The Disparate Ground Covered by John Lithgow’s Collaborations with Brian De Palma

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I made a lot of noise last week about the disparate halves of actor John Travolta’s choices in roles, noting that the two sides of his career can be conveniently summed up by his turns in the political thrillers Swordfish & Blow Out. Another actor from June’s Movie of the Month, 1981’s political thriller Blow Out, John Lithgow has made a similar career out of splitting his time between expertly nuanced roles like his turn in Kinsey & over-the-top villains in less respectable crowd favorites like Footloose, Cliffhanger, and Ricochet. The difference between Lithgow & Travolta is that Travolta’s acting can waver from high art to low trash depending on the film, but Lithgow is nothing if not consistent. No matter what film he’s starring in, Lithgow gives the production an incredible sense of levity, seemingly committing himself wholeheartedly in an equal, measured approach to the task at hand.

In his two collaborations with director Brian De Palma, Blow Out & Raising Cain, Lithgow was given plenty of space to display his unwavering enthusiasm for his craft. In Blow Out, Lithgow excels as a violent, sociopathic assassin that dominates the film’s central threat. In Raising Cain, De Palma asks Lithgow to run wild, playing several different characters each more eccentric than the last. A psychological thriller about a child psychologist gone completely off the rails, Raising Cain is far from the tight, controlled political thriller offered in Blow Out. Lithgow commits to both films equally, though, bringing the same cold intensity he used to elevate Blow Out to flesh out the sketchy at best Raising Cain, a ludicrous thriller that asks a whole lot of him, all of which he gives selflessly.

If you’re looking to see how a little, tastefully-applied Lithgow can go a long away, Blow Out is certainly the movie for you. If you want to see how that same element can be used for over-the-top, tawdry camp, Raising Cain is the better option. Due to Lithgow’s consistent acting style, his presence is more of a tool than a variable. In his two collaborations with Lithgow, De Palma has used the actor for very disparate effects that both exemplifies the types of roles Lithgow is typically used for & the range of quality & tone De Palma reaches for in his films. As a double feature, Raising Cain & Blow Out reveal a lot about the nature of the director & the actor both and raises questions about exactly why they haven’t worked together more often.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, 1981’s Blow Out, visit our Swampchat , this look at Berberian Sound Studio’s sound-obsessed roots in the film, and last week’s comparison of the movie with John Travolta’s other political thriller, Swordfish.

-Brandon Ledet

Travolta’s Glorious Heights & Hopelessly Trashy Depths in Blow Out (1981) & Swordfish (2001)

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John Travolta has had a very strange career, alternating from working with acclaimed outsider directors like Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction & Brian De Palma in Blow Out to working on huge piles of hot garbage like Battlefield Earth & The Devil’s Rain. Strange as it is, this dichotomy isn’t entirely unique & can more or less be summed up as The Nic Cage Career Model. Travolta’s talents & natural charisma are immense, but often confusingly wasted on the trashiest of trash cinema. Travolta himself even solidified the Cage connection by essentially playing Cage at his hammiest in the ludicrously over-the-top action thriller Face/Off.

Perhaps the best way to experience the full range of Travolta’s full range of immense talent & laughable awfulness is in a double feature of June’s Movie of the Month, the 1981 political thriller Blow Out & Swordfish, a hopelessly trashy political thriller that arrived thirty years later & much worse for wear. Besides Travolta’s role & the political thriller genre connection, Swordfish & Blow Out both attempt meta-commentary about the nature of film itself. Blow Out accomplishes this slyly through depictions of a film of a car accident being reconstructed step by step, sound first. Swordfish, on the other hand, clumsily announces that it’s talking about movies by allowing Travolta’s central villain to deconstruct the intricacies of Dog Day Afternoon in the very first scene. Inviting viewers to conjure up memories of a much better film doesn’t do Swordfish any favors. Neither does watching Travolta’s performance in context of Blow Out.

In Blow Out, Travolta plays a befuddled everyman sound technician who’s in over his head when he gets dragged into a world of political intrigue. In Swordfish, he’s an evil Derek Zoolander-type with a terrible haircut who’s main business is political intrigue. The interesting thing about watching Blow Out  & Swordfish back to back is that they not only exemplify the heights & depths of Travolta’s talents & hamming, but they also validate & demonize those two dueling halves of his career. In Blow Out, we’re treated to Good Travolta, who just wants to tell the world the truth about a car accident because he feels like they have a right to know. In Swordfish, the much less savory Bad Travolta robs banks & forces hackers to operate at gunpoint while receiving oral sex just to see what they’re made of.

Blow Out is a perfectly constructed political thriller from the director of classics like Scarface & Carrie. Swordfish is a disgustingly crass fusion of The Matrix & Pulp Fiction sensibilities, laden with some of the worst CGI I’ve ever seen in a film, and directed by the dude who gave the world the Nic Cage Gone in Sixty Seconds remake. In tandem, both films share very little common ground, but do a competent job of capturing the totality of John Travolta’s varied career as an actor. As per usual, Good (Travolta) triumphs over Evil (Travolta) here and Blow Out is an objectively much better film, but to truly appreciate Travolta’s career as an actor in its totality you do have to roll around in the trash every now & then and he is hilariously dedicated to the cause in the grotesquely idiotic Swordfish.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, 1981’s Blow Out, visit our Swampchat & last week’s look at Berberian Sound Studio’s sound-obsessed roots in the film.

Berberian Sound Studio’s (2013) Sound-Obsessed Roots in Blow Out (1981)

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During our Swampchat discussion of June’s Movie of the Month, the Brian De Palma political thriller Blow Out, I pointed out that “Blow Out is in some ways a movie about making movies, but more specifically it’s a movie about how essential sound is to film. It boils the medium down to one of its more intangible elements. In that way it’s much more unique than a lot of other movies about movies, arriving more than three decades before the film it most closely resembles in this approach (that I can recall, anyway), Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio.” The entire time I was watching Blow Out I was aching to revisit Peter Strickland’s oddly engaging Berberian Sound Studio to see how the two films compare. It turns out that while Blow Out distills the process of making movies into a single element, recording sound, Berberian Sound Studio breaks it down even further until there is nothing left. De Palma used sound recording as an anchoring element for a story that had great impact outside the world of film-making, a world tainted by serial murders & political intrigue. Strickland’s film, on the other hand, rarely allowed the audience to leave the recording booth & gets lost in its own sound-obsession.

Although they are working within separate genres with their own respective aims & are separated by three decades of film-making, it’s not at all difficult to draw a connection between the two works. First of all, they’re connected by their basic movie-within-a-movie structure. In Blow Out, Travolta’s sound technician protagonist is working on a cheap slasher film for which he cannot find an actress with the perfect scream to match a brutal shower stabbing. When asked if he ever works on good films, Travolta responds “No, just bad ones.” The befuddled sound technician in Berberian (expertly played by character actor Tobey Jones), on the other hand, is hired for an Itallian giallo film called The Equestrian Vortex that also gradually proves itself to be a tawdry, violent horror film (although the director insists they’re making art). We’ve explored the giallo lineage of slasher films before in our discussions of former Movie of the Month Blood & Black Lace, but the connection is rarely as clear as it is in the comparison here. While Travolta is looking for a single scream to accompany his cheap slasher movie (when he’s not investigating assassinations in his free time), Berberian Sound Studio depicts countless micro-searches for the exact same thing. The exact sound of a neck being sliced or a witch’s hair being yanked from the scalp or even the standard damsel’s death rattle are all meticulously sought after here. Berberian depicts a wizardly crew of demented Gallaghers smashing melons, pulling turnip roots, and tormenting actresses to capture the perfect sounds for what amounts to a slightly artier version of the trash that Travolta’s is mindlessly cranking out in Blow Out.

However, as stated, the films do have disparate aims for their respective sound obsessions. Blow Out uses sound as a doorway to a world outside the recording booth. It’s a dangerous world, but it’s an exterior one where big, important things are happening. Berberian Sound Studio, in contrast, becomes psychedelically insular. It not only gets lost in the recording booth, but also in the idea of sound itself. There’s so much horror & dissociation in the sound techniques employed in the film that it reaches an otherworldly state of mind that mimics the broken psyche of Bergman’s Persona just as much as anything it echoes from De Palma’s film. When you watch Berberian on Netflix with the closed captions enabled, the screen is filled with ludicrously long lists of sound descriptions desperately trying to keep up with every aural element in play. Early in the film a character ominously warns/promises, “A new world of sound awaits you. A world that requires all your magic powers.” It’s doubtful that the protagonist or most of the audience took him as literally as he meant it, but Berberian really is a lot more interested in the magic of sound than the more technically-minded Blow Out.

If I had to boil down the difference between the two films, I’d simply point out that Travolta’s protagonist spends most of his run time trying to piece together a crime scene & to capture a maniac killer, while Jones’ character is trying to get reimbursed for an airline ticket & to hold onto his basic sanity. De Palma’s approach weaponized sound to strengthen his political thriller’s arsenal. For Strickland, sound wasn’t a powerful tool; it was the entire point. The movies do share an impressive amount  of overlap, though, especially in Blow Out’s early, growling winds & in both film’s audiophile obsession with analog equipment. It’s difficult to imagine either film could be set in 2015 without being changed drastically. It’s doubtful that either film would mean much of anything once digital equipment removed a lot of the incidental sound from recording booths. The clacking & whirring of film projectors and tape recorders are essentially the two films’ lifeblood. Even the sound of the instruments that capture & display images are essential to cinema in these two films’ worldview. That’s the kind of synesthesia we’re working with here: there’s a sound even to the imagery. Blow Out just happens to use this attention to sound to open a door, while Berberian chooses to lock itself in the dark & swallow the key. They’re both overwhelmingly successful in their respective endeavors.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, 1981’s Blow Out, visit last week’s Swampchat on the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Blow Out (1981)

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Every month one of us makes the other two watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month James made Britnee & Brandon watch Blow Out (1981).

James: Brian De Palma’s political thriller Blow Out is our May Movie of the Month and I’m pretty stoked to revisit this hidden gem from one of my all-time favorite directors. Based on the 1966 film Blow Up about a fashion photographer who accidentally films a murder, Blow Out tweaks that premise, focusing on Jack Terry, a sound engineer for B horror movies, who gets entangled in a conspiracy after capturing the audio of a fatal car crash that kills a presidential candidate.

Putting his stylistic chops on full display, De Palma doesn’t pull any punches. Split screens, long tracking shots, dizzying angles; Hitchcock would be proud. It’s mind boggling that even with a star studded cast (including John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, and Dennis Franz) and gushing reviews from critics, Blow Out was a box office flop when it premiered in 1981. That’s a shame because everyone gives great performances, especially Lithgow as a cold blooded psychopath (what else) and Travolta as the sound engineer always looking for “the perfect scream”. Thankfully, Blow Out has gained popularity through the years and earned a reputation as a quintessential De Palma. I think it’s his best film.

What really blew me away re-watching Blow Out was how strongly the film holds up as a homage to the medium of film itself. It is a movie about making movies. As Jack puts together the audio and video of the fatal wreck, we are viewing the process of film making itself, the melding of sight and sound.

Brandon, do you feel like I do about Blow Out being a “movie about making movies”? Do you think this is why De Palma chose to focus on a movie sound engineer instead of a fashion photographer?

Brandon: I did find that approach interesting here, because normally films will interact with their own medium by showing members of a theater audience. This is even true in horror films, such as the monsters-break-the-fourth-wall classics Demons & The Ring or the throwaway gag in Gremlins where an entire theatrical audience is made of unruly, cackling monsters. There’s a little bit of audience-acknowledgement in the opening minutes of Blow Out, which features a few men in a screening room enjoying a hilariously tawdry, violent slasher movie. It adds whole other layer of specificity that the men are actually working on the film they’re watching, specifically on its sound effects. As James just noted, it’s not interacting with film as a medium from a consumer’s point of view, but rather from an active participant’s. Of course, the movie maker’s perspective isn’t entirely unique either, but the sound engineer angle has a very precise specificity to it, since most films about filmmakers would approach the story from the perspective of a writer or a director. It gets even more specific from there, given that these are men that only make cheap slasher flicks. At one point a character asks Jack if he works on “big” movies and he responds, “No. Just bad ones.”

That specificity turns out to be a very important distinction, especially the sound engineer detail. As James points out, Travolta’s protagonist, Jack, spends most of Blow Out’s run time attempting to construct a film version of a car crash he witnessed. Although film is a mostly visual medium, it’s Jack’s work with sound that dominates this process. He obsesses over the audio recording of the crash that he captured, using it as a cornerstone in his reconstruction of the crime scene. Yes, Blow Out is in some ways a movie about making movies, but more specifically it’s a movie about how essential sound is to film. It boils the medium down to one of its more intangible elements. In that way it’s much more unique than a lot of other movies about movies, arriving more than three decades before the film it most closely resembles in this approach (that I can recall, anyway), Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio.

Britnee, how do you think De Palma’s focus on sound in Blow Out shaped the film as a final product? Did its sound obsession have a big effect on you as a viewer, as opposed to how you normally watch movies?

Britnee: De Palma’s focus on sound really makes Blow Out a standout film and turns what could’ve been a run-of-the-mill thriller into a milestone in cinema. Of course, there are many other elements that make this film unique, but I think its obsession with sound is really what differentiated it from others. I have watched quite a few movies in my lifetime, but I’ve never come across or heard of a film that offers a behind-the-scenes look at the importance of sound in movies. Prior to viewing Blow Out, I never gave much thought to any of the sounds that occur during a movie, and now that I’ve seen the film, it’s all that I think about. In the final scene of Blow Out, Jack uses the screams from Sally’s murder for the bad movie he’s working on (his “perfect scream”), and I found this to be very unsettling. When I now hear a scream in a movie, I can’t help but think of the possibility of it being from an actual murder. What if there are psychotic sound technicians that go around killing people for authentic screams? It’s just something to think about.

The film’s camerawork is definitely something that stood out to me as well. Many of the angles were creative and voyeuristic with similarities to those in Blood and Black Lace, but there were a few that were way over the top, almost to the point of being ridiculous. The one that stands out the most to me is the merry-go-round shot that occurs in the scene where Jack is searching through his studio like a mad man looking for the missing tape. The camera must have spun around 100 times without stopping. It was like being on a Tilt-A-Whirl but not in a good way. Other than his theme park inspired camerashots, there were many others that were very innovative and enjoyable.

James, what are your feelings about De Palma’s imaginative cinematography? Were some of the shots a little absurd? Were they necessary for the film’s success?

James: A self-professed De Palma devotee, I love his unique approach to cinematography but I can understand how some viewers might scratch their heads at his more show-offy, “I went to film school” shots in Blow Out. Like the long tracking shot at the beginning of his1998 film Snake Eyes, many of these grandiose shots aren’t necessary, definitely a little absurd, but totally awesome. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have ejoyed Blow Out nearly as much if it didn’t included close up of owls and dizzying trips around Jack’s office. It reminds me of previous Movie of the Month directors like Mario Bava and Ken Russell who seem to take a similar delight in playing with their audience’s perspective

On a different note, I have to bring up the ending to Blow Out. As I addressed in my first question, Blow Out did not perform well in the bow office, and I wonder if the film’s bleak ending was the reason. With Jon Lithgow in full on psychopath mode and the Fourth of July festivities in full swing, we assume that that Jack will reach the girl in time but De Palma pulls the rug out from under us and the backrop of patriotism and freedom takes on a more ominous tone. Is this punishment for Jack’s participation in exploitation films? Is it a statement on American politics?

Brandon, what are your thoughts on Blow Out‘s ending? Why do you think De Palma chose to end the film in such an unconventional, bleak manner?

Brandon: I think the movie’s pessimistic conclusion is best understood in the context of De Palma’s status as one of the voices of New Hollywood. New Hollywood was already at least a decade old by Blow Out’s release, often cited as beginning with the release of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde in 1967, but De Palma’s aesthetic & tone was very much rooted in the movement. In addition to other genre-defining traits, notable New Hollywood films like Easy Rider, Chinatown, The French Connection, and Harold & Maude had a tendency to subvert audience’s expectations by concluding on bleak & unresolved notes. I suppose the idea was that this approach was more realistic & honest because conflicts in “real” life don’t always end on the definitive & upbeat terms that often accompanied more escapist Old Hollywood fare.

I think De Palma goes even a step further than some of his peers in this case by falsely promising a grandiose, happy conclusion. When Travolta’s protagonist Jack first rushes to save the day, he disruptively drives directly into a Liberty Day parade in a grand gesture that normally would end with him victorious & Lithgow’s antagonist in jail. Instead, he crashes & burns. Literally. The “happy ending” subversion in Blow Out is so deliberate & well-teased that it plays like a hilarious prank before it takes an even darker turn. Despite the violence & grim political intrigue of the film’s story, De Palma still found a way to let his darkly playful sense of humor shine through.

Britnee, were there any other ways you found Blow Out oddly humorous outside the slasher-movie & hero-saves-the-day fake-outs that began & closed the film? What made you laugh in-between those moments?

Britnee: There was a whole lot to laugh at between the opening and closing of the film. While Blow Out was a serious thriller, there were a good bit of ridiculous moments and scenes that got a few chuckles out of me. Particularly, the scene when Jack first meets Sally in the hospital. Sally basically has a concussion after being in a fatal car crash, but Jack is so set on dragging her out of her hospital bed and getting her to a bar. He does succeed with getting her out of the hospital while she’s still in need of medical attention, but ends up having a hard time getting her to the bar for a couple of drinks (go figure). As Brandon mentioned previously, De Palma does have a dark sense of humor, and this is a pretty good example of it. Also, I’m just now realizing that the lovers in Blow Out, Jack and Sally, just so happen to share the same name as the famous couple from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Interesting.

Most of the other comical occurrences in the film were minor, but still pretty damn hilarious. Jack’s over-the-top dramatic facial expressions, Sally’s quirky dialogue, and Manny Karp’s dirty wife-beater really stick out in my mind as little things that were humorous in the film.

Lagniappe

Brandon: One thing I think that has gotten somewhat lost in the mix here is the performance by Nancy Allen as Sally. Known to most as “That Lady from Robocop” and known to Blow Out director Brian De Palma at the time of filming Blow Out as “My Wife” (feel free to read that in the Borat vernacular if you need to), is an actress who doesn’t necessarily get a chance to shine often. She’s extremely charming here as the love-interest-who-isn’t-quite-what-she-seems noir archetype, recalling performances like Dotty in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure & the secretary from Twin Peaks. It’s not entirely surprising that Allen’s performance is overwhelmed by the likes of John Travolta, John Lithgow, and the impressively sleazy Dennis Franz, but I do feel like deserves more recognition for bringing a certain heart, authenticity, and (as Britnee mentioned) humor to a film that may have felt like a (exceedingly technically proficient) cold cinematic exercise without her.

Britnee: Blow Out is such an unrecognized treasure. What I liked the most about this movie were the many twists and turns that occurred from beginning to end. After the first half-hour or so, I thought that I had the film figured out; an average Joe solves a murder and gets the girl in the end. It turns out that I’m a terrible guesser.

James: Blow Out is essential De Palma and arguably his masterwork. With its mix of intrigue, nail biting suspense, and dark humor, the film transcends genres and feels as fresh as it must have in 1981. Showcasing De Palma’s formidable skill behind the camera, Blow Out is also a great homage to the process of film making from a modern master.

Upcoming Movie of the Months:
July: Britnee presents Highway to Hell (1991)
August: Brandon presents Babe: Pig in the City (1998)

-The Swampflix Crew