Tue 27 Dec 2016
THE PARALLAX VIEW. Paramount Pictures, 1974. Warren Beatty, Paula Prentiss, William Daniels, Walter McGinn, Hume Cronyn. Screennplay: David Giler & Lorenzo Semple Jr., based on a novel by Loren Singer. Director: Alan J. Pakula.
[Since it’s really not possible to adequately discuss Alan J. Pakula’s hyper-paranoid thriller, The Parallax View, without giving away the ending, this review is going to contain a multitude of spoilers. So, if you’d rather watch the movie first, by all means go right ahead and then come right back. Okay, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way … on to the review.]
Whether you love it or hate it, I think you’re sure to agree with me that The Parallax View is by no means an ordinary film. Some who watched it upon its initial release in 1974 may have not really known what to think of it. It’s a political thriller, but one that defies that genre’s traditional narrative structure in which a flawed, but well-intentioned, protagonist (usually a cop, government agent, reluctant warrior forced back into action) takes on an opposing force (a terrorist group, corrupt cops, etc.) and eventually defeated it, but also loses something fundamentally important (his values, his soul, a woman he loves, etc.) in the process.
That’s definitely not the case in The Parallax View, a film in which the protagonist is neither a cop, nor is he eventually triumphant. Instead, the movie’s lead character is a hot-headed (and not overly sympathetic) second-rate journalist with more than a smidgen of antisocial tendencies.
More importantly, he is fundamentally doomed from the start. Simply put: he simply never has a chance. To that extent, The Parallax View fundamentally inverts the Hollywood formula wherein the audience is enticed into rooting for a sympathetic individual to triumph over a villain. Instead, the movie presents a scenario in which the individual not only fails to achieve his goal, but he does so in such a way that his very efforts will never be adequately preserved for posterity. And the villain, such as it is in this untraditional film, is an amorphous, faceless one.
Let me explain.
Warren Beatty portrays Joseph Frady, an intrepid, but hardly topnotch journalist. He doesn’t seem to have many friends and, from what little we know about him, he doesn’t seem to be capable of a stable romantic relationship. When the movie begins, Frady is in Seattle where a United States Senator is campaigning for the White House. Since he isn’t properly credentialed, he isn’t able to take the elevator up to the top where there is a fancy reception.
And maybe it was for the best, since the Senator ends up getting assassinated. What Frady doesn’t see (since he isn’t there as far as we can tell), but we as the viewer do see (this is important) is that there are actually two gunmen, both dressed as waiters. After the senator falls to the ground, security staff rush one of the gunmen and end up chasing him to the top of the structure, where he eventually plunges to his death. But they chased the wrong man. The real shooter got away. But that doesn’t stop a government committee, clearly modeled on the Warren Commission, from concluding that the assassination was the work of a single lone gunman.
Flash forward three years and Frady’s working for a California newspaper, covering low-level crimes and generally getting into trouble. He receives a visit from his ex-girlfriend, Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), also a reporter. Notably, she was one of the reporters who was on the Space Needle that fateful day three years ago and witnessed the two “waiters” interacting with one another just moments before the shooting. She has some foreboding news for Frady, claiming that a lot of the people on the Space Needle that day have recently died in suspicious circumstances. Frady doesn’t buy it. He not only accepts the official version of events, but also thinks that Lee (Prentiss) is mentally unstable. All that changes when she ends up dead, the supposed victim of drug abuse.
Her death is the film’s inciting event, the one that leads the protagonist (Frady) to take action (investigate Lee’s death). Frady goes to see a friend, an ex-FBI agent so as to obtain a fake identity (that of a social misfit) that would allow him to discretely investigate the mysterious death of one of Lee’s colleagues who was also on the Space Needle.
After watching the movie as a whole, one begins to realize that Frady’s (Beatty) very first move may have fundamentally doomed him from the start. For by taking on the identity of a social misfit, Frady has positioned himself for eventual destruction. This begs the question that plagues the whole movie: at what point does Frady become the object of others’ machinations rather than an autonomous moral agent capable of shaping his own decisions within the world in which he finds himself?
Frady’s investigation, meandering as it is, eventually leads him to a print advertisement from some entity called the Parallax Corporation. They seem to be looking for a certain type of person to join their mysterious company. Frady soon concludes that Parallax is in the business of recruiting assassins and becomes determined to infiltrate the faceless corporation. His investigation leads him to take two personality tests to see if he is the right “fit” for Parallax. While the first is a written one, the second is both auditory and visual.
Frady is subject to a five-minute montage film in which words are overlaid with visual images of both patriotism and violence. Owing much to Soviet montage film theory, the film-within-a-film sequence (embedded below) fundamentally shifts the film away from a fairly predictable political thriller to something much more ambitious. Simply put, The Parallax View stops being a mere political thriller and more a meta-movie about film as an artistic and visual medium and the ways in which films can shape our understanding of the political world.
For what happens to Frady after he watches the montage is both bizarre, in a narrative sense, and an implied commentary on how people think they understand pivotal moments in political history. After a series of fairly off kilter sequences, Frady ends up at a Los Angeles convention center where another US Senator is preparing for a major campaign speech. He suspects, rather knows, that Parallax is going to make an attempt on this Senator’s life and he’s determined to stop them.
But he’s too late. The assassination goes forward. More shockingly, Frady immediately realizes that he has been set up as the patsy for the killing. He – or the social misfit whose identity he has assumed in order to investigate Parallax – is going to go down in history as the crazed lone gunman responsible for the killing. Just as in Seattle, a committee will conclude that he acted alone. Such is the conspiratorial view of history as presented in The Parallax View.
Yet, one need not even remotely subscribe to conspiratorial thinking to appreciate what Pakula attempted to pull off in this movie. For as I understand it, Frady was doomed from the moment he took on the fake identity. And here’s why: Parallax was never in the business of recruiting assassins. They are in the business of recruiting patsies, individuals with personality types who would make convincing fall guys for killings carried out by their professional cadres.
In some ways, that’s what’s most subversive about the movie. For if Parallax was in the business of recruiting patsies and not assassins, then Frady was simply just another pawn on Parallax’s chessboard. At some moment, he ceased being the lone individual struggling to find out the truth and just an object being molded into the perfect pasty. The key question – and one the movie never answers – is when. At what point does Parallax decide that Frady is going to be one of their fall guys?
Up to now, I’ve essentially focused my attention on the film’s plot. But the plot cannot be separated from the visual means by which the narrative unfolds. Much of the movie is filmed in wide shots, wherein individuals are subsumed in comparison to imposing structures such as the Space Needle, a dam, and an office building. Befitting the film’s title, much of the movie is about points of view and how the spectator’s point of view often determined what he perceives to be the truth. Owing much to film noir, The Parallax View is likewise preoccupied with what happens in the shadows, both figuratively and literally.
All of this leads me to a discussion that is sure to provoke some debate. Is The Parallax View a successful film or an overly ambitious well-intentioned failure? Or is it something in between? Is it merely pretentious or does it work at provoking the viewer into thinking critically about what he just watched? That surely depends upon your point of view or, more fundamentally, on what you think you just watched.