I was tempted today to write another really long piece about Warren Beatty and how his films of the 1970s exemplify the point I made yesterday about surrendering to escapism — as Beatty did with “Heaven Can Wait” in 1978, then trying bravely to recapture some political meaning in 1981 with “Reds,” although by then it was too late. But I’m not really up for going that deep today and will instead focus on just one movie, “The Parallax View” from 1974.
If you’re very strict about auteur theory, you wouldn’t call “The Parallax View” a Warren Beatty movie at all, because he’s listed only as an actor in the credits. You would call it an Alan J. Pakula film and fit it into his resume of films that included “Klute” and “All The President’s Men.” But the truth is, Beatty almost always took on a far bigger role in the creation of his movies than the credits would lead you to believe.
In this case, it was Beatty who discovered the 1970 novel by Loren Singer and pushed Paramount to make it. He also oversaw the screenplay’s various rewrites and brought in Robert Towne for an uncredited polish of the script before filming. During filming, Beatty was intimately involved in dialogue rewrites and it was he who made the ultimate decision to make his character a journalist. The original novel had no single protagonist, there were four characters who witnessed an assassination who trade off in the role.
There’s no other movie like “The Parallax View” — it is clearly the greatest paranoid political thriller ever made. It achieves this status through it’s absolute logic from beginning to end, there are no flights of fancy or Oliver Stone like outlandish theories in the movie. Everything in it makes complete sense, even the moments when you question if something is off in the film and wonder if you should be suspending disbelief. It turns out, no, you shouldn’t be suspending disbelief, that dissonance you felt was completely intentional.
In fact, the movie has such a Swiss-watch beauty to its construction that I don’t want to describe the plot at all. It needs to be experienced with as few expectations as possible. I say this even through I’ve seen the movie four times and am still surprised by aspects of it on each new viewing.
I bring up this movie in the context of the failed 1970s ethos for a few reasons. First, the movie is certainly an example of artistic vision and execution. If a decade were conscious and could be proud of the things achieved in it, the 1970s should be very proud of this movie for having a strong point of view and artistic vision and pulling it off completely.
It was also gutsy for not following the herd and making the conspiratorial villains someone other than politicians, mafioso or shadowy operators of the Deep State. The evil person at the heart of “The Parallax View” is the Parallax Corporation, an entity without motive, without defined purpose, without any identifiable leadership. Parallax simply is and why it does what it does isn’t the concern of the viewer, because this movie is about corporate power, not corporate ethics.
To think that a major corporate body like Paramount, owned at the time by the Gulf + Western conglomerate, would fund such a movie demonstrates Warren Beatty’s power in Hollywood and the co-optive ability of movie makers in that era to bite the hands that fed. But having said that, there’s another aspect of “The Parallax View” that I’d be remiss if I overlooked.
The movie speaks perfectly to that Shawn-Wallace argument in “My Dinner With Andre” about art that confirms the darkest fears of the audience and therefore sends them back into their slumber. This is a movie where the bad guys don’t just turn out on top at the end, they seem indomitable. That isn’t even the worst part of it. “The Parallax View” is arguably the most deeply irresponsible movie ever made.
It’s irresponsible because it takes all of the leftover nihilistic, defeatist fears about politics from the 1960s — that there are shadowy forces at play that will prevent progress, so don’t even try — and it doesn’t just confirm them, it spells out in detail just how easily it could happen without clearly defined motive. This isn’t a movie about raising consciousness about power and pointing a way for people to take it back. It’s saying that even our deepest fears about the state of our political-economy aren’t dark enough. We’re far more fucked than we ever imagined.
Taken in this context, there’s a very dark reason why Gulf + Western would gleefully finance a movie like “The Parallax View.” It doesn’t call anyone to activism. It doesn’t raise fears about a possible future — it lays out the horror embedded in the status quo. It doesn’t even give the audience heroic politicians who might escape assassination and save the nation — just a series of bland, barely-partisan independent men mouthing platitudes whose banality still isn’t enough to placate the dark corporate overlords, whoever they are.
It’s a movie to scare the hell out of you and give you good reason to not volunteer to go door to door for your favorite candidate this fall. Just smoke a bong or try to join an orgy instead. What’s the point of caring when the world is so thoroughly fucked by forces you can’t even see or understand?
So, the movie is beautifully made and perfectly executed, but ends up reinforcing cynicism and nihilism. But it also includes a segment that I never paid much attention to until my last viewing that so defies explanation that I wonder why it hasn’t become an iconic moment in American film.
At the 55:12 mark of the movie, Beatty’s character Joseph Frady has gone undercover and is hoping to be hired by the Parallax Corporation as an assassin. As part of the job interview process, Frady is placed in a chair, his hands on sensors on both sides of the chair, and he is presented with a short film that the tester says “I hope you enjoy.”
What unspools in front of him is a montage of images, words and sounds, reminiscent both of the opening credits of Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” and the brainwashing sequences of “A Clockwork Orange.” In this case, we have no idea of the intention of the images. Are they really testing the subject for reactions or are they a form of brainwashing? The movie never tells, which makes the segment even more compelling.
The sequence lasts for just under five minutes. In that time, Frady is presented with the words love, mother, father, me, home, country, God, enemy and happiness in a variety of different sequences. The images accompanying these words range from comforting to horrifying and they skip around between the words. The shape shifting is purely intentional and, together, it creates a horrifying pastiche of American life in 1974.
I could imagine a Trump campaign version of this montage, perhaps built around the words person, woman, man, camera, tv. I could say more about this sequence, but it’s best experienced for yourself — and you can do so via this YouTube clip.