by Jacquelin Bautista and Beth Horning
Cut, no. 29, February 1984, pp. 65-66
Intent and effect in Blow Out
I would like to request you allow me to publish a comradely rebuttal to the review of BLOW OUT that you printed in your No. 27 issue. I am interested here not in defending DePalma, who is a worthy representative of Hollywood misogyny and bourgeois ideology, but in how we look at individual films, particularly in the sense of intent and effect. I would like to thank you in advance for your consideration of my review.
During 1976 in the city where I was living, the local garbage collection agency painted all its run-down, fly-specked trucks red, white and blue in honor of the Bicentennial. Their patriotism was quite real — being a successful monopoly they had good reason to love Amerika. However, the effect of their "homage" was quite the opposite. The trucks were hilarious and anyone with even a drop of contempt for what this country and its 200 years of exploitation, rape and genocide stood for got a good laugh as well as a way to focus their disgust.
Whatever DePalma's intent was in making BLOW OUT (he has said he wanted to portray the insanity and uncontrollability of an assassination conspiracy), the effect is to leave the audience with a strong sense of the rot and utter unredeemability of this society/system, as well as the stupidity and hypocrisy of patriotism. DePalma does not accomplish this accidentally, like the garbage company. He is a nihilist and cynically accepts the offerings of this society for his art while revealing its gangrene. But if his intent is to show us why we should be nihilists and cynics, he fails. What we get, the effect, is a nihilistic attitude about the U.S.A. which is right on target. There is nothing worth saving or reforming about this system.
He uses a Bicentennial Theme ("Liberty Day") throughout the film as a backdrop for Jack's odyssey into utter demoralization. Every scene is drenched in red, white and blue, a visual assault blended with really outrageous in-joke types of parody of scenes from Hitchcock and Antonioni. The only scene that is not red, white and blue is the blow-out scene itself, a murky, muddy green, which stands in contrast to the pure and crisp green of Antonioni's murder scene in an English park.
This visual assault on Old Glory is best illustrated in the scene where the conspirator murders the prostitute in the toilet. Her shoe, dropped from her hanged, strangled body, is red, the toothbrush on the floor next to it is blue and the toilet paper, carefully and consciously unrolled next to them is white. A grisly joke, but certainly effective.
To further carry out this theme, DePalma gives us images like this. The conspirator must cover up his eventual murder of Sally by making it look as if a madman were going around murdering a certain type of woman (the first time we see his first victim, we are led to believe she's Sally herself). Looking up for inspiration as he knives her, he sees a liberty bell in lights on a nearby building, advertising "Liberty Day." He mutilates the body by carving a liberty bell on it — a fitting symbol of the way this country has mutilated women here and all over the world in the name of democracy and freedom.
Yet another of these terrible images is the peeling, rotting mural on the side of Jack's apartment building: Ben Franklin signing the Declaration of Independence. The camera lingers long and lovingly on the decay of the mural. And another is Jack careening into a parade on Liberty Day itself (the climax of the chase ends as this holiday is ending) with his Landrover. Pom-pom girls, flags, scatter right and left. The Landrover eventually ends up in the display window of a department store, dummies set up to portray, "I regret I have only one life to give …," etc.. I could go on, but I think I've made my point, and so has DePalma.
So here this director sets us up with a sort of Kennedy/Chapaquidick assassination. Jack knows the truth — or thinks he does. Actually all he really knows is that the blow-out was no accident. He doesn't really want to know the whole story. Jack is a crusading reformist. He thinks this country is just fine if we could only fix it up, arrest all the bad guys, throw the light of day on this or that gangster/conspiracy. He is an idealist, full of illusions both about the system and its operations. He works with a pornographer because — well, he just has to make a living. But he is also an artist, a sound artist (sound voyeur?), with a love for his work and a cockeyed, idealist belief that his art can change the system. The point, of course, is that the system is not worth changing any more than it is, at bottom, changeable.
Sally, on the other hand, is one of these famous U.S.-style pragmatists. She is also stupid. She dreams of the big time, of Hollywood and the movies, but she also knows "making it" requires some pretty venal, disgusting actions. Sally is typical of the small-time hustler, fed on the crumbs of imperialism, cute, likeable and ultimately a kind of social base, along with Jack, for big time hustlers. Why does Jack care for her? Good question. It seems like it's an implausibility which spoils the script, something various critics have noted. But consider that Jack has saved her, and he needs her to go on saving people. Our little knight on a white horse cannot operate without people to save. Sally is irresistible for him. And she gets squashed like a bug in the end, caught up in a situation she never understands, where bigger forces are operating and she accidentally gets in the way.
Jack, who is never directly a target for the conspirator simply because all the conspirator has to do is erase his tapes and make him out to be a "conspiracy nut," dies just as surely as Sally does in the end — a moral, political and ideological death. He has utterly degenerated. Whereas before pornography was "a living," which he excused with his lurid past in police work and his ongoing desire to reform, now he has sunk so low he can use the voice of his dying lover to make a buck. The last scene with Jack is not humanistic. He is loaded on grass or whatever, greasy, exhausted and utterly repulsive. (Incidentally, DePalma's use of Travolta in this film was very interesting. Instead of the lovable Barbarino with his thick hair, we get a bag-eyed, greasy, slovenly man anxiously approaching the end of his youth and his dreams.)
Another undercurrent penetrating and guiding the plot is the utter anarchy of the system. Not only is it unreformable, it is uncontrollable. The bourgeoisie, or a section of it, unleashes a psychotic, as they often do, to embarrass or ruin an opponent. Unleashed the madman goes overboard and accidentally kills the guy. The chain of anarchic insanities begins. The one rule is that there is no rule. Anyone who has looked a little into the Kennedy assassination understands what DePalma is trying to say. A conspiracy is not a neat recipe, the CIA is not always in control. In fact, the only thing any conspirator can do is escalate it, until you get 3, 10, 100 unexplainable murders, whatever. Remember when Kennedy sent in a few Green Berets to mop up the mess the French made of things in Vietnam? From that decision to the 1975 debacle at the airport in Saigon is a story so twisted, so weird, and so typical of capitalism/imperialism that it makes “our" conspiracies look simple. And its so crazy no one can believe it.
One more very important point: DePalma's misogyny. Both the shower scene at the beginning of the film and the fireworks scene where Sally is killed are direct parodies of Alfred Hitchcock movies. The shower scene, of course, is from PSYCHO; the fireworks are from TO CATCH A THIEF, where they were used to symbolize sexual surrender and orgasm for a prudish 1950s audience. Alfred Hitchcock's misogyny was very gentle, if misogyny can be said to be gentle. Look at PSYCHO — it is nothing if not utterly brutal, hideous misogyny, from the murder in the shower to the mummified corpse of dear old mom, the bottom line on Norman's insanity. But Hitchcock is a master! Hitchcock makes classics, for cryssakes! And DePalma parodies them, exposing — whether he means to or not — for all their worth how vile they are at bottom. PSYCHO is nothing but a pornographer's dream. And Jack is no Cary Grant, able to save the heroine at every turn. (Remember the last scene in NORTH BY NORTHWEST when Eva Marie Saint, literally hanging from a cliff, is ready to give up and drop until Mr. Wonderful offers her — gasp — marriage?) None of this means De Palma is a crusader for women's rights(!) Certainly BLOW OUT has scenes that are gratuitously graphic in their depiction of hurting women. But overall, what the film is about is a nasty portrait of Amerika, and its apologists, if-onlyists, its politicians, its rot and corruption and hypocrisy, whatever — and that is right on target.
I'm grateful to Jacquelin Bautista for her thoughtful response to my review of BLOW OUT, She hasn't managed to change my mind about the film, but I find her ideas interesting. They have led me to clarify my own.
First of all, I will concede that DePalma's cinematography does evoke an overwhelming sense of the United States’ purification, as she has shown. I also agree with her that DePalma portrays our country's inherent anarchy, which manifests itself regularly in conspiracies of one kind or another. But I contend that, far from galvanizing us into radical awareness, he actually cheapens serious social criticism of the sort that Bautista offers. For he taps into a level of national consciousness at which, ironically, the recognition of irredeemable corruption hardly matters: at this level, such recognition just alienates us. Either that or it calls up what is most deadly in ourselves as society's products.
Take the prostitute murder scene, for example. The redness of the shoe, the whiteness of the toilet paper, the blueness of the toothbrush not withstanding, do viewers honestly ponder U.S. domestic policy as they watch this woman writhe orgasmically in her death throes? Or do they mourn Viet Nam, reflecting that conspiracies engender uncontrollable paranoia in the Pentagon just as surely as in the minds of maniac stranglers? I don't think so. No, people who have even an ounce of respect for women look away in disgust, as I do; on the other hand, people who, like DePalma himself, lack that crucial ounce of respect use implicit "social critique" as an excuse — an excuse to indulge themselves in the scene's ill-disguised sadism and voyeurism. They can tell themselves that they aren't "really" enjoying the brutality, that they are instead engaging in a respectable intellectual endeavor. In other words, they can comfortably sneer at the U.S. while reveling in the same destructive energy that has made the U.S. worth sneering at.
Similarly, the liberty bell hacked into the stomachs of the other victims is less a "symbol" than a violation, pure and simple. Moreover, a mutilated and decomposing human being differs significantly from a faded and decomposing mural of Benjamin Franklin's signing the Declaration of Independence; it is further evidence of the film's hopelessly bourgeois mentality that the two can be presented as equivalent images.
Let me now take up the issue of Jack's progressive disillusionment and demoralization: consider the sheer predictability of this development. He's stupid, his girlfriend is stupid, their relationship is stupid, and everything they do, both together and separately, is informed by a profound stupidity. Bautista herself admits that Jack attempts to "expose" an assassination without any thought of figuring out the whole story; more importantly, he does so with minimal attention to protecting himself and Sally. So even if he comes up against the system, he doesn't challenge it in a way that tells us much. It's almost as if we're witnessing someone's failure to come in out of the rain.
But if we can compute Jack's fate from the first fifteen minutes of footage, what keeps anyone in the theater for the remaining hour and a half? To understand the answer to this question, we must understand that BLOW OUT is not a drama but a ritual: Jack's predetermined decline plays itself out solely in order to initiate transports of synthetic emotion in us. And here, of course, I am maintaining that the last scene with Jack is "humanistic." He's stoned and disheveled, but that's because of his titanic grief, his extremes of suffering. How else to explain his series of troubled, distant facial expressions? The lengthy shot of him on the steps, alone, waxing misty-eyed at the tape of Sally's final screams? The heart-rending bitterness he displays when his boss congratulates him on the effectiveness of those screams, which have gone into the company's latest porno flick? In short, DePalma has merely constructed a plot and characters, which however lifeless will absorb the artificially elevated sentiment he pumps into them; Jack's psychic odyssey cannot stand as a statement because a statement requires some possibility for thought — a possibility DePalma has neglected for the greater good of "feelings."
As to the Hitchcock allusions — I do insist that they are allusions, not parodies. What elements of the BLOW OUT fireworks scene could anyone conceivably interpret as parody? The lighting, the atmosphere, the action, everything about it is unabashedly romantic, every bit as romantic as the symbolic sexual climax in TO CATCH A THIEF. And the shower scene in PSYCHO is so obviously misogynist anyway — how could a director "unmask" it? There was never a mask to begin with When DePalma refers to Hitchcock, he doesn't "reveal" anything at all; he borrows the genteel and not-so-genteel misogyny, in much the same way that he borrows the artistic legitimacy. DePalma does little more than secure his own place in a rich historical tradition of woman hating; hence my insistence on "allusion" as the proper word choice.
In conclusion, I'm not finding fault with Bautista's suggestion that a film may be greater than the sum of its director's intentions. On the contrary, I'm pretty excited about the idea, since it gives us a much-needed creative way to look at some films we would have to dismiss otherwise. We deserve all the good, meaningful films we can get; who cares if they become good and meaningful in our own eyes rather than starting out good and meaningful in the minds of their directors? Unfortunately, though, I don't think BLOW OUT is salvageable. It remains every bit as disgusting in my eyes as it must have been in DePalma's mind.