The Paranoia of Style
Few filmmakers of the seventies did more to play up space and ostensibly play down character than Alan J. Pakula. In his three ‘architecture of power” films, Klute, The Parallax View and All the President’s Men, Pakula and his cinematographer Gordon Willis constantly found ways to show the fragility of the individual against the enormity, anonymity or significance of buildings, offices and general spaces. Perhaps more than any American filmmaker (Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, Malick, Penn) who had been influenced by the major directors from Europe of the previous decade – Godard, Truffaut, Bunuel, Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni and Resnais – Pakula transformed his influences without readily showing signs of homage, and this may have had as much to do with his cameraman Willis as with Pakula. As Michael Chapman who was Willis’s assistant on a dozen films, including Klute, says, Willis wasn’t really a film buff. “Anything you might think he was influenced by, Raoul Coutard [Godard’s cameraman], he had never seen. He simply made it up.” (Visions of Light) While there is undeniably a similar sense of framing characters within spaces that we find in Antonioni films like The Eclipse and The Red Desert, the framing serves very different ends. Antonioni was interested in the problem of communication in all its manifestations; Pakula is fascinated much more by issues of power and its potential anonymity, and the subsequent anonymity of those caught within it as they try to wrestle some sense of self from the environment.
In Pakula’s key works of the decade we can notice how the individual becomes framed not as a character dictating space, but a figure operating within an expansive image usually much greater than their own agency. Near the beginning of The Parallax View, we might miss Warren Beatty’s character hovering around at the bottom of the Seattle Space Tower as a politician is interviewed in the relative foreground, with Beatty standing with numerous others in the background. In the third last shot of All the President’s Men, Pakula slowly zooms in on Nixon swearing faithfully on television that he will execute the office of the President of the United States, while in the background of the shot we notice in different planes, and with a pillar between them, Woodward and Bernstein tapping away as they type up the story that will reveal the Watergate scandal. Sure, Pakula momentarily dissolves into a medium close up of them typing, but the meaning comes from the previous shot that was so much more than establishing screen space: these are small figures taking on corruption so enormous it will bring the down the President.
In Klute, the first we see of Jane Fonda’s central character, Bree Daniels, is when she auditions for a cosmetics commercial, and the initial image is of a row of models sitting in medium long shot while the models occupy the bottom third of the frame as Pakula captures the impersonality of the proceedings. Even when the film moves to the close-up, Fonda is one in a line of models that the camera passes as the people auditioning the girls talk about their merits or otherwise, as they walk past the sitting women. The girls are shot from the interviewers’ midriff as the camera captures the appropriate position for sitting but an inappropriate position for the interviewers as we see only part of their bodies – as if in an Antonioni deframing – though they are the ones with the power and who are doing most of the talking. What interests Pakula here is the vulnerability of the individual against a structure much greater than that self, and Klute explores this paradoxically through the point of view of the corporation at one remove. The people with power whom we only partially see here are not individually powerful, but corporately powerful, and hence we need see only part of their bodies: their power lies elsewhere
What the film manages to do, long before it reveals to us that a corporate figure has been shadowing Bree Daniels, is to impress upon us that there is an impersonal perspective at work, and to show Daniels’ attempt to wrestle some personality from this impersonal environment as we follow the emotionally vulnerable Bree and her developing relationship with John Klute (Donald Sutherland). Klute is the friend of the man, Tom Gruneman, we see has gone missing at the beginning of the film. Klute reckons he may be found in Manhattan, believing perhaps that Bree, a former prostitute trying to escape the profession, once knew him. Yet if the film is interesting it isn’t so much because of the investigation. It is more the directorial investigation that takes place beyond the narrative legwork. Though Klute has been hired to investigate his missing friend, it is a fellow corporate employee, Pete Cable, who turns out to be guilty. Cable was a man who would often spend time in New York and not only met up with prostitutes but, it’s surmised, also beat them up, and who also hired Klute to stop the FBI from continuing to investigate the case. But isn’t there a feeling of the camera itself investigating also, that we sense this visual violation in the camerawork, this sense that Bree’s every action is shadowed, and so any narrative denouement is weak next to the form’s power?
This formal investigation beyond the story could seem layering enough, but we also have Bree’s frequent voice-over, as we get snatches of dialogue extending beyond her scenes with her psychiatrist. Indeed, it is the intimacy of the voice-over and the aloofness of the camera style that makes Klute such an intriguing work. Klute is interested in character, but from a place beyond ready and immediate identification as the voice-over creates an intimacy that is countered by the camerawork. Where the later The Parallax View and All the President’s Men would give us very little information about the characters’ private life, here that private life is given form in the voice-over, and visual detail in the observant shots of Bree’s apartment, no matter if the latter carry far less agency than the former. Bree insists that she’s only living where she lives because she’s no longer regularly working as a prostitute; she cannot afford any more to live on Park Avenue. Also, as with most Pakula spaces, the camera shoots from positions that indicate more mise-en-scene, more screen space ,than would seem necessary for the story’s telling and the character’s movements. For example in one scene it’s just after midnight and the phone rings, and after the person refuses to speak, we see Bree sitting up in bed as she’s once again received a menacingly silent phone call. She puts the phone down and the camera slowly zooms back as Bree looks petrified, and the phone rings once again. Up to a point this is the hoary cliché of the woman alone, and it is true, as Pauline Kael notes in her review of the film in The New Yorker, Michael Small’s “horror-tingle music emphasizes the fancy excess of the camerawork”. But is this because Pakula wants to utilise thriller devices, or is it that by using thriller possibilities there lies another terror greater than the thrills?
It is clear there are at least two moments where the film seems to be going for ‘a startle effect’, to use Robert Baird’s useful term to describe immediate shock. One is when we realize Cable is in New York and following Bree; the other when Bree comes face to face with him in a garment factory after the workers have all left. Pakula seems to have earned the thrills by creating terror greater than the requirements of those of the thriller. Now Kael believes that the “movie founders, however, on the conventions of the murder mystery…Pakula is as much aware of the problem of square conventions as Altman” and reckons where Altman throws as many of them out as possible; “Pakula compromises by trying to soft-pedal them.” Kael here is wise to the clichés but was of course writing her article before Pakula had gone on to make The Parallax View and All the President’s Men, and reckons the camerawork, “the shadows and the angles are as silly as a fright wig.”
Kael insists they’re serving a thriller plot and getting in the way of the character study. We’re proposing this was Pakula and Willis’s move in the direction of examining the architecture of power cinematically. Where Kael sees the space indicating thriller devices; hindsight suggests that Pakula was looking for ways to utilise the thriller to capture a bigger problem than the one narrative explores. Here we have the character study contained within murder mystery conventions, but these conventions contained again by the architectural compositions that indicate power lies not only with individuals, but beyond them. Such an approach justifies the combination of the personal aspect (Bree’s comments during her psychoanalytic sessions on the soundtrack) and the distance evident in the use of shadow, distance, deframings and scale.
But how exactly do these cinematic elements create an abstract architecture of power, a sense of disempowerment on the part of the individual? We may notice in the shot/counter-shots that where most films work from over the shoulder of one character while the character opposite talks, Pakula often blurs the character listening and creates an ominous partial framing as a consequence. For example in the scene early in the film between Bree and her psychoanalyst where the analyst is shot more or less from Bree’s point of view, so that Bree isn’t at all in the frame as the psychoanalyst talks, the shots on Bree are from behind the analyst, and the analyst is blurred and blocks a section of the image: it gives us the sense not simply of a shot/counter-shot exchange with one character talking to another, but of an exchange that looks almost as if it is being observed by a third party.
But such a device while it gives off a feeling of unease, is merely one element, and a quite straightforward one, of a higher and wider threat. More interesting is one shot showing Cable in his corporate high rise, and the camera, filming across from the building, offers a vertiginous plunge as it watches Cable standing looking out of the window. The usual low-angle on the corporate building becomes the high angle plunge, but while in the former the scale of the building is acknowledged, in the latter it is acknowledged within a sense of precipitousness: Pakula captures the power at work more readily through the high angle over the traditional low one.
Though in the making-of-documentary that accompanies the DVD of the film, Fonda and Donald Sutherland talked about the freedom they would have as actors, improvising on the location before the camera set ups were arranged, it as though such an approach allows for the intimacy of the drama Kael so admires, and the aloof perspective the camera offers. When Bree visits a client whom she performs and strips for but doesn’t have sex with, the camera moves from an interior shot to an exterior shot that once again gives us a sense of aloof observation; and even at the end of the film the optimistic conclusion seems tempered as much by Pakula and Willis’s framing as from Bree’s comments shortly before in a voice-over conversation with her therapist. As she explains how different they are, and can’t see herself “darning socks and doing all that”, she also admits that she’s likely to miss Klute. In the closing shot of the film (interrupted by a close up as Bree answers the phone in her now empty apartment) we see the bare flat and Bree and Klute preparing to leave. But the distanced framing may make us wonder how well they’ll survive if they are going off to live together.
What is interesting about Pakula’s key films is that whether the ending is optimistic (as it would seem to be here and in All the President’s Men), or pessimistic, as in The Parallax View, where the leading character is killed at the end of the film, there is nevertheless in all three a pessimism in the form that comes from the plaintive framing. There is a feeling that the individual doesn’t dictate their existence, but that there is always a broader frame to our lives than the one that we believe we are offering it. This is perhaps the case of many a paranoiac mindset, where everything is a plot, but in Pakula’s work the conspiratorial plot is secondary to the conspiratorial style. Just as we can say there can be optimism in the content yet an overriding pessimism in the form, so we can add that Pakula isn’t especially interested in conspiracy, but in the sort of complex visual spaces that dwarf the human. Whether we’re thinking of a series of overhead shots in All the President’s Men where Woodward and Bernstein work their way through thousands of cards to find some vital information in the national library, and that shows the enormity of their task in the enormity of the building, or the moment here as Bree walks away from the corporate building where she has auditioned for the cosmetics commercial, and is tiny next to the architecturally specific location, a person becomes ever smaller in the architecture of power.
At one moment in the early exchange with her analyst, she tries to explain why she couldn’t quite give up turning tricks. She says that it gives her control over her life, and it makes her feel like she isn’t alone. As the film a couple of scenes earlier has shown that auditioning for a cosmetics commercial feels an awful lot like an act of prostitution where your body parts are commented upon and your use value discussed, one might infer that sleeping with a client is no more, if no less, prostituting an action.
There is a paradox to the film then that Klute explores as initially Bree seems to have become a prostitute not least so that she could have some control over her life in a world of employment (of corporations be they media oriented or financial) that gives little space to the individual. At least as a prostitute she is more or less self-employed. Yet by the end of the film she seems to have found warmth and comfort with the detective who originally arrived in New York to investigate her involvement in the death of one of Klute’s best friends even as Pakula contains that hope within a querying form. Kael is right to say that the relationship between Klute and Bree Daniels is at the heart of the film, but we can’t pretend it isn’t framed by a decidedly chilly soul, and it is the chilly soul that made Pakula a director of some interest in the seventies.
© Tony McKibbn