In July 1981 I was sixteen and fat and gay and poor and living in the middle of nowhere. My only connection to a world outside of this world was the movies, and that summer I stumbled upon not just a movie but a work of art. I know how pretentious that sounds, but that was the feeling, and it still is. Brian DePalma's Blow Out came out that July and flopped big time, but I didn't care. I was so mesmerized by it I went to see it by myself 14 times before it left theaters. 1981 was the summer of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Clash of the Titans, and of course I saw those and loved them deeply, but Blow Out was a deeper pleasure that made me realize that some movies can be experiences beyond what movies are supposed to be. Blow Out captured a dour, glistening glamour and intensity that allowed me to start thinking about what "art" is.
Like I said, back in 1981, I was a weird, sad, teenaged queer living in a broke-down house where the electricity would get shut off every other month, with a family that was slowly falling apart, but I also had this extra sensitivity, like an allergy, that made me want to dream. Not dream about escaping or being "something" (that was way too farfetched), as much as dreaming about dreaming. Blow Out was the first time I understood what "dreaming" really is artistically: it's a very disciplined, glossy enterprise, with a vision that sees beyond sight merged with a crazy need to show off and also to make the world understand itself. DePalma's movie is gorgeous to look at, glittering with cynicism and magically photographed with by Vilmos Zsigmond, and it has an arrogant, demanding spirit that creates a momentum toward wisdom by the end of the story. It's a wisdom nobody really wants to have access to though, because Blow Out is probably one of the most tragic and depressing political thrillers ever imagined. It ends with the death of its heroine caused by the impotence of its protagonist.
Nancy Allen plays the heroine Sally, a part-time prostitute and full-time cosmetologist. At first when she appears on-screen you think You have to be kidding me. From the get-go, Allen performs Sally with a Betty Boop affectation, a Cewpie-doll high-pitched voice and Shirley-Temple hair fluffed up into sluttiness. But as the movie goes on you realize that affectation and soul have merged inside Sally, as if she's lost herself through seduction and sadness. Allen gives her a tragi-comic grandeur by the end of the movie, and when she does get killed by John Lithgow's fucked-up assassin on the top of a building during a night-time fireworks display, you actually feel connected to her not in a movie-way, but as a real person sacrificed without any real meaning attached to the sacrifice.
John Travolta is Jack, a sound technician for cheap slasher pictures. He's out recording some stock sound footage one night when he ear-witnesses a blow out, and inside the car is Sally and a governor slated to be the next POTUS. Jack saves Sally, but the governor dies, and due to his techy knowledge of sound he pieces together the real story: the blow out was caused by a gun-shot. All the cops and politicians and administrators tell Jack to forget the conspiracy, but he just can't. The whole situation allows Jack to come to an understanding about the world and himself: he's tired of being fucked with, so he finally takes a stand. That stand means "wiring" Sally when she's about to be interviewed by reporter who says he believes the conspiracy story. Jack feels the need to record Sally and the reporter, just in case the reporter turns on them. It turns out, though, the reporter is actually Lithgow's government-hired, mercenary psycho.
And there you go: Sally is murdered while Jack listens through an ear-plug, racing toward her at the top of the building, plowing through a parade celebrating Liberty. There's an ecstatic moment when Sally reaches out from the building. Her death-screams eventually make it into one of Jack's slasher picks.
That beauty is a direct result of DePalma's technique. Everything about Blow Out has the shiny fervid glow of intention, as if each scene has been storyboarded obsessively and then reenacted exactly the way it was envisioned. The actors move through scenes with a fluidity caused by DePalma's camera's surrpetious slides. Split-screens and dual focus shots abound. The cinematopgrahy feels both mechanized and completely organic. Pino Donaggio's lush, tragic, hyperbolic score allows the whole movie to become orchestrated to the point of no return; the music, mimicking the movie's spirit, is both tragically over-the-top, and a parody of tragedy.
"Good scream" are the final words in the movie -- spoken by Travolta's Jack during the sound edits for the slasher movie. He is completely broken and dumbfounded and beyond sadness, in a world where suicide seems kind of pointless. Travolta plays the sound-nerd with such finesse he finds glory in the geekiness, and a tortured soul inside a character most actors would play for laughs. In fact the movie's hothouse atmosphere and perverse/reverse sense of patriotism has a parodic edge to it. It's intentional, I think, because DePalma's screenplay is about how patriotism and politics are simply a ruse, a cover for the actual way things work. People get hired to kill people. People get killed. Nobody gives a shit. Move on. That parody is a part of the movie's desire to aestheticize corruption and hopelessness. Nobody cares. Look how beautiful that is.
"Hopelessness" is at the core of Blow Out's style and substance. "Bad luck" becomes the atmosphere, the air people are breathing. When I was 16, that sensibility somehow made the world make sense to me in a way a book or a speech never could. It still does now that I'm 47. I guess that's what I mean when I say Blow Out is a work of art. DePalma creates an aesthetic universe that both mocks and truthfully represents this fucked-up world we've made.