A common topic for artists when speaking of their work is this amorphous and kind of indefinable idea of truth. The unspoken tenets of art seem to call for this truth, or verisimilitude, that transcends a work from just something someone made, to a divine object of a cultural significance few people have ever seen. What a strange notion, this idea of truth? There are few things more elaborately and deliberately untruthful than art. Film, especially, is a particularly deceptive and sneaky art form. It is so carefully put together, each of its elements picked and chosen to fit a theme and idea. It is all rehearsed, all theatre. It would seem contradictory and dangerously dishonest to go around peddling this doctrine of artistic truth, simply because real life does not work like the movies. It would seem contradictory and dishonest, but yet, it isn’t. Something humans have understood since the creation of The Iliad is that truth, the kind of throat-seizing a-ha!, cannot be properly understood in regular life. Not really. It is only in the elaborate fictions, the stories concocted around the proverbial campfire, that real truth can be felt. To capture the pulse and flow of life itself, to understand this ineffable idea of truth, one has to start by lying through the teeth.
Few filmmakers not only understand but openly embrace, this concept of the truthful lie as well as Brian De Palma. For the longest time, De Palma was considered a Hitchcock wannabe whose work was hardly one step above B-movie schlock. His films are certainly imbued with a certain schlockiness, but only in a way that is undeniably positive and, yes, truthful. The now thirty-five year old Blow Out, likely De Palma’s very best film, takes both the schlockiness and truth of cinema head on, to glorious results.
Blow Out begins with the schlockiest, most B-movie thing De Palma’s ever done. Shot from the point of view of a psychotic killer, the scene floats lasciviously around a sorority house as college girls party, study, and dance. In another film, the scene could have a certain dread to it, but here, the whole thing is so clearly a movie, so clearly not real that is nothing if not funny. The scene ends with a climactic, Hitchcockian shower scene that is foiled by the very un-real scream of the actress. Here, De Palma is looking at the deception inherent to cinema and laughing right in its face. This is all fake, he is saying.
One could expect, from this opening scene, a mordantly cynical and terribly postmodern type film to follow; something parodic and unserious. One could expect something so very untruthful to follow, yet, this could not be further from the case. For such a comical and jokey opening, the rest of De Palma’s film is something tense and serious and, quite oddly, beautiful, but beautiful in which the way some funerals are beautiful. Early on in the film, De Palma juxtaposes John Travolta’s Jack Terry cutting together sound for a movie with a television news program speaking about an upcoming presidential campaign. The daily news, and politics in particular, are not all that different from the movies. Like films, they are carefully doctored and put together so as to capture the hearts and minds of the people. The only real difference is that with film and its captured truth seems verily honest and hard-won. With politics, one wonders if the truth ever actually existed in the first place. The climactic final scene, which takes place during a fireworks ceremony on Liberty Day, certainly doesn’t hide any of the heavy symbolism. De Palma’s commentary on America comes through stronger than ever, especially in today’s ever-tumultuous political climate.
The rest of the movie, a modern remake of Antonioni’s Blow-Up, follows Jack Terry, a sound man for B-movies, as he accidentally catches the death of a prominent politician on audio (“That stiff over there was probably our next president!”). The “freak accident” soon reveals itself to be a probable murder and political conspiracy. Terry becomes fanatical, accosting police officers with his theory and spending long nights cutting together evidence for the murder. Like Keith Gordon’s Peter Miller in another De Palma classic, Dressed to Kill, Terry is no private detective, yet he is driven with this craving for the truth that forces him to try and figure out what actually happened to the ill-fated politician. As Terry puts his life on the line to try and figure out what actually happened, a very clear parallel seems to form.
Jack Terry is an artist, laboring endlessly over his work (in this case, the audio recording of the assassination), to try and reach some sort of truth. His work, at times, seems futile and worthless, but when all’s said and done, the significance of it is not lost. With Blow Out, De Palma is telling a gripping, obsessive thriller that reckons with the id of American consciousness. Yet, he is also making a statement about the creation of art itself, about that unending and often infuriating search for truth. De Palma is trying to blow everything up and analyze every frame and sound bite, because perhaps hidden in the white noise and pixels there is some modicum of real and honest meaning lying dormant. Perhaps if one only works hard enough at their art one can grasp, even more a fleeting moment, that elusive Bigfoot-esque truth that only seems to exist in academic papers and pretentious novels. And if De Palma cannot find that truth, well, then, at least he still has the movies.
Featured Image: Filmways Pictures