Welcome to “Throwback Thursdays,” a new film feature at the Stanford Daily. Every Thursday (hopefully), the Arts & Life section will publish reviews highlighting older or more obscure works — sometimes both — that are currently not playing in traditional theaters. This week, we’ll be focusing on Brian De Palma’s 1981 cult classic “Blow Out,” which our critic Rey Barcelo argues has taken on new relevancy in our post-truth era. “Blow Out” can be purchased online or rented for free at Stanford’s own Media & Microtext Center, located in the basement of Green Library.
2016 was the year conspiracy theories went mainstream. From Pizzagate to the golden shower, from poll fraud to inauguration attendance, stories of questionable authenticity have swept into popular culture and taken the truth hostage along with them. Rebranded with catchy titles like “alternative facts” (for those untruths we’d like to be true) or “fake news” (for those truths we’d like to be false), these conspiracies and falsehoods have thoroughly burrowed themselves within modern life.
And amid this flood of uncertainty, I recommend watching “Blow Out,” Brian De Palma’s 1981 paranoid manifesto about how conspiracies are made and how those conspiracies make us. John Travolta stars as Jack, a sound technician for pornographic exploitation films who is in pursuit of two realistic sounds: wind and a female scream. In pursuit of the former, he heads to a park at night, where he hopes to pick up the sound of rustling breeze. Instead, he witnesses a car hurtle off a bridge and fall into a creek. Jack dives in after it, managing to save a woman trapped inside (Nancy Allen), but leaving a dead man behind. He soon discovers that the dead man in the car was a presidential candidate and that the young woman was the candidate’s escort. Revisiting his audio of the night, Jack is shocked to hear a gunshot just before the crash. Was the candidate murdered? And if so, can Jack prove it?
“Blow Out” quickly becomes a raging storm of paranoia and conspiracy — with Jack and his tape at the storm’s epicenter. In a slyly self-referential sequence, Jack assembles his own conspiracy film from his audio and bystander footage, but the film only leaves him with more unanswered questions. As his film grows in infamy, he is followed, secretly recorded and manipulated, though the exact identities of his assailants are unclear. And each encounter leaves Jack more bewildered than the last.
De Palma’s direction matches the script’s circular logic with flourishes that left me dazed. In one scene, Jack obsessively replays his tape while the camera continuously pans around the room. In each rotation, Jack appears momentarily, before being lost to the swiveling frame. Like our frustrated protagonist, we are traveling in circles. In an equally bizarre sequence where unstable hitman Burke (John Lithgow) speaks with his boss through a phone booth, the camera pans endlessly around the booth as its walls distort the scene behind him. Faces in the background expand and twist as if being held under a magnifying glass. The closer we look, the less we recognize what we see.
Well-read cinephiles will remember that “Blow Out” is an informal remake of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 “Blow-Up,” in which a fashion photographer accidentally photographs a murder. While the protagonist of “Blow-Up” finds hidden truth from continually enlarging (“blowing up”) his photograph, Jack uncovers his conspiracy by assembling a film from his tapes and an eyewitness video. Both movies probe the connection between truth and evidence, but De Palma wisely updates Antonioni’s film for a post-Watergate era by steeping his questions in layer after layer of conspiracy. If Jack’s tapes are erased, is the past erased as well? What makes his recording any more real than the sound he synthesizes for his exploitation films? And is evidence the only difference between a paranoid man and an insane one? “Blow Out” poses all of these questions but answers few of them.
These questions have become even more urgent since “Blow Out”’s initial release. Nowadays, anyone can be a home-brewed conspiracy theorist. Trust in the media is at an all-time low, “fake news” sites peddle lies as fact, and our President utters easily provable falsehoods without blinking an eye. By today’s standards, the paranoid world of “Blow Out” looks positively tame. While watching it, one almost pines for the days when an audiotape was enough to derail a presidential campaign. These days, Jack could have released his video on Youtube, and it would be promptly filed next to footage of Hillary Clinton’s alien baby.
Yet, the film’s seeming datedness actually helps establish it as a benchmark with which to compare our own “post-truth” society. When we begin to recognize ourselves in John Travolta’s frenetic truth-seeker, we’re fucked. As the eloquent Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes recently put it, “There’s no such thing anymore, unfortunately, as facts.” After watching “Blow Out,” I think she may actually be right.
Contact Rey Barcelo at rbarcelo ‘at’ stanford.edu.