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.


Peter Nellhaus said...

Dressed to Kill was released by American International when Sam Arkoff was still in charge. Blow Out was released by AIP after Arkoff sold the studio to Filmways. I still remember Arkoff's description of Blow Out as "auteurist fecal matter".

Greg said...

Arkoff was the arbiter of all things quality, to be sure. And of course, if I recall correctly, Arkoff probably thought the production company portrayed in the film was a shot at him.

Arkoff - "The dreck was my idea."

Pat said...

Love this post, although I wound up skimming a lot of the "Blow Out" part, as I've never seen it -but want to - and didn't want to hit any spoilers.

But a lot of what you write strikes a chord with me - about wathcing lots of movies but not feeling motivated to write about them (which has been state of mind for a while now), about struggling through the low-light months, and especially about your mostalgia for the great films of the 1970s. I think it's true that great films are never depressing - my personal faveorite film from the 1970s is "Nashville" which is pretty bleak and cynical, but which never fails to exhilirate me.

Greg said...

Pat, I love Nashville too. As for winter I, and those who know me, notice a significant shift in my mood and outlook during the winter months which I do my best to conceal. A lot of people probably think seasonal affective disorders are imaginary but every time I've ever quit a job it's been in February. I stopped doing that but it would get to the end of winter and I would be so depressed I would walk away from everything. It's a struggle not to do that every year. I'm already feeling fits of despair almost daily. Winter light sucks as far as I'm concerned.

And I do miss the way movies felt in the seventies. It's hard to describe but I feel you know what I mean. They had a look, a feel and a style that set them apart from what followed and much of what came before. I hope you get a chance to see Blow Out soon and I hope you like it.

Tony Dayoub said...

This is an excellent post on De Palma's very best film. Thanks, Greg, for the contribution, and you should see a link to it over at my site later in the day.

Greg said...

Thanks Tony. I still don't think De Palma ever topped it. It's one of the most finely crafted suspense thrillers I've ever seen.

Pat said...

I think Seasonal Affective Disorder is very real, there's something about being deprived of natural light that sucks the life of me. We had a particularly harsh winter here this year, and I don't think I've felt more drained and disconnected from the world.

I'm sorry to hear this is already weighing you down,Greg. Hang in there.

Greg said...

Thanks Pat, and you too.

Brian Doan said...

Hey Greg,
Sorry to hear about your job situation, and hope you are doing well.

bill r. said...

This is a great piece, Greg. Well done. And I don't say that because it coincidentally mirrors a lot of my own thoughts about De Palma and movie-watching in general. I absolutely agree that when it comes to directing individual scenes, De Palma is a stone cold cinematic genius. It's when he puts everything together that he often runs into problems, and I find it very frustrating.

Nevertheless, this afternoon, when I get home from the dentist, I'm going to lie on the couch and watch Blow Out. Thanks to you. Again, great piece.

Greg said...

Brian, I thought you knew. I was laid off three months ago and worked through the end of July. I've got a severance package keeping us afloat right now but we're desperately trying to save because the severance runs out soon and I still have no job prospects.

Greg said...

Thanks Bill, I appreciate that.

I absolutely agree that when it comes to directing individual scenes, De Palma is a stone cold cinematic genius. It's when he puts everything together that he often runs into problems...

Why is that I wonder? I remember thinking more than a few of the scenes in Casualties of War were brilliantly rendered and yet when asked of my opinion of it I say, "hmmm... well, it's okay. It's got problems with the..." and then I start to break it down but I'm never quite sure where the problem lies. Individual scenes work like gangbusters but there's a dead zone that hangs over the movie and many of his others. Kind of a cold remove for lack of a better term.

Rick Olson said...

Fight starter of the day: "Nashville is auteurist fecal matter."

I'm not a fan of DePalma's, but surely agree that "Blow Out" is his best. And this is some mighty fine writing, Greg. Hang in there.

PIPER said...

Great write-up Greg.

I wrote a piece for the Blog-a-Thon as well about Phantom of the Paradise. And wrote that it felt like an experiment. Something where it didn't matter if people liked it or hated it. I miss that about that time and those films.

But your point about Blow Out and E.T. being separated by 12 months is amazing. I couldn't think of two completely different movies in their "feel."

I am a much bigger fan of DePalma than you, but Blow Out remains my favorite. It's his best storytelling without skimping on all the DePalma essentials. And damn, that's a haunting ending to a movie.

Greg said...

Fight starter of the day: "Nashville is auteurist fecal matter."

I was thinking about advertising my blog as "auterist fecal matter." Screw it, I'm proud of it.

And I'll make it through this winter just like I do every other one. Basically take the ups with downs. Thanks Rick.

Greg said...

Pat, I'm going to head over and read your piece right now. Glad you agree/understand about the seventies/eighties feel because it's hard to put into words if you don't. Even the gritty urban films of the eighties just don't have that dirty, filthy feel that a French Connection or Taxi Driver pulls off with ease.

And the end of Blow Out is a pretty stunning and haunting sign off to a thriller. There's no way in hell that ending would pass muster with test audiences today.

Brian Doan said...

No, I'm so sorry, but I missed the news about your layoff. I'm really sorry to hear about that, and hope you and your family are doing well. Any employer would be lucky to have someone with your talent and good humor, and I hope things end up ok.

Thanks for a great piece on De Palma. Is it weird that your very apt description of how he's great in scenes or moments, but more problematic in the whole, is also how I feel about DW Griffith? I've been looking at silent films with my students, and there are so many extraordinary moments in INTOLERANCE, for instance, but it doesn't always cohere into the grand statement that Griffith wants it to be. I wonder how many other filmmakers-- really great filmmakers, too-- might fit this pattern.

Greg said...

Brian thanks.

I've always felt that way about Griffith myself. His most captivating work by far is Birth of a Nation but, in my opinion, only because it combines grand technique with a repulsive vision. At least half of my interest when watching it is the truly jaw-dropping racism on display. I think a lot of people feel that way about it (my analysis of it is still my most read piece here at Cinema Styles even though it's over two years old). Intolerance doesn't have the "did he really just do that" shock quality of Birth of a Nation and so suffers by comparison. Great moments but not a great cohesive whole to my mind.

PIPER said...


To add to this. Your comments about DePalma being a great director of scenes is right on. I don't know that there is an equal. I think it's hard to love an entire DePalma movie, but I love so many elements of it. I think that's why Blow Out sticks out so much for me. It is just all around good storytelling.

But even the Fury which in revisiting, I found that I didn't much care for, still sticks with me because of the scenes he creates. DePalma is not unlike Ken Russell in the way that he can create visuals that seem to burn into your retina. While the movie may not stick with you entirely, certain scenes surely do.

Greg said...

I haven't seen The Fury in years and I'll have to see it again before having any weight behind my statements on it. I liked it when I saw... thirty years ago. So, yeah, it's been a while. I remember a guy, and there were some buildings and a few people got in and out of cars I believe, right?

After Blow Out I'd have to go with Dressed to Kill as my favorite of his and that came out in the same two year period as Blow Out so clearly, for me at least, that period was De Palma at his strongest.

Sam Erickson said...

I think a movie can be great while being grim because the very darkness of a movie can make it powerful or memorable(a good example would be Melville's "Army of Shadows" ,which left me haunted for several hours)

Also,Ingmar Bergman's films are grim but it doesn't bother me because I think when I see his films it goes with the territory

However,while I admired the skill and ambition put into The Dark Knight.I didn't enjoy it(Hey,sue me) because it was so oppressive.

As for DePalma,I've been up and down on his work.I enjoyed The Untouchables immensely even though it is more narrative driven than style(which is what DePalma known for).Watching Scarface was a visceral experience but it wallowed in excess and went on way too long.Mission Impossible was formulaic and forgettable.Carlito's Way was compelling with good performances but some of the subplots seemed phony and pointless (Particularly the one with Carlito's crazy lawyer turning to a life of crime).So even when I think DePalma's movies are good they will always have flaws.