Director: Alan J Pakula
Written by: David Giler, Lorenzo Semple Jr., Robert Towne (uncredited)
Based on the novel by: Loren Singer.
Alan J Pakula’s film stars Warren Beatty as a down-and-out journalist who stumbles into a government-wide conspiracy, three years after the assassination of popular US senator.
The 1970’s might have been a tumultuous decade for American politics, but there can be no argument that it also fostered some of the preeminent talents in American cinema. When you consider the sheer volume of singularly brilliant filmmakers to arrive on The New Hollywood roster, it’s almost overwhelming. Even omitting those who have passed away, or sadder still, chosen to retire, the catalog is rich:
Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Roman Polanski, Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, George Lucas, Clint Eastwood, William Friedkin… These are all filmmakers who the general public still desire to follow. Scorsese films are still event films. Scott films, are still event films. Spielberg films, are still event films. It’s a testament to their collective expertise that these directors never fell off the radar, or lost touch with their medium.
You could say The Parallax view arrived at precisely the right time, or if you’d prefer, that historical events arrived at the right time for The Parallax View. Whatever your view, Pakula’s film is unmistakably the product of a compound neurosis — think JFK, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Watergate, and Vietnam, all rolled into one. This might read like the ingredients list of an Oliver Stone film (okay, it is), but The Parallax view is patently another beast. That’s not to say there aren’t similarities to Stone, but I’ll get around to those later.
I’m a big advocate of Pakula. I’ve got endless time for his filmography. Like many of his peers, chiefly Brian DePalma and Bill Friedkin (both of whom I also rate highly), Pakula’s Hitchcock line is generally on the surface. Tension is crafted daintily, and incredible circumstances are used to endow otherwise innocuous imagery with fresh terror.
There are several moments in the Parallax View which recall Hitchcock in this way, but one of the most memorable involves a stack of napkins.
Warren Beatty, our hero, has just boarded a plane in search of an elusive assassin, only to realise upon takeoff, that the perpetrator has fled — and left a time-activated bomb in the hold. Beatty is now tasked with alerting the crew, but must do everything in his power to avoid drawing their suspicion. After frantically scrambling for a way to communicate this warning, he eventually scrawls something onto a napkin, before slipping this missive into a passing stewardess’ trolley. A tense, unbroken shot of the undisturbed napkin follows; as the stewardess continues down the aisle, offering drinks, oblivious to the note. The panic bubbles up as we watch and wonder: will she see it, will she disregard it, how will she react, will it be too later?
The film also benefits from an evocative, sinister soundtrack, courtesy of Michael Small, who worked memorably on films like Klute, and Marathon Man. His music trips all the right emotions, evoking a mixture of dread, dashed hope, paranoia, and cynicism, with its stirring drum cadence, and clashing, dissonant motif. I was reminded of John William’s JFK score, which for me, remains the heavyweight’s most simultaneously chilling, and rousing theme.
There comes, at around the film’s mid-way point, a tremendous, blind-sider sequence — in the form of an extended montage. Beatty has infiltrated the Parallax corporation (an extra-governmental group which moulds psychopaths into assassins, and, just occasionally, patsies) and is being forced to watch five minutes of ‘visual materials’ as part of their testing procedure. A slideshow of Images, punctuated by title-cards (‘MOTHER’, ‘FATHER’, ‘LOVE’, ‘ME’, ‘COUNTRY’), flickers over the screen at growing speed. As the presentation wears on, pictures swap into different groupings (sexual imagery appears in the ‘MOTHER’ category, and nazi rallies appear alongside Nixon in ‘COUNTRY’). The whole five minutes remains daring and electric to this day, captivating the viewer’s gaze like hypnotic propaganda. Its effect is so potent, that afterwards, audiences may well find themselves asking a difficult question: what does this say about me? It certainly gave me pause.
I would be remiss not to namecheck Soylent Green (released the same year as Parallax), for its virtuoso scenes of montage, all of which achieve, through comparable techniques and contexts, a similarly downbeat and nasty reaction (to be clear, I think this is a great thing). Also present are distinct grammatical similarities between this film, and later paranoid Sci-Fi fare like Logan’s Run, and Kaufman’s Body Snatchers remake, to name but a few.
I watched Parallax on Netflix’s streaming service, and spent a good deal of minutes after the fact, poring over the various reviews. Perhaps this was unwise. Despite the numerous positive notes, there was a depressing trend of misinformed conjecture. Cries of ‘hard to follow’, ‘pointless’, and most erroneously of all — ‘dumb’. This didn’t entirely surprise me, though it did leave me eager to rebut.
The Parallax View does not trace a particularly complex plot. Beat to beat, the story is brisk and linear, but unlike many contemporary offerings, it is told with a lavish, visually compelling style. The mis-en-scene, interior and exterior, is always precisely composed in super-wide 2:35:1 (this is illustrated in the pictures accompanying this review), however it’s the little details (napkins and such) that really elevate the piece — and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was precisely this focus on ‘detail’ that threw off the film’s latter-day detractors. They simply weren’t looking at the napkin, or the sack lunch (containing the poisoned sandwich), or the silver platter of drinks (which concealed the gun). No, instead they were elsewhere, waiting for the explosion.
It seems that increasingly, modern audiences are getting used to blandness. In the thriller genre, I believe that modern blandness can be summed up with a few cliches. Some of these are:
– Overwrought, uninspired, and typically superfluous chases — in which a constantly roaming and swinging camera, coupled with breakneck edits, flattens any spirit of tension.
– Loud pyrotechnics, usually achieved with glossy VFX, thrown in repeatedly and unimaginatively.
– All-too-frequent helicopter establishing shots (in case the audience forgot that cityscapes existed). These scenes are almost always accompanied by an ominous groan of music. God forbid one of these forms the film’s opening scene — there might not be a greater red flag…
For a meaningful comparison, take any number of modern paranoid thrillers — the Taylor Lautner Thriller Abduction, or Pierce Brosnan’s recent ‘Survivor’, do feel free to pick freely — and study their methods closely. There is nothing about these films, speaking particularly about their command of a visual language, which suggests any ability beyond low-functioning competency. No flair, no invention, no risk. The images tell a story, but only in the most loose and diluted way you could care to imagine. Now return to Parallax, and take any one of its frames: they all mean something.
The worst part about all this, is that undiscerning viewers will often insist that a film like Abduction is the superior product. After all, it’s newer, there are more explosions, more cuts, and at no point do the filmmakers stop to interrogate the images on screen, or pose any challenging questions.
So, considering all of the aforementioned, it is perhaps understandable that a fair handful of people would miss the net here. And as I am loath to complain about the viewing habits of others (we’re all hypocrites in that respect, aren’t we?), I’ll curtail this rant for the time being. Though as a final word, I should express that I do find pleasure in a number of (relatively) new filmmakers in this genre — Denis Villeneuve to name but one. It’s certainly not all rotten apples.
The Parallax View is comfortably one of the quickest and most daring conspiracy thrillers of the 1970’s. Daring for its willingness to counter mainline notions about political process, and assert something seedier. It was controversial enough when Stone took this position in 1991, but he had nearly three decades of clearance — Pakula’s film had only one.
As the film posits: ‘there is a natural bureaucratic tendency to cover up mistakes’. Pakula is indicting the entire US government, if not for first degree murder, than at the very least for malfeasance. His statement seems to be, that even if the US government weren’t directly responsible for John and Robert Kennedy’s deaths, it serves that they would favour a conclusion which disavowed them of blame. It’s all heavy stuff. Electrifying though.