John Schlesinger, R.I.P.

Over the last couple of days, the McQuain Home Cinematheque featured: Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View and Vittorio de Sica’s Umberto D..

I’d seen the Pakula film before, but it’s still startlingly good. Not quite up to Klute, which I cherish and is definitely the best Pakula film I’ve seen. There are a few questionable spots (there’s a so-so car chase that’s alarmingly similar to Dukes of Hazzard, though that show came five years later and was superficially ripping off Pakula, not, thank goodness, the other way around), but it has this great air of creeping political dread and disillusionment, which was more than appropriate for the Nixon years; Pakula’s next project was All the President’s Men.

A shaggy, intriguingly vacant Warren Beatty stars as a journalist who witnesses a political murder; three years later, all those who saw it are being picked off. He decides to investigate, and comes upon a mysterious corporation called Parallax, which recruits, screens, and employs sociopaths as hired assassins. It’s not Pakula’s best film, but it has the best scene in any of his films (yes, it is sort of borrowed from A Clockwork Orange, though it has a distinctly different, much more probing, much less satirical feel; it was also blatantly ripped off and watered down by David Fincher in the not-so-exquisite The Game): Beatty’s character goes through the screening process at Parallax, which involves viewing a slide show with musical accompaniment as his reactions are electronically read.

My attention was first called to this scene (and, indeed, the film itself) by Robert Scholes in his book, Semiotics and Interpretation. He wrote:

”...the intrepid protagonist, who is trying to infiltrate the conspiracy, faces a futuristic personality test. To qualify as an apprentice assassin he must demonstrate that he has the emotional profile of an extremely psychotic individual. The test consists of his being strapped into an electronic chair which monitors his reactions while he is shown slides calculated to produce strong emotional effects upon him: authority figures, sex objects, flags, scenes of violence and brutality, mom-type ladies, homosexuals, apple pie, Captain America- all in a rapid sequence of repetitions and juxtapositions. Our protagonist, to pass the test, must try to generate the appropriate involuntary reactions for a paranoid psychopath, and we, in our own chairs watching the same slides, are inevitably drawn to assist him empathetically by trying to force the appropriate reactions out of our own nervous systems. The result is a kind of mind-blowing sensory overload, a short-circuiting of a narrativity asked ot accomplish too much too fast.”

De Sica’s film is- no surprise here- overwhelmingly simple but very moving; it epitomizes the neorealist themes and style that de Sica helped make famous a few years before Umberto with The Bicycle Thief. In postwar Italy, an elderly pensioner struggles to make it, but he's thwarted at every turn by the new socioeconomic and political realities of his country and with only his extraordinarily companionable little dog to make his life worthwhile. De Sica really splits the hair dividing tenderness and sentimentality, but he doesn’t ever push it too far; his style saves it from becoming maudlin. With its minutely detailed attention to the supposedly mundane quotidian milieu, it also clearly anticipates some of my favorite films that followed it, from the English Kitchen-sink films of the sixties to Todd Haynes’s Safe.

My friend Jamie S. Rich’s imagination was set brilliantly alight by Luke Haines’s indispensable Das Capital; you can experience his fanciful flight here.
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