"CINEMA OF MEMORY SURVEILLANCE"
A couple of days ago, Collider's Benjamin Crabtree posted an article headlined "Blow Out, Strange Days, and the Cinema of Memory Surveillance" --
While Blow Out taps into a sound-based investigation of the central characters’ lived experience of a possible political assassination, Strange Days continues the previous film’s subversive tradition through the virtual reality-based reliving of salacious scenarios and traumatic events, eventually revealing the role of police corruption in the death of a famous rapper. Although the two films stand apart as equally fascinating and foundational artistic statements in their respective director’s filmographies, their similar invocation of Hitchcockian intrigue à la Rear Window within unique genre frameworks of political mystery and science-fiction unify the films as a cinematic bridge between the disillusioned patriotism of Reaganite optimism and the convoluted communication of the early digital age, presaging the prominence of surveillance in the twenty-first century.
Although De Palma locates Blow Out comfortably within the framework of Reagan-era nationalism and the ensuing American insularity, it is essential to acknowledge the integral role that Nixonian disillusionment and the subsequent cinematic thrillers of the 1970s played in formulating the subtext for De Palma’s masterpiece. In the wake of Watergate and the atrocities of the Vietnam War, the New Hollywood leaned into a renewed manifestation of genre filmmaking that mirrored the political paranoia and personal discontents of the era.
Releasing revisionist thrillers that bordered on nihilistic like Alan J. Pakula’s conspiracy-centric stylized statement The Parallax View and Sydney Pollack’s annihilative mystery Three Days of the Condor to incredible acclaim and box office success, the cinematic landscape of the 1970s tapped into the disturbingly relevant well of national distrust and political turmoil to draw in audiences by empathizing with their existential fears. Perhaps more elegantly and precisely than its predecessors, Blow Out equally politicizes and personalizes both the fear of being watched and the anxiety of seeing something dangerous, incriminating, and potentially life-threatening.
Opening with a “movie-within-a-movie” sequence of the b-level horror film Co-Ed Friendly, De Palma immediately establishes the poetic paranoia that pervades the film by placing the audience into the first-person perspective of the sorority serial killer villain, indicting the audience of their own cinematic “surveillance as entertainment.” Although the point-of-view cinematography from the perspective of a serial killer stalking girls in and around a sorority house foreshadows the eventual government-backed, cover-up “serial killings” by Burke (John Lithgow) in the film’s second half, the opening sequence also builds an atmosphere of dread and doubt that functions as a critique of Reagan era optimism through a tragically honest approach to political corruption and lurid criminality throughout the film.
When Jack (John Travolta) is tasked to search for new wind for the fictional film’s atmosphere and a new scream to add to the Psycho-like shower murder in the film’s first, the first-person voyeurism that the cinematography evokes also becomes an auditory construct, as John Travolta’s protagonist invites us into his sonic perspective through his recording of nature sounds and accidental capturing of audio from a car crash.
In a manner similar to the accidentally photographed murder at the center of Michelangelo Antonioni’s groundbreaking arthouse film Blow Up, Blow Out sees Jack unravel at the seams as he attempts to uncover and bring to justice the assassination of Pennsylvania Governor George McRyan through his audio recording. Echoing the first-person perspective of the “film-within-a-film” opening, a sequence at the center of the film sees the audience take on the audiovisual point-of-view of Jack as he relives the moment of recording the potential assassination, aligning the audience within the protagonist’s multi-sensory perspective as he grapples with the government conspiracy in which he is caught.
While it is entirely possible to call Jack’s unintentional surveillance of the tragedy a positive example of seeing the truth in the midst of a dishonest political yarn, the psychic and bodily fallout of the recording suggests that his accidental anti-government observation is an impossible task in the midst of the corrupt behemoth of Reaganite American politics. The film’s final sequence at the firework-laden “Liberty Festival” sees the personal and political consequences come to the forefront, as Jack witnesses and records the murder of Sally (Nancy Allen), the former governor’s escort whom he liberated from the sunken car in the film’s inciting incident, by the government-hired assassin Burke.
By juxtaposing the death of Sally against the backdrop of a joyous patriotic celebration, De Palma finalizes the critique of the American political establishment as an ironic and corrupt force of destruction that wears a mask of individual freedom and nationalistic optimism. The haunting final moments see Jack forced to surrender to his own exploitation and personal paranoia as he offers Sally’s final scream as the sound effect for the film from the reflexive introduction, emphasizing a devastating poetic continuation of surveillance and conspiracy through the cinematic form.
Building on the foundation of Blow Out’s approach to voyeurism and political intrigue, Kathryn Bigelow’s underrated and unfortunately difficult-to-find Strange Days extends the structures of surveillance into the realm of human memory, as the film’s policeman-turned-illegal memory dealer protagonist Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is forced to confront the ethical fallout of his VR-style memory archive. In a manner similar to Blow Out’s meta-cinematic opening, the introductory sequence of Strange Days showcases the first-person perspective of a restaurant robbery as recorded on the memory-sharing device. While the scene ends in the tragic death of the memory’s “protagonist,” the camera cuts from the point-of-view memory to Lenny’s shocked removal of the memory-viewing apparatus.