On paper, Brian De Palma’s 1981 conspiracy film Blow Out, which plays tonight at BAM, doesn’t seem like it could possibly cohere as a drama. Its exploitation-movie-within-a-movie opening telegraphs the artifice, and that initial movie-world falseness seeps into the film’s action proper, most evidently in its resolutely simplistic depiction of big-city organizations—the police department, the hospital, the political campaign, the local evening newscast, the small-time extortion outfit. The film’s premise, thrown into gear when a presidential hopeful, mistress by his side, drives his car into the drink, is rather obviously designed to evoke those proper nouns—Chappaquiddick! Watergate! Zapruder!—most deeply associated with the improper underbelly of American politics. And, of course, De Palma’s not shy about pillaging Blow-Up and The Conversation for rudimentary plot points.
Yet despite the transparently piecemeal setup and the visibility of filmmaking apparatuses throughout (the lead character, Jack, a sound recordist played by John Travolta, works for a Philadelphia-based B-movie production company), Blow Out is no mere mechanical thing.
De Palma manages to imbue the film with what’s missing from many of his scuzz fests and Hitchcock remixes: real (paranoid) feeling. Jack eventually cobbles together a film mockup of the politician’s demise by syncing his own audio recordings from the scene with a flipbook series of paparazzo shots he finds in a magazine. Jack’s reel suggests the accident was not so accidental, and the evidence likewise must be painstakingly “produced.” De Palma’s nightmare here, underscored by the climactic Liberty Day fireworks backdrop, is of a country entirely in thrall to official-story dream factories.
Blow Out screens at BAM in its Hungarians in Hollywood series, itself a part of the yearlong Extremely Hungary extravaganza, as a representative work of Vilmos Zsigmond. His extraordinary cinematography here is most memorable for a 360-degree pan as Jack frantically rifles through his library of recordings, not to mention a number of deep-focus shots that put eavesdroppers in the same frame as the characters on whom they’re eavesdropping. With De Palma favorite Dennis Franz as the scum of the earth and John Lithgow as a proto-Anton Chigurh.