ALSO, 'CARLITO'S WAY' IN 8 MINUTES, AS BLOW UP/ARTE CELEBRATES DE PALMA'S 80TH BIRTHDAY
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a la Mod:
BadTaste: When you were here presenting A Bigger Splash, we talked about Suspiria. You told me about what you saw in Dario Argento's movie, and your movie actually mirrored that vision. So: what do you see in Brian De Palma's Scarface?
Luca: But why are you deciding that my reference is De Palma's movie?
BadTaste: Well, I'm curious about it.
BadTaste: More than what you see in Hawks' movie.
Luca: Well. Brian De Palma's movie left a mark on me. So it's an important movie in my imagination. The truth is that I'm interested in the character of Tony Montana. He's a symptom of the American Dream. And I think that these movies are made for their ages. My own Scarface will arrive 40 years after the previous one. I think the important thing about these movies is not the fact that they are lush and fundamental like the Brian De Palma one. The important thing is knowing that Tony Montana is an archetypal character. We won't consider the problem of the existence of a great movie before this one. I'm talking about, for example, The King Of Kings and The Last Temptation Of Christ, if we were conceiving a movie about Jesus Christ. It's an archetypal human figure. We don't have inferiority complexes about great movies made by great filmmakers. I think that Tony Montana is an extraordinary symptom of the American Dream. I think that Tony Montana righteously took from Howard Hawks' age (and remember, when that movie opened, it was accompanied by titles that said, "The filmmakers do not endorse criminal behavior"). That movie was sensational, hugely popular, probably more than De Palma's movie, in proportion. It's almost 100 years that Tony Montana affects the imagination of the audience. And this happens in part because we are attracted by what is capable of producing evil. And in part because we want to make something bigger than ourselves. It's about the dream of fulfilling, of success. This is something way bigger than Brian De Palma's direction. It's something bigger than Brian De Palma, Howard Hawks, and myself. The important things are: A) It has to be well done, the script has to be great. And it is. B) Our Tony Montana has to be current-- I don't want to imitate anything. C) This movie has to be shocking. So: I told you about Suspiria, and I kept the promise I made to you. Then I think I will surprise you with this movie, too. Brian De Palma's movie was rated R, so I want a big R on my movie, too.
The essay begins, "Phantom of the Paradise is a musical experience unlike any other, which is strange, considering how frequently it is compared to other horror musicals, particularly The Rocky Horror Picture Show (RHPS). But Phantom is a masterpiece in its own way, as is its criticism and use of allegory. The film is a cacophony, a loud and direct statement against the corrupt, sexist, and overall exploitative music industry. Its story might seem insane, but there are multiple instances where that seeming exaggeration turns out to be fairly accurate. In a time when people were not talking about the violent repercussions’ musicians were facing, Phantom addressed them head on. It was not afraid to talk about casting couches or corrupt police, even though these moments are shown through satire. The film is thus a complex and intertextual satire about the horror underlying music production."
I highly recommend heading over and reading the post in its entirety... but here is a further excerpt:
If this plot sounds familiar, it should. The film incorporates several familiar stories but places them in a modern – well, 70’s- situation. As suggested by its title, Phantom of the Paradise is an adaptation of Phantom of the Opera, but also an adaptation of Faust, the same subject which inspires Winslow’s cantata. This is just one of the ways the film focuses on mirrors and reflections, or duplication. Winslow’s music reflects these other works but also the events of the film. We see references to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Frankenstein, and the 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, all of which are frequently cited by glam musicians and other rock musicals. These references explain why Phantom is so often compared to other projects, as it mirrors their plots and creations. Before discussing how the film operates independently, I think it would be useful to discuss why it makes these references, and why it gets compared.
I first learned about Phantom of the Paradise because I was obsessed with adaptations of Phantom of the Opera. Because I stumbled across the film while searching ‘Phantom’ in IMDB, I have always seen it in comparison with other Phantom projects, specifically the way it shares its plot with Gaston Leroux’s book. De Palma’s film modernizes the text, and in doing so, says something about our society versus Leroux’s. For instance, the film transforms the competitive Carlotta into the pill popping, cocaine sniffing, and humorously ill-suited Beef. He is the wrong choice to sing Winslow’s music because he embodies a different music genre: glam. The level of excess and performance involved with glam doesn’t match Winslow’s cantata, as although both opera and glam rock are exorbitant, they approach this theatricality in different ways. The film also has a different kind of antagonist, as the Phantom character is traditionally the primary villain/antihero in the story. Not so in Phantom of the Paradise, as Phoenix is surrounded by villains who call themselves geniuses. She gets exploited by everyone, including Winslow. Its left unclear at the ending if Winslow’s sacrifice will liberate Phoenix, or if she is stuck in this toxic system. Both changes suggest that our modern world is far more complex and immoral than Leroux’s subject. Dastardly villains are no longer content with opera house basements. Now, they run the entire music industry and the poor souls within it. . . .
. . .
. . . When Swan picks Beef, the film implies that glam rock is the opposite of Winslow’s original music. Glam is loud and distracting, while Winslow’s ballad is slow and stripped back. This demonstrates that genre is ultimately meaningless to figures like Swan, its just a way to tell a song, not the song itself. While Swan is interested in the bigger picture, how it will be received, Winslow is obsessed with the components of the song, its genre and Phoenix’s voice. This summarizes the film’s position on the industry complex, as Swan is only interested in the future, not the present or past. He uses nostalgia to lure his audience but isn’t interested in what constitutes nostalgia or its various components. That is why we get a bizarre car surfer song about halfway through the film (“Upholstery”), and why The Juicy Fruits transition from rockers to surfers. Nothing about their music or image matters, its only there to entertain people momentarily. The characters switch between genres because of Swan’s mentality. That is why Swan ridicules nostalgia, noting “Who wants nostalgia anymore?”. It is just a cheap and quick way to captivate people, and none of it matters.
Swan lacks dedication to any genre or person in the same way he lacks morality. Every aspect of his industry and approach to music are horrible. Casting, production, and performance, each of these are just layers in his Dante-like inferno and network. Take “Goodbye Eddie”, a song about a washed-up musician who decides to kill himself so his record will sell, and so his sister can afford medical treatment. The lyrics claim that Eddie did a good thing, and that his suicide was valiant and admirable, rather than critiquing a system which drives people to suicide to help their family. Likewise, although they are singing about a martyr, the musicians are busy trying to assault women while singing. The song thus juxtaposes immoral actions with moral subject, a jarring comparison.
The musician’s behaviour demonstrates that the words do not mean anything, they are just singing because it’s a job. This trend continues throughout the film, as only figures like Winslow and Phoenix pay attention to the songs. Likewise, “Goodbye Eddie” makes a direct link between commodity and morality, in addition to death and success. The film suggests that music is a destructive entity, as are the people who run it. They only care about the result, not the people who make it. By associating music deals with Devil pacts, Phantom suggests that the industry is a corrupt system of legal damnation which abuses and distorts true artistry.
Director Peet Gelderblom is no stranger to editing and rummaging around in other people's materials. His award-winning short Out of Sync used the clever trick of having the images and sound run out of sync on purpose, thereby inventively changing the meaning of the images you saw. His on-line series Pretty Messed Up also turned heads with the ingenious editing and juxtapositioning of extremely differing film clips. And his fan-edit of Brian De Palma's Raising Cain, a reconstruction based on De Palma's original script, turned out to be SO GOOD, that it received De Palma's blessing as a superior version, and has been put on the recent Blu-ray releases (by Shout! and Arrow) as a "De Palma's Director's Cut".
For When Forever Dies, Gelderblom had access to the movie archive of the Eye Film Museum in Amsterdam, which houses over 125 years of celluloid history, including several famous collections of unique materials. The end result is a wild mix of footage famous and unknown, live-action and animation, drama and documentary, black-and-white and color, old and n... well, less old, silent and sound... it's often bewildering and hypnotizing, and sometimes very, very funny.
There are a few pitfalls with this type of movie though, and Gelderblom can't avoid all of them. For some scenes he uses long takes from famous films, like Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc and Benjamin Christensen's eclectic Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages. The use is not sacriligious, and Peet Gelderblom's reverence for these titles is evident, but these shots do take you out of the story, and sometimes make you wish you were watching the original source instead. Also, the final message isn't really all that groundbreaking, and at 109 minutes, it outstays its welcome a bit at some points. I'm tempted to say "When Forever Dies could use some editing". But that would be a bad joke; the film and its length are obviously the result of a massive labor-of-love by an editor who is devoted to cinema.
All in all I was intrigued and entertained. And it does instill a terrifying truth that there is still so much footage, be it of classics or of obscurities in hidden vaults worldwide, that I haven't seen yet and maybe never will...
-De Palma says that during the pandemic confinement, he has written a screenplay, and that he and Susan Lehman are "working on another book."
-Regarding Predator, De Palma says: "I have a Weinstein character in a project I’m working on, but he’s sort of a minor character. It looks like it has a lot to do with him, but the real sexual predator is based on a very famous star who was trying to do all the women in the casting sessions in the mid-1970s. I had a real insight into it because when I was casting Carrie, I was seeing every young actor and actress in Hollywood. And so was Mr. X, so the girls had a lot to say about what happened in their casting sessions. It’s a jungle out there."
-De Palma "went out and got a drone" so he could test out a cinematic idea he had for a short film Emma Cline was working on.
-De Palma and Lehman watched Frank Perry's The Swimmer (1968) recently, and then read the original short story by John Cheever right afterward.
-De Palma tells Cline that he's reading a biography of Francis Ford Coppola ("I’m right now in the Francis Ford book dealing with the making of The Godfather"), and that he was adding Oliver Stone's autobiography on his list to read.
-Cline and De Palma have both read Susanna Moore's memoir, Miss Aluminum. De Palma tells Cline that he knew Susanna because her husband, Richard Sylbert, "did a couple of my movies. He was a great, great designer, and a very funny, witty character. He was always hard to get for films, because he was always working."
-They've both also read Sam Wasson's The Big Goodbye, about the making of Chinatown. "It was fascinating," De Palma says.
Last November, pre-pandemic, Emma Cline was not at her writing desk—at least not all the time. Instead, the novelist was busy on set, undertaking her first foray as a director, for a 10-minute short she wrote called “Jagger.” Produced by Gagosian Gallery, the film was shot on location in New York City and in Amagansett on Long Island. For Cline, the experience seems to have been a baptism by fire, from running lines with the actors to negotiating the infinite complexities of the editing process. Luckily, she had a few mentor friends ready with advice, one of them being the iconic filmmaker Brian De Palma, who not only read the script and offered insights, but even screened a daily or two.
For fans of her gorgeous, Charles Manson–inflected debut novel, The Girls, or of her short stories that regularly appear in The New Yorker, Cline’s incursion into the world of cinema shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. The 31-year-old California native is one of contemporary fiction’s most stylish and visually rich world-builders. Cline paints rooms, neighborhoods, and whole scenes with careful attention to colors, clothes, attitudes, and body language—a whole sensorial universe takes shape in her elegant prose. This September, Cline releases her first collection of short stories, Daddy (one expects that the author must be bracing for an onslaught of Sylvia Plath comparisons, but what’s impressive about Cline as a writer is her willingness to stand face-to-face with darkness, and weirdness, rather than merely slink around it). Each of the ten stories is a feast of demented American dreams—hilarious, captivating, horrifying—and one only hopes that Cline doesn’t quit her day job for a Hollywood film career. Cline, in Los Angeles, and De Palma, on Long Island, were scheduled to talk on July 6, but cinema’s great maestro, Ennio Morricone, died that day, so they spoke two days later. —CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN
EMMA CLINE: I heard that you’ve got sad news.
BRIAN DE PALMA: Yes. One of the greatest composers, Mr. Morricone, died two days ago. He did a couple of scores for me.
CLINE: Casualties of War and The Untouchables, right?
DE PALMA: Yes, and he did a really fine score to Mission to Mars. But we’re not here to talk about me. What have you been doing since you’ve been confined?
CLINE: I’ve been in L.A. I have been reading and sort of writing, but to be honest, I haven’t been working very much. Have you been working?
DE PALMA: Yeah, I wrote another screenplay, and then Susan [Lehman] and I are working on another book. It’s been long, endless days here in the country where the big thing to worry about is where and what I’m going to eat next.
CLINE: That’s about how my days are organized, too. It was a run of lentils, but I’ve hit the end. I can’t eat them anymore. I actually do have a book draft that I’m finishing up, so I just have a whole lot of notes. I’m about to dive into that in a big way.
DE PALMA: Another novel?
CLINE: Yes, another novel. It’s actually set where you are right now, on Long Island. I feel like you might have been at some of the parties that are in this book.
DE PALMA: In fact, I met you at one of those parties. Let me ask you how the movie you were making turned out.
CLINE: It’s still not finished. I’m struggling with the ending.
DE PALMA: How did you like directing and screenwriting?
CLINE: I loved directing. Screenwriting felt more similar to things I’ve done before—at least under the same umbrella. It felt freeing in some ways, but very strange to think visually and cinematically. I mean, I do think visually as a rule. I think a lot about how things look in the stories I’m writing, but to actually write something that was going to be translated into visuals was interesting. Directing was incredible, like the best drug in the world, but what I found is that I often had to stop myself from totally flipping into observer mode, which is more my writing self.
DE PALMA: The quiet little girl in the corner.
CLINE: Yes, exactly. I had to resist doing that, because you can’t just be the quiet little girl in the corner. It was so fascinating. I’m in awe of directors who do it. It’s so intense. The idea that you made two movies in a year blows my mind.
DE PALMA: It’s what we do. We get the opportunity and we go to work.
CLINE: It’s like you have to light all these different fuses on all these different projects and wait until one makes it. It’s just a different way of approaching projects than I’ve ever done before. There’s all this timing that has to fall into place. All this money.
DE PALMA: Yeah, but the interesting thing about it, whether you’re working within the studio system or independently, is that a lot of getting a movie off the ground depends on who’s in it. You suggest some names, and they say, “Well, can we get so and so?” It’s always this process of negotiating who they think is hot enough for them to finance the project at that moment.
CLINE: It’s wild to me. But you haven’t seen my new ending yet.
DE PALMA: I’m looking forward to it. Did your idea for the script change at all because of the people you cast?
CLINE: I think the place where it changed the most was in the editing room. That was a new experience for me. You’re in this weird dorm room, with a bunch of bad snacks, with your editor. And you just go in on this granular, second-by-second focus on the project. I loved it, but it changed the shape of the movie I thought I was making. Now that I’ve had that experience, I understand there are moments in filming when you need a different flavor and you need to cover your ass a bit in that way. But the editing was really loose and fun and freeing. And the movie will adapt to the edit, if you have what you need in there.
DE PALMA: Do you have any more directing plans for the future?
CLINE: I’m working on two movie ideas—just outlines now, which I find really fun.
DE PALMA: Well, you’re in Hollywood, Emma.
CLINE: Wait, two movies isn’t enough to have on the backburner? You think I need more?
DE PALMA: I was talking to Greta Gerwig the other day, and I said, “Greta, you have a huge hit. You should be out there making deals for all those projects that you couldn’t previously get off the ground.” Anyway, you did a really terrific job with your recent story [“White Noise,” based on a Harvey Weinstein–like narrator] in The New Yorker.
CLINE: Oh, thank you. You’re working on a Weinstein project, right? Or Weinstein-inspired.
DE PALMA: I have a Weinstein character in a project I’m working on, but he’s sort of a minor character. It looks like it has a lot to do with him, but the real sexual predator is based on a very famous star who was trying to do all the women in the casting sessions in the mid-1970s.
CLINE: Ooh, that sounds good.
DE PALMA: I had a real insight into it because when I was casting Carrie, I was seeing every young actor and actress in Hollywood. And so was Mr. X, so the girls had a lot to say about what happened in their casting sessions. It’s a jungle out there.
CLINE: I’m curious, as someone who’s been in the movie business, if you found the Weinstein portrayal in my story accurate-ish. Or were there big factual errors, or distracting anachronisms?
DE PALMA: I had very little contact with Harvey, because I don’t like bullies. My older brother was a bully. But I remember I set up a luncheon for a director friend of mine when he brought his Irish movie to New York. Harvey was distributing the movie. I saw him at that luncheon and that was enough for me. Bullies take up all the oxygen in the room.
CLINE: Well, he did recover from coronavirus.
DE PALMA: Exactly. How did you put together Daddy?
CLINE: They’re stories that I’ve written over the last decade, most of them in the last couple of years. The title came out of thinking about a unifying theme, concerns or preoccupations that repeated themselves from story to story. Most of these stories are about older men, or younger women who see themselves in relationship to men. There’s something about the word that I thought was very funny and would make a good title.
DE PALMA: Do you have daddy issues?
CLINE: I guess I should anticipate that question. I suppose I do, in a sense, right? Like, am I super close to my father? No. Did I experience him as an angry, malevolent god figure as a child? Yes. I guess in that way you could say I had some psychosexual daddy problems, but I don’t know. Do you have daddy issues?
DE PALMA: No, I had mommy issues. My father was an orthopedic surgeon and was really not around. Consequently, he didn’t figure much in my upbringing.
CLINE: But you do have a vivid story about your father that I’ve heard you tell … going through his office, trailing him.
DE PALMA: Listening to your father set up an extramarital date on the telephone is an enlightening experience. I put a tap on the telephone. All that science fair background comes in handy. I was a science fair winner. I knew how to tap a phone at a very early age. Do you like overhearing conversations?
CLINE: Yeah. I think it’s a quality that unites a lot of the artists and writers I know. Moviemakers and writers have a sense of wanting to create or observe life as it happens, to look at other people and what they’re like.
DE PALMA: As we were leaving the house this morning and I was sitting in the car, I could hear our neighbors discussing something through the bushes. I couldn’t exactly hear what they were talking about, but I’d never heard these neighbors before. Did I perk up and try to listen? You bet. Who knows what great material you will get from observing conversations.
CLINE: I remember when I had my script for the film and you and I were talking. And you had this suggestion that was so cinematic about the little boy seeing his mother in bed with someone who she hadn’t come to the party with. The way we ended up filming it, he comes in—it’s late at night and he’s afraid, and he’s looking for his mom. So he comes into the room. But your thought was that maybe he should have a drone where he can see what the drone sees as he’s controlling it.
DE PALMA: I actually went out and got a drone and tried to do it.
CLINE: Did you see anyone having sex?
DE PALMA: I saw no one having sex in a hammock, no.
CLINE: Maybe you could use it to see what’s going on with these neighbors.
DE PALMA: It did feel very Rear Window.
Some other Carrie tidbits:
Last week at Pop Geeks, Sandy Helberg, who was one of the original sketch comedy players at The Groundlings Theatre in Los Angeles, told Johnny Caps a little story about how he helped get his wife, Harriet B. Helberg, a job as casting director for Carrie:
Johnny: The 70s was a pretty big decade for comedy anthology films. Why do you think that was?
Sandy: Well, I think it was sort of a new format. There was a movie that came out at the beginning of the 70s called TunnelVision, which Chevy Chase was involved with. They used a lot of comedic actors in one scene after another, and then Kentucky Fried Theater, the people who did Airplane!, came out with their own version of it, which was called Kentucky Fried Movie. Again, they had some terrific comedic actors. It was an easy and cheap way to do a film because you didn’t need anybody for more than a couple of days. Loose Shoes was, I think, Bill Murray’s first movie. I knew the directors, and I knew the casting director. She was my wife, so we worked together. I’d help her get jobs and she’d get me jobs, and I helped her get her first movie, which was Carrie.
I had gone in for a meeting with George Lucas and Brian DePalma. They were each doing new movies, and they were seeing people together. George Lucas starts to explain Star Wars to me, and he lost me. I thought, “They’re not going to hire a Jew in space. Let me hear the Italian guy”. He talked about Carrie and high school, and I thought, “That’s more my speed”, so I asked Brian DePalma who was casting it. He said, “Well, we lost our person”. I went home and told my wife. She called Brian DePalma that evening, and he invited her to have dinner with him, Martin Scorcese and a writer, and the next day, she had the job. She used a lot of Groundlings in Carrie. She had a great resource in The Groundlings because they had to get unknown people, and people that looked young and would work for a little money, and she was an expert at that.
The coming-of-age sub-genre weaves growing pains and internal terror with a very literal type of horror. The horror genre in general relies on subconscious fears, dragging out society's deepest dread and projecting it onto the big screen. There is an odd, undeniable comfort in seeing nightmares brought out into the open for all to confront. Fears are unifying, and even the most blatant horror dwells on an underlying relation to the panic of everyday life. The coming-of-age horror sub-genre hones in on a specific moment in time when bodies begin to feel foreign. Faced by everyone growing up, puberty is a universal experience, one that morphs the mind and body, leaving adolescents feeling confused and out of control—an ideal time for horror to infiltrate.
Stephen King's Carrie, much like coming-of-age movies to follow, focuses on the type of disconnect from one's own body that occurs during puberty. Both King's Carrie and Brian De Palma's adaptation kicks off with the shy, ostracized titular character experiencing a traumatizing first period. She is ruthlessly mocked in the girl's locker room and receives no advice or support from her heavily religious mother, Margaret. As Carrie's body develops, so does her power; her telekinetic abilities grow as she matures. Her stress and confusion pertaining to both the physical and mental changes she is facing sparks sympathy from audiences who may recall their own fear during their formative years. It is this sort of human connection that makes it difficult to villainize Carrie, despite the tragic havoc she wreaks on her classmates.
At the core, Carrie is still a child, scared and perpetually uncared for; her naivety, innocence, and anger hardens into a dangerous misuse of power. This trope is present in many coming-of-age horror movies: a young woman's development coinciding with a harnessing of powers. While the occurrences vary in outcome, the heroine is usually faced with a decision as to how she will use her power, the forces of good versus evil weighing heavy on her shoulders. Part of the terror associated with coming-of-age horror films is the unknowable ability of the protagonist, as neither they nor the audience understand the full extent of their powers.
Like “The Breakfast Club” on steroids, these five misfits slowly overcome their differences, bonding and becoming friends by the time Boone reveals a twist he must have thought would blow the minds of those second-guessing how the movie relates to all the old mutants from the “X-Men” comics. Whereas all the films in that franchise have run with the brilliantly relatable allegory introduced by Bryan Singer’s original “X-Men” movie — in which mutants are seen as freaks by their peers much as LGBTQ teens are ostracized and feared by a homophobic society at large — Boone isn’t as clear about how to treat his characters’ so-called gifts. (That said, this is the first Marvel movie to depict an openly queer relationship, giving Dani a lesbian love interest.)
Here, these traumatized young people fear themselves, the way some adolescents freak out over physical changes brought on by puberty. This metaphor feels literal in one scene — an overt homage to Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” — when Dani finds herself drenched in blood whose origins she can’t explain. Boone, who’s clearly a pulp/horror/classic-movie savant, repeatedly lifts shots and ideas directly from other sources, as in a “Psycho”-inspired shower scream later in the film. But instead of creating a new-and-improved experience for audiences, à la such magpie directors as Quentin Tarantino, he serves up something so familiar as to be clichéd.
Brian de Palma achieved new heights of delirium in this avant-garde 2002 thriller with Rebecca Romijn-Stamos in the dual role of a sexy American jewel thief and her French doppelganger (or are they, somehow, one and the same?). Antonio Banderas co-stars as a photographer whose function, typically for a De Palma hero, is to bear witness.
Femme Fatale is a bubbling cocktail of Double Indemnity meets To Catch a Thief meets Vertigo meets The Double Life of Véronique that kicks you in the head real good right at the first sip and is so smooth going down that, by the time you notice you’re drunk, it’s too late to care, and there goes willowy Rebecca Romijn, a nesting doll shedding an archetype. The opening twenty minutes, a jewel theft set at the 1999 Cannes premiere of East/West, are what one might call “pure cinema” — which is to say they are series of hyperkinetic moments strung together through the rhythms of music and editing that could not be captured by any medium other than cinema, or any other filmmaker other than Brian De Palma.
Romijn plays Laure, a master thief who steals a beautiful piece of jewelry (which serves as an elaborate snake-like top, with diamonds covering the nipples) from Veronica (Rie Rasmussen) during a steamy bathroom scene while everyone at Cannes — save some frazzled body / jewel guards who are growing increasingly agitated by the length of Veronica’s powder room visit — are paying attention to the premiere of East/West. Laure then betrays her fellow thieves and has to go into hiding, lest those she double-crossed decide to take revenge — which, of course, they do. Luckily for her, it turns out Laure has a suicidal brunette doppelgänger, Lily, whose identity she assumes after Lily takes her own life. Laure-as-Lily goes to the United States and has a meet-cute on the plane with Watts (Peter Coyote), who eventually becomes the American ambassador to France, bringing Lily back into the country she last inhabited as Laure.
Laure’s return to France is Nicolas’ (Antonio Banderas) cue to enter the story as a photographer. Nicolas has been contracted to take a photo of the camera-shy ambassador’s wife and whose happenstance involvement in the capturing of an image — much like John Travolta’s just happening to have been at the wrong place at the right time to capture a sound in Blow Out — sucks him into a rather unsavory mess and Laure/Lily’s gradual transmutation of identity. The photographic image is extremely potent in Femme Fatale as sound is likewise in Blow Out; De Palma loves to imbue cinema’s essential elements with striking gravitas.
To give away more of the plot would be cruel and take away from the wicked, velvety pleasure of observing this film’s sinewy twists. To step away from the specifics of the film itself, it is worth making note of the context of its existence within De Palma’s ’00s career. De Palma made four films in that decade: Mission to Mars (2000), Femme Fatale (2002), The Black Dahlia (2006) and Redacted (2007). As disparate as these works are, the gradual evolution of the worldview expressed from one to the other makes for a stingingly accurate portrait of what it was like to be living in the United States in the early 21st century. From the curiosity and hopefulness of Mission to Mars to the growing cynicism of Femme Fatale, whose last few minutes save the film from dissolving in a pool of acid it has spent nearly 2 hours neatly collecting. And then there’s the sordid messy madness of The Black Dahila, which gives way to the ultimate human abasement and malignancy shown in Redacted, which is so dire in its bleakness it’s a wonder De Palma didn’t just turn his back on the world after making it.
In theory, I understand why people don't talk about "Blow Out" when discussing Brian De Palma films.
It wasn't a huge hit, only pulling in $12 million at the box office despite starring a young John Travolta, who was coming off a hit with "Urban Cowboy." That was nothing compared to other De Palma films like "Scarface" ($66 million) "Carrie" ($34 million) and the mega-smash that was "Mission: Impossible" ($457 million).
I had never heard of the film until going on a Letterboxd deep dive a few weeks ago. Once I read the description (and some glowing reviews from critics I trust), I knew I had to see it, and guess what: I was right. "Blow Out" rules.
It's a conspiracy movie on the surface. Travolta plays Jack Terry, a sound engineer working on B-grade horror flicks in Philadelphia. One night while Terry is out gathering ambient sound in a park, his equipment picks up the audio of a car's tire exploding. He then sees the car driving off the road and into a river. He dives into the river and is able to drag a young woman out of the car but not the man sitting with her. That man turns out to be a presidential hopeful, and the woman with him was not his wife.
The candidate's assistant tries to convince Terry not to say anything about the accident; his family is going through enough, no reason to tell them he was having an affair, right? Well, Terry can't quite drop it. Something about the audio of the accident didn't sit right with him. He checks his tapes. Sure enough, he hears two explosions, not one. This leads him to one conclusion: The tire didn't blow out; it was shot. Someone wanted that car to crash.
The rest of the movie follows Terry's journey into the depths of this conspiracy as he tries to convince people in power of his theory, going as far as creating his own movie of the events, syncing the audio he captured with stills a photographer (Dennis Franz) took of the accident. At the same time, he's watching the back of Sally (Nancy Allen), the woman he saved from the water, who might know more about the case than she lets on.
The film feels timely with all the misinformation floating around the internet these days, much of it spread by people in power. It also is a showcase for the power of filmmaking and the freedom that comes with producing art that calls out those people in power. Sometimes, that's the only way you can get people to listen.
"Blow Out" also gets points for the following, which is all subjective, I admit:
- Characters say the name of the movie like 25 times, which is the sign of a great movie (to me).
- De Palma's camera work is out-of-this-world good. The decision to use a scene from one of the movies Terry is editing as a cold open — a killer is stalking college girls from outside their windows — and then proceeding to constantly use shots looking through windows during the rest of the film is brilliant. And there's a shot involving fireworks toward the end of the movie is nothing short of sublime. You'll know it when you see it. My jaw dropped.
- Speaking of the ending, the last 15 minutes of this thing take it from good to outstanding. I don't know exactly what I expected, but it certainly wasn't what De Palma delivers. Haunting and emotionally fulfilling in equal measure while taking the movie full circle. The final scene is an all-timer.
- John Lithgow is the third lead in this movie. He plays a man so loathsome he might as well be a slug. It's great.
- Travolta rules in this movie! Not in an "I'm a movie star, look at me look cool!" way, either. He rules in an "I'm a compelling force, and I will make you feel what I'm feeling" way.
You really need to watch "Blow Out."
Cordova, who was born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York, had a long association with Al Pacino, the two having worked on stage together in Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie? "The play marked the Broadway debut of the little-known Pacino," notes Deadline's Greg Evans.
A little more than a decade later, the pair appeared together on film in Brian De Palma's Scarface, in which Cordova played the cook at El Paraiso, a Cuban sandwich stand directly across the street from the high-class Little Havana Restaurante. Another ten years later, Cordova appeared with Pacino once again as he played the barber in De Palma's Carlito's Way.
Cordova's first film role came at the age of 19, during time off from the U.S. Air Force. Having been stationed in Germany during the Korean War, Cordova was granted a 30-day leave of absence, during which he went back to New York and managed to get a small part in Richard Brooks' Blackboard Jungle. Cordova also had roles in Don Siegel's Crime In The Streets, Art Linson's Where The Buffalo Roam, Ivan Passer's Cutter's Way, and Bruce Malmuth's Nighthawks, among many others.