Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Screengrab - The Montage of Montages

Some bad movies contain scenes that stay with you. Scenes that tap into something universal, something true, perhaps. Or just scenes that are shocking - a moment of stunning violence, a jolt that will be what you come away from the film with. Scenes that are brilliantly mounted - an immortal shot, maybe, the staging of an event in a new way. You know what I mean. You can probably think of an example, right off the bat. This happens with great movies too. Some scenes just shine out of the films that house them, their power, their quality irresistible.

In the 1970s, Alan J Pakula was in the zone. He made a handful of magnificent films, each reminiscent of the last in its exploration of the unique atmosphere of that decade - the paranoia, the sense of a culture veering out of control - each an expansion on the last, in its way. This process climaxed with "All the Presidents Men" in 1976, a real-life detective story starring two of the most popular actors of the era which took a fiendishly complex sequence of events and made a gripping, enthralling and accessible movie out of them. Its also one of the best-directed films of the decade. But the film Pakula had made two years earlier is just as good - a taut, tight, terrifying conspiracy thriller with an unapologetically bleak ending and some unforgettable moments. Such as the opening assassination scene, oblique and disturbing and reminiscent of the murder of Robert Kennedy a few years earlier. Or the semi-comic bar brawl the hero deliberately involves himself in, in some town in the middle of nowhere. Or the moment he follows a man onto a plane and realises that said man intends to bomb the plane - when they have already taken off. Or the moment we realise just how in deep he is, and also realise that he hasn't realised yet. Or the unbelievable gut punch of a climax.

If you've seen "The Parallax View", however, then the scene that you will probably best recall is the Montage. Reporter Joseph Frady (Warren Beatty, someone else who had a fantastic 1970s) has gone deep undercover in order to infiltrate the Parallax Corporation, which he believes is involved in a Political Assassination and several subsequent "accidental" deaths. He gradually realises that Parallax is in fact an Assassination bureau, and that he has been called in for an interview. And that a big part of that interview will involve him viewing a film while his reactions are monitored - a sort of psychological litmus test, with psychosis the desired finding.

The film itself is a montage of stills set to an instrumental orchestral/rock backing. The stills include keywords - MOTHER, FATHER, ME, HOME, HAPPINESS, ENEMY - which each kick off a sequence of images. At first the images are comforting, warmly folksy and associative - stock photographs with classic, timeless feeling hanging in them. An old couple sitting together. A young father with his son in a backpack. Baseball. The White House. A woman with her baby. An obviously American house set in a green garden beneath a blue sky. The music is gentle and melodic, elegiac, almost nostalgic. On the second round of words, the editing quickens its pace just slightly, and the juxtaposition of images becomes more problematic and complex. After a comforting, nostalgic shot under "MOTHER", we see a weeping woman, for instance. On the third round, as the music becomes more aggressive and insistent, even martial, the images become disturbing. We see shots of brutality and violence and the sexual shots become more explicit and coarse.

It gets more disturbing - the editing faster, the images cropped and played off one another wonderfully. An extended passage suggests incest - shots of a naked couple entwined juxtaposed with shots of an archetypal mother figure - and homosexual parental abuse then equates happiness with a gleaming revolver. Enemy is mingled with home so that images of famous patriots and Presidents are side by side with shots of Hitler, all of it periodically interrupted with shots of military men and firearms. Violent images recur every few beats, almost like punctuation for every breathless theme. The Marvel hero Thor becomes a motif - the heroic ideal of 'ME' in the latter stages, which tail off in a quiet coda, returning to the tempo, lyricism and comfort of the opening moments.

At its peak, however, there is a nightmarish rhythm to the flow of images, distorting associative power and using suggestion brilliantly. Nazis and the White House, naked couples with homosexual imagery, violence with MOTHER, poverty with FATHER, guns with HAPPINESS, and so on. Whether it has any resemblance to the kind of thing that would evoke a specific reaction in a psychotic personality I have no idea, but as a piece of cinema, its works magnificently well, and only adds to the precise, creepy mood of the film.
Here it is, in full:

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