Do you have a movie you'd like to see reviewed? This and other perks can be found on our Patreon page!
Every film tells us, early on, how we are supposed to watch it,* and so it is with 1981's Blow Out, written and directed by Brian De Palma. It's a movie that first and above all else wants to train our attention on the most invisible part of the entire filmmaking process - invisible both literally and figuratively. For the film is about cinema sound, both in its plot and in its effect as a viewing experience. And its opening pair of scenes draw our attention to the soundtrack with as much force as any film ever has done: first, we hear a very steady thumb, like a heart-beat, as the studio leader plays, insistently demanding our attention away from the image basically as soon as there's even an image to pay attention to.
And then, the sound starts to layer. Sound always layers, of course. But this is layering. Note the italics. This is the kind of layering of sound that's designed to call attention to itself and drive the viewer mildly nuts from attempting to make sense of it all. So the thump continues, and it's accompanied by a heavy, piped-in breathing noise, and then comes the music and the conflicting sounds of what appears to be an off-campus house with several tenants, all doing something differently, all generating their own noises. And there's some sort of electronic wind noise that barely feels like it's diegetically present at all. It is the sound of everything-all-at-once, and it's self-evidently designed to make it impossible to parse what's happening; instead we're being sonically assaulted, and invited to make whatever sense of it all we can, which almost certainly requires making choices about what audio cues to just ignore.
That, I think, is really the heart of it: Blow Out wants to to first realise that we can't hear everything, and it won't necessarily be clear to us which parts of what we're hearing we want to focus on, so just guess. The third scene, after all, does exactly the same: it puts us in one of those split screens so beloved of De Palma, on the right showing us a TV news report - which years of movies have trained us means "look at this, there is important exposition happening!" - and on the left showing us motion picture sound editor Jack Terry (John Travolta) scrubbing through some magnetic tape, creating an alien whine. Once again, two stimuli, both given equal focus in the mix, and we're left to try and separate them out into discrete sources of information.
Oh, and I didn't even mention the long take! The opening shot of Blow Out is a long take, another De Palma specialty, as the unseen heavy breather stalks his way into the college apartment and lunges at a naked young woman, knife drawn, as she sort of yells disagreeably. It's a shitty scream that kicks of a whole plot, because as it turns out, we're looking at the first screening of an in-production slasher film, and Jack's current job is to find a scream that actually sounds like the soapy victim is terrified for her life. Part and parcel of the overwhelming impact of that sound mix is that it becomes easy to actually forget that we're looking at a bravura piece of cinematography, set up by the magnificent Vilmos Zsigmond - again, too many stimuli, you have to pick and choose.
There's only problem with all of this, which is that after the opening credits, Blow Out is mostly done ramming whirlwinds of pure aural intensity into our ears; it becomes "merely" an ingenious thriller using ambiguous cinema sound as its hook, after decades of movie detectives relying on photographs. In fact, Blow Out is basically a remake of Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 Blowup, with sound recording instead of photography; a fact that everybody already noticed in 1981, and a fact that movie buff De Palma certainly must have planned for everybody to figure out. You don't give a movie that title purely by accident (in fact, the echo of Antonioni's film is but one of three important shadings of the title Blow Out: there's also "blow out", to have a sound play too loudly out of speakers, and "blow out", what happens to decaying or overinflated tires, and which provides a critical clue in the film's central mystery).
When I say this about the movie, I do hope that it doesn't sound like I'm slighting it. It's a wonderful thriller, densely plotted and so full of thematic resonance that it's almost incapable of supporting its own weight. It's a political thriller dredged in the cynicism of an age when the Vietnam War, the deaths of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and the flagrant criminality of Richard Nixon were all just barely in the rear view mirror; it's a mystery that uses the conspicuously arbitrary murders of beautiful women as fuel, and then in its final scene slaps us in the face with an indictment of art that thrives on the suffering fo women; it's a movie about the act of watching movies, and how that can sharpen our focus on interpreting media while blunting our functionality in real life.
I should hate to go into the plot much at all, in part because the surprises all work, even after all these decades, in part because it very quickly becomes too dense to detail what happens. Suffice it to say that Jack was filming wild sounds one night, and just so happened to record the audio of a car plunging into a lake; he immediately dove in after it to find a live prostitute, Sally (Nancy Allen), and a dead governor who had presidential aspirations (shades of a different Kennedy). He also finds, listening to the tape, what sound very much like a gunshot just an instant before the car's tire blew out, and thereon hangs a paranoid conspiracy tale of a sort that feels like a proud throwback to the great political thrillers of the barely-finished 1970s. A young Dennis Franz shows up as a shady photographer who took pictures of the accident; a young John Lithgow shows up as a cold-blooded psychopath, giving the kind of performance that absolutely deserves to have kick-started a great career.
Blow Out is juggling a lot of topics, but the one that's most obvious and pervasive is that it's about how filmmaking generates meaning. The opening scenes, after all, made all of us amateur Jack Terrys, listening intently to see what we could possibly hold onto and make sense of in a fuzzy cacophany. And so it turns into a film about how thrillers work on us: how sound and image stimulate us into tension, confusion, fear. I suspect that's why the film draws down so much from the 1970s political thrillers as well as the infinitely less prestigious and admirable slasher movies that were just becoming an inescapable fact of life (and if the slasher movie that Jack is sound designing obviously couldn't exist - no microscopic little production company like the one we see would invest in a long take like the one that opens the film, Halloween notwithstanding - it's clear from the staging of the violent serial murders throughout the film that De Palma knew the genre he was evoking): for De Palma, whose career reflects a cinephilia that flattens all distinctions between "good' and "trash" films, finding the common threads by which thrillers qua thrillers function, prestigious and lowbrow alike, was a worthy task in and of itself. That really is all that Blow Out is looking to do: it examines how movies keep us in suspense, not entirely without criticism - the last scene is a fairly unsubtle indictment of the use of women in thriller cinema - and simultaneously provides us with an example of the thing it has just defined.
It's kind of the best thing imaginable: all invested in mechanics and unapologetically trapped inside its own head, and yet on a moment-by-moment basis, it's wholly visceral, engaging on a completely intuitive level. It's shockingly effective and smart as hell, and I can only think of one problem. Unfortunately, it's a fairly huge one. The film, to a large extent, turns on the adventures of Jack and Sally sleuthing around Philadelphia, so we spend a lot of time with those characters. And as non-intuitively as Travolta's casting was, it works out pretty damn well: he brings an unfussy hang-out vibe to the part, and if I never quite buy him as enough of a techie to be a sound designer, he has a loose bearing that helps him insinuate his way into the part. But Nancy Allen is just spectacularly, inexplicably godawful; she's been perfectly fine in other things, including other things she made under De Palma's direction (they were, at this time, married), so it's not that. I don't know what it is: if some combination of "prostitute" and "girl Friday" triggered something in De Palma or Allen's head that Sally needed to be a flighty ditz, or if (as I suspect), this was how Allen though she could foreshadow the character's dissimulation, by making her seem fake-y and forced. At any rate, she's miles beyond annoying, and Blow Out actively suffers every time she's onscreen. Which is, I regret to say, often
*Mostly, it's true, by saying "I resemble every other movie made since the early 1930s, now go ahead and turn your brain off".