Blow Out
Fake humanism

by Beth Horning

from Jump Cut, no. 27, July 1982, pp. 6-7
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1982, 2005

In Brian DePalma's BLOW OUT, a movie soundman accidentally records the "accidental death" of a presidential hopeful. Jack (John Travolta) is out taping the night wind when he hears a gunshot, then a blow out, and sees a car crash through a bridge railing and into the water. He manages to rescue the candidate's companion Sally (Nancy Allen), and together they figure out that the death wasn't accidental at all. Instead, a goon, a self-appointed employee of a rival political party, had purposefully shot out the tire. So throughout the rest of the film, he pursues the couple, aiming to destroy the incriminating tape and kill Sally.

We understand why he shows no interest in killing Jack only if we remember that Brian DePalma wrote and directed the film — the same Brian DePalma who wrote and directed last year's brutally misogynist DRESSED TO KILL. DePalma disdains such pedestrian attention to plot logic. It doesn't especially bother him that the character who, given the situation, would be the most endangered is in fact the least endangered. If he recognized the problem at all, he would no doubt point to the obvious derangement of the goon. How can we expect sound reasoning from anyone who can't even remember which VIP's he's supposed to eliminate for which clients? This particular character, you see, cannot be held responsible for his actions. Admittedly, such a character represents a pretty shabby device, but perhaps the end justifies the means. What's important is that the film portray, with consummate artistry, women dead, dying, or in fear for their lives. Also that it make some show of sophistication.

By his own lights, then, DePalma succeeds. Impressive cinematic techniques abound. Sometimes, for example, he establishes scenes with intriguing-but-not-gratuitous point-of-view shots. At other times, he effectively synchs up sound and image. Moreover, BLOW OUT proves itself an allusion-packed blockbuster, full of references to Watergate and Chappaquiddick, to the mystery/thriller genre in general, to BLOW-UP in particular.

Unfortunately those references are pointless. And unfortunately the sheer cluttered volume of them diffuses our interest — as does the volume of Freudian sexual symbols. As an educated audience, already acutely sensitive to the interchangeability of penises, guns, knives, and audiovisual hardware, we sometimes feel DePalma is heavy-handed. (Two lovers take a midnight stroll. A long, ominous microphone looms in the foreground, secretly picking up their conversation. Get it?) The real trouble with BLOW OUT, however, is not so easy to expose. The real trouble has to do with how De Palma gets "beyond" his Freudianism, specifically his preoccupation with voyeurism. How he displays his recently emergent "maturity and humanism." And, more incidentally, how he uses artistry to obscure his less seemly designs. For BLOW OUT is a typically offensive DePalma product after all: its moral claims only make its basic immorality more devastating.

To address DePalma's alleged maturity and humanism, first: John Travolta's function as star image figures prominently here. Obviously, his persona lends a sexy, glamorous aura to the film. But just as crucially, De Palma calls upon other facets of that persona: the contours of this Travolta's new, improved "first adult role" resemble those of earlier, non-adult roles, most memorably the one from SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. Four years ago, Travolta played a young man struggling to transcend a dead-end working class existence. Now he plays a somewhat less young man struggling to uphold unfashionable moral values in a corrupt world. The character Jack, too, seeks a kind of transcendence. Though a maker of trashy, voyeuristic, often pornographic movies, he uses the instruments of his moviemaking for worthy causes. They grant him opportunities for heroism. If he attaches microphones to his friend, he can track her down when her life is threatened. If he happens to record an assassination, he has evidence that may help him to see justice done. He's a spy, yes, but an exceptionally civic minded one. And you'll remember that the Travolta character in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER "really cares" about "social issues" as well, relinquishing his dance trophy to a Puerto Rican couple who deserved it more.

Certainly, I don't mean to imply that the two roles are equivalent, or that Travolta has become the Pat Boone of the 80s. I'm only saying that DePalma relies heavily on his actor's ready-made image — not only for its slick erotic appeal but also for its capacity to whitewash. To put it another way, DePalma capitalizes on the contradictions inherent in that image, then covers his tracks by purporting to have broken it.

The ability to "love deeply," for instance, has ranked foremost among the wholesome attributes assigned to Travolta characters; and BLOW OUT features Jack lavishing tender affection on Sally. Given her status as a woefully underdeveloped character, his love is, needless to say, patronizing to the extreme. He is big-hearted enough to see how charming her vacant stares are, how endearing her child-like gullibility. If she's “not just another bimbo," the difference is only that she's so much cuter than the rest.

But bothersome as this sort of nonsense is, it's not half so bothersome as what it makes possible. It's as if idealizing one woman gives license to DePalma's hatred of women as a whole: when the goon who's after Sally kills two other women as part of his plan, we're expected to be relieved. Since the heroine herself survives, their violent, degrading deaths don't matter. He stabs a receptionist in a ditch; he strangles a prostitute in a restroom stall. He hacks the shape of the liberty bell into the stomachs of both. We're supposed to accept this as part of the series of false alarms that customarily build up suspense in a scary movie.

DePalma's way of presenting all this further reveals his woman-hatred and the unredeemed voyeurism bound up in it. We take on the point of view of the murderer, following the unsuspecting victims as they complete their day-to-day tasks. There's something "titillating" about this in itself. We're Peeping Toms, and Peeping Toms who know what kind of extravagant violation awaits our subjects. As if that weren't enough, DePalma lets us watch the second victim, a prostitute, pick up a trick, administer a blowjob in a phone booth, and proceed to the toilet to "freshen up." Predictably, her end is every bit as arty as it is demeaning, with the sequence's skillful editing and gorgeous photography (rich dark tones, bright red accents): the cinematic technique distracts us from the content's true horror.

Finally, though Sally's own demise does matter tremendously — and though its portrayal is not voyeuristic — I nevertheless believe I must note it here: the most romantic scene in the entire show is played with her corpse. Jack holds it tenderly, despairingly while garish fireworks light up its face (more brilliant cinematography: we have to remind ourselves what's going on). He has rigged her with his best bugging devices, he has traced her cries, but he has arrived moments too late (still more brilliant cinematography: slow motion shots of fast action — à la Peckinpah). Months later, Jack is still under the weather, desultory, fitfully watching the news and replaying the tape of Sally's death-struggles — which, full of heavy breathing and so forth, seems disturbingly sexual. He has dubbed one of her screams into a soundtrack, and he's appropriately bitter when his boss congratulates him on its effectiveness: that “humanity" again.

That scream, as a matter of fact, marks the conclusion of the film's “comic relief" subplot. BLOW OUT's opening sequence is explicit, standard fare pornography, shamelessly tasteless. We look in on several sexually active college women through the eyes of a "pervert" who hangs around a dorm, heart pounding with lust. When at last he confronts one in the shower, we hear a "humorously" un-blood-curdling wail. Cut to the screening room, where an exasperated Jack and his boss berate the mini-talented starlet. This is the starlet whose scream Sally's will replace, as you may have guessed. To return to the opening sequence, I find it paradigmatic of DePalma's rather insidious strategies: he releases a fair amount of pornographic footage, then "takes it back." It was "only a joke." Similarly, he has a goon-run-amok murder women (it "doesn't count," since the character is "crazy"), and he makes the murders "visually exciting" (we can't see the animosity for the art). Then he tries to pass it all off as "romantic" and "human." I'll give him credit for one thing: he does know how to frighten an audience. But what's really frightening about BLOW OUT is the mentality behind it.