While recording ambient night noises on a bridge, a movie sound man suddenly overhears a passing car fall off the edge and go tumbling into the dark water. He bravely manages to rescue the girl trapped inside, but the poor schmuck’s troubles are only beginning. He’s an accidental witness to something he doesn’t understand. The stakes rise considerably when he discovers that a promising Presidential candidate was in that unfortunate car, and he wasn’t alone. Did he hear what he thought he heard — a bang, much like a gunshot, in the bushes not far away, just before the tire popped? So what if he did? Who wants to know? Everyone and no one, as it turns out.
Brian De Palma’s Blow Out didn’t do much at the box office when it was first released in 1981. A paranoid political thriller that mashes up Antonioni’s abstract Blow-Up and Ted Kennedy’s fatal car accident at Chappaquiddick featuring a definitely non-dancing John Travolta and John Lithgow as a steely psycho killer wasn’t an easy sell in the Reagan era. Blow Out might be the greatest film De Palma ever made, and it grows increasingly relevant in its unsentimental wariness about the potential for hidden forces at work through the highly charged space where media and politics meet. Blow Out contains premonitions galore about where conspiratorial thinking, and the technology that encourages it, ultimately leads us.
Travolta’s Jack Terry is charming and sympathetic but otherwise nothing special, grinding away his lonely nights mixing sound effects for sleazy horror flicks. Terry catches feelings for the sweetly lost working girl Sally, who’s incredibly lucky to have survived the accident, and unsettlingly blithe about her lot as a hottie for hire who helps to catch famous people in compromising positions. The bond they form is a little rushed, plot-wise, but Terry and Sally do quickly realize the increasingly urgent fact that they are the only two people who know what really happened on the bridge that night. And their testimony would definitely not be something that the big shots want to have out there, though the grinning local news anchor sniffs out a ratings bonanza.
In an ironic twist, even though Terry is increasingly ensnared within the tightening web of mysterious political machinations, he doesn’t really have any skin in the game. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. We are taken through the scruffier backstreets of the historically resonant city of Philadelphia, De Palma’s home turf, and the story’s climax takes place amid the patriotic festival of the Mummers Parade, complete with massive fireworks and huge crowds cheering on spangle-suited parade crews, which is visually engaging but was apparently a total logistical nightmare to film.
As a character, Terry is defined by his capacity to listen. His professional responsibility is to capture sounds that most people would either not notice or otherwise ignore. Terry’s receptivity is similar to the forever wired, content-soaked world of today, where we’re constantly getting information stimulation from everywhere, all the time. It’s been widely remarked that the ubiquity of cell phones and social media allow us all to become amateur filmmakers, eagerly posting the daily rushes of our lives for public consumption. But we shouldn’t assume that this constant videotaping of the world around us will make us wiser. As Blow Out reminds us, just because you get something important on tape doesn’t mean that people will listen.
If anything, recent history has demonstrated that, alas, mere documentation isn’t proof. Orwell once said that seeing what’s directly in front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle. If anything, that’s even truer now. Anyone can choose to see what they want to see in a certain picture or video, especially if they have an agenda or a preconceived notion of how they are supposed to respond. How visual information gets processed, and who decides how it’s interpreted, all too often ends up as more fodder for our national melodrama — another exciting plot twist in an interactive live socio-political soap opera that never ends because secretly, whether they want to admit it or not, nobody wants it to.
When Blow Out was released, paranoia and conspiracy theories tended to trend left. De Palma himself explained that he became obsessed with the Kennedy assassination and its disturbingly incomplete official narrative about who was where when: “the more you blow it up, the less clear it becomes.” Assuming that operatives are trying to influence elections and alter the country’s political life was, in hindsight, a very realistic response to the bright shining lies of Watergate and Vietnam.
The obsession with surveillance and how that purloined information is bent to the will of nefarious corporate or political actors was definitely a major theme in films of the late ’70s. Consider The Conversation, made by De Palma’s longtime friend Francis Ford Coppola, and Alan Pakula’s trilogy Klute, All The President’s Men, and The Parallax View, all of which interrogate who’s watching the watchers.
Now the tin foil hat points rightward. No doubt conspiracy theories exist on the left as well, but the right has openly mainstreamed its paranoia. Major figures promote it in campaign speeches, cite it in fundraising drives, and keep it circulating throughout their media echo chambers. Fast and loose, postmodern approaches to truth are no longer the purview of radical academics. Treating truth as a socially constructed puppet of power is a rhetorical gambit that routinely fills stadiums. “Alternative facts” will do just fine for an excited crowd that already knows what it wants to hear.
Yet maybe Terry’s solitary anguish, caught in the crossfire over who will get their hands on his recording, still contains a residue of hope. De Palma described Terry’s plight in self-sacrificial terms: “he has to sacrifice to solve this mystery that no one cares about.” Exactly. Terry loses his own peace of mind and the woman he loves precisely because of his idealistic refusal to ignore the empirical truth of what happened on that bridge.
It’s not just that Terry can’t bear to think of the darker implications of the recording, which are indeed troubling — he refuses to give up on what he knows to be true. He can’t understand why people want to accept the idea that no one else cares. Instead, Terry insists that his recording should be on the evening news. Terry’s not a particularly heroic figure — after all, he’s just a B movie hack who feels guilty over a mafia wiretap gone wrong — but nevertheless, he insists on committing to the truth even if no one else believes him or bothers to listen. This refusal to be gaslit is rather noble if a bit quixotic.
Terry’s amateur sting operation goes terribly awry, leaving him with nothing but a recording of Sally’s all-too-real scream at the hands of Lithgow’s diabolically ice-cold G-Man. Ironically, the recording Terry’s suffered over ultimately becomes mere grist for the grindhouse mill; a particularly potent special effect in one of his employer’s sleazy exploitation movies. As Sally’s final desperate scream plays over a corny, derivative, faux Hitchcock scene (shower, knife), the distraught look on his face says what he can’t.
I think DePalma wants us to ponder how easily reality loses out to sensationalism. Quentin Tarantino, never shy about cinematic gore, called it one of the greatest endings in cinema history. Maybe this is because all filmmakers secretly covet that extra frisson of the real — those desperate, loud, raw, unfakeable emotions — which makes their stories pop and keeps those eager eyes fixed on the glowing screen in the dark. And, of course, we gobble it up, never mind the gradual erosion of our attention spans, inner lives, and epistemological confidence.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. Blow Out radically insists on honoring the legitimacy of actual fact, even if those facts will inevitably be distorted or ignored or manipulated. Just because no one knows about it, doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. Truth matters for its own sake. This can be hard to hang on to, given the constant barrage of contradictory data and media. It’s not always easy (unless you think only in terms of stark black and white) to let the truth sting, especially when it’s unpleasant or lets your own side down. A useful maxim to keep in mind might be Philip K. Dick’s: “reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
Even though Terry knows the truth and discovers that it won’t change anything, he nevertheless allows himself to be haunted by what he knows. Terry doesn’t feel very good about having the biggest scoop of his life end up becoming cheap but effective fodder for another forgettable exploitation flick, but he refuses to forget the ugly truth behind it. Even if that knowledge alone doesn’t stop the horrible film from running, and the bad guys keep winning, and it causes him deep pain, Terry doesn’t surrender and say the facts don’t matter. Terry’s anguish becomes a form of affirmation. And given how little affirmation he has to offer, that’s not nothing. •