â€¢ Blow Out
â€¢ Starting with Carrie and climaxing with Dressed to Kill in 1980, the films of writer-director Brian De Palma have always been resourceful and suspenseful, entirely lacking in social significance, and (as a rule) studiously amoral. His latest one, BLOW OUT (not to be confused with Antonioni's Blow-up a few years back), is at least as suspenseful as any of the preceding onesâ€"a pleasing kind of suspense because it is methodical and logical: the facts of the case are set forth clearly as events develop, and the director in effect throws the gauntlet to the viewer: can you solve this one? No murky symbolism here, just a suspenseful plot that plays no tricks on you and never lets you down.
But that isn't all this film offers. Starting with the apparently accidental death of a presidential candidate, we are introduced to the wheels-within-wheels convolutions of events designed to suppress the facts, until a tale of detection of Watergate-style complexity is developed. The extent of the cover-ups, and the immense difficulty of sorting them all out, lend to the plot a significance that previous De Palma plots have not possessed. Not only that, but the characters act in ways that are not merely the requirements of a preconceived story line; particularly in the case of John Travolta in a new kind of role far removed from the teenage-idol role of the past, the characters actually act in character. In addition, there are traces of genuine feeling in this film: one short scene in particular is so strongly evocative of sadness that in less than one minute our entire conception of the scope and meaning of the film is altered.
At this rate, De Palma will yet succeed to Hitchcock's throne.
â€¢ It is with some trepidation that one goes to see yet another horror film in which the main subject is that most misunderstood and maligned species, the wolf. But in WOLFEN there is a difference: the wolves are the heroes.
Still, it isn't as simple as that. Wolves do attack people and kill them and do all sorts of things less in accord with wolf nature than with popular wolf superstitions. But in the film they do it all in self-defense: considering the mess that man has made of this planet (at least according to the film), the wolves are only out to reclaim their rightful inheritance and to set things straight againâ€"as it was before the white man's civilization, of which the miles of wasteland in the South Bronx are used as a symbol throughout the film.
Now it gets even stickier. The Indians are allied with the wolves as the just reclaimers of North America. Where do you find Indians in New York? In aerial jobs such as maintaining the Brooklyn Bridge, which now becomes the second symbol of man's deeds. Ignoring the fact that Indians too killed wolves, the wolf-Indian alliance is pushed so far that one Indian claims that Indians can become wolvesâ€"saying, "It's all in your head"â€"and endeavors to demonstrate this before our eyes.
The symbolism now becomes even murkier and its implications not very consistent. In view of the tenacity with which the wolves hold on to an abandoned church and other pieces of rubble in the South Bronx, one would conclude that they want to have it that way and prefer what man has done here to what man could do to improve itâ€"at least they don't hesitate to kill the man who wants to rebuild it.
Viewed simply as a tale of mystery and terror, this one is quite effective: it is well done and pretty continuously scary and suspenseful. Not one viewer in a hundred is likely to press matters further than that, and in this case ignorance is bliss. This is not the first film that, like Esau, has sold its birthright for a pot of message.
â€¢ The most interesting feature of NIGHTHAWKS is its dramatization of the contrast between "police mentality" and "terrorist mentality." The New York copâ€"at least as portrayed by Sylvester Stalloneâ€"always gives his man a chance. If the man is a terrorist who is holding a hostage, he spares the terrorist in order to save the hostage. If in doubt whether the man he is chasing will relent or give up, he holds his fire.
But, the film tells us, that's not the way to treat terrorists; they use the police mentality in order to further their own ends. If you spare the terrorist because he has a "human shield" in front of him, he will live to kill a thousand others, so it's one life against a thousand. "You should have got him when you could," his associate (Billy Dee Williams) tells Stallone. It takes time for Stallone to learn his lesson and to be able to place himself in the mind of the terrorist, but, in a startling climactic scene, he does.
"I am the champion of the poor and the oppressed of the world," says the German terrorist (Rutger Hauer) as he holds several dozen people hostage. But as we see him planting bombs in buildings full of innocent people, apparently at random, we discern not the slightest evidence that the poor or oppressed are in any way aided by the terrorist's activities. The film makes it quite clear that the psychology of terrorism contains no concern for the poor or the oppressed, who are merely window dressing for his exercise of his strongest driveâ€"to destroy for the sake of destruction, to engage in killing for the love of it.
The head of the London antiterrorist unit understands this and is killed because of Stallone's reluctance to abandon his "police mentality." So persuasive is the film in convincing us of this point that the audience cheers once the "fair play" rules of the "police mentality" are at last abandoned. Whether the abandonment of these rules, appropriate enough in fighting terrorism, will then be employed in causes less justifiable, is a question that the film leaves unanswered.
John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. His book Understanding the Arts will be published this year by Prentice Hall.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".