Some claim the 70’s was the best decade for film. I agree. The decade of Jaws and Star Wars was also that of Chinatown, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Alien. It was the time of the smart thrillers: political, conspiracy, spy thrillers. A director who mastered all three, was Alan J. Pakula. He made his mark with All The President’s Men, Klute, and my favorite: The Parallax View.
I’m not sure what attracts me more in The Parallax View: Warren Beatty’s flawless charm, the genuine sense of menace throughout the picture, or Pakula’s breathtaking direction. In terms of tone, Pakula manoeuvres from dead-cool suspense to straight-up fun, without blinking.
Somewhere early in the film, Beatty’s character Frady takes on a local redneck who turns out to be the deputy. It’s an odd combo of tough physical action, and a touch of vaudeville. Only in the seventies.
Movie With A View
[Spoilers] Pakula often frames his shots with large, angular shapes. The characters often drown, or disappear in them. In this film, it may well be a metaphor for the way the System consumes us. The individual is powerless.
A first example appears immediately in the Seattle opening sequence. In a nail-biting sequence, we witness the assassination of a popular senator, on the top of the Space Needle.
A metaphor for the way the System consumes us. The individual is powerless.
Can you imagine a chase on top of the domed Space Needle roof? Well, that’s what you get, in wide shots.
If you wish, you can find a number of parallels with Chinatown (also released in 1974). In a scene that reminds of the water dumping in Chinatown, Frady visits the scene of a suspicious death with the sheriff.
Pakula frames the men with a long lens in a wide shot, against the backdrop of the dam. Suddenly, it opens and the white water thunders out. Spectacular.
The first half of the movie is a lot of fun to watch. The fun suitably comes to an end at the mid point.
You may have figured out that I am a sucker for mid points. This one is a mofo in its own league. To understand it, I need to tell you about a Russian who died nearly half a century ago.
The fun suitably comes to an end at the mid point.
Hitch And Lev
Film students know about Lev Kuleshov, or at least the effect named after him. If you saw Koyaanisqatsi, you saw eighty-six minutes of pure Kuleshov. Let me enlighten you.
The Kuleshov effect says that your perception of an image is coloured by what you see before or after. It’s essentially the principle of editing. It’s what people mean when they say “That was out of context”. Give anything context, and its meaning will change… Or it will GET meaning.
Lev Kuleshov showed the photo of an expressionless face to an audience, three times. First, in conjunction with a plate of soup, next with a woman on a divan, and finally with a coffin. The audience raved about the acting, believing the expression subtly changed from hunger to desire, to grief.
Hitchcock fans may remember how Hitch would look into the camera, squinting. Next follows footage of a woman with a baby, and Hitch smiling. He’s a kind old man. But when the woman and baby are replaced by a woman in bikini, Hitch becomes a dirty old man. That’s the power of Kuleshov effect.
At the Mid Point of The Parallax View, Frady gets to see his own mini-Koyaanisqatsi.
Kuleshov On Steroids
True to Kuleshov, this is not really a scene you can watch out of context. My apologies if you never saw The Parallax View. You will have to now (and I will guarantee you won’t regret it).
The mid point of this film is testimony to Pakula’s brawn. He put a six minute sequence with a barrage of still images at the centre of the film. Not only does it show he had balls, but he also had clout with the studio. There must have been some talk about this scene at Paramount before it made the final cut.
So before you watch it, I will give you a little context.
There must have been some talk at Paramount
about this scene before it made the final cut.
In his investigations about the murder of the senator, Journalist Frady traced suspicious documents back to a corporation that seems to recruit and train assassins. He infiltrates the ‘Parallax’ company. Next, as part of an induction test, he is made to watch this video.
During the video, his responses to the images are measured. Because we know that Frady doesn’t fit the profile of a murderer, some tension lies in the fact that this sequence may unmask him as a fake.
Just sit back, Nothing is required of you, except to observe the visual materials that are presented to you. Alright?
We hope you’ll find the test a pleasant experience.
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Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.