09 April 2007

The Parallax View (1974)

Directed by: Alan J. Pakula
Written by: David Giler & Lorenzo Semple, Jr.

Grade: C+

The Parallax View is regarded as a paragon of the ‘70s paranoid political thriller, but, make no mistake, it is no taught, thrilling procedural along the lines of All the President’s Men—it’s an uneven bore that's as incredibly dated as Warren Beatty's haircut.

Thematic and pellic obsolescence seem to be a real problem for many Warren Beatty movies (I'm thinking of the abysmal Shampoo); as a colleague, Clayton White, told me recently: "They might have been big in their time, but most of them need to stay in their time." Beatty plays Joe Frady, who mostly uses aliases throughout the film, a two-bit journalist present at the assassination of a prominent Senator. The murder is declared, familiarly, the work of a lone, crazed gunman, but several years later many of the other people who were present start dying, whether from seemingly benign accidents or natural causes. At first, Frady is satisfied that everything is as they say and the unusual deaths are mere coincidence.

But when a fellow journalist and assassination attendee dies immediately after fortelling her own death, Frady decides to dig a bit deeper, and soon unearths a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top of…the Parallax Corporation; well, that's just a cheap cop-out, a free pass to the CIA et al., that allows the film to avoid directly indicting the US government as complicit in the assassinations of the late 1960’s. The best part of the movie, though, is the classic Parallax training video that bifurcates the film, a staccato photocollage that examines the natures of, and relationships between, the concepts of self, family, country, and religion. It’s some serious, subversive Kuleshev shit.

The world of the film, in which superficially innocuous surfaces are far more sinister once you dig a bit deeper, is perfectly reflected by Gordon Willis’ gorgeous photography, the movie’s strongest point, that features bright exteriors and shadowy interiors. Willis also captures the ominous threat posed by the colossal Parallax Corporation by commonly shooting Beatty against enormous man-made artifices, be it a dam or a glass-paneled office building. (It's a visual motif that should be familiar from the same year's far superior examination of paranoia, The Conversation.) Beatty's pit himself against forces far larger than the inquiring individual.

But the first half of the movie simply plays out as a corny action movie, brimming with car chases, feral fist fights and, everyone’s favorite, big explosions! (Whereas the recent film Shooter is playfully aware of its fundamental stupidity, The Parallax View is unduly conceited, taking itself far too seriously to the point of approaching unintended kitsch.) The second half is far superior, primarily comprised of two long, tense assassination set pieces: one an aborted attempt at blowing up an airplane; the other, trouble at a political rally dress rehearsal. They're paradigms of dialogueless, suspenseful filmmaking, but they’re awkwardly stuffed into a senseless, flimsy, confusing (it felt like a reel or two were missing) film that adds up to little other than: don’t trust the Warren Commission. Well, duh.

2 comments:

Clayton L. White said...

The sad thing about this film is that so many talented people are involved. Pakula is a fine director, and Gordon Willis is one of the greats. I think the problem is Beatty. It's been well documented that Beatty is a perfectionist, and he has a tendency to irritate many of the people around him, and it shows.

H. Stewart said...

He sure irritates the heck outta me!