In the days leading up to our November 10th Tribute to John Travolta, in which John Waters will host an evening of tribute to this film icon, the MFF blog will highlight some of the great performances and collaborations in Travolta’s rich and varied career. First up is Brian De Palma’s BLOW OUT, a 1981 thriller that succeeds both as first-rate entertainment and as film art. De Palma deeply embeds his love of Hitchcock in BLOW OUT’s tense mood, expert pacing, and Hitch-worthy story of a solitary hero increasingly obsessed with uncovering a truth that everyone around him rejects as conspiracy theory. But even more than Hitchcock, BLOW OUT consciously connects itself to two earlier films by master directors, Michelangelo Antonioni’s BLOW-UP and Francis Ford Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION.
BLOW OUT features Travolta as Jack Terry, a motion-picture sound technician who works on low-budget horror flicks cranked out of a small studio in Philadelphia. Travolta is perfectly cast here. Already known as a stylish and dynamic star for his work on enduring favorites such as GREASE and SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER a few years earlier, he begins the picture as an easily relatable leading man for the audience. Smooth and sly, he’s also heroic—ready to jump into the mouth of danger to save a stranger—and so it becomes all the more startling when obsession takes over, and his search for the truth recasts him as a figure on the margins.
Charged with recording some eerie nighttime noises to spice up the sound design of a new slasher film, Jack heads out to a sleepy area one evening with his sound kit. There he records wind, owls—and, to his utter surprise, the loud pop of a car’s tire blowing out, sending the vehicle careening off the road and into a river below. Jack dives in and manages to save one passenger, Sally (Nancy Allen), but the man behind the wheel is already a corpse. At the hospital, in a sea of commotion, Jack is taken aside and told that the driver of the car was the state’s governor, who was in the midst of a strong presidential run; the governor’s family, Jack is told, must never hear that Sally was in the car. This turn of events sends Jack back to his audio record of the accident, and what he hears unnerves him. Increasingly, he becomes obsessed with proving that the blow out was no accident, but the work of a political assassin.
In Antonioni’s BLOW-UP, a photographer’s set of photos taken in a park may have accidentally documented hidden evidence of a murder; but as the photographer blows up his negatives larger and larger, the images threaten to yield madness as much as truth. Similarly, THE CONVERSATION features Gene Hackman as a surveillance expert who may have recorded the planning of a still-preventable political violence—if he can just hear each word properly, and interpret them correctly, a sanity-threatening struggle.
With BLOW OUT, De Palma retains much of the darkness and obsession of these earlier films—if delivering these subversive elements within a lively thriller that honors its genre’s conventions even as it winks at them. By repositioning its main character not as a photographer or surveillance expert, but as a filmmaker—albeit one working on the sort of disposable, ultra-sleazy thrillers that De Palma’s critics accused the director of making in the late 70s and 80s—the film takes on a meta layer that makes the cinephile consider their own obsessions (not to mention their own experience watching this very film). The protagonists of all three films are caught in an endless loop of repetition, fixated on that moment when they notice a little detail of image or sound that brings the larger “truth” into focus. This is strikingly similar to the experience of watching a thriller, where in each frame a new detail may jump out that finally reveals a secret identity, a betrayal, even a murderer. Further, unlike in the earlier films, Travolta’s character is able to wed his sound footage to photographs of the event, creating in essence a film record of the event. Unlike in THE CONVERSATION or BLOW-UP, then, the obsession of BLOW OUT becomes, quite literally, an obsessive watching of film; and the main character’s journey is that of a filmmaker who has begun to approach his craft from a jaded distance, until circumstances make film the central, hypnotic aspect of his life.
The film’s many other strengths include some of the finer camerawork in any De Palma film, courtesy of the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond; generous helpings of location shooting in nearby Philadelphia, a fascinating window into that city’s terrain in the early 1980s; a strong supporting cast that includes De Palma staples John Lithgow and Dennis Franz; and a lascivious film-within-a-film opening sequence, perhaps the most lurid 10 minutes in De Palma’s career (which is saying quite a lot).
But at the center of it all is a sophisticated, nuanced performance from John Travolta, who has developed new layers as an actor since his excellent supporting role in De Palma’s CARRIE a half-decade earlier. As a film industry professional with a deep love of his craft—but also wielding a sly skepticism about the industry and his place in it, a skepticism that proves extremely useful in navigating conspiracy, cover-up, obsession, and violence—Travolta gives the film so much of its human substance and emotional resonance (qualities some De Palma films have been accused of lacking). Here our minds might be taken again to Hitchcock, whose casting of assured, iconic, and empathetic actors like Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, and Henry Fonda yielded all the more tension when these characters become his “wrong men,” sent into spirals of paranoia and obsession. In BLOW OUT, Travolta both honors this tradition and updates it for a new era.
BLOW OUT’s self-conscious nods to Antonioni and Coppola’s earlier films may have hurt its critical reception upon its release in 1981, but the film’s reputation has only grown over the thirty-plus years since. More and more viewers have recognized in it a film that doesn’t copy those earlier works, but rather speaks to them in smart and intriguing ways. Further, BLOW OUT can also now be seen as another link in a still-unfolding chain of thematically related thrillers, as 1998’s Baltimore-shot political thriller ENEMY OF THE STATE connects in many ways to the characters and concerns of THE CONVERSATION, and certainly unfolds with ample awareness of BLOW-UP and BLOW OUT.
BLOW OUT’s critical reevaluation got a big boost in 2011, when the film was canonized as part of The Criterion Collection. Available on DVD and blu-ray in their beautifully restored editions (the booklet including an essay on the film from Baltimore’s own Michael Sragow), BLOW OUT is a marvelous piece of entertainment, and offers a chance to catch one of the great dramatic performances early in Travolta’s film career. It would make a great film to discover, or revisit, prior to our John Travolta tribute November 10th.
-Eric Allen Hatch, Director of Programming