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Blow Out

December 8, 2012
(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.

“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?”
– X-Files

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.
Blow Out

Year: 1981

Director: Brian De Palma

John Lithgow

Nancy Allen
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.
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