The paranoid view

>> Monday, March 17, 2008

The other night I finally saw The Parallax View in it's entirety. This is the 1974 Alan Pakula film in which a journalist, played by an especially-shaggy looking Warren Beatty, comes across a mysterious corporation that apparently exists to murder congressmen. I'd seen bits and pieces of the movie before, and it's the kind of movie that comes up when you talk about the spate of assassinations in the '60s. I wouldn't exactly call myself a JFK assassination buff—in some ways, my interest in the JFK assassination almost ties back to my interests in science fiction, fantasy and horror (some of the crazier conspiracy buffs will propose theories, seriously and as non-fiction, that Philip Dick or Roger Zelazny would have been embarrassed to set to paper as part of a quickie SF pulp). So anyway, I decided to rent the movie and I watched it last night when I got back from my Sunday at the coffee shop and dinner after.

Parts of the movie are effective, but overall, The Parallax View is a really, really dumb movie. And that's sort of interesting, and the reason that I'm writing this, because Parallax is dumb in a kind of smart, or at least revealing way.

One of the faults of contemporary American movies is that there's this perception that audiences are dumb and you have to explain everything to them. A remake of Parallax—and it's only a matter of time, if there's not already one in pre-production—would surely have some lengthy expository scene where a villainous employee of the nefarious Parallax Corporation would explain to Will Smith (it would have to be Will Smith, of course) who founded the company, and why, and what they'd been up to, and who the shareholders were, and how many politicians were involved, and what the company cafeteria serves on Wednesdays. If the original Parallax had done that back in the '70s, the movie would of course have been awful in an entirely different way. There was an era, actually, when at least a few movies assumed that the audience would be smart enough and imaginative enough to fill in the blanks for themselves.

What's funny about Parallax, though, is that it isn't actually one of those movies. And that's the interesting part.

See, The Parallax View doesn't leave things vague and unexplained because it credits the audience's intelligence. It leaves things vague and unexplained because it credits the audience's paranoia. What's the connection between the badly-lit, vaguely-judicial-seeming inquiry panel that appears at the beginning and end of the film to solemnly pronounce "the gunman acted alone" and the Parallax Corporation? Well, duh, they're in on the fix, just like the Warren Commission was. What's the connection between Parallax and a law-enforcement officer who betrays Beatty at one point? The local pigs are in on it, man, don't you know? Like in Dallas. How does the Parallax Corporation seem to be so omniscient and able to get at witnesses and investigators? Get with the program!

The Parallax View doesn't explain anything because the filmmakers just go on and assume that any early-'70s adult audience, people who witnessed RFK and MLK in '68 and JFK in '63, will simply pencil in "goddamn military-industrial complex" into the script anytime it begins tumbling over into absurdity… which begins happening about ten minutes into the film and never really stops. This is the kind of movie where a character has vaguely incriminating documents in an unlocked case in his unlocked desk not because he has any conceivable reason for having them, but because the script requires Warren Beatty to find them lest the movie hit a brick wall (that's also the reason the same character allows Mr. Beatty to kill him with a fishing pole despite the fact that he has a gun… no, wait—not that he actually has a reason to shoot Beatty, it's just something else the script requires lest it become a half-hour movie that ends with Warren Beatty scratching his head and shrugging at the camera).

In short, The Parallax View doesn't make any sense unless you already subscribe to its premise that there's a massive conspiracy afoot to control American politics by killing everyone. And that's the interesting part, more for what it reveals about the Watergate-era American psyche than for the thing itself.


Nathan Monday, March 17, 2008 at 11:01:00 PM EDT  

This makes me wish I had even the foggiest memory of this movie. I know I've seen it.

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