Archive for Robert Towne

A One-Way Ticket to Pakulaville

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2015 by dcairns


I watched THE PARALLAX VIEW, directed by Alan Pakula — excuse me, Alan *J* Pakula — because I figured it might serve as a surprise entry to Seventies Sci-Fi Week —

— one should always have Surprise Entries. I remember reading the line-up of a season of science fiction films programmed by David Cronenberg, and they were ALL surprise entries, from Robert Wise’s HELEN OF TROY (“Indistinguishable from FLASH GORDON” — nice try, but FLASH goes like a train — maybe SIGN OF THE CROSS would be a better fit) to TAXI DRIVER (“A better version of BLADE RUNNER than BLADE RUNNER.”)

— you see, I was remembering the Parallax Test scene and thought it was a movie about brainwashing, but I think that scene is probably just testing the subject’s emotional responses to words and images. It’s not the full Ludovico. To be a science-fiction film, the movie would have to take the speculations around Lee Harvey Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan and spin them into an elaborate speculative fiction. And the speculation would have to be based on altering present conditions. The Manchurian Candidate does this. It’s based on the way captured Americans were “brainwashed” — ie tortured into submission, in reality — during the Korean War, but it speculates that somebody could be mentally adjusted and become an unconscious assassin, a human bomb waiting for a post-hypnotic suggestion to trigger detonation. That phenomenon had never been witnessed — so far as we know — so the Condon book and Frankenheimer-Axelrod film could be termed sci-fi.


THE PARALLAX VIEW instead shows an organisation recruiting subjects who would make suitable lone gunmen, based on their psychological profiles, and also supplying patsies. No such organisation is known to exist — apart from possibly the CIA and a few organisations like it — but it certainly COULD exist. No adjustment of present social conditions or our understanding of scientific principles or our mastery of scientific techniques would be necessary for this film to come true.

Now I just scared myself.

The reason I misremembered the movie, which I have seen several times, is that it’s somehow elusive in the memory. And a little hard to concentrate on, as if the Hitchcockian, paranoid thriller were a slightly inapt match for Pakula’s offbeat, observational style (and we should maybe refer to the director as Pakula-Willis, since cinematographer Gordon Willis is such a central, essential contributor to Pakula’s best work). The script is by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple, with uncredited assist by Warren Beatty’s close buddy Robert Towne.


I had forgotten some good stuff — Hume Cronyn plays by far the best character (almost the only character, after Paula Prentiss’s one scene). I had forgotten there’s a hyperbolic barroom brawl that wouldn’t look out of place in a Hal Needham movie. I remembered that there was a car chase that’s similarly out-of-place. But the good action stuff is when Pakula defies genre by sitting the camera well back and calmly watching, chin resting on knuckles, as a human life is snuffed. The skirmish atop the Space Needle at the start, and the floundering fight in the flooding river, a huge damn venting a wall of spume in the background. The documentary distance adds a sense of reality, and therefore danger. (Obviously Pakula is doing this partly so he can cover up Beatty’s substitution by stunt double Craig Baxley — excuse me, Craig *R* Baxley — but the point is he makes a stylistic feature out of it.)

A different kind of distance afflicts our relationship with Warren Beatty’s character, a classic seventies alienated douchebag — Beatty cheerfully plays his more obnoxious traits to the hilt. The fact that he spends very little time in the movie with anyone he can relate to at all makes it a little hard to see him as other than an articulated shape. And I think the film has a hard job recovering from the Parallax Test in the middle, since it’s such a tour-de-force. We go from a montage masterpiece back into what is merely a very  good movie. And nobody seems to know who is responsible. Don Record did the title designs and seems to have had a role designing it. John W. Wheeler edited the movie as a whole. Did they collaborate or was the whole sequence farmed out to Record?

It reminds me of Chuck Braverman’s amazing opening sequence to SOYLENT GREEN, which IS a seventies sci-fi movie.

Now go do what you have to do.

The Sunday Intertitle: Tarzania

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , on January 15, 2012 by dcairns

Gorillas looked different in the 20s. That’s evolution for you.

I took a quick shufti at Episode 1 of SON OF TARZAN, on the basis that I’d never seen a silent movie serial apart from Fieuillade. I was glad I did!

Atypically, this not only starts the adventure rolling (Tarzan’s young son, raised as a Greystoke in England with no knowledge of his jungle heritage, is abducted back to the Dark Continent by evildoers) but gives us a whistle-stop summation of the whole mythos, from Tarzan’s birth to his return to claim his inheritance. Since, by chance, we’d just seen most of GREYSTOKE on TV, it was fascinating to compare the two…

There’s something just WRONG about this sentence.

Both, weirdly, deploy the unconvincing contrivance of having Lord G/Mr T meet an ape of his previous acquaintance in London, with much jolly running amuck ensuing. And both are as charmingly unsophisticated as one another, though the serial is notably more efficient and dynamic.

Famously, Robert Towne slaved on his GREYSTOKE script for years, before being forced to sell it. He was so appalled at the alterations made subsequently, that he took his name off it and credited it to his dog, P.H. Vazak, something he always felt bad about afterwards, on behalf of the dog. And by the way, how cool is it that Towne’s dog has initials? I’m going to make damn sure my next cat has initials. Our current one, Tasha, is mononomic, possessing only a title, “the Terrible,” and that’s purely honorary.

Apart from the apes who don’t belong to any recognized species and whose ears wobble about EXACTLY like rubber (how hard would that have been to fix, seriously?), GREYSTOKE has a startling lack of action (a nice Conradian bit with sinister Europeans fizzles out in an expensive conflagration rather than delivering the brutal set-to we were anticipating), but it does have Ralph Richardson’s penultimate perf, and Christopher Lambert is actually very good in it — he’s been looking at, and possibly even reading about, actual apes.

The serial takes itself much less seriously, and so is able to deliver the required entertainments of the genre: animal-punching, unconvincing jungle, and lots and lots of racism. A Tarzan without racism is unthinkable. I was struck by how “Black People,” in the intertitles, warrant capital letters, whereas “white people” do not. This might seem respectful, even a sign of inverse racism… I think probably it’s just a bit of exoticism — and exoticism is racism’s sexy sister.

“Me Tarzan! Hello! And rrraaarrgh!”