****/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B+
starring John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz
written and directed by Brian De Palma
by Bryant Frazer Blow Out begins with a broadly visual joke, nearly four minutes long, about filmmaking. It ends with a second joke on the same subject, this one more complex, pointed, and black as tar. Over the course of the narrative, the material has turned rancid, so discoloured and malodorous that it's hardly funny. That's because, between the two grand gestures that bookend the film, writer-director Brian De Palma has traced a hero's journey from idealism and optimism to disillusionment and despair. If cynicism were a superhero franchise, Blow Out would be its origin story.
De Palma's pugnacious opening gambit is a long sequence depicting the POV of a killer stalking a girls' college residence. The miscreant stabs to death a security guard who's lingering outside a room where two barely-clad young things are dancing--facing the window! Beneath strobing lights and a mirrorball!--and assumes the guard's position as voyeur. (As he watches through multiple windows, the wall between dorm rooms creates a splitscreen, a De Palma trademark.) He stalks a vigorously cohabiting couple and menaces a masturbating maiden before ducking through a doorway conveniently labelled "Shower." (Echoes of the opening sequence of De Palma's Carrie, which took place in a high-school girls' locker room, are explicit, if distant, as are nods to shower scenes in Hitchcock's Psycho and De Palma's previous film, Dressed to Kill.) The killer glimpses himself in a mirror, then turns and closes in on a bathing damsel, pulling aside her shower curtain and raising a knife as she lets out a bloodcurdling shriek.
Er, no, not exactly. More of a pathetic warble. It's the punchline to this section of the film: the actress is standing there under a stream of water, eyes closed, tits out, and pretending to soap up as the film crew executes a crazy SteadiCam move through the steamy bathroom set; once the killer finally corners her, the poor girl can't muster anything resembling a decent scream to close out the scene. De Palma then cuts, sublimely, to a chuckling John Travolta, sucking on a cigarette and declaring, "God, that scream is terrible," as the camera dollies back to reveal his seat on a Philadelphia mixing stage for Coed Frenzy, Blow Out's film-within-a-film. Travolta is Jack, a sound editor on low-budget slasher movies, and that edit is important, since it establishes Jack as a kind of authority. His reaction reflects that of Blow Out's audience--which is holding back serious guffaws by now if it's not already in stitches--and perhaps the attitude as well of De Palma's critics, who were already claiming that the director's lurid stylistics couldn't be taken at all seriously.
Still, if this joke is self-deprecating on De Palma's part, it's also a bit vainglorious. For one thing, this snippet of Coed Frenzy is a really bravura bit of filmmaking, from Vilmos Zsigmond's colourful lighting set-ups and Garrett Brown's skilful SteadiCam operation to the tremendous sound design, which mixes the lub-dub of a heartbeat and the aural scrape of the killer's Darth Vader bronchitis with the strains of generic disco music and the occasional tinkle of Pino Donaggio's two-bar parody of John Carpenter's Halloween score to clamorous, polyrhythmic effect. For another, it's a protest against accusations that De Palma's films were merely tarting up Hitchcock tropes with showy misogyny. In the first few minutes of Blow Out, De Palma declares, "This is what a cheap, derivative exploitation movie looks like, dummies." He goes on to deliver a lacerating, sanguinary meditation on the plight of good men and artists in a crummy, soul-destroying world that rewards chicanery and brutally penalizes honesty. "Compare and contrast."
On some level, Jack is a surrogate for the director himself. ("What is he, a peeping Tom or something?" a woman strolling past him wonders, with distaste, early in the film.) Over the course of Blow Out, this filmmaker-protagonist becomes obsessed with a conspiracy theory after inadvertently capturing on audiotape the sounds of screeching tires, a blown tire, and a car plunging into Wissahickon Creek. Leaping into the water, Jack manages to save Sally (Nancy Allen) from the submerged wreck. He considers it a job well done until he's questioned by police, who look at him cockeyed when he mentions a girl in the car. What girl? Unbeknownst to Jack, the car's famous driver was Pennsylvania Governor George McRyan, a leading candidate for the U.S. presidency. Before long, McRyan's associates are taking him aside to suggest that maybe Jack could forget said girl ever existed. Jack agrees, but he knows something ain't right. As he listens, over and over, to the recordings he made that night, Jack grows convinced that he has evidence the governor was murdered.
Why does he take this as a crusade? It has something to do with his previous life in police work, when his botched job of wiring an informant led to the man's murder, scarring Jack and putting him on the road to redemption. He also goes sweet on Sally, who might know more about the events of that night than she lets on. Travolta plays the part with his heart on his sleeve, flashing a winning smile and exuding an earnestness that makes you wince. And Allen plays the role of ingénue to the ridiculous hilt. She's sweet enough that you want to see Travolta get together with her. Is she an unwitting conspirator or an unwitting victim? She's so hapless that it's hard to tell the difference.
Blow Out is usually considered critically, at least in part, as an investigation of filmmaking processes. It's true that De Palma spends some time with the mechanics of film, depicting the laborious process of synching sound to picture or opening up a Bolex to expose the camera's inner workings. In another funny joke, he has Jack slip Sally out of the hospital and into a motel room where, rather than snuggle up under the covers with her, he sits up all night with his Nagra tape deck. But the element of filmmaking that really matters here is deception, by which I mean performance. Sally, for instance, fancies herself a make-up artist, and it turns out that the face she presents to Jack isn't entirely an honest one. There's the duplicitous Manny (Dennis Franz), who uses a studio-photography business as a front for a blackmail operation. There's the murderous political operative Burke (John Lithgow, in an early rehearsal for his role on "Dexter"), who is so skilled at altering his voice that he sometimes talks as though there's a soundman inside his head, overdubbing the words in real time. De Palma even takes a moment late in the film to slyly depict the negotiation between customer and prostitute as a fundamentally phoney transaction on both sides.
Amid these actors, these practitioners of pure fiction, Jack is a documentarian. Once his boss insists that he bring new wind FX to bear on Coed Frenzy's soundmix, it's Jack's sense of professionalism that sends him wandering around in the middle of the night, recording the breeze rustling through leaves. That work ethic gets him embroiled in the mystery surrounding the governor's death. When the individual frames of a film showing McRyan's car driving into the river are published in a newsmagazine, à la the Zapruder film, Jack finds a way to turn them into a movie he can synch with his sound recordings in order to reconstruct the accident. At one point, he tells someone on the police force that he can't simply let it go because he was there for the real events, which don't correspond with the official story. "I was there, she was there," he argues. "Who gives a damn that you were there?" comes the devastating reply. More than filmmaking, per se, Blow Out is about the tale-spinning power of modern media--the efficiency of well-told lies.
De Palma directs with his requisite technical proficiency, exploiting the widescreen canvas along with his usual bag of optical tricks--splitscreens, split-dioptre lensing--to suggest a world full of action and detail. His shot compositions sometimes use camera tricks to achieve a certain lyricism (see: Travolta wielding his shotgun microphone on the left side of the screen while an owl looms large and impossibly close to the camera on the right), though I'm equally impressed by the attention he pays to staging background action in what would otherwise be negative space. Observe the vibrant, urgent tableaux of a hospital emergency room as the camera pans quickly past, following Travolta down the hall. Glimpse the early-morning detail of a single jogger running by in the middle distance outside a motel room window as Jack awakens.
And you must pay attention, because at any moment there might be a clue planted somewhere within the frame. In one wonderfully droll shot, you barely notice a character lurking underneath a bridge as Travolta jumps into the water. The framing and lighting expertly manipulate your eyes without resorting to an edit--you're watching Travolta swim, the car sink, and then you notice the shady fellow stepping into view before De Palma cuts to a tighter shot of Travolta heading for the drowning car. Moments later, having let you stew for the space of a few heartbeats, De Palma cuts back to the same wide shot, in which the man is more clearly seen hustling out of the picture.
Things like that speak to the collaborative process of director and cinematographer, and Vilmos Zsigmond's work is aces, even when he dances on the edge of visual kitsch. A scene in Manny's apartment bathed in the colours of Christmas could be disastrously gaudy, but Zsigmond, working in harmony with production designer Paul Sylbert, gets the balance of red against green just right. Mostly, the colour scheme is red, white, and blue, in keeping with a theme of dark Americana, with De Palma, a native Philadelphian, making great use of the historic city's signature locations, such as the indoor Reading Market. The key mood is of disorientation and alienation. There's a famous scene where Jack discovers that someone has broken into his studio and the camera starts spinning in full circles, like one reel of a tape player, as layer upon layer of noise--the buzz and throb and thrum of erased audiotapes, eventually accompanied by a ringing telephone--build on the soundtrack, generating a sort of avant-garde music composition on the subject of the memory hole.
Fresh off the success of Dressed to Kill and with a big star in the lead role, De Palma found his budget for Blow Out ballooning, and he was able to engage in all kinds of large-scale craziness during the film's final act, like having Travolta, driving up Broad Street in desperate pursuit of a kidnapped Sally, motor his way through the City Hall courtyard and into a "Liberty Day" parade in progress. If you're given to symbolism, think of it as Jack's vision of truth, justice, and the American way plowing headlong into the highly-choreographed artifice surrounding him. That his Jeep ends up jammed into a department-store window, stranding him without wheels as Sally is spirited towards certain doom, doesn't speak so well for the status of truth and justice. The American way--Watergate, Chappaquiddick, the JFK assassination--doesn't have much to do with either of those ideals in the first place.
Although De Palma stages a massive climax at Penn's Landing, complete with a chaotic, thronging crowd and fireworks bursting overhead, the film's denouement is anything but cathartic. In the end, truth goes into the drink and Jack slinks back to Coed Frenzy, defeated. Blow Out stands apart from almost every thriller of its ilk (Vertigo is a significant exception) in that its ending at first feels abominable, loathsome, even obscene. It gnaws at you, an unforgettable thing. Yet Blow Out is ultimately just a sympathetic portrait of a ruined American twisted by the myriad forces aligned against him. His small triumph is a final inversion of decency--he plays the artist, always the truth-teller, now folding his pain back into his art. A two-time loser, Jack has found the perfect scream, but what we see on screen is, finally, a man who wants badly to crawl outside of his own head. It's a perfect expression of tremendously bitter humanism. De Palma has never made a more affecting film.
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THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion's new 2.40:1, 1080p transfer of Blow Out for Blu-ray Disc is superbly filmlike, resolving a level of detail appropriate to a 'scope movie of its era and sporting a reasonable amount of film grain, too. There is no evidence of overzealous noise-reduction or grain-removal techniques, while the image is richly detailed throughout, to the point where some shots exhibit fuzzy edges, fringing, and other optical imperfections resulting from the limitations of the Panavision lenses that were available at the time. Dirt- and dust-wise, the picture is very clean, although there are multiple instances of those pesky vertical scratches that can be a distraction if you're sensitive to analog artifacts in the image. I detected no digital artifacting whatsoever.
Colours are rich and saturated, albeit never to the point of blooming or smearing--meaning Zsigmond's visuals hold up impressively well. Shadow detail is quite strong, with film grain twinkling away to lend texture to all but the very darkest corners of the frame. De Palma is credited as telecine co-supervisor with Criterion's ace colourist Lee Kline on a new 2K scan from the original camera negative. Optical effects, like the various splitscreens, exhibit softness and a tonal shift that indicate those shots were scanned from an intermediate source like an internegative or perhaps an answer print in lieu of being digitally recreated from the 35mm negative.
It's tempting to wonder what Blow Out would sound like with a highly directional 5.1 remix, but Criterion faithfully reproduces only the film's original Dolby Stereo master, matrixed to four channels of audio. The mix was sourced from a 35mm mag track with 24-bit sampling and then de-noised in Pro Tools. It's presented via a very clean 2.0 DTS-HD MA track running at 1536 kbps. As you'd expect, there's not a tremendous amount of bass information but dialogue and effects are absolutely sharp and clear. Ambient sounds regularly fill out the (non-discrete) rear of the soundfield, conveying the distracting richness of Jack's world. Pino Donaggio's score, meanwhile, sounds good enough to rip to CD.
Sadly, this is not the disc where Brian De Palma overcomes his longstanding aversion to commentary tracks. Criterion managed the next best thing last October, putting him in a room with fellow director Noah Baumbach, where the latter obsequiously pries anecdotes and bits of data from the former for nearly an hour. (I don't mean that as a dis to Baumbach; I'd be pretty damned obsequious, too, if I were interviewing De Palma.) The result, "Noah Baumbach Interviews Brian De Palma" (58 mins., HD), is OK. Footage from the movie is edited into the program so that De Palma really is providing a bit of a voiceover, and you get insight into De Palma's methods and the philosophical roots of his style. "A dirty word, to me, is coverage," he muses, about twelve minutes in. "Two-shot. Over-the-shoulder. The stuff you see all the time drives me crazy because this, to me, is not directing. You have to think about where the camera is in relation to the material." The most incredible story he tells has to do with the theft of two crucial reels of negative during post. Some of the film's most complex scenes--namely, the climactic parade sequence--had to be restaged at considerable expense to the production's insurers. It's hard to imagine how dispiriting that must have been.
In January, Criterion tracked down Nancy Allen, who sat for a fairly detailed interview (25 mins., HD) in which she talks amiably and at length about working with Travolta, her controversial little-girlish portrayal of Sally, and the difficulty, as a claustrophobe, of getting into, however briefly, a submerged automobile. Supplementals producer Susan Arosteguy (I used to rent LaserDiscs from her as a college kid in Boulder, but naturally she doesn't remember me) also had SteadiCam inventor Garrett Brown sit for a short segment (15 mins., HD) wherein he offers a brief history and demo of his sublime invention--a stabilization rig that forever expanded the grammar of filmmaking by allowing smooth hand-holding of film cameras--and briefly reminisces about his work for De Palma. If only Travolta and maybe Zsigmond had participated, this would be a pretty terrific package; as is, it feels a bit off balance. Taken together, the three interviews almost equal the running time of Blow Out itself, so maybe some enterprising De Palma scholar will be inclined to create a commentary super-edit and post it to YouTube.
All that said, the single most substantial extra is Murder à la Mod, an early De Palma work presented in its 80-minute entirety in gorgeous monochrome HD (MPEG-4 AVC). Nicely obviating the existing Something Weird DVD, with its dorky "SWV" watermark, this is a Big Deal for De Palma devotees, who consider it a fascinating incubator for his pet themes and experiments in style. It's an interesting artifact, for sure, proving that the director was consumed quite early on by themes of exploitation, voyeurism, and the vicious murder of beautiful women. Despite its resolutely unconventional, non-linear narrative form and sometimes queasy-making content (an ice pick to the face, a half-dressed woman on the verge of tears), the film has a tongue-in-cheek, almost slapstick quality that raises the tantalizing question of whether De Palma takes his own obsessions too seriously--or not nearly seriously enough. Unfortunately, its presentation here is completely devoid of context. A little more information on the film's mysterious production company, Aries Documentaries, or its exhibition history, would go a long way. (According to THE NEW YORK TIMES, it opened in the East Village in 1968 on a double-bill with Paul Bartel's short film The Secret Cinema.) As a matter of fact, Tim Lucas recently wrote a detailed consideration of Murder à la Mod for SIGHT & SOUND, and it would be nice to see that reproduced in the disc's 32-page booklet alongside the expected appreciations of Blow Out by Michael Sragow and Pauline Kael, whose NEW YORKER review is reprinted in full. Nevertheless, the inclusion of this second feature takes the cake in the value-for-money department.
The platter is rounded out with a 1.85:1 theatrical trailer (1:45, HD) for Blow Out, sourced from obviously inferior elements (and featuring some amusing pan-and-scan work to accommodate this narrower aspect ratio), as well as a suite of 24 lovely, evocative black-and-white production stills taken by photographer Louis Goldman, a fellow whose behind-the-scenes career apparently spans 70 films and most of four decades (he started with The Alamo and Exodus in 1960). Again, it's unfortunate that Criterion hasn't provided that information as part of the package--I know as much about Goldman as I do because I typed his name in at Amazon and IMDb. It's great to have the photos, though, at HD resolution and without the stupid frames, borders, and other wastes of screen space that studio releases typically use to reduce the actual size of stills.
Bottom line? While Criterion is capable of doing much more comprehensive work, this is a decent set of supplements for a typically sterling transfer of a great movie. Originally published: May 3, 2011.