The Indy Film Club: How Blow Out proves that film can’t show us the truth

Jean-Luc Godard may have labelled cinema as ‘truth at 24 frames per second’, but Brian De Palma used his 1981 psychological thriller as the perfect counterargument, writes Clarisse Loughrey

Friday 24 April 2020 17:24
John Travolta plays Jack, a sound designer who becomes convinced he’s captured evidence of a political assassination
John Travolta plays Jack, a sound designer who becomes convinced he’s captured evidence of a political assassination

A good scream is hard to find. Tears can be switched on like a tap. A smile is just a twitch of the muscles. But a scream isn’t produced. It erupts, deep from within the fleshy caverns of someone’s lungs. Blow Out’s notorious shriek, let out by Nancy Allen’s Sally in the film’s final reel, is no ordinary sound. It’s a death cry – a final expression of utter hopelessness, which her lover Jack (John Travolta), a sound designer, then adds to the tacky slasher film he’s working on. “Now that’s a scream!” his producer exclaims. But the result feels uncanny. A slasher film isn’t reality. It’s an illusion, a ritual. We never connect it to the idea of real human loss.

Blow Out from 1981 – a terrific psychological thriller mixing the paranoia of The Conversation with Hitchcockian suspense – questions film’s ability to show us the truth. It’s a surprising stance for its director, Brian De Palma, to take, considering he otherwise treats the medium with such divine reverence. He’ll absorb the wisdom of his predecessors, then carefully replicate it on screen. He has a particular affection for Hitchcock and his preoccupation with sexual obsession, voyeurism, and violence – explored with a sense of absolute precision and control. Those themes crop up in Blow Out, though it also riffs heavily off Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966) and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). In Blowup, a fashion photographer becomes convinced he’s captured a murder on film. In The Conversation, it’s a wiretapper who’s recorded two people seemingly planning a homicide.

Here, it’s a political assassination that our protagonist, Jake, believes he’s caught on tape. One night, he ventures out to record a few ambient sounds – an owl, a couple’s whispered conversation, the wind rustling through leaves. Suddenly, a car swerves into view. There’s a bang. It plummets into the river. Jake dives in to rescue the woman in the passenger seat, Sally, but later discovers that the driver was a presidential hopeful. When he listens back to the tape, he realises there were in fact two bangs. One was the blowout. But before? He’s sure he can hear a gunshot.

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