PATRICK PREZIOSI AT THE QUIETUS LINKS THE TWO FILMS AS THEY TURN 40 THIS YEAR
"Brian De Palma’s Blow Out and Ivan Passer’s Cutter’s Way aren’t just predicated on the act of murder," Patrick Preziosi states in an article posted today at The Quietus. "Instead, both these 1981 films locate their cruxes at the precise moment in which a murder occurs or is discovered, as witnessed by the protagonists. Both directors cut to their characters’ faces, as if to say that they are just as much an audience to this specific event as you are to the very film. It’s a canny method to mount allegiance, and entirely successful. The reaction shot registers the stakes, and thus, the viewer is invited to do the same. The instances in question are initially enacted from within a bubble of upper-class impunity, and subsequently spill out unto those below. We’re not just identifying with a singular viewpoint, but one that’s tangled up in a morass of American-abetted apathy, a purview stoked by always looming inequity."
Neither film is in service of any sort of exclusive genre categorisation, their incisive political interrogations forwarded by the undergirding emphasis on the granular activities of their characters, which, among other things, offers up a wealth of moments wherein ranging emotions – fear, satisfaction, camaraderie, anxiety – are telegraphed by a simple shot of an actor’s face, taken in tandem with whatever else has transpired. An important motif, considering that Blow Out and Cutter’s Way are predicated on how much we trust our own senses, and how the unimpeachable qualities of our personal sight and hearing can be swiftly and ruthlessly denied by authoritative powers. Remaining content within an already skewed environment isn’t enough; one must commit to the final word of politicians, business executives, corporation heads and the like, even if they knowingly present zero verifiability.
Critic J. Hoberman brings the two films together with erudite concision in his book Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan (they also screened as a 2019 double feature at Film At Lincoln Center as part of a retrospective tailored to the release of Hoberman’s book), writing, “Both movies used patriotic displays as ironic backdrops. De Palma’s invented Liberty Day Jubilee conceals a brutal political killing, while San Barbara’s annual Old Spanish Days celebration is a cover-up for fat-cat malfeasance.” Similar points of origin in both films (someone saw/heard something they shouldn’t have) lead to similarly, unintentionally, tragic destinations as architected by America’s political rot. But Blow Out and Cutter’s Way are best viewed through the lens of a malleable relationship of conversing details, rather than two perfectly parallel narratives.
Blow Out’s ticking-clock drama is set in motion when John Travolta’s sound man, Jack Terry, inadvertently records a presidential hopeful’s Chappaquiddick-esque assassination (and rescues Nancy Allen’s Sally, the one-night companion of married politician and presidential-hopeful McRyan), whose status as nothing more than an accident he works to disprove. This ambition is emboldened by his superlative talents as a craftsman, as he is able to uncover the inconsistencies of the incident through the basest––and therefore, purest––filmmaking tools. Cutter’s Way is just as predicated on coincidence, but its tenor is one of disaffection, with Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) and Alex Cutter (John Heard) ultimately left unmoored in a climate where the rich enjoy the privilege of moneyed immunity, after the former thinks he’s spotted a prominent and powerful businessman at the site of a teenage girl’s vicious murder.
As Jack, Travolta is the disgraced wunderkind (a former technician for undercover sting operations to pinch corrupt cops, his own equipment’s inadequacy having led to the gruesome death of a participant), whiling away his time doing foley for crude slasher films, repeatedly reminded by his director that he’s smarter than what the immediate material demands. The film begins as a movie-within-the-movie, a steadicam-led, first-person POV of a killer’s journey through an all-girls’ dormitory, before the paltry shriek of a victim announces the jump to Blow Out itself. Suddenly transplanted to some cheaply appointed editing suite, Jack enacts the first of the many aforementioned reaction shots, one of giggly disbelief directed at what’s on the screen. In contrast to his prior wiseass behaviour, Jack flaunts an impressive focus when he’s out recording nighttime sounds on the Wissahickon Bridge, just southwest of downtown Philadelphia. He’s tuned-in, and his near-expressionless focus suggests a momentary communion with the surrounding nature – that is, until McRyan’s tire is shot out.
De Palma’s gamesmanship, both narrative and visual, is in crystalline form in Blow Out. His signature use of split-screen and split-diopters finds a simpatico partner in cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, the clean widescreen and long lenses often losing and once again finding characters within crowded spaces. De Palma had already flaunted such nimble camerawork in the museum sequence of 1980’s Dressed to Kill, but not yet with the sinuous unease that Blow Out maintains as its consistent tenor. The reaction shots lift Jack and Sally from their paranoia-laced circumstances, before plunging them back in once again, each time more violently than the last. Jack’s visage runs the gamut from righteous elation to gutted confusion, such as when he is able to assemble his own stop-motion recreation footage of the same incident, that when played with his audio, proves both aurally and visually it was no accident. This very tape is erased by John Lithgow’s trigger-happy hitman Burke, another stumbling block for Jack and Nancy. Later, when all three major players come (crash) together at the Liberty Day Jubilee, Pino Donaggio’s emotively gaudy score envelopes the scene – but only after Allen’s impossibly shattering, reverberating scream echoes – left are we only with the profound dread colouring our heroes’ faces.
The reductive line of comparison would posit that Cutter’s Way is the “muted”, character study equivalent of Blow Out, but this is only partly true. Passer’s film is merely bereft of De Palma’s pyrotechnics, its languorous progression symptomatic of its characters’ own nonexistent prospects. Blow Out interpolated Chappaquiddick and the Zapruder film, its totemic points of reference already burrowed in the minds of all Americans. Cutter’s Way is more uniformly assembled, awash in the miasmic fallout of the Vietnam War, evidenced by Jordan Cronenweth’s jaundiced cinematography (in a 2016 interview in Film Comment, Passer wittily offers: “Did you notice there’s no blue in Cutter’s Way?”), and embodied by John Heard’s paraplegic, one-eyed, amputee veteran, Alex Cutter.
Read the whole article at The Quietus.