The Parallax View in Washington

space needle parallax

by Mark Steiner

In honor of Scarecrow’s “Conspiracy Noir” section, we present this essay about one of the most famous conspiracy films of all time, much of which just so happens to have been shot in this very state! 

The opening shot of Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 thriller The Parallax View is a ground-level view looking up at a totem pole. On the pole, a myriad of faces and eyes stare down at us, watching, observing. It’s immediately unsettling, and disorienting as well, once the camera swings left to reveal another large structure that was previously hiding behind the pole: the Space Needle. The camera stops, taking in both structures, and for a moment the eyes are no longer staring at us. Instead, they’re looking over at the Space Needle, cueing us that we should be much more interested in what’s going down at that weird, artificial, inversely-shaped structure in the sky. At the same time, we hear the tom-tom of drums, ominous perhaps, until we hear cheering as well.

This is part of the brilliance of The Parallax View, one of a handful of major Hollywood films that people can immediately identify as filmed in Seattle, in large part due to the bravura opening sequence. Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis constantly juxtapose images in the frame to disorient and question what we are seeing, and what we should be seeing. And not only do the filmmakers do this with images, but also with characters, sounds, music, you name it. As soon as we are shown the totem and the Space Needle, there is a cut, and we’re now at the base of the Needle, watching a news report at a 4th Of July Parade (the one we were already hearing a second ago) marching through Seattle Center. But, again, the parade cuts our line of vision to the reporter, and we are left with a jumble of images and sounds. One of the brief images is the introduction of Warren Beatty, a huge star at the time but here a nominal spot in the background.

This pattern continues until we’re finally atop the Needle, where the act (a breathtaking assassination attempt and its aftermath) that drives the rest of the plot forward occurs. Other examples of this disorientation & undercutting happen at the Woodland Park Zoo, where two large men (Beatty & Kenneth Mars) discuss matters of life and death while riding a kiddie train six sizes too small for them, or during a visit to Lake Chelan and the Gorge Dam, where Beatty encounters a friendly sheriff who may not be so friendly, and an idyllic scene by the Skagit river that turns into a furious nightmare once the floodgates open. Pakula, Beatty, & company must really have enjoyed their time in Washington, using the lovely locales and landmarks, because once the movie shifts south to Los Angeles about 30 minutes in, we could be anywhere. Or, anywhere in 1974 America, where distrust in our leadership and conspiracy theories regarding assassinations and power struggles were part of the daily discourse. That Pakula could take that weltanschauung and turn it into one of the most suspenseful, taut, nearly ascetic thrillers of its time is a testament to his greatness; a greatness he would take to another Washington two years later to confront a very real conspiracy in All The President’s Men.

Mark Steiner is the buyer for Scarecrow Video. 

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