You will know this as one of our famous conspiracy thrillers, a cornerstone in this field. The exercise is film noir; a world that turns increasingly paranoid the more our paranoid eye in the story keeps looking.
The search has been broadened since the 50’s; here our journalist is looking for ‘truth’ that explains the fabric of an entire world. But it is just a very weird search, as many have noted.
The problem here is not that director Pakula attempts to reconcile Zabriskie Point with North by Northwest and 70’s gritnik action. The whole point is that alienation and paranoia should pervade even in plain sunlight, and that stark modernist architecture should reveal an order of things that outwards appears composed, clean, but masks a more disjointed reality. So we can accommodate some of the weird pieces as part of that. The sudden car chase, that we know as a movie staple. How our journalist miraculously survives the boat incident. That cartoonish off-screen explosion of the plane, as abetting our unstable mind. Did it really?
But that leaves a lot that is just hard to take. The whole Parallax business with lab questionnaires and recruiters visiting you at home seems silly now. Similar offbeat touches in older noir, say Kiss Me Deadly or Decoy, we could accept as the primal, intuitive efforts by grunt filmmakers to improvise a nightmare as best they knew. By 1974 however, and given the sophisticated look of the film that reveals deep knowledge of Antonioni, one expects more clever solutions from Pakula. More adept layering.
But that is what we have and where we have to look for the movie’s strength, which is a noir where the private investigator is merged with the story he’s researching. The device is a powerful indoctrination montage that our journalist makes himself sit through, Clockwork Orange-style, where images are continuously recontextualized to yield ‘happiness’ as ‘war’, ‘mother’ as ‘country’, ‘me’ as pride and violence. As political message it is overt and heavyhanded, but the technique works as mapping inwards; as in-sight of the workings of the mind looking to assemble ‘truth’ from a disjointed fabric, that later yields the disoriented behavior we see.
From that point onwards, the idea is that we coast on pure seeing as context becomes increasingly meaningless. We’re meant to be baffled by small details. We’re meant to imagine our own sinister framework that holds the nightmare together. Now we are co-conspirators in the fabrication.
The broader idea I discern here is that reality can mean anything if you shuffled hard enough - represented here as the different ways we’re tasked to see and provide context for.
How to exemplify this as internal mechanics? The montage again. Obvious political context hurts this, for reasons mentioned elsewhere. But the idea has tremendous power on the abstract level; images that we shuffle and re-shuffle in search of narrative. To get one narrative it’s enough that the outlines of images that make it up match, quite literally in our montage. In film grammar we’ve come to know this as the Kuleshov effect, first developed by Soviet filmmakers in the 20’s. We require images to reveal a broader purpose and destiny, in our case about hidden machinations that explain random cruelty. And we’ll make the association in the gaps between images, if we have to.
The final speech rehearsal in the empty hall with the director fussing over how to put together a ‘true face’ is a great piece. They should have done away with the awkward plane scene and prolonged this as the stage where we know our movie about political conspiracy is going to play again (the first time on the Shuttle we weren’t looking close, now we will).
The only problem I perceive is that it insists right to the end on a political angle. It insists we may have gone completely nuts and imagined the whole thing, which never truly convinces in context. It’s less ambiguous than we demand by this point.
I consider this a very near miss and our loss that it’s not a full-blown masterpiece, this is how powerful I think is the material. It’s superb as a pulpy noir nightmare but puts one foot in the higher league of players it doesn’t support very well. Watch Blowup and The Conversation for this thing done with more focus.