Jack (John Travolta) is a sound-effects technician, and thus a gifted listener, which might be another way of saying he’s a born aural voyeur, if you will. Blow Out (1981), Brian De Palma’s conspiracy thriller, continues a rich tradition, following Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), which was inspired by Cortázar’s story ‘Las babas del diablo’ (1959), and Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), in that it hinges on its protagonist’s special ability to perceive an incriminating detail hidden in a recording. The inciting incident: Jack’s perched on a bridge in a park at night in search of some good wind. Wearing headphones, handling a baton-like microphone, he captures not just wind in the trees, but also a whispering couple, an owl, and, fatefully, a car skidding off a road and plunging into the river. Jack rushes to help. He can’t save the driver but manages to rescue the driver’s lovely young companion (Nancy Allen). Later, in emergency, he’s told that the driver was a popular presidential candidate. He’s also told there was no lovely young companion, or rather, he’s told that the companion will simply be erased from the official record, just as Jack might excise a single track from a soundscape. Furthermore, Jack’s told that a certain noise he heard (and recorded) just a second before the accident never occurred, a noise that sounded like a gunshot.
Blow Out navigates the elusive bridge that divides authenticity and artifice: a bridge built on technology. This theme is cleverly integrated right into the film’s opening sequence, when a screening of an excerpt from Jacks’ current project, the exploitation slasher film-within-the-film, could initially be mistaken for the film itself. It’s interrupted only when one of the slasher’s naked nubile victims lets out a scream that doesn’t sound authentic enough and the producer calls the screening to a halt. (Amusingly, the producer tries to find a more authentic scream by bringing pairs of young women into the studio: one screams into a microphone while the other pulls her hair.) Jack knows the woman was in the car; he knows there were two sharp sounds: first the gunshot, then the blow out. But he has to get someone to believe him, to listen as he listens. We in the audience know there’s no ambiguity or paranoia here: we know Jack’s telling the truth because, unlike The Conversation, Blow Out doesn’t adhere exclusively to its protagonist’s subjective experience. De Palma breaks away from Jack on several occasions to follow John Lithgow’s misogynistic hired killer with a penchant for strangling his victims with wire. (A playful linguistic doubling: Travolta and Lithgow each possess their own kind of potentially lethal “wire.”)
Blow Out is the most compelling De Palma film I’ve seen. Its camerawork, courtesy of Vilmos Zsigmond, is relentlessly inventive; it’s heightened red-and-blue-all-over production design (perhaps substituting film noir’s black and white with a punchier sort of monochromatic palate) makes for weirdly fascinating eye candy; and its obsessive replaying of Jack’s recording of the assassination, along with its cluttered mechanical milieu of tape, reels and buttons, is engrossing. I have several reservations, yet thinking about them makes me want to watch Blow Out again (something that Criterion’s velvety-gorgeous new DVD and Blu-ray editions make that much more tempting). Travolta is young, beautiful, and gives a focused, nuanced performance, yet his character feels inadequately shaded, less implicated in the story’s darkness. Yes, Jack’s got a guilty conscience about an undercover police gig that went horribly wrong, yet this shadowy past doesn’t resonate in his presence. It feels oddly incidental. Meanwhile De Palma’s use of split screens, process shots, variable speeds and 360-degree pans become increasingly leaden, and Pino Donaggio’s cartoony score thwarts at least as many moments of intimacy or suspense as it enhances.
I know many have tremendous affection for De Palma, fellow critics especially (“Paulettes” most especially). Yet there’s something in his approach that consistently pushes me out. His work deserves scrutiny on a film-by-film basis, but I’ll offer one generalization. Whenever De Palma unfurls his more expensive, grandiose set pieces, whether in Blow Out or The Untouchables (1987) or The Black Dahlia (2006), when everything slows to a crawl and every frame is so conspicuously composed, I inevitably feel as though I’ve been asked to sit through an over-rehearsed audition. There’s a strange thinness to these sequences (not unlike the thinness that plagues certain De Palma characters). De Palma’s frequently taken to task for cynicism or irony, but the way he crafts such sequences strikes me as nakedly earnest. He suddenly wants genuine opera, and it feels awkward. Yet in the case of Blow Out the big set pieces hardly spoil things overall, and the quieter bits (that inciting incident especially) are eloquent and highly memorable. So if you happen to share some of my frustrations with De Palma, do see this one. It’s looking an awful lot like his masterpiece.