Lost in the Movies: The Parallax View

The Parallax View

Many years ago, when AMC was the province of actual movie classics I stumbled across an unexpected, disturbing surprise. Keep in mind this was well before the channel began playing Commando and Legend in endless, commercial-ridden loops; I was used to seeing movies like For Whom the Bell Tolls or old 40s serials when I flipped by. But on this night - and I remember that it was night and I was watching TV alone - the image on AMC had an eerie unknowability. A light dimmed, a voice instructed the viewer to sit back, and a montage began. Still images of a baby, of a warm family, of the flag, of trees with shafts of light flowing through - accompanied by simple one-word titles, white lettering on black background: "Me," "family," "country," "God." The music is happy but with a slightly ethereal edge, a suggestion of pain lingering in the restrained but lush orchestration and even the deep voice humming along. This tinge of sadness is highlighted as we see brief snatches of Hitler accompanied by the word, "Enemy." OK, evil is out there, but it's elsewhere. We're safe. Right? New images, black-and-white now, of wrinkled faces - an old man at the plow. Fallow ground. A beleaguered mother with wanton children gathering in a broken doorway. The music darkens - begins to acknowledge the pain that was lingering beneath. Now "me" is not a pink baby, basking in the shaft of light filtered through a protective window, but a naked body huddled on a broken-down bed in the fetal position, lonely, alone, broken. These are darker images, but they are not all dark in the same way - some suggest physical or economic hardship, some emotional or psychological weakness, others an outside evil - confusingly intercut with what was once good, until all distinctions become harder and harder to parse. Our security and comfort has been stripped, a raw nerve touched, chaos comes pouring into the void. Anger, sadness, fear, alienation, isolation, insanity vie for our attention. How do we make sense of this madness? Sexuality is introduced - blurred naked bodies, both erotic and cold, in another of those black-and-white photographs which seem to denote a harsher, more raw reality. A father chases his naked son down a hallway - a comic image? An abusive one? There's too much information, coming too fast, hitting our senses from all different angles, leaving us battered and defenseless. Comic-book heroes and villains jut in amongst the Klansmen and fallen leaders - King, Kennedy - Thor and a red demon, intercut with speeding bullets which thrust into the frame with phallic power. Power - a myth of self-empowerment, the only way out of this shiftless, directionless zone of consciousness, where good is evil is good and sick thoughts come marauding through good, clean, wholesome, upright values, leaving everything upturned. Power in the thrust of a gun, the bigness and simplicity of a comic book, the congealed chaos of the music, growing and swelling with discordant notes and a rising theme. Power! Me! The lights come up.

What the hell did I just see???

One of the marvels of this movie (the whole movie, not just the montage-within-a-movie) is that it subjects the viewer to its mysteries and peculiarities directly, not just through its protagonist (there are no reaction shots during the montage I described above). And, of course, the effect is heightened if you come in without knowing what to expect. A few noted film iconoclasts - including Jean-Luc Godard and several surrealists before him - have been fond of entering into a theater and sitting down for a few minutes, only getting up and going to the next room when they'd figured out what was going on. I can't say I recommend this approach as general practice, but on occasion it works wonders, and my late-night encounter with this film - which I'd never even heard of before - was one such occasion.

The serendipity of tuning in at that exact moment! It allowed me to imagine a movie even better, even more mysterious and subversive than the whole movie - a fine film with some flaws, especially in the first half - turned out to be. Of course, I continued watching after the montage was over and was surprised to find Warren Beatty exiting a super-modern office building in pursuit of a man with a suitcase (he had been watching the movie but we didn't see much of him before or after the screening, and nothing of him during it). Beatty is not his usual jocular self, seeming instead quiet and moody. Obviously this film had some sort of assassination theme - was Beatty an assassin? I waited to find out.

He follows the suitcase to an airport, gets on an airplane and sits tensely in an aisle seat. Getting up to use the bathroom, he grabs a bar of soap and writes on the mirror: "There is a bomb on this plane." Having second thoughts, I wondered? Was he supposed to blow up the plane but now he's changed his mind? No clues. However, as Beatty exits the bathroom he encounters a man waiting outside and he quickly closes the door, returning to the mirror to erase his message with his sleeve. No dialogue. It's very funny, the first comical moment in the ten or so minutes I'd been watching. He sits back down, eventually scrawling an impromptu note on a cocktail napkin, which a stewardess reads before rushing towards the cockpit. And sure enough, once the plane is grounded, and Beatty is able to sneak away from security, an explosion rumbles just offscreen.

The movie continues, moody, mysterious, tantalizingly impenetrable. Beatty seems to be some sort of loner - I've gathered that he's involved with some sort of organization which recruits assassins, but in what capacity? Is he a spy, a potential assassin turned against the group? Again, no clues. But he follows suited men through stunningly, achingly gorgeous (if this is your sort of thing, and God knows it's mine) modernist-designed plazas and buildings, up escalators with infinite lights cascading across the ceiling, through geometrically-designed swooping arches, up into a skyway over a vast, empty gymnasium, lined with chairs, occupied by a high school marching band (complete with the requisite panicky and shrimpy trombone player), and visited by a politician of some sort, white-haired, driving a Zamboni, and looking bored with his role. Beatty scours the walkway for somebody, catching glimpses of prowling well-dressed men, only to hide when security guards walk past.

Since I had tuned in more than halfway through the movie (though I had no way of knowing where I was in the scheme of things), an ending loomed. Let that be a warning if you haven't seen this film yet. I may have already spoiled too much but since my description is so ambiguous - the approach of an outsider who didn't know what was going on - I doubt it. Anyway, a shot is fired, the Zamboni-driving politician collapses (by the way, he had the chutzpah to place himself, in a visual display, after Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt - Teddy, not Franklin...must be a Republican.) Again, just as with the propaganda film, Beatty, our ostensible star, barely registers. We focus instead, with Antonioni-like distanced fascination, on the abandoned auditorium, lined with precise rows of color-coordinated chairs, now completely empty until the wail of a distant siren grows nearer and ambulances pull into the room, winding around the chairs to pick up the peculiarly abandoned body.

Meanwhile, Beatty seems to have evaded all the prowling guards in the catwalk and he runs towards a door in which bright, almost abstract, white light beckons. Running, running, towards this opening - for far longer than it would actually take - Beatty is suddenly confronted by a black shadow in the white light. No face can be made out but there's a gun and - register for a moment Beatty's stunned reaction - it fires. We end with a panel of judges, stern, stentorian, cloaked in grim shadow. They pronounce a historical verdict, their findings about the recent assassination: it was the work of a suicidal lone gunman, a reporter who had become obsessed with investigating a previous assassination, and had obviously lost his mind. Conspiracy theorists may say otherwise, but the case is clear. End of inquiry. End of movie. And a title finally appeared, as if to answer my most basic question, and raise many others at the same time: "The Parallax View."

Years and years later (I'm not sure why it took so long, except that I think The Parallax View was unavailable on video for a while) I finally saw the whole movie. Turns out Beatty is Joseph Frady, a roving, reckless reporter whose friend - witness to an earlier assassination - is killed, sparking his interest in a supposedly closed case. The early scenes of this movie, often visually impressive but strangely erratic in tone, seem to be struggling to find the right voice. At times it's an old-fashioned newspaper picture, with tired old editor Hume Cronyn groaning at Beatty's hijinks before begrudgingly encouraging him. Sometimes it's Hitchcockian intrigue & suspense, complete with eccentric set-ups: Frady meets an ex-FBI agent on a kiddie ride, a little train that goes around in circles (they discuss possible alibis, and settle on a "weenie wagger" - that's indecent exposure to those of you not up on the lingo).

There are suggestions of a playboy lifestyle for Frady, never revisited, and later the movie dabbles in sleek, upper-class thriller mode as Frady becomes a passenger on an exploding yacht. And briefly, it even ventures into backwoods adventure territory, as Frady looks into the mysterious disappearance of one assassination witness in a provincial backwater. There's the obligatory but out-of-character bar fight, and the even more obligatory and even more out-of-character car chase in which Frady's car crashes through a supermarket. Though director Pakula and master cinematographer Gordon Willis find ways to make even the most routine action interesting, this is the nadir of the movie.

I bow to no one in my fondness for random, wandering storylines, when done correctly (I think, in particular, of the drunken pig at a nighclub halfway through F.W. Murnau's Sunrise - who in the world could have seen that coming one hour earlier?). But The Parallax View wears these scenes uneasily, like the morose, intellectual older brother forced to dress up as a clown for his kid sister's birthday party when the professional gets drunk and doesn't show. Eventually, if you don't know what's coming, you wonder if the movie will ever find the correct path, or if it will keep wandering from genre to genre, becoming nothing more than a hodgepodge.

Ironically, it is when the psychological fragility enters the milieu that the movie discovers its cool confidence. Frady begins to pose as a violent outsider, hoping he will draw the attention of the mysterious Parallax Corporation, whose aim is clear - recruit assassins - but whose motivation is ambiguous (and will remain so after the movie's over). Frady has discovered an intriguing survey - questions (statements?) include "I have never vomited blood", "There is something wrong with my mind," and "I like knowing important people because it makes me feel important." With the help of a psychologist, he determines the answers that best fit the profile of a nascent killer, and applies to Parallax's highly secret program. He's visited by a Parallax representive, a creepily professional, insinuating and subtly controlling agent (who is played by an actor I can't locate right now), and invited to partake in a training course. Hence, the little screening.

The movie's flawed first act works in a weird structural way - like The Magnificent Ambersons in reverse. Ambersons' structure and style, as I noted in my November review, disintegrate in direct relation to the family fortunes of its protagonists, while The Parallax View finds its voice and purpose as Frady, a playboy gadfly puttering around as a third-rate journalist, becomes more and more immersed in the murky world of assassination conspiracies. Though Parallax View is often described as a paranoid film, it is also a dissection of paranoia, of the psychological complexes and innate curiosities which lead one down the primrose path to single-minded conspiracy theories. That brainwashing montage may not turn Frady into a killer, but it does turn him - and us - into true believers.

The emergence of the Parallax Corporation enlarges the scope of the movie, deepens it, makes it bigger than its protagonist, bigger than us, too big to handle. And as we become lost, as unable to control events or understand their meanings as Joe Frady, we begin to rely on the Corporation as the one solid thing in our cinematic world. The old editor croaks (poisoned), Frady is believed dead, and eventually is dead, leaving us alone, stranded with that panel of judges, whom we know we can't trust. So where do we turn? Perhaps, in the end, the movie itself is a recruiting tool - a reverse-psychology trick to get us interested in the program.

Which reminds me. Now that I've got your attention, there's a little survey I'd like you to look at. It won't take long, I promise...

If you haven't seen the montage, you can find it here. Also worth checking out is DVD Savant's astute analysis of this sequence.


Unknown said...

The montage is more suggestive than meets the eye. The movie itself was a front for Parallax. If you look at the actual celluloid you will see subliminal images and messages embedded in certain frames. Parallax merged with Halliburton in the late 80s. Be aware. Be alarmed.

Joel Bocko said...

They're coming to take us away ha ha! they're coming to take us away!

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