Friday, April 2, 2010

1981: Blow Out (Brian De Palma)

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.  

1.  Form

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.  

2.  Emotion  

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.    

3.  Playfulness

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. 

11/3/17 I watched Ivan Reitman's Stripes.  Reitman has a breezy approach and directorial style which are refreshing and easy to take in at first but the third act has nothing.  

4/9/20 I watched Peter Bogdanovich's They All Laughed.  The most favorable thing I felt was that it is a detective film that feels almost completely fresh and devoid of cliche.  Unfortunately I never quite understood what Bogdanovich was trying to say and never connected with any of the characters.  

7/22/20 I watched Albert Brooks' Modern Romance.  My favorite of the Brooks' films I've seen so far.  It was most impressive in how honest it felt with respect to the director's less redeeming compulsions.  Somewhat in line with Woody Allen's work yet seems a bit more serious about its faults and has a heavier director's touch than Allen's films.  

9/6/20 I watched Jacques Rivette's Paris s'en va.  Some behind the scenes footage of Rivette's Le Pont du Nord never felt all that interesting. 

11/15/21 I watched Abbas Kiarostami's Orderly or Disorderly.  I saw a very poor print but what jumped out at me for the first time was how formally close Kiarostami could be to Tati's late work.  The colors, the framing, the way Kiarostami composes "order" had me thinking of Playtime and some of Tati's other final work.  

1/2/22 I watched George Cukor's Rich and Famous.  Cukor's final film is yet another interesting final work by a great director.  It feels personal and likely that Cukor must have known it could very well be his last work after a career of making films for over 50 years.  Like some other directors' final works, it feels like it wants the spectator to be outside of it, thinking about it, as much as it wants to give an audience a ride.  Considered as such, it is not very entertaining, however the final moments take on a weight that justify the two hour experience.    

3/13/22 I watched Walter Hill's Southern Comfort.  An interesting mood piece from Hill on Caddo Lake in my North Louisiana backyard.  Hill's style feels a bit disjointed and scattershot but the crew assembled is quite interesting and a couple of scenes almost jump off the screen between the dense Spanish moss and the music of Ry Cooder.


  1. Jeffrey, first let me say what a great and informative essay. I too am a big admirer of DePalma, and Scorsese, and feel that he has been unfairly maligned by many critics. "The Black Dahlia", for example, is a much better film that it has been given credit for. He is one of the most visual filmmakers we have and, after all film is a visual medium.

    1981 was a tough year to make a definitive choice. In Dave Goodfellas' countdown I went with "Das Boot" as my favorite with the caveat that "Blow-Out", "Body Heat" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" were close by and on another day could have been selected number #1. Well today, is another day and I really cannot decide, so I am calling it a tie between "Blow-Out" and "Body Heat." Coincidently, both films have been accused of being derivative of other works, "Blow-Up" and "Double Indemnity", respectively, but I never had a problem with that. Both films stand out well on their own.

    #1 Body Heat and Blow Out

    Das Boot
    Chariots of Fire
    Raiders of the Lost Ark
    Prince of the City

    I also added “On Golden Pond”, a bit sappy but it is the only chance we have to watch Henry and Jane Fonda together.

  2. Love BLOW OUT and it may be my fave De Palma film (altho, CARLITO'S WAY is right up there) and a funky audio riff on BLOW UP. Thinking about this film again reminded me of a time when John Travolta wanted to be taken seriously as an actor. Man, he had a good run in the 1970s to early 1980s but then began to blow it with some dodgy choices (PERFECT, STAYING ALIVE). But he's excellent in this film. I'm a sucker for paranoid thrillers and this is one of the best.

  3. Own #1 Film of 1981:

    Coup de Torchon (France; Tavernier)


    Rat Trap (India; Gopalakrishnan)
    La Pont du Nord (France; Rivette)
    Man of Iron (Poland; Wajda)
    Chariots of Fire (UK; Hudson)
    Diva (France; Beineix)
    Beau Pere (France; Blier)
    Thief (USA; Mann)
    White Dog (Fuller; USA)
    Blow Out (De Palma; USA)
    Raiders of the Lost Ark (USA; Spielberg)
    Reds (USA; Beatty)
    On Golden Pond (Rydell; USA)

    Jeffrey, this is your most spectacular lead-in essay of your entire countdown, but as a filmmaker of your stature I am not at all surprised at the formalist approach, and of your passion for the cinema of Brian De Palma. For me as for yourself, John and J.D., I join in the praise here for what is unquestionably one of the director's finest films (CARRIE is actually my favorite of his, and DRESSED TO KILL and THE UNTOUCHABLES rate highly with SCARFACE as a flawed gem) and I was fascinated here with your authoritative qualification.

  4. John, thanks so much for those very kind words! I also feel that De Palma "has been unfairly maligned by the critics" and that's he's "one of the most visual filmmakers we have".

    ON GOLDEN POND is one I'll need to revisit at some point. It's been forever since I've seen it.

    BODY HEAT is also one I need to rewatch. I struggled a little with it the first time I saw it.

    Thanks, John. Always wonderful having you here!

  5. JD, all so well put! You and I have exactly the same ranking for De Palma's top two. I also dearly love CARLITO'S WAY.

    Thanks, JD. Always great to have you here!

  6. Sam, what great words! That makes my day.

    I'm glad to hear that you really like this one, too, and I look forward to seeing many of your top picks that have eluded me to now.

    Thanks, Sam! Always great to have your wonderful perspective here.

  7. My favorite De Palma as well and one of those films, like NIGHT MOVES, that I feel a real personal attachement to. I am glad you mentioned the emotion found in this film as, along with being technically astonishing, there is so much soul to be found here. I think it's actually one of the few films that I would label as near perfect. It's just a truly wonderful work by one of cinema's great masters and it is a shame that a special edition DVD hasn't been made available yet. Great post Jeffrey!

  8. Probably my favorite movie of the eighties as well. You're right about De Palma being a wounded romantic; the whole idea that De Palma is a cold, soulless technician is just infuriating. There is astonishing pain in his work, but he doesn't pander to those who want to be spoonfed emotions. He makes real, complex films.

    Rosenbaum, whose hardly one of De Palma's biggest admirers, reposted his review of Femme Fatale on his blog this week, and his final paragraph is actually particularly revealing. Throughout he contrasts what he sees as De Palma's formalism with his own humanism, characterizing him as uninterested in moral issues. But then he says this:

    "Tarkovsky — a formalist who’s often been misidentified as a humanist, perhaps because of his mysticism — sometimes showed a similar indifference to his characters, such as the family of the hero who burns his house down in the final sequence of his last film, The Sacrifice. Formalism and an absence of humanism don’t necessarily entail a lack of artistic seriousness. Indeed, looking for symmetry and coherence in a universe that seems to consist only of chaotic fragments from other movies — a very contemporary and very real dilemma — might constitute a genuine quest for transcendence."

    Rosenbaum's right there, and I think that's a pretty strong concession on his part that maybe he was getting it wrong all along. It's weird because to intellectually justify De Palma's work seems kind of self-defeating in some sense, because ultimately the work defends itself, and because he's so clearly one of the "deepest" living American filmmakers.

  9. Jeremy, great to hear from you! I love all that you say and totally agree with you on this:

    "...there is so much soul to be found here. I think it's actually one of the few films that I would label as near perfect. It's just a truly wonderful work by one of cinema's great masters and it is a shame that a special edition DVD hasn't been made available yet."

    Thanks, Jeremy. Always a treat to hear from you!

  10. Doniphon, what a great addition to this post! I love that you say this might be your favorite film from the eighties, too.

    And I really like this:

    ...the whole idea that De Palma is a cold, soulless technician is just infuriating. There is astonishing pain in his work, but he doesn't pander to those who want to be spoonfed emotions. He makes real, complex films."

    The word "pain" seems to be particularly apt when talking about De Palma's work.

    I knew that Rosenbaum wasn't a big fan. In fact, it seems that Kael, of all the American critics, might have been De Palma's only real champion. But I love him, and his work affects me as deeply as anyone's.

    Thanks, Doniphon! Always great having you here.

  11. First of all, Jeff, I'm a huge De Palma fan, so I feel it necessary to point you to the De Palma Blog-A-Thon I hosted in September. It has contributions from many of the writers you follow, and critics like Glenn Kenny and Jim Emerson. I think you'll enjoy it.

    BLOW OUT is my favorite with CARLITO'S WAY just a half a step behind it. So I'm very happy to see it here. That being said (as Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld so eloquently expressed on CYE), right now my favorite film this year has to be CUTTER AND BONE (I'm not calling it CUTTER'S WAY; you can't make me). Passer's film is haunting (especially the music by Jack Nitzsche, and the indelible last frame of the film), and offers Bridges and Heard's best performances.

    So this year:

    2. BLOW OUT
    3. THIEF

    All 4 often duke it out in my mind for first place, so we'll just call this year extremely fluid.

  12. Tony, the De Palma Blog-A-Thon is incredible! I wish I had been active in the blogosphere then; I certainly would have contributed.

    Wow, now I REALLY want to see CUTTER AND BONE. It sounds fantastic!

    Thanks, Tony. Always wonderful having you here!

  13. I'm torn on this year too, along similar lines as John - Raiders of the Lost Ark, Body Heat and Blow Out could all be my selection any given day. In my own countdown, I went with Raiders of the Lost Ark because it's just so much fun and brings back such great memories for me. Body Heat and Blow Out, on the other hand, are just great films - Body Heat for its wonderful noir mystery and Blow Out because of De Palma's great technical skill. If forced to rank my favorites of this year right at this moment I would go with:

    1. Raiders of the Lost Ark
    2. Body Heat
    3. Blow Out
    4. Thief

    I still really want to see Sam's #1 Coup de torchon and have it at the top of my Netflix queue.

    As for my general feelings toward De Palma, I've become a serious fan over the last few months. Thanks to this blog and Doniphon at The Long Voyage Home, I went on a serious De Palma binge recently and have become a huge admirer. Although my rankings of his best differs from the norm, I agree that Blow Out is among his very best films. My own personal #1 likely would be seconded by no one (with the exception of maybe Doniphon, but I think he would also put Blow Out ahead of it) as I love The Black Dahlia. I avoided it due to all of the negative reviews I read but decided to watch it solely on Doniphon's recommendation.

  14. Dave, thanks so much for the wonderful comments. I love that you have recently gone on a De Palma binge and are enjoying his work. I've had many awesome experiences with his work, as well.

    Always a treat to hear from you and excited as you near the final stretch of your countdown! Thanks, Dave.

  15. Jeffrey, the piece I wrote for Tony's excellent blogathon was indeed Blow Out, my longtime favorite of De Palma's work. His talent at working with splitscreens is pretty amazing as we watch Travolta listening to the tape as we watch the scene play out on the same screen. It's a haunting and beautiful work.

    And I agree with Tony that Cutter's Way is another haunting film from that very same year. I've watched it a few times and with very little visual atmosphere (most scenes are in sunshine in the California summer) Passer somehow creates quite a feeling of both dread and menace. It's a terrific movie.

  16. Jeffrey,

    For me the playfulness of Raiders of the Lost Ark and especially the brilliant Le Pont du Nord trump Blow Out. De Palma playfulness is controlled, more cut and dried. He's playing and we're watching.

    With Rivette there's more freedom, more space in the film for us and more fun to be had.

    Anyway, well written and interesting as ever, Jeffrey.
    These succinct little reviews are great.

  17. Greg, great to hear from you. I completely agree with you that no one comes close to De Palma's mastery of the split screen. And I also love how you say that it's a haunting and beautiful work.

    I didn't mention in my post, but the flashback of Travolta's early surveillance job gone awry is also one of the most affecting flashbacks I've ever seen.

    I made the statement that I see BLOW OUT as a bookend for the American New Wave. I've never seen anywhere else where someone thought that. But you articulate perfectly here:

    "Blow Out was a signal post for the cinema, the last one for the seventies. In my mind, maybe in yours as well, it marked the end of the great seventies experiment where production companies and studios paid good cash for writer-directors to put whatever the hell they wanted to up there on the screen, with little interference. The movie has the feel of what came before and none of what came after. Blow Out, like so many of the great works of the seventies, from Chinatown to Taxi Driver, The Last Detail to The French Connection, The Parallax View to Dog Day Afternoon, has an ending that is bleak, despairing and hopeless with its hero coming up on the wrong end. The world, it seems, isn't a very fair place after all. The very next year E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was released and felt like it emitted from another era than Blow Out, separated by decades, not twelve months. The seventies were officially over and the eighties had begun. There would still be all manner of movies with endings both happy and sad but no more with the feel those seventies movies had, at least in the mind of this admittedly nostalgic writer. While many people welcome a respite from movies with bleak endings or find them too hard to watch in the first place I maintain, as have many others including Roger Ebert who probably said it most famously, and I paraphrase, good movies are never depressing, bad movies always are. Like that commuter that I imagined planning to see The Sellout, a movie like Blow Out still cheers me up despite its somber resolution, full of despair and quiet surrender. It cheers me up because great film, great art, always does and even if I don't always know what to say about it I appreciate the gift nonetheless."

    Great addition here, Greg! Thanks so much.

  18. Thanks so much, Stephen! At some point, I need to revisit RAIDERS and see for the first time the Rivette film.

    I disagree a little that De Palma is "playing and we're watching". It sounds like his films are completely distancing whereas I experience as many visceral moments in a De Palma film as I do in anyone's work.

    Always a treat to have you here, Stephen! Thanks.

  19. In his book, "The Dream Life," J. Hoberman refers to BLOW OUT as "the last '60s movie." The chapter is called, "After the Orgy, From BLOW UP to BLOW OUT."

  20. Geoff, that is so fascinating. I had never heard that!

    Thanks so much for commenting here! I really appreciate it.

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