Friday, September 11, 2009

The Seventies Last Dance

1952. A crowd boards a streetcar, presumably to go to work, at least for the man with the briefcase. I don't go to work myself since being laid off but do keep myself very busy and hope to land work before all the money runs out. In the meantime the weather changes and the greyness of fall and winter sets in. I always love the autumn weeks but soon struggle to make it through the low-light conditions of winter. I like to think someone boarding that streetcar had the same struggles and after reading the marquee across the street thought, "I'm going to go see that later. The movies always cheer me up."

I have been fascinated, obsessed, delighted, awe-struck, intrigued, invigorated and re-invigorated by the movies for decades now but sometimes find myself at a loss as to what to do with them besides watch them. That sounds odd of course, what else does one do with a movie besides watch it? Well, write about it, discuss it, take it apart and put it back together, feel it, live it and sometimes even connect to it on a deeply personal level. Lately though, I've just been watching them. In fact, thanks to my recently unemployed status I've probably watched more movies in the last two months than I watched in the preceding six months and still, I have little to say about them. Right now, Tony Dayoub of Cinema Viewfinder has a blogathon going on concerning the films of Brian De Palma. I have seen several Brian De Palma movies but find myself unsure as to what to write about any or all of them. I know that I like Carrie and Blow Out and that Casualties of War was a disappointment to me but nothing on the level of Body Double which felt like a disaster or some kind of cinematic lost bet. Many love Scarface, I do not. The Untouchables was enjoyable but I haven't returned to it in years and have little desire to do so now. The thing is, I find De Palma an excellent filmmaker in scenes more than in whole movies which is a part of my difficulty in writing about one particular film. Even when De Palma disappoints me however, and he has done so often, he can still amaze me with individual scenes and set-ups. I'm sure I'm not the first to think that the museum moment in Dressed to Kill is one of the greatest seduction scenes ever filmed. Or the moment in Blow Out when John Travolta is listening to the tape over and over again while a split screen shows us the car tire in close-up and as Travolta realizes he is hearing two bangs, the gunshot first and then the blow out, the audio and visuals come together so beautifully it's almost like watching a dance between the two, choreographed perfectly by De Palma.

In fact, I think Blow Out is probably my favorite De Palma film but I still have little to say about it. I imagine anything I say will fall far short of the insightful analysis my better prepared brother and sister bloggers can and most likely will provide. But this is a blogathon and it is about De Palma and my favorite film of his is Blow Out so dammit, I should say something and so I shall. I shall try to express why it is my favorite of his films, one part having to do with him and one part having to do with timing.

The first part, having to do with De Palma, concerns the assassin Burke, played brilliantly by John Lithgow. Following his actions throughout the movie makes it another dance as it were, with John Travolta's soundman Jack, each partner countering the other while moving closer together. Most conspiracy films only cover one side, the protagonist. Whether it's The Conversation or The Parallax View we usually get little in the way of what the bad guys are up to but in Blow Out we follow Burke's centered, obsessively focused movements just as closely as we follow Jack's on the other side. As Burke does everything he can to cover his tracks, with the precision of a Swiss clockmaker, including the horrifying yet brilliant plan of killing similar women in an effort to make it look like the work of a serial killer so that when he finally kills our heroine, Sally, played by Nancy Allen, no one will think anything more of it than she was just the next victim in line, we see both his and Jack's axis lines moving towards the same point, knowing they will cross and knowing Jack will be powerless to stop what follows. Not only are Burke and Jack's movements countered and observed throughout the movie but De Palma does so with sound and video, rarely dialogue. There is plenty of dialogue of course, but the important aspects of the story are all represented visually, as Jack cuts out the photos from the "accident" to reconstruct them or Burke replaces the tire on the car. From beginning to end Blow Out is movie for people who love the movies. Like the works of Quentin Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson years later, it celebrates moviemaking itself as it tells its story, and not through visual quoting of films past but through the sheer exuberance, detail and thoughtfulness put into each shot.

The second part to this, the other reason Blow Out is my favorite De Palma film, has little to do with De Palma and more to do with its release year of 1981. Unbeknownst to De Palma, Blow Out was a signal post for the cinema, the last one for the seventies. In my mind, maybe in yours as well, it marked the end of the great seventies experiment where production companies and studios paid good cash for writer-directors to put whatever the hell they wanted to up there on the screen, with little interference. The movie has the feel of what came before and none of what came after. Blow Out, like so many of the great works of the seventies, from Chinatown to Taxi Driver, The Last Detail to The French Connection, The Parallax View to Dog Day Afternoon, has an ending that is bleak, despairing and hopeless with its hero coming up on the wrong end. The world, it seems, isn't a very fair place after all. The very next year E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was released and felt like it emitted from another era than Blow Out, separated by decades, not twelve months. The seventies were officially over and the eighties had begun. There would still be all manner of movies with endings both happy and sad but no more with the feel those seventies movies had, at least in the mind of this admittedly nostalgic writer. While many people welcome a respite from movies with bleak endings or find them too hard to watch in the first place I maintain, as have many others including Roger Ebert who probably said it most famously, and I paraphrase, good movies are never depressing, bad movies always are. Like that commuter that I imagined planning to see The Sellout, a movie like Blow Out still cheers me up despite its somber resolution, full of despair and quiet surrender. It cheers me up because great film, great art, always does and even if I don't always know what to say about it I appreciate the gift nonetheless.


This post has been a contribution to the Brian De Palma blogathon hosted by Tony Dayoub at Cinema Viewfinder.