I had an interesting Facebook exchange the other day with a friend of mine. He'd posted a still from the 1974 conspiracy thriller The Parallax View, commenting that it's an apt movie to watch during these shaky and uncertain times. And no doubt, Alan Pakula's film is a remarkable one. Of all the 70's era paranoia movies, none are more disorienting. The extended film within a film, where Warren Beatty sits and watches an array of ever more violent and extreme imagery flash before him, is itself one of the most unsettling sequences I can remember seeing from a mainstream Hollywood movie. The final minutes of the film attain an almost Kafkaesque status, where the murkiness of the cinematography matches the utter darkness of the political situation being presented. And then we get a finality that comments on the action we've just seen; it suggests that the public will never ever know what truly happened, nor should it. Will the committee that investigated the assassination at issue take questions from the press? No. What happened and why will go into the vaults of secret history forever.
End of movie.
It's a nightmare scenario, but it's one that reflects its own era. We're talking the 1970's and the period of Richard Nixon. For one thing, scary as the movie becomes, it accomplishes this in large part because the Parallax Corporation (the group that masterminds what goes on in the story) is so competent. They can do cover ups, and with organizations like this one running things behind the scenes, how can the public ever learn what shenanigans are actually going on? The true sources of American power are impregnable, and the people who compose these upper echelons can close ranks and present a united front against anyone foolish enough to try to infiltrate their sanctum.
None of this reflects the world we live in today, and to be honest, I can't think of a film or TV series I've seen yet that does reflect it. Of course, we haven't had our current president that long. At the same time, ridiculous as he is, he alone isn't responsible for the state of things. So how precisely do you capture the essence of right now? To start with, you have to grapple with social media, with all that entails from all involved. There's the fragmented newsscape, the different news sources telling conflicting narratives. During the 70's, if you said, basically, that there is one reality and we can agree on what it is though we disagree on what to do about it, you wouldn't have been met with scorn or incredulity. Now we've got the ongoing battles over what exactly the nature of the reality under discussion is. Then there's the certain knowledge of shady deals and private talks and what have to be betrayals of the homeland, but unlike in The Parallax View, there are leaks coming from everywhere. Indeed, the revelations spring from nowhere more, apparently, than from the central point of government power, the White House. Competence? Can you imagine? What a concept! It's portrayed in the shadow forces working in The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor and many other 70's political thrillers, but it's something that, by any objective standard (though in 2017, quite clearly, there are no objective standards), is difficult to perceive in those operating the levers of power today.
Anyhow, at some point, we'll start getting the films and TV shows that capture the current peculiar environment. I look forward to these works, and I wonder what the predominant tone will be. The 70's paranoia films, with one or two exceptions (like 1979's Winter Kills) don't often try to be funny. Through their tense and suspenseful plots, they generally aim to provoke anxiety. It's not like anxiety doesn't exist anymore, but it seems inconceivable to me that a person could make a 1970's conspiracy thriller equivalent for now and not have loads of absurdity and comedy. Albeit, it might be comedy of the darkest sort, where the smile on your face, when the joke ends, turns into a painful rictus.
Let's see what comes.