Blow Out (1981)

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*. In my notes on Blow-Up I mentioned how much I hated Pauline Kael’s review of that film. As so often with movies she disliked, the meat of that review was just an attack on anyone stupid enough to have thought it was any good. Her review of Blow Out is a good example of the way her positive reviews usually went wrong: an overeager endorsement of work an by individual she was personally invested in or was friends with. That Kael liked Blow Out and was a champion of De Palma’s is fine, but there is nothing here to praise to the extent Kael does, and anyone who sets Blow-Up and Blow Out side by side and then reads her pan of the one and effusions over the other won’t miss the prejudice (literally: she was going to hate Antonioni’s film and love De Palma’s before she saw either). Kael was a good writer and great general observer of film, but she was never a critic you could trust.
*. Critics in general were very fond of Blow Out. The public less so. Because of the dark ending? Maybe. I think it more likely that they found the ending just didn’t make a lot of sense. Personally, I find the entire last act falls apart completely.
*. Just to finish the point, here’s what I don’t like about the end of the movie: (1) Travolta’s race through the parade is a huge jump in tone and totally unbelievable (how does he not injure anyone?); (2) I’m still not sure what Lithgow’s Burke was up to. Was he a professional or a psychopath? Why kill the prostitute in the washroom when he planned to kill Karen Allen’s character just an hour later? That’s not how serial killers operate; (3) I thought all the fireworks were cheesy; (4) the final shot is shocking, but seems wildly out of character for Travolta’s Jack Terry. Was it necessary for him to exploit the murder of the woman he loved (and whom he got killed) for a grade-Z horror flick? That was the best solution to finding a decent scream he could come up with?
*. So even without the downbeat ending I’m still not convinced audiences would have left the theatre with good feelings toward Blow Out.
*. Then there’s all the insider stuff. Critics and reviewers take more pleasure in film references than the general public, for obvious reasons. So all the usual nods to Hitchcock, with a plot borrowed from Antonioni’s Blow-Up, scored points with the cinephiles. As does the fact that it’s a movie about making movies. But this failed to impress the multitude, and understandably so. What difference would it make to them?

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*. It was probably too much to ask that a movie about a sound technician would have the strength of its own conception and stick with audio (though Coppola did this successfully in The Conversation). Here the sound recording has to be supplemented by Karp’s film, which is what provides the smoking gun (by way of a muzzle flash).
*. I didn’t buy for a moment that Terry would be able to reconstruct an entire film just by using the stills cut and blown up from a magazine article. That was a huge stretch.
*. Is that nit-picking? Maybe, but there was a lot of that going on in this film and it bothered me that a movie that was so much about professionalism and trade mastery had such moments. To take a different example, why does Lithgow’s Burke need to steal an ice pick from the fish market? Couldn’t he, shouldn’t he, have brought his own? Why run the risk of being caught shoplifting? That may seem like a minor quibble but I don’t think it is.
*. In keeping with being a movie about movie-making, a movie made out of other movies, De Palma seems intent on drawing attention to his own artifice. Could anyone live in an apartment as red as Manny Karp’s? It’s something out of a comic book. I have nothing against overhead shots and split-focus diopter and split-screen effecs, but you can have too much of a good thing. And then there are the performances . . .

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*. What can you say about Karen Allen and Dennis Franz in this movie? You could say that they’re just flat-out terrible, but I suspect De Palma didn’t want them to be believable. Like the weird shots and garish colours (dig the wallpaper in the motel room!), they are meant to be gawked at, seen as unnatural.
*. So perhaps Allen and Franz aren’t failing. They aren’t bad but just drawn that way. We might blame the film’s two big influences: Antonioni and Hitchcock. The former thought actors were just part of the image, almost a kind of stage dressing, and the latter thought in much the same terms. Hitchcock didn’t want his stars to “act” at all but just be blanks. He would create their performances through the context of his visual storytelling. Maybe De Palma was thinking in the same terms. I don’t know.
*. From Blow-Up to Blow Out also marks the transition from philosophy to journalism, and (to borrow some terms from Kael) from art to trash. Our hero no longer seems to have any aspirations, however frustrated, toward creating art but is employed by a sleazy exploitation-film studio. He is also completely untroubled by, or even aware of, questions of epistemology. Recording is believing: the truth is out there and he got it on tape. Instead of doubting the evidence of his senses or his ability to believe, we enter the world of the political conspiracy. We don’t question the information or our interpretation of it but rather ask who controls it, who manipulates it in order to confuse us. These are very different world views. The sorts of doubts that Thomas stumbles over are no concern of Jack Terry.
*. But is De Palma even that interested in the conspiracy here? He says he was inspired by the Kennedy assassination and the Zapruder film, but that just seems to have been the story’s Jamesian “germ.” Despite having all of the trappings, Blow Out has none of the feel of the great cycle of ’70s American conspiracy thrillers. It’s not a movie that’s about paranoia or politics. Instead, it limits itself to being a movie about movie-making, and the fatal barrier between the real world and the edge of the frame.

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