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THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

BLOW OUT

USA 1981

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The significance, potential and importance of expertise dominate Blow Out.  The opening is fake horror, a scene from a pretend low budget movie.  This second rate and cynical accomplishment can be compared to the superior cinematic skills that will facilitate the main film. Hero Jack Terry is a movie sound technician, and his expertise enables him to discover a political conspiracy. Sally is important to Jack because she has witnessed the murder of a politician. Sally and Jack argue when he becomes bored listening to her talk about make up skills. Brian De Palma wrote and directed Blow Out. He delivers important set pieces where the audience is invited to admire the soundtrack editing ability of Jack Terry.  On the two occasions in the film when the expertise of Jack is inadequate it has fatal consequences.  Jack Terry may be confused, his name consists of two Christian names, but he has hope for redemption. This is rooted in his faith in the benefits of technical knowledge. The visual spectacle that makes the film so memorable demonstrates the superior expertise of Brian De Palma. The style of De Palma mimics the approach of Alfred Hitchcock.   The guilt that Jack Terry has to endure because of a previous mishap repeats a Hitchcock theme of how guilt can be transferred to the innocent. Throughout Blow Out the expert English craftsman is honoured.

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Blow Out has suspense and is poignant and amusing. De Palma expects us to believe in his characters and their circumstances but he also uses his technical ability with sound and images to insist we never forget that we are watching a well-made film. Expertise is also important to the plot of Blow Out. Danger is created by people who make mistakes and neglect their expertise. Indeed the initial murder is an example of an ambitious professional interfering with the modest plans of amateurs. At the end of the film, Jack Terry is doomed and without hope of redemption. His expertise remains, and Jack has now found and inserted an authentic scream in the cheap movie. His expert contribution has been enhanced by the exploitation of a human sacrifice. He has lost his humanity but whatever the circumstances his expertise will gain from experience. In a dehumanised and brutalised world expertise not only gets things done. It is the only saving grace that we have.

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The final murder occurs before the American flag at a Liberty Day Parade in Philadelphia. It is at that moment Jack loses his hope of redemption and freedom from guilt. It disappears amidst celebrations of misunderstood patriotism and corrupted idealism and in the City where a new innocent world was once imagined. The explosive and beautiful fireworks that fill the sky are an empty orgasm beyond two people who tried to resist but failed. And the supposed promise of expertise and accomplishment has been exposed as nothing more than an impotent myth. When we hear the scream of the victim repeated in the cheap horror movie, we realise just what gets lost in the garbage that our expertise helps create.

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Blow Out is a masterpiece of American mainstream cinema, which is just as well because its conclusions are not cheerful.  The movie is now over thirty years old.  Back then the world was different.  The hospitals in the movie has ashtrays to help sick patients smoke themselves to death.  But then there were people who thought that Brian De Palma might be a genius. His films since Blow Out have been uneven but the exceptional talent is always evident. De Palma wrote the script of Blow Out.  He presents a world dominated by unseen corrupt masters who control the media and politicians. The rest of us are either hired gangsters or, because we avoid resistance to a world based on greed and a desire for power, willing stooges. Jack witnesses a murder and wants to see and hear more.   ‘Nobody wants to know about conspiracy,’ he says. ‘I don’t get it.’  The accusation by Jack can apply to people who like to relax watching a film. Movie audiences did not want to be accused or to have to think of themselves as stooges of crooked masters. Neither did the tragic ending help.  Word got around, and the box office receipts were modest.

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Although there is humour in Blow Out it is unstressed, sly and cynical.   Some of it is visual, odd moments like the appearance of the impossibly short policeman in a hospital. In The Untouchables, De Palma paid homage to the Odessa Steps sequence from the Eisenstein classic Battleship Potemkin.  In Blow Out there is a scene where Jack Terry drives past a factory called Potamkin. It is a night scene, and the word on the side of the plant is not obvious and appears to be misspelt.  We can be forgiven for thinking De Palma is not that desperate for the audience to see what interests him.  Blow Out resembles the Antonioni film Blow Up, and the similarity in the titles is deliberate. Blow Out is not as obtuse and has more style and substance. Other movies are also in the mix, references to Rear Window by Hitchcock and The Conversation by Coppola can be spotted.  All these movies feature a lonely and socially impaired man reduced to voyeurism.   De Palma, though, is keen to make his own statement.  He once said that ‘Hitchcock is the dictionary of cinema’.  The social criticisms of De Palma oblige him to defy Hitchcock. The fireworks effect is borrowed from To Catch A Thief but its revised context has scorn for romantic celebration. Jack Terry and Sally are ordinary people. Sally has a low wage job and associates with low life Manny Carp because she needs the money.  The orgasmic fireworks are not meant for poor Sally.  In Rear Window the injured journalist LB Jeffries observes his neighbours. Jack Terry is curious about the people who matter, the powerful. The killers across the courtyard that interest Jeffries in Rear Window cause mayhem but the real villainy in Blow Out is out of reach but connected to the powerful by a telephone.

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Throughout his career Brian De Palma has been criticised for a lack of feeling towards women. Three are killed in Blow Out. His defence is that he makes suspense movies. This is what happens to women in his kind of films, he said. If De Palma is misogynistic, it did not prevent him from making the female rites of passage movie Carrie. Faced with hostile and cruel people looking for yet another victim to persecute and humiliate her, Carrie responds with violent vengeance. There is a lot of blood before she is finished.  In Blow Out, Sally is lied to by Jack, exploited in the schemes of Many Carp and identified as a disposable victim by the assassin Burke. There is no romantic relationship between Jack and Sally. He saves her life at the beginning of the film but insists that his act puts Sally in his debt.   He manipulates their conversations. The rescue attempt at the end happens because Jack needs redemption from previous failure and to confirm his technical expertise.   The fate of Sally is not of prime importance to Jack. No one except Sally believes that the handsome man who works in movies could be interested in a shop girl earning low wages. Jack is only curious about what Sally knows and what she can do for him. The prostitute who is murdered is a hard case but there is no doubt that she is a victim of men. Her prospects and existence pose questions about urban community and what is supposed to be being celebrated by the Liberty Day Parade.

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No one needs to be an expert in history to realise that the initial murder in Blow Out has parallels with the Chappaquiddick incident. De Palma could have picked other incidents to integrate into his story but he picked an event when a liberal Senator from the Democratic Party revealed the true nature of his priorities.  De Palma has mellowed with age but thirty years ago he had a radical core or at least his films did. He was suspicious of institutionalised politics, even those on the left. The radicalism of De Palma may not have conformed to revolutionary theory but in Blow Out he is clear about how the world has been shaped by those who believe they are entitled to have power over vast resources and large numbers of people.   In Blow Out the lust for power and money amongst the powerful persuades them to have affection for economic systems that legitimise criminality.   Their legacy is a world of moral absurdity and the rest of us relying on expertise for personal credibility. This week Donald Trump gave the State of the Union address to the American people. He talked of optimism, freedom and hope. A lot of flags were waved, and afterwards Trump returned to his main business, which is to ensure that his fellow billionaires have even more money and power and that the rest will have to be even more subservient. Meanwhile a mellowed Brian De Palma can be forgiven for listening to the speech of Donald Trump, looking again at the modest box office receipts for Blow Out and wondering just why the hell do so many people believe what they do.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

THE SERVANT

1963, UK

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Either word applies, iconic or milestone. Neither Britain nor British cinema was the same after The Servant appeared, not bad for a movie that cost less than £150,000.   Timing is everything, and in 1963 the Beatles released their first record and Harold MacMillan resigned as Prime Minister. The Servant was based on a 1948 novel by Robin Maugham but the movie caught the changing mood.   The culture needed freshening from untapped sources, and people wanted to talk about social class.   The contraceptive pill arrived in 1964, and after that people talked about sex. The successful talked to people who would have previously been ignored. And so it went.

Compared to what was being shown on screens in mainland Europe in the 60s the sex in The Servant is not explicit. There was nothing that troubled the British censors. The Servant, though, is the first British movie where the characters look as if they are in heat and possessed by desire. In British movies prior to The Servant there were seducers and the seduced, the calculating and the misguided, but all made an intellectual decision about what they would do next. There was desire but an absence of lust. In The Servant animal instincts prevail. Although it is not clearly audible The Servant has the first muttered obscenity in British cinema.

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In the original novel the servant who engineers the decline of his aristocrat master is foreign born and sinister. Joseph Losey directed the film, and Harold Pinter wrote the script. Between them changes were made to the story. The servant became English working class and he had a mother in Manchester. Modern readers of the novel by Maugham will be sensitive to the original descriptions of the servant, which have racist overtones. The relationship in the novel suggests a crisis in the British upper class caused by the loss of Empire. This is toned down in the film but it exists somewhere in the subtext along with notions of class and a changing social system.   Either way there are challenges for the British elite.

The upper class used to be called the ruling class. Both film and novel versions of The Servant make it clear that without the privilege of rule and domination, either over foreign lands or their own citizens, the members of the upper class will perish. Self-preservation is important, and the members of the upper class have no alternative but to oppress the rest of us. It is more than simple privilege. It is how they survive in the struggle between those who are supposedly sophisticated and those who are practical but perceived as mundane. In the last thirty years this message has been regarded as heresy but in 1963 it was almost accepted wisdom.

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In 1964 the Profumo affair confirmed the suspicions.  The Servant anticipates the future. The manservant has a role similar to the one Stephen Ward had in the Profumo affair. Ward provided both temptation and consolation to his upper class friends and customers. The temptation was booze and beautiful women. The consolation was a supposed supportive shoulder.   Tony the aristocrat calls his servant Barrett but his first name is Hugo, and not only is he going somewhere he will take some of his betters with him.

In The Servant the aristocrat Tony intends to marry his upper class fiancée, Susan. The woman has more sense than the boyfriend but it does not prevent her from being an unpleasant bully. Susan, of course, is fighting for survival. In the final scene in the film Susan walks into a debauched party.  In classic Pinter style Susan compromises herself and embraces Hugo before she runs away from the man in disgust.  Losey and Pinter created a moment that reminds us of the role of the aristocratic wives in the Profumo affair. The world of Stephen Ward and his aristocratic friends demanded capable well-bred women who for money and wealth were prepared to act like elegant whores.

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Joseph Losey had been driven out of the USA by McCarthyism.  In 1963 The Servant was regarded as a radical look at the corruption and the hopeless myopia within the British upper class. Today it can be interpreted as a conservative warning about the future and the permissiveness that will undermine the British stiff upper lip. Dirk Bogarde was more complicated than his left wing colleagues. He was not sympathetic to anyone that he regarded as uninspired or insufficiently gifted. His misanthropy helped him as an actor. His best performances are without pity.  Bogarde is great as Hugo Barrett. His Northern accent is reduced to nothing more than a hint, a consequence of good manners and aspiration. ‘I am a gentleman’s gentleman,’ says Hugo. This is how the class system operates, how ordinary people can use their oppressors as tools and weapons against others.

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We have moved on a little and today we use our proximity to celebrity and an awareness of gossip as weapons. In one of his more sensible moments Tony throws the scheming Hugo and his girlfriend Vera out of his house. Later Tony and Hugo meet by accident in the local pub. The scene is underwritten but Bogarde saves it with his presence. He pleads to Tony to let him return to his job as a manservant. Tony says nothing, and Hugo waits. The expression in the eyes of Bogarde reveals a man who is desperate, determined, wilful, vulnerable, threatening, different and dangerous.   The Servant is when Bogarde stopped being a movie star and became a serious actor.

The film is shaped like a three act play. Hugo arrives in the first act. In the second Vera joins the household. Tony is seduced by Vera but tries to re-establish his relationship with Susan. She discovers the truth about Tony and Vera.  Tony forces Hugo and Vera out of his house.   Between the second and third acts Tony and Hugo meet in the pub.  In the final act Tony and Hugo share decadence and the relationship has changed.

The script reveals the considerable talent of Pinter but his strengths can also be weaknesses. The script is pared down until there is minimal characterisation and a poor connection between the second and third acts. Perhaps Losey and Pinter felt that they were exposing universal truths. The movie can be interpreted as social criticism or a statement about the paradox of human relationships and our simultaneous need to depend and exploit. There are also religious overtones.  As he did in Our Mother’s House, Bogarde acts like he might be the Devil.

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The movie has plenty of directorial detail.  Some of the detail is style, and some adds content. Losey likes to see his characters reflected in mirrors, and there are plenty in The Servant. Mirrors reflect the difference between what we are and what we pretend to be. The impressive staircase is much used and becomes a battlefield where master and servant battle for status. Control of the castle is the prize. There is also snow which one evening disappears from the streets without trace. The snow is not just the oppressive weight of the British class system but also recognition of how the repressed British may have sex but somehow never lose their virginity.  Inevitably, the relationship between servant and master is examined. Susan regards Hugo as a threat. He is the controlling servant that she anticipates becoming after marriage. Hugo rejects the idea that he is a servant because he is the man who does everything in the house. This particular conversation finishes with the servant giving orders to the master.

Joseph Losey was interested in relationships that crossed boundaries. Before he arrived in the UK he made the film noir The Prowler in which a low-paid policeman seduces a rich housewife. In Britain the odd relationships continued. An agricultural labourer has a secret liaison with an aristocratic lady in The Go Between, and university lecturers obsess over a female student in the movie Accident. And there was The Servant. The three movies all had scripts written by Harold Pinter and depended on the British class system and its prejudices to make the subtle drama consequential. The real struggles in the life of Joseph Losey were left behind in the USA.  In the UK he was allowed to work and observe.  What he saw in Britain was a society defined by alliances and taboos.

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Losey died over thirty years ago. The world has changed but the struggle continues which is why Theresa May has appointed truculent bigot Toby Young as the Director of the Office for Students.   Days after he was appointed he deleted 54000 tweets from his account. Young has described these tweets as politically incorrect. Thanks to eagle eyed activists some of the missing tweets have been made available. The antics of the over-heated Toby transform Donald Trump into something polite and restrained.   Young was once expelled from the Groucho club.  He took cocaine and sold some to his friends. Cocaine usage and dealing are not breaches of club rules. Talking about it is.  Toby Young is supposed to make Universities accountable to the students they serve. Most expect him, like Jeremy Hunt in the NHS, to have a hidden agenda. Universities provide critical thinking, and that is a problem for the present Government and the people it represents. The new upper class warriors are pugnacious, aggressive and as twisted as Hugo Barrett.

 Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, a travel book and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.