Flying object between the glass buildings with dark clouds above

Re-Framing the Subject 08 – Blackmailer

Jack refuses to forget the incident; the evidence is recorded, as in memory, on sound tape; moreover, it is confirmed by the film of the accident taken by the blackmailer who was hiding at the scene. When this film is published as a sequence of still shots in a news magazine, Jack reanimates them so that he can dub on his sound and produce a more authentic version of the truth. Unlike the photographer in Blow Up, he does not return to the scene of the crime but to the scene of the signifier, the playback; but is it in his recognition of its potential to create unlimited copies and simulations that he is caught in the dilemma of the authenticity of representation The evidence of the gunshot could, he admits, have been fabricated in a laboratory, no more authentic than the edited version of the accident relayed by the TV new.

That the sound tape is intended to be a metaphor for being and memory is indicated in the scene where Jack discovers that his archive of tapes – his ‘artificial memory’ – have been erased. We are given a continuous 360-degree pan of the room accompanied by the sound of tape noise as if we were inside a blank cranium. If this obliteration of memory marks Jack’s first crisis of self, his subsequent loss of consciousness and time as he tries to follow the audio-wired Sally and her killer signal his final defeat. The only surviving tape is one he has no direct experience of – Sally’s recorded monologue of the scene of her death, transmitted through his wire system. For Jack, as for the postmodern subject, the transmitted message constantly intervenes between the body and knowledge. Sally’s final scream, the eruption of the ‘real’ of the body’s authenticity before its symbolisation in language, ends up as the special effect in the porn film: a pure representation severed from its original meaning in ‘real life’. The closing shot of the film is a freeze–frame of a despairing Jack with closed eyes and ears: the manipulations of language have betrayed the self’s knowledge of itself, and he is now a subject that neither hears nor sees nor speaks.

Blow Out’s bleak and impotent vision of subjectivity parallels that of contemporary discourse on the tyranny of simulation in and ideologically cynical consumer society where interventionary critiques seem to be impossible. Reproductive technologies produce not a democratic image, as was once imagined for photography, but an autocratic one privileging the point of view of hegemonic power structures. The impossibility of intervening in the forces controlling mass media renders power itself faceless and inaccessible, as Jack (de Palma’s Everyman) discovers As in Blow Up, the agency orchestrating the mise-en-scene is unidentified. But whereas in the earlier film it operates in the domain of the imaginary, and hence can be relinquished to the space of dream, in Blow Out it is a function of the discursive practices of language that work to inscribe the subject within a system of predetermined cultural positions. The potential for the perversion of values in this system is revealed through Burke: it is power that has come to believe in its own fictions, misusing knowledge and operating beyond not only Jack but also the authorised political structure. According to Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976), the scandal of Watergate was not the cover-up of a crime per se (the situation of Blow Up) but a cover-up of the existence of cover intelligence operations.

Likewise, in Blow Out, the agent Burke cynically stages a series of ‘sex’ murders as a media decoy to prevent the disclosure of political conspiracy. Meanwhile, the media are interested in Jack’s tape only because it would make a ‘good story’.

De Palma’s tale of conspiracy is set, ironically, in Philadelphia during celebrations for the Liberty Day Jubilee; and Sally’s death is staged in front of the Port of History building, draped with the American flag. These emblems of freedom of speech and the history of man’s struggle for universal franchise are in counterpoint to the ideological indifference of the simulacrum and the repressive attempts by unknown forces to manipulate both speech and history through simulation. When Jack demands of the Governor’s aide that his account of the accident be heard – ‘That’s what happened; that’s the truth, isn’t it?’ he asks – he is parried by a cynical reference to the contingency of truth: ‘What difference does that make to you?’ Thereafter, death in the film is executed by garrotting, by literally robbing the body of its power of speech. What matters to Jack is that speech and memory are guarantors of the authentic self and the means by which it gains control of its own history or narrative. But if the subject, as he finds, has no control over the means of production and dissemination of his own representations, then he is no longer a unified self but a subject fragmented and dispersed among the various possible cultural terms that construct meaning for him. Under these circumstances, the subject of knowledge is no one in particular.

In so far as it privileges the single point of view of the photographer, Blow Up maintains the illusion of the cohere and ahistorical modernist individual, an ideological position assumed by the film’s audience, and presumed to be that of the director as auteur. Essentially, this is what is parodied in the proleptic sequence of Blow Out. Elsewhere, however, point of view and the mastery of the narrative that this implies, is made problematic. That Jack has only a tenuous claim to priority over the film’s narrative is suggested in the sequence where he loses consciousness sand the narration is given over to Sally. In general, the point of view tends to be dispersed among several subject-positions (Jack, Sally, Burke and the camera/projector/viewer), reflecting the fragmented situation of the postmodern subject where no one visibly has command of the whole. Moreover we cannot say with any confidence that Blow Out represents the point of view of its director, only that it presents a problematic view of subjectivity. The traditional authorial status of the director, like that of the postmodern artist, is made more enigmatic by de Palma’s use of rhetorical tropes such as punning, parody, irony and the citation of earlier film auteurs. Blow Out refers directly to Anonioni’s film, as well as to ‘real life’ news dramas (political assassinations, the Watergate cover-up, and the Kennedy Chappaquiddick scandal). This conflation of fiction with non-fiction mimics the homogenising process of TV programing, whereby reality and fiction are reduced to media spectacle, discharge of any ideological responsibility to an idea of ‘truth’.