Paranoia films such All the President’s Men (1976, Alan J. Pakula) and The Parallax View (1974, Alan J. Pakula) dispels the illusion of the American dream by exposing people in power, for All the President’s Men is shows a dramatised account of the watergate scandal and for The Parallax View the film displays how a big corporation can manipulate the American dream and remove opposition for their own benefit.
These conspiratorial films borrow conventions off other sub-genres such as the detective story and film noir, these films then proceed to play around with the three main characters and there conventions within those stories, the three main characters being the detective, the victim, and the criminal. The paranoia genre then takes these characters and their altered structure from a recognisable but fictional world into one that feels more real as a consequences allows this world to be one with real implications and impact. This gives films such as All the President’s Men and The Parallax View a feeling of realism but not like that of classical Hollywood realism. Hollywood realism makes the audience believe in the world and the characters within that world which paranoia films also do however in Hollywood realism that world can be based upon our world but is for the most part completely fictional it can even include real cities but reality is suspended within the narrative of the story. The paranoia films challenge the classical Hollywood rules and conventions for reality by often playing around with narrative structure, and leading the protagonist down a rabbit hole of conspiracy that expose the underbelly of corporate America. It also plays around with how characters, as previously mentioned, are structured there are no longer just fictional individuals affected but a collective of group. The victim isn’t just one person as these film focus on the affect of the conspiracy and how it affects the people of America a lot of the time, even the narrative involving the criminal isn’t just a person or couple of people like that in other film in the detective or film noir genre but instead a multi national or national organisation with unimaginable resources, power and influence.
Normally crime films in the genre such as that of film Noir usual have a point where the narrative comes to a conclusion and has closure by singling out the issues or the motive that fuelled the conspiracy or crime within the narrative but with paranoia films they challenge the idea of unravelling the mystery or solving the crime by going to the police or seeking out a kind of vigilante justice. This is because many of the paranoia films involve multinational corporation or the American government it’s self as the primary antagonist or criminal of the movie, meaning the detectives can’t go to any high authorities because they are also implicated in the conspiracy that is taking place. Leaving the detectives is a state of hyper paranoia the more they dig and uncover about the conspiracy, this relates to similar feeling the American public had about the most powerful people and organisation during the 1970’s as more was reviewed about how this late capitalist America worked the more conspiracy and paranoia spread amongst the people.
“I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth. Banks are going bust. Shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We know things are bad – worse than bad. They’re crazy.” – ‘Howard Beale”,’ Network (1976)
This quote from the Network I think highly demonstrates the feeling and attitudes many Americans had toward the postmodern landscape they found themselves in. Fredric Jameson believes that late capitalism is fuelled by the postmodern businesses in America that took shape around the 1970’s with the rise of wall street as well as globalism and the rise in consumerism.
America was also at the high of the cold war era during the 1970’s and paranoia within its citizens was at an all time high of ‘reds under the bed’ which had the American pubic in fear that anyone could be a communist spy, not only that fear of communism pushed America into the Vietnam war. National pride was hurt after the Vietnam war came to an end in 1975, the all powerful United States army had been defeated and the American public felt betrayed by their leaders. Conspiracy films were born through a growing sense of distrust in the corporate and political class because of the events previously mentioned as well as other factors like the Nixon Watergate scandal which All The President Men is based on.
In 1972 multiple robberies happened in the Democratic National Committee and arrests were made. This happened in the watergate complex and from this the watergate scandal was born. The people arrested were connected to President Nixon and his re-election, they were putting bugs in the phones of the opposing party as were stealing private Democratic National Committee documents. President Nixon and his team took extensive measures to cover up the crime but his involvement in the scandal was reviled and in 1974 Nixon resigned from office.
This infamous moment in American politics changed the discourse of politics in the county, most of the general public already distrusted the most powerful and now questions about the politician in power began to arise and people wanted to know what other things were being hidden from them behind the closed doors of the private sector. The presidency was also given a more critical view by the public as people questioned if the most powerful man in American could be trusted, adding fuel to the fire of its already paranoid citizenship.
Also the early 1960’s saw the assassination of President Kennedy by the time it came to the 1970’s the narrative idea of assassinations of political or other powerful public figures becomes a very established feature in conspiracy and paranoia films and how these assassinations affected the public that might have accidentally witnessed something to do with the conspiracy. The narrative would suddenly thrust the witness into a world where nothing in their personal lives world be private or safe. For the American audience the concept of this invasion of privacy with Project MINARET, which was a investigation by the CIA and FBI into anyone who voiced opinions against the Vietnam war. Plus the assassinations of political and public figure such as President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Malcom X are links to dark nostalgia of their recent past.
The genre of conspiracy and paranoia films have within them aspects that allow viewing this kind of late capitalism that Fredrick Jameson talks about and its multinational control through the lens of a non-narrative structure throughout the 1970’s. As capitalism itself can be view as a conspiracy, the conspiracy that defines a postmodern age. This is because it is brought about by multinational corporation that hold no loyalty to people and only works within its own self interest. This postmodern late capitalist mentality works to undermine and work against the working and middle class of American citizens in order to become more multinational and push postmodern globalisation, this can be viewed as the ultimate conspiracy an entity that is not tied to one person or group. Only growing in power and influence perpetuating its own postmodern capitalist agenda.
These conspiracy films can also be linked to the decline in the power of Hollywood realism as touched on previously, Hollywood realism makes the audience believe in the world and the characters within that world and the conspiracy films challenge the classical Hollywood rules by often playing around with narrative structure and character tropes. However the traditional form of Hollywood realism was replaced with the paranoia conspiracy film because it spoke to the disenfranchised people of America that no longer trusted the elites in power these paranoia films became a form of realism beyond that of the classical Hollywood format. The conspiracy films became a form of social discord between the audience and the reality of the political climate of America, in a way these films became democratic social realism.
Hollywood realism often puts normal people in unlikely and often remarkable situations, however it portrayed these stories with famous actors and actresses and almost always pushed stereotypes within these characters. This realism that Hollywood tried to portray always had unforeseen challenges for the protagonists and underlying morals within the images. The realism within the paranoia films resembles that of Italian neorealism more than that of the classical Hollywood format, for example Bicycle Thieves
(1948, Vittorio De Sica) a classic example of Italian neorealism show the spaces it’s in with a deep focus, highlighting the reality of the conditions of the city and everyday life. While the Italian directors of neorealism wanted to show the hardship of life after the second world war the directors of the paranoia film wanted to show the reality and state of the degrading trust between the American people and the corporations and government. Which is why it is so important to focus just as much on the innocent bystander as the protagonist of the film, as the innocent bystander represents the people of America. A great example of this is in the opening conversation scene in The Conversation (1974, Francis Ford Coppola) where we see the camera overlooking a public park and then zoom and track a mime before following a man in a grey coat who is under surveillance. During the surveillance of the conversation the camera allows the main couple to get lost in the crowd of people in the park.
The Conversation challenges the ideas of postmodernism within the paranoia and conspiracy films. The Conversation is a clear example of ‘surveillance cinema’ this type of cinema was coined by Catherine Zimmer. Within surveillance cinema Catherine argues that “surveillance technologies and practices attempt to organise the global such that the world system and images of that system appear now so completely aligned that the distance between the literal and the figurative becomes difficult to conceptualise.”
The surveillance filled era of America in the 1970’s and within The Conversation lays the foundation for a world filled with paranoia of who might be listening and or watching you. The lead protagonist Harry Caul in The Conversation is a prime example of this kind of paranoia, even though his job is that of a surveillance expert he struggles to find comfort in the privacy of his own life becoming obsessed with security of that privacy.
He later discovers that the conversation he is working on is wrapped up in a conspiracy that has resulted in multiple murders. As a result of this he thinks his privacy has been compromised and rips apart his flat trying desperately to find any surveillance devices that might be listening to him. He is entrapped by a postmodern society and his entrapment is brought on him by hisself. This form of Harry’s self inflicted postmodernism entrapment can be understood through the panoptic effect, the panoptic effect is a system of total surveillance from one point of total power, the panopticon. That point of surveillance is like that that Harry works but seeing the scale and power of the panopticon drives him mad with the obsession of constant surveillance.
During the screening scene in The Parallax View it resembles the screening of ultra violence in A Clockwork Orange (1971, Stanley Kubrick) these scenes both show how images can be used to manipulate thought in order to control. The narrative of these films is interrupted by still images and in the case of The Parallax View the corporation tries to establish a sense of family, god, and country against the enemy. However these images and the clear message the images portray become in the first half of the screening becomes muddled when the tempo of the music increases, and the images become quite reflective on America by showing images of American presidents like Nixon and Kennedy next to Hitler, Images of a Mother next to sexually explicit ones and Thor from the old marvel comics next to the image of a devil appearing right after a screen with text saying ME on it. The screen displaying me i believe is trying to dispel the idea of the all powerful individual and the American dream, that anyone can do anything and for the protagonist in The Parallax View save the world from evil like Thor. The Parallax View however doesn’t conform with the narrative that the protagonist an individual can save the world, in fact when he digs to deep he ends up dying at the hand of the parallax corporation assassin and framed for the murders, thus perpetuating the conspiracy. There are also religious imagery next to material possessions and money. This sequence clearly is making a statement on the postmodern capitalist society that the America population find themselves in in the 1970’s and the jarring and disorientating affect of these images represent the schizophrenic paranoid mind of American society. The Parallax Corporation in The Parallax View and the test sequence it uses to hire political assassins I believe is supposed to partly represent either and or both the FBI or the CIA as both were part of many conspiracies in using different techniques to either control or hire people and were part of political assassination conspiracies including President Kennedy. In the aforementioned film the imagery used creates a narrative that promotes a reliable kind of realism.
The photographic stills comment more on the film’s narrative of paranoia that other paranoia films such as All the President’s Men. All the President’s Men situates itself within the grey scenic landscape of Washington, whereas The Parallax View has a greater verity of landscapes showing the reach of corporations and conspiracies.
All the President’s Men is a political film without being overly political by removing the politicians and laying out the conspiracy scandal from the beginning. The paranoia sets in when the CIA informant going by the code name ‘deep throat’ exposes information about the Nixonian bureaucracy to one of the journalists, he then becomes overly paranoid about being followed and watched by the government he is investigating.
The Nixon watergate scandal and the characteristics of the Nixon era are representative of a bygone era of American history like that of Classical Hollywood realism, the suspended belief in these systems has been broken and replaced by a sceptic paranoid realism. Hollywood realism unlike that of the realism in the paranoia film removes any moments of space. The space used in these paranoia film only heightens the sense of paranoia within the audience, these films also follow the protagonist at a distance making it fell like they are always being watched and followed. In All the President’s Men architecture is an important part of the narrative helping drive the atmosphere of the scenes, such as harsh lighting and expressive offices of the Washington Post, to the bureaucratic buildings in Washington. They deprive the audience of any natural space and all the usual background space of places like office buildings is brought to the foreground giving the film a more free flowing realism as we see not only the protagonists at work but the whole complex working giving the office an organic feeling. Classical Hollywood realism wouldn’t have this kind of deep focus but rather a shallow focus to keep the eyes of the spectator on the main characters and the reality of the world for these individual the narrative is portraying. The deep focus that paranoia and conspiracy films use is a form of realism that is in a way more democratic by creating a more naturalist form of realism that doesn’t dispel belief.
In conclusion Hollywood realism declined because of a growing sense of disbelief in the power of the individual to make change as that was not the reality the American public was seeing in regards to events that took place after the second world war up until the 1970’s. Thus the American dream that any individual can affect the world and narrative around them was shattered by seeing a rise in late capitalism and a growing sense of paranoia about the government and the power of multinational corporations. These feelings were then put into cinema in the form of the conspiracy and paranoia film, which in turn became a way to voice these feeling of distrust in a postmodern age. The reality that these films represented was truer to the American people, truer than that of the reality that Hollywood was representing. The reality that there are uncontrollable powers at work beyond the actions of any individual and a world that was filled with surveillance and conspiracy.