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Nov 7, 2010

Deciphering the code - will we see the majestic return of Blow Out on Criterion dvd?

Two amazing pop culture occurrences have come to my attention in the past week.

One event was real, the other event signaled the tantalizing possibility that a classic film may be reissued on dvd to be newly adored by a patient and faithful fan base.

On Friday November 5th as I watched the conclusion of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon the unthinkable was in evidence.  My favorite jazz guitarist and personal musical hero John McLaughlin was sitting in with the house band The Roots as they played between commercial breaks and guest intros. The featured musical guest was Elvis Costello who is another favorite of mine. I could only shake my head in disbelief when the closing of the show had Elvis performing a new tune with the backing of the Roots and special guest John McLaughlin!

The other occurrence which I happened upon is a strong signal of an event yet to be confirmed. As a film fan, a cinematic dream is on the verge of becoming a reality – the release of Blow Out (which is my favorite Brian De Palma film) as a part of the Criterion Collection. Yes Randy, there is a Santa Claus.

After I made my daily online visit to the De Palma A La Mod website, I saw the post for the day regarding this dvd news. Geoff had posted a copy of the owl graphic that can be found in the latest Criterion Newsletter for November. This owl is the signifier of the coded news message.

Now I had to go back and look at the CC Newsletter e-mail a second time. I pride myself on being a person with a discriminating eye for detail and I realized that when the latest Criterion Collection newsletter for November 2010 had arrived in my e-mail, I had neglected to read everything and “see” the entire piece.  Near the bottom right of the e-mail is a cryptic graphic that holds meaning for people like me who love film and Brian De Palma and I had missed it.

At the top of the November e-mail is a banner which shows the American flag with the Criterion “C” logo to the left.

This choice for a masthead is thematically and visually consistent with the subject of the first topic for the reader which is the upcoming release of a dvd box set called America Lost and Found: The BBS story, which is a collection of seven independent American films produced by BBS Productions. They include several Jack Nicholson vehicles either as an actor in Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens, or as a writer for the Monkees movie Head. The other films included are Drive, He Said; A Safe Place, and The Last Picture Show.

One of the other tidbits listed midway in this newsletter is a mention of the release of Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter on dvd and blu-ray.

Although the American flag masthead and the Laughton information should be nothing more or less than elements of information about available Criterion dvd releases, I suggest that coincidentally, inadvertently or deliberately, these items of interest to me also has relevance to the visual hint of Blow Out being released.


Early on as the story for Blow Out is developed, we see exterior scenes in a mysterious night time location. John Travolta as soundman Jack Terry is recording wild sound – “new wind” - from upon a footbridge overseeing a creek near the Wissahickon Walk in Philadelphia for a low budget horror film entitled Co-Ed Frenzy.


As we watch his actions and listen along with Terry, we hear several animal sounds and we see most of the animals that make these sounds in their nocturnal environment. Among these creatures, we also see a mostly silent owl whose movements become audibly louder as it flies away from the imminent danger of the action that is about to occur.  The framing of shots allows us to link Jack Terry with the wise owl, and we can see the owl’s choice to leave. At the same time Terry’s link to the owl remains for us to consider as a dilemma continually unfolds that provides choices for Terry in his story: to choose to flee or to fight the obstacles before him.

As a film fan, when you see this nature sequence in Blow Out it is easy to draw a parallel to Laughton’s Night of the Hunter which features a night time scene with some animals and their noises observed in nature along a riverbank. The Laughton picture is just a minor reference point for film fans. There are more obvious attraction/distractions/infractions of film scene parallels or references on display in Blow OutBrian De Palma offers this unique work of art as a powerful synthesis of elements of the components of Antonioni’s Blow Up and Coppola’s The Conversation. We can also see Welles’ Touch of Evil in the bridge sequence as well.

Although I am unable at this time in this particular post to offer up a fully rendered appreciation of my personal impressions of the wonder that awaits a viewer in watching Blow Out, let me say to the reader who has seen the film the following generalizations.

If we look at the overall changes in architectural locations and existential perspectives of the film visuals within Blow Out we will see a totality that includes these ideas: the slaughter of innocence, the hollowness of becoming victorious in slaying an enemy or overcoming an obstacle, the illusory nature of feeling safe, the ability of paranoia to dominate the psyche as it moves from the outside of the body and proceeds to the inside of the brain, and the nature of a world that has been inverted or turned inside-out. We will see Jack Terry and Burke as two different people who suffer through a battle to become the mirror image of what they see, when an exchange of behaviors allows ethics to be replaced by anger, rage, insanity and depravity.

One way of seeing the film is to consider the idea of  "just how screwed up can you become, when you try to do the right thing?" And this would apply to both Burke and to Jack Terry.

Blow Out begins and ends with an interior scene in a screening room, and as we reframe our perception of what we see on screen, as we make our path with Jack and journey through the scenes between these bookends, before we go full circle to the ending, we are making a progression from the absurd to reality and then ultimately to a final mixture of both as a concoction, a modern day sickness that has permeated Terry and the viewer into an undesirable unity of meaning and the meaningless.

Blow Out is a cinematic container with great ideas that transcend history and time – it is an existential nightmare that deals with the horrific sense of life and loss that can exist and lie beneath the surface of a work of b-movie trash art, within a high-gloss big-budget picture, or a reconfiguration of how to use spin control to offer up “the truth” in different forms of media.The film shows us the mechanics involved with creating a film and creating meaning and the solitude and commitment of the artist at work. 

After we start watching Blow Out and then take a step back and realize that the shower scene that we are watching is a film- within-a-film, after we reframe and regain our footing, we can then go forward. We can see a progression in Blow Out from establishing an initial balance to a movement below to the “bottom” in the Wissahickon scenes, and then like the best films that take you on a ride that repeatedly spirals down and up and down again, it successively takes you to different strata. This story continually ascends, until ultimately the emotion of the story conflicts between Terry and his adversary Burke reaches the film climax at the Port of History which is at “the top” and truly is “over the top” as only Brian De Palma can fashion a film.  This can be seen when Burke attacks his victim in the safety of the ladies room at 30th street station as well as the fireworks climax. 


When we finally get there at the foot of the flag, we share a new way to experience the feeling of nausea, of feeling exhausted and exalted by that trade off that occurs when a task that has finally been accomplished comes at the expense of some other linked event. We are now feeling and sensing that gloom of “being at the bottom” at the highest point of the story.  So as a film lover of Blow Out and as a BDP fan, the rumor of a Criterion Collection dvd release is welcome. And the manner in which this cryptic release is secretly being “announced” is right in line with the story arc of Blow Out.

At the top of the layout for the e-mail is the flag banner and below it is the cover art for The BBS Story. Farther down below and to the side is another smaller cover art graphic for the BBS release and below it is the owl graphic. 

Please look at this layout from my perspective. If you take the two specific and different visual links that I am pointing out in this e-mail and add them together, and toss in the reference to Night of the Hunter, I suggest that you might see this as an invisible link between the owl graphic at the bottom, and The BBS Story cover art above at the very top which to me suggests an alternative, a new meaning. For the viewer who is familiar with the film we can make an inference of seeing and perceiving Blow Out as a parallel connection to a play on the words America Lost and Found. This speaks volumes with brevity and De Palma should be proud to see some visual shorthand being employed in the writing and layout of this newsletter! This will be a great gift to the De Palma fans who have been awaiting this dvd release by Criterion as a well-deserved confirmation of his artistic achievements. 


In reading the copy contained in the newsletter promo for Criterion's BBS Story, it seems fair to make a link between De Palma's late-60's early countercultural films like Greetings and Hi Mom! and his later day American portrait of misdirected political intentions, commercial merchandising, nefarious power struggles, media manipulation, and commitment to patriotic acts that he offers the viewer in Blow Out. This 1981 film is a natural outgrowth of the independent American filmmaking that he was doing in the 60's just like the indy works collected in the BBS Story.

As I had suggested in my blog post from September of last year about De Palma's use of shapes and numbering in production design in The Untouchables

"This idea of a making a connection between a straight line and a circle attached to it literally or through implication can be seen in the climax of the basement in Psycho, as well as Burke's activities in Blow Out."


Low budget independent films, Independence Day, paranoia and disorientation abound. The artist in his studio seeking solitude in his creative habitat trying to make sense of the commotion and find the truth that lies beneath, the truth obscured by lies, all of these elements come together through the swirling power plays inside and outside the circles conveyed in Blow Out.
Seen just below is a collage of frame grabs from Blow Out with an American flag behind them which I assembled to post as a tribute on one of the De Palma Facebook pages about five or six months ago. 

We see on the left a grab of Jack Terry on the footbridge in the background and the owl in the foreground which will be visually similar to the rollers on the Nagra during playback in Sally's hotel room. On the right, the frame grab shows the intrinsic design of the tape recorder (which we see upside down) and the path of the magnetic tape moving against the heads and the rollers which suggests an owl, and it is also an example of circles dominating a straight line. Circles and triangles dominate the telling of the film. 

From this collage you can see where my understanding and appreciation of the film would find a focus in the layout of the Criterion Newsletter.


What else can  I say other than I am ecstatic about Blow Out being released as a Criterion dvd.

revised 11 8 2010

updated 11 30 2010

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