PERSONAL EFFECTS & PEEP ART
(GUN SHOTS / GLASS BREAKS)
It shoots through the black—a pillar of light, suffused with motes dancing on corkscrews of cigarette smoke, like tiny pixels riding the radial waves to form a whole—like the individual frames of film being shot through with this light from the booth above, transcending their small stillness to become moving images dancing large upon the screen.
You sit in a screening room, watching this series of disconnected dailies, piecing together a full picture from these unspooling spirals of film.
Frames 48060 – 51840:
You see a bullet—thick and phallic, blown up and pixel-blurred—as the cover for the Fall-Winter 1967 issue of Film Comment. The issue’s twin subjects are two documentaries about the life and death of JFK, and the power film has to mediate that life and death, to assemble the disparate sequences of a man’s existence from a heartbreaking and conspiratorial tangle into a narratively cohesive whole.
And you see all of that exists in a glossy magazine that lies between the legs of a woman, naked and voluptuous, waiting to fuck.
You see her via an overhead shot, a god shot of total control, as her partner arranges her bored and napping body upon a bed, directs her, obsessively magic-marking on her nudity the entry and exit wounds the pictured bullet supposedly wrought through JFK’s body. He licks and sucks her tits, her neck, to move and manipulate her before he screams and looks directly up into the camera, sweatily asserting that the single bullet could not have been enough to kill the president, glass-shattering the apparent conspiracy just as he shatters the fourth wall of the film and our illusory relationship with it.
Greetings from Greetings, the second of two films released by director Brian De Palma in 1968. The first was his debut, Murder a la Mod, an erotically tumescent, time-fractured murder mystery, while Greetings was a scathing political satire about the growing rot of plasticity within the counter-culture movement, featuring budding pornographer-voyeurs (“You’ve heard of ‘Pop Art’ right? Well this is ‘Peep Art’”) and assassination obsessives infesting the heart of “the revolution.” In a bloodied year of political assassinations claiming the lives of MLK and RFK, these ’68 twins act as both the Big Bang for De Palma’s 60 years of professional filmmaking, as well as the bifurcated poles that split-screened his work into schizoid halves—Greetings begat the Godardian comedies that defined his arthouse early work, and Murder seeded the by-contrast contradictory Hitchcockian terrors that made him (in)famous thereafter.
And here, within Greetings, is the central image of his dichotomized career—a whirlpool of Zaprudic anxiety, libidinous cinegraphic pleasures, unrelenting attention to violence, the illusory tease of control that voyeurism-as-cinema and cinema-as-voyeurism can offer, and the brutal thrust of reality that shatters the illusion by the end.
Frames 73203 – 87600:
It’s 1972. On screen the title card erupts for Get To Know Your Rabbit, De Palma’s first studio film, released the same summer Democratic presidential candidate George Wallace is shot and paralyzed by a would-be assassin, helping pave the way for Nixon’s reelection and thus strangling whatever hope was left from an already disillusioned and broken counter-culture. Months earlier, similarly disgusted with the increasingly entropic “revolution” as a cinematic subject, De Palma capitalizes on the surprise success of incendiary Greetings sequel Hi, Mom! by taking the mainstream Rabbit gig at Warner Bros. Something’s different, though—something’s wrong. Despite some cinematic flourishes, the once-biting humor is toothless, the typically electric/ironic energy a low hum.
Because this isn’t De Palma. He’s lost the one thing most important to him: control. The film’s lead actor, Tommy Smothers, doesn’t understand De Palma’s visuals-driven, substance-via-style methodology and disappears for several days in frustration; Warner Bros., backing its star, does the Unthinkable and takes the film away from the young director. He’s barred from the set, and in a final double-act of humiliation, much of Rabbit is re-shot by the studio, and the entirety is edited and released without him, paralyzing De Palma’s vision and breaking his heart.
Frames 0001 – 1880:
Black and white footage, shaky, handheld—a home movie. A teenage boy sitting in a darkened kitchen, unaware he’s being watched. His name is Brian De Palma and he is 15 years old. Still three years away from the evening he will first watch Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock’s Technicolor nightmare of spiraling obsession and erotic terror, when his path will eternally shift from would-be scientist to will-be film director. He is a tinkerer, a science student, finding comfort in the rigid logic of the small radio he has vivisected upon the dining table. There is a calm in seeing something’s interiors, in having the power to disassemble and understand a thing and—most thrilling of all—reassemble it even better than it was before. And so it is here, embittered and powerless and ignored by his cold, brutish surgeon of a father who is more and more absent these long nights in which his mother cries upstairs for reasons Brian only faintly understands; it is here, amidst that turmoil, that Brian De Palma discovers control.
Frames 90808 – 150299:
You see a series of trailers now, a kinky rush of De Palma films from the 1970s. The scratched ad for De Palma’s first thriller, 1972’s Sisters, crackles across the screen. Following the degrading failure of Get to Know Your Rabbit, De Palma cannily retreated to populist fare and, eternally the science fair tinkerer, surgically disassembled two of Hitchcock’s greatest thrillers, Rear Window and Psycho, pulling apart the meticulous gears that undergird Hitchcockian cinemagrammar to understand how they function. He discovers what motors the genre more than anything else is control—the director’s control of what the audience sees on screen, and of their visceral reactions to it. He then rebuilt these clockwork innards around his own interests—voyeurism, sex, violence, the ways in which media shapes reality, the control and comforts of filmmaking—to make Sisters, a lurid Psycho riff concerning seductive, murderous twins (and the peeping tom victims who fail to stop them) that becomes his first true hit.
More trailers follow: 1974’s Phantom of the Paradise, a mercilessly cynical, post-Rabbit rock musical retelling of Faust that plays like De Palma’s final countercultural comedic gasp, an ego-bruised vision of how art is fated/faded to entropic oblivion as all things trend shitward. Following a brief break in 1975 (the same year two assassination attempts are made on Gerald Ford) comes the twinned trailers for 1976’s Obsession and Carrie—the former a woozy, Paul Schrader-penned Vertigo reworking about the ways in which we memorialize those we fail to save; the latter a De Palma-ized reworking of Stephen King’s epistolary potboiler into a split-screened, slo-motioned phantasma of pop horror that blockbustered De Palma into the upper echelon of Hollywood power and—most importantly—artistic control.
Now the ad for 1978’s hit film The Fury, a rewiring of Carrie’s telekinetic teenager plot into an action-thriller in which hero Kirk Douglas is powerless to save his son from a government conspiracy. Then 1980’s Dressed to Kill, a borderline Psycho remake and sordid adult masterwork of horror dropped into the world of NYC sex work, bored housewives, and killer therapists. It’s a film that stands as the culmination of De Palma’s self-created sub-genre of ‘70s pulp shockers: powerfully erotic films steeped in vertiginous aesthetics—the split screens ironically juxtaposing information, the long tracking shots in which a character is unknowingly followed by another, rigorously gorgeous (or gorgeously rigorous) setpieces of shocking violence—while also acting as recursive texts of film criticism, inquiries into the power of voyeurism, and terrifying visions of the ultimate impotence and failure: the loss of control.
With these films, De Palma was surging into the 1980s as a black-humored wry trickster and brilliant pop auteur of provocative American gialli that were defiantly adult, difficult, dangerous, increasingly successful, and sexy. Until he wasn’t.
Set to follow Dressed to Kill with an adaptation of the non-fiction novel Prince of the City, about an NYPD cop who wires himself to record his fellow officers breaking the law, De Palma spent over a year researching and writing, pushing himself to make a more “serious” film that would utilize all his gifts to the furthest extremes of their limits, transcending genre into a realm of pure cinema art. Like Get to Know Your Rabbit, this bid for mainstream prestige would be another film for Warner Bros., another film within the system. And once again, his spirit was broken. Unwilling to wait a year for De Palma’s star (Robert De Niro) to be available for filming, Warner Bros. wrenched the film from De Palma’s grasp and gave it to Sidney Lumet instead. Impotent in the face of absolute studio power, he was left with nothing. You cannot view the trailer for his Prince of the City, because it will never exist.
Frames 1881 – 2875:
Handheld black and white again. Teenage De Palma again, though a little older and much angrier. His father is having a series of affairs that are driving Brian’s mother to mental dissolution. He feels all the control in his life slipping through his fingers as he watches his father destroy his family. As De Palma sees it, he has only one of two shots he can take. In his hands is his .22 rifle, with which he plans to murder his father. Or, he muses, he can learn to build a video camera, film and confront his father cheating, and use the filmic evidence to allow his mother a divorce. Assassination, or peep art. De Palma makes the most significant choice of his life, and is at once saved from one kind of obsessive darkness only to be swallowed by another.
Frames 89788 – 90808:
You see a dark screening room just like this one. In it sit two men, watching their own screen. The older man is a director named The Maestro (Kirk Douglas). The younger is a college student, Denis (Keith Gordon). They’re watching daily rushes, the onslaught of disconnected footage, the endless frames of film. Trying to make sense of the jumble, trying to assemble a narrative.
Prior to filming Dressed to Kill, De Palma teaches a filmmaking course at Sarah Lawrence College, where he writes and directs a film with his students. The result is Home Movies, an autobiographical meta-comedy about The Maestro (De Palma the adult) teaching Denis (De Palma the young man) and his college classmates how to make a movie. Their film-within-a-film’s story: a young man who discovers his father is cheating on his mother, and ultimately decides to build a camera to catch him. And while Home Movies is not particularly high quality in its execution, what it reveals in its whirling hall of mirrors about its creator is fascinating: that it was not the central trauma of his youth that shaped him; rather, it was the means by which he documented the betrayal that mediated the artist, and man, he would become.
By stalking his father, Brian De Palma (and Keith Gordon’s Denis, and Gordon’s character in Dressed to Kill, who records his mother’s killer) learned the power voyeurism conveys upon the voyeur. How the technology of storytelling could be used to shape the flow of his own story. He also learned the flattening pain of it—as Denis discovers in the film, to be a voyeur is to centralize an Other and thus become “an extra in your own life.” Just as all of De Palma’s films are playful/painful Brechtian exercises in building elaborate, immersive illusions and then ripping them down to force reality upon the viewer, the act of voyeurism is inherently powerful yet juxtaposed with an ultimate inability, and failure, to engage.
Or so perhaps The Maestro worries as he slaps a sleeping Denis in the face in their screening room, shouting “you’re zonked out in your own rushes? You realize how dangerous that is?…You put yourself to sleep, almost for good. Forever!…Give me something to work with—comedy, romance, action—something that the average schmuck on the street can identify with. Something that’ll sell!”
Frames 150299 – 300000:
Projected on the bright wall, you see a beautiful woman walk through a graveyard, unaware that she is being followed, that in a few moments she will be killed.
It’s the climactic scene from Murder a la Mod, Brian De Palma’s 1968 debut film. Except it isn’t 1968 now. It’s 1981. And what we’re seeing is a sequence from De Palma’s Blow Out, in which a character is watching Murder a la Mod on television, a sequence in which De Palma the student and De Palma the humiliated Maestro interlink via their films. Facing his greatest personal and professional crisis, De Palma reached back to his youth with the inclusion of Murder—and reached even further to the moment as a teenager, when he built his camera, and in a moment of desperation found comfort in his peep art.
In 1981, the year Ronald Reagan was nearly killed by an assassin’s bullet, Brian De Palma would respond to the shattering loss of Prince of the City by taking a shot in the dark with Blow Out (originally titled Personal Effects), his most disturbing, most penetrating, bitterly angry and personal film. Blow Out, a testament to the power and powerlessness of the voyeurism that shaped his life in the formative years between which he followed and filmed his father, and witnessed the thriller Vertigo for the very first time. Blow Out, the singular moment in which the split in the screen between De Palma’s obsessions and his aesthetics, between the politics of his early films and the sleaze-noir terror of his erotic thrillers finally fell, merging in a high-low monument of cinematic purity that interrogates our need for comfort from movie narratives while offering that same succor in its devastatingly beautiful irresolution.
“NOBODY’S GONNA FUCK ME THIS TIME”
(HEARTBEATS / CLOCK TICKING)
Blow Out begins with a crude and sleaze-smirked joke, one that spirals dissolutely downward into a gutpunchline of an ending so unfathomably bleak in its impact, so violently cynical in its implications about the power (and lack thereof) of cinema as an art form, as to achieve a state of almost cosmic horror in its brutalist cruelty. It is a string of lurid and candied visions, of erotic terrors and elaborate cinemachinations that winds slack around its viewer’s neck, tracing the breathless thrill of moviemaking discovery and the sordid decline of American politics before wrenching so pitilessly taut and throat-collapsingly tight as to render all but a strangled scream an utter failure.
Blow Out is a story that begins and ends with a scream.
Heartbeats in the darkness, and then light floods in with an impossibly loud raw-eared roar of pure indefinable sound, so much overwhelming sound, paralyzing even, and a POV emerges—literally—as we follow out of the darkness a sexy blonde woman and her date to her college dorm, stalking as they step into the gore-red neon-lit warmth of the building and slam the door shut, pushing us back into the dark where the cacophonic howl of sound becomes clearer the longer we listen: tree-whipping winds, our own odd and ragged growl-breath, generic cokespoon disco pounding from within the building and a haunting, circular melody of ominous dread coiling just beneath it, like how our own footsteps lurk beneath the flatfooted crunchfalls of the rent-a-cop we see skulking in the bushes outside the dorm windows and watching semi-nude coeds writhe to the music just before we raise a long, thick knife whose metal glint throbs with vitality in the moonlight and sink it deep into his back, over and over, murdering the voyeur for reflecting our own shameful need back at us, the need to see and to know the story happening within, and drifting to another window we see her, the blonde in her room, athletically fucking her man into the ground with her window wide open while her tremulous and less-than-convincing moans ricochet throughout the room until she nearly sees us and we run, we run inside the building, it’s too late now and we have to see more, see it all, we run down the halls as the disco beat pulses throughout like an erect and vital vein, carrying with it other sounds like roommates arguing, other couples fucking, one woman we see masturbating with her bedroom door ridiculously wide open as her moans flood our ears and our calm returns and our power grows because we are watching, we are in control, and we slide into the communal bathroom and there, in the fogged, green-tile shower stall is the blonde, caressing her body and washing the fuck we just watched from her skin, and the disco fades and the circuitous, creepy delirium of that horrible melody rises again as a counterpoint to the rushroar whoosh of the shower while we pull back the plastic mildewed sheen of the curtain with one hand and we raise the hard and lengthy blade to sink it deep into the soft curves of her body and it is now, right now, that she turns and sees us and out from her mouth falls a comically limpid “aaawawawawawa” laryngeal tremor that sounds more like an enthusiastic yawn than it does a scream, so much so that we think—
–“God, that scream is terrible,” Philadelphia sound engineer Jack Terry (John Travolta) chuckles from within the cigarette smoke-clouded screening room, watching the assembly of Coed Frenzy, the fifth Z-grade slasher film his one-man sound company, Personal Effects, has provided sound for in two years (following Blood Bath, Blood Bath 2, Bad Day at Blood Beach, and Bordello of Blood). As the film’s director panics next to Jack in horror at the blonde actress’s less-than-stellar vocal chops (smothered as they are beneath the tits he hired her for), we as an audience are wrenched from the hallucinatory single-shot Steadicam illusion of Coed Frenzy—the film we think is Blow Out when the movie begins—and into the “reality” of Blow Out proper. And in that way, the film’s opening sequence of jagged juxtaposition sets up the entirety of Blow Out’s structure in microcosm: a story steeped in ever-increasing levels of Byzantine artifice and cinematic unreality, positively awash in illusory movieworld theatrics, and only at the end does Brian De Palma tear us from the fantasy he has crafted and drown us in the bitter truth of reality.
This introductory sequence is a code key to the entire film, one that extends beyond the Brechtian split from illusion to reality. In Travolta’s smirking, exhausted performance (the very best of his varied career), we immediately recognize a proficient technician who’s grown bone-jaded with his profession. Further, as the sunken-eyed director instructs his editor to roll back the footage to the scream, and then to drop each individual sound effect except for the flaccid cry—“Music A,” “Music B,” “Footsteps,” “Breathing,” “Heartbeat,” “Shower,” “Curtain,” etc.—so all but the warbling, illusion-breaking yowl is heard when the scene plays back, we’re privy to the assembly of visual narrative, the hows and whys of filmmaking techniques and the syncing of sound and vision that can be used to craft illusions or convey truths. And when the director demands Jack ditch his library of stale effects for more exciting sounds, including—and most especially—to find a much better scream, we find ourselves propelled on a vulgar hero’s journey of sorts. Even the film’s title card provides eerie prescience and secret meaning throughout the film’s remainder: as the title whips across the screen, beneath the rustling sound of Jack’s generic library wind, we can hear the squealing of brakes, the percussive dreadblast of a gunshot, and the most haunting scream in cinema history…submerged elements which coil taut into a mood of inevitability to form an A/V roadmap of the macabre and harrowing madness to come.
All of it packed into the first five minutes of a movie, wound and spun and Vertigo-spiraled just beneath the surface, as if to hint at all the truths and beauties and horrors that can be layered and hidden, buried even, within a few frames of film.
To watch Blow Out is to watch an artist confronting his deepest fears using the techniques and technology of the medium that had previously offered him salvation and the ability to wrest control from chaos. That artist is John Travolta’s Jack Terry. That artist is also Brian De Palma.
Recording his father taught him the power of the voyeur’s cinema; designing a decade’s worth of arch and unhinged thrillers interlaced with dizzyingly/dazzlingly visual set pieces of murderous mayhem soaked in deliciously endorphic filmmaking taught him how the voyeur’s cinema has the power to make audiences look at what he wanted them to see and how he wanted them to see it. To direct them as much as his films. And what De Palma saw, and defiantly wanted his audience to see as both a warning and an indictment, was the drain-circling, atavistic degradation of art and culture—while using the immediately decaying tools of art and culture to ring the alarm bells and focus the audience’s attention.
A decade before, De Palma witnessed the encroaching nihilism and commercialization of his generation’s desperate movement to save itself—“When I made Greetings, I found myself on talk shows, talking about the revolution, and I realized I had become just another piece of software that they could sell, like aspirin or deodorant. It didn’t make any difference what I said. I was talking about the downfall of America. Who cares? In my experience, what happened to the revolution is that it got turned into a product, and that is the process of everything in America. Everything is meshed into a product”—and that horror multiplied with his termination from Get to Know Your Rabbit, before unleashing itself in a moment of terrible clarity: standing in an elevator, and hearing that the ear-piercing tune playing was a Muzakification of The Beatles’ cinematic epic about the mutability of reality, “A Day in the Life.” That single moment generated his Phantom of the Paradise, in which an artist literally makes a deal with the Devil to preserve his music, only to hear it survive in increasingly terrible bubblegum incarnations chewed by a mindless crowd. It’s a rock ‘n roll fable in which De Palma directed his audience to witness a fate worse than selling your soul: a world buying back your commodified cultural revolution as elevator (to hell) music. But no one cared; the film died a quick death in theaters.
In 1981, De Palma was driven by the same, singular fury, now compounded by his terrible failure to make Prince of the City, the film he intended to be the defining artistic statement that would prove his seriousness as an auteur. He felt the generation that had turned its own revolution into something to be sold, growing fat on couches while watching peeping tom game shows like Candid Camera, refused to look at the world around them, at the political machinations and murders hinting at power structures operating at levels beyond their imaginations, and thus needed to be directed to see those powers-that-be rendering them impotent, whether those powers were a corrupt government or simply an impatient bottom-line-based movie studio. De Palma wanted to craft a cinematic magic bullet that would zigzag through it all, savaging power at every level and making such a percussive bang when firing from the barrel of his camera that everyone would hear. And in a moment altogether fitting for the hyper-referential De Palma filmography, the design for this bullet came from a merging of his cinema with that of a previous master:
While editing sound on his previous film, Dressed to Kill, De Palma was sorting through the “fill” in his effects tracks (“fill” being the industry colloquialism for random strips of film laced between individual sound effects on a reel) and found, wedged between sounds like “knife slices” and “woman screams” was a strip of film from David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. One of the greatest films ever made (and a De Palma favorite) was being recycled like trash and used to separate the sounds of salacious fucking and shower-killing in his sleaze-epic erotic thriller. Not only did this reinforce his obsession with the idea of all things trending towards commercialized dissolution, it jacketed another layer of lethality to the bullet he was honing—the notion that something of life-shattering importance could be buried beneath the surface of a film, between the sounds.
Jack’s alternately tawdry and tragic hero’s journey begins with him on a bridge at night, recording various ambient sounds to add to his stale library, when he witnesses and inadvertently records the sound of a car careening into the creek below after suffering a blow out. Diving deep below the surface he finds the vehicle with a dead and facecrushed Governor McRyan behind the wheel (touted by the evening news earlier that night as a politician with a 62% chance of replacing the incumbent President of the United States in the upcoming election). Drowning next to McRyan is a young woman, Sally (Nancy Allen), who is decidedly not his wife, and whom Jack rescues. Later, at the hospital, the two charge the film with an innocent charm and hotshot overload of chemistry that—rare for De Palma—feels driven less by a need for sexual connection than by a simple need for connection, a need to sync.
It’s also at the hospital that Jack senses the earliest rumblings of a plot, a sinisterial spiral of silence spreading outward from the blown-out hole of Governor McRyan’s tire. Recounting his experience to a dismissive detective, he asserts he heard a “bang” before the blow out that drove McRyan’s car into the creek. The detective insists it was some kind of magic echo occurring before the tire popped, despite Jack’s protestations (“I know what an echo sounds like, I’m a sound man”), before also suggesting that Jack may not have actually found Sally inside the car (“look, it can get pretty dark under eight feet of water”). Already, in its incipient stages, a knee jerk narrative begins to form, a cover-up by players on all sides: the police want a clean and simple story rather than anything more complex to solve; Governor Ryan’s people immediately insist that Jack stay quiet about Sally as to not tarnish McRyan’s sterling reputation; even the President’s people seem to be involved and deeply interested in keeping the entire affair muted. An entire generation of hippies and iconoclasts and protestors have devolved into a cabal of yuppies who can’t be bothered, with a cop at one point shouting to Jack “Nobody wants to know. Nobody cares. No sordid details. No political assassination. Accident! This guy’s dead, for Christ’s sake, none of this shit’s gonna do him any good now!”
Pressed into a corner, Jack relents. But when a pain-killered Sally sleepily asks him to sneak her out of medical observation (“I don’t like to be observed,” she mutters; it’s a line that in a leering De Palma film is all but an incantation of doom), they escape and hide from the press in a cheap motel done up in gaudy red, white, and blue for Philly’s upcoming Liberty Day celebration. As Sally sleeps beneath a white wall papered with criss-crossing red and blue lines that increasingly resemble a trap, Jack sits by a rain-jeweled window bookended with blue curtains thick as funeral shrouds and shot through with neon red lighting like a haze of electric blood, listening to his recording of the night’s American horror over and over again. Playing and replaying, rewinding and pausing, the noises he assembled now creating a film in his head. And each time, before the blow out, hidden between the sounds of owls and wind and water and frogs, buried in the mix but still clear, is the single most important noise recorded of the decade, if not century: the percussion of a gunshot from the dark.
It’s of little surprise that the ostensible hero of De Palma’s Blow Out wouldn’t be an intrepid political reporter, a rogue CIA analyst, or an anti-establishment writer as in the Hollywood political thrillers that came before it; nor is he the sleek fashion photographer or nebbishly icy surveillance professional of 1966’s Blow-Up and 1974’s The Conversation, respectively, the two classic films De Palma disassembled, studied, and then intricately rebuilt around his obsessions and furies when making the superior Blow Out (yes, it is). Instead, the protagonist of De Palma’s most personal film is exactly what he should be for a film once titled Personal Effects: a brilliant but frustratingly flawed B-movie filmmaker, who works in an office just one floor above a porno movie theater and has grown exhausted with his output as shockmeister and desperately wants, if only once, to use his craft to say something meaningful, to direct his audience towards something that matters.
Existentially stung by the loss of Prince of the City, De Palma was searching for an outlet, for a means to use his considerable abilities and the craft that had honed them to create a meaningful work of art, something that fused his extraordinary talents for visual storytelling using the grammar created by Hitchcock, his scathing and scabrous early critiques of his generation and its art, and his seemingly-compulsive need to deconstruct the act of filmmaking as an extension of voyeurism in order to understand it, all into a singular vision of cinematic artifice merged with ruthless reality, all merged together the way a filmmaking clapperboard syncs audio with image. For De Palma, Blow Out was that sync-point.
And so he gathered the elements of his 1970s filmmaking—the aesthetically orgasmic techniques (the dazzling camera movements, the penetrating following shots, information overload split-screens, equilibrium-woozed split-diopter shots); his troupe of actors: Travolta (Carrie), his wife, Nancy Allen (Carrie, Home Movies, Dressed to Kill), John Lithgow (Obsession), and Dennis Franz (The Fury, Dressed to Kill); his editor since Hi, Mom!, Paul Hirsch, who essayed a contradictory but somehow successful slippery dreamworld of “reality” for the film; Obsession DP Vilmos Zsigmond, who washed away the gauzy haze of De Palma’s earlier films with a vivid and nightmarish giallo-scape of bloodied neons; and Carrie, Home Movies, and Dressed to Kill composer Pino Donaggio, who filigreed the film’s sonics with a greased and ominously-driven Euro-funk interlaced with sumptuously moody laments—amassing all the considerable elements of his craft to make a masterpiece of watching that would serve as an angry rebuke, generational indictment, cinema-as-film-criticism, intense thriller, and cathartic drama that would direct the world to see who he truly was, and was capable of. It would be the film he was born to make, the one no one else could. For both better and—as he would discover—worse, the world would see Brian De Palma.
Convinced to the point of uncompromising, enraged obsession that he recorded an assassination (“I’m sick of being fucked by these guys!…Let me tell you somethin’, alright? I know what I heard and what I saw, and I’m not gonna stop until everyone in this fuckin’ country hears and sees the same thing”), Jack ignores his director’s desperate pleas to find a good scream for Coed Frenzy and dedicates the entirety of his skills and craft to assembling enough evidence to prove his conspiracy theory. And he’ll be able to do so, because he was not alone on the bridge the night of McRyan’s death.
Local photographer Manny Karp (Franz) was also out there, testing out “night photography” film, and managed to take several still photographs of the accident. When Karp greedily sells his Zapruder-esque shots to a newsmagazine, Jack cuts them out and creates a crude physical flipbook of political murder—these are his storyboards. He then photographs each individual Karp shot, transfers them to 8mm film, and, finding a visible gunflash in the imagery, is able to use it like a clapperboard to sync the crude motion picture to his audio—this is his rough cut. It’s a delirious sequence of filmmaking about filmmaking, one that should play like a boring how-to but is instead a fascinating and fetishistic vision of how the illusory cinema-dreams we give ourselves over to are created. These moments play as something almost holy, because they are.
Jack gathers all the elements at his disposal to craft a film that will prove his righteousness, punish the powerful, and direct those who would refuse to see. His film is a work of peep art, a voyeuristic vision that reveals a dark truth hiding in plain sight. Yet unbeknownst to him, in a monolithic wave of horrific thriller unreality, forces are rising to destroy his artistic vision. Burke (John Lithgow), the unhinged assassin hired by the campaign to re-elect the President of the United States, is closing whatever dangling loops are left open from his murder, including the intrepid soundman and the young woman who survived the accident. He begins ritualistically murdering women across Philadelphia who resemble Sally, choking them and carving Liberty Bells into their torsos, spiraling one crime into many so that he may murder her, too, and have it appear as part of a string of sex killings rather than as a connection to the blow out. Wholly unaware of the scope of insane and conspiratorial power he’s up against, like Sally’s wish to be unobserved, Jack seals his fate in De Palma’s bleakly ironic universe when he tells her that “nobody’s gonna fuck me this time.”
“I’M A SOUND MAN”
(KNIFE SLICES / BODY FALLS)
Despite being portrayed in media and interviews as a cold, distant cipher who makes iceslush-blooded thrillers in which approximations of human beings descend into various diabolical—if gorgeously rendered—atrocity exhibition setpieces, there is a ferociously profound humanity that lurks beneath De Palma’s best work, a humanity and a heartbreak that intermix in reaction to the inhumane horrors that can befall us in an unflinchingly inchoate universe. Nowhere is that more evident than in Blow Out’s central relationship between Jack and Sally.
Theirs is a bond that begins when he saves her life, but solidifies with the deepening honesty that forms between them, even as the film’s intentional cinematic artifice ramps to almost surreal levels. While the world around them is increasingly illusory (either because of the growing conspiracy within their story, or because their story exists within a Brian De Palma film of Grand Guignol proportions), Jack and Sally’s relationship, by contrast, grows ever-more realistic and grounded the more honest with each other they become. It is a primary emotional and thematic juxtaposition within the film that reveals its broken heart.
It also reveals the pain of its creator. As Jack and Sally bond in the aftermath of the accident and Jack struggles to put together the pieces, he reveals to Sally that he’s a Jersey-born, Philly-raised science nerd (“the kind of kid who fixed radios, made my own stereos…”), just like De Palma. He also shares the black secret that lives within him, corroding himself and his craft from the inside-out. Jack wearily confesses to working for the Philadelphia Police Department as part of the King Commission, in which he would wire undercover cops who were working to catch other, corrupt police officers in bed with the Mafia. Only Jack’s last assignment went wrong—smart as Jack is, he didn’t predict that the undercover officer would nervously sweat, and that his sweat would short out the battery in the transmitter taped to his belly, essentially burning a hole into his torso. When the undercover cop is discovered to be wearing a wire by a corrupt police captain and mob boss, the cop is strangled and hanged with Jack’s own wire. It’s the reason Jack now works Z-level porno-horror thrillers. It’s the reason the Philadelphia PD resist listening to his conspiratorial tales. It’s the reason he is so maddeningly desperate to redeem himself with his craft.
It’s also a story that De Palma had written as the central sequence for Prince of the City, and then smuggled here, into Blow Out, so it could live on as a monument to the statement he had tried, and failed, to make. A sequence hidden in plain sight, between the frames. Jack’s weary confession is the moment in which the split-screen between him and De Palma dissolves, and their stories fuse into one that careens headlong into the film’s emotionally cataclysmic ending.
It’s also the moment in which Jack and Sally connect as something other than survivors of an accident—after he confesses his evolution (or devolution) as a sound man, she chronicles her life as a makeup counter artist, and how she crafts illusions to highlight the beauty in ordinary faces. In this moment, Jack and Sally sync, sound and image artists working together to understand a situation far larger than either one of them. And in that sync, Jack discovers a darker truth about Sally—she works with photographer Manny Karp in the sex blackmail business, in which she seduces married men of power, takes them to hotels, and Manny photographs them in bed for extortion. Even further, they were hired by unseen assistants to the President to set up Governor McRyan, with Manny set to get shots of them on the bridge—until the blow out changed everything. In her confession to Jack, Sally reveals her own black and battered history, her own pain she is frantic to transcend.
Together, they agree to steal Manny’s original negatives of the blow out so Jack can make his final cut of the McRyan film. The film that will redeem them both of their sordid pasts and miserable failures, and allow their coupling as sound and vision to flourish, to be seen, to matter.
And they—Jack, specifically—fail miserably.
De Palma’s cinema has always been a cinema of failure—his films studiously, obsessively document characters, usually male, who fail. In keeping with his thematic preoccupation with all things trending towards dissolution, De Palma’s heroes almost never succeed in their hopes and dreams. The Phantom in Paradise dies a monster, his music unrescued from the Devil’s clutches. The husband in Obsession is unable to save his wife from kidnappers, and constructs monuments in her memory as he descends into madness and an incestuous relationship with her doppelgänger daughter instead. Carrie dies hated and alone. Kirk Douglas fails to save his son from government conspiracy in The Fury. The De Palma science nerd stand-in of Dressed to Kill cannot save his mother from a serial killer. Failure metastasizes throughout the De Palma filmography, representing the ultimate loss of control, and it corrosively reaches full, malignant bloom in Blow Out’s final act.
Just as De Palma had planned to show the world the furthest extent of his artistry with Prince of the City, Jack plans to unleash his final cut of the McRyan film view the newsmedia…until he arrives at Personal Effects to find all his tapes have been secretly erased by Burke. In a bravura, endlessly spinning 360 shot that whirls in silent revolutions like a spinning reel of empty tape, we see Jack listening for his life’s work –“Gun Shots,” “Glass Breaks,” Heartbeats,” “Clock Ticking,” “Knife Slices,” “Body Falls,” the McRyan film—and finding it to be gone. Taken from him as cruelly as De Palma’s.
All that survives is his rough cut of the assassination, hidden in his apartment. And when Burke poses as a local newsman over the phone to Sally with his claimed hopes of interviewing her about a rumored “McRyan tape,” Jack insists that she meet him to break open the story and give him the tapes, exposing the story. In this moment, De Palma directs us to witness not just Jack’s ultimate failure, but the culmination of the theme of failure in his own work, and Jack’s life.
Jack doesn’t volunteer to hand over the tapes himself; instead, he insists on wiring Sally so he can listen from a distance in case anything goes wrong. From a logistical standpoint, it’s a ludicrous bit of plotting that makes little sense; in the hyper unreality of Blow Out, however, it’s deeply entrenched in Jack’s (and the film’s) emotional logic—Jack is a voyeur. More than that, he is a voyeuristic filmmaker whose life was broken when his craft and aesthetic failed and got an innocent cop literally wired to death. In a moment of ego-driven rage and obsession, he selfishly forces Sally to reenact the worst moment of his life so that he may get it right this time. To allow him to rewind the moment, to play it back, and use his craft to transcend the pain of his past.
What Jack cannot see is what De Palma’s young surrogate discovered on Home Movies—that to be a voyeur is to centralize an Other in your story, and render yourself an extra in your own film. By sending Sally on a mission to unknowingly meet Burke while he listens in, Jack is centralizing the innocent and unwitting Sally into the violent psychodrama that was his to play out. And so it is here, too, at the end of Blow Out, that another of De Palma’s career-long themes comes to its depressingly inevitable conclusion. Like his study of failure, his study of the cinema of voyeurism climaxes with Jack listening from his Jeep outside a train station as he realizes that Sally (who cannot hear Jack) is meeting with a man who is not a TV news anchor. As he hears them board a train to the Liberty Day parade, he realizes he has damned another innocent person on the other end of his voyeur’s wire. And despite his every effort—including an astonishing overhead shot of Jack driving his Jeep through the parade itself to make it to Sally in time, only to lose control and plow into a department store—Jack will be too late. He will always be too late.
It’s why he’s forced to listen to Sally’s terrified screams as she realizes Burke is an assassin. It’s why he’s forced to fight through a crowd of people dazzled by fireworks in the night sky and totally unwilling to look at horror unfolding behind them, drawing Jack and film down to slow-motion as Burke pulls her into the dark and unwinds his garrote. It’s why Jack’s face contorts into something beyond pain as he hears Sally beg him to save her, screaming “Jack, please! Oh, God—” before she briefly breaks free, and as a massive backdrop of the American flag looms behind her, she looses the most chilling, soul-shattering and heart-caving scream of horror in cinema, and all the illusions fall as they always do in a De Palma film, and yet another theme of the master reaches its apex as we are brutally ripped from the movieworld, in which the illusions that he built for us collapse tissue-thin as brute and horrid reality floods and we fall out of the dream and back into the real world, out of the reverie in which heroes save the girl and the bad guys go to jail, and Burke pulls her and us down into the darkness. And when Jack finds them, with Burke just about to stab Sally, he takes the killer’s knife and jams it deep within Burke’s chest. Not that it matters, as Jack’s face, emptied of all emotion, sees Sally’s body lying in the flickering firework light, her neck swollen and cut through by Burke’s garrote, just above the rabbit’s foot necklace she always wore for luck.
Once again, he has failed, and once again, the techniques of his craft were not enough.
And so in Blow Out’s final scene, the crude and cosmic joke of its opening moments comes to its savagely merciless punchline—half-insane from murdering Burke and driving Sally to her death, unable to come to grips with his art’s inability to save himself or her, Jack concludes his ugly farce of a hero’s journey by using Sally’s agonized, grotesque, and perfect scream to complete the only film he can, Coed Frenzy, whispering over and over to himself that “it’s a good scream” while the unknowing director plays it again and again, Jack’s face collapsing into the darkness of the closing credits.
Finally, Blow Out’s, and De Palma’s, final theme coruscates here to its summit—everything, even the most holy of things, are degraded and meshed into meaningless product. As Lawrence of Arabia toils within the masturbation scenes of Dressed to Kill, the central tragedy of Jack and Sally’s lives is ADR’d into a reel of slasher trash only a handful of people will ever see. They are buried in the mix, like the black heart of Prince that beats within Blow Out as Jack’s backstory, these cinemonuments that are the best Jack, and Brian, can give to that which they love. The technology of cinema couldn’t save them. The best they could do is provide crude pop immortality, a revelation that recasts everything Brian De Palma made before Blow Out in a new light as all of his artistic preoccupations finally came into total sync for certainly the first and likely only time in his career, heightening both the artistry and tragedy of where his career would go, and dwindle, in the years following Blow Out’s dismal aftermath.
Because Blow Out failed to find an audience in the summer of 1981 with its gloomy cocktail of political cynicism, destructive voyeurism, its bleakly radiant ironies, and indictment of art itself—no one cared and the film died a quick death in theaters. Some critics raved (Pauline Kael in particular, raving “De Palma has sprung to the place…where genre is transcended and what we’re moved by is an artist’s vision”) while others turned away from its dour, roughshod soul. It did not galvanize the public as De Palma had hoped Prince of the City would. Instead, it alienated them—in a final bit of very Hitchcockian twinning, just as Jack forced Sally to relive his nightmare tragedy as a means to purge it from his soul by way of his craft, De Palma the voyeur made Blow Out and centralized Jack as a means to regain his artistic control, reenacting his failures with Phantom, with Rabbit, with mainstream filmmaking, and the darkly bitter shot in the dark that resulted was simply too much for audiences to bear witness. The resultant financial failure forced De Palma to remain in the world of his uniquely brilliant thriller cinema, occasionally gifted with blockbuster opportunities within the genre, but ultimately locking him out of the echelon of his contemporaries like Scorsese, Coppola, and Spielberg.
Yet there is a sad, ironic dignity to his career arc—despite its financial failure, Blow Out is not just De Palma’s masterpiece, but a masterpiece of 20th century cinema. The films De Palma continues to make remain some of the most thrilling, entertaining, and haunting of the genre, even if most are unable to transcend it. That is his sacrifice, forever toiling in the screening rooms, piecing together the images, assembling the narrative, working within the genre he was never quite able to transcend and yet he made transcendent. What he learned as he became an extra in his own story is that the sought-after catharsis is not for his characters, or even himself—the comforts of his cinema are for the loyal minority who he directs to watch, to see, and who are forever changed by what happens on the screen.
So we watch, in the dark, watching as the frames come together, shot through with light, thousands and thousands of frames given the illusion of movement, the illusion he created for us before he lets the reality back in, and that is why we watch, isn’t it? All things may trend towards entropy—revolutions, democracies, politics, art, film, a director’s career, a loved one’s life, a good scream—but here in the flickering shadows, beneath the ray of light shot through the dark, those dying things are given the gorgeously aesthetic illusion of life once again, and we may revel in their radiant treasures and dusky horrors as they organize into the narratives, the stories, the control, that we will never have, and that is why you and I are here, why we watch, for the comfort and transcendence offered to us by these bright walls in these dark rooms.