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The 1970s Hollywood Movies That Captured Post-Watergate America

The 1970s Hollywood Movies That Captured Post-Watergate America
The 1970s Hollywood Movies That Captured Post-Watergate America

 


The proverbial tin foil hat was once associated with the American left, but a lot can change in 50 years. If you find yourself at a barbecue this summer cornered by someone foaming at the mouth about microchips in vaccines, pedophilia havens masquerading as pizzerias, or deep state machinations predicted by supposed insiders on dubious online forums, you know you're talking to a far-right conspiracy nut. (It's also your Qexcuse me, make a room for the bean dip and get the hell out of the conversation.)

The proverbial tin foil hat was once associated with the American left, but a lot can change in 50 years. If you find yourself at a barbecue this summer cornered by someone foaming at the mouth about microchips in vaccines, pedophilia havens masquerading as pizzerias, or deep state machinations predicted by supposed insiders on dubious online forums, you know you're talking to a far-right conspiracy nut. (It's also your Qexcuse me, make a room for the bean dip and get the hell out of the conversation.)

While there are exceptions to every rule, most Americans who engage in this kind of talk are probably considering voting for the twice-impeached former reality TV host and frozen steak seller who was recently convicted of 34 counts of mishandling records related to a hush money payment to a porn star.

Yet there was a time when this kind of chatter was reserved for counterculture hippies. This has surely existed throughout history. Did Pliny the Elder ignore the Vesuvian rumblings as fake news? but things really took off in the United States in the late 1960s and 1970s, when conspiracy theories, heard over the sound of Jefferson Airplane records and smashing pots, became widespread. not through vloggers but through Hollywood films.

And this, not without valid reason. Inconsistencies in the Warren Commission's investigation into the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy (and the rapid dispatch of the accused shooter, Lee Harvey Oswald, on live television) led to the bestselling book lawyer Mark Lane in 1966, Rushing to judgmentwhich opened the door to legitimate suspicions regarding official reports that keep on going Today.

As American involvement increased in Vietnam, many Americans questioned an alleged North Vietnamese strike against American naval forces in the Gulf of Tonkin, a conspiracy theory that over time was widely proven to be based on truth. Shortly thereafter, the Pentagon Papers showed that, to put it mildly, President Lyndon B. Johnson was not entirely honest with the American public about his policies regarding the Vietnam War. Add in a few more assassinations and, ultimately, Watergate, and it makes sense that American citizens don't have much faith in authority.

This unease was felt everywhere in the arts. (Foreign policy readers might be particularly amused by the slim book Iron Mountain Reporta 1967 farce written by assholes that many Americans believed was a veritable document proving that Wall Street would never survive the end of the Vietnam War.) And in the early 1970s, Hollywood really got into the genre.

As the filmmakers known as New Hollywood rose to prominence (a glorious if brief period in which artistry triumphed over profit margins), audiences suddenly found themselves inundated with films suggesting that no immoral acts was too insidious for the powers that be and that righteousness could never prevail. , and anyone who attempted to take a stand would be condemned.

The peak came in 1974 with three titles, all released by Paramount Pictures, run at the time by Robert Evans, a rather notorious operator. Evans did most of his business from his mansion, slumped on his bed; It may not work today, but compared to the out-of-touch stuffed shirts of other studios, it proved in its own way that Paramount was the home of all things hip, right, and progressive.


A man in glasses sits at the controls of a radio or film recording device.
A man in glasses sits at the controls of a radio or film recording device.

Gene Hackman in a scene from The conversation.Paramount Pictures

The first to come out of the door was The conversation, written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who won the Palme d'Or (then the Grand Prix) at the Cannes Film Festival that year. It stars Gene Hackman as a surveillance expert who believes he has been hired to capture audio to prove marital infidelity, but soon fears that this work is linked to major business deals and potentially to an assassination. The conversation is one of those strange films where the problem is that the viewer never really knows what's going on. Coppola is dazzling in his use of then-cutting-edge technology to render this ambiguous and fragmented reality.

At the end of June, Roman Polanskis was released. Chinese district, one of the most famous films of the 20th century. The film, which stars Jack Nicholson, is a meditation on greed, corruption and the failure of the American project. His iconic final line, Forget it, Jake, his Chinatown, instantly became a motto for fatalists and resonated with those in the countercultural movement who saw their political leaders taken down and replaced by Nixonism. The young, often politically active screenwriters experienced an immediate change in mood after the Manson Family murders effectively shut down the party in Los Angeles. (To learn more about the impact of these murders on the origin of Chinese districtcheck out Sam Wasssons' book The big goodbye; they were incorporated into the script long before Polanski, whose wife Sharon Tate was the most famous victim, was even named director.)

The film released between these two films was the less famous but, in my opinion, the more radical The parallax view. With Warren Beatty, the Hollywood face of idealist left, Alan J. Pakula's film begins with the political assassination of an independent senator atop Seattle's Space Needle. Although it appears that the culprit was driven from the confines of the modernist structure until his death, more and more witnesses to the murder end up dead. As Beatty's character, a journalist struggling to overcome his personal demons, investigates these deaths, he discovers a dark, deeply organized malevolent force dedicated to maintaining the status quo.

The plot to The parallax view is only a whisper. The United States is a panopticon, and the government will stop at nothing to cover its tracks, including encouraging a zombified secret police to murder its own citizens. But the tone heightened by legendary cinematographer Gordon Williss to use of negative space And unorthodox, rich in colors frames makes this more disturbing than most horror films. At the center of the film is a scene where Beatty sneaks into the special operations recruiting center. Lasting almost six minutes, this film within a film could in itself constitute a short film in a modern art museum. It represents the height of the paranoid form of the 1970s.


A man sits on a chair in a dark room.
A man sits on a chair in a dark room.

Beatty in a scene from The parallax view. Paramount Pictures

This was Pakula's next film, The Watergate Explainer All the Presidents' Men, which took the idea of ​​government cover-ups and made it a little more concrete. (It starred Robert Redford, fresh off another paranoid thriller, Three days of the Condorand Dustin Hoffman, whose next project, Man marathon runnerwould also do the trick.)

Maybe it's because Watergate really happened, and President Richard Nixon really did it. was involved in a cover-up, which ultimately led to a change in the nature of conspiracy theories. As the 1970s progressed, so did the New Age, which found its way into American culture (think of the television series hosted by Leonard Nimoy). Looking for; Jane Roberts channels books such as Seth speaks; or a Stephen Hills radio show Hearts of Space, which has been providing slow music for fast times in one form or another since 1973. This movement was less about foreign policy and more about domestic growth. In short, your crazy aunt may really believe in UFOs, but you can still have a Thanksgiving meal with her without incident.

But finally, something changed. To use films as a guide, a significant change is seen in Richard Linklaters' 2001 film. Waking life. As with his 1990 masterpiece Lazywhich basically opened the floor to as many weirdos from Austin, Texas, as would be willing to go on camera, Waking life is a portrait of street corner philosophy. One of his most engaging scenes stars a local television personality of the time named Alex Jones, who would later become a famous 9/11 truther. guilty for spreading lies about the Sandy Hook massacre. The sequence, played for laughs as Jones' face turns an inhuman shade of red, is mostly one of him shouting paranoid ramblings. Nothing, you might think, that anyone could ever take seriously, until you realize that it resembles the vague, bad-faith slogans that have fueled QAnon for years.

What at the time seemed like a simple piece of open-mic frivolity now functions like a canary in the coal mine. Linklater, who is not a far-right lunatic but who cast Jones a second time in 2006 for the Philip K. Dicks adaptation A dark scannerhas since distanced himself of his former colleague. Alex was just that guy on public television. I liked his energy, but it was a bit of a joke, the filmmaker said in 2017.

Unfortunately, enough people weren't laughing, they were taking notes, and in the years since, they've followed Jones-like figures who copied his act to the steps of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. but it makes you long for the days when delving into conspiracy theories meant seeing Beatty looking cool in modernist architecturewithout trying to tear the country apart.

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