Monday, April 30, 2012

Genre Spotlight #1.5: Alan J. Pakula's Paranoia Trilogy

Every decade brings new worries, and genre films are particularly good at capturing the cultural and political zeitgeist of the time. Every month, Genre Spotlight takes a look at a genre in a particular time and place, shows a certain director or screenwriter approached said genre, and tries to shine some light on what the cultural significance of the movement was. This month takes a look at the political conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s.

There were plenty of great directors who tapped into the free-floating paranoia of the 1970s. Whether the directors made paranoid thrillers (The Conversation, Marathon Man) or horror movies with paranoia-informed subtext (The Exorcist, Sisters), feelings of being watched or lied to by authority figures were everywhere. No one, however, used this to his advantage quite like Alan J. Pakula. From 1971 to 1976, Pakula’s unofficial Paranoia Trilogy (Klute, The Parallax View, All the President’s Men) captured the zeitgeist about as well as any major Hollywood releases of the decade.

Klute: 82 (A-)

When Pennsylvania executive Tom Gruneman goes missing, the police find an obscene, threatening letter to a prostitute. Gruneman’s friend, police officer John Klute (Donald Sutherland), is hired as a private investigator, and he tracks the letter to New York City prostitute Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda in a fantastic, Oscar-winning role). Klute is a square, but he develops a close relationship with Bree that will be tested as the madman persecuting prostitutes in the area watches their every move.

Klute isn’t as politically minded as the later entries in Pakula’s Paranoia Trilogy, but rather focused on the counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The film significantly looks at the feminist movement of the time. Bree lives in a more sexually permissive environment than women of the past, but that sexual permissiveness has not allowed for real breakthroughs. Bree tries to make it as an actress and a model in the pretentious underground theatre/pop art scenes, but women aren’t the ones in charge. Rather they’re still largely subservient to men; the best living Bree can make is as a call girl. The 1971 film shows a frank sexuality that wouldn’t have been possible in older Hollywood films.

 Pakula uses that to his advantage. When sexuality is out in the open, it’s easier for certain characters to be repulsed by it. The film doesn’t judge how Bree chooses to make a living, but the men around her do. Sutherland’s Klute and the other police officers look down on Bree (although Klute later loosens up). The main antagonist of the film beats up and murders prostitutes; the man has a clear contempt for women, and he uses a “disreputable” profession as an excuse to do whatever he wants to them. It excites him. Legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis uses his trademark dark lighting to great effect in all of Pakula’s Paranoia films. In Klute, the element of dread comes from a Pre-Watergate, post-hippie era in the early 70s. The love movement is dead, and there’s a nasty fallout to be had- violence towards the sexually liberated woman, contempt for the young by the men in charge, and a sense that there’s something ugly in the air.

Klute might not be overtly political, but the sense that someone’s always watching is still present. Klute uses surveillance to try to keep Bree safe, but there’s a thin line between surveillance as safety and surveillance as malice; he also uses tapes to spy on Bree as she goes on dates and blackmail her into helping him find Gruneman. There’s a sense of looking behind closed doors, sometimes to innocuous effect (Bree sleeping with a client), sometimes to dangerous (the killer stalking Bree). The film opens with white noise and a recording of Bree’s prostitution act. That tape shows up as a motif that carries greater meaning as times goes on. Throughout the film, there are several shots of Bree and Klute being watched by a mysterious character across the street or above the building. There’s another tie-in to the later entries in the Paranoia Trilogy (not really a spoiler, considering we learn this in the first half of the film, but just in case, SPOILER): Gruneman isn’t behind the murders, but rather his boss Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi). It’s the first of many films showing men in charge getting away with murder (to varying degrees), and letting small fries take the blame.
The Parallax View: 92 (A)

Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) is a leftist reporter who witnesses the assassination of a presidential candidate. Three years later, his friend and fellow reporter Lee (Paula Prentiss) winds up dead, along with the other witnesses of the assassination. Joe suspects a massive conspiracy at the center of the assassination, but what he discovers something far more sinister: Parallax, a corporation which specializes in hiring and training political assassins. Joe uses an alias to infiltrate Parallax, stop their next planned assassination, and bring their exploits to light. But he might be too late, and the conspiracy might be too vast.

The 1974 film isn’t the strongest entry in the Paranoia Trilogy, but it’s certainly the most pessimistic. From the beginning, there’s a sense of wide-ranging conspiracy and meticulous planning from the conspirators. There’s something not quite right in the air at Senator Carroll’s rally- men in suits and sunglasses whisper to each other, and a waiter seems to be watching the senator rather closely. The investigation’s results are a bit too neatly tied together, and when the witnesses start dropping dead, something smells fishy.

Joe’s war against the machine is in vain- Parallax is too controlling and too powerful to let anything go to chance. When he meets with Carroll’s aide on his yacht, the boat is sabotaged. Joe barely prevents the assassination of another senator on a plane in a masterful suspense scene, it doesn’t stop Parallax’s attempts on the man’s life. And though Joe finds out as much as he can about the organization, he can never stay too far ahead of them- they’ll kill those close to him, destroy any information he might have, and make him the scapegoat for another assassination. The tie-ins to the conspiracy theories over the two Kennedy Assassinations are clear- two populist senators are murdered, and two commissions determine a lone nut acted alone. There’s government cooperation with assassinations and shady organizations, and someone’s always watching. The conspiracy theories over JFK’s death are too convoluted to take seriously, but The Parallax View taps into the spiritual malaise and free-floating paranoia following the assassinations, and it’s a terrifying state of mind.

The most famous and most effective sequence in The Parallax View is not directly related to the narrative, but rather is a montage as Beatty is recruited by the shadowy Parallax Corporation. He’s led into a sterile training facility. Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis drape him in black light as a creepy slide show starts, set to music that sounds like a cross between patriotic fanfare and a particularly demented Pink Floyd song. Words flash across the screen: LOVE, MOTHER, FATHER, ME, HOME, COUNTRY, GOD, ENEMY, HAPPINESS. Images range from All American apple pie, steak, money and breasts to the Ku Klux Klan, Lee Harvey Oswald, the Nazis, and Fidel Castro. In one surreal scene, the thesis of The Parallax View is made all too clear. Nationalism and patriotism are at the center of the Parallax conspiracies, but it’s a warped and twisted version patriotism. When acts of evil are done in the name of America, what has the country become?
All the President’s Men: 94 (A)

Klute and The Parallax View hint at the nasty mood that gripped America in the 70s, but All the President’s Men, the best and most famous entry in Pakula’s Paranoia Trilogy, covers the actual events that signified the peak of the long national nightmare. Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) are a pair of young, undistinguished reporters for the Washington Post. When the five Watergate burglars are discovered to have connections to various members of the Nixon administration, Woodward and Bernstein explore all possible angles. The two discover how far and wide the conspiracy really ranges: CIA operatives, the President’s Special Counsel, the Chief of Staff, the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP or CREEP), and finally President Nixon himself.

The real Woodward and Bernstein weren’t quite as handsome as Redford and Hoffman, and the memorable phrase “follow the money” won’t be found outside William Goldman’s script, but the film largely follows Woodward and Bernstein’s muckraking stories and subsequent book fairly closely. The paranoia here is real, the government threats and paranoia tangible, and the labyrinthine conspiracy narrative. Pakula and Goldman document a time where the people’s distrust and fear of the government was only topped by the government’s fear of the people. There’s nothing left to chance- Nixon’s people investigate Ted Kennedy, write a fake Canada-bashing letter to discredit Ed Muskie, and make sure that a passive (in honorable) lefty like George McGovern is in the race. But even with a pushover opponent, the sense of paranoia Nixon’s administration has that they might lose power is overwhelming. That paranoia leads to their downfall.

Before the hammer comes down, however, there’s months worth of intimidation to silence anyone who knows- Jane Alexander’s CRP bookkeeper is reluctant to tell the truth for fear of persecution, and late in the film Woodward’s FBI contact “Deep Throat” (Hal Holbrook) lets his friend know just how serious the danger is. Throughout the Paranoia Trilogy, Pakula and Willis create environments where there’s always someone lurking in the shadows, listening in, and what side they’re on is all-important. Here, Pakula’s command of sound and Willis’ command of shadow reach their peak. Whether it’s the burglars breaking into Watergate, Woodward meeting “Deep Throat” in secret, or Woodward and Bernstein trying to relay information without being heard, the reality that there’s always someone watching is very real and very frightening. That fear has never fully dissipated in the decades since, but if there was ever a time where artists documented that paranoia more vividly, it’s difficult to recall. 

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