Posted by Susan Doll on September 15, 2008
All last week, Medusamorlock’s thought-provoking examination of Kings Row stayed with me, particularly the way her pessimistic mood prompted her to watch a film that sustained that mood while simultaneously providing her with a vehicle to work through it. The result was an insightful perspective on a well-known film as well as a bit of pointed social commentary.
It reminded me of my own inclinations to seek out films that speak to my melancholy moods. Such films make me feel better by actually validating the mood though not for any personal reasons. They remind me that there are plenty of external causes to make me — or anyone — brood about society, humanity, politics, etc., etc. That is the beauty and power of these films — they sooth while they provoke, offer entertainment while they stimulate thought and reflection. In this regard, I am sure many film-goers have their own Kings Row—that is, a movie with dark or pessimistic tones that is oddly comforting when viewed in a bad mood. My Kings Row, at least these days, is The Parallax View.
Directed in 1974, this ultimate in paranoid thrillers is the second of Alan Pakula’s so-called Political Trilogy, which also includes Klute and All the President’s Men. While taking nothing away from Pakula’s involvement, an equally significant person to the film’s artistic success is star Warren Beatty. Beatty’s career has always interested me because back in the day he was something of a peacock of a movie star whose off-screen romantic and sexual antics with famous actresses stole the headlines, obscuring his other accomplishments. Currently, he tends to be identified as Mr. Annette Bening while his recent lifetime achievement awards have some young people scratching their heads as to why he deserves them. However, Beatty was an important actor, director, and producer during the Film School Generation — that period of film that spanned the mid-1960s to 1980 when the first generation of film school graduates made their mark on American film history. Beatty (or Pakula) did not go to film school, but he learned about filmmaking during that time frame while working as a leading man for the likes of Elia Kazan and Arthur Penn, and he also came of age politically during that time as did so many other directors from this group. Beatty used his clout as a star to get such important films as Mickey One and Bonnie and Clyde made and released, because he believed in their point of view and their artistry. According to at least one account, he put up some of this own money to get The Parallax View made.
Klute and All the President’s Men feature the tension and the anti-establishment theme of The Parallax View, but Parallax ramps up these characteristics while simultaneously depicting a freaky mood that is part paranoia, part fear, and part cynicism. It’s the mood that pulls me in; but it’s the non-classical film techniques and Beatty’s antihero that keep me watching , and it’s the fear that we are really powerless to enact change in this country that compels me to re-view it. After a week of political theatrics, in which the media inundated us with images of the Republican vice-presidential candidate simply because she is new, and then made way too much of the word “lipstick,” I was primed to watch The Parallax View again.
In 1974, the year the film was released, the Watergate scandal was reaching its peak. Revelations about the Nixon presidency were continually exposed, culminating in the sentencing of most of those involved and then the resignation of Nixon himself. A decisive event in history, Watergate has been blamed for instilling in Americans a contempt for politics and a suspicion of government. It is easy to draw a parallel between Watergate and this film, and it is no surprise that director Pakula would tackle Watergate with All the President’s Men. But it was not only Watergate that disillusioned many Americans about the inner workings of government. Already the 1970s had witnessed the release of the Pentagon Papers, the dissatisfying end of an unpopular war, Vice-President Spiro Agnew’s resignation over corruption charges, and the exposure of widespread wiretapping of American citizens, among other events. In addition, the film’s assassination commission and their “crazed lone gunman” conclusion is clearly a reference to the Warren Commission and their findings. There was always a buzz about the Warren Commission’s 1964 findings, but during the 1970s, the JFK conspiracy theories stirred up by Jim Garrison and others fit the zeitgeist of this era. Suspicion and paranoia, alienation, and disillusionment in American social institutions were simply a sign of the times, and the film reflected those times while at the same time influencing them.
The Parallax View exudes the idea of paranoia in its narrative and its camerawork. The story is constructed so we don’t quite know how all the pieces fit together. There is something out there, and we follow the clues to track it down, along with Joe Frady, but doing so doesn’t necessarily connect the clues into a coherent whole. Cinematographer Gordon Willis uses a telephoto lens to capture Joe and others in long shots and long takes, like surveillance footage. We often see and hear Joe from far away, through door frames, or from behind foliage — like someone is spying on him. Is it supposed to be Parallax? The government? Us? The unflattering lighting is low-key and gloomy in some scenes and harsh and high-contrast in others. Sometimes the characters are lit in such a way that their eyes are in shadow, hiding part of their facial features and expressions, as with the Parallax representative who visits Joe in his motel room. We can’t ascertain what he really means when he is speaking: Is he lying? Playing with Joe? Hiding something? Willis had employed this lighting technique in The Godfather for the same reason, but it is used to even greater effect in The Parallax View.
The film’s most famous scene involves Joe’s “brainwashing” when he is asked to view a very special film at the Parallax corporate offices as part of the training process. The film-within-the-film is disturbing for many reasons. Consisting of a series of still photographs and one-word intertitles , the film is the very essence of montage editing, that highly manipulative technique innovated by Russian filmmakers during the 1920s. Montage is dependent on the juxtaposition of images, their accumulation, and their frequency to create their effect. In comparison, Hollywood-style continuity editing is smooth, linear, and dependent on the illusion of continuous action, that is, the illusion that one shot picks up where the previous left off. In the film that Joe watches, a series of photographs that are iconic of America — farms, a mother, a family, kids, even apple pie — are juxtaposed against the intertitles of “mother,” “father,” “home,” “happiness,” and “me.” Photos of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln suggest “country.” As the film continues, the pace quickens and the images come so fast that it becomes difficult to put them into perspective as they flash across the screen. Furthermore, it makes you anxious and fretful to watch. The accompanying music, with its military drums and patriotic tone, becomes discordant. The barrage of images begins to include shots of poverty-stricken kids, dead bodies, Nazis, the KKK, and other disturbing photos. When you see the word “father,” followed by a naked boy running, and then an angry man with a belt, it clearly suggests something is wrong with “father,” the “family,” and thus, the “country.” Part way through the film, an image of the comic-book hero Thor is introduced ready for action, with an angry look on his face and his hammer-weapon in hand. By the end, Thor is juxtaposed with the intertitle “me.” The montage tells us that there are problems undermining our country — and the solution is to take action through violence, rendering one a hero. The juxtaposition of images creates disturbing ideas while the accumulation of shots becomes exhausting, and the frequency of the editing, combined with the discordant music, is agitating. In The Parallax View, the montage is supposed to bring out the hostility, anger, and anti-social tendencies of the would-be assassins, agitating them to the point that they are ready to kill for Parallax. [Glenn Erickson offers a smart analysis of this scene titled “The Parallax View: The Incredible Montage” on his website DVD Savant.]
I can’t help but compare this film-within-a-film to recent Hollywood action or comic-book movies that employ montage-style editing in action sequences instead of the traditional continuity editing. Films such as Gone in 60 Seconds, Wanted, Transformers, etc. use an accumulation of non-continuous shots of cars racing, movement, explosions, crashes, and other images of destruction as climaxes to action sequences. Like the montage in The Parallax View, the sequences employ an ever-increasing fast pace and loud sound effects or music. The result is agitating to watch, though not particularly suspenseful. Considering that the target audience for these films are adolescents and young men, one wonders what the ultimate effect might be. Perhaps the directors of these films understand the impact of their filmmaking techniques and are doing this intentionally, but considering how poorly crafted the films are, I doubt it.
Played by handsome Warren Beatty in his prime, Joe Frady seems to be the very archetype of the Hollywood hero — cool, confident, action-oriented. Joe looks every inch the maverick American hero with his long hair, blue jeans, and leather or corduroy jackets, especially in contrast to the dull, gray-suited Parallax employees. But, as the film progresses, we begin to see that Joe doesn’t really meet the qualifications of the typical heroic protagonist. The real-life Beatty’s reputation as a ladies’ man feeds into his character Joe Frady. Women in the film do find Joe attractive but this trait is not fun or sexy — it’s sordid, and it prevents him from being committed to any one woman, such as Lee Carter. There is no romantic subplot in the film to bring out a soft side to Frady, so he remains an aloof and alienated man. Furthermore, Frady thinks he is smarter and more competent than he is; as one character points out to him, he is little more than a third-rate reporter for some small paper in the Northwest. He thinks he is following members of Parallax to ferret out information, but in reality they are following him to set him up. (If you have not seen the film, and you are one of those viewers bothered by spoilers, don’t read the next paragraph.)
When Joe goes after Parallax, he changes his name; as a matter of fact, he gives so many different names for so many purposes that I lost track of them. Of course, this serves the plot because he is deep undercover. But, it also has a deeper significance: The further Joe is lured into Parallax’s web, the more he loses his identity, or his sense of himself. A long shot of the enormous Parallax building with Joe dwarfed in the lower right corner of the frame telegraphs who is really in control. At the end, he realizes that he has become Parallax’s complete patsy, and he has failed to stop them. Thus, he fails to solve the problem set up by the story — which is the function of the hero. He looks like a hero, and he tries to take action like a hero, but there are too many forces working against him. The fact that Joe hovers on the edge of the mystery instead of delving into the heart of it is signaled by the film’s compositions, which often depict Frady lingering on the edges of the frame. Effective protagonists should be center-frame or in some other position of prominence. Unfortunately, unless you watch the film in widescreen, this effect is lost; beware of the old VHS version in which Joe is often cut out of the frame entirely.
We are accustomed in Hollywood film for the hero — even unsavory ones — to rally against the odds and resolve the problem set forth in the story. That doesn’t happen in The Parallax View. Further, the final scene punches a hole in the American ideal that one man can make a difference — something drummed into us by parents, teachers, and other authority figures from childhood. According to The Parallax View, one man can’t make a difference, and we are all patsies of unknown forces we cannot see.
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