“When I was a student at Yale, I was hesitating between a career as a theatre director and as a psychoanalyst. I’ve never lost my interest in psychoanalysis, but I do not regret my decision.”
“Parallax View represents my fear about what’s happening in the world, and All the President’s Men represents my hope. Like most of us I’m balanced between the two.”
Born: 7 April 1928, New York City, USA.
Died: 19 November 1998, Melville, New York, USA.
Directing Career: 1969 – 1997.
Movement: New Hollywood.
Traits: Known as an actor’s director, with intelligent handling of character psychology certainly related to his own keen interest in psychiatry and psychoanalysis. His overall filmography is uneven but in his best work (the three conspiracy thrillers known as the ‘Paranoia trilogy’) he was a very assured formal stylist making films visually rich and complex, that perfectly captured the political and cultural mood of dread in 1970s America.
Collaborators: Gordon Willis (cinematographer), Michael Small (composer), Jane Fonda (actress), Harrison Ford (actor), Kevin Kline (actor), Jason Robards (actor).
Related Directors: Arthur Penn, Sydney Pollack, Bob Rafelson, Robert Altman.
The Parallax View (1974)
All the President’s Men (1976)
While the first instalment of Pakula’s Paranoia Trilogy is named after its timid private eye protagonist John Klute (Donald Sutherland), who arrives in New York City to investigate the disappearance of a businessman, it would be no travesty to claim the film more properly belongs to Jane Fonda’s call girl, Bree Daniels. As Klute’s only lead in the Big Apple, which is very much her patch and a disorienting change of pace for the quiet provincial that he is, Fonda dominates with her Oscar-winning performance finely balanced between streetwise toughness and brittle fragility, manic tics and self-aware candour.
Like that other iconic movie whore from 1971, Mrs. Miller in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Bree is complex, tragic, and fascinating. A trained actress by day who struggles to be taken seriously in auditions that offer no more than a series of rejections, the other side of her life provides her far more control and self-validation. She is addicted to the thrill of being wanted that prostitution offers her, and on the face of it is unabashedly shame-free of her lifestyle — yet she is also overwhelmed by a niggling sense of discontent. There’s a constant need within her to be wanted, a need to perform and have her performances ratified and appreciated by her audience — this connection between prostitution and acting was mined by Godard in the 1960s, but here we’re dealing with something far more psychological.
She regularly visits a therapist to discuss her issues in monologues that punctuate the soundtrack — hers is the voice we hear the most throughout the film. But for all her talk, she largely remains an enigma. Her tough exterior is a thin skin covering a sensitive wound she would rather keep numb, lest Klute or anyone else come too close to uncovering her fear of the dark and other deep-seated anxieties within her. Hiding those is not going to be an easy feat across the film’s paranoid narrative. Not to mention that in Gordon “Prince of Darkness” Willis, whose shadows and negative dark space add constant menace to the frame, she couldn’t have a more terrifying cinematographer to light her. And, if the creepy POV shots of hidden peeping toms and tapped-up phonelines aren’t enough to make you check behind your shoulder in trepidation, Michael Small’s spine-tingling score, like a cold breeze blowing through the bead-curtains in the precarious emptiness of a single woman’s apartment, should seal the job.
The culture clash between the vivacious Bree holding onto her little address book of pimps (including a swanky Roy Scheider cameo) and junkies, and the square, repressed Klute, hints at wider state-of-the-nation commentary in an era when the rise of the counter-culture movement and the Vietnam War left the USA as divided as ever. And, of course, the Watergate scandal was still to come. But Pakula’s films are the way they are not only because of the historical context they were made in. They’re also rooted in a technological context which is just as integral to their aesthetic. Without contemporary developments in the zoom lens, or more generally in the equipment of surveillance (which, of course, Nixon and his entourage were using in the shenanigans that would eventually lead to the Watergate affair), Klute could not create the same innately voyeuristic, paranoid world where everything, aural or visual, can be spied upon — a world which is a coherent evolution of the 1940s noir cycle.
Klute meshes different registers, and while it works stylistically as a neo-noir and even more so as a conspiracy thriller, the tentative romance between Klute and Bree is the film’s emotional heartbeat. Despite contrasting personalities, theirs is a relationship of mutual need: as the aura of impending threat seeps in from Willis’ shadows, he becomes the protector she’s too hurt behind her veil of worldly grit to admit she needs. As for him, so closed-in on himself, his senses are awakened by her, are taught to loosen up and to feel. The culmination of the detective narrative is abrupt, not as interesting as the real finale which ambiguously wonders what can come next for Klute and Bree. It is they, and especially her with what seems destined to be a drifting future of constant therapy and emotional oscillation, that stay with you after the film. (July 2018)
The Parallax View
An RFK-esque presidential candidate is assassinated atop the Seattle Space Needle. The official version says a lone psychopath fired the shots, but did witnesses see something else up there that day? And why are more and more of them turning up dead, snubbed out by a series of improbable accidents — coincidence or something more sinister? Warren Beatty channels all his cockiness and long-haired anti-authority cachet into a compellingly self-effacing performance as Joe Frady, a small-town journalist with Pulitzer aspirations who sets out to investigate. As the apotheosis of Pakula’s ‘Paranoia trilogy’, The Parallax View merits closer examination.
Eyeing the needle
The Parallax View is a political conspiracy thriller, one of the very best and one of the most persuasively fatalistic, but it is also essentially a film about looking, seeing, and knowing. It brims with reminders that seeing is not necessarily knowing, and that a change of perspective can alter what we think we know. Hence the title’s notion of parallax, a principle borrowed from astronomy that states a change in an observer’s position alters what they see. The opening take acts this out visually. The camera at first frames a totem pole from a low angle, before a lateral movement shuffles it out of view to reveal the previously obscured Space Needle — a futuristic ‘totem’ and striking piece of abstract architecture fitting the tone of the film.
What follows is a bravado opening sequence culminating in the assassination on the observation deck of the Space Needle. Amid TV news crews, politicos, and high-society elites welcoming the Senator for a gala event, the editing emphasises a shot of two waiters exchanging something. Then, the younger of the two shoots the Senator dead in front of everyone, inciting a frenzy of panic and a chase which sees him drop 200 metres to his death. The older waiter lurks in the background, hidden by the ‘totem’ (a totem also means an accepted symbol all agree on) of the first waiter — yet his blithely knowing gaze over the action suggests he is somehow in on it, perhaps even a ‘second shooter’, which of course resonates with the conspiracy theories orbiting the traumatic legacy of JFK’s death.
The lore of America’s political assassinations haunts this scene, from RFK (a young Senator and potential future President shot up-close by a revolver in a public setting) to even Harvey Lee Oswald (the perceived perpetrator conveniently snubbed out in public with TV cameras around). Even more so, the film is steeped in the tangle of conspiracy theories which inevitably ensued from these shockwave incidents. Whatever really happened to JFK or RFK, there’s no doubting the impact it had on subsequent generations, the way they regarded politics, and the trust they put (or did not put) in official histories. Many people, and not all of them crazed UFOlogists, subscribed to the idea that there was something more behind these assassinations, that the truth was somehow hidden in plain sight. Just ask all those who spent countless hours examining the infamous Zapruder footage of JFK’s fateful drive through Dallas frame by frame. In The Parallax View, eight witnesses will see or think they saw something up there that day which does not chime with the official narrative of events.
“There is no evidence of a wider conspiracy” (Part 1)
Amid bursts of Michael Small’s minimalistic stop-start score that appropriately sounds like a stifled national anthem struggling to be heard, the opening credits roll over a slow track-in to a congressional commission panel, bringing us closer and closer to a row of judges enshrouded by darkness on every side of their bench. Their resounding words are clearly audible from the off: “This is an announcement, not a press conference, therefore no questions will be taken — there is no evidence of a wider conspiracy, and any reports to the contrary are baseless and irresponsible.”
These men, with all the national insignia hanging above their heads, set the consensus of what will be the accepted account of what happened, while deterring oppositional counter-narratives — in other words they decide what Truth is. And yet, the darkness with which Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis surround them in this abstract fragment of a scene suggests the detachment of a political process a nation has lost faith in. Remember that the fall-out of the Watergate scandal was unfolding while this film was being made, and Americans were having to listen to Nixon’s bald-faced lies on a regular basis. The Parallax View is deeply cynical about how we know what we know and how reliable that knowledge is, but it lets us know this through cinematic means rather than spelling out the message.
The first half: a private eye narrative
Cut to three years later and we meet our protagonist, Joe Frady, an investigative journalist whom we briefly sighted in the Space Needle scene if we were paying attention. He’s currently working on puff pieces about local drug dealers and facing off against cops who try to frame him because they want his sources. With his long hair and rebellious instinct, he meets the possibility of trouble with the Law with a nonchalant scoff. There is something of the hippie playboy about him, his anti-authoritarian streak combine with his ambitions to seek Truth (rather than fame or money) to create a hostile misfit who is far from where he wants to be in life. He works at a ‘third rate paper’ while setting Pulitzer standards for himself. This discrepancy between his life and his ambitions will fuel one of the film’s central ambiguities later.
Frady is bailed out from the jaws of the police force by Bill (Hume Cronyn) his long-suffering editor, who serves as a fatherly mentor and faithful supporter of his ploys, despite regularly reprimanding his writer for the trouble he attracts. Bill represents classical journalism values, the old-school small-town editor, slightly conservative, who still believes in the ideals of the USA and of the free press. He’d have been at home in Sam Fuller‘s Park Row but by the 1970s he’s an anachronism, as suggested by his old-fashioned desk and office, and the picture of Theodore Roosevelt on his wall. Unsurprisingly, when Frady brings the idea of a widespread conspiracy behind the assassination to his desk, Bill’s traditional view of the order of things means he is only incredulous.
For the record, Frady was himself dubious when the notion that something shady took place up there that day was brought to him by Lee (Paula Prentiss), a TV news reporter also first seen in the opening sequence. Hints make it clear they have history as former lovers, but the stakes soon go beyond private lives; Lee believes her life is under threat as 6 of the 8 witnesses who potentially saw the second shooter have since died, and is desperately afraid. She has a poignant vulnerability like Bree Daniels in Klute but her strength is only suggested, the confident and successful journalist we saw her to be in the first scene now a terrified woman pleading for help from a man she has an acrimonious personal and professional relationship with.
Frady does not take her seriously: all those deaths have been explained as heart attacks or unfortunate accidents, and he tells her to get a grip and skip the paranoia. “Just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there” Lee solemnly replies at the end of her brief but memorable role. The next time Frady sees her she’s in a morgue, and we’ll know guilt and regret to be one of the driving factors leading his investigation. Cue a dogged pursuit of Truth by a protagonist who in this first half is the pro-active hero surviving bar brawls, spectacular car chases, and exploding boats. Expectations-wise, we seem destined for an almost conventional thriller, in which Frady will overcome obstacles to shine light on a shadowy conspiracy.
I say almost, for a few details do stand out, not least the directing skill in drawing out suspense (see the scene when Frady has sneaked into a Sheriff’s home and is digging through his drawers when the man comes home) or in ambiguous moments (I’m still not sure what to make of the curious look Tucker, the last of the 8 witnesses standing, exchanges with his bodyguard just before the bomb on his boat goes off). In any case, certainly nothing quite prepares us for the nefarious ambiguity to come after Frady’s search leads him to a mysterious company called Parallax, offering employment to disenchanted white males who feel they’re being overlooked in life — which obtains a renewed resonance in the age of the alt-right and incels.
Frady believes Parallax is recruiting potential assassins and, after the bomb on the boat leaves him presumed dead (only Bill knows he is still alive and will remain his tentative link to the ‘real’ world), he decides to submit his application to the company under a false name and new identity. This is the pivotal moment where from hereon who and what is really in control of his fate, his identity, and his motivations, all become increasingly opaque.
The central sequence: a viewing at Parallax HQ
Frady’s application leads to a test at Parallax HQ, situated in a nondescript office tower, sharing the floor with oil companies and advertising agencies — it is concealed in plain view, masked by its very own ‘parallax effect’. The representation of this shadowy consortium in Pakula’s film forms the prototype for many future examples of mysterious organisations in American cinema, from David Fincher’s The Game to depictions of faceless corporations like Michael Mann’s The Insider. In this scene, the abstractness continues to pervade. We are not privy to any explanation or introduction, as Pakula cuts directly to Frady seated alone in a grandiose screening room which, when the lights are off, is a callback to the commission panel segment. We infer that he is here to watch a test-film to which his reactions are monitored — reminiscent of Alex undergoing the Ludovico treatment in A Clockwork Orange — but crucially when the film starts it merges with ‘our’ film and we are watching it just as Frady is.
The test sequence itself is a 4 minute-long diaporama of still images accompanied by an instrumental soundtrack, and a small masterpiece of film editing. The images begin harmless and positive, apple pie, smiling families, inane images of suburban American bliss, punctuated by periodic intertitles representing core values: Father, Mother, Love, Happiness, Country, Home. But things gradually turn darker and the values are subverted: after one round the happy images turn to images of the Depression era, of the KKK, of Hitler and the Nazis, of poverty, of war — the editing rhythm gets faster, the music reaches a crescendo. Truth becomes decoupled from the images as the sequence goes on, and what the intertitles represent (the signified) have less and less relation to the images (the signifiers). It is a fascinatingly disturbing exercise in visual semiotics that in its way may have been influenced by Hollis Frampton‘s 1970 experimental masterpiece Zorn’s Lemma (which I wrote about here).
What makes this scene such an intriguing pivot point within the film’s structure overall is that we can never be sure of how Frady passed this test. But we know that he did since Parallax accept his candidacy, meaning his responses to the screening were what they look for. There’s no way for him to fake it, it’s not a questionnaire, his bodily reactions to the test are monitored. So, either he really fits the bill, and here the previously noted discrepancy between Frady’s life and his ambitions fuel the ambiguity about how much his subconscious actually is drawn to the promises of the Parallax and its appeal to disenchanted white males. Frady, for all his self-perception as an indomitable unveiler of truth, is after all an anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment misfit.
Or… the Parallax are playing him like a fiddle all along, aware of who he is but confident they can manipulate him to their desired destination. In either case, it is possible that the test-film has an effect on him, brainwashing him or re-programming his identity. Here The Parallax View becomes not just about politics but about the personal too, reflecting theories in popular psychology of the era whereby layers of the ego could be peeled down until a point zero was reached, and from that something totally new could be built up again. This is what the test-film attempts to do, by training the observer first to dissociate all previous associations with the key values mentioned by the text titles, and then filling in the void with new ones. There is another ‘parallax effect’ within Frady, his own image of himself hiding who and what he really is: a man presumed dead by all, so a non-person, without an identity, whose path is being carefully laid out and pre-determined by forces he does not fully understand. In other words, a benighted pawn without free will.
The second half: no looking back
After this midway test-film sequence, The Parallax View undergoes a parallax shift of its own and no longer pretends to be anything other than one of the most radically visually-minded Hollywood products ever made. Abstract compositions and all-pervading darkness are pushed to extremes, all the way to a finale where we can barely see anything other than Willis’ engulfing shadows. Frady’s identity, the narrative itself, and whatever hope he had of uncovering a conspiracy, all disintegrate before our very eyes. Scenes go on with less and less dialogue, with less and less exposition, and we find ourselves more and more on our own, alienated from the world depicted. Buildings and architecture begin to overshadow the human characters, sign that faceless corporations are winning out over individuals.
This is how the film translates in visual and narrative terms its insight that what we think we know is no longer adequate, that whatever paradigms we once had for thinking of power (the days before Vietnam, Watergate and 1963 when one man like JFK could represent leadership) are sorely naive in dealing with the hidden networks through which the eminence grise operates. The fact that the Parallax are not predicated on ideology but simply auction their services to the highest bidder — at first they assassinate a Democrat, later a Republican — suggests a frighteningly believable portrait of the modern world’s power structures, as much today as 40 years ago.
By tracing an arc from accepted truths to greater uncertainty, The Parallax View is modern even beyond its political cynicism. Its arc mirrors that of 20th century developments in just about all fields of human intellectual achievement. In mathematics, the likes of Kurt Gödel made it exactly clear that there were always things that would remain unclear. In physics, quantum mechanics and the Uncertainty Principle made us realise there were intrinsic limits on how much we could know about our natural world. In philosophy, the discourse shifted to more intangible, self-referential debates. Art became more abstract. Received wisdoms and comfortable truths of the 19th century world dissipated leaving behind a fuzzy relativist cloud of isms. The Parallax View codifies this doubt and confusion, the 20th century’s crown of thorns and its coming-of-age into modernity, in both its form and content.
That transition from classical to modern is seen most obviously in the way Frady, who once would have been the active and effective hero, fails dismally. He ends up doomed as nothing but a patsy, outsmarted in his hand by those who held all the cards. Has there ever been a more cynical and pessimistic mainstream Hollywood film? Pakula described this Trojan horse of a film as representing his fears about the world, and nothing today would assuage those feelings. Not that it would be even imaginable to contemplate a commercial studio releasing a film such as this today.
“There is no evidence of a wider conspiracy” (Part 2)
The final shots tie up the symmetrical structure with a repeat of the commission panel scene, this time tracking out rather than in, and saying essentially the same words about the second assassination: There is no evidence of a conspiracy, there was only one killer, and the motives of this psychotic were apolitical. So we’ve come full circle to right back where we started without Truth having advanced at all. The more we’ve seen, the less we’ve come to know. Thanks to the trio of Pakula, Willis and Michael Small, it’s an incredibly aesthetically satisfying visual manifesto, going from light to dark, expounding just how slippery truth and images can be. It itself adheres to its parallax effect principle, shifting halfway to reveal something else, something more sinister but more important, and this is what makes it one of the most important hidden stars in the constellation of the 1970s New Hollywood era. (July 2018)
All the President’s Men
Night-time looms over Washington D.C., a nondescript office building is awakened by dots of cyan light, roused security guards intercept five men in the process of a third-rate burglary. From these small seeds would grow the news-story of the decade, the fall-out of which would lead to a panoply of revelations of wrongdoings, illegal hatchet jobs and blatant misuse of the FBI, CIA and IRS to attack those on the President’s enemies list. Over at the Washington Post, the inexperienced Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and the loose-cannon Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) take on this story with no inkling of just how big it will turn out to be.
Hence we are in a position where we know the ending before the protagonists — the inverse algorithm to how suspense and thrills are usually generated. It’s a howdunit, not a whodunit. So Pakula makes it a procedural, a film about the process of searching, the dogged obsession of journalists trying to unearth their story, and the unsentimental way they occasionally cross ethical boundaries because to them the end justifies the means. (The end being the story itself however, not doing what is ‘right’ for the country and bringing down a crooked administration, and this is important for the film’s depth as a portrait of newspaperman spirit).
Making drama out of this is no mean feat, but Pakula’s skill in coaxing performances that feel alive and interesting is crucial in enlivening the people the two journalists interview and get the same fishy answers from. There is nothing extraordinary about these parts on the face of it: librarians, secretaries, people who happened to work for the offices where Nixon’s aides transferred money in and out, middle-class, average citizens with just a few minutes each to not let the audience get bored. Yet we get a sense of their inner turmoil even in that limited screentime: to talk and risk losing their job and perhaps more, or to remain in morally compromised silence and live with their own guilt? Once this pattern kicks in, it allows the real drama to become how will Bernstein and Woodward get them to talk?
DoP Gordon Willis (a constant across all three of Pakula’s masterpieces) visualises this conflict into an elemental struggle for truth, clutched within the jaws of darkness. That cyan light is peppered across the film. It is there amid the shades of the subterranean carpark where the mysterious informant Deep Throat toys with an increasingly frustrated Woodward. It is there in the night-time streets of the city, hallways of American Renaissance style library buildings and corridors of apartment blocks, which these men comb to find the needle in the haystack: somewhere must be that one person who will talk and throw the case wide open. But it is only in the offices of the Post itself, glaringly white and modern with its overhead lights above every desk, that the light of truth shines through and nothing can be hidden. Not a shadow to be seen.
This time, unlike The Parallax View, the conspiracy is thwarted, the corrupt are toppled, and the determined investigators rewarded. As the heightened sound effect of the letters smashing onto the page in the final moments announces, this time the typewriter was mightier than the sword. But the film also thematises the complacency of ordinary Americans as the society around them is being threatened by unseen dangers — while a real-life remake is ongoing in our present world, Pakula’s film is more topical now than it’s ever been since its original release. (August 2018)