You Can Be Crazy or Dead [Looking and Listening]
Blow Out is the monumental riposte to every critic who has ever accused Brian de Palma of being nothing more than a mere stylist. On the basis of its opening and closing alone, the 1981 film is a clinic in cinema. In its entirety, the movie takes its place amongst the highest peaks in American tragedy. It seems almost unfair to even acknowledge that this is a work that arises from within specific genre limits (the innocent man caught up in a whodunit), because this is a work that achieves so much more. For such a tightly constructed film, little escapes the filmmaker’s inquisitive eye; the medium, politics, American Morality, love and sacrifice are all major components. Blow Up broke the genre’s mold by simply denying the importance of the catalyst. A murder takes place, but London was too busy swinging to slow down for one little death. de Palma gives us the whodunit as we expect it, but the drive from point A to point B is a wild one.
Michael Sragow noted that part of the pleasure of de Palma lies in his penchant for the “subversive gesture.” He likens this to drawing a mustache on an official portrait, but de Palma’s subversiveness is not nearly so juvenile. The mustache denies the portrait’s effectiveness as a marker of taste and power, while affirming the presence and agency of the rebel who made the mark. Still, it is an appropriation and a cliché. It requires that the original work be painted over and therefore it can never symbolize an autonomous power. Its waving middle finger is always reactionary and derives its value from that of its opponents. This is perhaps not an out and out subversion, at least not in the sort of societies that dominate the West. Whether or not we decry the ‘bad taste’ of the mustache, democratic power relishes opposition as a means to legitimate the ‘humanity’ of its system. I will not go so far as to paint de Palma as a revolutionary, but the act of creating a film like Blow Out does not come from the stifling sensation of adolescence nearly as much as the discontentedness of an intelligent artist at the height of his powers. Blow Out launches an attack upon the genre, upon tragedy, upon film, upon politics and upon the nation itself. That it does so while wrapped up in a sleek package of lights, murder and John Travolta is what makes it truly subversive. In de Palma’s practice, the model for subversion is not Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q, but the Trojan Horse.
If Blow Out is a surprise attack, there is an obvious question - what fortress is it trying to bring down? Although I will attempt to answer that question in the following lines, Pauline Kael was right to mark this film as a capstone in his body of work and as such it is difficult to tease out every field of meaning that arises. Let us begin nonetheless with the question of genre. On its surface, Blow Out is an everyman political thriller. A sound technician for a company that produces soft-core slasher flicks (quite the choice for an “American Everyman”) is looking for the perfect scream and while out picking up atmosphere he witnesses an accident. He dives into the river to try and rescue the car’s occupants, but finds that the driver is already dead. He manages to free the passenger and takes her to a hospital where he finds out that her recently deceased companion was the favorite for the upcoming presidential election. Although it is antithetical to his nature, the sound man agrees to forget what he’s seen so as not to embarrass the candidate’s family. Just like that we are prepared for a good old fashioned political conspiracy. Why is everyone so eager to make a death of national importance blow over? Why was the woman in the car in the first place? And what was that loud bang that came before the car went careening into the water?
The political thriller often begins by hurling so many questions at the audience that they desperately want to identify with the heroes, who undoubtedly have a similar quest to find the truth. Blow Out gives us exactly that as Jack, the sound man, strives to figure out how the next president of the United States ended up at the bottom of a river. It is promised that the truth these heroes seek will ‘make things right again.’ In de Palma’s case, he offers range of characters and situations that suggest things were not right to begin with. Sally, the woman that Jack saves and falls for, is a call girl who sets up high profile clients so that they are photographed in compromising positions. Jack helps serve up smut. In mainstream American morality, these two would not be accepted as emblematic of the nation’s people; instead, they would be condemned as obscene and parasitic. Jack and Sally are not anti-heroes by nature, but they skirt legality precisely because of the demagogic moralists that take part in our political system. Indeed, Jack uses his audio skills for these B movies as a sort of penance after his wire got an undercover cop killed. After being embedded in state authority, he finds himself partnered up with the kind of characters the state despises.
In order to find the truth, de Palma makes us root for a pornographer and a prostitute against the machinations of the political class. To be clear, this is a world away from dogged journalists or hard-nosed cops. In fact, it might be better to replace Jack’s “everyman” status with a “no-man” label, since the existence of his type is generally intentionally effaced from the American self-portrait. If we are after the truth, de Palma posits, then we must be willing to begin with those whose truths we deny. Although there are undoubtedly more disenfranchised groups than pornographers and prostitutes, these two models work so well because they are analogous to the politician. Neither the pornographer nor the prostitute deals with truth, but exaggeration as a means to satiate a target audience. This, of course, is also the domain of the narrative filmmaker. There is perhaps no better metaphor for the Hollywood director than the synthesis of a prostitute, pornographer and politician. The resemblance between these characters’ careers and de Palma’s is not simply a moment of self-reference; for, in Blow Out’s transcendence of its genre it seeks to do nothing less than recreate the cinema.
In the realm of film commenting on itself as a medium two of the highest points are Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (1963) and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950). While they are both exceptionally strong films in their own right, Blow Out surpasses them insofar as the medium is pried open and rebuilt not only by way of the ‘film-within-a-film’ conceit, but by an actual reconstruction of cinema’s constituent parts. Jack’s job foreshadows this, since he does not occupy any of the traditionally glamorous filmmaking roles such as director, actor, writer or producer. Particularly with the type of movies he works on, his is a job that will only really be acknowledged if he does poorly. Nevertheless, as a sound man he is responsible for a great deal of the technical material necessary for a film in the post-silent era. Auteur theory has told us that the director is the ultimate artist in the filmmaking process in spite of the collaborative nature of the medium and although our hero is in fact one of the many technicians that are overlooked in this framework, de Palma in fact reinforces this conception through our hero. While he seeks to recreate the scene of the potential crime, Jack replays his tapes from that night, pointing in the direction of new sounds. At the same time, the film shows us the images from that scene. From the auditory component, Jack is quite literally directing the visual one. Granted, he is not doing it through the production of a new image, but by recalling old ones from his memory. This scene alone, however, is not sufficient for the film’s recreation of the medium and the event in question.
Let us back track for a moment to the genre question. In the political thriller, the audience often wants to know a very simple question: what, exactly, happened? In the case of Blow Out the “what happened” references the car crash inasmuch as it wants to know if the crash was really an accident. Since, by way of the film’s camera, we were there the night of the accident we are always at a bit of a loss. We actually watched the car fly into the river, so what could be there that we did not already witness? We are invested in Jack, because he is our surrogate. If we do not believe him, it is because we believed our eyes over his ears. If we do believe him, we are doubting the very nature of the project we are engaged in. If it is not enough to show us exactly what happened, what can a film offer us? Moreover, in a pro-filmic sense, if showing is not enough then what purpose does the news serve? When a photographer who claims to have been there the night of the accident sells his photographs, de Palma only reignites the suspicion he has cast on his own tools. There is photographic ‘evidence’ that the car simply swerved into water. We know it must be proof, because it seems incredibly unlikely that the powers attempting to silence Jack would let these images circulate in the papers and on television.
In order to prove that this was no accident, and that there was in fact a shooter, Jack cuts out the images and turns them into individual frames. By aligning them with his recorded sound he is able to demonstrate that the loud ‘bang’ he heard was not in fact a car backfiring, but a gunshot. In order to make it perfectly clear, he has a friend at an animation studio create a film reel from the still images and his tapes. There you have the cinema in its most basic, universal form as well as its most particular. From ‘real life’ we pull still images, speed them up, add sound and call it a day. I said that Blow-Up, this film’s inspiration, was ultimately about sex and death. Here, we are given these categories in multiple forms of representation: (1) The film Jack is working on that provides Blow Out’s opening and closing scenes; (2) Sally’s presence in the car the night of the crash; (3) The relationship between Jack and Sally, marked by sexual attraction and murder; (4) The recreation of the crash as another film.
Blow Out, however, is much more concerned with questions of its own medium and of America’s self-image than its predecessor. Consequently, sex and death are less the focal point of the investigation than a vehicle for other investigations. In de Palma’s world, sex and death serve so admirably as a way to open up the cinema because they are inexorably linked to our perception of moviegoing as an experience of the mimetic. If what we see is not real, we still think there is some reality there. Godard said of his films during the sixties that they were not fiction films in the traditional sense of the word, rather they were documentaries on actors and actresses. In Le Mépris for instance, we are not watching Camille’s marriage disintegrate, we are watching Brigitte Bardot play Camille, whose marriage is disintegrating. Like Hitchcock before him, Godard did not attempt to deny that the audience was well aware of the personalities and personas of those in his films. This is what makes allusion such a powerful tool for the gifted filmmaker. By way of the film’s willingness to point beyond itself, we are led away from the fiction of the film world’s reality and towards the film’s reality as a part of our world. Sex and death are such magnificent bridges, because even when faked we receive their representation rather viscerally.
de Palma highlights this bridge between reality and fiction in the doubling of sex and death. In the case of the latter, the actor playing the politician is not really dead, only his character is. His death, real as it may be in this world, is then repurposed in the recreation of cinema via Jack’s tapes and photos. Similarly, Sally’s death is repurposed as the source of a bloodcurdling scream in the film Jack is working on. Evidence of a murder is used to support the audience’s belief that a different character is really in danger. There you have what may be the greatest ending in American cinema, for it provides all that one could ask for from the medium in general and tragedy in particular. Jack’s tears are the real tears of a committed artist, for whom life and art are inseparable. For all the railing against the system, all we learn is that politics is not infested with abuse and corruption - it is the infestation. What options is left to us then, in these dark hours of the personal and national soul, but to create?