Blow Out

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.


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 film, the material has turned rancid, so discolored 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 stretched a story tracing 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 series of shots depicting the POV of a killer stalking a girls’ college residence hall. The miscreant stabs to death a security guard who lingers outside a room where two barely clad young things are dancing — facing the window! underneath strobing lights and a mirrorball! — then takes the guard’s position as voyeur. (As he watches through multiple windows, the wall between dorm rooms creates a split screen, a De Palma visual trademark.) He stalks a vigorously cohabiting couple and menaces a masturbating maiden before ducking through a doorway
conveniently labeled “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, along with more obvious 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.
Well, no, not exactly. More of a pathetic warble. It’s the punchline of this section of film — the actress is standing there under a stream of water, eyes closed, tits out, pretending to soap up, as the film crew executes a crazy Steadicam move through the steamy bathroom set, and then once the killer finally closes in on her, the poor girl can’t muster anything resembling a climactic scream to close out the scene. At that moment, De Palma 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 plays Jack, a sound editor on low-budget slasher movies, and that edit is important because it establishes him as a kind of authority. His reaction reflects that of Blow Out’s audience — which is holding back serious guffaws at this point, if it’s not already in stitches — and perhaps also the attitude of De Palma’s critics, who were already claiming that the director’s lurid stylistics couldn’t be taken at all seriously.
But if this joke is self-deprecating on De Palma’s part, it’s also a bit vainglorious. For one thing, this scene from Coed Frenzy is a really bravura bit of filmmaking, from Vilmos Zsigmond’s colorful lighting set-ups and Garrett Brown’s skillful 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 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 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 just forget said girl existed in the first place. Jack agrees, but knows something ain’t right. As he listens, and re-listens, to the recordings he made that night, Jack becomes convinced that he has evidence that 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 wiring an informant led to the man’s murder, scarring Jack and putting him on the road toward an attempted 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 Aleen plays the role of ingénue to the ridiculous hilt. She’s sweet enough that you want to see Travolta get together with her. But she’s so hapless it’s hard to tell the difference — is she an unwitting conspirator or an unwitting victim?
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 syncing 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 snuggling 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 a completely 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 vocal performance that he sometimes talks as if 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 phony transaction on both sides — a brief but intimately cordial relationship between two people who can’t stand one another.
Amid all these actors, practitioners of pure fiction, Jack is a documentarian. Once his boss insists that he bring new wind FX to bear on Coed Frenzy’s sound mix, it’s his 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, a la the Zapruder film, Jack finds a way to turn them into a movie that he can sync with his sound recordings in order to replay the night’s events again and again. At one point, he tells someone that he can’t just let it go because he was there for the real events, which don’t sync up 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 frame along with his usual bag of optical tricks — split screens, split-diopter lensing — to suggest a world full of action and detail. His shot compositions can use camera tricks to achieve a certain lyricism — see the one where Travolta is 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 — but I’m equally impressed by the attention he pays to staging background action in what would otherwise be negative space in the picture. You can catch hints of the vibrant, urgent tableaux of a hospital emergency room as the camera pans quickly past, following Travolta down the hall, or just 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 that Panavision frame. In one wonderfully droll shot, you barely notice one character lurking underneath a bridge as Travolta jumps into the water. The picture composition and lighting expertly manipulate your eyes without resort to an edit — you’re watching Travolta swimming, the car sinking, and then you just notice the shady fellow stepping into view before De Palma cuts to a tighter shot of Travolta swimming toward the sinking car. A few 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.
Moments like that speak to the collaborative process between 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 shot in the colors 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 color scheme is red, white and blue, in keeping with a theme of dark Americana, and De Palma, a native Philadelphian, makes great use of the historic city’s signature locations, including the indoor Reading Market. The key mood is of disorientation and alienation — there’s a famous scene where Jack discovers 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 kind 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’s 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 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 toward certain doom, doesn’t speak so well for the status of truth and justice. And the American way — Watergate, Chappaquiddick, the JFK assassination — doesn’t have much to do with either of those ideals.
De Palma stages a massive climax at Penn’s Landing, complete with a chaotic, thronging crowd and fireworks bursting overhead, but 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. But 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, finally, is 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.
Criterion’s new HD transfer of Blow Out for Blu-ray Disc is superbly filmlike, resolving a level of detail appropriate to a widescreen 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, and the picture 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 image 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.
Colors are rich and saturated, though never to the point of blooming or smearing, which means cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s visuals hold up impressively well here. Shadow detail is quite strong, with film grain twinkling away to lend texture to all but the very darkest corners of the image. De Palma is credited as telecine co-supervisor with Criterion’s ace colorist Lee Kline on a new 2K scan from the original camera negative.
(Optical effects, like the various split-screen shots, exhibit softness and a color shift that indicate those shots were scanned from an intermediate source like an internegative or perhaps an answer print rather than being digitally reconstructed from 35mm negative.) The image is encoded to disc using MPEG-4 with the AVC codec.
It’s tempting to wonder what Blow Out would sound like with a highly directional 5.1 sound mix, but Criterion faithfully reproduces only the film’s original Dolby Stereo sound, which is matrixed to four non-discrete channels of audio. The audio was sourced from a 35mm mag track with 24-bit sampling and then de-noised in Pro Tools. It’s reproduced here via a very clean 2.0 DTS-HD MA track running at 1536 kbps. As you’d expect, there is not a tremendous amount of bass information on this track, but dialogue and effects are absolutely sharp and clear, ambient sounds regularly fill out the (non-directional) rear of the soundfield, conveying the distracting richness of Jack’s world, and Pino Donaggio’s score sounds good enough to rip to CD.
Sadly, this is not the disc where Brian De Palma overcomes his longstanding aversion to feature-length audio commentary. Criterion managed the next best thing last October, putting him in a room with fellow director Noah Baumbach, where the latter obsequiously prises 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,” (HD, 57:48) 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 12 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 here has to do with the theft of two crucial reels of film during post. Some of the film’s most complex scenes — namely, the climactic parade sequence — had to be restaged at considerable expense to the film’s insurers, and 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 (HD, 25:25) in which she talks amiably and at length about working with Travolta, her controversial little-girlish approach to the character, and the difficulty, for a claustrophobe, of being locked, however briefly, into a submerged automobile. Supplement 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 (HD, 15:03) where 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 reminisces a bit 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 just about equal the running time of Blow Out itself, so maybe some enterprising De Palma scholar will be inclined to make a commentary super-edit and post it to YouTube.
All that said, the single most substantial extra here is Murder à la Mod, an early De Palma feature presented in its entirety (80:23) and 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 find it to be 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, nonlinear narrative form and sometimes queasy-making content (an ice pick to the face, a half-dressed woman on the verge of tears), the film also 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. It would be nice to have a little more information on the film’s mysterious production company, Aries Documentaries, or exhibition history. (According to The New York Times, it opened in the East Village in 1968 on a double bill with Paul Bartel’s “The Secret Cinema.”) As a matter of fact, Tim Lucas recently wrote a detailed consideration of the film 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 Pauline Kael and Michael Sragow. Still, this extra feature takes the cake in the value-for-money department.
Criterion’s release is rounded out with a 1.85:1 theatrical trailer (HD, 1:45), transferred from obviously inferior elements (including some amusing pan-and-scan work to fit the original widescreen frame into its 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 would be nice if Criterion 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 — but it’s great to have the photos, 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 within the high-definition frame.
Bottom line? Criterion is capable of doing much more comprehensive work, but this is a decent set of supplements for a typically sterling transfer of a great movie.

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