Written and Directed by: Brian De Palma
Starring: John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow
Brian De Palma is a watcher. Many of his films are concerned with the ability to watch, to glean some finer knowledge of a person or situation through prolonged and careful observation. DePalma is aware of the boundary between observation and voyeuristic obsession, and throughout many of his films he utilizes every element of filmmaking to create situations in which his audience grows uncomfortable with the amount of intimate watching of which they are a part. In many of his films, De Palma takes great care to construct very private moments (masturbation, showering, dressing or undressing, a whispered conversation) and then he uses his camera as the invasive eye of the audience. An intimately close up of a body part, held just a moment too long, very effectively turns visual story-telling into twisted voyeurism. Of course, De Palma is not the first director to connect the cinema with voyeurism. In fact, one of De Palma’s most obvious influences, Alfred Hitchcock, is notorious for his themes of voyeuristic obsession, and his own personal infatuations with his leading ladies. What is interesting about Blow Out is that De Palma demonstrates a level of self-awareness and self-mockery rarely seen in filmmakers.
As the film begins, the music is over-the-top and silly, various teenage girls are seen dancing in their underwear, having sexy with boys and masturbating in bed, then a woman having a particularly sensual shower is murdered. At first, I assumed (as I expect many would) that this was how Blow Out was going to be, it only differs slightly from the opening sequence of De Palma’s own Carrie (1976). This sequence is revealed to be an exploitation thriller, being worked on by sound effects technician Jack Terry (John Travolta). It becomes obvious that De Palma is being playful; he’s turning his own films in on themselves, poking fun at his own voyeurism and obsession. But more than that, he’s setting up an elaborate film that, in the end, is really all about the process of making films.
The girl who gets murdered in the film at the beginning of Blow Out has a rather anticlimactic scream, and Jack’s producer hounds him to create more adequate sound effects for their movie. Jack goes into a park late at night and is recording wind sounds, when he hears a car tire blow out and watches the car crash through a fence and into a creek. Jack drops his equipment and dives into the water, where he smashes a car window and saves a girl from drowning. In the hospital, Jack learns that a presidential candidate was driving the car and that he must not mention anything publicly about the girl that he saved. Jack listens to his recording and realizes that a gunshot can be heard just before the tire bursts, and he suspects foul play. As the plot unfolds, Jack finds further evidence supporting his theory, but various police and government entities seem to be actively making him sound like a crackpot conspiracy theorist.
Certain of what he knows, Jack grows obsessive about the gunshot, and tries to figure out exactly why the truth of the accident is being hushed. In an early scene, a representative of the deceased governor is speaking to Jack and asks him to be discreet about the governor’s affair but Jack refuses. The man asks “Who gives a damn that you were there? You wanna tell his wife that he died with his hand up some girl’s dress? Or maybe you’d rather she read it in the papers?” and Jack’s response is “Well, that is what happened! That is the truth, isn’t it?” This piece of dialogue explains De Palma’s entire purpose in making Blow Out; to explore the relationship between truth and media. While Jack gains irrefutable evidence about what actually happened, manipulation of the news turns the “truth” into a very different story.
At the core of Blow Out is an examination of just how media can alter what we know, and how an audience’s complacency makes that task much easier to accomplish. Jack is a sound engineer, his entire job is about making one girl’s scream sound like someone else’s, sound more perfect and make it believable. He has hard evidence of a gunshot, but knows nobody would believe it because he could’ve fabricated the sounds in his studio. A killer, Burke (John Lithgow), kills several women in order to create the illusion of “The Liberty Bell Killer”, just so he can murder one woman without creating suspicion. Phone lines can be tapped so one caller appears to be another, and audio tapes can be erased so a man with legitimate evidence becomes a paranoid lunatic. In this film, appearances are little more than tools with which to alter reality, and to distract from the truth.
De Palma is toying with the way film audiences watch, and what they expect to be shown. He refers to his earlier films and exploits his own voyeuristic tendencies. This voyeurism becomes entangled with the notion of objective truth, and it seems that De Palma is pointing towards the tendencies of some to become obsessed with illusion, regardless of reality. This is how movie stars become sex symbols, and it’s the same reason news channels prefer sensationalism to objectivism. The way Jack’s professional and personal lives are so connected in this film, suggests the way one can becomes confused in the rabbit-hole of truth in the media. His job is to create fabricated images that appear real, but his personal mission becomes to uncover the truth that has become diluted in the hogwash of the media.
Visually this is a very intricate film, with all of De Palma’s trademark split-screens, tracking shots and eerie depth of focus, things that can sometimes feel too gimmicky but here feel perfectly suitable. This is a film about how images can be manipulated, and De Palma is being coy by continually manipulating his images. The mystery of the plot is slow-burning, and builds into a frenzy with a shocking amount of control. Excellent performances by John Travolta, Nancy Allen and John Lithgow help guide the story and brilliant cinematography gives the film an incredibly tense and confusing atmosphere.
Here is a film about perversion, obsession and excess, all the characteristics that make the cinema so enticing. Without those ingredients, it is unlikely anyone would make a film or go watch a film. De Palma is the master of succumbing to his own obsessions on camera, but here he uses his quirks to his advantage. Blow Out is a finely crafted and compelling story and most certainly one of the most powerful examples of American meta-cinema.