Blow Out

Two college students are riding the bus together in Ottawa. One says to the other “I had to read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in French class this week and I was so bored because I couldn’t understand a single word. The only word I understood was ‘narcotique’ and I was like ‘Oh, that’s cool at least. They’re doing drugs'”. Her friend replies “Are you sure it wasn’t ‘narcotic’? Like ‘You’re so narcotic’?”

This is one of many conversations I couldn’t help overhearing between strangers that I’ll probably always remember. I’ve got a million of ’em. I like watching people, listening to them, and speculating about them. Like that guy who used to mysteriously sit and wait in our office’s reception area every morning an hour before we actually opened. What his deal was we’ll now never know but Jay and I sure did toss around a lot of ideas.

Rear Window

I’m coming off as a little creepy I’m sure but I really don’t think I’m alone here. Don’t you ever wonder about the people you see ride the bus with you every day or the girl who serves you your Starbucks every morning? It can’t just be me and Rachel, the obsessive alcoholic who carefully observes the young couple living in a house that her train passes every morning in Girl on a Train, one of my favourite books lately. She starts to think of them as the perfect couple and even makes up names for them. Eventually, of course, she starts looking too closely and, after seeing something she shouldn’t have, winds up badly beaten up and in way over her head.girl on the train

I thought of this when watching Blow Out today, Brian De Palma’s 1981 thriller that this post started out as a review of. In the film, John Travolta plays a sound effects guy who goes to the park in the middle of the night to record some wind. He can’t help taking advantage of his powerful recording equipment to listen in on a conversation between two lovers. Before he knows it, he’s witnessed himself a murder. A lot of De Palma’s style hasn’t aged well and it would be hard to get away with making Nancy Allen’s female lead so insultingly dumb if it were made today but I realized, while watching it, that I like movies about people watching people (Coppola’s The Conversation, for instance, or The Lives of Others). They’re a useful reminder that if you keep watching you may Blow Outsee something you wish you hadn’t.

That’s why Rear Window is quite possibly my favourite Hitchcock. James Stewart is in his apartment recovering from a leg injury with little to do but stare out his window and observe his neighbors from across the street. He too thinks he’s witnessed himself a murder, putting himself in some jeopardy. Of course the cops don’t believe him, nor did they believe Travolta or Rachel. Because people who watch people are weird and are unreliable witnesses.

This is what the movies are there for. To remind people like me that eavesdropping- like skinny dipping, ripping off the mob, getting inolved with a woman who you can’t take your eyes off of but who smells like trouble, asking “what could go wrong?”, investigating a suspiscious noise, and showering in a motel room- can be a lot of fun but it can also get you killed.

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30 thoughts on “Blow Out

  1. Snoskred

    Out of all the conversations I have overheard, there is one I will never forget. We were in the supermarket, discussing the finer points of this brand vs that brand, when one aisle over in the drinks aisle, we heard “No Mummy, please, no, not the mineral water, Mummy!”

    If you left it just at that sentence, you would wonder exactly what Mummy is doing with the mineral water. Fortunately the kid went on to name all the soft drinks they would rather drink than the mineral water. 🙂

    Otherwise, I don’t remember a lot of the things I overhear. They are like passing sounds – there for a moment, and then gone forever..

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  2. mattasshole Post author

    Ha I don’t think I’d have been able to keep from laughing had I heard that. Thanks for sharing!
    I wish I remembered more of these little moments- some hilarious, others kind of sweet- that I have been fortunate enough to witness or overhear. I should keep a journal or something.

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      1. In My Cluttered Attic

        My wife loves watching people, she does it all the time. She’s very analytical (probably comes from being an accountant), but she says you have to be careful as some people don’t like being stared at. For example, she remembered a time, years ago, when a man caught her dad staring. The guy up to her dad and said “You got a problem?” and it led to a fight. She feels a woman can get away with it more, because guys like being stared at by women. She may have a point there.

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      2. mattasshole Post author

        That’s why I prefer listening to watching. Less chance of getting caught. Helpful advice from someone else who commented here: sunglasses!

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  3. Cindy Bruchman

    Wonderful post, Matt. As a writer, I’m CONSTANTLY jumping into other people’s shoes and imagining their lives, interpreting their expressions, and eavesdropping in on conversations. The Lives of Others is a fine example how addicting it can be to live vicariously through others. As you mentioned with Rear Window, voyeurism is why the porn industry is ridiculously successful and one reason why Hitchcock was popular–he loved the power of watching others–i’m sure you know he was a peeping-Tom, cutting holes in dressing rooms so he could spy on his starlets. Anyway, you reminded me of a similar scene that sticks with me every time I’m at an airport waiting to embark. Remember the scene in Dogma where Ben Affleck’s character comes to watch people’s joyful interaction with each other when they meet their loved ones? That five seconds of transparency. That’s my favorite kind of voyeurism–witnessing the love, the sigh of relief they are back. That intimacy gets me every time.

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    1. mattasshole Post author

      Thanks, Cindy!
      I like how you reframe what I refer to as eavesdropping to simply being observant. I like the sound of that better. 🙂 I do think that kind of curiosity makes better writers (and hopefully better therapists or else I’m out of excuses).
      Believe it or not, I have not heard about Hitchcock as a peeping Tom and am quite sure it was not mentioned on the Universal tour. I will be reading up on that soon!
      Now that you mention it, I do remember that scene in Dogma. (Wow, I haven’t seen that in years). I find it interesting these moments we witness that leave some sort of impression on us and the people we share these experiences with in some small way will usually never knew it.
      I like those nice moments too but… Full disclosure: I enjoy the quarrels too.

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  4. Khalid Rafi

    Great post. This is such an underrated film that happens to feature to feature one of Travolta’s best turns. And I do agree that The Conversation, The Lives of Others and Rear Window are excellent films on surveillance

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  5. filmfunkel

    So I’m standing in the popcorn line in a theater. Walking behind me is a man & his son (8 or so). As they pass, I hear the boy asking: “Dad, remember when that guy was trying to kill himself with his underwear-” and the dad sharply shushed him as they walked out.

    That festered non-stop in my over-analytical brain. I’m pretty sure I’ve figured it out, (at least that’s what I still tell myself). It’s the stuff we hear when we’re not even trying to be ‘observant’ that can be the most pernicious. Btw, this was a delightful post. 😀

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      1. filmfunkel

        Weeks after the event, I saw an old X-files episode on TV – one of their comic ones (the Jose Chung one?). Anyway, at the end, a guy in jail is trying to hang himself with his underwear, but can’t get the height, so he flounders about trying to get his feet off the floor.

        It’s pretty funny & it took a minute but, when I remembered that kid, I just about ruptured something laughing. I mean, that has to be what he was talking about. It fits that he would see it on TV and his dad probably realized how his kid was sounding in public.

        That’s been my best (and only) guess so far.

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  8. John Charet

    Great review 🙂 I truly feel that Brian De Palma’s style has aged remarkably well. True, I do not know If many people use split-screens to tell some of their stories nowadays, but he started using a steadicam a lot in some of his later work (Birdman is probably the most recent example of steadicam use). Make no mistake, De Palma did not revolutionize it, but he has put it to great use. Blow Out (1981) is probably my third favorite De Palma film after The Fury (1978) and Femme Fatale (2002). On my site, I have a blog entry regarding my favorite Brian De Palma films and feel free to look at whenever you want. Rear Window (1954) is probably my fourth favorite Hitchcock film after The Birds (1963), Psycho (1960) and Vertigo (1958). Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂

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  9. Pingback: The Girl on the Train | ASSHOLES WATCHING MOVIES

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