Andrew Tracy on Blow Out
The De Palma problem is one easily solved. For all the strife it’s caused between his bewilderingly devoted advocates and those, the present writer included, who view the bulk of his output as mediocre to wretched with a few gems along the way, there’s nothing so badly broke that a few elementary rules of the thriller genre can’t fix them up again. And that’s Point One on the reconciliation agreement: the “prime” De Palma, De Palma the auteur, is a maker of thrillers, and as such he’s bound to their requirements.
For a talented filmmaker who has chosen to work in the popular mode, this shouldn’t be a major obstacle. It’s a deluded view of De Palma to suggest that the frequent lack of commercial success for his “personal” projects has anything to do with misunderstood artistry. The post-Greetings/Hi, Mom! De Palma has never aspired to be anything other than a commercial filmmaker, and that aspiration has informed both his best films (Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie) and his worst (take your pick). The old Hollywood fable doesn’t work in De Palma’s case. This isn’t some hard-worked artisan injecting personal material into for-hire projects; this is a filmmaker who has repeatedly commanded multimillion-dollar budgets and significant artistic control, and still managed to produce an inordinate amount of cinematic bilge. If individual initiative can take the credit for any success in such a communally based endeavor as filmmaking, then individual failings can take the rap.
For all that, De Palma certainly doesn’t bear the mark of Cain. His narrow gifts are so evident that it would be pointless to reiterate them. All his films require are the simple acknowledgement that the form he works in does not live and breathe with his particular exercises in it—that sometimes an obeisance to its simple demands (a decent script among them) will create a better film than any “personal” outpouring possibly could (no one would claim that Joseph Sargent is a more talented director than De Palma, but The Taking of Pelham One Two Three puts nearly everything the latter has done in the shade). For unquestioned talents, the task of making a successful thriller requires little more than creating a reason why we should care about their manipulative goings-on. Like any other director, it’s that simple criteria which separates De Palma’s good thrillers from his bad ones.
Blow Out (1981), his Antonioni via Coppola via schlock riff, is one of the good ones. And the reasons for its goodness are remarkably obvious: John Travolta is a likable and attractive hero, even in the throes of obsession; Nancy Allen is sweet and appealing; John Lithgow, light years away from his foolish mugging in De Palma’s ludicrous Raising Cain, is a creepy and effective villain. From those simple foundations, and despite De Palma’s typically haphazard plotting and often embarrassing dialogue, his visual gifts are given an actual subject with which to work: our involvement with the characters beyond the plot paces they’re run through. We can admire De Palma’s sharp editing when Travolta does his Hemmings-Hackman job on the audio and celluloid evidence of a political assassination, but we’re involved because Travolta is. When Allen is in danger, we can dissect De Palma’s use of space and placement of figures within the frame, but we’re riveted because we care about what happens to her—although one comes to suspect that De Palma accentuates her sweet dingbat routine to make her ultimate fate all the more disturbing.
This is probably De Palma’s worst aspect, that which infects even his best films. De Palma’s habit of isolating his death sequences from any hint of a larger world—of making their consequences solely a result of his own intricate designs—simultaneously insulates them from any emotional involvement while accentuating the nastiness of their (literal) execution, an objectionable habit he shares with Dario Argento (a poster for Suspiria adorns the wall of Travolta’s office in Blow Out). In the end, all of De Palma’s characters are no more than puppets for his cheaply sadistic cleverness—but what’s disturbing is that this same cold architecture applies even to those characters that are given warm and sympathetic dimensions by actors such as Travolta, Allen, Sissy Spacek, Keith Gordon, or Amy Irving. Not only are they punished for simply being in the film, their emotional logic is corrupted for the sake of effect. Imagine the slight but crucial change in the concluding scenes of Blow Out if Travolta, instead of incorporating Allen’s terrified screams into the cheap horror movie he’s working on, had approved the painfully fake screams he’d earlier criticized, with the memory of Allen’s sad fate still branded upon his mind.
That’s too much of a loose end for De Palma, however, too far out of his control. Scenes, dialogue, and plot can fly away like so much chaff, but De Palma wants it to be known that he is the sole author of his creations’ torments. He can’t entrust private moments to his characters, can’t rely on them to convey the urgency of their fears and desires. When Travolta discovers that his tapes have been wiped, De Palma not only has Lithgow set it up, he ostentatiously twirls his camera around Travolta’s studio, not trusting Travolta’s anxiety to carry the scene. Even the domineering Hitchcock acknowledged the presence of other forces outside his own engineered will. What else does Rear Window evoke but the persistence of lives lived outside the gaze, and perils, of the voyeur—and what invites sympathy and anxiety for the voyeur but his growing knowledge that he could suddenly, horribly disappear without a ripple from the blithe sea of humanity that surrounds him?
It’s an overestimation of that basic quality of sympathy that has allowed many to claim an ethics within Hitchcock’s aesthetics, just as it’s an overestimation to discern an aesthetic in De Palma’s mechanics. Hitchcock’s setpieces might garner the most attention, but their effectiveness derives from a rooting narrative interest in the events that surround them, whether of story, character, or simply movie star magnetism—what would Rear Window or North by Northwest be without Stewart and Grant? De Palma’s showstoppers are just that: they’re a suspension, or outright discarding, of whatever involvement he might have built up in the interim. As a technician, few would be able to argue with De Palma’s adeptness. As a filmmaker, he takes relentless self-aggrandizement to the point of utter nullity—a sad equation that comes out all the clearer when he signs up for already null projects like Mission to Mars.
However, it’s no fairer to bury the whole of a director’s oeuvre under the weight of his accumulated baggage than it is to elevate it on his featherweight virtues. Though liberally afflicted with many of his regrettable habits, Blow Out is an exemplar of De Palma at his best: a competent narrative structure tight enough to keep the film on the rails while providing enough room for him to perform his tin pan visual arias. Against De Palma’s dilettantish legacy, it seems appropriate to affix a commendably journeyman tag to Blow Out: it works.