Saturday, June 11, 2011

BLOW OUT (Brian De Palma, 1981)


BLOW OUT is a conspiracy thriller in the direct tradition of REAR WINDOW and THE CONVERSATION. Antonioni's BLOW-UP is an obvious citation, but De Palma's film, while harboring some semblance of cultural critique, is far less indebted to the European art-house than to bold, extravagant American genre cinema. From the gratuitous murders (one of which is so superfluous in its sadism that it lowers the film in my estimation) to the red-white-and-blue color patterning to the jarring camera movements, De Palma communicates loudly in broad visual strokes. His protagonist (John Travolta) used to wire undercover cops before a grisly accident befell the department's best officer, and he is now a sound designer for a low-budget video production company specializing in cheap exploitation films. Witness to a car accident that leads to the death of a political candidate and having recorded what appears to be a gun shot, Travolta finds a way out of the tedium of his low-rent job and back into the thrills that characterized his police-work. If his obsessive quest to revitalize his numbing existence by embarking on a murder-uncovering quest is reminiscent of James Stewart in REAR WINDOW, then the bitter lack of closure and ultimate tragedy of THE CONVERSATION defines the haunting conclusion, in which the pieces never really fall together and an emotional tragedy surmounts the resolution of the mystery. De Palma, as he did when he re-appropriated VERTIGO in OBSESSION, places the themes of REAR WINDOW in a new context. Just as the incapacitated Stewart enlisted love interest Grace Kelly in his exploits to expose the murderer, so too does Travolta send out Nancy Allen to do his dirty work as he listens from a distance. Stewart found his brand of artistic fulfillment in his own backyard, but Travolta overreaches to the tragic misfortune of his lover. And yet Travolta does achieve a form of artistic fulfillment, injecting the auditory remains of the tragic affair into the Z-grade slasher flick he derided at the film's beginning. You could say that this final image of an awe-struck Travolta mesmerized by the final outcome corresponds to De Palma himself, an artist who finds art where camp and sublimity intersect.

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