Blu-ray Review: Criterion's THE PARALLAX VIEW Uncovers 1970s Paranoia
Warren Beatty chases a vast conspiracy in post-Watergate America.
Warren Beatty is plenty dirty. In fact, he’s literally covered with mud. The venerable leading man finds himself in figurative hot water shortly after nearly being washed away by literal tons of water. One could conclude that that’s what he gets for snooping around a major dam with a controlled release system, though this incident is scarcely any conclusion at all.
On the contrary, Beatty’s disheveled reporter is only getting started. Soon enough, he’s breaking into the local sheriff’s house, then stealing the guy’s squad car to evade his trigger-happiness. Running the car through a bunch of mud before running it through a grocery store isn’t part of his plan, but in the process, he did net the lead he needs to dig deeper into a mysterious string of recent political assassinations: What is the Parallax Corporation?
Imagine if you will an America charged with self-destructive paranoia. Distrust is widespread, fueled by a corrupt President and the endless media circus surrounding his infractions. That said President has recently been disposed is immaterial; somehow, inexplicably, dark forces in corporate seats of power remain entrenched. It doesn’t matter how Big the Lie is, their agenda is nothing that a few bullets can’t solve.
Don’t worry, our devoted journalists will get to bottom of it all.
Or will they? Far from our present day of 24-hour-news outlets stocked with high-profile reporters, this 1974 film’s central conspiracy is chased only by a blow-dried and aloof Beatty, a journalist for a paper so small that the office seems to house only his editor and himself. As Beatty begins to uncover just how deep the film’s shady plot goes, a question of whether he himself has been converted to the unexplained shadowy cause becomes entirely plausible.
The notion that a single sitting of an arrhythmic slide show is enough to flip an individual’s mental switch into “willing assassin” mode remains preposterous. We’ve seen today how groundwork typically must be laid; the followers must be made over time to be willingly swept up in The Storm. If you want, say, a Capitol insurrection, you begin cultivating systemic distrust and sowing the seeds of perceived injustice many months before the election. In The Parallax View, you merely fill out a questionnaire and show up for the heavy-handed slide show.
That Warren Beatty, undercover to learn the process of the Parallax Corporation’s brainwashing, is brought into a vast, impersonal chamber and shown a music-driven montage of stills (Americana run rampant: mother & child, the Statue of Liberty at magic hour, a vintage illustration of Marvel’s Thor, a bare breast and a rose... then veering into unease with Dorothea Lange Dust Bowl depression and hanged people…) tips it into that realm of austere science fiction tropes that critic J. Hoberman saw The Parallax View as a part of. (So says the filmmaker’s former assistant, Jon Boorstin). Chalk it up to narrative comprehension. (Or A Clockwork Orange influence).
That Pakula’s stated vision of The Parallax View was “a comic book movie” is clarifying. (Again, that’s according to Boorstin). He was keen to operate in broadly flattened vistas, bright colors, architectural grids, and even bam-pow fisticuffs. (This movie’s effective atmosphere of tension is paused midway through for a big dumb barroom brawl). This aesthetic creatively shoves this otherwise real-world political thriller into a heightened realm. Did such a move provide a buffer for the post-Kennedy, post-Watergate audience? Or did it merely reinforce a notion that we’re all living in comic book times? Today, dare it be said, the movie likely plays more of a piece than it did in 1974.
Criterion’s impressive Blu-ray edition of The Parallax View delivers a solid meal of extras without leaving you bloated. With prime creatives Pakula and legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis now gone and Beatty generally inaccessible, Criterion is left to present archival interviews with the former two. But rather than simply porting the whole of the old clips (one of which is audio only), Criterion actually edits each to less than twenty minutes (their go-to extras length these days) and overlays pertinent graphics and film clips.
Filmmaker and film historian Alex Cox provides an excellent introduction video that makes the case that conspiracy theories are getting a bad rap lately. His reasoning lands as he then goes on to detail how the premise of The Parallax View -- a faceless corporation is functioning as a middleman entity in the political assassination game -- is less far-fetched today than it was in 1974. Cox’s introduction (perhaps best not watched prior to a first viewing of the feature), along with a Zoom-recoded Boorstin interview, are the only newly recorded extras, though they fall in line perfectly with the pre-existing extras of Pakula (one from the 70s and one from the 90s) and Willis (circa 2004).
Viewed today, this is a movie that despite its aged aspects and vintage conspiratorial roots, can’t help but feel more relevant than it should. Any contemporary connections are driven home by Criterion’s exceptional transfer of the colorful and visually dynamic film. Though a Hollywood production, answers don’t come easily if at all. Parallax isn’t in the business of questions, much less answers. (Though it’s a dirty business, indeed). As the panel of government authorities states as it ominously floats in darkness, this is an announcement; there will be no questions.
The Parallax View
- Alan J. Pakula
- David Giler (screenplay)
- Lorenzo Semple Jr. (screenplay)
- Loren Singer (novel)
- Warren Beatty
- Paula Prentiss
- William Daniels
- Walter McGinn