Monday, June 14, 2010

Alan J. Pakula - The Parallax View (1974)

I came to this peculiar film from k-punk (with roots in Jameson, Žižek, Kojin Karatani, Joyce, Lacan and Hegel – how’d you like them lucubrations?) Extremely prescient and deeply paranoid, the work, in the unravelling-the-thread theme familiar to the conspiracy thriller, follows reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) as he investigates the assassination of a US senator, slowly becoming aware of the seemingly accidental deaths of witnesses and a conspiracy, taking on increasingly monumental and systemic proportions, behind which lies the hand of the shadowy Parallax Corporation, the depersonalised and a-responsible corporate institution par excellence.

There are some impressive Hitchcockian and schematic setpieces here, which, mingled with the scungy reality of Frady’s life, create a pleasing tension in their depiction of the interaction, central to the Western (post)modern condition, between the captivatingly sheeny surfaces of capitalism and antiseptic bureaucracy (one area, but one only, where Kafka now seems out of date), and the inevitable messiness of human existence (even if that messiness is ripe for colonisation and replication, a process which is currently well underway). The centrepiece is a fantastic, deeply disturbing montage which is shown to Frady during his (apparent) infiltration of the Corporation, featuring stills of political and religious figureheads, violence and trauma, and popular culture (and in this latter, foreshadowing the neo-fascist and neo-conservative tendencies of the present slew of films based on comics, most overtly works such as those involving Frank Miller, but not excluding the more subtle and unintentional reactionism of films like V For Vendetta).

We observe here the way in which the system incorporates rebellion, literally – that is, not only neutralising it, but using rebellion to make itself stronger – or, to paraphrase Žižek on the parallax, however much ‘I’ may want to be an observer of the picture, in being such ‘I’ inevitably find myself within it. While the Parallax Corporation itself can be seen as representing a fear of the growing power and lack of transparency or accountability of corporations – a fear which, in the intervening decades, has proven to be entirely well-founded – the film sees such an organization as inimical to Western democratic politics (in the fact of the assassination), whereas what seems to be the case (a long-term historical connection which was somewhat shifted from view during the period of the Keynesian consensus) is the increasing intertwining of these institutions. But perhaps we could view this assassination – which obviously has deep roots in the killing of Kennedy, Watergate, and even, to draw a somewhat longer bow, Martin Luther King – as a narratorial fear of purposive systemic blowback, that is, the methods which for so long have been employed in subject areas – the colonies – have created apt pupils now re-importing them to their land/s of origin. A further criticism might be that the Corporation’s induction process, whereby it seeks out rare individuals who are psychologically suited to its brutal and secretive practices, also strikes a false note inasmuch as these projects are not, in a sense, the aberrant or perverted underside of contemporary society – they are embodied in every part of it (the system replicating itself in the individual), as has been shown by scholars and practitioners including Zygmunt Bauman, Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo (these latter two operating in the decade or so before this film was made, and in some ways addressing the same concerns). In saying this, it should be recognised that these moments of naïveté do not undercut the central cynicism (or perhaps we should say, cynical realism) of the film.

The characteristic American ‘one man standing for justice against the system’ narrative (along with the socio-personal dysfunctionality of that individual, which may be related to his – and it is generally his – stand against ‘society’), often so deeply conservative in its espousal of macho frontier individualism-libertarianism and in the positioning of the rebel as justified and outside the morality of means (and if we look at present conspiracy theories, they seem mostly of the rightist variant), is certainly in evidence here – but it doesn’t carry the aforementioned paradoxical underlying freight to a degree worthy of criticism, apart from its social message (gendered, in particular). However, even the patriarchal gender tropes inherent in the relationship between Frady and Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss) are thrown into a new light when Carter’s ‘emotionally hysterical’ revelations are revealed as truth.

The belief in conspiracy (where it is not justified, and it’s worth recalling how many political and corporate operations would have seemed like ‘conspiracy theories’ before their unmasking) is, of course, a response to existential fear (‘Frady’?), a desperate search for meaning, an infusion of symbolic significance and graspable pattern into the warp and weft of mass society (though drawing on premodern and religious superstition – think of the evolution of the medieval antisemitic trope of the Jew as well-poisoner, host-desecrator and killer of Christian children into the modernist Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Foundations of the Nineteenth/Myth of the Twentieth Century).

Indeed, as an aside, those of us who’d consider ourselves scholars with an interest in subversion of the dominant paradigm may well question the meaning of our own activity in this regard – and the use of interpretation as an heuristic which does little more than the task of re-integration (‘contain the rage’) by averting feelings of hopelessness and the maintenance of the structural dynamics of late capitalism is an ever-present problematic in which we are all, to greater and lesser extents, implicated (theory as sublimation of trauma). But, to return to the film itself, the message is not so much ‘you can’t handle the truth,’ as, ‘the truth can’t handle you handling the truth.’ Or, as Lovecraft famously put it, ‘[t]he most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents’ (though, I would add, this ‘mercy,’ which knowingly or unknowingly we grant ourselves, is one whose long-term cost is existentially near-unbearable – a need to escape from amorphous and ill-perceived confines, that vague feeling that something isn’t quite as it should be, which sometimes blossoms and bears bitter fruit). In fact – and this chimes with my personal perspective as a Buddhist, though with a political-systemic rather than individual-psychological interpretation (and, I would add, the second case provides a much more cogent state of solution and method for arriving thereat) – since we are none of us sane (in the sense of accurately comprehending reality; I don’t mean to trivialise mental illness, which is of a different order), insanity is in fact sanity and vice versa. For Frady, as for Lovecraft’s protagonists, the price for apprehending these patterns, for pursuing a separate perspective – a disruptive act inasmuch as it is a reterritorialising reclamation of an agential space outside them – is the incorporation of the space on which the observer stands, in the process of which that observer is disappeared as such (and, in this case, literally). A further disruption lies in the viewer’s role as observer of the film’s unreliable narration – like Frady, we also perform a Sedgwickian paranoid reading, doubting and constantly re-evaluating our own (‘one’s own’ might be more appropriate) interpretation, a dynamic which lends the film its queasy and unsettling mood.

Ultimately, in its conclusion ‘the parallax view’ is deeply pessimistic – the house always wins. Attempts at solidarity are crushed through the use of violence. The view of the near-omnipotent system and its methods of surveillance and action both looks back to the emerging countercultural politics of the 1960s, and forward to the post-disciplinary mechanisms of the contemporary control society. In other words, a parallax which proves paradigmatic.

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