You Call That A Scream?: Blow Out (1981)

Brian De Palma often receives criticism from viewers for what they claim to be trite narratives, simplistic filmmaking and emotionless acting.  On a very basic level these critiques hold water, however, to assume these as faults is to misinterpret one of the best American auteurs since Stanley Kubrick.  His 1981 re-envisioning of Antonioni's Blow Up is a film about the burdens of filmmaking, and the importance of subtle details in both filming and experiencing the human existence.  It also doubles as a lens on early eighties Cold War fears and the ever increasing presence of violence and moral degradation in American media.  The film employs unconventional methods of cinematic narrative to tell add intensity and excitement to the traditionally linear narrative.

The film begins with a movie within a movie by employing POV cinematography to show a campy horror film complete with phallic knives, nude college girls and socially deviant psychos.  This brief scene stops to display movie soundman Jack Terry (John Travolta) being ridiculed by a director for providing such a crappy on screen scream.  After a series of arguments over the best choice of sounds for the scene, Jack is sent to acquire a new roll of wind sounds at a local park.  During this outing, Jack records a car accident that leads to a vehicle falling into the local pond.  Jack in a moment of heroism saves the girl in the car, but is unable to save the man in the car as well.  This is a problem, because the man in question is a up and coming politician set to become the next president.  After a series of police interrogations and a talk with the girl Sally (Nancy Allen) Jack is able to leave and listen to his footage of the crash. 

His ear for audio detail leads him to believe that the accident happened because of sabotage and not the acclaimed tire blow out.  Bringing this to the attention of authorities results in both Jack and Sally becoming targets of the hit man from the original job, Burke, who is played brilliantly by a young John Lithgow.  Through a series of wire-taps, audio/visual comparisons and chase scenes Jack is able to get Sally in contact with Burke with the hopes of catching him in attempted murder thus proving his theory about the assassination.  Unfortunately, due to a brief loss of audio contact Jack looses Sally and Burke, leading to Sally's murder while Jack is forced to listen to it on headphones.  In a somber closing scene Jack has decided to employ Sally's real screams of death into the film leading to the director proclaiming them to be his best offerings yet.  It is a true statement on the sacrifice for perfection in filmmaking.

The film is a step-by-step demonstration in audio editing for film prior to the introduction of Garage Band and other computer based editing software.  The recording, editing, and dubbing of sound are tedious jobs and Jack spends a good bit of this film performing these acts.  However, De Palma is careful to show how intricate sound is to film, employing the use of ambient sound, off camera dialogue and even a non-diagetic sound to emphasize emotion.  What is perhaps the most brilliant directorial choice for De Palma in relation to sound is when he chooses not to employ it, as in the slow-motion skyline shot of fireworks exploding as Sally dies in Jack's arms.  It is quiet, poetic and tragic and a time that visual suggests celebration.  To suffice, De Palm understands sound and it shows throughout the film.

Blow Out is yet another great offering from Criterion, and a film I would likely have never viewed had it not been for their releasing it.  I highly suggest grabbing a copy soon, preferably in the current Barnes and Nobles half-off sale.

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