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Brian De Palma brought hip, freewheeling funkiness to the American film renaissance of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Wised-up, cinema-savvy audiences across the country knew to seek out his movies for their scruffy wit and showmanship and aesthetic innovation, not just for their counterculture attitude. With Greetings (1968) and (especially) Hi, Mom! (1970), he developed his own celluloid version of street theater and improvisational comedy. And when he made his leap into Hitchcock-inspired thrillers, with Sisters (1973), he didn’t just revamp techniques he’d learned from the Master of Suspense—he renovated them with new devices like split screen, and imbued them with his own sensual yet satiric sensibility. His temperament and style were so complex and unique that he needed journalistic support to help him break out of a college-town niche to wider audiences. He found it in the most influential critical voice of the day, Pauline Kael, who was, in her unique way, articulating a view of movies as a glorious hybrid art.
As critic and creator, Kael and De Palma became as strongly linked as Edmund Wilson and F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Malcolm Cowley and William Faulkner. She championed his work, and he fulfilled her dreams. At the end of her famous 1969 essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies”—a conclusion that clears up any confusion about how Kael could wax enthusiastic about all three—the New Yorker critic stated, “If we’ve grown up with the movies, we know that good work is continuous not with the academic, respectable tradition but with the glimpses of something good in trash, yet we want the subversive gesture carried to the domain of discovery. Trash has given us an appetite for art.” De Palma, who was just getting started, specialized even then in the “subversive gesture”—the movie equivalent of the mustache drawn on an official portrait, or the snort filling the pause during a pompous oration. And a dozen years later, with Blow Out (1981), he indeed brought it all the way to the “domain of discovery,” offering up explosive epiphanies about the way we lived then. For Kael, Blow Out was both a grand summing-up—the film that showed De Palma’s talents in full bloom—and a transcendent achievement, going beyond wackiness or pop or camp to a tough-minded, clear-eyed humanism. She called it “his biggest leap yet,” proclaiming that it had risen to “the place where genre is transcended and what we’re moved by is an artist’s vision.”
Many of De Palma’s previous films, including Carrie (1976) and Dressed to Kill (1980), had started to erase the line between pop art and just plain art. By the time he made Blow Out, he had erased that line completely, crafting a political conspiracy film that was as personal and intricate as any piece of high culture—and zestier to boot, using popular, ultracontemporary ingredients, including slasher films and coed comedies. Written in the late 1970s, the film shows De Palma thumbing his nose at the official culture that had hidden America’s recent history of assassination and political corruption with the bunting of the U.S. bicentennial. What transformed it from a black-comic thriller into a genre-bursting contemporary tragedy was the fact that De Palma didn’t distance himself from that society or his characters. He also rejected the bland conventions of prestigious topical suspense films like, say, All the President’s Men (1976). His protagonist was not a crusading journalist but a toiler in porno-horror exploitation films. John Travolta’s valiant, maddeningly flawed hero, movie sound wizard Jack Terri, is a man who learns to see through everything, including politics, the media, and himself. He bets that technology of his own design can help him solve a terrible political crime and save the woman he loves. He loses.
Kael meant it literally when she wrote of Blow Out, “Seeing this movie is like experiencing the body of De Palma’s work and seeing it in a new way.” It contains recurring characters and motifs and low-comic or pulp subplots that date all the way back to Greetings. Kael had had her eye on De Palma from his cinema beginnings. But she was never an uncritical supporter. She wrote fondly of Greetings in her first year at the New Yorker, applauding De Palma’s smart, freestyle collaborations with actors like Robert De Niro. But when De Palma concentrated in earnest on the thriller form, with Sisters, Kael at first disapproved, thinking it didn’t rise above horror exploitation (she later told me she might have been too hard on it). She began viewing him as a master perfecting his craft with the achingly voluptuous films Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Carrie, and The Fury (1978), and her readings of his works in these years cemented his position at the top of his generation, with his friends Scorsese, Spielberg, and Coppola. Even when she disparaged Obsession (1976) as “no more than an exercise in style, with the camera swirling around nothingness,” she called it “great on-the-job training for Carrie.” She delighted in De Palma’s Bronx-cheer humor, his love of funk and grungy eccentricity, his political iconoclasm, and his zest in manipulating the camera. De Palma exulted, then as now, in navigating psychological and political badlands and the shared borders of fantasy and science. (Carl Jung could have been predicting De Palma’s career when he wrote, “The cinema makes it possible to experience without danger all the excitement, passion, and desirousness which must be repressed in a humanitarian ordering of life.”)
The genius of Blow Out is that in it De Palma finally let real life intersect with his dreamworlds. No component of the movie carries more veracity or poignancy than the unpredictable bond between the two lead characters. Kael rightly compares Travolta’s forceful performance as Jack Terri to Brando’s milestone of psychological realism Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront; both actors excel at characters tortured by their past and stumbling toward righteousness. Nancy Allen’s Sally, on the other hand, is a typical American escapist. But in her own way, she’s as alienated as Jack. A Korvette’s makeup artist who supplements her income by participating in sexploitation, Sally won’t watch the news because “it’s too depressing,” and she’s thrilled that Jack is in the movie business. After he tells her about his past with the police, she exclaims, “That’s like real life in the streets!” But when Jack’s outrage at the cover-up inspires her to clean up her act, she’s the one to take physical risks; Jack keeps his distance with a wire.
The emotion-filled imagery in Blow Out is as galvanizing as the film’s satiric humor and mesmeric techniques. Philadelphia—the birthplace of the nation and the stomping grounds of the young De Palma—is the perfect location for this movie. It has a human scale—the skyline doesn’t dwarf the characters—and it combines august heritage with urban blight. Seen through cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s acute eyes, it’s swathed in red, white, and blue for a (fictional) Liberty Day celebration (a patriotic cousin to the city’s Mummers Parade) marking the hundredth anniversary of the Liberty Bell’s last ringing. Almost every significant event in this movie occurs with a crash of symbols. As Jack rushes to apprehend the killer, he rams smack into images of a storybook America: July 4 fireworks, Norman Rockwell majorettes, and even a figure of Nathan Hale behind a department store window displaying a shortened version of Patrick Henry’s proclamation “Give me liberty or give me death.” In Blow Out’s most daring audiovisual stroke, De Palma holds the camera close to Travolta’s face as Jack puts himself in his own aural purgatory, using, for the soundtrack of a slasher film, a real-life death scream that rocks his soul. Quentin Tarantino told De Palma that it was “one of the most heartbreaking shots in the history of the cinema.” It’s a bit of dark poetic genius—a climax out of Edgar Allan Poe.
After Blow Out, which failed to win over audiences and most critics, De Palma didn’t, or couldn’t, leap from peak to peak as Kael hoped he would. For him, though, the decision to do a cocaine version of Scarface (1983), atypically blunt and grandiose, or a porno-horror thriller like Body Double (1984) was a bold provocation. American filmmakers must rely on calculation as well as inspiration to keep their careers going in a ruthless industry. Defending John Huston, a Kael favorite from an earlier generation, the critic once asked whether a career that was peppered with “weak, halfhearted assignments,” “ambitious failures,” and “confused” or “strictly commercial” projects was “more characteristic of film history, especially in the United States, than the ripening development and final mastery envisaged by the auteur theory.” What’s inspiring is that, even in this climate, De Palma did ripen. Kael would rightly call the harrowing Vietnam film Casualties of War (1989)—which he was given the freedom to make after the success of The Untouchables (1987)—“the culmination of his best work.” No Vietnam War film—no war film, period—has sequences as scary or as heartrending.
Some directors who are children of the sixties, like Jonathan Demme, have carried on the counterculture’s tribal and multicultural legacies. De Palma carries on its iconoclasm—and the sense that everything from the family car to public morality fell apart in the 1960s and has yet to be repaired. He has never stopped making movies about divided personalities, people uncertain of their social and psychological identities, torn between impulse and reason, good and evil. His fractured techniques transcend gimmickry because they reflect his sensibility and worldview. His split-screen and variable-motion sequences—and his many cunning versions of the picture within a picture—open up booby-trapped environments and casts of characters bristling with cross purposes. In Blow Out and Casualties of War, his craft serves a capacious, unifying story and facilitates a seamless aesthetic experience. (De Palma can be just as formidable an artist in jagged movies like Hi, Mom!, which revel in breaking the fourth wall and keeping viewers off balance.)
It’s a cruel joke that De Palma has been called derivative or clinical. Every aspect of his movies is personal; it’s no accident that the name of Jack Terri’s company, Personal Effects, was originally the name of the Blow Out script. While De Palma was writing it, he told Rolling Stone, “It goes back to my assassination-buff years and Watergate, and how things get covered up.” De Palma has never stopped engaging with current events and current cinema, even when he has misfired or flopped (as with 1990’s Bonfire of the Vanities). His aim is always perfection. With Carlito’s Way (1993), De Palma finally got the scale just right for a gangbusters contemporary crime film; its climactic action combines surgical editing and gutter-ballet choreography with a killer instinct for the decisive gesture (it’s like an improbable mélange of Sergei Eisenstein, Max Ophuls, and Sam Peckinpah). In her last New Yorker appearance, a 1994 interview with Hal Espen, Kael said she was as “committed” to De Palma as ever and called him “one of the few directors who keep developing in technique.”
Kael, who died on September 3, 2001, didn’t live to see De Palma’s two most important recent films, which split Blow Out’s legacy in two. Redacted (2007) evokes its urge to use sound and image and “found” data to solve the mystery of a terrible killing, here the rape and murder of a fourteen-year-old Iraqi girl by U.S. soldiers. And Blow Out’s Poe-like impulse to depict “all that we see or seem” as “but a dream within a dream” bears strange and glorious fruit in Femme Fatale (2002), a fantasy-shaped film noir about a cold-blooded con woman.
Just as Hitchcock’s techniques cleared a path for De Palma, De Palma’s audacity has paved the road, or at least broadened the way, for the up-front film noir surrealism of David Lynch and the go-for-broke perfectionism of David Fincher. No less a virtuoso than cinematographer Zsigmond told me this year that De Palma “is one of the greatest visual filmmakers around.” He still marvels at the work they did in Blow Out: “Think about the 360-degree circular dolly shot near the end of the movie: we had to light practically the whole seaport of Philadelphia with the July 4 fireworks behind Nancy Allen and John Travolta.” For Kael and for legions of true believers, De Palma has, to use a sixties phrase, “kept the faith.” This man of many parts—realist, fantasist, ironist, tragedian—has never fused them more dynamically or poignantly than in Blow Out.
Michael Sragow edited Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism and Agee: “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” “A Death in the Family,” Shorter Fiction for the Library of America. He is the author of Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master.