown said. He wanted to isolate the camera from the motions of the person controlling it — the kind that cause hand-held shots to appear shaky.
The key ingredients were a gimbal, which came from Mr. Brown’s sailing experience; counterweights, to give the camera stability; an articulated arm — an idea he got from a motel desk lamp — attached to a harness that a camera operator could wear; and a way to see through the lens. He originally used a fiber-optic viewer intended for medical examinations.
In a sense, Mr. Brown had realized a dream of filmmakers and theorists who treasured camera motion; it’s hard not to wonder what Max Ophuls or André Bazin would have made of the Steadicam. “Abel Gance — he was fabulous at moving the camera,” Mr. Brown said, referring to the director of “Napoleon,” the 1927 silent classic. “He did extraordinary things, but he didn’t have this tool for stabilizing. I would have loved to have shown up on his set.”
In the earliest Steadicam movies, Mr. Brown operated the apparatus himself, and he continued to do so for three decades. Now, he said, Steadicam operators make expert shots for TV news broadcasts and from the sidelines of sports like football and soccer.
Robert Elswit, the cinematographer on two Paul Thomas Anderson movies in the Film Society series, “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” considers the Steadicam essential. “To me, it’s not a specialty item,” he said. “It’s usually there all the time.” The results, he added, are sometimes “not even necessarily recognizable as a Steadicam shot. You just use it to get something done in a simple way.”
Mr. De Palma cautioned that the Steadicam is only a tool, a way of showing the viewer an environment. “You need a lot of sophisticated technicians to pull off a really good Steadicam shot, and that sort of comes with making movies in the studio system in Hollywood,” he said.
Digital cameras make it less complicated to light scenes, he noted, and the equipment weighs less, leading to what he sees as the Steadicam’s overuse. “You see an abundance of Steadicam shots that are completely ridiculous,” Mr. De Palma said. “God knows, in television, they do it all the time. People are always walking and talking and going around corners.”
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