Sunday, May 1, 2011

Murder And Paranoia: The Art of Brian DePalma and "Blow Out"

The word derivative has a nasty connotation associated with it. It implies that a work isn’t original and therefore has less value and less to offer than what has come before. Since the Greeks (at least) storytelling has continued to use the same myths and the same basic plots for ALL entertainment. Everything else is just a variation of the original prototype. It’s the insight, style and creativity that one brings to familiar genres that will make a work or entertainment—or art for that matter—unique.
It begs the question though does an artist have ownership on a genre or style if they pioneered it? Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t the first and he wasn’t the only film director to tackle the suspense thriller. Hitchcock’s uniquely visual approach allowed him to come up with sometimes absurd plot twists that worked because the writing, direction and acting was so compelling and so convincing as to overcome the sense of artifice.
Anyone following in Hitch’s footsteps whether it be a talented veteran director (Stanley Donen who created the ultimate Hitchcock tribute with “Charade” even going so far as to coax Cary Grant out of retirement for the film and interesting Audrey Hepburn an actress that Hitch was dying to work with but could never quite find the proper vehicle) or a workman-like director less than a decade into his career (John Brahm who remade Hitchcock’s silent classic “The Lodger” as an equally compelling sound film in 1943).

With "Blow Out" DePalma managed to elicit one of John Travolta's finest performances of his career reaching beneath the surface performance that Travolta often presents to get a sense of genuine emotion. A skewed paranoid thriller that uses the classic film "Blow Up" as its touch point, "Blow Out" focuses on a sound engineer named Jack (Travolta) who believes he has accidently recorded the sound of a political assassination. Jack is determined to find out the truth but puts himself and Sally (Nancy Allen) a woman who survived the murder. This puts both of them in the path of a rogue assassin (John Lithgow).

The Criterion Blu-ray personally supervised by director DePalma is a huge improvement over the previous regular DVD edition. Fine detail is a huge improvement while clarity and contrast look terrific throughout. The film also went an extensive restoration and clean up which is most notable in the lack of scratches that were evident in the previous DVD presentation.

Audio sounds quite strong but keep in mind that this is presented in its original 2.0 NOT in a remixed or repurposed 5.1 mix. We get optional English subtitles. Dialogue and the marvelous music score by Pino Donaggio sound exceptionally crisp and clear.

Criterion rolls out some nice extras for this edition as well. We get DePalma's 1967 feature film "Murder a la Mode" which provided part of the inspiration for "Blow Out". Viewers should keep in mind that DePalma's film is experimental in technique at times and some of the visual choices, motifs, etc. that show up in "Blow Out" were first put on display in DePalma's earlier film.

We get an interview with Garrett Brown who created the Steadicam (and a demonstration for those who don't know how or what it is used for).

We also get an interview with DePalma conducted by director Noah Baumbach which is enlightening allowing DePalma to discuss the thought process behind shooting the film the way he did.

Nancy Allen appears in a new interview as well discussing her first impressions of Travolta (with whom she had worked on "Carrie"), her preparation for the role, etc.

Finally we get the original theatrical trailer (my how times have changed when it comes to theatrical trailers, (theatrical trailers should play like a mysterious seduction NOT quickie in the backseat of a car which is how most are presented today), production stills and, of course, a booklet with an essay by critic Michael Sragow as well as Pauline Kael's original interview with DePalma from the New Yorker.
From DePalma’s first film “Murder ala Mode” (1968) he made it clear that he had plans to move into the suspense thriller but planned on bringing the lessons of New Wave cinema and uniquely combining them with the European sensibility that he had acquired while in film school. DePalma like any young film director decided to tackle a number of styles (“The Wedding Party”, “Greetings”, “Hi, Mom!”, “Get To Know Your Rabbit”) but he kept returning to the suspense thriller and with “Sisters” we see everything that critics and audiences would come to love to hate about DePalma; it’s tortured, perverse (much more so even than Hitchcock) and it’s often as much about technique as it is about the story itself—the two have become intertwined like a grape vine wrapping itself around a near by apple tree. In many respects, “Sisters” is the daughter of “Psycho” and Hitchcock’s peak period as a film director when he had little studio or producer interference (in the form of David O. Selznick)and was able to tell the story the way he wanted to.
Does that make DePalma derivative? Perhaps it does but I prefer to look at it as an influence of one artist on another one who had his own unique take on similar material and ideas. DePalma’s “Blow Out” was inspired by seeing Michaelangelo Antonio’s “Blow Up” and combining elements of that idea, turning them into a more mainstream entertainment and using his techniques to make a suspense thriller.
Brian DePalma made no secret of his admiration for Hitchcock’s films. He along with Martin Scorsese clearly loved film and understood it in a unique way that a generation of filmmakers before did not; they understood playing to the audience and playing WITH the audience. They understood that film was more than mere entertainment that when the makers took that extra step it entered the world of art whether or not the audience recognized it or not. DePalma like a writer sprinkles the visual version of literary references throughout his films and often that is mistaken for being deriviative by those who get lost in these references stumbling around in them as they miss the larger meaning of DePalma's work.
(c) Thin Ice Publications

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