18 October 2009


I watched Brian De Palma's Blow-Out about a month ago, but I've been having a hard time collecting my thoughts about it.  It's a very good conspiracy theory based thriller, with references to both trashy porno/horror flicks and high art, Blow-Up and The Conversation.  While it's take on the mind of a conspiracy theorist is obviously relevant to this blog, it has been hard for me to decide how I feel about the film as a whole; whether it achieves it's goal of being sort of ironically kitsch and trashy as well as a cohesive film, or if the the kitsch covers up certain weaknesses in performance and plotting.

Spoiler alert: I'm going to talk about this film as if you've already seen it.

The movie ends in an insanely over the top chase scene in which Jack Terry (John Travolta) drives his car through a parade in downtown Philadelphia, somehow managing to not kill anyone, until he runs into the front display window of a shop, and then escapes the ambulance, using an ear piece connected to a radio transmitter hidden in Sally's (Nancy Allen) coat to find her in the middle of the crowds based on the sounds of fireworks and screaming.  He arrives in time to kill her assailant, Burke (John Lithgow), but not in time to save the girl.  Terry weeps as he holds Sally, against a backdrop of fireworks and a giant American flag.

This is the primary moment in which Travolta's acting and De Palma's political commentary are most in question.  The film is about corruption in American politics, but it takes on the plot of horror film with a deranged serial killer, avoiding a full fledged conspiracy theory.  So the overblown imagery of American patriotism at the end feels strangely out of place.  In the face of a vast political conspiracy it would register as deeply ironic and cynical, but as the climax of a cheesy horror flick it is just cheesy.

The plot is neatly resolved in the end.  Terry uses Sally's screams, recorded as she is brutally murdered by Burke while he helplessly listens, for a scene in the skin flick he is doing sound for, which, at the beginning of the movie, was the first sort of plot point: the girl in the movie couldn't produce a convincing scream, and without it the movie was worthless.  Terry wasn't looking for that scream when he wandered into the Philadelphia night recording owl's and car sounds with his tape recorder, but it led him to record the tire of Governor McRyan's car being shot out, which led subsequently to his heroic rescue of Sally and involvement in the conspiracy that led to McRyan's death.

Blow-Out has all of the right trappings of a good conspiracy theory movie, cool looking recording technology, a well done portrait of paranoia as felt by Terry as he realizes the scope of the conspiracy, a creepy hitman played by Lithgow, and seedy characters that are pawns in the execution of the conspiracy.

However, what we discover in the end is that the conspiracy that Terry is working to uncover is really the work of one rogue agent, Lithgow's Burke, it takes it into his own hands to murder Sally, and creates a sick plot of serial murders of prostitutes intended to avert attention from McRyan's enemies involvement.  Although there was a conspiracy to catch McRyan in an immoral situation (that of being in a car with Sally, who was meant to appear as a prostitute and had in fact been making a living by acting in similar situations), involving members of an opposing political campaign (McRyan is favored to win the presidential election), once the plot goes wrong and McRyan dies, the higher-ups remove themselves from the situation, allowing Lithgow to turn it into his own quest for destruction.

Burke becomes the single antagonist of Terry and Sally.  He breaks into Terry's home, erases his tapes, and murders Sally, all in order to cover up the conspiracy of his employers, who have more or less lost interest.  And so it becomes difficult to understand De Palma's intentions.  Is the conspiracy theory that he created just a back drop for a thriller?  Or is this an attempt at a commentary on the nature of paranoia, the idea that while Terry's paranoia isn't unwarranted, it is somewhat inaccurate. 

Why is Jack Terry obsessed with doing the right thing in this situation?  He has a background in law enforcement, recalled in the painful memory of the failure of one of his recording devices resulting in the death of a fellow police officer, but he has apparently spent the past two years of his life doing sound for sleazy horror flicks.  I guess it's sort of an archetypal character, the good guy who is down on his luck, but has ideals, which eventually lead to his downfall.  Had he left the conspiracy alone, would he and Sally had been able to escape Burke and live happily ever after?  Is it his obsession with "the truth" that drives him to put Sally and himself in danger?  Is he doomed to repeat this sequence of events and be alone forever?  The dynamic between Travolta and Allen is one of the film's successes, which lends some weight to the overwrought resolution.


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