Posted in: Essays

The Pakula Parallax

[originally published in Film Comment Vol. 12 No. 5, September/October 1976]

There is no more classical filmmaker than Alan J. Pakula at work in the American cinema today—a description that applies at several levels. Among contemporary directorial hotshots he is a comparative veteran, having been employed in one capacity or another in the studio system since the late Forties. The meticulous production values of his films suggest more affinity to the Old Hollywood than to the Age of the Cinemobile, although the seamless fusion of location work and impeccably detailed soundstage recreations (Stroheim could scarcely have improved on stuffing the All the President’s Men wastebaskets with authentic Washington Post trash) sit well with presentday preferences for verismo.

The Parallax View
The Parallax View from the Space Needle

Similarly, the astonishing density of performance he elicits from the merest bit-player yields the kind of behavioral richness associated with the ensemble professionalism of a bygone generation of character actors. Indeed, he goes one better. Even when a performer is trotting out his or her familiar specialty number (William Daniels’ fidgety-smarmy political aide in The Parallax View, Valerie Curtin’s teary collapse when Woodstein appears at her door a second time in All the President’s Men), the character has an edge and validity that suggest Pakula has taken the player back to the origin of the shtik, and beyond.

Another salient element of the director’s “Hollywood classicism” is his almost Hitchcockian shrewdness about tone and pacing. This figures crucially in All the President’s Men‘s success as an irresistibly compelling general-audience picture which neither sacrifices seriousness of purpose nor betrays the attenuated time-and-space conditions of the events it recounts. In fact, in All the President’s Men and its companions in the so-called “paranoia trilogy,” Klute (1971) and The Parallax View (1974), entertainment (suspense, excitement) and art (critical perspective, formal perception, humane comprehension) are served collaterally by way of sheer, goosepimply engrossment. (And even though The Parallax View, for one, failed to dent the box office, every audience I saw it with was riveted to the screen.)

Although Pakula reveals, in interviews, a healthy appreciation of the cinema’s past glories, his work displays none of the hommage-happy infatuation with exemplary predecessors that one observes in the work of the younger filmmakers whose directorial careers began at roughly the same time as his: Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Peter Bogdanovich, John Milius, Steven Spielberg. All these directors tend, in varying degrees, to be explicit about their obligations and fidelity to the past—garnishing their films with clips from other movies, quoting, restaging, or otherwise introducing versions of cinematic prototypes so conspicuous that the most casual moviegoer must become aware of them (the Gone With the Wizard of Oz memory of Monterey that opens Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the cheeky replay of the Wild Bunch’s final walk in The Wind and the Lion). I can recall only a couple remotely comparable gestures on Pakula’s part.

Welcome to Salmontail
Welcome to Salmontail – “The Parallax View”

Warren Beatty’s dust-up with deputy sheriff Earl Hindman in the bar at Salmontail (Parallax View) is strongly reminiscent of the “sody-pop” sequence in Shane, from the initial Chris Calloway–like humiliation gambit through the extension of the fight into the general store–tourist shop nextdoor. Although Pakula has expressed admiration for George Stevens’ work and his own style has features in common with that director’s, this parallel sequence is less hommage than narrative stratagem. The lone rider of Truth and Justice, transmuted into inquiring reporter Beatty, finds himself in a contemporary situation that is at once the plastic perversion and logical historical descendant of its mythic western counterpart. This Pacific Northwest interlude begins with a pan down a majestic mountain slope as a hushabye female voice welcomes us to “happy hour in Salmontail”; end of the pan and habitat of the voice is a rustic tavern wherein huge color blowups of rock and rill—dominated by neon Oly signs—have been substituted for the genuine scenery available outside. This ersatz environment, complete with hostesses in scanty cowgirl vests and good-old-boy lawmen nursing drinks under broad-brimmed Stetsons, affords its own parallax view of a society in which even an aura of independent-mindedness can be a cosmetic political salespoint. And the echoes of an officially mythic western like Shane (Shane himself shows up as an ideal father figure in the Parallax Corporation’s entrance exam slideshow) remind us more subtly that the film is ultimately about the climate of the American imagination.

Probably the most striking “quote” in Pakula’s work to date is the opening shot of All the President’s Men, in which typed letters and numerals are suddenly slammed Citizen Kane–like right in the viewer’s eye. The Kane connection is felt even more strongly in the film’s overall opening strategy. Welles’ film started in darkness, silence, oblivion, and mounted toward light, musical and verbal articulation, and coherency—a coherency fulfilled only with the death of the master of Xanadu and all that its irreal landscapes implied. Pakula’s begins with whiteness—pure, blank, terrible—and there is a long delay (for a commercial film, at least) before this whiteness is mitigated by specific event. The typewritten letters assault the screen visually—and, with their subliminally enhanced heavy-weapons soundtrack accompaniment, aurally—yet their dark and thunderous arrival relieves the viewer’s primal, show-me-something anxiety, even as it initiates a tension-filled narrative.

The black typewritten message brings lucidity to the infinite chaos of lux, as the discoveries of the Post journalists bring truth to the reader and confusion to the corrupt byzantine order of the Nixon regime. It is a formal proposition, stated in the most elemental terms available to the filmmaker. And this, finally, brings us to the heart of Pakula’s classicism, what makes him worthiest to wear the mantle of classicist. Form itself is profoundly exciting to him; it constitutes an authentic and powerful event in itself, and that power comes across relentlessly on screen.

The Pakula who directs movies and the Pakula who once considered a career in psychoanalysis inhabit the same consciousness. As he once observed, apropos of The Parallax View, “the fascinating thing about melodrama is that you’re playing with the most infantile emotions of an audience—scaring people, terrorizing them—and using film suggestively to do that is fascinating.”

One of the most gripping passages in that movie (and Seventies cinema) involves a man taking a seat in the spotlight in an otherwise darkened room, and giving himself—and through him, the audience—over to the intense contemplation of a “film.” An ingenious montage of primally evocative images, astutely manipulative music scoring, and such interchangeable categories as FATHER, MOTHER, COUNTRY and ME, this lightshow traps both the fictitious candidate for corporate utilization and the viewer himself into disclosing his preferences in psychic scenarios.*

Not surprisingly, it is to those masters of the haunted screen, Lang and Murnau, that Pakula’s work suggests the greatest affinity of all: Lang with his blacks and whites that change places or cohabit side by side without ever merging into shades of gray, and his rigid lines and ferociously architectonic intuitions of a mazelike moral universe full of Doppelgängers and supernatural masterminds; Murnau with his cosmic apprehension of a fatal continuum, an apprehension so strong and so stylistically integral that the mere enclosure of an event, a person, a place within the motion picture frame becomes a stage in a mystical rite.

Patternization. The last main-title credits for All the President’s Men appear over the basement parking garage of the Watergate as Frank Wills arrives to discover the telltale taped latch and begin the process of bringing the clandestine operations to light. The angle Pakula employs not only maintains the tense atmosphere of the preceding break-in shots and supplies a monumentality appropriate to the event, but also prepares us for a formal continuity. Subsequent underground-garage meetings between Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) are held, we know, in a different location, but when we watch them we seem to have progressed not so much from one point of Washington D.C. geography to another-merely more deeply into the peculiarized universe where this film is laid.

"Woodstein" in the library
“Woodstein” in the library – “All the President’s Men”

When Pakula opted for the celebrated ascending-overhead shot of Woodstein sorting through their welter of library slips in the Library of Congress, he achieved a telling documentary comment on the immensity of the reporters’ task, a potent abstraction of place and event in the midst of a highly concrete and verbal film, and a Langian intuition of fallible heroes toiling against a system monitored by (would-be) larger-than-life forces. In M, Lang crossbred the hallucinatory expressionist style of his Mabusian narratives (with which Parallax View has more in common) with a semi-documentary approach that, far from mitigating, reinforced the horror of its societal scheme: a magnified thumbprint dwarfed the figures in a police lab, a gloved hand spread imperially over a map of the city, and god’s-eye views turned streets, rooms, and vacant lots into containers of scrabbling human specimens. In All the President’s Men Pakula respects the dictates of found realities (you can crane in the Library of Congress; you cannot, logically, in the Washington Post newsroom, even if it’s on a soundstage and all those desks and cubicles might have made an expressionistic hive of activity), but even given a documentary-style horizontal bias his camera eye discovers pattern everywhere, frames within frames.

The White House plumbers enter National Democratic Headquarters through a left-of-frame entranceway that remains shrouded in blackness; the righthand majority of the frame consists of a white wall displaying the gray-toned photo portraits of past Democratic luminaries. When the police are observed from across the street, penetrating a lighted doorway at frame-right and pushing their investigation leftward across the face of the building, light also advances from right to left, until the plumbers are discovered skulking behind venetian blinds and under desks.

Light and dark. Woodward’s first visit to Deep Throat’s underground rendezvous is lit and framed in such a way that the scene is merely perceived as being set in a location from which sufficient lighting is absent. In later interviews the ambience escalates from non-light to palpable black holes. Audiences react audibly to All the President’s Men‘s abrupt cuts from the dimness of the environs of skullduggery to the crisp, primary-colored brightness of the Post newsroom, but Pakula’s use of dark and light more frequently strays from such simplistic contrast.

Truth-seekers enter the darkness at their peril. The reporter in Parallax View knows that a bomb has been placed aboard the airliner on which he is flying, and enters the lavatory to write a warning in soap on the mirror. Switching off the light after so doing, he opens the door to find a fellow passenger waiting to use the facilities. Because he is unprepared to be linked with the admonition, Frady (Warren Beatty) closes the door—cuts off the single, frame-right panel of light in a black Panavision screen—and snaps on the frigid-toned lav light again to scrub his message away. The giddy suspense is enhanced by overtones beyond the pale of the situation but not Pakula’s concerns in the film: it is as though Frady were a little boy caught—by an older man, yet—doing something furtive in the bathroom.

The unities. Some of Pakula’s most mesmerizing effects are achieved through careful orchestration of real-time events within integral space. Frady’s lavatory call is realized in one sustained take. His alternative method of conveying the message is to write it on a napkin, slip this into the stack of napkins on the stewardesses’ cart, and wait out its gradual discovery as drinks are served up along the aisle—the narrative bating its breath with him.

Shots often run long in Pakula’s films (again, one thinks of Stevens) but rarely suggest self-indulgent directorial fussiness. As Frady rummages, at screen-left, through the desk of Salmontail’s Parallax-connected sheriff, the man’s deputy enters a kitchen area at frame right. Frady searches; the deputy scrounges food; neither knows the other is there. The deputy moves to center screen but, just when he would have seen Frady, the telephone rings at frame right. He turns toward it; Frady, glancing out from the office, just misses seeing him, resumes searching. The deputy says hello, Frady whirls about, then creeps upstairs to find another way out as the phone conversation continues. Anyone of these kinesthetic jolts would have justified the complex setup; Pakula gets three of them.

The director’s screen-filling tactics are often deliberately larger than the ostensible dramatic action they serve. Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda) is one of many hopefuls trying out for a modeling job early in Klute, but the camera maintains its distance so that she is accorded no greater visual importance than anyone else lined up along the salon wall. (She is rejected—”Funny hands”—and the audition proceeds, Pakula not cutting away till the entire group has been dismissed and another moved into the shot to take their places.) When Frady and Sheriff Wicker grapple for their lives in the torrent loosed from Salmontail Dam, they are but tiny figures in the lower corner of the screen, the dam’s structure and the awesome rush of water dominating screen space and our attention as well.

The numerous integral takes in All the President’s Men go a long way toward throwing the absurdist realities of the cover-up into relief (it is crucial that Pakula not cut away during Bernstein’s phone call to the White House librarian, who proceeds from genial cooperativeness to denying that she knows any Mr. Hunt) and, even more importantly in terms of cinematic empathy, validating Woodstein as human beings—rather than stars impersonating white knights—by way of Hoffman’s and Redford’s shrewd behavioralism. The tour de force is, of course, the slow close-in on Woodward at his desk, simply talking on the phone to Dahlberg, MacGregor, Dahlberg, MacGregor, Dahlberg, and Bernstein, while offcamera (eventually) the rest of the Post staff runs to watch the Eagleton kissoff on TV. ”I’m caught in the middle of something and I don’t know what,” says Dahlberg. As the cinematic form makes clear, the same is true for the hapless victims and plodding heroes of recent American history – and most of Pakula’s characters.

Living-space. Joe Frady’s ex-girlfriend (Paula Prentiss) comes to see him at his motel apartment. A television reporter, she was atop the Seattle Space Needle the day a U.S. Senator was assassinated there; others who were present at that inopportune moment have been dying untimely future-shock deaths, and she is afraid of joining their number. They sit amid the Polynesian Slum decor, she in hysterics, he trying to josh, reason, or anger her out of them. Finally they stand up and move outside the door, visible only as shadows on the white curtains blowing into the room (where the camera has remained). As far as we ever see, there is no outside outside, no connective terrain between the cubbyholes people occupy—just whiteness.

"Parallax View" - Paula Prentiss
Paula Prentiss under the morgue sheet – “The Parallax View”

The blink of a cut and we see the girl again, in closeup, blue-green and still under a morgue sheet. The camera gradually recedes as offscreen voices discuss her death from an overdose of alcohol, barbiturates, and car crash. By this time most of the Panavision screen is filled with tile wall. The girl has remained visible through a doorway from which one, then another morgue attendant emerge. Hitherto unseen like them, Joe Frady steps forward to look at her a last time, and also to be framed by the doorway—not unlike the one toward which he will later run, to his own death.

Living-space is restricted in Pakula’s cinema; sometimes only death-space is left. When Bree Daniels comes back to her apartment building near the beginning of Klute a last-minute lift of the camera (functionally motivated by her own ascension of the front stairs) discloses a funeral parlor sign that hints at the running flirtation she carries on with her own obliteration, even while she spends much of the film trying to dominate scene-space and screen-space as she dominates the fantasy lives of her johns. In dialogues with Klute (Donald Sutherland) or her analyst she becomes a small, vigorously defensive shape crowded into the corner of the frame by a looming silhouette of shoulder and back of neck.

Pakula returns time and again, almost obsessively, to the offcenter composition, the most direct index of a system whose discrete elements seem always out of joint but, perhaps, find ultimate balance in an overall pattern we might like even less to contemplate. Bree Daniels with her well-flaunted freedom from sexual restraint and Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi) with his dark, guilty compulsion form an eerie symbiosis, in effect playing analyst and analysand to each other—an interchangeability, or rather flipside equatability, which Pakula’s visual treatment emphasizes throughout. At the climax of the film, even though (for the first time in our experience) they are in the same room, they are seen absolutely together for only a blurred instant. The rest of the time they occupy separate frames, each reduced to silhouette, at extreme-left or extreme-right, against the gray-white fog of windowlight.

Perhaps the most audacious offcenter setup in Pakula’s work to date is to be found in the Parallax View sequence when Joe Frady, restyled as antisocial Parallax applicant “Richard Paley,” receives a visit from his contact, Jack Younger (Walter McGinn). Paley is living in a dingy flat and, at the moment Younger arrives, cooking soup on a hotplate. Both men move to the hotplate, in the leftmost fifth of the anamorphic screen, leaving the majority of the frame to serve as poetic approximation of the barrenness of mind and spirit from which (Frady/Paley assumes) Parallax assassins are recruited. In conventional narrative terms a vast portion of visual space is ostentatiously “wasted,” and in a take of some length.

Moreover, Younger’s position is such that Paley is largely obscured from view! The already conspicuous imbalance of the scene is aggravated by this tactic, which has the effect of peculiarizing the episode beyond the demands of free-enterprise espionage suspense. Younger’s voice is gentle, respectful, reliable in tone (Walter McGinn’s performance is a gem, among the finest in the Pakula collection); Richard Paley has found a friend the company way, who is setting him up to lose his identity even as he assures him: “You’re invaluable, Richard.”

The dimness of the scene, the soft-voiced intimacy, the visual obscurantism that implies a moment is taking place too privileged for our direct contemplation — it’s a chilling parody of George Stevens’ portentous delicacy, calculated to give us a glimpse of the fish-white underbelly of a monstrous American nightmare. The nature of Richard Paley’s invaluability is consistent with a film world in which a former FBI man who has been taken off the roster of ex-agents classifies himself as “a non–ex-agent” and, in All the President’s Men, a country club type (Nicolas Coster) at the plumbers’ arraignment answers Woodward’s “Why are you here?” with a daftly self-possessed “I’m not here….”

No one in President’s Men has mastered the art of not-being-there more thoroughly than Deep Throat. Woodward’s second interview with his “garage freak” is framed by Langian ruptures of spatial logic that make the film’s Deep Throat more literally a deus ex machina than his real-life counterpart. Woodward arrives to find the garage empty, for empty the surrounding space certainly looks in longshot; yet as we cut to a medium shot of the reporter his contact steps beside him, as if from just off-frame. When the scream of car tires interrupts their talk at a delicate point, Woodward turns to watch the automobile disappear; turning back to Deep Throat, he finds he has disappeared as well. Again, a longshot; again, no one there but Woodward, even though no human agency could have moved his informant out of the field of view in the time allotted.

Woodward leaves the garage on two legs. Climbing up to the deserted nighttime street, he begins to walk a little faster, then to run. The camera holds on him, rushes along just behind his left shoulder. He stops, turns to look behind him. Of course nothing is there. He has run, like M‘s schizophrenic Beckert or Fury‘s Joe Wilson, from phantoms of his own imagining. But given the parameters of possibility the visual logic defines, they might just as well have been real.

The power. Joe Frady has boarded the airliner under the assumption he is following the ubiquitous redhaired Parallax assassin (Bill McKinney) whose picture was taken on the Space Needle the day of the Carroll murder. The camera has tracked him toward the aircraft until the superstructure of the plane blots out everything else. We cut to the assassin standing (offcenter, of course) on an airport observation deck. Then, from his POV, a section of the tarmac, and one stanchion at lower left to fix the spatial relationship. With a low, biding roar, the nose of the plane penetrates frame-right and the massive metal body — so large only part of it can be visually accommodated at any given moment — draws itself through the shot. It is as though the space of the screen, its ability to contain and its ability to be permeated, were consecrated to the expression of some implacable Will of which the damnably efficient McKinney is merely a visible agent.

Joe Frady searches for an assassin
Joe Frady searches for an assassin – “The Parallax View”

Whether or not his mind’s-eye has been on frame-encroaching Murnavian sails, Pakula has studded his films with horizontal movements of sometimes astounding potency. Klute‘s Peter Cable, posed in godlike splendor amid the black-and-silver decor of his penthouse office, showcased by the vast sheets of glass that will dominate so much of the Parallax View landscape, mostly sits immobile listening to a tape of the session in which he discovered the unsuspected “corners” in his personality and beat Bree Daniels nearly to death; motion in the scene is confined to the lateral drift of wall panels that seal him off in his obsessive contemplation.

In The Parallax View a young people’s band is practicing the martial air that will score the arrival of Senator Hammond (Jim Davis) at that evening’s reception. As the music plays, a vertical crack appears at the right of yet another of Pakula’s all-black Panavision frames: an entire wall appears to be sliding away to admit… the Senator himself, riding a golf cart! We cut to a medium closeup of Hammond and travel him all the way down the mammoth auditorium floor, the musical accompaniment at once reinforcing and curiously mocking his political charisma. Behind the band, in a wild echo of the Parallax Corporation’s free-association lightshow, flashcard holders shift their panels to transform the assemblage face of Teddy Roosevelt into Hammond’s own—which then comes unstuck and seems to jiggle in delight at the real man’s arrival.

A moment later, Hammond has been shot dead while driving that same golf cart away from the podium—shot by a sniper in the rafters of the Hammond Building itself (which happens to house the home office of Parallax). The camera no longer travels with him, watching instead from on high as the Senator’s blue-and-white cart tools slowly (it seemed to rush in closeup) amid the ranks of red-white-and-blue tables placed there for the guests at a reception that will not now occur, and at last describes a graceful curve into the tables, clattering to a stop as Hammond’s prerecorded speech sounds over the loudspeaker system.

All the President’s Men reverses the trajectories of The Parallax View, and its camera style keeps faith with the most casual-seeming maneuvers of its inquiring reporters. Unlike Joseph Frady, they are not pawns of their environment or the organizing force that lurks behind it. When Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) is first glimpsed through the doorway of Harry Rosenbloom’s (Jack Warden’s) office as the first inkling of the Watergate story comes through, it is because he has accidentally been granted the opportunity (like the police squad who got to make the raid because a car nearer the Watergate was gassing up) to make history, rather than being fingered as its stooge. From Woodward’s first easing into frame behind the country club lawyer who isn’t there, through the reluctantly curious curve of the camera that pivots on him as he slowly gets up from his desk to see what Bernstein is doing with his copy beyond the obscuring pillar in the newsroom, to their exultant traveling-closeup sprints through the Post offices as their story jells more and more convincingly, All the President’s Men is committed to an infectious celebration of professional diligence and (more or less coincidentally) righteous action.

It’s virtually a truism that protagonists estranged from their societies and/or their environments lend themselves handily to cinematic scrutiny; half the directors in the American cinema might be described as specializing in outcasts and oddballs. Nevertheless, it’s necessary to note that all five of Alan Pakula’s features (including his two pathological comedies, The Sterile Cuckoo and Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing) have focused on characters whose personalities, professions, or both have taken them far from what we laughingly call normalcy—as his style, for all the director’s ability to achieve a stunning behavioral conviction in the depiction of the future-shock world we live in, remains inveterately a moviemaker‘s style, not a social documentarian’s.

If I have dwelt particularly on The Parallax View in this too-brief commentary on a major director’s work, it’s not only because I personally find that film to be Pakula’s most exciting and regret its comparative neglect in favor of Klute (with its powerhouse performance by Jane Fonda) and All the President’s Men (a pre-sold hit if ever there was one—not that anything about the finished film suggests that its makers were willing to coast on that assurance). It’s also because Parallax is his most adventurous in its exploration of the medium itself as event: in its fascination with an environment in which places often possess a more forceful identity than people; in its disdain of conventional polarizations in an analysis of the tension between the individual and civilization—above and beyond “society”—as the ultimate Organization; in its complex appreciation of history as pseudo-event; and above all in its forceful stylistic intuitions of the power and patterns of the imagination, how central intelligent agencies (be they mysterious corporations or film directors) can use it to reshape, even displace “reality.”

Joseph Frady—with his infantile-punny name so appropriate to the Parallax world, a respectable portion of intelligence, a “talent for creative irresponsibility,” and just maybe an eye on the Pulitzer Prize—sets out to get the biggest story of modern time and ends up locked in it, the apparent assassin of a man whose life he’d have saved. Like Klute‘s Peter Cable, who exits dreamlike through a windowpane and leaves behind only a transparent vestige of his former power and identity, Frady becomes the little boy in the Parallax slideshow, caught with his pants down, running toward a lighted doorway that spells escape until filled by a silhouette holding a shotgun. The man does not step into view: he is simply, suddenly there. Or perhaps, after all, he is not: the lines of that immovable figure are so clean and absolute that he might as well be a cut-out, a panel of black against a panel of white. The image explodes in Frady’s face. History is neatly written; the form is satisfied. The system works.

* The Parallax Corporation searches for people with “special talents” to fill crucial roles in American history. The protagonist, believing they are running an assassination bureau, attempts to infiltrate the organization by tricking up a convincing dossier as likely killer material. What he realizes only too late is that Parallax needs not only assassins but also fall guys to suit the anti-conspiracy bias of descendants of the Warren Commission. He may never realize how tailor-made he himself is for the latter role.

© 1976 Richard T. Jameson