I don’t know what it is about conspiracy films that make them so absorbing, aside from the fact that the main character is trying to solve some type of mystery. I think the real power of conspiracy films is that they are the most vicarious film genre. Often they are shot through the eyes of a voyeur, observing a character as they spiral down a path of obsession in their search for the truth.
We all seem to have an obsession with finding out the truth, but life usually gets in the way of our pursuit. Yet, we still have those moment where we look at a mysterious person on the bus and try to imagine who they are and what their life is. We use their clothes to trace them back to their homes, and use the objects in their homes to trace them back to their childhood, building a character in our minds. We are these detectives trying to unravel an innocuous mystery, because there are so many real mysterious in life that we will never have answers to.
In real life uncovering a vast conspiracy is just impossible, the stakes are to high, the possibility of truth so unattainable, that watching films is the only way we will ever be able to get answers to those burning questions without ever putting ourselves in danger. We accept this sad fact of life and move on. Yet, every time we a sketchy person or hear about some alleged government cover up our minds go racing down that same spiral.
That is why it is so easy to put ourselves in the shoes of the main character of a conspiracy film, because we want that person to unravel the mystery, so that we can also unravel the mystery.
We find closure in their closure.
But what happens when the main character finds no closure. Do we feel empty as well?
In Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, Jack Terry (John Travolta) is an overqualified audio tech who provides sound effects for cheesy, soft-core, horror films. One late night while Jack is collecting ambient sounds at the park, he sees a car lose control, fly off the road, and dive into a nearby creek. Jack jumps into action, diving into the water to render aid to the passengers in the vehicle. Jack discovers two people, one deceased man and a young woman, stuck inside the sinking vehicle.
Jack is able to save the young woman from the submerged car and bring her to safety. While at the hospital with the woman, named Sally (Nancy Allen), he finds out that the deceased man was in fact the governor, who was gearing up for a presidential bid. Jack is greeted by an associate of the governor who asks him to keep sally’s presence on the down low because she was the governor’s mistress and he doesn’t want this information getting back to the governor’s family. Jack reluctantly agrees and sneaks Sally out of the hospital.
Jack goes home and listens to the recordings of the crash. On the tape he hears the distinct sound of a gunshot before the car went careening off the road. Jack starts to believe that the crash wasn’t just a random accident, but an assignation attempt on the governor. On the news he hears about Manny Karp (Dennis Franz) a man who has sold footage of the crash to a local newspaper.
Jack uses the crash pictures, along with his audio to create a movie of the accident. After watching the movie, he is even more certain that the crash was an assignation attempt.
Jack becomes obsessed with the accident and wants to uncover more information so he can take it the authorities. He brings Sally into his investigation in order to acquire more information. Even though Jack’s film definitively proves that there is foul play involved in death of the governor, nobody will believe him.
As mysterious forces work to keep Jack’s information from getting out, a new serial killer called “The Liberty Bell Strangler” (John Lithgow), begins hunting down women that share a remarkable resemblance to Sally.
Will Jack be able to prove that the governor was in fact assassinated or will “The Liberty Bell Strangler” get to Sally first?
The direction by Brian De Palma is impeccable. There are some many stunning shots that really build the tension in the film. One of my favorites shots, is the scene in Jack’s editing studio. The way the camera spins as Jack is searching for his recordings, lets the audiences experience Jack’s anxiety. The whole film has a Hitchcockian feel, which makes sense as Hitchcock was one of Brian De Palma’s biggest influences.
Blow Out is a very arresting, dream-like film that has much more to say than a conventional thriller. The film can be read as an indictment of American politics in the early 80s, the treatment of women in films, the futility of trying to make a difference in the world, and even the filming process itself. In reality, this movie really is an amalgam of all these disparate threads. Due to its ironically sad ending the film will always be a canvas for viewers interpretations, yet will also stand as Brian De Palma masterpiece.
Blow Out is a completely absorbing Hitchcockian thriller filled with beautiful camerawork and incredible performances, quite possibly Brian De Palma best film.
“You can escape purgatory, but you can’t escape Hell.” - Priest in My Left Foot
This has been day 22 of 30 VHS In 30 DAYS. My journey to the center of VHS Hell. Special thanks to I Luv Video in Austin, The World’s Largest Video Store, for being my spiritual and literal guide through VHS purgatory.