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Alan J. Pakula

The Architecture of Power


Alan J. Pakula we could say was a late starter and an early finisher. Born in the Bronx in 1928, the son of a printing and advertising businessman, Pakula studied at the Yale School of Drama, and worked in the film industry in various capacities throughout the fifties and sixties, including as a producer on a number of Robert Mulligan films, most notably the successful To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962. Pakula was into his forties by the time he made his directorial debut with The Sterile Cuckoo, and died in a car crash in 1998 whilst still very much active – he made The Devil’s Own in 1997.

However, Pakula remains an important figure for really only three films, all of them made in the early to mid-seventies: Klute, The Parallax View and All the President’s Men. It is in these three works that he explored a sort of ‘architecture of power’, where, with his cameraman Gordon Willis, he found a visual form for the problem of urban anonymity. In each instance he finds ways of introducing architectural space as enormous and the individual as insignificant. At the beginning of The Parallax View, Pakula offers a low-angled shot of a totem pole that then gives way to the huge Seattle Space Needle as low-key tradition gives way to high powered architectural modernity. Shortly afterwards, a commission that has been gathered together to investigate a murder that was committed there are seen giving their verdict. Pakula films them with a slow zoom as he lights the commission from above and shrouds the rest of the screen space in darkness. Near the beginning of All the President’s Men, we watch the break in at the Watergate building, and Pakula shows us a brutalist piece of modern architecture and a concrete car park, again, mainly in the dark. Early in Klute there is more light, but Pakula films Jane Fonda’s central character going for an interview as a cosmetics model, and shows a long line of models sitting in the bottom third of the frame, as we have ourselves initially to pick Fonda out from the line-up. In each instance the anthropocentric gives way to the architecturally-centric as Pakula muses over the problem of modern man in urban space. Though critics like Guy Flatley, quoted in The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, notes Pakula was “an actor’s director”, at the same time he contained the performance within a visual schema that would undermine the freedom of the individual. This needn’t be seen as much of a paradox, and Pakula, perhaps more than any American director of his era shared, the Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni’s gift for indicating the personal through the architectural, through examining how space impacts on an individual’s life.

Obviously there were critics who wondered whether Pakula gave too much credence to elements other than characterisation. In his book American Cinema of the Seventies, Peter Lev reckons Warren Beatty’s character in The Parallax View was underdeveloped: that “he lacks a clear personality”, and believed there were scenes so truncated that we are in want of a firm sense of character. Pauline Kael would say, in a piece in Deeper Into Movies, that Klute too often went for a “synthetic reaction”, believing Pakula utilised devices more for melodramatic thriller effect than character development. But did Pakula’s visual style undermine character, or rather did his style explore the idea that modern man was being undermined by the architectural anonymity he was shrunk by? This isn’t the undermining of character so much as exploring characters that are themselves being undermined by the environments they find themselves in. This would certainly seem to be the case in the early stages of Klute, where Jane Fonda auditions for the commercial, and where afterwards we see her leave the building with Pakula framing her in such a way that she is small next to it, just as moments before Pakula has shown her undeniably feeling small as the two advertising staff members walk along the line of sitting bodies and pass comment on the models’ appearance. As she leaves the building, Fonda’s Bree Daniels is literally small, but that doesn’t mean it is without a figurative dimension. In such an aesthetic approach Pakula can make the person insignificant within the frame, but not irrelevant within the story.

Where there are other filmmakers well-known for their technical prowess and indifference to characterisation like Brian De Palma and Ridley Scott, Pakula is a director interested in the indifference of the modern world to the individual, and tries to find a form in which to register the problem. For example, in the scene where Bree leaves the advertising agency, we notice she is wearing colours that match the looming grey exterior. A bolder coloured wardrobe on Bree’s part would have made her more apparent next to the façade; the scale of the building and the greyness of Bree’s own clothing emphasise the smallness.

There is a certain apt irony to Pakula’s own career. Here was a man responsible for some of the most highly regarded films of the seventies, and yet who himself remained something of a figure in the shadows. Unlike Scorsese, Altman and Ashby, with their much quoted problems with hash, coke and alcohol, Pakula was a behind the scenes auteur, someone who could shape the material to his own ends but didn’t expect to appear in the newspapers because of it. Describing his approach to filmmaking as oblique, he adds “I think it has to do with my own nature.” (The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers.) “I like trying to do things which work on many levels, because I think it is terribly important to give an audience a lot of things they may not get as well those they will, so that the film finally does take on a texture and is not just simplistic communication.” This might all sound like preciousness were it not for the subject matter in his key works; it could seem like no more than a filmmaker aspiring to literary indirectness, to symbolism, metaphor and simile. But Pakula was grappling with the problem of communication where there weren’t simply power structures lording over people with great visibility; but power structures looming with much invisibility. Here the tools of metaphor can prove extremely useful as Pakula wonders how we live with the architecture we’re at the mercy of. As Robert Hughes says in his book, The Shock of the New, “building is the art we live; it is the social art par excellence, the carapace of political fantasy, the exoskeleton of one’s economic dreams.” However, as Pakula explores, it is also potentially the metaphorical site of our nightmares. It may be made in the image of man’s glory, but it can often feel as though its purpose is to diminish one’s stature.

We can notice this in The Parallax View, where Warren Beatty’s character gives his height as six feet two but is obviously shrunk by the six hundred and seven foot Seattle Space Needle. Beatty is a big man, but Pakula dwarfs him because he isn’t interested generally in anthropocentric conflicts that play on an individual’s height, but on the verticals of a building’s immensity. In All The President’s Men this comes in the scene where Woodward and Bernstein are looking through information at the Library of Congress and Pakula offers a series of over-head shots as the characters become ever smaller. Commenting on the shot, the writers of the book Masters of Light, Dennis Schaefer and Larry Salvato, interviewing Gordon Willis, reckon it was “a needless trick” – “it was overkill”. Willis defends it by saying “that was tour de force. The basis of it was the needle-in-the-haystack theme”. It was basically a metaphoric image, and if we’re on the side of Willis and Pakula it is because the image is integrated within a wider metaphorical language that Pakula adopts at various moments throughout the film. On several occasions Pakula offers either overhead shots of cars moving along the road, or shows us a medium close up of a car before pulling back and showing the smallness of the car within the context of the city. Thus his metaphoric images aren’t random stabs at creating abstract meaning, a meaning that can be summed up in the simile it was like looking for a needle in a haystack as the camera shows the characters very diminishingly present in the shot. No, the metaphor has a sustained, and of course very real presence. The building exists, and Pakula captures its enormousness. Thus the combination of sustained metaphor as Pakula explores the problem of powerful institutions, and the fact that he films these institutions, removes the arbitrariness from the metaphorical.

Pakula’s key works came out at a time when semiotics was central to cinematic discussion. Through the work of Christian Metz, Umberto Eco, Roland Barthes, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and the British magazine Screen, film was being talked about as a language, with words like metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and index being regularly thrown around to explore how film is like a language. But while finally any film can be analysed using semiotics, it is perhaps only really useful when it becomes an integrated semiology, when it becomes a means of making sense of a specific filmmaker’s work, or a specific film. After all we can notice synecdoche at play in any number of film noirs, as the high heels are the part that stands for the femme fatale whole, or we can note that the cigars the bosses in Eisenstein’s Strike smoke are an index of their wealth. This is useful but perhaps too general, as the viewer abstracts direct meaning with an abstract term. However, if we try to explore Pakula’s seventies films using loosely semiotic language, it is to find not what is semiotically general, but specific to Pakula’s work, to what gives it its singularity.

In Klute, The Parallax View and All the President’s Men Pakula plays on height and distance. He is interested not so much in the short-hand semiotics evident in a film noir or Strike, but a kind of long-hand semiotics that de-contextualises situations and spaces, making us ponder over their meaning. In one of the pre-credit sequences in Klute, Pakula shows various characters at dinner and then cuts to an empty chair that would seem to indicate a short passage of time, perhaps later in the evening, but that we actually find out indicates a period of weeks or longer. The party’s host has disappeared, and his wife is being questioned. The short-hand shot of an empty chair gives way to the long-hand musing over its emptiness as it allows for several meanings to be created simultaneously. It does indicate the passage of time, but it also stretches that time passage and alludes to the emptiness of the wife’s life without her husband, as well as making us wonder about a mise-en-scene where the frame is not about following people’s actions, but observing as readily empty spaces. Just afterwards, as we notice Pakula frame the space in a medium long shot that takes in the four characters in the room – the detective, a police officer who was also the missing man’s best friend, the wife and a work colleague of her husband – the distance indicates both the wife’s emptiness in this now semi-empty frame filmed at enough distance to indicate the spaces between characters, and a troubling sense of portent. If Pakula’s work is of significance, it isn’t because he uses semiotics, but in how he makes semiotics his own, and how the abstract cannot be readily defined but becomes permeatingly significant.

The pre-credit scenes in Klute work in some ways as a classic prologue. It sets the story in motion as the police officer friend, John Klute, goes off to New York to investigate the husband’s disappearance and to interview a prostitute it is believed he occasionally slept with. This is the narrative side of the prologue, but there is also the audio-spatial elements that create the film’s specific aesthetic climate. As Pakula offers surprising framings, as he shows the four characters aloof to each other and the camera distance aloof to them, so he creates a sense of visual expectation that the film will view the events it shows us at one remove. We could conclude this is Pakula taking off from some of the shot choices of a European cinema of alienation, and most especially Antonioni, and say reductively that he is looking to symbolize people’s distance from each other. But even if this is partly the case, what matters is not the short-hand symbolism, but the sustained metaphor. Just as we proposed in All the President’s Men that Pakula integrated the overhead shots of The Library of Congress into an overall visual metaphor, so in Klute the problem of communication and loneliness has to be extended over the entire film. Thus though the shots of the four characters discussing the missing husband in the prologue are important as images of distance, Pakula will search out others throughout the film to sustain the metaphor. Whether it is the moment when the camera reverses away from Bree Daniels as she lies in bed as the phone rings early in the film, or at the end when Bree and Klute leave the now empty apartment that she had been living in, as Pakula once again captures the space’s depths over its width, we feel that emptiness is central to the film’s theme, content and form.

Hovering over this emptiness in Klute is corporate impersonality. Both the missing husband and the colleague that turns out to have been his murderer, work for a big company, and the film captures the vertigo of power structures in a shot of the work colleague as he stands by the window of the corporate building and then the camera, viewing from across the way near the top of a building, tilts downwards to show the heights literal and figurative that corporate men can reach. This is like an inversion of the shot we’ve already mentioned where Bree sits with others in the bottom third of the frame as she waits to find out whether she will be given work by the ad agency. Bree is at the bottom of the corporate ladder, as a lowly and hopeful model; the murderer near the top as he realises at the same time that if his actions are discovered his plunge will be vertiginous. And this is exactly what happens to him when at the end of the film, rather than getting captured or shot by Klute, he decides to jump through a glass window to his death: a toxic Icarus whose pride and hubris leads to the inevitable fall. Thus distance and height give purpose and meaning to a film that isn’t simply a personal drama contained by a thriller plot (as Kael proposes), but a personal drama contained by an impersonal form that frets over that impersonality.

In The Parallax View it is as though Pakula wanted to keep the personal to the minimum and emphasise the nefarious forces. Here aloofness and vertigo almost entirely dwarf the central character Frady (Beatty) as he has almost no identity, and even takes on another persona while trying to infiltrate a corporation of assassins. When critics including Peter Lev and David Thomson have had problems with the film they’ve couched it in human terms. Lev as we’ve noted talks about one scene which he feels is so truncated that we lack a firm sense of character, while Thomson in Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes reckons “we do not feel for Frady…we neither care about his loss nor believe that the world of the film can be saved.” Thomson more astutely notes though that the film is a “totalitarian theorem”, and Pakula might be less interested in Frady, than intrigued by the idea of an everyman caught in systems so much greater than his own personal agency. Back story or general psychology would be irrelevant here; for Pakula doesn’t explore a character’s fight against a system, so much as a system’s inexorable and more or less impersonal fight against man. Pakula, in an interview quoted in American Cinema of the Seventies, talked about the difference between the corporate modernity he focuses upon, and the newspaper office Frady works out of, with its veteran editor. This is the small-scale newspaper containing entrenched values: “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”, and was being replaced by corporate America. When Lev utilises this quote, he says while Frady lacks a personality, the newspaper office “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”. This is where the conflict would seem to reside in The Parallax View. Not between a character and the corporate world, but the older values against newer ones, with the older ones embodied in certain places and spaces that are giving way to a different environment, one that may in turn be creating different, problematic value systems. This might not be the buildings’ intended aims, but it could easily be the result. In The Shock of the New, Hughes again talks of the problem with much modern architecture and that “without complete respect for the body as it is, and for social memory as it stands, there is no such thing as a workable or humane architecture.”

What would seem to interest Pakula, in this architecture of power trilogy, is the very problem of human agency versus architectural prowess. If in All the President’s Men, political fairness won a wary victory, and if  in Klute personal feeling managed the same, in The Parallax View the winner would seem to be modern architecture versus the traditional office – it is partly what gives pathos to the scene where Frady finds his editor dead even though neither character has been clearly sketched. It is the death of a value system we’re responding to over an individual’s demise and Frady losing a friend. Thus whether the film possesses a degree of optimism or an all-encompassing despair, what counts is that Pakula has tried to find a form for architectural presence in cinema. To attack Pakula for his thriller devices or his weak characterisation would seem to miss the point of this achievement. Pakula’s later work, with the possible exception of 1981’s Rollover, which dealt with financial markets, and maybe the law film Presumed Innocent, from 1990, ‘lacked’ this architectural distinctiveness just as some would claim his three key films ‘lacked’ a strong human presence. But what we’ve explored here is what Pakula’s trilogy possesses and what freshness comes out of this perspective on modern buildings and modern lives.


©Tony McKibbin