A DARK 70s AMERIKA:
(Decoy) Politics has always been practiced by means of various techniques of deception. From the writings of Machievelli to the stage-managed Labour election victory the pursuit of power is that which is only ostensibly visible. What it shows is not necessarily what it is and, concomitant with this, the commonly assumed concept of power is itself a strategic decoy: the state may administer and manage capitalism, it may promote throughout society a notion of individual control through the guise of a primeminister or president, but, as speeches blur into journalism and the surface rituals move into docu-drama, power thrives through a process of inter-locking practices that, in themselves, are never perceived as being powerful at all. Not knowing power as a social-practice can mean that those who seek to make tangible its gradients are always in the thrall of a power that takes on occult and ever receding dimensions. This in turn is incohately communicated to the less powerful as the disappearance of power as a social-fact, a practice, a technique which they can also wield. The business of politics takes place behind such screens and makes buggings, law-breaking and assassinations a sanctifiable means of maintaining an unsuspected status quo when all other institutional means of silencing, deflection, removal and quietism have failed.
(Preamble) Through the Watergate scandal of the mid 70s it became common knowledge that a president of the United States (Nixon) had authorised the bugging of his political opponents and that the American intelligence sector had been revealed as using illegal practices. When this was taken together with the ever-persisting disquiet over the spate of 60s political assassinations, the ever continuing war in Vietnam and other various acts of governmental hypocrisy it created a sense of unease as to who was actually in control and for what purposes. During this period sociologists charted a rising distrust both of the American government and of corporate business practices, going as far as to suggest that the country was undergoing a ‘legitimacy crisis’. The American writer, Raymond Federman, described that suddenly there was a general distrust of the official discourse whether spoken, written or televised. For indeed, if the content of history can be manipulated by the mass media, if television and newspaper can falsify or justify historical facts, then the unequivocal relation between the real and the imaginary disappears. The clear line that separates fact from fiction is blurred (1). Though successive governments have worked to re-legitimise themselves –scapegoating always sacrificable politicians rather than admitting that government itself was on trial, suppression of information, the proffering of monetarist ideology in the late 70s etc — the effects of this mistrust of government and business were explored in various movies made on the fringes of Hollywood. These movies still carry a poignancy not tightly-specific to the events that inspired them and not reliant for their attraction on the nostalgics of re-cyclable decades. Whether called conspiracy movies, neo-noir, political-thrillers or paranoid films, movies like The Parallax View, Chinatown, The Conversation and Cutters Way are united through the way that they raise doubts in the viewer, causing a questioning distrust of authority and movements ‘out’ towards an apprehension of “fictional reality”. These movies imbue their characters with varying degrees of ‘knowledge’ and put them in positions of having to search, uncover and ultimately challenge themselves. They create a communicable sense of unease linked to a gnawing portrayal that all is not transparently in its place; that there is always an unknown and unsuspected element. Para-politics, hidden agendas, corruption. These movies open up what Federman has described as a distarticulation of the official discourse in its relation with the individual (2).
(Klute) Between 1971 and 1976 Alan J Pakula made a sequence of films that were dubbed at the time as a ‘paranoid trilogy’. Mostly self-produced this trilogy tapped into the liminal cinematic space between art-house and general-release that had been opened up by the success of non-studio pictures like Easy Rider. Though celebrated later as a period which yielded directors like Altman, Coppola, Scorcese and Spielberg what is noticeable is that 70s movies, like those of Pakula, sidestepped box-office formulas to work the nuances of film, creating complex ‘popular’ spaces that problematise an overly compliant audience acceptance of the powerful mythic dimensions of the official discourse. Mainstream cinema is not free from this discourse as similar power-wielding dimensions could well include the preponderance in cinema of self-regulated heroicism, the demarkation of clear boundaries, the anticipation of responsible resolution and the expectation of a trustworthy, direct communication. With Pakula most of these dimensions are brought into focus in the first film of the trilogy, Klute. This has Jane Fonda as a call-girl whose experience of a “freak-trick” and her being the subject of a stalking makes her the central figure in Donald Sutherland’s investigation into the whereabouts of a missing corporate executive. At the outset there is a blurring of whether the stalker is one and the same as the absconded executive and the “freak trick” but this play on ‘normal subjectification’ is heightened by the discontinuties of the Fonda character. Her professional orgasms, her therapy sessions and actress ambitions, her constant verbal manouvering parallel the gradual unfurling of the identity of the stalker: Cabel, a high-level colleague of the missing executive who has been violently unhinged by his association with Fonda and seeks to further indulge yet cover-over his violent sexual fantasies.Throughout Klute the key re-occuring motif is a tape recording of Fonda’s voice intoning a make-believe scenario that entices Cabel to fulfill his desires. Whilst playing with the seeminlgy rigid divide between fact and fantasy, enacted and real, this tape recording is also used to associate Cabel to the corporate world when, at one point, Pakula films the tape recorder on a large office desk and has the camera track-away from the desk to a slow, descending shot of a glass-walled office building. Though this allows metaphorical connections between profit and death and between ambition and madness (Cabel has killed the missing executive so as to protect himself within the corporation), Pakula does not simply present the corporate-killer as the eptiome of power in a good against evil struggle. This boundary-marker is breached by the portrayal of the shifting relationship between Fonda and Sutherland, their evasions, positionings and ruses that go to form the power-play of their relationship. Furthermore, Pakula’s camerawork also invokes a sense of power as coming from the ‘outside’: horizontal shots, tightly-framed composition, silhouette and shadow all evoke the unsettling, claustrophobia of a twisting, untrusting urban world. To audiences of the day the most disturbing facet of Klute was its psycho-sexual theme: that the killer has had some deep-seated sex and death drive opened and that Fonda’s taped voiceover is intentionally aimed at the viewer, points in the direction of a monstrous sexual repression which is both administered and ignored by the wider society. The inability and unwillingness to confront such darkness does have its echos in the film’s denouement where Cable has Fonda listen to a murder captured on tape and even though Sutherland ‘saves’ Fonda the lasting ‘resolution’ of Klute seems to reside in those screams that cut through the viewer as a painful crying-out of the hidden costs and submerged violence necessary for powerful discourses to remain legitimate.
(Parallax) Before Paluka made All the Presidents Men, a film which centres directly on the Watergate debacle, he made The Parallax View, a film which expands the ‘private’ scenario of Klute into a wider social setting and which makes links between government, corporations and the assassinations of the 60s at the same time that it self-reflexively draws further attention to the power-wielding manipulations inherent in maintsream cinema. The film casts Warren Beatty as the ambitious and third-rate journalist, Joe Frady, who comes to learn that behind a political assassination lies the work of an organisation called the Parallax Corporation. Though at first sceptical it takes the murder of his increasingly fraught journalist friend to convince him and he becomes determined to discover more up to the point that he goes undercover, adopting a double cover of two aliases, and enlists in the Parallax Corporation to “discover who’s behind it”. However, his success in infiltration is such that he is manipulated by the Corporation, drawn to the site of a second assassination and set up as the murderer when he is only its witness. The Frady character, as well as the audience, never discover who is behind the Corporation and in terms of the film, the knowledge of the existence of the corporation dies with Frady: his sympathetic editor, the only other character sharing Frady’s fragile knowledge, is ‘removed’ like all those who witnessed the first assassination. Although the object of Frady’s search is to find out from where the Parallax Corporation emanates, the origins of its direction, its centre, Pakula gives viewers enough scope in the slipstream of Frady’s findings to enable them to make their own discoveries about the practices of a legitimated power.
(ParaState) The Parallax Corporation is an assassination bureau which, in exchange for a “finders-fee”, hires misfits, drop-outs and people with aggressive tendencies. This business activity is suggestive of a capitalistic harnessing of the ‘waste’ produce that capitalism itself has socially-produced in that the Parallax Corporation creates a surplus value from those who are exterior to systems of valorisation. That it makes its profits from something as relatively minor as “fees” suggests that the number of companies that it provides services for are numerous and this is further borne out by the Corporation’s offices being set in a glass-walled building where it shares a suite alongside gas, petroleum and other ‘respectable’ companies. Those who work for the Parallax Corporation as its manager-agents are the ubiquitous and anonymous men-in-suits who cajole the anomalous characters with the idealistic rhetoric of ‘self-worth’ before manipulating and ultimately brainwashing them. The Corporation’s access to information is wide and that Frady’s army service records can be checked up on is suggestive of link-ups with the military and other state departments. Their lines of command extend into rural and coastal areas and this geographic dispersion is further extended when we learn that the section of the Parallax Corporation that Frady deals with is titled “Western Division”. What Pakula seems to be suggesting is a more overt, multi-layered metaphoric link between business and murder than the one only hinted at in Klute: Frady’s assignment from the Parallax Corporation is with a group called the “Manufacturers Intelligence Group”, and the absence, in the film, of state operatives, except for the politician victims and a ‘staged’ commission, is indicative of a rising sense of corporate and multi-national power out-manoeuvring that of the state. Alternatively, there is room to surmise the existence of a close alliance between corporations and sectors of the state which is aiming to act as a surrogate power behind that of the ‘official’ state. Something like the P2 organisation in the Italy of the 80s. More complex, even, is the hint in the film of a more labyrinthine network of power, manipulation and para-politics when Frady states: “there’s no reason to suspect any government agency are in on it, or if they were, that they knew they were in on it”. This could be read as a cop-out, absolving the narrative presence of the FBI or CIA, or as a dramatic device to enhance the menace of the Parallax Corporation, but it could also be an indication of the means by which power can incur a complicit involvement: the infiltration and re-direction of bureaucratic organisations where operatives or tribunes, shielded from direct knowledge of objectives, carry out compartmentalised tasks unaware of their wider causation or possible results. Conformity to other aims than those that are made explicit.
(It Is What It Isn’t) This latter point is one way that the viewer can read into the relevance of Pakula’s governmental commission scenario which meets after both assassinations to deliver the same verdict: the assassinations were the work of lone gunmen and that there is no evidence of a wider conspiracy. Could it be that the members of this commission are nothing more than figureheads who deliver a verdict that has been decided on elsewhere? How accurate and incisive were the investigations? Who carried them out? That Pakula deliberately changes the commission personnel when they meet in the film’s final scene and has them stress that there will be no questions does lead the viewer to suspect that they know very little about these assassinations beyond the pre-written statement their spokesman reads out and that they are simply performing their role as replaceable functionaries. In these scenes legitimated authority reveals itself as that which has to cover-over its lack of knowledge by a formal, yet revealing, overcompensation: the inflectionless and business-like tone has all the self-confidence of power and carries with it the pronunciation of a hierarchic positioning. The expert pronounces on the basis of the place that his speciality has won for him (3). The symmetry and balance of Pakula’s shot makes of the Commission an imposing tableau that conforms to the rules of cinematic perspective and, when, contrasted to his more frequent use of unconventional frame division, seems to be implying a linkage between the authority of the commission and the more mainstream expectations of visual narration. Both are charged with the remit of guidance. However, that the viewer knows differently from the Commission immediately sets up a critical distance from the state, fraying the multiple threads that connect the viewer to such unquestioning positions of conformity. But this awareness on the part of the viewer; the change in commission personnel; their repeated acceptance of the same findings; their drawing attention to conspiracy in a brief, sparsely worded and controlled address simply in order to deny the existence of a conspiracy; their refusal to field questions may just as well lead the viewer to suspect that the commission is in collusion with the Parallax Corporation. Whether or not The Parallax View intends to portray that the Commission, and by extension the state, are knowingly implicated in the assassinations is maybe not the point. To try to come down on one side or the other is to replicate Frady’s thinking, to be seduced into the blind alley of discovering a truth, a hard and fast certainty when really such a form of understanding, itself a power-wielding effect of mainstream narrative cinema, is a socially-sanctioned myth that by-passes dynamical investigation and closes off more areas than it opens up. Frady’s journalistic naivete, his single-mindedness, make his behaviour predictable and therefore manipulatable. In an interview Pakula has stated that people with power are never taken at face value. They must always be seen whole and clear for what they are not (4) and it is through these short Commission scenes that Pakula seems to explicitly bring to light the ambiguity of power, the simultaneity of its specific and general wielding and most of all that it is a practice that alters in accordance to context and the position from which it is viewed. Parallaxed.
(Whole American Hero) So The Parallax View inveigles its viewers not only into an awareness of a barbarous capitalism trading on death, of the possibility of an actually-existing civil-war amidst the political class and the twilight shades of power but also into the micro-politics of generalised dissemblance and secretiveness that raises the question of viewers having information withheld from them. The denial, in the movie, of such transparency and knowledge, which Frady seeks and which viewers, used to conventional narrative films of resolution and enlightenment, expect, is one of the covert political effects of the movie. A parallax view is that which implies observation from a different position and though this is reflected in the movie by Frady being first the watcher and then the watched, the movie seems to be asking its viewers to alter their position, to become less compliant and manipulatable, to ‘suspend their belief’. In one crux exchange in the movie, Frady’s journalist friend, shortly to be the victim of a murder made to appear like a suicide, is discussing what they witnessed at the first assassination. She says “we saw something up there… something else”, she is convinced of the existence of something she has not directly perceived and adds, after Frady’s scepticism, “you mean if you don’t see it, it’s not there”. These highly resonant words which play on observation, belief, perception and the limits of the knowable imply both a physical and psychical positioning. If you put yourself in another ‘place’ then you may perceive something else. Parallaxed. This is to some extent what Pakula does with the Frady character as well as with the viewer and although the latter experience a shift from following the film, first, from Frady’s ‘point-of-view’ and then from the vantage points of the Parallax Corporation it is also a shift that implies the parallaxing of the viewer by drawing attention to the artful presence of Pakula as director. With Frady, however, his access to the other places from which to investigate this “something else” is made possible by his playing with identity, going undercover. He adopts aliases to aid him in a re-positioning that gives him another perspective. From his FBI associate he gets the double cover which authenticates him when he is eventually researched by the Parallax Corporation. He has something to hide. But this isn’t all. In order to infiltrate the Corporation in the first place he decides to complete a stolen Parallax Corporation questionnaire and to this end he visits a university psychology unit specialising in the study of violent criminality and the professor there has a murderer fill in the answers on his behalf. For the Parallax Corporation Frady is, at least initially, this murderer. At another juncture Frady is reported as being killed in a fake boating accident and he asks his editor-friend to print an obituary as a means of extending his cover and inhabiting more intimately the aliases he has assumed. Towards the end of the film Frady, thinking he is manipulating the Parallax Corporation, adopts the name of his Parallax contact so as to buy time, re-direct an assassin, and get closer to the Parallax office suite (the perceived centre of his investigation which with its very close proximity to the site of the final assassination may even be fake as well!). By establishing these ambiguous possibilities Pakula is deliberately accentuating this shifting sense of identity. Frady always introduces himself with bogus names, he is requested to “tell those people who you really are” and at one point asks “which name shall I use”. Such angles to the Frady character become integral to the wider covering-over and obscuring of information. Throughout the movie there is both a bewildering array of names and of nameless characters that either pepper the soundtrack or appear for short periods. Often characters are shrouded with a deliberate dissemblance: the sheriff, who invents a fake character called ‘Buster’ to lure Frady to the dam, is presented as friendly and co-operative, throwing Frady sandwiches before pulling a gun on him and revealing himself as a Parallax agent. Likewise Frady’s pursuit of Austin Tucker, a surviving witness from the first assassination, is held up as a key aspect of Frady’s investigation; a path towards solution. It is Tucker who can clear this up both for Frady and the viewer. But Frady meets Tucker too soon in the film and the disappointment the viewer feels, the foiling of resolution, quickly transfers to doubts about whether Tucker too is not implicated. These are further means by which Pakula takes the viewer into a position of being critical not only of the conventions and manipulations of cinematic characterisation, but, by extension, the construction of what is known as the ‘self’. Parallaxed again.
(Blind Faith) If, at the level of characterisation the viewer seems always to be in a position of not knowing what is going on, Pakula’s serving up to us the opportunity to embrace our own ignorance, to actually be witness to society’s opaque spaces is furthered in his deliberate obscuring of our vision and his overlaying of speech that all adds up to confronting us with the ideological securities that mainstream cinematic narratives are always offering. The initial interview with the first assassination victim is overlaid with crowd noise of a passing parade; fragments can be heard, like the politician being acclaimed as an ‘ideal father’. An FBI contact of Frady’s describes himself as a “non ex-agent” and his descriptions of FBI operations, of the murderous PEP pill and his agreement to get Frady a double alias are all obscured by the noise of a miniature train ride. A fracas with a Sheriff who tries to kill Frady is prefaced by speech muffled with the sound of a warning siren and the voluminous gush of water pouring through the sluice-gates of a damn. There are many scenes where characters are talking but the viewer cannot hear them at all, at times they are filmed, their mouths moving, behind glass at others their faces fill a screen but the soundtrack is silent. Often Pakula has action occur in the middle-distance of a shot rendering the viewer uncertain as to what is happening, or he uses off-centre framing as when a Parallax representative awaits Frady’s return and all we can see are his shiney shoes twitching in the extreme lower right of the frame. Pakula has stressed that his aim of exploring some views of the world as it is seen through a distorting glass had the intention of pointing out more intensely certain realities (5) yet there are times when the viewer is offered a clarity that is itself only apparently clear. Key here are the wide open spaces of the final assassination set in the Los Angeles Convention Centre, where filming from the suspended platforms of the lighting-rig, Pakula depicts rehearsal for Senator Hammond’s political rally. The meticulous organisation of the event, the sychronisation of the band to the politicians speech and the neat, ordering of tables with red, white and blue cloths over them are all captured by Pakula in what he described as a “cheerful, open” way. What we are seeing should be the antithesis of the shadowy world of the Parallax Corporation, a world unimplicated in power, but Pakula does not allow the viewer to unproblematically fall back on the dualism of good and evil for the rehearsal are sinisterised, their clarity is marred by Pakula’s subtle exposition of political chicanery. Substance moves into representation. Image is the yardstick into which everything must be crammed. Cheerleaders hold up the separate cards that go to make-up hoarding sized mosaics of the faces of politicians and the kaleidescopic motion throws up Hammond’s face in association with that of George Washington; the Senator eyes up an Ayran looking youth before lighting up a cigar as a tape recording of his speech booms out over the spaces of the Conference Centre. The cued applause and laughter seems disassociated as, lacking the necessary crowds as cover, it reveals itself as part of an illusory apparatus. The viewer, being party to the process behind making the political-event, comes to see it as the organisation of appearences for political effect, a fictional reality which resonates with Pakula’s exposure of his own film-making techniques as a similarly powerful mythic dimension.
(Subliminal Seduction) If these cinematic techniques point towards a constructed reality and play with the viewers perception of what they know then this is further offset by Pakula’s insinuating into the film the presence of subliminal techniques that raise the issue of the viewer perceiving more than he or she is consciously aware of. Other implications than those that are verbally revealed. The most obvious example of this is the sequence when Frady undergoes the Parallax Corporation’s visual test. Made up of stills interspersed with text (Love-Mother-Father-Me-Home-Country-God) the sequence starts off with conventional connections until it speeds up into an associational confusion. That Pakula has the visual test fill the entire screen has the effect of putting the viewer through the test as well. We do not see Frady watching. We see what he sees, but the possibility that this is a ‘point-of-view-shot’ is probelmatised by the fact that Frady is offered-up for observation in another middle-distance shot, both before and after the sequence. Though the visual test works in a visually disjunctive way rather than having any ‘real’ psychological effect, its fiction creates an awareness of the unconscious registering of information and raises the spectre of auto-suggestion and brainwashing both as a para-political device and as a more commom-a-garden facet of cultural experience. Through the montage Pakula is hoping to portray the manipulative practices of the Parallax Corporation but in the slipstream he alerts the viewer to the presence of the subliminal emotional intensification (6) which he aims for in his filmmaking.One of the most common of these is Pakula’s rapid insertion of brief sequences that are more like stills than moving images: when Frady returns to the Parallax Corporation we briefly see a besuited man watching him. Pakula also uses the ‘empty-frame’ device he had previously used in Klute and throughout the Conference Centre assassination sequence Pakula seems to be communicating to the viewer by means of an indirect, non-scripted expression: a still of an empty booth… minutes later there are three Parallax operatives in it… then two; the rear entrance is shown…a car passes by… minutes later the politician enters and an electric door slowly slides shut, blocking out the moving traffic.Yet to these subliminals can be added further sequences of the film where the viewers are, to paraphrase Pakula “unaware what is happening to them”. In amongst these we can place the rapid jump cuts, reversals and on one occasion, before the bullet hits Senator Hammond, a shudder-shot. So to could be added Pakula’s use of a constantly changing spatial composition, the way he places characters in space and juxtaposes them against architecture. What runs through this interest in subliminals is the predominace of visual expression over that of dialogue and it is through these means that Pakula alerts the viewer to the powerful role of visual and narrative subliminals in mainstream film-making. Again, these are techniques that are revealed as tools that the director and his team are operating but rather than seeing them simplistically as a means towards manipulation, Pakula uses such paths towards unconscious connection as a way to avoid pedantry and to heighten the viewers possible-perception in a way which he sees as similar to music and painting.
(Political Shift) The dense packing of such resonant material within the movie, its constant revealing of fissures in the official discourse makes the reading of comments from some leftist film journalists of the time an astonishing experience. The feted samizdat film-journal Jump Cut stated in 1974 that the movie failed to provide any viably political substance (7) and Ryan and Kellner in their book Camera Politica come up with some equally disturbing if more thought-out and revealing criticisms. One of these is their bemoaning that The Parallax View presents no recognisable enemy and that it lacks any possible sympathetic identification with character. Both these criticisms hinge on their belief that for a political film to be effective it must both induct the audience into its point of view (8) and have personable qualities. This may be the case with archetypal political movies like Battle of Algiers, but I hope to have shown that The Parallax View works in a much more sophisticated way than Pontecevaro’s social-realism. It is political to the degree that Kafka’s writings are political; it may not be brazenly committed to a cause but it nonetheless effects us in the way that it shifts our perceptions of an increasingly imbricated political and cultural power whilst opening up the terrain for an understanding of power as a practice. That the Parallax Corporation are anonymous, and deliberately enhanced as such, can only lead us into a recognition of the permeability of power; that oppressive force does not emanate from one source as opposed to another. Power is unidentifiable in the sense that it is everywhere and everyone at once, seeking legitimation in all dimensions including the mythic. That the movie offers us only the minutest amount to identify with similarly severs the ties viewers ‘naturally’ feel towards identification with character-models, of adopting stances that are didactically laid on for them to inhabit. The Parallax View allows for an auto-generation of such stances in that it is, on a first viewing, so confusing and problematical that the identificatory process is diverted from being “induced” to either being auto-created by the viewers or rejected altogether. Pakula’s refusal to participate in another expression of the ‘American Hero Myth’ is also enhanced by the flat-characterisation and muted script that encourages the viewer to see beyond the fabulations and emotional manipulations of characterisation into the ever-emanating networks of power that the movie brings into focus.
Ryan & Kellner are much like Frady himself. They are interested in the appearance of what is already understood as ‘commitment’ and ‘success’. For them power lies in the most obvious images and is always visible. It is personifiable enough to be opposed effectively. The supposed pessimism of the movie can only effect those who want to see an individual triumph or who want to be bolstered by the safety of rhetorics and imaginary victories as if these were to teach a less ambiguous ‘lesson’ that would make a complex social-situation become utterly and totalitarianly transparent. Where perhaps The Parallax View causes a shift is in its revelation of the varying apparatuses of power: from the existence of a para-state through the problematic status of ‘knowledge’ and the increasingly distorted line between fact and fiction to the techniques of subjectification inherent in the manipulations of mainstream film making. In its afterglow it shows us the ineffectuality of an opposition that cannot accurately apprehend the wide-ranging remit of power, an opposition that doesn’t move enough to be able to see power moving through each of us differently each time… Pakula has the camera slowly track towards the Commission, he places Frady in an intimate meeting with the Parallax agent… viewers turn to each other with questioning expressions… what is suggested is the way that power proceeds by means of contiguity and not by height and farawayness (9).
(Potere Occulto) A nuclear power group will fight against an oil group, even though both are owned by the same state and what is more are dialectically united by their interest in maintaining high oil process on the world market. Each particular industry’s security service combats the threat of sabotage, while organising it, when necessary, against their rivals… Secrets are subject to secret surveillance. Thus each of these organisations, all subtly united around the executives of raison d’Etat, aspires to its own private hegemony of meaning. For meaning has been lost along with an identifiable centre (10).
1) Raymond Federman: Critifiction – Post Modern Essays, SUNY Press 1993, p25.
2) Raymond Federman: ibid, p23.
3) Michel de Certeau: The Practice of Everyday Life, University of Ca