The Parallax View Chinatown

The period from 1970 to 1975 in the United States was a time of "malaise," to use a term later popularized by Jimmy Carter. The Vietnam War continued, even though official U.S. policy spoke of Vietnamization and peace. The booming economy of the 1960s staggered into a period of recession and inflation, impelled by the war but especially by the OPEC oil price shock. The price of gasoline quadrupled in a few months because of OPEC's rationing of supply. Americans queued up in their cars to buy the meager amounts of gas available. Politically, the United States was rocked by the Watergate scandal, a demonstration of widespread duplicity and illegal activity in the Nixon White House. In general, the early 1970s was a period of soul-searching in the United States, a period which demonstrated the limits of American power and security in the world.

The disaster movie is a staple motif of Hollywood cinema. A group of people saves itself from imminent disaster; the theme can be found in adventure, science fiction, horror, and other genres. The threat of disaster may stem from nature, or human folly, or alien invasion, or supernatural agency.

Whatever the cause, the dynamic of salvation is the same: the group uses the diverse talents of its members to survive the threat. This is the dynamic of Metropolis (1926), of Hurricane (1937), of Independence Day (1996).

However, the phrase ''disaster movie'' is specifically associated with a cycle of films in the 1970s, beginning with Airport (1970) and proceeding through The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, Airport 1975, The Towering Inferno, and so on. This set of big-budget, highly successful movies is characterized by two distinct appeals. First of all, it presents a fairly simple set of dangers and thrills. A physical, highly visual predicament threatens the group, which must respond in difficult and dangerous ways in order to survive. Second, disaster movies can be read as metaphors of the general malaise of American (or Western) society. The nature of the threat, the makeup of the social microcosm, and the specifics of the response all present an ideological view of the troubled America of the years 1970-1975.

In Airport, the operations of a major airport and the safety of a large airliner are threatened by a single, desperate man and by the conflicting needs of various constituencies (airport board of directors, airport manager, airline companies, neighborhoods adjoining the airport). An unemployed demolitions expert plans to blow up a Rome-bound airliner in order to collect on travel insurance and thus provide for his family. This individual killer is more pathetic than threatening; Airport does not provide a large-scale villain for our entertainment. The emphasis of the film is on the employees and resources of the air transportation industry, and on how they are mobilized to meet this threat. The threat itself seems to be unavoidable; a busy, complex, and highly technological institution such as an airport will always be somewhat endangered by what in military terms would be called sabotage.

Airport is an ensemble film which features a large cross-section of characters, representing the breadth and variety of American life. But this particular ensemble is most interesting for what it leaves out. The young people who are such an important part of Easy Rider, Alice's Restaurant, Joe, and even Dirty Harry simply do not exist in Airport. All the main characters are middle-aged and above, except for Gwen (Jacqueline Bisset), a young stewardess who is in love with pilot Vernon Demarest (Dean Martin). Blacks and other minorities are also absent; this is a film which deals with social change by avoiding it. The men in Airport are aggressive and self-confident, the women supportive and empathetic, and everyone is well dressed and well groomed. The cross-section of characters covers a wide range of occupations and personality types, but it is remarkably narrow in terms of age, race, and class.

The plot plays off individual tensions and rivalries against the drama of landing a damaged airliner in hazardous weather conditions. The main runway of Lincoln Airport—a fictitious airport in the Chicago area—is closed because a plane is stuck in the snow. Airport manager Mel Bakersfield (Burt Lancaster) diverts traffic to a second runway, even though this creates noise problems for nearby wealthy neighborhoods. The airport's board of directors wants Mel to shut down, but he brings in mechanic/technical expert Joe Petroni (George Kennedy) in an attempt to move the disabled plane and keep everything running. Meanwhile, Mel is fielding complaints from his society wife Cindy (Dana Wynter), who expects him at a formal dinner, and accepting the sympathy of Tanya Livingston (Jean Seberg), a beautiful airline supervisor. Mel's brother-in-law, Vernon Demarest, is on his case to keep the airport open so that a flight to Rome may take off. As this plane prepares for takeoff, we learn that the lovely Gwen (Bisset) is pregnant with Vernon's baby. Though Airport is a conservative, backward-looking film in many ways, it does revise the sexual mores of classic Hollywood (e.g., the Production Code's insistence that adultery was not normal and should be punished) to reflect more permissive times.

These melodramatic tensions are eventually rendered secondary by the discovery that D. O. Guerrero (the demolitions expert) has a bomb on board. A plan to take the bomb from Guerrero goes awry, and he explodes it in the rest room in the rear of the plane. The resulting loss of pressure creates a great deal of action and tension in the main cabin of the aircraft, but aside from Guerrero only stewardess Gwen is seriously injured. Now the drama becomes whether the damaged aircraft can be landed. Conveniently for the film, all airports from Detroit east are closed because of snow, so the plane must return to Lincoln. The main runway now must be cleared, because the damaged plane needs its additional length.

Can-do hero Joe Petroni frees up the stalled plane on the runway at the last moment, using an unorthodox maneuver that ''the book says is impossible.'' Mel and the air traffic controllers direct the 707 to the main runway. It lands safely, and Vernon escorts Gwen to the ambulance. Also, at some point in the frenzied final hour, Mel's wife tells him that she is having an affair with a man who appreciates her, and she wants a divorce. So Mel is free to pursue the devoted Tanya (Seberg). Professional and personal crises come to a satisfying conclusion.

The last word in the film comes from Demarest's copilot: ''Give my regards to Mr. Boeing.'' Underlying the human drama is the incredible durability of the Boeing 707, which survives a detonation in its tail section and lands safely. The skill of the pilots, the air traffic controllers, the airport manager, and the improvising Petroni, linked to the superior technology of American industry, has overcome a dangerous situation. The theme of Airport is that skill, courage, and technology can avert disaster and save the day. If we view the film metaphorically, the message is that the way to avert social breakdown is to trust the resources and structures we already have. Since William Boeing left Boeing Aircraft in 1934 and died in 1956, the copilot's thanks go not to an individual but to the entire pattern of corporate America.

Vincent Canby comments with some disgust that Airport is a very conventional, Grand Hotel- style movie and that everything in it could have been done thirty years earlier.1 This is true except for the treatment of sexuality, which has been updated a bit in post-Production Code Hollywood. But is the backward-looking quality of Airport necessarily a weakness? It seems to me that Airport's glossy conventionality suggests a surprising continuity in Hollywood film. Whereas some popular films of 1969-1970 present a radically changed social universe, Airport, the most popular film of 1970, presents a stable, middle-class, middle-aged social drama that could have been staged in 1950, perhaps even 1940. The film audience (or audiences) was evidently able to support both Easy Rider's iconoclasm and Airport's conservatism.

In The Poseidon Adventure (1972), the looming threat is a tidal wave bearing down on the luxury ocean liner Poseidon. This threat is heightened by corporate irresponsibility: the owners of the Poseidon have directed its captain to ignore safety problems and operate at full speed. However, as in Airport, the emphasis here is on survival, not on affixing blame. The wave hits the Poseidon in the middle of a New Year's Eve party; many passengers and crew are killed; the ship turns over and begins to sink. A surviving officer, the purser, urges the passengers to wait in the now upside-down ballroom for help, but a small group led by Reverend Frank Scott (Gene Hackman) decides to ascend to the ship's hull and seek a way out.

The small group of The Poseidon Adventure is quite a bit more varied than the group in Airport. Aside from clergyman Scott, the charismatic leader, the group includes Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine), a New York City cop; his wife Linda (Stella Stevens), an ex-hooker; Manny and Belle Rosen (Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters), retired Jewish shopkeepers; and businessman James Martin (Red Buttons), a widower. Young people are represented by Nonnie Perry (Carol Lynley), a singer in the ship's house band; teenager Susan Shelby (Pamela Sue Martin); and her younger brother Robin (Eric Shea). The members of Nonnie's band are youthfully stylish in hair length and clothing, but the music they play is bland and middle-of-the-road (probably accurate for a cruise ship band). Nonnie herself is shown as passive and dependent; she eventually forms a bond with the much older Mr. Martin (Buttons). Of the two Shelby kids, the boy is the more independent and self-reliant, but both kids are dependent on the experience and good judgment of the adults. So The Poseidon Adventure includes young people, but in subordinate and deferential roles.

As Nick Roddick notes, the film is suffused with religious imagery. The submerged yet burning Poseidon is an image of hell. The trip upward is ''a long journey of redemption,'' a journey filled with ''purgatorial tests and trials.''2 The Reverend Scott wins a battle for leadership with ex-policeman Rogo, representing secular authority. Scott is an unusual clergyman, preaching self-help and a distrust for established institutions, but he does have a deep faith in God and in human potential. Near the end of the journey, he sacrifices his own life so that the group can continue upward. The film suggests that faith plus self-help plus independent thinking can lead the group to safety; it is a somewhat different conservative message from Airport's reliance on technology and existing institutions.

Looked at from a distance of twenty-five years, it is surprising how many films of the late 1960s and early 1970s have a religious dimension. No histories of Hollywood describe a religious revival in this period, but such diverse films as Easy Rider, Alice s Restaurant, Dirty Harry, and The Poseidon Adventure all draw on Christian themes and imagery. In Easy Rider, there are non-Christian religious elements as well. The explanation is most likely that religious imagery is one way to respond to moments of extreme social stress. The Christian imagery often remains at a very general level, so as not to offend portions of the audience. For example, the singing of ''Amazing Grace'' at Thanksgiving in Alice's Restaurant subtly connects the hippie commune to Christian tradition, without specifying any doctrinal or denominational links. Another example would be The Poseidon Adventurers Reverend Scott, whose group includes the Jewish Mr. and Mrs. Rosen. Indeed, Belle Rosen is one of the heroes of the film; with her underwater swimming she saves Scott and gives up her life for the greater good.

In Jaws (1975), the threat to the group comes from one shark and is thus far more individualized than the tidal wave of The Poseidon Adventure. The plot of Jaws can be summarized very briefly. An enormous shark is feeding on swimmers and boaters off idyllic Amity Island, on the New England coast. Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) wants to shut down the island's beaches, but the mayor of Amity insists on keeping them open. Further deaths are thus inevitable. When evidence of the shark becomes irrefutable, the beaches are closed, and a mismatched trio of shark hunters sets off into the ocean. They are Chief Brody, the young scientist Hooper (Richard Drey-fuss), and the grizzled fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw). The hunters manage to harpoon the shark, but this only begins an epic battle. After long struggle, Quint is killed by the shark, Hooper has disappeared underwater in diving gear, and Brody, perched on a sinking boat, improbably manages to kill the shark. Hooper reappears, and he and Brody slowly make their way to shore.

Like other disaster films, Jaws works well at the literal level. The shark is a mysterious and terrifying antagonist. It has certain general habits of behavior, including an attraction to irregular movement in the water (e.g., as made by human swimmers), but where or when it will strike is unpredictable. Director Steven Spielberg does an excellent job of controlling and channeling the threat of the shark. For most of the film it is rarely seen, but its presence is indicated by underwater camera shots (the shark's point of view) and a repeated musical motif. Images of struggle and death are also minimized during the film's first two thirds, though occasionally a terrifying moment bursts onto the screen (e.g., the image of a dead boater with an eye torn out of its socket). Then, at the end of the film, Spielberg finally shows us the shark, in its terrible majesty, destroying the boat and attacking the hunters. The shark used in production was actually a series of mechanical creatures, but it certainly looks convincing on screen.

Jaws universal pictures.

The tourists of Amity Island respond to a shark alarm. Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art/ Film Stills Archive.

Jaws universal pictures.

The tourists of Amity Island respond to a shark alarm. Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art/ Film Stills Archive.

Aside from the thrills and chills of the shark attacks, a secondary threat in the film is the short-sighted venality of the mayor and city fathers of the fictional Amity Island (the film was shot on Martha's Vineyard). They ignore and deny the evidence that a shark killed a young woman in the film's opening moments, and by this denial they put the entire summer population of Amity in danger. A funny-sad scene at the beach shows the mayor asking a friend's family to go in the water. This prompts a mass movement of people wading into the ocean, even though various lookouts and deputies suggest a real danger from the shark. In search of profits, the mayor turns the tourists and residents of his town into prey for the shark. And after a few false alarms, the shark does take the bait.

As Stephen Heath and Robert Kolker have noted, this secondary threat may well be a representation of the Watergate cover-up, which would have been fresh in the minds of many audience members in 1975.3 The Mayor, following a narrow version of self-interest, denies the threat of the shark and thereby greatly increases that threat. The moral issue involved in the "cover-up" is presented in the scene in which the mother of the second victim slaps Brody's face. Brody knew that a killer shark was in the water, yet he obeyed the mayor's order to do nothing. Remarkably, the film does not follow through on this idea of moral responsibility, nor does it place the blame squarely on the mayor. Instead, Jaws veers away from the social functioning of the town of Amity (with parallels to Watergate) to become a mythic tale of Man versus Shark.

Stephen E. Bowles makes the interesting point that the subplot about "the business ethic'' is actually designed to "mislead or distract us.''4 In the vocabulary of the mystery genre, it is a "false lead.'' But this means that the metaphoric reference to Watergate in the film is quite superficial, like the similar reference to corporate ethics in The Poseidon Adventure. The primary problems raised by both films suggest that society's malaise can be solved by simple responses to physical threats. Watergate is displaced to a situation of physical combat, a situation which, moreover, fits easily within the genre expectations of the audience. The liberal, socially critical stance of Jaws's first half and Poseidon Adventure's first few minutes thus fades to insignificance.

Unlike Airport and The Poseidon Adventure, Jaws is filled with young people. Children and teenagers figure prominently in the story. Brody and his wife are fairly young (early thirties?) and have a young family. Hooper, the shark expert from Woods Hole, is also a young man. Quint, much older, represents the knowledge and experience of the older generation. In one mesmerizing moment, he tells of being in the water after the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in World War II. Sharks killed more than half of his shipmates. But Quint dies in Jaws, leaving the way clear for the younger generation. Similarly, in town politics, Sheriff Brody is seen as far more competent and trustworthy than the mayor and the "city fathers.'' Jaws, filmed by a very young director (Spielberg was twenty-six in 1974, when the film was in production), is a movie made by and for the post-World War II Baby Boom generation.

Robert Kolker describes a shrinking of community in Jaws. Though Brody has a general commitment to all residents and tourists on Amity Island, he is truly engaged only by his family, and later by the all-male

Jaws universal pictures.

The all-male group of shark hunters: Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), Quint (Robert Shaw), and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss). Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive.

Jaws universal pictures.

The all-male group of shark hunters: Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), Quint (Robert Shaw), and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss). Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive.

fellowship on Quint's boat. Brody, a newcomer to Amity (he moved from New York City, seeking a better life for his family), is isolated from the ''civil society'' of town residents, and town government seems to be vestigial. So, in protecting the town, Brody is protecting first and foremost his family— a point made when his son is specifically threatened by the shark. In the climactic confrontation with the shark, the nuclear family is replaced by an all-male fraternity which might be called ''the return of patriarchy.'' In times of crisis, social heterogeneity is replaced by the leadership of the Father. But which father? The tough, traditional Quint is inadequate; so is the expert Hooper, representing science and technology. Brody, intelligent and resourceful but with no special knowledge or talents, wins the day. He represents the triumph of the average man (the spectator), and the protec tive role of the literal father. The nuclear family is safe, the father is in charge.5

Jaws is a bravura, self-assured piece of filmmaking, an interesting transition between the backward-looking disaster movies and the neoconserva-tive films of the late 1970s and early 1980s (e.g., Star Wars, Kramer vs. Kramer, E.T.). But it is also a film of some complexity, a film whose pleasure is not entirely an operation of transparent ideology. Consider, for example, the following quote from Spielberg:''. . . the third act was basically a man-against-beast tale. It could be called a celebration of man's constant triumph over nature—not necessarily for the good.''6 Spielberg's qualifier suggests an ecological awareness which, indeed, colors the entire film. Both Hooper and Quint have respect and even love for the shark, though they are resolved to kill it. Brody's pursuit of the shark is also an initiation to the sea. For the characters, and by extension the viewer, something of value is lost when the shark is destroyed. Jaws may be the ''middle-class remake'' of Moby Dick, but this somewhat derisive comment by Stephen Heath also points to the many-layered conflict/relationship between humanity and nature.7 Even a conservatively middle-class Moby Dick may merit our attention.

Overall, the disaster movie of the early 1970s is a way to displace contemporary problems into simple, physical confrontations—for example, man versus shark, or airline crew versus hole in the tail section. These confrontations are generally resolved via old-fashioned virtues: hard work, individual initiative, group cooperation. The disaster movie is thus a conservative response which ''solves'' the 1970s malaise by drastically simplifying and reframing it.

Conspiracy movies of the 1970s differ from disaster movies in providing a more detailed and pessimistic vision of contemporary malaise. These films use the detective or mystery genre to offer an investigation of what is wrong with contemporary America. The conspiracy film's social critique is often muted by or in conflict with genre requirements, but the willingness to critique such institutions as capitalism and government gives these films a liberal or Leftist slant.8

Conspiracy films of 1974 (e.g., The Conversation, The Parallax View, Chinatown) are unusual in American cinema in their withholding of a happy ending. The explanation may be that the moment of the Watergate hearings was so grim that a few Hollywood films departed from the recuperative, happy ending tradition. By 1975 and 1976, however, conspiracy films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and All the President's Men end with a movement toward hope. Arthur Penn's Night Moves (1976), which belongs to the earlier, grimmer cycle of detective/conspiracy movies, reminds us that films do not always arrive in neatly separated periods.

The Parallax View (1974) is a somewhat abstract story of an assassination-for-hire conspiracy. Joe Frady (Warren Beatty), an obsessive and flaky reporter for a West Coast newspaper (perhaps Seattle or Portland), investigates the death of several witnesses to the assassination of Senator Charles Carroll, a liberal candidate for President. Carroll was killed at a reception on top of the Space Needle tower in Seattle—a location worthy of Hitchcock. Frady discovers the promotional literature of the mysterious Parallax Corporation, which appears to be screening for assassins via the use of multiple-choice personality tests. Using an imprisoned killer as his surrogate test-taker, Frady passes the first screening and goes to Parallax's Los Angeles office for further tests. He is accepted into the corporation, but later, when following one of the killers, he finds himself in a large convention center where a band rehearses for a political meeting. Another senator, this time a conservative candidate for President, appears at the rehearsal and is shot. As Frady gapes from the catwalks above the convention center floor, he is seen and accused of being the killer. He tries to escape but is killed by a Parallax assassin. The film concludes, as it began, with the statement of a committee investigating an assassination: no evidence of conspiracy; the killer (in this case, Frady) acted alone.

The film is based on a now-forgotten novel of the same name by Loren Singer.9 In the novel, the force behind the assassination conspiracy is revealed to be an out-of-control government agency. This agency is committed to a senseless course of destruction, and it does destroy the novel's protagonist, whose name is Graham. However, Graham's death by highway accident looks suspicious to a policeman on the scene, and therefore the novel ends with at least the possibility that the assassination scheme will be discovered and stopped. Singer's novel is more explicit and more concrete than the film adaptation; indeed, one might cite Kafka's The Trial, with its insistence on not explaining, as another source of the film.

The Parallax View works on two registers which, unfortunately, are not

The Parallax View paramount pictures.

Warren Beatty as a print journalist and Paula Prentiss as a TV journalist. Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art /Film Stills Archive.

The Parallax View paramount pictures.

Warren Beatty as a print journalist and Paula Prentiss as a TV journalist. Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art /Film Stills Archive.

always mutually reinforcing. First, there is the narrative line of a mystery, a reporter, an enormous conspiracy. This works well until the middle of the film, when the malevolent actions of the Parallax Corporation (a plane with a bomb on it, a boat blowing up in San Pedro harbor) start to pile up. Another problem is that we don't know much about the character Joe Frady, so it is hard to empathize with him as he takes on a vast, shadowy antagonist. The name Frady itself suggests a symbol, not a man; Joe Frady (as in '' 'fraidy-cat'') may be the twentieth-century counterpart of Fielding's Squire Allworthy. Beyond this, the narrative is full of jumps and gaps; the elliptical technique serves a symbolic function but impedes the process of identification. For example, at one point TV reporter Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), a witness to the first assassination, comes to Frady's apartment and says she's terrified. Another, younger woman appears from a back room and marches out the door, uttering not a word. The suggestion is that Frady has transient relations with a number of women (Lee Carter must be a former lover), but the scene is so truncated that we lack a firm sense of character. In general, the narrative starts strongly, loses momentum and conviction in the middle, and then picks up again at the end.

The visually expressive dimension of The Parallax View is more impressive. This film, like The Godfather, makes excellent use of dark images (Gordon Willis was the cinematographer on both). The commissions of inquiry which open and close the film are very, very dark. A panel of members, barely lit, stretches rectangularly across a hearing room or courtroom. The only colors are black and brown. In the first commission scene (at the end of the opening credits sequence), the camera zooms slowly in on the panel. In the second commission scene (at the end of the film), the camera zooms slowly out. The verbal content of the scenes is almost identical: in both cases, the chairman announces that the assassin acted alone and that he will take no questions at this time. These symmetrical scenes craft a convincingly paranoid vision from the stylized yet institutional mise-en-scene plus the verbal sense of tired routine. By being so thoroughly nonspecific, the chairman's reports throw doubt on all the assassinations of the previous eleven years, beginning with the death of John F. Kennedy in 1963.

Many other parts of The Parallax View are shot in almost total darkness, including various scenes in Frady's rented rooms, conversations between Frady and his editor in the newspaper office, and the shadowy, scary moments on the catwalks above the final assassination scene. The dark mise-en-scene suggests a darkness of the soul in both political and personal senses. Politically, a world of shadows is appropriate to a situation in which assassination by unknown groups for unknown reasons dominates the body politic. In personal terms, the darkness suggests that Joe Frady himself is unformed, mysterious, and that he, like all of us, is capable of violent acts. However, some distinctions can be drawn between the various darkly lit scenes in The Parallax View. The scenes in Frady's rented room in Los Angeles present an accumulation of cultural debris—wallpaper, old furniture—with no strong link to the character. Frady, undercover here as he tries to penetrate the Parallax Corporation, lacks a clear personality; he is a fragmented, postmodern man. The newspaper office, on the other hand, contains layer upon layer of personal meaning. The furniture, the lamp, the decorations, the unlocked desk drawer embody the coherent past and present of Frady's managing editor, Rintels (played by Hume Cronyn). According to director Alan J. Pakula, the newspaper office embodied much more simple American values, almost nineteenth century values. It represented a family, a man who was rooted, a whole American tradition that was dying, an anachronism, as compared to this totally cold and enormously bizarre world that Beatty goes after, and in comparison to his own character, which is the totally rootless modern man.10

The scenes on the catwalks present a third view of darkness—in this case modern, hard-edged, technological, dangerous. There is no personality, no history to the catwalks and corridors high above the convention center floor, and this makes them an apt setting for an assassination without apparent roots or motives.

The catwalk scenes are also the culmination of The Parallax View's film-long play with modern architecture. Beginning with the Space Needle, the film presents glass-and-concrete twentieth-century architecture as abstract and soulless. In an early image, the abstract upward motion of the Space Needle is contrasted to the older, more iconic image of an American Flag. The scenes of the reception for Senator Carroll are shot in a disorienting, fragmented way, so that one does not get a sense of the dimensions of the room atop the Space Needle. An outdoor chase of the presumed assassin on the steep Space Needle roof adds to a discomfort with this space. Later in the film, the Parallax Corporation is connected with the clean lines and shiny surfaces of modern architecture. In a nicely understated moment, Frady finds the room number of the ''Parallax Corporation, West Coast Offices'' in an office building lobby with marble walls and a clean, clear design. It looks just like any other new, luxurious office building—which is the film's point. Frady's training for Parallax takes him to other new, geometric, abstract buildings, for example a hotel in Atlanta and the conference center of the film's final scenes. The visual argument seems to be that the coldness of modern architecture matches the amorality of assassination-for-hire.

The film expands this critique of contemporary urban environments to include the motion picture itself. At the Parallax offices, Frady is given a test which consists of watching a five-minute montage while his physiological responses are monitored. The montage involves still images under the headings "Love," "Mother," "Father," "Me," "Home," "Country," "God," and "Enemy." It begins with conventional imagery but soon moves to more violent and disturbed shots—e.g., "Dad" as threatening, "Mom" and "Me" as abused, "Country" as Hitler giving a speech. This sequence is not discussed or explained, but Frady evidently passes the test, for he is offered a job. Although the montage is simplistic, it does implicate film in the process of "training" violent, amoral human beings.

Who or what the Parallax Corporation represents is never made clear. Is it a strictly for-profit venture? Does it have a political affiliation? Is it primarily aimed at destabilizing the American system of government? The film shows no interest in answering these questions—nor will its narrative line stand up to sustained investigation. The film does work, however, as a visual impression of American paranoia and despair, circa 1974. Its dark images linger in the mind.

The Parallax View actually includes a sequence of Frady endangered by a water gate. Looking for clues to the supposed drowning of a journalist who witnessed the assassination of Senator Carroll, he finds himself held at gunpoint beside a stream as the sluice gate of a dam opens up. However, this episode cannot be credited as either a conscious or unconscious verbalvisual pun, since it exists in Loren Singer's novel, published in 1970, two years before the Watergate scandal began.11 Rather, the threat from water is an archetypal symbol of the fragility of human existence, a common motif of other films of the period (e.g., The Poseidon Adventure, Chinatown, Night Moves) and of imaginative literature dating back to the story of Noah and related creation myths.

Chinatown, another film about water and dams, is a more fully realized paranoid vision and critique of American society than The Parallax View. The specific subject here is the politics of water in Los Angeles, and the given time period the 1930s. As screenwriter Robert Towne has noted, the film is to some extent an adaptation of Cary McWilliams's Southern California Country, a history of Los Angeles, with special emphasis on the chapter "Water! Water! Water!''12 The Hollis Mulwray of the movie is loosely derived from William Mulholland, the engineer most responsible for building the elaborate Los Angeles water system. Noah Cross, the colossally rich antago nist of the film, could be a composite of several wealthy businessmen who manipulated water rights in Southern California for their own benefit. The dates in the film have been changed (the historical events took place before 1910), but some of the outrageous political and economic swindles of Chinatown are based on actual occurrences. For example, the water supply of Los Angeles really was privately owned for a number of years.

Chinatown is additionally a response to the Watergate scandal of 19721974, as well as a comment on American venality in general. Like The Parallax View, it tries to move from a concrete situation to a broader speculation on corruption, conspiracy, and human weakness. But whereas The Parallax View employed visual patternings, with corresponding narrative atrophy, to present a world infused by dark conspiracy, Chinatown builds to a generalized sense of evil by penetrating deeper into story and character. Chinatown does not need semi-abstract patterns of light and dark to signify evil; indeed, its Southern California of the 1930s is colorful and stylish (the director of photography was John Alonso). Instead, director Roman Polanski and writer Robert Towne have added multiple layers of symbolic resonance, both narrative and visual, to gradually suggest an all-encompassing evil. For example, there are both pagan and Biblical echoes in the story of a land that is barren because of transgressions by the rich and powerful.

Chinatown begins with self-assured private detective Jake, or J. J., Gittes (Jack Nicholson) showing Curly (Burt Young) pictures of his wife's infidelity. He then interviews a new client (played by Diane Ladd), who gives the name Evelyn Mulwray; this client also complains about a suspected infidelity. Gittes investigates the new case, takes some pictures of Hollis Mulwray with a young blonde, and then finds the pictures in the newspaper. Next, he receives a visit from a very angry Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) — the real Mrs. Mulwray—threatening a lawsuit. However, when Hollis Mul-wray drowns, in the middle of a drought, Evelyn Mulwray hires Gittes to investigate.

The film begins with a false story and then moves slowly toward a perception of truth. As Virginia Wright Wexman notes, it follows the pattern of the hard-boiled detective story, as embodied by the novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and by the films The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Big Sleep (1946). However, unlike the detectives of these works, who ultimately master (at least momentarily) a threatening situa tion, Gittes continually misperceives the situation and reacts in a bumbling way. Wexman rightly characterizes the superficially confident and masterful Gittes as "clownish."13 And when Gittes finally does recognize a terrible truth, he has no power to change it.

Gittes finds that someone has been manipulating the Los Angeles water supply, dumping large quantities of water into runoff channels at night and claiming drought. Also, the orange groves of the San Fernando Valley are totally without water, and thousands of acres have changed hands very recently. Gittes is threatened and beaten up as he investigates this conspiracy—in fact, he has his nose badly cut by a switchblade wielded by Roman Polanski, the film's director playing a small-time hoodlum. Gittes suspects that Mulwray was killed because he knew too much about the water conspiracy, but Gittes keeps getting distracted by the unexplained matter of the young blonde. Was the cause of Mulwray's death personal (connected with the blonde) or political (connected with the water conspiracy)?

It turns out to be both. The deus ex machina behind the convoluted plot is Noah Cross (John Huston), Evelyn Mulray's father and Hollis Mulray's former business partner—they owned the water system of Los Angeles together. Cross, an amazing picture of businessman as user, businessman as exploiter, still acts as though he owns the water system. He is creating the drought to buy up the San Fernando Valley. When questioned about his motives he denies simple greed and talks about "The Future! The Future, Mr. Gits!'' (a mis-speaking of Gittes). Cross accepts no limits to his aspirations, and he honestly (if that is the right word) thinks he is doing Los Angeles a favor by dominating and manipulating its water and therefore its growth. But Cross is not just an impassioned businessman. His acquisitive, exploitative nature extends to incestuous relations with his daughter Evelyn, which he now seeks to extend to her daughter Katherine (the young blonde in the photographs). Gittes the worldly detective has consistently missed this aspect of the story, because he is really Gittes the innocent, Gittes the rube (another American archetype). And when Gittes finally does discover the shocking truth, he can do nothing to protect his lover Evelyn, nor the young and innocent Katherine. Evelyn wounds Cross and is shot down by the police, and the evil father/grandfather ends up comforting the innocent Katherine.

Meanwhile, the stunned Gittes is led away by his associate Walsh, who

Chinatown paramount pictures.

Confident detective J. J. Gittes becomes Gittes the clown. Courtesy of Jerry Ohlinger Archives.

Chinatown paramount pictures.

Confident detective J. J. Gittes becomes Gittes the clown. Courtesy of Jerry Ohlinger Archives.

utters the film's signature line, ''Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown.'' Chinatown is the scene of the final action. It is also the place where Gittes, as a young policeman, failed to protect someone he loved. It is additionally a zone of the city beyond police or government control—but all of the city seems to be beyond control, so ''Chinatown'' is perhaps a synecdoche, a part which stands for a whole. Finally, ''Chinatown'' is certainly an example of ''orientalism,'' as defined by Edward Said,14 with the inscrutability of things Asian extended to cover human existence in general. Towne and Polanski start from a Hollywood cliche; of the 1930s and 1940s, a cliche; which presents the Chinese as less-than-Western, but this cliche eventually becomes a metaphor for human limits in general.

Chinatown paramount pictures.

The sensual pleasures of a world in which the knight cannot save the lady. Evelyn Mulray (Faye Dunaway) and Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson). Courtesy of Jerry Ohlinger Archives.

Chinatown paramount pictures.

The sensual pleasures of a world in which the knight cannot save the lady. Evelyn Mulray (Faye Dunaway) and Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson). Courtesy of Jerry Ohlinger Archives.

Herbert J. Gans, a noted sociologist who for several years reviewed films for the journal Social Practice, suggests that Chinatown is ''an anticapitalist detective story.''15 The film's key political insight is that the specific mechanisms of government do not matter; wealth and power matter. In a sense, Noah Cross still owns the Water Department because he can manipulate it to his own ends. This narrative of government activity for private gain is substantially consistent with Marxist theory, which holds that economic power always controls and determines the political superstructure. The major difference between Chinatown and the Marxist view of capitalism is that Chinatown holds out no hope for reform or revolution. No alternate nexus of social power is identified which could change things for the better. Instead, the film concludes with Noah Cross dominating not only the world of wealth and power but also the intimate/personal/sexual lives of Jake, Evelyn, and Katherine. Chinatown is, among other things, an Oedipus story where the dominating Father wins.

In preparing the film, screenwriter Towne and director Polanski had a falling out on the question of whether the Father should prevail. Towne wanted Evelyn Mulwray to shoot and kill Noah Cross at the end of Chinatown. This ending would have sustained a belief in the efficacy of human action. Even though Evelyn would have been arrested and sent off to prison, at least she would have struck down the evil Father.16 This ending suggests a bittersweet variety of Hollywood populism, with the hero's lover sacrificed for the greater good. Towne's ending could even be construed as enacting a successful class alliance, with the middle-class detective and the aristocratic Evelyn (and possibly even working-class Curly)17 uniting to slay the plutocratic Mr. Cross. Polanski's ending has the virtue of underlining the seriousness and omnipresence of capitalist domination. If Cross is killed and the threat is ended, then Chinatown becomes simply a genre piece where evil is overcome by good, as in the Western, the detective story, and other genres. But if Cross wins, then the conspiracy of the rich, the conspiracy which runs America, is presented as all-encompassing. This is a terrifying vision, a vision appropriate to the dark moment of Watergate.

However, Roman Polanski's ending has its weak point as well. The last thing Jake says is ''As little as possible,'' the motto he remembers from police work in Chinatown. Nothing can be done, the knight cannot save the lady. But this brings us back to the surface of Chinatown, to the pleasures of sight and sound and taste and sex. If action is futile, we are left with the self-indulgent passivity of a stylish yet empty Los Angeles.

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