Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Day 6: Blow Out

"You know, the only trouble I've ever gotten into was when I was too careful."

Brian DePalma is the most unfairly maligned filmmaker of the last 30 years, perhaps ever. The two things that his detractors love lording over his head are that he openly apes Hitchcock and that he's a misogynist. On the surface, these might be valid points, but DePalma is far too smart a filmmaker to actually engage in either of those two things. The guy is an unabashed admirer of Hitchcock, but I've never seen him do anything but pay homage to him (i.e. killing off his big female star forty minutes into Dressed to Kill the way Hitch did with Janet Leigh in Psycho). People don't give Tarantino shit for aping Leone, just as they don't give Wes Anderson shit for aping Bunuel. Homage is a different animal from straight rip-off, and maybe it's just the sheer number of Hitchcock homages DePalma has made in his career that earns him this level of disdain (though it's only actually four by my count Sisters, Obsession, Body Double and Dressed to Kill).

The misogyny issue is a separate one and, by my own admission, one I didn't necessarily see until it was pointed out to me. I'm not sure if that speaks more to my ignorance or to people's willingness to see whatever their agenda is represented anywhere that they can grasp at it. DePalma himself has addressed it to some extent in interviews and I tend to see his point of view and I accept the validity of it. He has said that putting females in danger is more visceral for an audience in a suspense film. Essentially, if a man is in peril, the audience will rest easier than if it's a female. It makes sense as it plays into our primal instincts as viewers, and while some may consider it misogyny, I think it's more a cinematic convention than anything else.

So, where does Blow Out fit in to all of this? It doesn't really, which makes that first paragraph all the more puzzling I guess. While Phantom of the Paradise is far and away my favorite DePalma film, Blow Out is inarguably his best work. This is a director and writer at the top of his game, working with actors and technicians at the top of theirs, and the result is a film that is both terrifically suspenseful and endlessly re-watchable. John Travolta, in the absolute pinnacle of his early career, plays Jack Terry, a foley artist working on small budget slasher movies in Philadelphia. The opening scene is more or less a bold and brash middle finger extended by DePalma at his detractors. The film opens with some of the more gratuitous nudity and sexual content of his career, but it's a classic bait-and-switch as we find out we're actually watching one of the low budget movies that Terry is creating the sound for. His director is angry with him, not just about the scream of one of the damsels in distress, but about the wind effect, saying it's the same wind effect he's heard a hundred times before. He directs Terry to go out and record new wind, setting the plot in motion.

While recording the wind effects, Terry also captures a car crash which happens mere feet from him. Inside the car is Governor McRyan (a man potentially on his way to the White House we're told in an early scene) and Sally, a prostitute (Nancy Allen). Jack manages to rescue Sally, but not the governor and it's only at the hospital that he discovers that the governor was the dead man he saw in the car. In talking to the police, he clearly states that while recording the sound of the accident, he heard two noises, the first being a gun shot and the second being the blow out of the tire, leading him to be convinced that this was not a mere accident, but an assassination. He is silenced by the governor's campaign manager before leaving the hospital with Sally, only adding to his fears that there was more to this than at first seemed to be.

The film kicks into high gear as Jack becomes obsessed with the events, re-listening to his audio, re-tracing his steps in his mind, even using published photographs of the accident to create an animated re-enactment. The film essentially deals with one man's obsession leading to his own undoing (and the undoing, however unintentional, of those he's surrounding himself with). The deeper Jack gets into the conspiracy, the more paranoid and irrational he becomes and the more he unravels.

The craft on display here from DePalma is second to none. His use of split screen is once again used to good effect, but it's his use of split-diopter that is truly exceptional. A split-diopter is literally a lens put on the camera with two planes of focus allowing us to see two things simultaneously, and have them both be fully in focus. For example at the beginning of the film, we're watching a tv on one side of the screen that's broadcasting a news program giving us information about the governor, while also watching jack walking around his sound room, annexing sound clips. DePalma comes from the oldest of old school styles of storytelling that goes back to Chekhov and Ibsen, where if you introduce a gun in act one, someone better use it by act three. Using camera tricks like this allows him to be economical in his use of this storytelling technique, and also gives the film it's aforementioned endless re-watchability.

For another example of this, just look at the scene where John Lithgow, as a hired fixer, is digging in his trunk for a tire to replace the one that, presumably, he shot out on the governor's car. If you look closely when he opens the trunk, you'll see a box labeled "magnetic tape eraser." He's also on the bridge when Jack jumps in to the lake to save Sally in the car (watch it again, he's there... twice).
The last remarkable scene I want to mention is the scene where Jack is in his editing room and realizes that all of his tapes have been erased. The camera is positioned in the center of the room and then begins a disorienting spin around the room. The scene is unrelenting and the speed increases with seemingly every pass through the room. It's incredibly effective and really puts you in the moment with Jack.

If you haven't seen Blow Out, I'm sorry for spoiling so much of it, but you need to watch it and just soak it in. If you've seen it before, I implore you to watch it again as DePalma puts on a clinic in technique and it's worth two hours of your time, even if you've seen it before. Criterion put out an incredible edition of it last year on both dvd and blu-ray and it's a gorgeous transfer.

I've heard people who like DePalma refer to themselves as apologists. I don't think that's necessary. He is one of the greats, and I mean that sincerely. You need look no further than Blow Out for at least a dozen examples of why he's a great filmmaker, and if you're like me, it makes his late career fizzle that much sadder. Thankfully we live in an age where we can get a filmmaker's entire filmography on dvd and we can relive their great works alongside their lesser works. With DePalma, any discussion of his great films has to begin with Blow Out, and that's why I started here. I'll be looking at at least six more of his films over the next year, but I thought it best to start at the top. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments both on this film and DePalma in general.

Tomorrow's film will be Todd Haynes' 1989 film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story which he shot using Barbie dolls.

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