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Michael Small, Film Music’s Prince of Paranoia

Michael Small, Film Music’s Prince of Paranoia

For about five minutes in Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View, the lights go down on our movie and we’re shown another—an increasingly deranged propaganda short designed to suss out whether someone is Parallax material. That is to say, an assassin. This stunning experimental short film is accompanied—driven, even—by a dangerously catchy piece by the film’s composer, Michael Small.

It starts out like a ’70s folk-rock tune, an oboe melody rambling down a country road of acoustic guitar. It could almost be the instrumental of a Carpenters song, with a male voice—reportedly Small’s own—humming along. As the imagery turns overtly patriotic, the music does too, with flag-waving brass harmonies and snare drums. Then the film gives way to an epileptic barrage of violent, sexual, and racist images juxtaposed with the calm country photos. The music morphs into a cross between Burt Bacharach–style light pop and acid rock, lit with wailing organ and electric guitar, as it underscores pictures of Nazis, Thor, BDSM men with their asses out, red meat, the White House, the KKK, breasts, bullets, and graves. Finally, the music returns to that reassuring male voice humming over Americana strings and  photos of a smiling boy, a pastoral countryside, and the founding fathers. The Parallax Test concludes on the word “Happiness.”

“It’s one of the best-edited sequences in cinematic history,” says Sam Esmail, who used several pieces of Small’s film music in Mr. Robot and Homecoming, his small-screen nods to ’70s paranoia thrillers. “It is relentless in its anxiety, but because the music is melodic, it’s also seductive.”

Small and Pakula

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