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"In his essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” historian Richard Hofstadter identified a “sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” that served as a recurring pattern in American history (though not exclusively in American history). Writing in 1964, Hofstadter connected the dots between eruptions of panic about the Illuminati and Freemasonry through anti-Catholic conspiracy theories up to the anti-communist hysteria of the McCarthy era. Writing today, Hofstadter would have have little trouble extending that line, from the Kennedy assassination theories that started to crop up immediately after the president’s death the previous November through internet-fueled conspiratorial thinking that has become a prominent part of the 2020 presidential election thanks to QAnon.
Movies have had a complex relationship with conspiracy theories. Misleading — and often outright false — documentaries have been used to push everything from 9/11 conspiracy theories to COVID-19 disinformation to alleged UFO cover-ups to whatever nonsense Dinesh D’Souza is trying to push on any given day. Yet the same elements that can make for irresponsible journalism — and conspiracy theories have a tendency to fall apart upon close examination — can prove irresistible to storytellers. The sense that we live in a world filled with dark forces and sinister plots can be queasily intoxicating. (And for this list we’ve kept the focus on conspiracy theory movies with political implications. You won’t find Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for instance, even though it feeds off the paranoid mood of the era, or stories of corporate conspiracies, real or fictional, like The Insider and Michael Clayton.)
What might not literally be accurate can still be metaphorically true. Here’s Hofstadter again: “Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content.” In the right hands, conspiracy theory–inspired movies tap into a deeper sense of unease and distrust. They can also feed into it. Would our distrust of the government have deepened quite as intensely after Watergate were it not for the Watergate-inspired films that followed it? We may never know. But we can explore the question via some compelling films inspired by the deepest, darkest pockets of political discourse.
My job requires me to be open to all kinds of movies, but if asked about my favorites I will not hesitate to say the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s.
The implosion of Richard Nixon’s presidency looms in ’70s films. It’s even depicted in one of them, Alan J. Pakula’s “All the President’s Men.” The loss of faith in government, cynicism about the presidency, fear of the impact a few powerful people can have on public policy and suspicion that the official version of events isn’t true — these are all legacies of an era in which Americans saw a disgraced president resign and his henchmen go to the slammer.
The most trusted people in our country were lying to us. Of course we were paranoid, and the movies are always best when they tie into something audiences already feel.
This explains why so many ’70s movies feature a protagonist who stumbles on a secret that leads to a vast government conspiracy. Besides reflecting the times, these stories offer freedom for a director to reshape material according to his style and interests. But the key is how closely the hero’s journey mirrors our own as moviegoers.
Just like the guy who finds a secret file or overhears a clandestine phone call, we begin a movie knowing little about what we will encounter, and soon (if the movie is good) it engulfs us completely. These films make us part of the conspiracy; we’re safe in our seats while the heroes risk their lives to get at the truth. Like the shadowy government figures who tap their phones or pull their children aside on the playground to issue warnings, we are always watching. Even more than other kinds of movies, paranoid thrillers make us aware that we’re voyeurs, dying to find out what happens to Gene Hackman or Warren Beatty.
For this list, I would stretch the definition of “the 1970s” to include 1981’s “Blow Out.” It belongs to the ’70s, culturally, because of its connection to earlier movies, its government conspiracy theme and its origin in events such as Watergate (and the Chappaquiddick incident in 1969). The voyeuristic “Chinatown” (1974), while not set in the post-Watergate years, is also clearly a product of them.
“Chinatown” establishes a link to earlier movies, too. I won’t go so far as to push the extended dates for this list back to the 1940s, but paranoid conspiracy thrillers are the answer to the film noir of the ’40s, equally dark tales that also focused on lone wolves attempting to solve mysteries that were bigger than they realized.
No medium does suspense and danger better than the movies, so I’m surprised paranoid thrillers are not more common. “The Lives of Others” (2006), the electrifying “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011) and Will Smith’s “Enemy of the State” (1998) are more recent versions, but I still return to these classics often.
Blow Out (1981)
When I tell people this is my favorite movie, they’re often baffled. Its reputation has grown since it bombed in theaters, but some dismiss it as a garish knockoff of Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up,” and director Brian De Palma is spoken of as a Hitchcock imitator, if at all. But the movie is a masterpiece, with great performances (John Travolta as a principled sound technician, Nancy Allen as a kind woman with a major clue and John Lithgow as a creep involved in the assassination of a governor), operatic emotions, suspenseful set pieces, a gleeful parody of slasher films and double-your-pleasure paranoia: Travolta slowly assembles a film of the assassination even as we are watching a film about 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."
For an episode posted a week ago, Matt Spicer, writer/director of Ingrid Goes West, recorded a commentary for Brian De Palma's Blow Out. In the episode's introduction, Spicer explains to Davidson how, when Spicer was 13 years old, his family would sometimes get the free trial of HBO. And whenever that happened, he would stay up late and watch the late night movies.
"And that's how I saw some of my favorite movies for the first time," Spicer tells Davidson. "I saw Boogie Nights for the first time on HBO late at night. So, like, obviously all the best movies, too, were on after midnight. You know, they would play the really salacious stuff. So of course, as a teenager, that's the stuff that you want to watch. And Blow Out was one of those movies. And I remember, it was just one of those perfect things where, like, it's so rare, too, when, back then, you'd be flipping through the channels and you'd hit right as the movie was starting, you know, and so you usually jump in. And the opening scene of Blow Out is... I mean, can you imagine, truly, an opening scene more captivating to like, a 13-year-old boy, than this movie? I mean, it was just literally like, I think, I was just like, I'm definitely watching this whole movie. But, like, I was lured in by this sort of, you know, salacious slasher movie with a bunch of nudity or whatever. But there's this really, like, intense, expertly-made genre thriller, paranoid thriller attached to it. And that whopper of an ending that's just like... And so I think I just went on this full ride. And this was, you know, my film education, I hadn't really decided that I wanted to be a filmmaker at this point. It was just a really cool movie that I... saw. And that had always stuck with me. And I don't know even know if I remembered the title of it. And then I remember in college, it coming up as a potential movie that I could do an essay on. And I was just like, 'Oh, my God, that's the movie that I saw. I love this movie. I want to write about that.' And so I watched it a bunch and wrote about it for this essay."
"A good scream is hard to find," Loughrey begins. "Tears can be switched on like a tap. A smile is just a twitch of the muscles. But a scream isn’t produced. It erupts, deep from within the fleshy caverns of someone’s lungs. Blow Out’s notorious shriek, let out by Nancy Allen’s Sally in the film’s final reel, is no ordinary sound. It’s a death cry – a final expression of utter hopelessness, which her lover Jack (John Travolta), a sound designer, then adds to the tacky slasher film he’s working on. 'Now that’s a scream!' his producer exclaims. But the result feels uncanny. A slasher film isn’t reality. It’s an illusion, a ritual. We never connect it to the idea of real human loss."
Loughrey the moves on to explore how Blow Out "questions film’s ability to show us the truth"...
Jack rewinds and replays the tape, trapped in an endless loop. When he gets his hands on a set of photographs of the incident, he attempts to fuse sight and sound together in perfect harmony. But De Palma repeatedly uses his own camera to remind us that Jack will never find the objective truth. He’ll manipulate our view by shooting overhead or using a split-diopter lens – where both the foreground and background are given equal focus. These techniques direct us where to look. They instruct us on how to think and feel. A dizzying 360 shot of Jack’s studio, filled with whirring mechanics, injects a sudden sense of dread. No one has to speak a word for us to sense that something’s gone terribly wrong – his tapes have been erased by an unseen hand.
Blow Out was a surprisingly sober, reflective film for De Palma at this juncture in his career. His early films were often politically flavoured – Greetings (1968) features a JFK conspiracy theorist – but he’d grown more provocative over the years. Blow Out’s opening sequence, which jumps into the film Jack’s working on, is a Steadicam shot from the point-of-view of a stereotypical slasher killer. It’s wall-to-wall tits. While it’s primarily a parody of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), there’s a nod, also, to De Palma’s own history of lurid eroticism, in the likes of Dressed to Kill (1980) or Sisters (1972).
Despite an estimated budget of $18m, the same as Raiders of the Lost Ark, released that same year, Blow Out flopped at the box office. Quentin Tarantino had a big hand in salvaging the film’s reputation – he listed it as one of his all-time favourites and the reason he cast John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. That’s despite the fact that Vincent Vega is nothing like Jack. Travolta is at his sweetest and most vulnerable here. His baby blue eyes are always clear and attentive.
Audiences had expected more lurid eroticism, what they got was a thriller moored in the paranoia of post-Nixon America, packed with references to the Watergate scandal, the JFK assassination, and Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick incident. Add to that, a drop of (not-so-subtle) irony: the film takes place in Philadelphia during the run-up to the fictional Liberty Day. There are brass bands, fireworks, and American flags several stories tall. It creates a cacophony of sound that nearly drowns out Sally’s piercing, haunting scream – she’s killed to cover up her involvement in the crash. One image of America, a patriotic burlesque, obscures a more truthful one. Jean-Luc Godard may have labelled cinema as “truth at 24 frames per second”, but De Palma himself used Blow Out as the perfect counterargument. As he put it: “The camera lies all the time; lies 24-times-per-second.”
In 2014, Grey starred with Elijah Wood in Nacho Vigalondo's Open Windows. When The Daily Beast's Marlow Stern told her that Open Windows "seems to combine the voyeuristic Rear Window conceit with the whole 'cam girl' phenomenon," Grey responded: "I think Blow Out was more of an inspiration. But with the cam girl thing, it’s interesting because there were a few girls who did this in the ‘90s when no one was doing it, made millions, and retired. But now, with the advent of Internet porn, people can see professional-quality material online, and now we’re regressing and going back to not caring about the quality. But the fascination goes back to having a connection with the person you’re watching and having this “intimate” experience. It’s a need to satisfy the soul. The Internet has brought us together globally, but also separated us. And people now don’t have that intimacy in their real lives, so they go online."
And so, while this week's "One Movie, One Philadelphia" will have The Inquirer's readers watching Nicolas Cage in National Treasure over the weekend, and posting their comments about that film before midnight on Sunday, it looks like Blow Out will definitely be highlighted later this month. In the meantime, two other websites included Blow Out in their lists today. At Flickering Myth, Tom Jolliffe offered up "10 essential paranoia films," a list that includes The Conversation:
Possibly the greatest paranoia film ever. Francis Ford Coppola’s masterful film sees Gene Hackman catch a suggestive conversation from two ‘targets’ he’s been asked to tap. A progressive trail of events unfold and Hackman, still haunted by the collateral damage from some of his previous jobs, believes he’s unwittingly put a young couple in danger.
The nefarious company Hackman deals with make vague threats when he questions them, and then his mental state begins to unravel. For a film that Coppola did as a kind of quickie between his two Godfather epics, The Conversation is stunningly crafted. The offsetting score really adds to this unsettling atmosphere. By the time Hackman has lost his marbles completely, and the film has ended brilliantly, you’ll be left stunned.
Back to a sound man finding himself drawn into a web of murder after recording more than he bargained for. Brian De Palma’s wonderful homage to vintage era Hitchcock (as well as no small nod to Antonioni’s Blow Up, and the aforementioned The Conversation) has everything you’d expect from his peak era work.
Travolta probably gives his best performance. Given how huge a fan Tarantino is of this film in particularly, and the surprising choice to cast Travolta in Pulp Fiction back in the day, it’s likely his work in this contributed heavily to why he ended up dancing with Uma Thurman on screen in 94. Travolta and fellow Carrie alumni, Nancy Allen are both excellent in this and the film is brilliantly shot and expertly paced. De Palma’s trademark style is in full effect, and completely effective for this kind of histrionic thriller. If Coppola dialled it all back for his thriller, De Palma keeps it all out and it contrasts beautifully with The Conversation (rather than battling it for supremacy).
And also today, Jake Dee at Screen Rant ranks Travolta's "10 best roles," with Jack Terry in Blow Out coming in at number 5...even though it sounds like Dee is actually saying it is Travolta's best...? Read on:
Travolta's best-yet-most-underrated role is almost certainly that of Jack Terry in Brian De Palma's equally unheralded 1981 thriller Blow Out. See this movie if you haven't already!
Jack Terry is a soundman for low-budget horror films. While out recording nighttime sounds, he accidentally records a car crashing off of a bridge into a lake. The car belongs to a powerful politician who dies in the wreckage. What seems like an accident is discovered by Jack to be an assassination conspiracy after he carefully studies his recording. The final line Travolta gives is truly chilling!
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