Pauline Kael’s enthusiasm was not misplaced when she hinted Blow Out might have been, upon its release in 1981, Brian De Palma’s best movie yet. It’s focused, mature, and heartrending. It grafts his invigorating “personal effects” (the original title for Blow Out while it was in script stage) onto an overtly political, ethical, moral spine. Its trajectory from comedy into tragedy is unbroken and attractively symmetrical. But in retrospect, it feels more of a great transition than a truly great film, an autodidactic lesson that allowed De Palma to emerge later on with both the almost unbearable gravity of Casualties of War and the clarified excitement of Femme Fatale, but which in itself only becomes interesting when one looks at its role in reshaping De Palma’s career.
Kael praised the synthesis of De Palma’s craft with theme on this one, but compared to Carrie White’s adolescent trauma, Kate Miller’s quivering libido, or Laure Ash’s drive for redemption, there just seems to me something strikingly thin about Blow Out‘s psychological imperative. One reason for this may be that De Palma began the project intending it to be a significantly more claustrophobic, tightened exercise in paranoia, a la Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. Somewhere along the way, De Palma’s script, um, blew out on him, expanding in scope while simultaneously trying to retain focus on the initial draft’s kernels. (If Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup is a major influence on Blow Out, the final product is akin to David Hemmings’s original photo, the one where you can see the forest, the trees, and maybe, just maybe, a dead body.)
But whether one sides with Kael or with me on Blow Out‘s greatness or frustrating nearness thereof (I’m a skeptic, but not enough to deny that De Palma’s machinery was running at the top of its game at this point in his career), there’s no doubting the movie is a highly personal one for its director, a native Philadelphian who was raised in the country’s cradle and who seems to have an intimate knowledge of the city’s current-day amalgamation of birth and decay, an environment where the weight of history and the pervasiveness of crushed dreams seem to be two sides of the same bicentennial coin.
It’s also, save maybe Home Movies, De Palma’s most significant examination of the practice of filmmaking after Hi Mom! In many senses, Blow Out is an inversion of that earlier film. Blow Out opens with an amusing fake-out in which a hackneyed POV killer sequence is revealed to be a scene from the newest exploitation thriller sound man Jack Terry (John Travolta) is coasting through, laying down recycled Foley and not even bothering to replace the excruciatingly unmotivated scream emanating from a perky-titted co-ed’s throat. Even as his sausagy director is berating him for his lackluster work, Jack is as disengaged as Hi Mom!‘s Jon Rubin was torqued up while pitching his cinema-vérité project to a similarly shady B-movie mogul. Jon’s experimental drive later sees him trying to film himself having sex with a naïve young girl across the apartment courtyard and, later, taking part in a psychotic theater “happening” called “Be Black Baby,” in which upscale white audiences are painted black, beaten and raped, and come out of the ordeal thankful for their exposure to realness.
Jon’s stabs at filmmaking are all emphatic, but invariably miles away from the vérité he initially aims for. In contrast, Jack spends the opening credits of Blow Out queuing up and labeling dubs of various sensational sound effects (i.e. “gunshot,” “body falling”) as he ignores the evening news report’s (as we’ll later see, totally failed) attempts to relay a day’s worth of truth. He then sets out with his portable reel-to-reel recording device and baton-like directional microphone to capture real sounds he’ll later transform into the soundtrack of a fabricated, trashy scenario. But when a car carrying a notable politician plunges off a bridge and into a river while he’s recording, and the evidence he hears in his headphones contradicts what the newly deceased presidential candidate’s handlers tell him happened, Jack’s lapsed faith in the authenticity of his craft is born anew. If only he can get the dizzy girl who was in the car with the dead politician (the girl Jack dives in and saves) to corroborate. This sets off a series of incidents that test Jack’s allegiance to the tools of his trade, which previously failed him, caused an undercover officer’s death and set him on his current course of truth avoidance (i.e. exploitation filmmaking). If the subsequent Body Double was De Palma’s bad-tempered middle finger to the critical establishment, the dour, contemplative Blow Out almost seems a capitulation.
And if Blow Out marks a sea change in his filmography (it’s arguably the penultimate film in his “red period”), it’s also because it clearly marks the end of a political moment in both De Palma’s canon as well as America’s history. As a sequel to Greetings, Hi Mom! is similarly preoccupied with the political schizophrenia of the post-JFK assassination era. But it’s also swept up in the spirit of social upheavals in a way that mirrors Blow Out‘s embittered resignation. Greetings and Hi Mom! are so conscious they frequently lose track of their own inner logic. They, like Jon Rubin, are filled with abandon and innovation.
In Blow Out, Jack’s mission and strategy are always crystal clear—to him. It’s the rest of the world that seems eager to trip into the oblivion of permanent political amnesia. As he continually attempts to blow the whistle on what increasingly appears to have been an assassination, he’s repeatedly told, “No one cares.” Activism, awareness, and anarchy alike are all atrophied. More so than the death of a goodhearted hooker or Jack’s subsequent regression (represented by his choice to transpose the rawest, most painful sound he’s ever captured on tape onto Co-Ed Frenzy), it’s the death of the ‘60s and ‘70s that haunts Blow Out and has arguably inflated its reputation among those incapable of recognizing anything good in, say, The Fury.
The previous MGM DVD of Blow Out was frequently as grainy as the final blowup in Antonioni's movie, so it's a relief to say Criterion's Blu-ray presentation is a major improvement, if not exactly perfect. The balance is better than the MGM, but the overreliance on blues and reds continues to make for an iffy overall color temperature. In some cases, the transfer is at the mercy of the original elements. Some of Brian De Palma's heavily processed shots and split-diopter images still come off a little dog-eared, but I guess you don't push the medium without roughing up a few edges. The sound mix is fantastic, with Pino Donaggio's pathos-drenched score given extra room for maximum poignancy and some of the sound effects resonating with surprising directionality.
The streak of De Palma discs without commentary tracks from the director himself remains unbroken, but at least here we get one of the closest next-best things: an hour-long conversation about the making of the movie between De Palma and director Noah Baumbach. It actually may be better than a commentary track, since it's more focused and allows for the bandying about of different points of view, though Baumbach acts largely as a fan surrogate. If nothing else, those in the know will get a delicious thrill imagining Armond White's head exploding at their camaraderie. Also included are two shorter interview pieces with star Nancy Allen and Steadicam operator Garrett Brown. It's interesting to see how much effort went into what is supposed to be the shoddiest piece of filmmaking in the entire movie, but it's even more fascinating to hear Allen (who was then De Palma's wife) talk about her chemistry with Travolta and whether or not Jack and Sally ever had sex during the movie's timespan. (Her take: yes; De Palma's: not so much.) The meatiest supplemental feature, however, is the inclusion of De Palma's almost prehistoric feature movie Murder a la Mod, which appears on TV in Dennis Franz's apartment in Blow Out. The movie establishes some of the same De Palma tropes more fully and rewardingly explored in Greetings and Hi Mom!, and also represents perhaps his earliest Hitchcockian overtures.
Criterion continues to prefer their De Palma relatively humorless, but there's no denying Blow Out's importance in the underrated director's filmography.