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Blow Out (Brian De Palma) 1981               

    Brian De Palma’s movies are a stunningly uneven lot, but that might just be because he takes as many risks as he does. Few directors are as capable of him when it comes to delivering films that are opposite ends of the quality spectrum. His best? Sisters. His worst? Mission to Mars. The odd thing is that it’s not as if either feels like an isolated incident in his career. Each De Palma movie feels as if it could be the best thing ever made or the worst, and it’s not until about halfway through watching one for the first time that you get a firm grasp on which way the new one will tilt.  I understand his political thriller Blow Out is an extended tribute to Antonioni’s Blowup (which I have not seen), but it seems to owe as much to Hitchcock as any of his “official” Hitch-homage does. Certainly the bravado opening sequence seems to throw more at us than most can handle, referencing Psycho, The Rear Window, and Rope, among others, under the guise of a B-grade horror film. The self-depreciating tone that De Palma (essentially equating himself with that hack director) has here goes a long way toward keeping the movie from feeling self-important, even though it has every right to be that way due to its quality. Blow Out is brilliant homage that doesn’t just appropriate, but instead extends the themes of the original. 

    The eventual plot of the movie follows John Travolta as Jack, a sound-effects technician who witnesses an accident, setting off a series of events. The way that De Palma stages not only this accident but Jack’s perception of it is masterful. By the end of the film, through a series of set pieces that not only demonstrate the art of filmmaking, but also the fakery behind that art, we come to completely understand the elements of the accident. The film is incredible because it is so adept at conveying the connections and suspicions that float through its protagonist’s mind. We’re right there with Jack as he gets in too deep, so things feel a lot less silly and a lot more immediate than they might otherwise. There’s nothing that’s opaque or obtuse about Jack’s descent into paranoia. The plot and acting are almost secondary as De Palma uses his considerable technical prowess to continually thrill us. As Jack splices soundtracks and De Palma tracks his camera across a very lively Philadelphia, we come to realize how much work has been put into creating that thrill. Even though there’s less humor here than in the usual De Palma movie, there’s a definite giddying effect as he creates a movie that plays the audience so well that it’s almost interactive. The feeling that it’s all been a bit of a game makes the surprisingly guileless emotional impact of the denouement all the more impressive. As one of the director’s finest achievements, Blow Out proves that great movie fun and great movies are not mutually exclusive. 

* * * * 


Jeremy Heilman