Brian De Palma is the great voyeur, the plump-bellied pervert, of American cinema. His films have a singularly sleazy feel, gloriously gaudy and admirable in their ribald ridiculousness. Consider the high school girls shot in salacious slow-motion in the beginning of Carrie, or Rebecca Romijn making out with a model in a fancy bathroom stall to steal a diamond-studded necklace in Femme Fatale, or Nancy Allen stripping to turn on Michael Caine’s psycho psychiatrist in Dressed to Kill, and so on.
Blow Out, possibly De Palma’s masterpiece, or at least one of his masterpieces, begins with a sinister sleaz-o lurking unseen outside the windows of a woman’s dormitory. De Palma gives us a creep’s-eye-view of buxom babes dancing, showering, bouncing around in skimpy or no attire, an appropriate opening for a low-budget gorehound flick. When the knife-wielding psycho (who, glimpsed in a mirror, looks a little like Stephen King) reaches the bathroom and pulls back the curtain on a wet naked girl, she lets out a shrill imitation of a scream that would make any moviegoer instinctively plug their ears with butter-slick fingers. Cut to John Travolta, a sound effects man for schlocky slashers, as he and the director of this film-within-a-film watch the dailies of their latest trashy endeavor. Travolta’s Jack Terry lets loose a raucous laugh, but the director wants a better scream (he hired the girl not for her scream but for her tits, after all).
As fun and appropriate for De Palma as this ludicrous lechery is, it’s unrepresentative of the deeper pain of the film — of Travolta’s performance; the man known for dancing taps into something deep, something dark, a real sense of self-loathing, a guy in futile pursuit of redemption. While capturing sounds with his sound wand thing, the hiss of wind and the nocturnal reveries of toads chilling on the riverbed, he stumbles upon a conspiracy involving John Lithgow as an assassin for hire and a political candidate and, in the process, gets a young girl, an aspiring make-up artist, mixed up in the mess, which leads to her horrible demise — but oh, what a scream she has.
Speaking of “Ohs,” how about oh, what a career Travolta has had. From the bone-quaking malaise of a lower-class disco dancer in Saturday Night Fever to the lithe-footed low-life in Pulp Fiction to a concatenation of crap like I Am Wrath, Fred “did it all for the nookie” Durst’s The Fanatic, and the fascinatingly incompetent Gotti, few actors of such talent have fallen further while remaining indelible. For every Face/Off there’s a Speed Kills, a Killing Season. Blow Out is Travolta’s finest performance, a lonesome loser turned paranoid proxy who becomes obsessed with solving a mystery everyone else wants to ignore. Curiosity kills and all that.
But back to Travolta in a minute.
Let’s talk about De Palma, who thinks in the cinematic language. Think of that rotating shot, the camera looping around as Jack runs around checking his tapes, which have been erased, sounds of film flapping and Jack doing laps like Sisyphus. Think of the split-diopter of Lithgow’s lunatic holding a photograph up as he descends the escalator, of the fish head and the ice pick, the frog and the owl, and the lovers at the bridge. Think of Jack, under the flaming sky of July Fourth fireworks, a patriotic patchwork of red, white, and blue, holding her lifeless body in his arms as the country celebrates its spectacular anniversary.
Despite the obviousness of De Palma’s formal skill, Blow Out was initially greeted with indifference, and didn’t get a boost in credibility until Tarantino praised it (it is now rightfully revered, of course). Notably, it stands out in two ways from his other thrillers. He famously has made small movies for himself and big movies for paychecks; this is a small movie made big by a generous budget (by De Palma’s standards, at least). The extra money meant better sets, car chases through parades, many retakes and reshoots, De Palma taking a month off of shooting to think about the script more. And it’s a tragic film, and the tragedy here comes not from pure spectacle, (though there is that, too) but the fact that we care so much about these characters, these performers; we care about Travolta’s doomed-to-fail sound man and Nancy Allan’s doomed-to-die sylph, and when they hurt, we hurt.
This is a film that begins with a murder and a scream, piteous and irritating, and ends with a murder and a scream, pained, one that reverberates deep in the corridors of the heart. De Palma’s deft manipulations of images and sounds are redoubtable, but much of the film’s pure emotional power comes from Travolta’s performance, the sincerity he brings to this tragic would-be hero who, in solving the mystery, in getting the answers he seeks, ends up in his own personal hell, his greatest failure turned into a throwaway shriek coming from another woman’s mouth.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.