1981: Blow Out (Brian De Palma)
I've already penned one essay on this blog, explaining my love for the work of Brian De Palma. And now we've come to Blow Out, my favorite of all his films.
I've said numerous times during this countdown that I have to consider myself a formalist. When I watch a film, the first thing I'm doing is deconstructing and judging the way it's formed. This definitely comes from all the time I spent in France. It's the way Langlois wanted the young Turks to think about film at the Cinematheque. And it's still the way that most French film critics approach the medium. When it comes to being a pure master of the cinematic form -- moving the camera, using music, using sound, editing to maximum effect -- I consider De Palma, along with Scorsese, to be the greatest of all American directors still working today. There's a sensuality and complexity to De Palma's approach to film form. And this is as clear as ever in this film. Just watch the first five minutes.
Some have labeled De Palma cold and callous while I've always found him to be a deeply wounded romantic. And of all the ways I connect to his work, this is where our connection is at its most powerful. Travolta's character in Blow Out seems to me the most personal of all of De Palma's creations. In other words, the one that emotionally most closely resembles the filmmaker. It's devastating to consider, and it's devastating to experience.
De Palma likes to provide thrills. There's a part of him that thinks the experience should be fun and unexpected, and he's very playful in his work. Without providing a spoiler, just look at the way he ends this one.
Historically, I like to think of Blow Out as the final film of the American New Wave. The filmmakers would go on to make more great work, but this seems to be the end of a certain era. And personally, well, it's my favorite film of the eighties.
Other contenders for 1981: I still have some films to see from this year. These include: Samuel Fuller's White Dog, Abbas Kiarostami's Orderly or Disorderly, Ivan Passer's Cutter's Way, Sidney Lumet's Prince of the City, Bertrand Tavernier's Coup de Torchon, Warren Beatty's Reds, Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Lola, Jacques Rivette's Le pont du Nord, Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Rat Trap, Andrzej Wajda's Man of Iron, and Bertrand Blier's Beau-pere. I need to revisit Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva, and Hugh Hudson's Chariots of Fire as it's been too long since I've seen any of them to know where they'd place on this list. And my closest runner-up from this year is Michael Mann's Thief.
7/16/11 I watched Sidney Lumet's Prince of the City. It's clear that Lumet loves this subject matter, and he gives it an extremely thorough and careful execution. It is maybe the most detailed police procedural I have ever seen. And certainly full of top-notch performances, location work, and cinematography. Just a little too dry at times.
8/21/11 I watched Bertrand Tavernier's Coup de Torchon. Intelligent and written in a literary style. Quirky, with an absolutely excellent performance from Noiret. But left me a little lukewarm after it all.
11/23/13 I watched Bill Forsyth's Gregory's Girl. A film full of heart that reminds me of Bujalski, Carax, and Hartley. Gregory is a lovable, vulnerable, goofy young man and Forsyth gives many of his scenes nice space, warmth, and playfulness. Less austere than some of the other work I have seen from Forsyth but Forsyth's narrative looseness really works in his favor here. One of the best narrative capsules I have seen of the early eighties and a surprising little gem.
10/18/15 I watched Penelope Spheeris' The Decline of Western Civilization. Very interesting look, for its access and intimacy, at the height of the LA punk scene. Makes me want to get a little deeper into some of these bands and their music.
10/30/15 I watched Andre Techine's Hotel des Ameriques. One of these films I am not sure yet how to take it. It is very Hitchcockian, focused on l'amour fou, and possessing a wounded romanticism that the French know how to do better than anyone. Techine films nature almost as well as Godard and brings out something very special when he works with Deneuve but this one did not fully get me upon first viewing.
12/3/16 I watched Jacques Rivette's Le Pont du Nord, One of the real pleasures of being a cinephile is discovering a new link to a film that you already love. In this case it's Carax's Boy Meets Girl and really to Carax's cinema in general. Rivette's influence seems to be all over. It's in the way that Carax uses the little seen areas of Paris, the way that he fixates on maps of the city, and in the countless quirky mannerisms of Lavant that run throughout Carax's body of work. Also, of note is this strange relationship with genre that Rivette seems to have (and I guess Godard did as well, think Pierrot le Fou or Vivre sa Vie). It's like they don't want to make pure art films but instead prefer adding these trivial crime subtexts to the real meat of their stories producing a formula that ends up being something like - - serious characterization + ironic treatment of genre = playful, thoughtful art. What is interesting is how some of the New Wave filmmakers get at the poetry of the genre by having fun with it in ways that the original practitioners of the genre never achieved. I am thinking particularly of where Truffaut ends up in Shoot the Piano Player, Belmondo's final moments in Pierrot and the remarkable last few minutes Rivette gives us between Pascale Ogier and Jean-Francois Stevenin. And I've gotten all the way here and only begun to mention Pascale Ogier, the most interesting and most tragic early loss for French cinema who in but a handful of films offered up everything that James Dean and River Phoenix did, only to disappear all too soon.
1/28/17 I rewatched Ivan Passer's Cutter's Way. It's been 20 or so years since I first saw this in a bad print at the New Beverly. It's much stronger than I remember, Bridges and Heard quite impressive and the whole thing in much the same vein as Night Moves. It is one of the more important final bookends to the American New Wave, artistic with an A list crew at its helm and disheartened that the utopic future for America envisioned by the youth had clearly failed.
4/16/17 I watched Warren Beatty's Reds. I was deeply impressed by Beatty's ability to handle a story of this size with such directorial grace and skill. I found his performance to be as good or close to as good as his typical level but it was Keaton's acting that really got me. I have never found her as affecting and as deep as she is here. I could do without the Greek chorus device as I found it took me out of the story more than further embedding me. But the rest of the style is quite beautiful from Storaro's cinematography to Sondheim's music.
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