Blow by Blow: Criterion Gets Down With De Palma's 'Blow Out' and Claire Denis' 'White Material'

Many film nerds count 1981’s Blow Out as their favorite Brian De Palma flick, and it’s not hard to see why. After all, it focuses on a soundman, Jack Terry (John Travolta), who creates effects for schlock horror movies, and it is, at root, about the construction and reflexive realities of movies themselves. De Palma even opens with a winking parody of an ’80s slasher so over-the-top that it could only have been constructed by a craftsman like him. (It’s idiotic and crammed with co-ed titillation, but it’s accomplished in just two long, complex tracking shots.) Now the film nerds at the Criterion Collection have rolled out new deluxe DVD and Blu-ray editions of Blow Out, which ultimately show off both its fine points and it failings.

Before the middle-career breakout for which De Palma delivered blockbusters such as Scarface and The Untouchables, the standard rap on him was that he was a genre-film prodigy at best, at worst a wannabe Hitchcock, ripping off the master’s tricks in the service of lurid psychosexual thrillers. By the time he got to Blow Out, despite its similarities to both Blow-Up and The Conversation, the tricks seemed like his own. Out recording sound effects one night, Jack inadvertently records a car accident that kills a leading candidate for president. When Jack goes back over his tape, he hears a gunshot slightly before the car’s tire blows out. Several painstaking scenes find Travolta’s character literally reconstructing in sound and images the reality of what he witnessed, and digging out ominous new details. Of course, he soon finds himself under the scrutiny of those who don’t want the candidate’s death looked into, leading to a string of the director’s signature suspenseful set pieces, each more potent than the last.

One of the aforementioned film-nerd Blow Out fans is Quentin Tarantino, who reportedly cast Travolta in comeback Pulp Fiction based on his performance here. Again, it’s not hard to see why. Jack is a decent guy, smart enough to know he’s in trouble but not smart enough to keep all the way out of it, and the character’s bafflement and growing desperation are beautifully played. He gets a key assist from an absolutely exquisite villain: a calculating operative hired to do the ultimate political dirty trick but who turns out to be a homicidal psychopath. Played by a young and relatively unknown John Lithgow, he shifts the movie into a higher gear every time he shows up. Many of the secondary roles are poorly conceived and acted, though, from a sleazy fixer (Dennis Franz) to the girl Jack pulls from the married candidate’s sinking car (De Palma regular and, at the time, wife Nancy Allen). Sweet party girl Sally brings out Jack’s protective side, or at least that seems to be the idea, but the character is such a grating dimbulb that Jack’s attraction to her feels forced and her fate feels sealed. It’s one of the big things at the top of a small list that keeps Blow Out an overachieving B-movie rather than a masterpiece.

Another much admired auteur comes to the Criterion Collection on DVD and Blu-ray with another vivid and well-made if somewhat flawed film. French director Claire Denis made her debut with Chocolat, a 1988 film that drew on her own experiences growing up as a European in colonial Cameroon. After a career that has encompassed extended metaphor (the psychosexual gorefest Trouble Every Day), elliptical literary adaptation (Beau Travail, a rework of Melville’s Billy Budd), and contemporary family drama (the recent 35 Shots of Rum), she returns to a European woman’s experience of Africa for her most recent film, White Material.

In an unnamed and unstable African country, Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) is trying to keep her family’s coffee plantation running in the teeth of a spreading civil war. As the rebels, many of them armed children, advance, her workers flee and the male members of her family—her ex-husband (Christopher Lambert), her ex-father-in-law (Michel Subor), her grown son (Nicolas Duvauchelle)—respond to the growing threats and chaos with lassitude and resignation. Denis’ cameras rarely fail to find tiny Maria active, wrangling farming gear, changing outfits to either labor or charm, and even aiding a wounded rebel leader (Chocolat’s Isaach De Bankole) who takes refuge on the property, but Denis also slyly isolates her in cracked-open doorways, and, more blatantly, as the one white woman on a bus of indigenous Africans. By the time everything comes apart, however, the narrative itself disintegrates completely, with the Vials either disappearing without explanation or destroying that which should mean most to them. The racial dynamics of the story carry through, but character dynamics don’t. Either way, Denis at least proves that she remains an ambitious filmmaker well worth watching.

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