Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Blow Out — The Criterion Collection

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Blow Out — The Criterion Collection on Blogcritics.

The Film
Brian De Palma has his share of detractors. Some say he’s too concerned with style over substance or that he’s too jokey/cynical or he’s just a poor man’s Hitchcock. What can’t be said about De Palma, unless one is just being deliberately obtuse, is that he lacks ambition. His penchant for frequently venturing into unknown territory is a double-edged quality, but when De Palma is firing on all cylinders, the result is thrilling.

Probably no film confirms that more than Blow Out, a work that functions as a political thriller, a self-reflexive examination of filmmaking, a moody character piece and an ultimately chilling horror film — all with impeccable grace and style. There are no muddled genre exercises or pale imitations here. Even though the film undoubtedly owes inspiration to Antonioni’s Blowup and Coppola’s The Conversation, De Palma is mining new territory more than constructing homages.

John Travolta, in a performance that reveals the potential his career didn’t exactly make good on, stars as Jack, a sound effects technician for a sleazy exploitation movie studio in Philadelphia. He’s outside one night, recording wind noise for an effect, when he hears a bang, sees a car careening out of control and watches it break through the railing and plunge into a lake.

He dives in and is able to save the female passenger, but the male driver is already dead. Later, at the hospital, he discovers the driver was the governor and a shoo-in for presidential candidate, and the cover-up machine is churning away, with an aide instructing him to forget about the whole incident. No one must know the governor died in the midst of having an affair.

Jack is dissatisfied with this turn of events, but begins to develop a tentative romance with the woman, Sally (Nancy Allen), a makeup artist who also participates in blackmail schemes. When he gets a hold of video footage shot that night by her collaborator (Dennis Franz), Jack merges his sounds with the images to create a film of what happened — and what he believes is no accident.

De Palma feeds the audience information with expert skill, initially allowing us to digest it at a similar pace to Jack. In the early scene where he’s out recording, De Palma uses increasingly wide shots paired with rhythmic editing that’s informed by the sound design. Later, when Jack is recreating the moment in his head, we get the sense that a virtuosic director is capturing the trancelike operation of a virtuosic character. Both scenes allow the audience to traverse Jack’s path of discovery with him.

But the film shifts near the middle, just when it may have been in danger of becoming a zeitgeist-y (political assassination + Chappaquiddick-like circumstances ensured this) but rote whodunit. De Palma lays the cards out on the table, introduces a menacing John Lithgow and essentially solves the mystery. It’s then that the film kicks into a higher gear, propelled by Jack’s increasing paranoia and the dangers his obsession pose to him and Sally.

Travolta’s gentle, thoughtful Jack is a tragically doomed character, involving himself not because of personal bravado, but of a deep-seated desire to do something meaningful — confirmed by a flashback that reveals an earlier job with law enforcement. He’s brilliant in his own way, but he also may be overreaching in a way that has drastic consequences.

De Palma’s stylistic flourishes have probably never been more assured than here. His camera weaves and bobs with intelligent grace. He’s not content to opt for purely utilitarian camerawork, and the style is married to the content, like in a scene where Jack discovers his tapes have been tampered with, and the revolving camera matches his spiraling paranoia.

When the utterly unnerving final scene turns the satiric misdirection of the film’s opening on its head, it becomes totally clear that De Palma crafted a dark, engrossing masterpiece where concerns of image and sound can be matters of life and death.

The Blu-ray Disc
Blow Out is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. Supervised by De Palma, this new transfer is a marvelous recreation of the 35mm experience with healthy, but not obtrusive grain levels and absolutely superb image clarity. Much of the film is dark and subdued, but the film does see some vibrant colors, such as reds and blues, that pop off the screen. Fine detail is apparent in every frame, with both the infrequent close-ups and more frequent medium and long shots packed with information. Black levels are outstanding and even in darker shots, grain doesn’t come across as noise. Damage is essentially nonexistent.

Audio is presented in a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that dynamically communicates the film’s intricate soundscapes. Obviously a film about a sound designer will feature interesting sound design, and Blow Out does. Even with just a 2.0 track, the effects feature great directionality, and dialogue and music is always clear and distinct.

Special Features
Criterion has assembled an excellent set of supplements, with new interviews bearing the majority of the weight. An hour-long conversation between De Palma and Noah Baumbach serves well in lieu of a commentary track, with De Palma talking about a lot of interesting technical and anecdotal information. I was especially excited to hear him talk about his split diopter technique, which he uses in this film often, and is one of his most striking stylistic choices, in my mind. As he did on Criterion’s My Dinner with Andre disc, Baumbach serves as a genial and perceptive interviewer, even if he sometimes struggles a little with framing some questions (hey, it happens).

An interview with Nancy Allen covers her role in the film, which was a departure for her in some ways, and what it was like working with Travolta. It briefly touches on her relationship with De Palma (they were married at the time), and she expresses admiration for the film.

The third interview features Garrett Brown, the inventor of the Steadicam, and it’s a great inclusion, as he talks about his development of the device and his role in the film, which had him shooting the opening film-within-a-film Coed Frenzy. He’s a great interview subject and his dismissive attitude toward the intentionally bad scenes he shot is quite amusing (he had just finished working on The Shining, which probably only made the quality disparity more apparent).

Also included is De Palma’s 1967 film Murder á la Mod, which is presented in 1080p (as are all the extras) and looks rather wonderful. The experimental, freewheeling feature is one his first films, and while not everything sticks, it’s fun to watch De Palma throw a bunch of his pet tendencies up on the screen in the story of a fashion model getting caught up in the world of pornography. The film is glanced in Blow Out as a character watches it on TV, and its inclusion here is a nice touch.

Rounding out the package are a collection of beautiful black-and-white set photos from Louis Goldman, the theatrical trailer and a booklet with a new essay by Michael Sragow and Pauline Kael’s original New Yorker rave for the film.

The Bottom Line
Blow Out is essential for De Palma fans and just about everyone else. The film is constantly inventive and has never looked better on home video.

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