Pakula was really one of the most interesting directors to watch for a while. It was the early 70’s, he had been deeply affected by Antonioni, and it was the time when the American narrative had turned bitter and paranoid, a tab of acid slowly dissolving in the public mind. The time was perfect for film noir and Pakula grasped this, since noir was a paranoid type of film for a new type of paranoid life in the big city.
So even though we have come to know these films as ‘conspiracy thrillers’, that is only a noir offshoot, one of many. The basic idea is that we find ourselves caught in some inexplicable part of the world - aren’t we all? - and begin to look for the mechanisms that move us and that world. Our insight, if we’re fortunate to be at the hands of an adept filmmaker, is something that we’ll be able to align around the life we know.
Why do we act a part? Why do we keep looking? Who is casting reflections that we see around us?
This is the exercise here. Our man is a private investigator looking for missing persons. He finds her, a talented actress who only allows herself to touch the world from inside an illusion she can manipulate. She controls sex, and that lets her anonymously penetrate others from the safety of fantasy. He enters the illusion eager, fresh in the big city and his first-time doing this, so everything is coated with danger and mysterious allure. New York has scarcely looked as elusive as we have here. She’s been there all her life, is weary and looking for someone to wrestle that control and mask away. Meanwhile she has woven another illusion around her where she is victim with the world out to get her, this is another part that we’ll have to discern whether or not it’s an act.
So one layer of the abstraction is that he comes to know that he’s really looking for her. From her end, that she’s the one gone missing. Our primary text here is not hardboiled noir but L’Avventura, the disappearance being only our premise for connection.
It makes sense then that the actual investigation would seem aimless and frustrating. It’s meant to be a little mundane as we snoop around, a part of routine. It’s meant to involve us simply watching, looking to see will the world unveil itself. Unveil some part that is missing and throws the whole off balance. Remember the first part of Vertigo? We had to be the shadow for a while before anything could be outlined.
The second layer involves a conversation caught on tape. It plays for the first time over the opening credits and missing bits are added over the course of the film that we didn’t know were missing. We listen a bit earlier. We listen at the other side of the conversation. The twist, as we come to know it; our actress speaks of letting everything out in the open as the only means of achieving happiness. Of couse nothing is let out and everything is kept in. An ongoing conversation with a therapist played over intimate but wordless bits back home underscores this.
So when these two layers are made to spin together, we have a delicate caress in the dark between souls. Butterfies in the stomach. The effort is for shedding the self that clings to the controls of life, desperate to steer somewhere. We let the other person have it, trusting he will set controls for the heart of our being. Isn’t this what love is all about?
I don’t know of a more urgent and poignant depiction of love in the movies.
There is another layer about political conspiracy half-heartedly woven throughout and most prominent at the last moment, but that is not the point here. It’s nothing, and if we apply an investigative eye we’ll be able to easily sweep off the picture. Watching here also reveals the actual context of the subsequent Parallax View, on the surface a film more alarmingly about shady powers controlling the plot.
In both cases, the ‘parallax’ is our displacement from the status of observer into the place where observations are assembled into a view. The view is of internal mind, and taken together these two are a powerful experience that you should not miss. The political angle was just an effective way of addressing the time and a lot of people anxious to hear.