Friday, June 13, 2008

The Parallax View

As I've stated before, I'm a big Warren Beatty fan, and I'm particularly fond of the films he made in the 1970s, where he used his star power to back some edgy, unconventional projects like Shampoo and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, along with the more conventional--but still very funny--comedy, Heaven Can Wait. The problem, of course, with discussing the career of Warren Beatty is that he's so damn picky about his projects, leading him to make only a few movies in a given decade. So, when he makes a clunker like The Fortune (1975)--a film that should be so much better than it is due to the teaming of Beatty with Jack Nicholson, and the presence of director Mike Nichols--or his last two movies, the sense of disappointment increases. But even with The Fortune, one can see what Beatty wanted out of the project, teaming with his good friend and one of the most successful directors of the period.

This, in fact, has often been a hallmark of Beatty's career: he picks the best people to work on a film. And with a paranoid thriller like The Parallax View, Beatty worked with director Alan J. Pakula, who would achieve even greater success with his next film, All the President's Men. The screenwriters, David Giler and Lorenzo Semple, Jr., were also on a roll at this time, Semple moreso than Giler. Both had come out of television, working together on "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." and Semple having written a huge chunk of the "Batman" TV series. (Giler also worked on the Dr. K-approved Southern Comfort and on one of my favorite bad movies, Myra Breckenridge.) Semple later contributed to the screenplay for the great revisionist spy movie, Three Days of the Condor, as well as the 1980 Flash Gordon movie. In fact, just looking at Semple's credits, he is responsible for a significant chunk of the pleasure I've experienced in my movie-going and television-watching career.

In The Parallax View, Beatty plays a newspaper reporter named Joe Frady who begins to investigate an elaborate conspiracy involving the assassination of a US Senator during a campaign event atop the Seattle Space Needle. Frady is at first skeptical about the conspiracy when it's first proposed to him by fellow journalist and former lover Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss). However, as more people who were present at the assassination begin to die in mysterious circumstances, Frady pursues the investigation, leading him to the mysterious Parallax Corporation, a company that seems to be in the business of political assassination.

After watching this movie recently, I'm kind of shocked by the way it relates to the political events of its time, and the way it seems to casually reference the fact that political assassinations had become common by the early 70s. The film is also pretty unrelenting in its cynicism, giving the absolutely clear sense that good simply cannot triumph over evil, especially when evil takes the form of a large, faceless, powerful, rich, and politically connected corporation. In fact, the movie makes the moral "good vs. evil" binary irrelevant, shifting it into one of "power vs. powerlessness," and the powerless have no chance of penetrating into the realm of the powerful. A film with such a cynical message wouldn't have a chance of making it out of test-screenings today, but then, this was a special time in Hollywood.

The cynicism is compounded by the fact that we discover, by the end of the film, that we, through Joe's eyes, have gotten only a small piece of the whole story, and the events that we've been watching were all manipulated by an unseen hand. Even though he doesn't realize it until it's too late, Joe plays the role in which he's been cast perfectly. In a sense, it is as if there were a bigger movie that we are not getting to see. Director Pakula and Cinematographer Gordon Willis provide a visual cue to this limited perspective by using long lenses that flatten the planes of action and focus in on a particular element of the scene while other, important action is also taking outside of the frame or on its periphery. In a broad sense, this movie undermines itself by calling attention to the dangers of its own manipulation: the audience is manipulated along with Joe, and in the end, even though we know the truth of the Parallax Corporation's plot, we are also complicit in perpetuating the lie as the camera slowly pulls back during the verdict from the hearings on the film's final assassination. We simply leave the room, more paranoid than when we came in.

As Joe Frady infiltrates the Parallax Corporation, he must undergo an "audition" to become one of their assassins. The audition takes the form of a montage of still images accompanied by music. And though it takes up about six minutes of the film, it's a fascinating piece of work that stands on its own as a filmmaking achievement.

Glenn Erickson, the DVD Savant, has an excellent and thorough review of the brilliant montage, and I can't really add more to what he wrote. Erickson explains how the "audition film" fits into the 70s zeitgeist, stemming from earlier works like The Ipcress File and A Clockwork Orange, among others. His conclusion, that "Perhaps the lesson of the 'Audition Film' of Parallax should be that EVERY SHOW and every image we see has the potential to affect us, and that none of us is immune," sums up well the power and significance of this short film within a film, and how it ties in to the film's overall theme of the manipulation of images. (Thanks to Will Pfeifer for pointing me to that essay.)

Another thing about the audition film I love is the use of Jack Kirby art, including the cover to Thor 131, which is a comic I've had since I was a little kid, though my copy is pretty beat up.

The Parallax View remains shockingly effective, and it ranks as one of the great political thrillers of all time. I'd rank it slightly below The Manchurian Candidate, which should stand at the very top of such a list.


Unknown said...

Wow, the sequence was wonderful. I'm going to put Parallax on my Netflix queue.

Anonymous said...

I've a question, which is prob answered elsewhere on the internets: why is it that this kind of movie died in the 1970s?--if it did? I can't think of many thoroughly paranoid conspiracy thrillers since then. The 'classic' ones like this, the conversation, three days of the condor--were made in the 1970s.

dunno. I'm not really a film fan so I wouldn't know. The one movie I can think of--david fincher's 'the game' is curious because it is so perfectly paranoid within the terms of the movie, but it comes off feeling like just that, a game. It seems totally private, and there is no engagement with politics at all.

or have there been similar movies, but we simply don't connect such movies to the surrounding historical and social context (TPV, 3DOTC, the conversation--are often referred to as appropriate to the watergate period)?

Anonymous said...

I got interested by my own thoughts and found this....but I don't really agree with most of it. well, I think the constant gardener comes close in its defeatism, maybe.

Anonymous said...

Myra Breckinridge would probably top the bad movies list and I feel cheated that I wasted my time watching it. I’m assuming the novel it was based on was not as bad otherwise they wouldn’t have made a movie.