TRAVIS WOODS ON 'BLOW OUT' - ILLUSTRATION BY BRIANNA ASHBY
At Bright Wall/Dark Room, Travis Woods delves through Brian De Palma's cinema and deep into Blow Out:
To watch Blow Out is to watch an artist confronting his deepest fears using the techniques and technology of the medium that had previously offered him salvation and the ability to wrest control from chaos. That artist is John Travolta’s Jack Terry. That artist is also Brian De Palma.
Recording his father taught him the power of the voyeur’s cinema; designing a decade’s worth of arch and unhinged thrillers interlaced with dizzyingly/dazzlingly visual set pieces of murderous mayhem soaked in deliciously endorphic filmmaking taught him how the voyeur’s cinema has the power to make audiences look at what he wanted them to see and how he wanted them to see it. To direct them as much as his films. And what De Palma saw, and defiantly wanted his audience to see as both a warning and an indictment, was the drain-circling, atavistic degradation of art and culture—while using the immediately decaying tools of art and culture to ring the alarm bells and focus the audience’s attention.
A decade before, De Palma witnessed the encroaching nihilism and commercialization of his generation’s desperate movement to save itself—“When I made Greetings, I found myself on talk shows, talking about the revolution, and I realized I had become just another piece of software that they could sell, like aspirin or deodorant. It didn’t make any difference what I said. I was talking about the downfall of America. Who cares? In my experience, what happened to the revolution is that it got turned into a product, and that is the process of everything in America. Everything is meshed into a product”—and that horror multiplied with his termination from Get to Know Your Rabbit, before unleashing itself in a moment of terrible clarity: standing in an elevator, and hearing that the ear-piercing tune playing was a Muzakification of The Beatles’ cinematic epic about the mutability of reality, “A Day in the Life.” That single moment generated his Phantom of the Paradise, in which an artist literally makes a deal with the Devil to preserve his music, only to hear it survive in increasingly terrible bubblegum incarnations chewed by a mindless crowd. It’s a rock ‘n roll fable in which De Palma directed his audience to witness a fate worse than selling your soul: a world buying back your commodified cultural revolution as elevator (to hell) music. But no one cared; the film died a quick death in theaters.
In 1981, De Palma was driven by the same, singular fury, now compounded by his terrible failure to make Prince of the City, the film he intended to be the defining artistic statement that would prove his seriousness as an auteur. He felt the generation that had turned its own revolution into something to be sold, growing fat on couches while watching peeping tom game shows like Candid Camera, refused to look at the world around them, at the political machinations and murders hinting at power structures operating at levels beyond their imaginations, and thus needed to be directed to see those powers-that-be rendering them impotent, whether those powers were a corrupt government or simply an impatient bottom-line-based movie studio. De Palma wanted to craft a cinematic magic bullet that would zigzag through it all, savaging power at every level and making such a percussive bang when firing from the barrel of his camera that everyone would hear. And in a moment altogether fitting for the hyper-referential De Palma filmography, the design for this bullet came from a merging of his cinema with that of a previous master:
While editing sound on his previous film, Dressed to Kill, De Palma was sorting through the “fill” in his effects tracks (“fill” being the industry colloquialism for random strips of film laced between individual sound effects on a reel) and found, wedged between sounds like “knife slices” and “woman screams” was a strip of film from David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. One of the greatest films ever made (and a De Palma favorite) was being recycled like trash and used to separate the sounds of salacious fucking and shower-killing in his sleaze-epic erotic thriller. Not only did this reinforce his obsession with the idea of all things trending towards commercialized dissolution, it jacketed another layer of lethality to the bullet he was honing—the notion that something of life-shattering importance could be buried beneath the surface of a film, between the sounds.