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Thursday, May 19, 2022

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.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CDT
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Sunday, April 17, 2022

(Photo at the top via thebriandepalma.archives on Instagram)

Posted by Geoff at 11:22 PM CDT
Updated: Sunday, April 17, 2022 11:24 PM CDT
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Monday, January 10, 2022

"Blow Out might be the greatest film De Palma ever made," states Matt Hanson in the opening paragraphs of an article posted today at The Smart Set, "and it grows increasingly relevant in its unsentimental wariness about the potential for hidden forces at work through the highly charged space where media and politics meet. Blow Out contains premonitions galore about where conspiratorial thinking, and the technology that encourages it, ultimately leads us."

Here's an excerpt:

As a character, Terry is defined by his capacity to listen. His professional responsibility is to capture sounds that most people would either not notice or otherwise ignore. Terry’s receptivity is similar to the forever wired, content-soaked world of today, where we’re constantly getting information stimulation from everywhere, all the time. It’s been widely remarked that the ubiquity of cell phones and social media allow us all to become amateur filmmakers, eagerly posting the daily rushes of our lives for public consumption. But we shouldn’t assume that this constant videotaping of the world around us will make us wiser. As Blow Out reminds us, just because you get something important on tape doesn’t mean that people will listen.

If anything, recent history has demonstrated that, alas, mere documentation isn’t proof. Orwell once said that seeing what’s directly in front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle. If anything, that’s even truer now. Anyone can choose to see what they want to see in a certain picture or video, especially if they have an agenda or a preconceived notion of how they are supposed to respond. How visual information gets processed, and who decides how it’s interpreted, all too often ends up as more fodder for our national melodrama — another exciting plot twist in an interactive live socio-political soap opera that never ends because secretly, whether they want to admit it or not, nobody wants it to.

When Blow Out was released, paranoia and conspiracy theories tended to trend left. De Palma himself explained that he became obsessed with the Kennedy assassination and its disturbingly incomplete official narrative about who was where when: “the more you blow it up, the less clear it becomes.” Assuming that operatives are trying to influence elections and alter the country’s political life was, in hindsight, a very realistic response to the bright shining lies of Watergate and Vietnam.

The obsession with surveillance and how that purloined information is bent to the will of nefarious corporate or political actors was definitely a major theme in films of the late ’70s. Consider The Conversation, made by De Palma’s longtime friend Francis Ford Coppola, and Alan Pakula’s trilogy Klute, All The President’s Men, and The Parallax View, all of which interrogate who’s watching the watchers.

Now the tin foil hat points rightward. No doubt conspiracy theories exist on the left as well, but the right has openly mainstreamed its paranoia. Major figures promote it in campaign speeches, cite it in fundraising drives, and keep it circulating throughout their media echo chambers. Fast and loose, postmodern approaches to truth are no longer the purview of radical academics. Treating truth as a socially constructed puppet of power is a rhetorical gambit that routinely fills stadiums. “Alternative facts” will do just fine for an excited crowd that already knows what it wants to hear.

Yet maybe Terry’s solitary anguish, caught in the crossfire over who will get their hands on his recording, still contains a residue of hope. De Palma described Terry’s plight in self-sacrificial terms: “he has to sacrifice to solve this mystery that no one cares about.” Exactly. Terry loses his own peace of mind and the woman he loves precisely because of his idealistic refusal to ignore the empirical truth of what happened on that bridge.

It’s not just that Terry can’t bear to think of the darker implications of the recording, which are indeed troubling — he refuses to give up on what he knows to be true. He can’t understand why people want to accept the idea that no one else cares. Instead, Terry insists that his recording should be on the evening news. Terry’s not a particularly heroic figure — after all, he’s just a B movie hack who feels guilty over a mafia wiretap gone wrong — but nevertheless, he insists on committing to the truth even if no one else believes him or bothers to listen. This refusal to be gaslit is rather noble if a bit quixotic.

Posted by Geoff at 7:40 PM CST
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Thursday, November 11, 2021

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.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CST
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Thursday, October 21, 2021

A frame capture (below) from the trailer for Jacob Gentry's 1999-set thriller Broadcast Signal Intrusion reveals a "Mr. Lithgow" in an FBI report. It turns out that Brian De Palma's Blow Out is a definite inspiration, as Gentry tells Gizmodo's Cheryl Eddy:
io9: Broadcast Signal Intrusion has some very noir vibes (the score backs this up) but it’s also very much a mystery thriller about discovering something that most people haven’t noticed. How did you strike that balance in tone?

Gentry: I’m such a lover of noir in my life, and my previous film was very much in the form of a noir movie with those tropes. But for this one, it was really about ‘70s paranoia thrillers, movies which are a descendant of noir in a lot of ways — like Alan J. Pakula’s paranoia trilogy Klute, The Parallax View, and All the President’s Men, and then the other triptych of Blow Up, The Conversation, and Blow Out. Blow Out is a touchstone movie for me, it’s one of my favourite movies. I’m a [Brian] De Palma super fan. So, of course, all those things start to come together. The score, which a lot of people say sounds noirish, is actually — if you listen to some of the Michael Small music from movies like Marathon Man and Parallax View and Klute, it has very much the DNA of those, which I think pulls from the sort of prime period of film noir, and it’s almost an identifier for the audience. There’s this darkness, there’s mystery, but there’s also kind of like a sleaziness. You want to build paranoia, but you also want to kind of give the idea of loneliness and isolation and those sorts of things. Ben Lovett, the composer, obviously does a lot of that heavy lifting.

io9: I definitely thought of Blow Out during the scene where James and Alice (Kelley Mack) are listening closely to one of the tapes, trying to hear the hidden sounds.

Gentry: Yeah, there’s definitely some — I call it “process porn,” and it’s something I love. You know, whether it’s something like John Travolta forensically analysing his sound tapes to discover a conspiracy, or James Caan [in Thief] with the intricate Michael Mann shot process of breaking into a safe. I love watching that if it’s done well and it’s always fun to try to make compelling.

io9: The ending, without giving too much away, dips into a very surreal place, kind of capping off the movie’s slow descent into a world that doesn’t quite feel real. What do you want audiences to take away from that last scene?

Gentry: I think the ultimate reaction, the sort of hope or dream, would be a really good parking lot conversation, or whatever [the equivalent of that would be] if you were to watch it at home and discuss it online. Some of my best moviegoing experiences are when you have a really good discussion about it afterwards and it sticks with you. Even if you don’t like it at first, there’s perhaps things you can discover about it. Some of my favourite movies or movies are ones that I was a little bit conflicted on. We took a lot of inspiration from Zodiac, a movie I was kind of unsure about when I first saw it, or even more recently, something like Under the Silver Lake. My wife and I were coming out of that and it was like, “I don’t think I like that movie,” and then we proceeded to talk about it the entire ride home. You know what I mean?

So that’s really the goal — hopefully it will be compelling and exciting and thrilling and unsettling. But also, if you so choose, there’s interesting things that can be discussed. Some of the most interesting conversations about this movie I’ve heard are when there’s someone who was like, “I hated the end of that movie,” and another person who wanted to defend it. And I couldn’t ask for anything better than that.

Posted by Geoff at 7:57 PM CDT
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Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Posted by Geoff at 3:13 PM CDT
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Friday, August 6, 2021

Reaction Video - Reel Reviews with Jen - Snake Eyes

Posted by Geoff at 6:35 PM CDT
Updated: Friday, August 6, 2021 6:45 PM CDT
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Sunday, August 1, 2021

In a Zoom interview that runs just over a half hour, Brian De Palma is interviewed by Sam Fragoso for the latest episode of the podcast Talk Easy. Centered around the 40th anniversary of Blow Out, Fragoso kicks off the conversation with a quote from Pauline Kael's 1981 review of that film in The New Yorker: "For the first time, De Palma goes inside his central character, and he stays inside. He has become so proficient in the techniques of suspense that he can use what he knows more expressively. It's as if he finally understood what the technique is for. This is the first film he has made about the things that really matter to him." Fragoso then asks De Palma, "How does that description land with you?"
De Palma: It's very perceptive. I don't know if it's the first time I've made a film about things that matter to me, but it came from a very interesting idea, and I developed it into a whole scenario with characters that were full-blown. So it had a kind of emotional depth to it.

Fragoso: If she is right about making a film about the things that matter to you, I'm curious, what were those things?

De Palma: I'm obviously very interested in visual storytelling, and this lent itself to tell a story, a lot, with just pictures. And not relying on dialogue to explain everything. The whole idea of this film came from a couple of things. One was when I was cutting a soundtrack for footsteps -- I think it was for Murder a la Mod, there's a lot of footsteps in the graveyard -- I realized what we were using to separate the sounds, which is known as "fill," was Lawrence Of Arabia. Here, one of the greatest films of all time, is now "fill," in the footsteps of the mix I'm preparing for Murder a la Mod. So that irony stayed with me. And the other thing, which starts the whole film off, is when I was mixing Dressed To Kill, and I talked to my sound mixer. I said, "That effect of wind in the trees-- I've heard this!" I mean, I'd been working with the same sound guy for years, and I kept on hearing the same wind in the trees.

Fragoso: This is Dan Sable.

De Palma: Yeah, Dan Sable. And I said, "Dan, get me some new wind in the trees!" So that gave me the whole beginning of the movie, and this sort of ironic twist at the end. You know, the fact that the scream becomes just an effect to be used in a kind of tawdry horror film.

And that's just the start-- here's the podcast description of the episode:
Legendary filmmaker Brian De Palma joins us this week! In celebrating the 40th anniversary of Blow Out, we discuss how the project came to be (4:17), the casting of John Travolta (7:49), a post-production mishap (8:48), and the film’s initial reception in 1981 (10:27). Growing up in ’40s Philadelphia, De Palma reflects on his complex childhood (11:06), his Quaker education (12:54), the moment he knew he wanted to direct (15:42), and the chaos of his early documentary work (20:44). Then, before we go, we revisit his masterpiece, Carlito’s Way (27:44), the end of “the director-as-superstar” era (33:16), and the enduring power of a childhood favorite, The Red Shoes (37:09).

Posted by Geoff at 5:44 PM CDT
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Monday, July 26, 2021

At Bloody Disgusting, Daniel Kurland has posted an editorial about Brian De Palma's Blow Out, "Still a Scream 40 Years Later!"
Blow Out is a movie full of contradictions, not unlike conspiracy theories, which actually manage to strengthen the text. The movie contains contrasting tones that compete against each other for supremacy. Blow Out notably begins with its careful exploitation of the audience. The masterful opening POV sequence occasionally has a moody “killer theme” that turns up on the soundtrack during the slasher’s violent acts, which increasingly overpowers the playful party music playing in the dorm unsuspecting students inside have no idea that they’re in danger. Just like how the music does this, the visuals also create this odd dissonance as the audience tries to figure out what’s going on until they finally realize that this introduction is a ruse and part of the artifice that’s inside of Blow Out, rather than Blow Out itself. It’s the first scene in the movie and also the first time in the film that the audience is forced to reckon with this while Blow Out continually toys with what is reality, what is art, and where the two overlap.

It’s all a lie.

To go one step deeper, Garrett Brown, the creator of the Steadicam, was well-practiced with the equipment after his work on The Shining, but this piece in Blow Out is intentionally clumsy because it’s supposed to resemble a low-budget horror movie. It wants to mess with the audience and use the quality of the camerawork to become the first clue that this is actually a movie within the movie. Garrett actually laments that he couldn’t shoot the opening POV sequence properly and was forced to make it look so schlocky, but that’s the magic of this De Palma introduction. It achieves a more technologically advanced and psychologically enriching version of Halloween’s legendary opening sequence and Blow Out’s introduction genuinely helped popularize the use of the Steadicam and showcase its versatility as a filmmaking tool. It’s a sublime pairing between Garrett Brown during the infancy of the Steadicam’s development and Vilmos Zsigmond’s ever-growing talents as a cinematographer.

This illusory artifice that kicks off the movie also bookends Blow Out. Another powerful example of the blurred lines between art and reality is what concludes Jack and Sally’s story. Burke’s assassination plan that takes out Sally is intself based around subterfuge and fabricated panic that’s exactly the type of scheme that conspiracy theorists would develop. On a deeper level, Sally’s screams of terror fail to be heard and she’s unable to receive help because displays of riotous Americana literally drown her out; whether it’s the noise of the fireworks, the public cheering, or the celebratory music. Her corpse basks in the glow of red, white, and blue lights.

The one time that Jack needs to hear Sally’s scream, he can’t, and it’s what costs her her life. It’s devastating, but even harsher of a blow because of Jack’s aural life and how important listening is to him. It’s a horrifying reality about how the dangers of patriotism can strangle America and bury what’s important, which is relevant then, but even more frightening now with how the news and social media can filter out what doesn’t fit their narrative and highlight America’s benign successes. Pro-America messages can overpower what’s really important and strangle the cries for help in a figurative sense, just like Blow Out literally does, and it was made forty years ago.

Brian De Palma gets so many good and chilling performances out of John Lithgow, but his villain in Blow Out, the mysterious Burke (who’s based on G. Gordon Liddy to some degree), is seriously some of the actor’s strongest work. Burke’s appearances here are incredibly brief, but Lithgow makes every second count. Lithgow’s performance as Burke is also a fantastic example of how the weight and intensity behind a villain can mount through their actions, even when they’re not physically being seen on the screen, so that when they finally do show up it’s deeply cathartic. It becomes the satisfying culmination of all of these sinister machinations up until this point. The camera moves with precision during Burke’s calculated murders in contrast to the klutzy maneuvers from “Co-Ed Frenzy.” De Palma uses the language of this cinematography to communicate that Burke is the real deal and someone to worry over.

Burke’s plan is so needlessly more morbid than it needs to be, but this also speaks to its dark brilliance. His target is only Sally, but he proceeds to kill many women who look like her so that her eventual death is misconstrued as the work of a serial killer’s motive instead of a targeted attack. It’s chilling, but also speaks to how complex conspiracies and actions from political terrorists only highlight how little the public really knows. This kind of stuff can happen underneath everyone’s noses with nobody having any idea because of its stealth and invasive nature.

So many De Palma movies about men trying to unsuccessfully save women–perhaps harkening back to De Palma’s own childhood and his sleuthing efforts to videotape his father’s affairs to protect his mother in the process–but Blow Out presents one of the starkest and nihilistic versions of this idea wherein Jack doesn’t only fail to save Sally, but her death and his defeat are forever immortalized on celluloid to entertain millions of audience members. No one can rewind the footage to change Sally’s fate like in “Co-Ed Frenzy.” It’s the grim irony of this theme that recurs throughout De Palma’s works, especially for a filmmaker who so often uses cinema as the ultimate expression of the soul.

This tragic ending comes as such a blow and feels very much representative of the decisions that happen in movies forty years ago versus today. Emotionally, Jack’s final embrace with Sally is a lot to take in, but De Palma also guarantees that it’s just as visually expressive. What follows is one of the most cinematic moments that’s ever been committed to film. The sheer extravagance of the exploding fireworks as Pino Donaggio’s score swells and Travolta loses himself in Jack’s sadness is just a masterpiece. Whether it’s intentional or not, the galaxy of light that’s cast over the dorm room from an illuminated disco ball during Blow Out’s opening scene also works as a visual counterpoint to these fireworks that works as another element that bookends the movie, both through reality and the illusion of cinema.

Greg Cwik, In Review

Let’s talk about De Palma, who thinks in the cinematic language. Think of that rotating shot, the camera looping around as Jack runs around checking his tapes, which have been erased, sounds of film flapping and Jack doing laps like Sisyphus. Think of the split-diopter of Lithgow’s lunatic holding a photograph up as he descends the escalator, of the fish head and the ice pick, the frog and the owl, and the lovers at the bridge. Think of Jack, under the flaming sky of July Fourth fireworks, a patriotic patchwork of red, white, and blue, holding her lifeless body in his arms as the country celebrates its spectacular anniversary.

Despite the obviousness of De Palma’s formal skill, Blow Out was initially greeted with indifference, and didn’t get a boost in credibility until Tarantino praised it (it is now rightfully revered, of course). Notably, it stands out in two ways from his other thrillers. He famously has made small movies for himself and big movies for paychecks; this is a small movie made big by a generous budget (by De Palma’s standards, at least). The extra money meant better sets, car chases through parades, many retakes and reshoots, De Palma taking a month off of shooting to think about the script more. And it’s a tragic film, and the tragedy here comes not from pure spectacle, (though there is that, too) but the fact that we care so much about these characters, these performers; we care about Travolta’s doomed-to-fail sound man and Nancy Allan’s doomed-to-die sylph, and when they hurt, we hurt.

This is a film that begins with a murder and a scream, piteous and irritating, and ends with a murder and a scream, pained, one that reverberates deep in the corridors of the heart. De Palma’s deft manipulations of images and sounds are redoubtable, but much of the film’s pure emotional power comes from Travolta’s performance, the sincerity he brings to this tragic would-be hero who, in solving the mystery, in getting the answers he seeks, ends up in his own personal hell, his greatest failure turned into a throwaway shriek coming from another woman’s mouth.

Jimi Fletcher, VHS Revival

The sound recording sequence is a joy – here we just luxuriate in the art of movie-making. Jack is out by the river, underneath a bridge, recording the natural sounds that he will end up using in the movie – first we hear the sound, then we follow Jack’s mic as it picks up on it, and then we see the source – a frog, a couple having a quiet talk (unlike the chat between the couple in The Conversation, this one’s absolutely harmless), an owl….and something we don’t see the source of – a strange buzzing, winding sound. What the hell is that? We soon find out that it’s Burke pulling and releasing the garrote on his wristband. One of Blow Out‘s main pleasures is giving us little clues and hints that only become truly apparent on a second viewing. It’s not the sort of thing that makes a first watch baffling, just the odd lovely touch that makes further viewings even more satisfying.

This key sequence will be revisited many times throughout the movie – Jack will pore over his recording to try and work out what happened, and we the viewer are granted visual reminders of the action. This is taken a step further when Jack acquires a series of still images of the event, taken by Sally’s opportunist sidekick Manny (a scuzzy Dennis Franz). Jack cuts out the images, photographs them and creates a mini-movie to accompany the sound, and it’s essentially like watching a movie being made before our very eyes. De Palma is a classic visual storyteller, and these sequences showcase that love of craft and creation beautifully.

Throughout Blow Out, De Palma deploys his box of tricks superbly to the plot – in addition to split-screen we have his much-loved use of deep focus, as well as long-takes, 360 degree spin-arounds and back-projection. Like with Dressed to Kill, De Palma’s execution of cinematic technique is so kaleidoscopic it makes most other directors works feel awfully monochrome. The substance and the style of his films complement each other to such flawless degrees that his methods are precisely what makes the drama so dramatic. This isn’t just fancy dressing. This is cinematic style at its absolute peak. There’s also another wonderful score by Pino Donaggio. Okay, so his occasional lapses into what I can only describe as the imagined lost incidental music for some cancelled detective show may sound a little dated now, but the main orchestral and piano themes, especially the ones centred around Sally, are absolutely heartbreaking and truly beautiful.

Adam Nayman on Neo-Noir, Criterion Current

Where film noir gained potency from its distorted yet crystalline reflections of a starkly stratified, economically depressed society—a world of detours down nightmare alleys at nightfall—neonoir applied a carefully filigreed lens of nostalgia, aligning it with the returns to western and gangster-movie forms that served as the foundations of the New Hollywood. The eagerness with which writers seized upon and venerated movies like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974)—one a melancholically modernized Raymond Chandler adaptation, the other a sadistic riff on the author’s knight-errant narratives in which the windmills prove un-tiltable—had as much to do with retrospectively elevating their directors’ underlying inspirations as acknowledging their state-of-the-art craft and state-of-the-union cynicism.

While the Coens probably prefer The Long Goodbye—they quoted it affectionately in both the Chandler-happy The Big Lebowski (1998) and the non-noirish Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)—it’s Chinatown that feels like neonoir’s early-seventies epicenter, an elegant, scarifying return to the primal scene of Los Angeles in the 1930s. The film’s throwback setting and aesthetics barely belied screenwriter Robert Towne’s post-Watergate cautionary fable about the intersection of establishment political power and patriarchal perversion, both monstrously conjoined in John Huston’s businessman Noah Cross and perceived—perceptively but futilely—by Jack Nicholson’s nosy investigator Jake Gittes, who recognizes the older man’s crimes against city and family alike and can do nothing to stop them. As novelist and screenwriter R. D. Heath writes, “instead of vice being the property of outsiders, drifters, slum-dwellers or dead-eyed suburban losers and predators, [in Chinatown] it flows directly from the most respectable man in town, who aims to be even more respectable . . . the future shall venerate Noah Cross’ name and regard him as a founding father.” When Faye Dunaway’s doomed and diminished Evelyn Mulwray—fated to be both Cassandra and Elektra in the movie’s neo-Grecian schema—cries out of her demonic pater “he owns the police,” the actress’s emphasis on the second word is chilling. It evokes how both individuals and institutions can be held as property, and the image of Huston enfolding his wide-eyed, open-mouthed daughter-slash-granddaughter (Belinda Palmer) is as predatory and unsettling as anything in American cinema. It lays bare a hopelessness that doesn’t feel safely contained by the parameters of the story or the screen, as ancient as the forces coursing through a horror movie like William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), an enduring evil loosed once more upon a fallen world.

Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975) revolves around a smuggled sculpture that exists on a continuum somewhere between The Exorcist’s excavated Assyrian totem and the Maltese Falcon: a valuable, cursed antique that turns out to be the stuff that nightmares are made of. Like Chinatown, Penn’s film is a neonoir scribbled in indelible ink, with a cloud of encroaching blackness gradually blotting out the sky on both coasts. There’s a determinedly panoramic sprawl to Alan Sharp’s screenplay, which keeps shifting the action back and forth from gleaming, sun-blind Los Angeles—the prowling grounds for Gene Hackman’s hamstrung football-star turned PI Harry Moseby, a laconic brother shamus to Jake Gittes and Philip Marlowe—to a swampy outcropping of the Florida Keys, where a jailbait heiress has absconded to either visit her stepfather or seduce her mothers’ other lovers . . . or both. Incest remains at the level of subtext (“the world is getting smaller, the kids are getting younger, and I’m getting drunk”), but corruption, coercion, and subterfuge ooze from the story’s every pore.

Penn’s chosen style is much slower and more deliberate than Howard Hawks’s serene velocity in The Big Sleep (1946)—and some shots hold long enough to “watch paint dry,” as per Harry’s priceless, tossed-off critique of/stealth encomium to Eric Rohmer—but it cultivates a similar sense of perpetual, in media res confusion, of endlessly unfolding exposition that explains everything except what’s actually going on. A half-decade before Blow Out (1981), Penn wrings a sinister variation on the Zapruder film via footage of a movie-set car crash that suggests not only an act of behind-the-scenes sabotage claiming the life of a supporting character, but, more widely, a booby-trapped reality. The bloody coup de grâce, meanwhile, is delivered by another, larger vehicle, a horrific act of death from above as the MacGuffin disappears beneath the waves, as lost to the ages as the treasure of the Sierra Madre or all those crisp bills scattered to the wind at the end of The Killing (1956).

Both Chinatown and Night Moves make a determined show of trailing off, of punctuating tragic revelations with slippery ellipses, the former through a wobbly tracking shot that loses sight of its subject, the latter in a long view of a damaged boat tracing figure eights along the ocean’s surface into infinity. Without closure, there can be no catharsis, but some of the strongest neonoirs of the early eighties take a less open-ended approach; they lock into place like iron maidens around their hapless protagonists, fine-tuned mechanisms in an era of high-concept studio engineering. It’s telling that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’s right-hand man Lawrence Kasdan, the cowriter of The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), was keen to try his hand at another old-school homage, and also that he tried to reinject some of the sexiness that had become neutered in the surrounding blockbuster deluge. In Body Heat (1981)—set, like Night Moves, in Florida mid-heat-wave—William Hurt’s inept lawyer gets warned about “following his dick into a very big hassle.” He ends up in jail for a murder he didn’t commit in lieu of the one he did (a comeuppance copped by the Coens for The Man Who Wasn’t There); meanwhile, confidence woman Kathleen Turner fulfills her high-school-yearbook ambition to “be rich and live in an exotic land.”

Kasdan’s satisfying, putatively progressive girl-on-top scenario deviated significantly from the seventies sacrificial-femme template (and generated reams of academic discourse as a result), while De Palma’s Blow Out ends, much like Chinatown, with the scream of an innocent woman slain on the altar of an upwardly mobile (and spiderily all-encompassing) conspiracy. There will be no forgetting for John Travolta’s soundman, however: his mythic punishment will be to hear her scream over and over, wrecking his own soul on the rocks of the siren’s call; it’s as if De Palma were trying to show Polanski what downbeat really looks like. The one rousing semi-exception to 1981’s roundelay of unhappy endings—a movie with catharsis to burn—is Ivan Passer’s Santa-Barbara-set Cutter’s Way, about a paranoid, disabled Vietnam vet played by John Heard who takes arms against a sea of troubles—and aim at a monstrous, all-consuming local tycoon—by briefly adopting the iconography of the old West. Cutter doesn’t survive his brief, glorious bout of John Wayne cosplay, but his best pal, Bone (Jeff Bridges), shows true grit by pulling the trigger in his stead—a replay of the ending of The Long Goodbye torqued more toward cosmic justice than individual retribution.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CDT
Updated: Wednesday, July 28, 2021 7:45 AM CDT
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Sunday, July 25, 2021

Charles de Lauzirika shared the above image today on Twitter, with the following caption:
Many years ago, I somehow came into possession of a thick stack of stills and transparencies from Brian De Palma’s BLOW OUT, which marks its 40th anniversary today. Here are a few I just dug up. This superb thriller remains my favorite De Palma. Brilliant filmmaking.

Posted by Geoff at 11:11 PM CDT
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