Frost/Christman: Paranoia and 1970s Cinema

Remembering when film was appropriately cynical about American democracy…

We present a film discussion between Amber A’Lee Frost and Matthew Christman, adapted from their hugely popular Frost/Christman podcast. Here, they examine the political implications of both contemporary and classic cinema. We join our hosts mid-conversation...

AF: …It seems to me that a lot of the podcast success that I’ve experienced is really just people grasping for any bit of driftwood in the horrifying and continual slow sink of America into the burning oceans of death. Culturally speaking, we are just taking advantage of a fire sale. We’re cleaning up in the ruins, the ever-growing ruins of America.

MC: And today we’re talking about another time in American history that was dominated by a sense of almost universal distrust in American political institutions, a time when everyone in America was basically on the same page that the people in charge were actively malicious, had no interest in the general good, and were covering up a host of unspeakable crimes. I am, of course, talking about the period directly after the Watergate scandal in the 1970s; a time that spawned an entire genre of films you can kind of call, loosely, conspiracy or paranoia thrillers. We’re going to talk about two films directed by the great Alan J. Pakula, who made a loose trilogy of films in the early 70’s known as the “Paranoia Trilogy.” The two we’re discussing today, Parallax View from 1974 and All the President’s Men from the bicentennial year of 1976, are among the most interesting of the “paranoia thriller” genre. We’re going to start with All the President’s Men because as we’ve said, Watergate is the primal scene here. It’s the event that spawned all of these other movies, spawned this generalized sense in American culture of suspicion and paranoia about government.

AF: Speaking of formative, I actually saw this for the first time in high school. I think my history teacher was hung over and popped in All the President’s Men. And I remember thinking it was so good, but for all the dumb high school reasons that you think a movie is good. First of all, it’s almost put together like noir. The shots of Deep Throat, they could be German Expressionist. There’s this hint of blue light across his eyes, and the dialogue at times can be really choppy. It’s more conversational than an actual noir, but for a nonfiction film, especially of that period, it’s extremely stylized. And I thought it was so cool, even though I really didn’t understand Watergate. I knew it was a break-in, but I didn’t know that it led to the exposure of a lot more coordinated corruption at the highest level. So it made this massive impression on me, but in a very high school way where I just ended up saying “freedom of the press is the cornerstone of our democracy.” Just this very immature interpretation of it because it’s just a cool movie.

MC: It’s very much an attempt to make heroes out of newsmen. It recapitulated noir but the hero is no longer a cop or a private detective, he’s a reporter. The reporters are the story even more than Nixon himself. Nixon stays in the background of All the President’s Men. He only appears onscreen on film during his inaugural address. The real star is the job of reporting, journalism.

AF: There was so much classically romantic treatment. They wanted it to look documentarian, but with these cool noir-y stylized things. It was so invested in creating these heroes, these great truth tellers. In fact, one of the big complaints by historians about the film is that it eliminated all of the other people who were involved. It has Ben Bradlee in it, but there was a team of people at the Post ensuring that this information came to light and supporting this highly controversial investigative work.

MC: And not just people from the Post, but other newspapers. There’s an interesting subplot in the movie about them being pissed that they didn’t get a particular scoop, and going to Miami to get it back. where you get the impression that what’s really driving them is much less some sort of abstract desire for the truth, but a competition with the New York Times.

AF: Also horniness. They’re very horny. It is such a high-T film. They’re highly competitive guys. At least Dustin Hoffman in it portrays Bernstein as kind of a poon hound. It’s a very dudely movie, a cool-guy movie.

MC: Their T is almost as high as their pants.

AF: I love the high pants, love the thick ties.

MC: There’s some good 70’s fashion in this movie.

AF: The ties are like canoes. Aesthetically it’s amazing. The fashion’s great, the cars in it are great.

MC: Massive boats. Big cars, big pants… What has happened to America? Driving around in Smart Cars wearing skinny jeans.

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AF: And there’s Bernstein’s cool-ass apartment, with just weird glass vases everywhere. I’ve been to journalists’ apartments. They don’t look like that. Journalists do not have an eye for bohemian design.

MC: I remember thinking Bernstein’s place looked baller.

AF: It looked like a bachelor pad.

MC: A place you’d bring a girl for fondue. And you know she starts unbuttoning the blouse half an hour into it. It’s like, “Damn, Bernstein, that’s how you bagged Nora Ephron…”

AF: Anyway, let’s talk a little bit about ratfucking.

MC: Ratfucking. That’s a practice described in the film. In intelligence terms, it’s “black propaganda.” You make fake documents ascribed to your opponent in order to undermine their credibility. When Woodward and Bernstein meet and interview one of the CREEP operatives, Donald Segretti, they talk about the 1972 ratfucking campaign. It included, most famously and probably most effectively, the “Canuck letter,” in which someone wrote to a New Hampshire newspaper claiming to have heard frontrunner Edmund Muskie making a disparaging comment about French Canadians. That was very damaging in heavily French Canadian New Hampshire, and led to a snowballing effect, with accusations about Muskie’s wife being an alcoholic…

AF: Well, they didn’t just put out these rumors, they stole his stationery. They would have people volunteer for the campaigns, then when they were in the campaign offices grab the stationery so that they would have a template to send out. So on Muskie’s stationery, they apparently accused a senator of having like an illegitimate child.

Regarding ratfucking, we can talk about contemporary parallels…

MC: And it all culminated in Muskie doing a press conference outdoors in the winter in New Hampshire where he defended his wife’s honor and it looked like he cried. There’s still dispute to this day about whether he did cry or whether it was the snow. Either way, it destroyed him. He was done. And the only guy who didn’t get ratfucked was the guy Nixon wanted to face, George McGovern, whom Nixon then dutifully did face and destroy.

But there’s a funny background to the film, because as they keep finding out about all of this ratfucking, and about Watergate, you realize it’s totally superfluous, because you keep hearing about things like the Eagleton disaster. That’s where it was discovered that Thomas Eagleton, McGovern’s vice presidential nominee, had had electroshock therapy, and they had to kick him off the ticket. And so McGovern’s campaign is totally fucked, and Nixon’s going to cruise to reelection. Yet Nixon still does this unnecessary thing that will ultimately doom him, which makes a kind of ironic counterpoint to everything that’s going on.

Regarding ratfucking, though, we can talk about contemporary parallels. Trump’s former campaign manager Roger Stone has been in the news lately. He’s acting as sort of the thug voice of unbridled Trumpism, vowing to put people in the streets to fight back if Hillary wins, on the assumption that any Hillary victory would be through electoral fraud. (Although I would honestly advise him to check in on what the BMI of the average Trump supporter is before vowing that he’s going to have these guys fighting in the streets.) But Stone got his start in 1972 as one of Nixon’s ratfuckers. He was there on the ground floor. And, as the funniest story from that, on one of his earliest missions he was supposed to donate to the Muskie Campaign on behalf of the “Homosexual Alliance” or some group like that. He was going to write a check in that name, so that they could go “Look who’s donating to Muskie.” But Stone worried that people would think he was gay, so he changed it to the “Young Communists League” or something.

AF: No homo.

MC: Yeah, Roger Stone no homo. He might like orgies, but not gay ones. He looks away from the dick and balls when the orgies are happening. He wants you to know that.

AF: I think we were hoping for the most horrifying type of ratfucking from the DNC email leak, but a lot of what came out of it was incredibly inept and weird. But one of the things that stuck out to me was that they considered a contemporary kind of anti-Semitism against Sanders. Not like “Well, you know he killed our lord.” But one of the emails from the CFO of the DNC, Brad Marshall, said “it might make no difference, but for Kentucky and West Virginia, can we get someone to ask his belief.” Astroturfing organic comments from the crowd is a huge ratfucking thing. And he said, “does he believe in a God? He had skated on saying he has ‘Jewish heritage.’ I think I read he’s an atheist.” This could make several points difference with my peeps. My southern Baptist peeps would draw big difference between a Jew and an atheist.” My peeps!

MC: Yeah that’s just that’s how far we’ve fallen…

AF: I know it’s almost like they’re just such failures now.

MC: Yeah, they’re just, they’re low-T fucking lanyard dorks.

AF: It’s because they’re Democrats.

MC: They’ve never had the gut instinct.

AF: They didn’t have a taste for the jugular, as they said in All the President’s Men.

MC: A lot of that is because these Republican guys have been forging this ruthlessness in College Republican politics for 40 years now. That’s where the guys who got Goldwater the nomination learned their trade, that’s where Karl Rove learned his trade. I was not a College Democrat but I have a feeling that their blood runs a little weaker than the College Republicans.

AF: I was a college Democratic Socialist, and we’re a disparate bunch, but we thought the college Democrats were bitches. That was our impression of them, as ineffectual as we were.

MC: That sounds about right.

AF: That’s the weird thing about this movie, though. It’s viewed as a triumph of “non-fiction fictionalization” or whatever. But it’s not the most informative view of the Watergate scandal. It’s good because it doesn’t reduce it to “oh, there was a break-in in a hotel.” But you’re not going to get the best overview of the mass corruption at the highest level.

MC: It’s an incredible amount of detail, but it’s very, very narrowly focused on the specific stories that Woodward and Bernstein were writing in the immediate aftermath of the break-in. And I think part of that is because the audience knew the broad outlines of the story by that point. They were familiar with it, so it really was a question of “what story are we going to tell?” to an audience that knows the whole thing. We’re not going to have Sam Ervin up there yelling from the Judiciary Committee chair. They saw that on TV. We got to give them something they haven’t seen before. What they hadn’t seen, and what nobody had seen, was the heroic narrative of Watergate.

AF: Not just heroic! Cool. Like Ben Bradlee with his fucking shoes on the desk.

MC: Oh God, Robards is so cool.

AF: He’s the coolest guy in the movie. He’s got that voice.

MC: I would say Jason Robards’s Ben Bradlee is one of the coolest dudes in any movie ever. But it gives you someone to root for, it gives you a narrative of heroism and cool in a situation that did not really have any of that.

The thing that stuck with me is that last shot. In the lead up to the last shot, they’ve just been dealt a massive setback. A guy who they had used as a source in the story has repudiated what he told them, and that left them with egg on their face, and there’s a lot of pressure on the Post to pull the stories or fire them. Then it’s this shot of a television showing Nixon’s second inaugural, and in the background are Woodward and Bernstein on their typewriters, and the sound is those clattering typewriters. And the idea you get in your head watching this is “They’re going to win. They’re going to get this guy. He thinks he got away with it, but they’re back there and they’re just slowly sharpening their knives and they’re going to cut his heart out.” It is a way to offer this triumph. And that’s interesting, because one thing that the rest of the post-Watergate movies had in common is they’re very grim and they’re very pessimistic about America. They’re contemptuous about the idea of heroism, the idea of defeating the negative forces that control our lives. And one of them is the film Pakula made two years before All the President’s Men, called Parallax View. You have a great pithy description of what Parallax View is.

AF: I was watching this with a friend because I hadn’t seen it before, and he told me “this is like if All the President’s Men were a Dukes of Hazzard episode.”

MC: That’s 100 percent correct.

AF: It is! It’s “ah, journalist got himself in a sticky situation again. How’s he going to get out of this one?”

MC: There’s even a car chase. Warren Beatty, who’s the hero, is trying to escape this Bubba of a rural deputy. The cars get covered in mud and one of them crashes through a general store. It’s incredibly Dukes of Hazzard.

AF: There’s so much activity in this movie. There are no periods of tense dialogue or anything. Do you want to give people a synopsis?

MC: Parallax View starts with the assassination of a sort of maverick left-wing senator as he’s addressing a party at the top of the Space Needle in Seattle.

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AF: He’s saying “I’m not beholden to anyone I’m so independent.” You’re very optimistic, you like him immediately.

MC: His last words are literally something like “some people think I’m too independent.” And then he gets riddled with bullets.

AF: It’s a shock, too. I didn’t see it coming. It’s beautifully shot.

MC: You’re watching it behind the glass and you see his back, then the glass gets covered in blood. It’s very upsetting and abrupt. Then one of the waiters has a hilarious Keystone Kops race to get to the top of the Space Needle and he ends up falling off of it and dying. And he’s the guy who’s fingered as the assassin, but we see that there was another gunman, who puts a gun away and escapes.

AF: The Kennedy assassination parallels here are kind of obvious. There was all of this promise, and then there’s this sudden, very public insane violence.

MC: Then we get a commission behind desks who intone the results of their inquiry, that the assassination was by one lone gunman and there was no evidence of a conspiracy. That sets the situation up. But then we focus on Warren Beatty, the star of the film, playing (like a lot of these movies) the journalist who is visited by his next girlfriend who was a witness to the assassination and claims—

AF: She’s a hysterical woman. This is another very high-T film.

MC: She’s essentially the only female character in this. I’m surprised he didn’t do the old “slap her in the face to get her to stop being hysterical” moment.

AF: I think that was probably considered. I don’t just want to joke about these being high-T films, though. They are incredibly sexist. But I’m just not that kind of moralizing feminist. I think we can accept that they’re sexist and move on.

MC: We sort of have to assume that any movie about a badass taking on the power in the 60s and 70s is not going to be very considerate of gender equity.

AF: It’s just a lot of pussy hounds with shaggy hair and a take-no-prisoners attitude.

MC: Speaking of that, they have to try to get information out of like half a dozen hysterical broads in All the President’s Men. There are all of these women who work at CREEP who they try to get stuff out of, and they’re all just on the verge of tears at all times. They have to apply their machismo on them to get to admit what happened.

AF: The first major tip they got was just some girl on the Hill. And it’s Dustin Hoffman chain-smoking doing the “you’re very attractive.” And I guess he sells it.

MC: So in The Parallax View, this hysterical female claims that someone wants to kill her, that all these other witnesses have died. He gives her the high hat, but next shot is her on a slab in the morgue. And even though she just warned him she was next, that she was going to be killed, they tell him “oh she OD’d on barbiturates behind the wheel of a car.” But now he thinks “OK, this is bullshit.” And he takes a journey around the country. He ends up discovering that there’s this organization called the Parallax Corporation whose job it is to cultivate and then rent out lone gunmen for anybody who can pay for them. And what’s interesting about this is that the conspiracy here is very nebulous. We never really get any idea of the motives of the people who hire the Parallax Corporation.

Watergate made it acceptable to challenge government at a basic level, in terms of its benevolence and the notion that it has no interest in democracy.

AF: Or why they require weird brainwashing, or why this is the most productive way to get gunmen for hire. It’s kind of a plot hole there: you could just find a psycho who has good aim.

MC: But what it’s trying to do is evoke the sense that there is a hidden force basically acting against democracy. The idea that if anything pushes too far against the restraints of the American two-party system, it will be brought down by some force or another that can pay these guys, these lone gunmen to do it. In 1974 that had to have been how everybody felt.

AF: At that point, it was seven years past the Summer of Love. Some of the idealism had disappeared but it was still a highly political time. People think of the 60’s as the time when everyone was in the streets, but there were tons of people in the streets in the mid-70’s. It just didn’t have the utopianism anymore.

MC: It didn’t have the hippy edge. It was sliding into cynicism and anger. That was the time when the Weathermen broke off from SDS and started blowing up bathrooms.

AF: And themselves, sometimes.

MC: Yes, hilariously. Pervasive frustration. “Shit, there’s really no way to get through this.” And that’s what these movies really represent, a breathtaking paralysis when you look upon the political system you live in and realize that there is no changing it. There’s too much concentrated wealth and influence at the top. These things are really just dramatizations of that feeling.

AF: There’s an anxious fantasy about it too, in the very Freudian sense. Parallax View isn’t just All the President’s Men if it were a Dukes of Hazzard episode. There’s also a nice sprinkling of Manchurian Candidate in there. Because they didn’t know what the corruption actually looked like, so they imagined the process.

MC: The Parallax Corporation don’t just get guys off the street and say “Hey, you shoot this guy.” It’s a multistage recruitment process. There’s a questionnaire you have to fill out.

AF: Figure out if you’re a psycho.

MC: And if you score psycho enough on the test, then you can go to the next stage. This is something the Parallax View is most remembered for, I think it’s the highlight of the film. It comes halfway through: Warren Beatty has taken on an assumed identity and has gotten the test taken on his behalf by a murderous mental patient. And the basis of his high score on the test, he’s been given the next round. And in the next round, he goes to the Parallax headquarters and they strap him into a chair. And they show him this 6-minute montage film that’s deeply unsettling.

It starts off very slow paced. It gives you prompt words like “home,” “mother,” “father.” Along with them, you get images that are meant to evoke those things, like a family around the dinner table. Norman Rockwell, a picket-fenced house, that kind of stuff. Then you get things like “God” and you get a Congregationalist church with a nice white steeple. Then you get “enemy” and there’s Hitler and Nazis. Then you get “God” again, and it starts to go faster and faster and it starts, most crucially, to start mingling everything together before every prompt. And one of the prompts is “me” and it shows images of a child in various stages of distress. A child running away from a guy who looks like he’s going to beat him up. A child huddled up in a dark room.

AF: Again a sort of crude fantasy Freudianism of The Manchurian Candidate. Inner child talk.

MC: Then it starts getting really jumbled up; the pace of the editing is faster and faster. It includes lots of images of sex, both homoerotic and heterosexual. Then you get dead people. You get bullets. You get blood. You’ve got General MacArthur screaming. And then the most interesting thing is, in the midst of this maelstrom of images of violence, you get this repeated shot of Thor from the Marvel comics just standing. It keeps repeating Thor with the phrase “me.” And it feels like the whole montage is designed invoke these feelings of confusion and aggression and then posit violence as the answer to this stirred-up emotional state. Because once it reaches the climax, it then goes back to the soothing rhythms that it had before, implying that this powerful wave of threat and anxiety has been pacified by the embodied man exercising violence on his own behalf.

But what’s most interesting is that a lot of the images are things that were in advertising. The kind of one-to-one representations of American ideals that you saw in ads, both print and television, in the 60s and 70s.

AF: There was a lot of paranoia at the time about subliminal messaging in advertising too.

MC: It totally feeds into that. It feels like the commentary is that the culture we live in is giving these messages, because there were all these guys shooting presidents and senators during this time period, almost at random. If you’re not positing that it’s the government, you’re still left to answer for why these guys are doing this. And the montage has the purpose of showing that even if there isn’t some conspiracy to manufacture these people, our culture is manufacturing them.

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AF: There was an anti-consumerist bent to all of this as well. People had kind of a vague anti-industrial, misplaced mistrust of what I might say is “capital,” though they wouldn’t necessarily articulate it in those words.

MC: Anyway, at the end of Parallax View, Warren Beatty is able to infiltrate this organization, they give him a job, and he goes to a rally for this rightwing presidential candidate, who I think is there to represent George Wallace. The idea is that anybody, regardless of their ideology, who pressed against the status quo was going to get smacked down. And the senator gets shot, and Warren Beatty realizes he’s getting set up. And he’s running around on a catwalk, trying to escape, people pointing at him saying, “there he is, there he is.” And finally, there’s an open door at the end of the catwalk, and he’s running towards it at full speed, and a dude just steps out and blows him away. The next scene we’re back to behind the same desk from the committee at the beginning of the movie reading another statement saying that this assassination was carried out by Warren Beatty, there’s no conspiracy, and everyone needs to move on.

AF: By the way, I hate to keep bringing this up, but Manchurian Candidate also ends with assassination on the catwalk.

MC: That’s true, but that’s the crucial difference, though, isn’t it? In Manchurian Candidate, Lawrence Harvey breaks his conditioning and shoots his asshole stepfather and his evil mom.

AF: He gets through, and then he shoots himself, and it’s violent and gory and tragic and meaningless. But in a different way.

MC: It’s kind of a bummer, but democracy has been preserved.

AF: I honestly think like Kennedy’s assassination was such a startling event that it became visually inescapable for a lot of filmmakers afterward.

MC: Absolutely. But what’s interesting is it that it didn’t really manifest in film too much until after Watergate. Because even if people had questions about the Kennedy assassination, the idea of publically expressing them was something that didn’t really become possible until then. Watergate made it acceptable to challenge government at a basic level, in terms of its benevolence and the notion that it has no interest in democracy. Those sort of thoughts were still largely unspeakable, even with Vietnam and everything, and it really took Watergate to break that psychic barrier—at least when it came to Hollywood and films.

Transcribed by Michael Fantauzzo.