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The Realm Of The Senses: Blow Out And Cutter’s Way At 40
Patrick Preziosi , March 19th, 2021 10:13

Two films released in 1981 unveil an American system that's irredeemably corrupt: Blow Out and Cutter's Way – one an unabashed thriller, the other a languorous character study, finds Patrick Preziosi

Brian De Palma’s Blow Out and Ivan Passer’s Cutter’s Way aren’t just predicated on the act of murder; instead, both these 1981 films locate their cruxes at the precise moment in which a murder occurs or is discovered, as witnessed by the protagonists. Both directors cut to their characters’ faces, as if to say that they are just as much an audience to this specific event as you are to the very film. It’s a canny method to mount allegiance, and entirely successful. The reaction shot registers the stakes, and thus, the viewer is invited to do the same. The instances in question are initially enacted from within a bubble of upper-class impunity, and subsequently spill out unto those below. We’re not just identifying with a singular viewpoint, but one that’s tangled up in a morass of American-abetted apathy, a purview stoked by always looming inequity.

Neither film is in service of any sort of exclusive genre categorisation, their incisive political interrogations forwarded by the undergirding emphasis on the granular activities of their characters, which, among other things, offers up a wealth of moments wherein ranging emotions – fear, satisfaction, camaraderie, anxiety – are telegraphed by a simple shot of an actor’s face, taken in tandem with whatever else has transpired. An important motif, considering that Blow Out and Cutter’s Way are predicated on how much we trust our own senses, and how the unimpeachable qualities of our personal sight and hearing can be swiftly and ruthlessly denied by authoritative powers. Remaining content within an already skewed environment isn’t enough; one must commit to the final word of politicians, business executives, corporation heads and the like, even if they knowingly present zero verifiability.

Critic J. Hoberman brings the two films together with erudite concision in his book Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan (they also screened as a 2019 double feature at Film At Lincoln Center as part of a retrospective tailored to the release of Hoberman’s book), writing, “Both movies used patriotic displays as ironic backdrops. De Palma’s invented Liberty Day Jubilee conceals a brutal political killing, while San Barbara’s annual Old Spanish Days celebration is a cover-up for fat-cat malfeasance.” Similar points of origin in both films (someone saw/heard something they shouldn’t have) lead to similarly, unintentionally, tragic destinations as architected by America’s political rot. But Blow Out and Cutter’s Way are best viewed through the lens of a malleable relationship of conversing details, rather than two perfectly parallel narratives.

Blow Out’s ticking-clock drama is set in motion when John Travolta’s sound man, Jack Terry, inadvertently records a presidential hopeful’s Chappaquiddick-esque assassination (and rescues Nancy Allen’s Sally, the one-night companion of married politician and presidential-hopeful McRyan), whose status as nothing more than an accident he works to disprove. This ambition is emboldened by his superlative talents as a craftsman, as he is able to uncover the inconsistencies of the incident through the basest––and therefore, purest––filmmaking tools. Cutter’s Way is just as predicated on coincidence, but its tenor is one of disaffection, with Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) and Alex Cutter (John Heard) ultimately left unmoored in a climate where the rich enjoy the privilege of moneyed immunity, after the former thinks he’s spotted a prominent and powerful businessman at the site of a teenage girl’s vicious murder.

As Jack, Travolta is the disgraced wunderkind (a former technician for undercover sting operations to pinch corrupt cops, his own equipment’s inadequacy having led to the gruesome death of a participant), whiling away his time doing foley for crude slasher films, repeatedly reminded by his director that he’s smarter than what the immediate material demands. The film begins as a movie-within-the-movie, a steadicam-led, first-person POV of a killer’s journey through an all-girls’ dormitory, before the paltry shriek of a victim announces the jump to Blow Out itself. Suddenly transplanted to some cheaply appointed editing suite, Jack enacts the first of the many aforementioned reaction shots, one of giggly disbelief directed at what’s on the screen. In contrast to his prior wiseass behaviour, Jack flaunts an impressive focus when he’s out recording nighttime sounds on the Wissahickon Bridge, just southwest of downtown Philadelphia. He’s tuned-in, and his near-expressionless focus suggests a momentary communion with the surrounding nature – that is, until McRyan’s tire is shot out.

De Palma’s gamesmanship, both narrative and visual, is in crystalline form in Blow Out. His signature use of split-screen and split-diopters finds a simpatico partner in cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, the clean widescreen and long lenses often losing and once again finding characters within crowded spaces. De Palma had already flaunted such nimble camerawork in the museum sequence of 1980’sDressed to Kill, but not yet with the sinuous unease that Blow Out maintains as its consistent tenor. The reaction shots lift Jack and Sally from their paranoia-laced circumstances, before plunging them back in once again, each time more violently than the last. Jack’s visage runs the gamut from righteous elation to gutted confusion, such as when he is able to assemble his own stop-motion recreation footage of the same incident, that when played with his audio, proves both aurally and visually it was no accident. This very tape is erased by John Lithgow’s trigger-happy hitman Burke, another stumbling block for Jack and Nancy. Later, when all three major players come (crash) together at the Liberty Day Jubilee, Pino Donaggio’s emotively gaudy score envelopes the scene – but only after Allen’s impossibly shattering, reverberating scream echoes – left are we only with the profound dread colouring our heroes’ faces.

The reductive line of comparison would posit that Cutter’s Way is the “muted”, character study equivalent of Blow Out, but this is only partly true. Passer’s film is merely bereft of De Palma’s pyrotechnics, its languorous progression symptomatic of its characters’ own nonexistent prospects. Blow Out interpolated Chappaquiddick and the Zapruder film, its totemic points of reference already burrowed in the minds of all Americans. Cutter’s Way is more uniformly assembled, awash in the miasmic fallout of the Vietnam War, evidenced by Jordan Cronenweth’s jaundiced cinematography (in a 2016 interview in Film Comment, Passer wittily offers: “Did you notice there’s no blue in Cutter’s Way?”), and embodied by John Heard’s paraplegic, one-eyed, amputee veteran, Alex Cutter.

The film begins within the implicit routine of its two leads: Richard Bone (Bridges) leaves an intimate hotel rendezvous with an older woman he’s tried to sell a yacht to (he’s nevertheless compensated for his services, his status as more of a male escort than salesman sealed there), and meets Alex at a bar where he’s holding court to the few lingering patrons – although his friend’s casual racism and misanthropy threatens to break the beery mood. In between these two scenes, Richard sees a body get dumped in an alleyway, an anomalous occurrence that still ends up ignored, attributable to the general weariness that Bridges so palpably conveys.

Because of the general disaffection that hangs off of Cutter’s Way, the expressions of characters are interpersonal––playing off the subtle chasms amidst the central group of friends––and subsequently more subtly modulated than Blow Out, even in the presence of a third-act tragedy (when then offered a consolatory drink by a bartender friend, Alex simply states, “You know the routine grind drives me to drink. Tragedy I take straight.”) Blow Out plays as a breathless whodunit, whereas Cutter’s Way houses countless half-assed conversations and bull sessions, without giving any indication that a sudden snap in focus would come from anything less than a murder. Heard’s performance teeters at the precipice of this thick malaise for its entirety, the histrionics it so shamelessly employs becoming inextricable from the character of Alex Cutter himself. In fact, both Heard and Bridges draw on past work for their then-current roles, the former doubling down on the bouts of paranoid delusion he’d squeamishly perfected in Joan Micklin Silver’s Chilly Scenes of Winter in 1979, and the latter playing the ageing, logical extension of his wayward youths from Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show in 1971 and John Houston’s Fat City the year after.

Richard often shares furtive, knowing glances with Alex’s similarly boozed-up wife, Maureen “Mo” Cutter (Lisa Eichhorn). Cronenweth’s lingering camera soaks up their conflated emotions of bemusement and worry (his alcoholism can defuse tense situations with farcical fury, and vice versa), and a steady undergirding of what’s at least attempted empathy. When Richard instinctively points out a man he thinks to have seen on the night of the murder at the next day’s Old Spanish Days celebration, Alex develops a hitherto unseen focus. The suspected perpetrator is local oil baron J.J. Cord, whose tycoonish hold on Santa Barbara deters Richard from Alex’s blackmail scheme. His reach is felt when a seemingly simple boat ride shared between Richard and the victim’s sister, Valerie, gives sight to the oil rigs that pockmark the coastline. Passer never confirms if Cord is the killer, but Alex’s onus still stands: this is a man who has profited and monopolised while those like Alex were fighting in Vietnam, and will continue through the foreseeable future; because he can, he should – and if all goes according to plan, will – pay.

The two films absorb their climaxes into larger surrounding crowd scenes – in the case of Passer, it’s a garden party at Cord’s sprawling estate – which exemplifies the passivity our respective protagonists try to shake loose, as others mill about waving American flags and anticipating fireworks of screaming reds, whites and blues (Blow Out), or enjoying finger food and drinks delivered by an endless parade of servants (Cutter’s Way). Both directors utilise casual visual cues to emphasise this rift, be it Jack pushing his way through throngs of revellers moving in the opposite direction, or the general, itchy discomfort given off by Richard and Alex’s presence at an overwhelmingly decorous event, the latter’s eye-patch already calling enough attention to itself as is. Instead of assimilating, Alex careens through the gathering on a horse of snow white, a madcap finish to his precarious plan that indulges in its very upfront – though no less deserved – symbolism.

Otherwise, these climaxes are pyrrhic victories, predicated on unintended sacrifices and the loss of innocent lives. Their obvious cinematic forebears would be Alan J. Pakula’s informal “paranoia trilogy”, wherein the individual must compete with the towering, governing systems of America – the trilogy’s bleakness culminates with 1974’s The Parallax View, but All the President’s Men otherwise caps it off with a sense of judicious optimism. The 1976 true-life account follows journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s uncovering of the Watergate scandal, which resulted in Richard Nixon’s resignation. Ever the measured dramatist, Pakula is careful not to tout the rose-tinted virtues of dutiful, American professionals, but history plays out nevertheless, and the film ends with a triumphant montage of headlines outlining the subsequent investigation into Nixon and Watergate.

Released in the infancy of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, only a handful of months following his inauguration, Blow Out and Cutter’s Way succeed in diagnosing the foundational rot of the United States, while pointing forward to the then-president’s continued fomenting of such, under the guise of New Day/America First jargon. De Palma’s film has weathered accusations of unwarranted cruelty, given how its final, devastating murder is commodified by Jack himself, and Passer’s noir-flecked atmosphere risks detachment on the part of one who hasn’t been on the film’s wavelength from its very beginning.

But this is how both films necessarily test the boundaries of their respective verisimilitudes, while simultaneously building to richly rendered emotional payoffs. Each features convenient confirmations of their catalysing crimes, striking a balance between the indisputable and the festering, intended obliviousness as doled out by the institutions that smugly present themselves as agents of social good: when Jack first goes to the police, he’s treated as undeserving under the pretence of his past work cleaning out the department (“You put a lot of good cops behind bars!” spits the chief); when Richard’s questioned by the police, the tone is one of worry over preserving Santa Barbara’s reputability, not the crime itself. All of this is delivered under the veneer of governmental altruism that the films rightfully dispel as bullshit, their admirable anger deepened by their body counts.

Blow Out and Cutter’s Way don't function as projects benefiting exclusively from hindsight. Instead, they prove that such violently implemented subservience always has and always will be the norm; they’re signposts along the insidious path of American essentialism, which one can easily trace up to 2021. That De Palma and Passer maintain their films as character-level transmissions from within the systemic demoralisation is specifically what marks the point in which prophetism overtakes mere pessimism.