Blow Out (De Palma, 1981)

Sometimes I think I’m too hard on Brian De Palma.  Sure, he’s made some films that I really dislike – The Black Dahlia, Snake Eyes, Body Double.  But he’s also made some films that are average if not above – Obsession, The Untouchables, Scarface.  And he has made at least four films that I really like a lot – Sisters, Hi, Mom!, Carrie, and Blow Out.

Blow Out is a tough film to write about.  If you aren’t interested in the process of making films, or at least the process behind any artistic/visual medium, will you like Blow Out on any level beyond simple narrative?

On its surface, Blow Out is a somewhat absurd story that is basically a combination of Blow Up and The Conversation.  John Travolta plays Jack Terry, a sound man for a lot of hilariously Corman-esque titled B horror/exploitation films.  While out recording sound for his current picture, Terry just so happens to witness and record the sound of a car crash.  He dives into the lake and rescues Sally (Nancy Allen, in a weirdly, sometimes off-putting, often-eccentrically appealing role) but fails to save the politician who meets a watery death.

Conspiracies abound as scumbag Manny Karp (Dennis Franz) shows up with a film of the event.  He publishes still images in newspapers around the city.  Terry takes said photos, blows them up, creates a film print, and runs his recorded soundtrack alongside his visual recreation of the event, claiming that the tire didn’t simply blow out, but was shot out.  Oh yeah, and while all of this is going on a crazed killer Burke (John Lithgow) is out covering his tracks by murdering more and more people.

From a pure story/dialogue/three-act standpoint De Palma’s film is nothing special.  There are some decently tense moments and the characters are mildly interesting, but nothing happens above and beyond your standard thriller.

What sets Blow Out apart from said standard thriller is De Palma’s insistence on form over content.  Aside from Terry’s recreation (not to mention his very job) acting as constant broken fourth wall reminder to the audience, many of his scenes play out in beautifully expressionist ways.  Take, for example, the scene where Terry sees the car crash:

De Palma uses two techniques consistently throughout this sequence.  The first, which he started with Sisters in 1973, is split screen.  Split screen is used in two ways in Blow Out: first, via its traditional usage.  Terry and Sally talk on the phone and are presented as occupying separate halves of the frame.  Secondly, and more interestingly, De Palma frequently hides his split screen in the guise of extremely deep focus shots.  It’s a tactic I’ve seen in a Raul Ruiz film before.  As Terry records sound he moves his microphone towards an owl, the hooting of which he can clearly hear.  De Palma cuts to a shot with the owl looming large in the foreground and Terry way in the background.  Both are in sharp focus and the split screen is masked by a clever vignette.  The effect is one of visual clarity – all in focus – mirroring Terry’s own aural clarity as he points his uni-directional mic in different directions and becomes immersed in the unique sounds that compose a complete environment.

The second technique is a bit more difficult to describe.  De Palma utilizes a series of progressively wider shots, generally three in a row, to an odd effect.  For example, just pre-crash as Terry records a nearby couple: the first shot is a medium shot of Terry, the second a medium wide, and the third an extreme wide with trees in the foreground.  The angle doesn’t change, just the shot size.  The final shot, with the foreground elements, are made to look like a POV, but no one is ever revealed to be in the position to control this POV.

It’s a difficult technique to pin down.  Why is De Palma doing this?  What is he trying to say?  I got a few things out of it.  First, De Palma is revealing the space in its totality.  The difference between first and third shot (medium to extreme wide) compares the different sound environments and perspectives.  In the medium we hear the sound more through Terry’s headphones.  In the extreme wide (EWS) we hear the sound separately from the headphones.  But in both the audience hears the sound through the same speakers in the theater or television we are watching on.  So the effect is that shot size can change sound perspective within the film, but outside of the film – when I’m on the couch – sound perspective is anchored to one spot.

Second, the shots do intentionally have the feel of a POV.  Though, as I mention above, no real POV is revealed, the effect is still…effective.  It’s the old “we are placed in the position of voyeur” routine.  And we are.  As Terry spies, we spy.  We’re that hidden person in the woods, the gunman on the grassy knoll.  We are also, because of the wideness of the shot, left to quickly scan the entire frame to pick out what we think is the most important element.  We don’t have enough time, so we are left with limited information – in the same way that anyone spying might, but in a different way than someone spying for an extended period of time might.  That is to say: we are given the benefit of voyeuristic POV…but it’s still controlled by De Palma in how long we are allowed to look.  We’re half in the film and half out of it.

Third, these shot sequences are intentionally over-edited, but not the way we commonly think of, as in an action film.  Instead, the over-editing keeps the motion static.  We don’t get cuts as Terry runs, but as he stands still.  It’s another way to reveal the mechanism behind the film.  De Palma’s over-edits both obscure (we aren’t “allowed” to stay on one shot and take in the visual information in full) and reveal (we see from more perspectives than necessary).  The fact that they are all on axis and associated with static motion makes them even more self-aware.  Just as Terry is constructing a soundtrack and Karp is constructing a visual record, and as eventually Terry will combine his soundtrack with Karp’s film, De Palma is combining all of them and letting us know that.  In this way, Blow Out feels consistently, but not pejoratively, manipulative.  From moments such as this, and from the beginning of the film where we watch Terry’s created soundtrack for a film he’s working on, we are aware that any sound – even the sound of the gunshot and blow out themselves, the most critical sounds of the film – have been created separately and placed when convenient.

There’s quite a bit more to say about Blow Out, but this is getting overlong.  Maybe more down the road…

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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4 Responses to Blow Out (De Palma, 1981)

  1. J.B. Rodgers says:

    This is my favorite DePalma film because it falls into the “artist sees murder and struggles to recreate images/facts from memory” genre that I love so much. I think of this film along side of Blow-Up/The Conversation (obviously) but also some of Argento’s best work like “The Bird With the Crystal Plumage” and “Deep Red”.

  2. dcpfilm says:

    Good call! All roads lead back to Argento. Totally agreed. I think Argento’s films are usually a bit more obsessed with memory reconstruction than a technical reconstruction, which is what I find in Blow Out, but definitely of a similar vein.

    Now all De Palma needs to do is get a more synthy soundtrack, hide Lithgow’s face for 99% of the film, and use more killer-POV and we’re all set.

  3. Dave Spiro says:

    My favorite is The Untouchables. Hard to go wrong when the script is written by David Mamet. Favorite line? “Welcome to Chicago. This town stinks like a whorehouse at low tide.”

  4. dcpfilm says:

    You know it’s been forever since I’ve seen The Untouchables…I’m just really not a Costner fan. But yes, Mamet = usually great, or at least filled with great dialogue.

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