Less serrated than the frenzied, madcap pop-art exclamations of his youthful, more uninhibited days, Brian De Palma’s self-consciously mature 1981 effort is undoubtedly a work of its time, and a statement of De Palma stretching out, if not always to great effect. This update and inversion of Michelangelo Antonioni’s scintillatingly deconstructive Blow Up is an embodiment of the ennui-encrusted political halitosis of life in 1981, a scabrous redressing of the Reagan administration’s proposition of oncoming better times. Perhaps it was less De Palma maturing than adapting, having spent a cynical decade throwing the proverbial stylistic excrement at the fan in a flurry of toxic pent-up frustration and demented fun. Now, with the early ‘80s calling for a re-flourishing propaganda and jingoism, the ever-malleable, ever-angry, ever-anti-establishment De Palma swerves and gives them paranoia and an existential void. It’s not unlike the director, rejecting not only the times but his own cinematic past just to stir the shit; it is what he does best, but his best had been better before.
In this light, the opening of Blow Out, a libidinous fake-out that recalls and implicitly questions the truth-value of De Palma’s earlier, more lecherous, more exploitative cinema, is also a premonition of De Palma’s new, more self-consciously restrained, even pensive “director as a dramatist” role rather than the madcap, oddly philosophical maniac that was still in his heart (as Body Double would prove). Rather clearly introducing us to “old De Palma”, the film than swerves and proclaims the exploitation intro a fakeout, a reminder of where we’ve been right before De Palma moves on to where we’re going. Wonderful though the intro is, it is also telling that the scene which most recollects the memory of earlier De Palma is also the film’s best moment. Blow Out then treads more nihilistic, self-reflective ground as film sound designer Jack Terry (John Travolta) thinks he hears a murder of a politician on his sound equipment and his catlike curiosity nearly … well, you know how the story goes. Deeper themes, but the filmmaking veers toward the middlebrow after the delicious opening bit.
The film deserves no ill will, nor does Pauline Kael’s semi-famous endorsement of it, but De Palma’s infamously harried stylistic acrobatics are simmered-down here. Not to within an inch of cinematic life, by any means, but the constantly rekindling fires of his earlier works are unholy territory in this more tormented affair of a similar workaday film talent like Jack investigating a world devoid of life. Unfortunately, the film’s humorless poker face sabotages De Palma’s cartoonish zeal and provocateur’s edge. Rather than transgressing the cinema of the times, Blow Out feels like he’s submitting to it by going “serious”. Effective though it is, Terry’s tale of a film worker upended by his own curiosity to investigate the ways of the early ‘80s may too poetically mirror De Palma’s own folly in using Blow Out to explore the dour New Hollywood aesthetic (at the eve of its dissolution) rather than asserting his more own more raffish, playful style.
That quibble about the film’s submission to the status quo, Blow Out is at least fantastically submissive, a failure of ambition but not craft. It seldom exhibits the flair of De Palma’s most subversive works, but you could call it a case of apples and oranges. The director’s earlier, more polemical works trespass over reality with malicious intent; Blow Out, more of an inquisitor than a firebrand, negotiates with reality, and the preference may be a matter of taste. Certainly, Blow Out is probably De Palma’s most top-to-bottom cohesive work, the lone chokehold on maturity he exhibited before swiveling back to ostentatious exploitation with Body Double and then going Hollywood with works like The Untouchables that are as streamlined as Blow Out but not nearly as troublesome in their desire to investigate and probe.
For a director playing Antonioni here, the sound design more ably recalls De Palma’s earlier Hitchcock riffs, violating the diegesis and whirling around Jack like it’s simultaneously suffocating him and finally revealing a new world of endless unseen possibility – of new revelations and aural perspectives – that only unearth a rabbit’s hole of terror. This is obvious in the narrative – it’s a story about a man climbing into a rabbit hole of paranoia with his sound equipment as his shovel – but the formal soundscape reiterates and advances the feeling of grasping for discernible, tactile sounds and having them always slide away from your ability to contain them. Vilmos Zsigmond’s black velvet beauty of a lens suffuses the film in charcoal dark nights that, again, liberate us from the confines of the brown-and-grey everyday world only to uncover an oblivion or a cavern of colorless emptiness that our minds, like Jack’s, desperately strive to fill-in with knowledge and dirt. Much like the plot, the cinematography and sound suggest freedom as foreclosure, with a scraping away of the world’s façade – the revelation of new sounds and visuals – demarcating how little we really know after all.
Although the sometimes haphazard, pent-up frustration of De Palma’s earlier films got the better of him, they provided a vision of alternate experience that expressively hinted at something more provocative than revelation of the truth. Blow Out is Travolta’s “mature, truthful” movie in opposition to his disco-daze with Grease and Saturday Night Fever, but a younger, more meddling De Palma would have suggested a different “out” from frothiness that didn’t have to sublimate itself to the level of obvious respectability. With a film like Phantom of the Paradise, the alternative to disco wasn’t reality but pumping up the disco kaleidoscope to hysteria, to the point where the quest for truth becomes a misnomer amidst the always-reconfiguring strangeness of reality.
Which is to say: De Palma’s early films feel like a conspiracy against reality, while Blow Out is something of an attempt to uncover the conspiracy in the first place and replace it with reality. But in displacing the conspiracy to the film’s narrative – in literalizing it by turning it into a plot about conspiracy – De Palma is unable to address his film’s complacency within that conspiracy. The once-rebel is now the lesser-of-two-evils pragmatist. That aforementioned first-person intro is a lot like a dream sequence in cinema, a disruption of reality that, in evaporating and revealing itself to be false, only allows the film to domesticate itself by countering the dream with a layer of “but here’s what really happened”. Blow Out is an attempt to arrive at truth, but the earlier films – Phantom of the Paradise most of all – are able to evoke, formally, something more devious, more devilish in the way they accept theirselves as a dream wholesale, in the way they never peel back their layers to explain their truths.
Put another way, by revealing its own construction, its own artificial hysteria, Phantom implicated itself formally in the paranoid confusion of modernity – a film that didn’t understand its own sanity – while Blow Out is perhaps too composed and confident a work – too assured of its own conclusion – to ever question itself stylistically. It casts itself not as an instigator of chaos but as a journalist discovering it and attempting to alleviate it. Ultimately, the formal sanity and composition of the film – mostly clean lines, mostly continuity editing, mostly a linear narrative focus – affords us a safe space to confront Jack’s failure to accept the world around him. It becomes his prison but not our prison. We are watching a man come to grips with his inability to control, his inability to assert his own individualistic volition to salve the unwinding world around him. We aren’t unwinding, unlike in Antonioni’s superior film; the film is too cautious, too clear-eyed, too committed to its narrative about paranoia and the failure of expectation to ever actually take a hint from itself and fail our expectations.
Blow Out commits a sin essentially, a relative reduction of its hysteria to a more simmering brew: it is more concerned with us comprehending Jack’s paranoia than in feeling the film’s paranoia. In its quest to comprehend, encompass, and ultimately corner truth, the film sometimes negates its inner drive to revel in the weirdness of the knowledge that truth is always only provisional. De Palma’s famously frantic editing (well, Paul Hirsch’s famously frantic editing) seldom infect this film, even when it is desperately called for; the “take me seriously” addiction, something De Palma usually flattened, infects the film by squaring off its broken edges and rendering it slightly inapt to visualizing Jack’s increasingly battered, fractured possessiveness. In a crazy world, Blow Out just isn’t crazy enough.
Admittedly, at its worst, Blow Out is merely a downshift between two tenants in the same complex, from unique greatness to commonplace greatness, rather than a sabbatical from the realm of greatness altogether. De Palma’s early days dogged him because he was labeled a Hitchcock copycat. In those days, though, he was a Hitchcock perversion, at which he was sublime; the copycat label is a misnomer and a reduction. This film, however, is a Hitchcock copycat. Is De Palma pretty darn great at it? Of course. The switch-up is just slightly more anonymous and depressing because the movement away from the dementia scrapes away the Hitchcock commentary, manipulating it into the more placid realm of mere regurgitation. It’s often terrific regurgitation, but by this film’s release in 1981, you know who had already spent decades regurgitating Hitchcock wonderfully and like nobody’s business? Hitchcock.