I first saw The Parallax View in 1993 at the tender age of 22. It aired on AMC (American Movie Classics) before the channel became a commercialized heap of stink with a misguided sense of the term classic. I knew little of the film, but it was being shown in its original ultra-wide aspect ratio that Alan J. Pakula had so beautifully painted, and I was ready to give it a shot. I admired every aspect of the film from the tight script to the disturbing imagery of the Parallax Test to the shocking finale, and most of all, it was Michael Small’s score that stuck to me like tree sap. I saw the film umpteen times after that, and I often dreamed of the score some day being released, though at that time it seemed an impossible dream.
Some of you know what it’s like to hunger for a score for decades. Though you can watch the film to hear it, there is still an unsatisfied desire to listen to it in its purest form, free of any attachments aside from the music itself. The Parallax View has been one of those scores for me. I felt the same about The Star Chamber which I first saw in 1984 when I was 13. I was never able to get that glorious theme out of my head, and every time I watched the film, I quietly winced at the lack of a soundtrack. ‘Twas these two scores that were probably my earliest Holy Snails (We’re all tired of the grail-word thing right? I mean how many grails can there be? There can, however, be a lot of Holy Snails). The Parallax View and The Star Chamber were my introduction to Michael Small before I had seen Klute or Marathon Man or Rollover. They were burned deeply into my musical consciousness, but I had only my cranial jukebox to revisit them outside of the films. And then the sky opened…
When I first heard that Paramount was on board for opening up their classic film score vaults, The Parallax View was among the first titles that rushed to my greedy mind. When FSM announced its release, I was elated and so relieved that others in the world admired this score as I did. Here then are my thoughts on the music, and if gushing with sickening admiration of a score isn’t your bag, baby, you might wanna move on to less biased blathering. Otherwise, strap one on and have a read…
The Parallax View (1974); Composer – Michael Small; Director – Alan J. Pakula
38 – Commission and Main Title
Ahhh, there it is, that unforgettable Smallian pulse accompanied by those delicious pings of dissonance that give one a sense of imbalance. At last the dream of hearing this theme on CD is realized, and as I’ve said before, having is indeed far more fulfilling than wanting. As I listen to this, one of my favorite film score themes of all time, I’m envisioning the imagery that accompanied it and remembering how essential the music was to setting and solidifying the tone of this American classic. Alexander Kaplan’s liner notes describe the theme as strangely patriotic, and I can’t think of a more fitting description. Michael Small was a genius at the musical mind f**k. He could so easily take you from one extreme to another, sometimes within seconds or simultaneously, ensuring a consistent state of uneasiness as you try to determine whether the music is triumphant or dooming until you realize that it’s both and more, and you are forever stuck in the middle (which is a dandy place to be in this case).
Most of us know that this score (and film) are highly regarded as one of the strongest of the ‘70s and, for me, all time. We also know that the style, orchestration and pulse that drives the main theme was a trendsetter and would serve as a foundational base for some of Small’s future themes, which were also brilliant and frequently imitated by other composers. I let loose with a hearty LOL when I read the bit about John Schlesinger telling Small to shamelessly rip himself off when composing the score to Marathon Man. Szell’s theme from that film is clearly inspired by The Parallax View, as is the main theme from The Star Chamber. I find no trouble with this; each theme may spring from a specific and familiar birth point, but they are all distinctly their own and very much tied to the identities of each individual film for which they were composed. And frankly, I love all three of them; always have, always will, and these themes are the backbone of each score. Clearly this was known by the directors and editors of each film because Small’s themes are usually reprised at key moments in the stories, the points when the audience gasps at a revelation or a shocking truth. The themes served as an aural indicator of danger, fear, paranoia, and sadness. And what is most interesting to me about these three themes is that, though they are dark and doomful, there is a layer of heroism and triumph (maybe not so much in Szell’s theme, but you get the point). Alexander Kaplan described the theme from The Parallax View as pseudo-patriotic, and again I say, his choice of words is spot on.
One sign that a theme has been optimally effective is this: you come out of a movie and you’ve got a wonderful theme in your head that you’ll never forget. A few years go by until you see the movie again, and you realize that the theme you thought was used in the movie many times was actually used far less often than your memory recalled. In this case, I believe the theme from The Parallax View was only used three or four times, yet when I think about the movie, that theme is prevalent at the top, as if it were used in nearly every scene. That’s theme-lust right there.
Note of interest: though not on the soundtrack, this theme is reprised during a scene late in the film involving Hume Cronyn’s character and an unplanned nap. I would have to screen the film again, but it sounded like perhaps a shortened version of the main title with no variation.
39 – Morgue
And here’s the first variation of the main title when Warren Beatty’s character of Joe Frady observes the body of a fallen colleague. As I just said above, here’s an example of a key moment in which the theme kicks in and provokes uneasiness in the viewer. It was a brilliant transition from the previous scene, and I remember when I saw it the first time, I found the quick cut to be quite a shock because it was so abrupt and the point was made like a slap in the face or a blast of cold water. What a perfect way to make clear to Frady and the audience that something’s ever so fishy in this situation that he previously thought was little more than delusional ranting.
40 – Sheriff’s House
Michael Small always had a way with flutes that I’ve found to be completely unique to his compositional voice. In this case, it’s yer basic dissonant tweeting flutes to give you a creepy and unsettling feeling. In other cues, those same flutes will be used to different effect, but with the same deep impact. Particularly with bass flutes, Small put them to remarkable use and it made me respect the flute far more than I ever did, an instrument that is not a favorite of mine, mostly because it’s often used for predictable sentimental effect. But Small makes them distinctly menacing, and though other composers have used flutes and bass flutes to communicate dark moods, none of them sound like Small’s flutes. None.
41 – Car Chase
I think this cue will provide a welcomed surprise to those unfamiliar with the film and score. It’s vastly different than any other cue in the score and demonstrates Small’s limitless versatility. With that fiddle uh-fiddlin’ and that ‘70s pop rhythm uh-poppin’, ya just can’t help but smile and let out a little “Yeeeeeah!” I wish Small had composed scores for a few balls-out action films. That would have been some incredible work to behold. This cue is loads of fun, and it’s another one I can’t get beyond without playing at least three times in a row.
42 – Testing Center
More dissonance that include bass flutes, a bass clarinet and a bit of pulse. I fear that those unfamiliar with the film could find this material tedious and uninspiring. Shame on you. Go watch the movie and then listen to this cue ten times.
43 – Out to Sea
This cue is absolute bliss for me, and I just can’t stop playing it. Even when watching the film, I tend to replay the scene a few times because the combined music and imagery is just beautiful. Kaplan described this cue as bleak, and while it’s a somewhat mournful piece, there’s something strangely freeing about it that is far from bleak. There’s a soothing tranquility in the sea that the music effectively communicates, and if even only for a brief moment amongst fear, leaving the dock and heading out into the water in the sunlight brings with it a sense of peace. This cue is a prime example of how even 52 seconds of music can be a fully realized work of treasured art (it just means you have to play it a few times as you sit there yearning for more).
44 – Slide of Art / Austin Sleeps
How ‘bout some echoing brass to accompany your nap, Austin? Some repeated notes to fly around your head like an annoying mosquito? Honestly, how can a man sleep when this creepy get-under-your-skin music is playing, hmmm? The most beauteous part of this cue is when the Out to Sea motif is reprised, which leads the viewer astray for a bit before another key shock moment occurs in the film. The music and the imagery in this sequence just couldn’t have been any better.
45 – Parallax Test
Get ready for some serious gushing, and take this straight to the bank: this cue is without question one of the best pieces of film music ever composed. "This is not a matter of taste. This is not a matter of opinion. I can prove this on a home computer." (Bill Hicks, 1991)
The multitude of moods and emotions that The Parallax Test explores is staggering, and it’s so intricately orchestrated and expressed that it has to be heard at least a dozen times to fully appreciate it. Of course, the piece is intended to go with the Parallax film full of images meant to provoke reactions in the test subject. But interestingly, whether seeing the images or not seeing the images, the music has the same effective power. It’s Americana; it’s aggressive militaristic percussion; it’s blaring organs that alternate from being hip to subtly scary; it’s pop-ish and then majestic within seconds. It’s a living music entity that grows and evolves like a life. When listening to it in or out of context, it’s virtually impossible not to get hooked by it, hanging on every note, wondering where it’s going to go next while your emotions are being simultaneously pulled in multiple directions. And don’t tell me that this cue is “dated” or “sooooo ‘70s” or “cheesy caca”. No, no, no. Wrong. It’s a masterpiece, and I don’t mind saying that when the organ comes in and that funky Hendrix-like bit begins, I’m smitten beyond belief. By that point, Michael Small coulda cut off one of my fingers and fed it to me, and I would have mindlessly nodded with thanks and asked for ketchup as I’m consumed by the spell of his notes. M’kay, maybe that was too much information there.
46 – Art in Cafeteria / Suitcase Bomb
As many times as I’ve seen The Parallax View, which is probably more times than I’ve gotten haircuts in my life, I honestly never realized that there is a strong Hitchcockian element in play. It is this sequence in which Joe Frady trails a Parallax assassin who is in the process of planting a suitcase bomb on a plane. It’s a 4-minute sequence with no dialogue; just images and music, tension, and many long shots of one character following another, which was often a method of filmmaking Hitchcock used with such creative precision. By eliminating dialogue and close-ups and stepping back into the sky to look down and around these events, the viewer gets a sense that these sort of bad behaviors are going on all around us, silently, unknown by the uninformed. We’re not meant to get an intimate look at these goings-on. We’re meant to see it from a tree’s eye view, and we needn’t hear dialogue to know what is going on and being so effectively communicated by imagery and music. It’s an exquisite, tense, haunting cue that hits the spot just right.
47 – Gunmen Search
A nice little slice of doom with more of those Smallian bass flute trills that I love so much. I wonder if I could make a ringtone out of those flutes.
48 – Joe’s Final Run
Small makes effective use of his patriotic flutes with his off-center two-note pings and rising strings that tell us something big is about to happen. Those strings lift like a light slowly brightening, which is ideal for the shots that occur in this sequence. The intensity builds, the pitch rises, and though I might be full of doody when I say this, I think even if I hadn’t seen the film, from this music I would likely interpret that somebody was running toward something, that a triumphant salvation was just ahead in the distance. And then those triumphant strings so easily shift to shrieking defeat in a moment that surely made heads turn in 1974. It still makes my head turn. In fact, it spins a few revolutions.
49 – End Title
I’m no fan of oompa-oompa marching band music. Seriously. I avoid it like undercooked pork. It’s likely because I spent some time at USC and got deathly sick of hearing the USC Trojan Marching Band practicing far too often within earshot. But here, Small has transcended what we might hear at a sporting event and made it both haunting and strangely enjoyable. An uninformed listener might’nt know whether he should be happily slapping his knee or looking at the speakers with his head turned sideways like a dog reacting to unfamiliar shrill noises. Again I tip my keyboard to Mr. Kaplan who described this cue as triumphantly perverse. Damn he’s good.
Eternal gratitude goes out to LK and his FSM crew for having the good taste and sense to release Michael Small's magnificent score, and for giving us this privilege of enjoying it for the rest of our lifetimes.
We’ll travel back to 1985 and revisit a Jimmy Horner action score with a whole lotta muscle and face paint, and I’ll share with you how a tale of simple human generosity and kindness allowed me the privilege to own … Commando!
Keep spinning, scorophiliacs…
DSS (aka Allardyce)