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Brian De Palma Week: Blow Out is a dark descent into paranoia

Brian De Palma Week: Blow Out is a dark descent into paranoia

Thanks to the Summer Movie Wager, Andy used his victory bet to assign us to each write about Brian de Palma!

If you'll allow me the indulgence, I'd like to start this review with a brief overview of my prior knowledge of Brian De Palma and more specifically of Blow Out. On the De Palma front, my knowledge is very limited. I've seen Mission: Impossible a handful of times, and only finally caught up with the whole of Carrie 4 years ago, both of which I enjoy quite a bit. I saw Mission to Mars as a middle schooler when it initially came out but remember little about it. I watched Phantom of the Paradise for the first time recently and found myself wishing I liked it more, and I sat next to Tori while she watched Dressed to Kill for this series, which I had a good time with despite somehow knowing how it would end. All in all, I like the De Palma I've seen and would like to see more, though he remains an illusive director to my tastes.

However, Blow Out I've been aware of for more than a decade now. In college I took a literature course in which we read Julio Cortázar's short story "Blow-Up", about a man that photographs a couple that he considers to be suspicious and then progressively blows up the photo to larger and larger sizes as he investigates their behavior for clues. This was adapted into a film of the same name in 1966 which is more direct about the plot in that the photographer captures what he believes to be a murder that he tries to solve through blowing up a photo. I sought that film out after reading Cortázar's story and enjoyed it well enough, though it did not capture the sense of paranoia that I got from that story. This adaptation is, as I understand it, a direct influence on De Palma's Blow Out, where instead of a photo we're dealing with a captured bit of sound that may have implications for a possible murder case.

One last point before I begin writing about Blow Out in earnest is that I'm a huge fan of Coppola's The Conversation, which by virtue of being about recorded sound, shares its general premise with Blow Out. Due to this variety of influences and my discovery of them over the past decade, as well as my residence in Philadelphia, Blow Out may be the movie that has been recommended to me the most by fellow film fans. I've spent at least the past 10 years telling people "I've got to see that!" and then never actually seeking it out. Thanks to Andy's big win in our Summer Movie Wager, I finally had a reason to force myself to find it and watch it. And I am definitely glad I did.

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Blow Out is the story of Jack Terry (John Travolta), a sound FX artist for low-budget slasher movies who accidentally records a car accident while trying to get some field recordings for his latest job. In the car is Sally Bedina (Nancy Allen), a young woman that Terry rescues from the accident, and a man who turns out to be presidential hopeful Governor McRyan whom Terry is unable to save. As Terry reviews his recordings from that night, he believes he hears the sound of a gunshot that may have actually caused the "accident" which leads him into a spiraling conspiracy of political assassinations. This is where comparisons to The Conversation begin to make a lot of sense, and I'm fairly certain De Palma pays homage to that film with a handful of music cues that heavily feature saxophones.

My favorite thing about this movie is probably De Palma's visual stylization. He loves to divide the screen and encourage us to focus on multiple pieces of information at once. This explains his love of split focus diopters, which are abundant here. In this movie, they're really effective beyond how striking the image they create is though, because De Palma is using them in tandem with sound design to help guide our ears into hearing what Terry hears. As Terry gets deeper into the conspiracy, these visual and aural cues begin to overlap and mimic his growing paranoia, culminating in a fantastic rotating shot inside of Terry's workspace.

I also really like the way Terry's life starts to become a slasher movie in some sense. His life starts to look and feel like the "trash" that he works on, and I think this is one of the most effective ways De Palma illustrates Terry's experience of being inside a conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theories are often constructs we create to help explain what we think is so unfair, it has to otherwise be impossible. While it ultimately seems like Terry's fears are well founded, his paranoia leads to what might be considered a "bleeding over" of his work into his real life.

But here's where I have to be clear about why I've brought The Conversation into this... well, conversation. Blow Out is a thriller full of literal thrills. Thrilling cinematography and sound design, thrilling plot reveals and performance moments, thrilling pacing and editing. And yet, I never quite felt the deep paranoia that I believe I'm meant to recognize in Terry's experience of all of this. Whereas The Conversation, in its obsession with minutiae and methodical storytelling which can feel a bit slow, is ultimately a movie that makes me feel as insane as the main character by the end. This never quite got there for me, and I think it may be because this seems much more definitive in its conclusions than The Conversation does. While I find the idea of proving once and for all that politics are corrupt from top to bottom appealing, it seems more in line with what we know about paranoid types and conspiracy theories for someone to be left fully broken by even investigating that notion, and for us to never know which pieces, if any, were true.

That said, Terry is certainly left broken by this experience. And the end of the movie is truly chilling. Without spoiling it, I will simply say that the final moment in which we see what all of this has ultimately amounted to is so disturbingly reductive of the experience itself that it's practically a punchline. A dark, hollow joke that lines up nicely with what I just said about The Conversation. So I hope you'll take that minor criticism with the grain of salt it's meant to be garnished with.

Blow Out is a fun, stylish thriller that is every bit as good as people have told me. And it's definitely the movie that finally got me interested in digging deeper into De Palma's filmography. I guess I just prefer the mood and atmosphere of The Conversation to the more provocative tone of De Palma's vision. Either way, I quite enjoy watching filmmakers attempt to get me into the headspace of someone's paranoid fantasies. Especially when they're political conspiracies; at this point, I think we can all relate to those feelings.

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