What conspiracy? De Palma’s Blow Out

In an interview by an earnest, floppy-haired Noah Baumbach included in the luxuriant Criterion edition of Blow Out, Brian De Palma explains at length the impact of the JFK assassination on his thinking, and I use the last word loosely. He doesn’t care about JFK so much as he does about JFK, the bonkers, magnificent Oliver Stone movie in which Kevin Costner’s Jim Garrison envisions a mystery wrapped in an enigma at whose center is a New Orleans society fag (Tommy Lee Jones) whose leonine head is wreathed in cigarette smoke like FDR’s. The most piquant fact that emerges from the interview is how De Palma in essence stopped educating himself in 1964; maybe he saw Torn Curtain and Frenzy as a show of respect to Hitch. The conspiracy at the heart of Blow Out has no bearing on anything we’ve read about (the trenchcoat-sporting John Lithgow acts neither like Bernard Goetz or John Hinckley, Jr.; he acts like a failed pedophile).

Pauline Kael famously made great claims for Blow Out and Travolta’s performance, but it’s too sketchily written (by De Palma himself) to support them. On this, my third viewing, what affected me most are the scenes between Travolta and Nancy Allen, whose addled cuckoo of a prostitute is played and directed without condescension. A few years ago James Wolcott lamented the indifference shown by actors and directors to moving in character; in the Baumbach interview De Palma rightly admits that you can always tell which actors were trained as dancers. Although the guilelessness shown here augured boring iterations in White Man’s Burden, Phenomenon, Michael, and the other forgotten totems of his nineties comeback, Travolta is terrific here. His ovular, fleshy, pouty-lipped alertness to Allen’s evasions in their quiet bar scenes represent some of his most alert work. And, damn, does he hold a cigarette as well as Crawford or Davis.

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