‘Blow Out’: My name is Brian De Palma, and I make movies

Courtesy of film-grab.com

Courtesy of film-grab.com

**Note: This essay contains spoilers, both for Blow Out and Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. I suggest you watch both before continuing. Don’t worry: they’re both enjoyable, and Adaptation is flat-out amazing.

Brian De Palma’s Blow Out is no ordinary thriller. It’s a film whose 108-minute runtime ends with the successful production of not one but three movies: diegetic footage of a plot-level political assassination, manually assembled from two different sources by hero and soundman Jack Terry (John Travolta); a film-within-a-film exploitation picture that Jack is working on at the start and end of Blow Out; and, of course, Blow Out itself. Tracing the ways in which these various movies contrast and complement one another over the course of the frame movie reveals Blow Out to be, firstly, an assertion of his status as an auteur and, secondly, an interrogation of the tropes that govern the conventional suspense thriller. Part of the second results from the first – for a filmmaker to make his mark as an auteur, he naturally must deviate from convention in some memorable way. And yet, the movie also seems to challenge these conventions directly, making Blow Out a work of both authorial narcissism and artistic iconoclasm – the film’s marriage of these two thinly divided categories creates a brand of entertainment that, while imperfect, rivets with its brash innovation and artistic vision.

The incriminating footage, the first film we see completed, enters the plot when Jack, out on a late-night run to collect sounds for the movie he’s working on, accidentally records the noise of a car’s tire being shot out and subsequently of the vehicle plunging into a river. Meanwhile, a cameraman has captured the incident on film, albeit for a completely different reason. A good portion of the movie depicts Jack trying to produce viable evidence that the death of the politician in the car resulted from foul play rather than a mere accident. This process ultimately turns into a crude replica of the various levels of film production and distribution – it involves obtaining stills from the cameraman’s reel, syncing the frames with the sound he’d recorded, packaging the completed product, and sending it to various parties (the police, for instance, as well as an eager news reporter). This impression is enhanced by the fact that the footage travels from cutting room to sound studio as it is being put together, both of which are well-known sites of film production. By having an act of filmmaking figure so importantly into the frame narrative, De Palma clues us in to the significance of making movies to Blow Out, a movie that is ultimately about its own construction.

The second film, the B-movie slasher, ostensibly serves little purpose other than to introduce us to Jack’s line of work, but the striking way in which it bookends the frame story suggests a more important function. Footage from the horror film opens Blow Out, but we don’t realize we are watching a diegetic movie until about three minutes in when we get a reverse shot of Jack reacting to the film in a screening room. This extended perspectival deception makes us keenly aware that the rest of Blow Out, however captivating it may be as cinema, is mere artifice, the illusion of reality created at the hands of a filmmaker. This imposed awareness of the film-viewer divide is enhanced by the reappearance of the slasher flick at the end of Blow Out as the B-movie is being completed. Earlier in the frame narrative, the diegetic director had been frustrated at one of his actresses, whose subpar scream ruins a pivotal scene in his movie. Here, the dilemma is solved when Jack, having inadvertently recorded the dying cry of love interest Sally (Nancy Allen) in the climax of Blow Out, substitutes her scream for the original. That a real-world sound (insofar as Jack’s world is “real” to him) is used to dub a fictional film marks a further collapse of the diegesis into the non-diegesis, evoking the fact that everything we experience in a movie has its origins in the real world.

And now we arrive at the third film viz. Blow Out itself. That the slasher flick reaches its completion more or less concurrently with Blow Out’s own ending is both ironic and fitting. The irony of this parallel arises from the reality that, in a traditional sense, De Palma’s film doesn’t feel complete at all. The recording of the assassination, the crucial piece of evidence that could have exposed widespread corruption in both the government and the police force, ends up at the bottom of a river. The heroine dies, and though the pathologically violent government assassin is vanquished, the higher-ups who are responsible go scot-free. Jack, bereft of his love, is left in a state of despair. Perhaps the film’s cynical turn befits its political aims, but from a storytelling standpoint, the movie’s lack of resolution is disconcerting.

But in a way, the film’s refusal of closure is simply the last in a line of iconoclastic gestures the movie makes against conventional genre filmmaking, and if seen in this light, the ending of Blow Out achieves a different kind of completeness. Recall how much emphasis the film places on the act of filmmaking. The plot revolves around making a movie, the hero is a soundman working on a slasher film, and that film-within-a-film itself is introduced to us in a way that foregrounds the role of the filmmaker in controlling our experience of cinema. This emphasis on the director as artist is key to Blow Out – in one scene, careful crosscutting visually aligns Jack’s sound mike with a pencil, a well-known symbol for the writer, who is in turn the quintessence of authorial control.

With Blow Out, De Palma seizes the pencil. In open defiance of convention, he imbues the film with stylistic flourishes that draw attention to themselves and, by extension, direct our focus to him, the auteur. The movie’s extravagant cinematography immediately comes to mind, ranging from dramatic camera angles to one especially notable long take filmed by spinning the camera in place. These demonstrations of technical prowess deliberately break our immersion in the story, reminding us that there is a man behind the camera orchestrating the cinematic spectacle before our eyes. With each high-wire feat of visual acrobatics, Blow Out simultaneously challenges the tameness of conventional genre filmmaking and champions the daredevil virtuosity of its director. It is both a work of aesthetic rebellion and a vanity project, a film that is almost offensive in its forwardness and yet thrilling in its confidence.

Courtesy of film-grab.com

Courtesy of film-grab.com

Courtesy of amovieaweek.com

Courtesy of amovieaweek.com

In some ways, Blow Out could be seen as an unexpected precursor to Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, which was released two decades after De Palma’s film. In that movie, the unfulfilled quest for a story – whether it be the figurative narrative of an aging author’s disillusioned life or the literal one of a Hollywood screenwriter on a deadline – ultimately produces the raw materials for the exuberantly inventive fable that is Adaptation. Similarly, Blow Out uses two botched attempts at making quality cinema – the footage winds up destroyed, and the slasher flick, though complete, is trashy entertainment at best – as the means to fashion a film that is dazzlingly unorthodox. In both cases, failure on the diegetic level leads to soaring success on the level of the non-diegesis in the form of a finished, frame movie liberated from the bonds of convention. The diegetic works-within-a-work act as foils to the larger work they exist in – by presenting the triumph of the frame movie as dependent on the collapse of traditional structures of filmmaking (in both films, such structures fall under the Hollywood studio system) both Adaptation and Blow Out slyly subvert convention without denouncing it outright. Jonze’s film presents Hollywood’s commercially-minded momentum as debilitating to the creative mind, even going out of its way to kill off the character who embodies the industry’s ideals. Blow Out, on the other hand, pointedly and abruptly smirks at our expectations by doing away with the incriminating footage which, in any other movie, would have saved the day in the nick of time. Moreover, the film concludes with the completion of the B-movie, an embodiment of kitsch that most viewers would probably prefer to have seen left unfinished.

At the same time, neither film is mean-spirited in its attack on convention. On the contrary, both demonstrate a profound love for writing and filmmaking. Jonze’s movie, by making its own screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, the protagonist of its story, celebrates the beauty of the creative process, warts and all – it was only through the writer’s struggles that Adaptation exists to begin with. Blow Out, precisely because it self-consciously asserts its own innovativeness, ironically breathes new life into well-worn stylistic tropes, becoming a celebration of cinema even as it cautions against an over-adherence to tradition. Because we are made acutely aware of De Palma’s presence behind the camera, each directorial decision takes on an air of purpose. The film’s climactic moment, which shows Jack cradling Sally’s body in his arms as July 4th fireworks light up the sky, nearly falls into oversentimentality. But because De Palma has assured us so frequently up until this point that he is in control, we see the image not as mechanical, gimmicky, or emotionally manipulative – as is often the case in conventional genre pictures – but as a deliberate aesthetic decision. We are thus able to experience the image as it was meant to be experienced in its purest form: an elegy to loss, ablaze with visual beauty.

Through the incorporation of film production all over its diegesis, Blow Out reminds us that it was indeed made at the hands of a filmmaker, and that this filmmaker has a name: Brian De Palma, a man who, through Blow Out, declares his status as auteur by permeating the film with bold stylizations on both a cinematographic and narrative level. These adventurous aesthetic touches enable Blow Out to double as a critical examination of the conventions many genre filmmakers live by. But perhaps the movie’s most fascinating aspect is its ability to reaffirm tradition even as it is breaking away from convention. By pronouncing his own role as auteur, De Palma both exhibits artistic daring and revitalizes age-old stylistic devices that have long become cliché. Perhaps Blow Out is a tad self-important, a little over-the-top in its self-referentiality. But if a film can embrace both innovation and tradition in one glorious swoop, I’d take it over the usual genre fare any day.

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2 thoughts on “‘Blow Out’: My name is Brian De Palma, and I make movies

    • Thanks! You should definitely watch both films. Adaptation is especially phenomenal (Nicolas Cage, director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman in top form).

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