“Mulder, are you suggesting that we somehow create our own quirky focal points of paranoia, as a result of the lack of things that are worth fearing in our day-to-day lives? That we’re not whole as beings without something to worry about, something to keep our eye on?”
“That’s my point exactly, Scully. What if, in a society characterized by a Goldilocks economy, we can’t find anything to worry about? What if we somehow go looking for things to fear, things that will destroy this economy, things that will reach every corner of government, every enterprise, every man, woman, and child?”
(This post is published by me as part of Scenes of the Crime blogathon under category Conspiracy Thrillers/Mysteries. Excellent conspiracy thriller by Brian De Palma paying homage to Francis Ford Copolla’s The Conversation and Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, reminiscient of most Euro crime thrillers of the 70′s).
Spoiler Alert: Some key scenes and moments discussed, readers please note.
During the early days of cable TV in India, when the “saas-bahu, reality shows” assault on the mind and senses, had not yet started, one of the things to look forward to were the serials on Star. Yeah there were the usual soaps Santa Barbara, Bold and Beautiful, where honestly i lost track of who is seeing whom, and who was going out with whom after some time. But around the same time, Star did have a whole lot of excellent serials, Remmington Steele( featuring Pierce ’007′ Brosnan), The Wonder Years, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and then there was the X-files. Being a fan of sci-fi, this was one of the T.V. series that i looked to every week when it was aired. Loved watching Fed Agents Fox Mulder( David Duchonvy) and Dana Scully( Gillian Anderson) try to crack mysteries involving the X-files, cases which the FBI has deemed unsolvable. But more important loved the exchanges between Mudler a paranoid believer in conspiracy theories, aliens, UFO, some one who can rarely trust the Government, representing the average citizen’s distrust of the Govt, and Scully, the sceptic, always seeking the logical, scientific explanation, though she begins to believe in the paranormal in later episodes. X-files was a combo, of 2 genres that have been my favorites, the sci fi and the conspiracy thriller, loved to watch the twists, figuring out the mystery, the clues, and yes all that UFO, paranormal background. The movie version honestly did not appeal to me much, it was good for most of the part, but the ending was too long drawn out, giving me a sense of having seen it already before.Comming to conspiracy theories, nothing seems to get the average Yank, more fired up than the Kennedy’s. The twin assasinations of the Kennedy brothers is still a never ending conspiracy tale, with suspects ranging from Edgar Hoover, to the Mob, the Communists, the FBI, the CIA, the “military-industrial complex”( a favorite suspect of conspiracy theorists), and it looks like the end has not yet been seen. Oliver Stone’s ”JFK” did try to cover ground on this, but many analysts have slammed it on grounds of factual inaccuracy, titling it as “Dances with Facts”, an allusion to Kevin Costner’s Western epic, who incidentally played the role of Jim Garrison, the investigator, trying to uncover the ”truth” in the movie. Ted Kennedy, the youngest of the brothers, who incidentally passed away couple of weeks back, had a rather chequered career. Entering the Senate after JFK was assasinated, he had a fairly good record as Senator, was popular with his constituents, having a reputation of being a spokesperson for the working classes, the disadvantaged, and seemed all set to take a shot at the White House. However one word damaged his chances forever, Chappaquidick, it was a stain on what was otherwise an exemplary record, and not a small one at that. Chappaquidick was a resort island in Massachusets, and on July 19,1969 an automobile belonging to Ted was found in the waters, containing the dead body of one Mary Kopechene, a campaign aide for Robert Kennedy. Ted pleaded guilty of causing the accident, and most important of leaving the accident victim at the site. The incident became a national scandal, and more important, put paid to all of Ted’s Presidential dreams, as he dropped out from the race in 1972, and Jimmy Carter won the Democrat primaries in 1980.
Ted Kennedy, Chappaquidick incident, Conspiracy theories, all of them making me recall Brian De Palma’s 1981 thriller flick, Blow Out. While Blow Out, is not based on the Chappaquidick incident per se, the movie contains numerous references to the political events in the era, with a conspiracy thriller background. In fact the 80′s was the time when Hollywood and Capitol Hill, two entities with no love lost for each other, came together, with a movie actor, Ronald Reagan entering the White House. 1981 saw John Hinckley Jr making an assasination attempt on Ronald Reagan, in LA, to make an impression on Jodie Foster, with whom he was obsessed ever since he saw Taxi Driver. Come to think of it, a guy making an attempt to assasinate a movie actor turned President, to impress a heroine, who acted in a movie, which incidentally was about a loner, obsessed with the heroine, plotting to assasinate a Presidential candidate. This surely has to be one of the craziest coincidences ever, a collision of the real, the reel, the political, whew.
Blow Out starts off with a standard De Palma technique, the shot where you are tricked into believing something that is not what it is, something he would later use in Body Double too. Like in Carrie, Brian De Palma again plays the voyeur with the camera, tracking through the steam and mist of a ladies locker room, all females in various states of undress, some flashing already, and then the Pyscho moment. Female taking shower, curtains parted by a hand, killer’s hand raised, a female totally nude standing, and then the scream. Only thing, the scream is so lame, so feeble, killing all the built up tension, and then we see that what is happening is a Grindhouse slasher flick being shot, and the sound recording technician Jack Terry( John Travolta), trying to explain to his producer, about the kind of scream he wants. Till the part we get to see the movie within a movie, we could be forgiven for thinking that we are witnessing some kind of Cheesy slasher flick, the same way De Palma cons us into believing that we are watching a B grade vampire flick in the opening of Body Double. And then the opening credits over a flickering needle, showing the sound recordings, another interesting moment, as Nancy Allen’s name flashes on the screen, the scream is heard, and the why is known in the later stages.
Terry is out in the woods, recording natural sounds, the wind in the tress, frogs croaking, De Palma using the split screen technique showing Terry with his sound devices, connecting to the sources. Car comming along, Terry now tries to record the sound, and then the quiet peaceful atmosphere is shattered, as the car takes a sudden dive into the river. Again here, the quiet woods, the car making a noisy intrusion, and then the action moment. The peace is shattered, chaos abounds, as Terry now makes a frantic dive into the river, discovering it’s passengers, a female injured and alive and a man dead. The dead man is no ordinary person, he is the Governor Mc Ryan, widely tipped to become the next president, with the incumbent president, clearly facing public anger. Brian De Palma lets us in on this fact just before the scene, when Terry is watching the TV news about how Gov Mc Ryan is on due course for the White House. That is where the Chappaquidick reference comes in, Ted Kennedy’s presidential ambitions similarly derailed, though he came out alive from the accident.
And this is where the conspiracy starts. The elements are in the right place for a conspiracy, a Presidential hopeful, well on the way, an incumbent President with low public approval, and then Terry getting a warning to forget about the woman in the car. That is when Terry takes it on himself to solve the mystery, and meets the woman, the only witness to the accident. The female however is a ditzy blonde hooker, Sally ( Nancy Allen), who has no clue at all to what happened, who seems to just follow orders, without questioning. Jack now listens to the tape, he was recording that night, and as he plays it over again and again, there are two distinct noises he hears, a tire being blown out, and then a gunshot, revealing a larger conspiracy at work. This is where the reference to Michalangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up comes into the picture, that movie had a photographer blowing up the reel he has taken of what he thinks is a murder, and then trying to enlarge it to prove his theory. Blow Out has allusions to Blow Up, not least the title, but also the central story of two obsessed protagonists trying to uncover a mystery through their work, the camera reel in Blow Up, and the sound recording in Blow Out. However the big difference is this, Antonioni takes us along with the photographer, as he enlarges the images, trying to see whether there was a murder or not, there is no conspiracy here at all, the movie in fact is more in the pyschological, thriller mode, where nothing is what it seems, and then leaves the audiences to think for themselves. Brian De Palma on the other hand lays it out, all for the audiences, explicitly putting it across of some kind of conspiracy involved here. As i have mentioned earlier, subtlety, understatement are not virtues one would associate Brian De Palma with, he is the kind who believes in putting out right to the audiences, on the face, drilling it into your head.
Terry is now deep into the conspiracy, he is obsessed with proving it, problem is none is interested in helping him out. The cops are not interested in what they see as another accident, the officials claim its just a “blow out”, and the victim’s family members want to be in peace. So what makes Terry, an ordinary sound recording technician, for sleazy grindhouse flicks, so obsessed with finding out the ”truth”? And that is where we get his background, a former wire tapping specialist, who quit the job, after one of his assignments, ended up in a fiasco, with the person, being found out and murdered. Again another reference to Francis Ford Copolla’s The Conversation, where Gene Hackman, plays a surveillance specialist, wracked by a sense of guilt, after a wire tap assignment goes haywire. Blow Out, in fact does borrow more from Copolla’s flick, including the concept of the protagonist, playing the sound track over and over again to get the truth. In a sense, Blow Up, Conversation, Blow Out are all about obsessed protagonists, trying to figure out the truth using their tools of work, but the difference is that in Blow Up, the truth is uncertain, more open ended, in the Conversation the truth is not what it’s protagonist imagines, but in Blow Out, the truth is more cut and dry, its what the protagonist knows, however he is up against powerful forces, that seek to prevent him from exposing it.
Basically what Brian De Palma has done here is to take the basic plot elements from Blow Up and The Conversation, and put it in the backdrop of an obsessed hero, trying to uncover a larger conspiracy. And then adding elements to the conspiracy, Manny( Dennis Franz), the photographer who films the accident, and then actually sells it to a magazine. Now why would some one want to sell, this to a magazine, and split the video into pictures, when the smartest thing to would have been to sell it to a TV channel. Some how this seemed a contrivance just for the sake of it, for Terry to get the pictures, put them together, make a movie out of them, and add his own sync sound to it. It did appear contrived to me, notwithstanding De Palma’s own assertion of a movie being ”the camera lying at 24 frames”, and the allusion to Kennedy’s assasination first comming in a magazine. Something which does really frustrate me with De Palma, is his tendency to contrive things, just to lead us on to a bigger moment. Another gripe is with Sally’s character herself, granted she is a ditzy dumb blonde hooker, who makes Paris Hilton, look like a Mensa alumnus, but her “i am so dumb, but so cute and nice at heart” act really grates, you don’t really feel for her, and you wonder why Terry would want to go out on a limb to save her, when honestly no sane and sensible individual, trying to crack a conspiracy, would want to have some one like her, even if she is connected with the big picture.
But if we are able to overlook those issues, its because of two other aspects, the pyschotic cover up assasin, Burke( John Lithgow), who does the dirty clean up job of eliminating the witnesses, and what really shocks is the conspiracy involved. The murder scenes, are chilling, one referencing Hitchock’s Frenzy, where the victim is strangled at a construction site, and the camera tracking back to the street, as the rush of the people, drowns out her screams. But what really hits us straight is the ending part of the movie. And then the irony hitting it all, Burke, marking the “Liberty Bell” into the bodies of his victims, calling himself the “Liberty Bell” strangler, and the movie being set in Philadelphia, the city where the Declaration of Independence was signed. The ideals of the American Declaration being subverted in the very same city, by a system, that seems to mock the very principles on which the nation was founded. The after effect of watching Blow Out, is a feeling of hopelessness, of the futility of it all, of a powerful system that seeks to subvert the freedom of it’s citizens. And an ending that leaves you stunned and shocked.
Blow Out marked John Travolta’s transition from his swinging 70′s Dancing Star image to a more adult role, an obsessed loner, trying to uncover a conspiracy, moving away from his Saturday Night Fever persona. Travolta, again like De Palma, has been a bit of an enigma to me, at his best he is brilliant in movies like Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty, makes one of the coolest bad guys in Face Off, and then goes on to do some real stinkers like Battlefield Earth, that made me cringe. For me Blow Out would represent one of the high points in Travolta’s career, as he brilliantly showcases the feelings of frustration, loneliness, agony, especially in the ending. Can’t say the same about Nancy Allen, who looks great, but her acting abilities are limited, honestly her giggles, her ditzy behaviour did not appear even remotely cute to me. My first glimpse of John Lithgow, was as the chief baddie in Cliffhanger, like Dennis Quaid, he seems to relish, the crazy, over the top, mean, bad ass villian kind, something that makes him a perfect fit for this kinda role, a pyschotic, who actually believes he needs to kill for the “common good”, the most dangerous kind of people around.