From the nearly decontextualized prologue to the astonishing opening credits, an Altman-esque zoom in to a court finding (echoing the Warren Commission) that freezes in a tableau of American deceitfulness, Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View imbues quotidian happenings with malicious intent. At first it seems merely peerlessly menacing, in the same way concurrent works like All the President’s Men or Chinatown diagnose paranoic ‘70s personalities, but Pakula’s most sinister coup is to render even menace banal, to turn anxiety about specific occurrences into a thoroughly incomplete response to an unfathomable and all-consuming social fabric that seems completely beyond sense-perception and comprehension. Drawing audiences in with the promise of final revelation, the film emerges with something much more discombobulating than a simple bait-and-switch: slowly (and then quickly) fragmenting and shivering apart into abject chaos, rendering the grammar of celluloid both one of society’s greatest witnesses and hopelessly incapable of truly grasping the depths it plunges into.
Early on, we observe a political rally at the top of the Seattle Space Needle that turns into an assassination. One killer dies in the chase, but we know that there was a second. The eighteen witnesses don’t necessarily see the same as us, but someone seems to be killing them on the off chance that they might have. Among them is marginal reporter Joseph Frady (Warren Beatty), whose friend Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss) turns up as one of the bodies, and who decides to get to the proverbial bottom of an obvious conspiracy. Obvious indeed, and The Parallax View weaves conspiracy so deeply into the American fabric that it infects the very capacity to render narrative. We never learn anything materially about the reason for the killings, since the film knows that we can connect the dots all too easily, and that any crystalline explanation it might provide would simply be a distraction from the diffuse terror and fungible ambivalence of everyday life. Rather than offering or merely denying us a solution, the film reorients the terms of the debate to the point where proving or disproving one particular conspiracy essentially futile. The Parallax View is dispiritingly quotidian, its non-existent solution ultimately no more complex or conceptually interesting in minute 90 than minute one, a “narrative” that grows increasingly simple and diffuse as the film goes along at the same time as the formal tension simply breaks its narrative into fragmentary happenings.
Rather than the content of this particular conspiracy, then, Pakula’s film emerges as an experiment in the act of visualizing the capacity to search, less breathtaking than choking us on the ambiguities of perception. Like Antonioni’s Blow-Up, The Parallax View shuttles us around a generic and tonal centrifuge hiding a center in plain sight. Rather than exposing a deeper, hidden truth just out of reach, a la the (phenomenal) All the President’s Men or Chinatown, Pakula’s film diffuses and decenters detection, asking, like Antonioni’s films beforehand, what happens when the paradigm of the search breaks down or is rendered obsolete in the face of the sheer, overwhelming unfathomability of the problem. Sometimes, The Parallax View suggests, uncertain surfaces are all we have.
The Parallax View thus chooses to ask whether cinema itself, with its capacity to imagine and witness, can withstand the weight of the medium’s complicity with spreading lies and misinformation. This, above all, animates its anxiety, and this concern is neither ultimately objective nor subjective. Unlike most films, it doesn’t aspire to be a mimetic transcription of an indexical reality; it’s far too self-aware about the limits of its capacity to know anything about the surfaces it glimpses to suggest that we have really “seen” anything via watching this film. And, conversely, it certainly isn’t genuinely a psychological descent into individual discombobulation; Frady himself is barely a psychological creature at all, much more of an icon figure or a cipher for the audience. The Parallax View is neither illumination of one character’s experience nor a view of the world from afar, constantly disturbing readerly attempts to understand it. Right from its first shot, a Native American totem pole obscuring the Space Needle in Seattle only for the latter to dwarf the former, The Parallax View already sows seeds of frontier destiny and disturbs questions about “American-ness,” insisting on the occluded violence marginalized by and via the erection of monuments to civilizationalist ego. Slightly later, a pivotal conversation is wryly staged on a miniature train ride, a comic deflation of the engine of Manifest Destiny, another monument exposed as a canvas for white men to play in the sand with toys.
Frady continues to play the aimless cowboy throughout the film, the intrepid wanderer in search of order and truth in the latticework of modernity. It’s in the second half, though, that the film’s willingness to truly transgress this search reveals itself. Frady is increasingly reduced to an enigma, an ant scurrying through wide, opaque compositions he can barely register. Gordon Willis’s widescreen frame and master of darkness cinematography forcing him recursively through repeated spaces, trapped in a cyclical narrative of uncertain end. Frady as a psychological entity with wants and desires dissipates, echoed in Beatty’s heroically unheroic performance as a blank paean to disobedient masculinity being groomed and coopted by systems of power, deeply relevant in a time when radical leftist currents of social resistance were being co-opted by libertarian or neoliberal individualism. Beatty essays a peerlessly stubborn lost soul, a performance of what Frady’s editor calls “creative irresponsibility,” which the film proves a master at as well.
The Parallax View is thus a film about both the feel of paranoia and the inadequacy of that feeling. Even more of an anti-thriller than Altman’s The Long Goodbye the previous year (albeit in a less sardonic mode), The Parallax View breaks and breaks, offering less a door than a circular passage back to where we came from. When Frady discovers more about the corporation, it’s almost immediately rendered irrelevant, part of a master plan he can only tenuously grasp. Feigning an identity within an identity, he tries to infiltrate the organization and take its final test, presumably to learn more about what it takes to become one of their hired killers. Famously, Pakula has Frady view a disorienting, signifier-laden, value-inverting montage of clips of violent Americana, intended, one supposes, to indoctrinate him. The film never contextualizes these images though, and rather than framing them as a degradation of Frady’s character, the film presents them as a sensory assault on the audience. The five-minute montage is presented, crucially without cutting back to Frady (this is a phenomenal coup from editor John W. Wheeler), as an opaque interrogation of the film’s own negotiation of its visuality and assembly, its effect on us rather than on Frady.
Afterward, Frady leaves the building (again uncontextualized) and seldom speaks a word for the rest of the film, stopping an airplane bombing and then himself becoming a patsy in a beautifully circular narrative structure where the search forward ultimately leads to recursion, stalling progress. In its final, absolutely shattering sequence, the film becomes an ouroboros, eating its central quest. In its final sequence, it comes up with two perfect visual metaphors. First, an elongated event hall with cheerleaders flipping cards around that collectively form the faces of presidents, panels in blue and red shifting between each other in an impossible collage. Impossibly, they flip between two sides yet reveal many more presidential faces, suggesting a cinematic and rhetorical illusion of difference hiding an ever-shifting same.
Above it, secondly, we have Frady, pushed to the bare edges of the frame, rather than commanding its center, scurrying nearly outside of view in a wide, engulfing Telephoto Lens shot as he tries to stop an assassination that he ends up taking the fall for. The Parallax View concludes as an American Antonioni pondering what happens when a termite – a resistant and intrepid explorer searching for the truth, eating his way deeper and deeper into a system in hopes of turning it inside out, locating the depths that constitute and belie the surfaces we think we know – is revealed as another ant in an ant colony – locked into wide, flat, totalizing prefigured performances, moving through pre-given paths masked as bold, new avenues. In The Parallax View, a peerlessly shattering conspiracy thriller where the genre itself is both invited and denied, Pakula and his coconspirators paradoxically and in self-immolating fashion offer a nihilistic vision of America where criticism often simply saves the system without substantively changing it. Self-critique becomes self-cleaning oven.