Paranoia in Disturbing Behavior

In J.Hoberman’s “Ciné Paranoia: Conspiracies Unmasked” in The Dream Life, p. 384-399, Hoberman discusses events in America in the 1970’s and films with paranoid themes from that era.  He explains the appeal of such films in response to political and social events taking place.  Discussing the deluge of disaster films, he explains that they came about “when the Sixties were seeking metaphoric representation in traditional Hollywood terms.” He goes on to state that the films Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three were “soon to be touted in the June 10 issue of Time as “Coming Afflictions” – that offered the spectacle of all-star casts impersonating ordinary, middle-class people coping with the breakdown of institutions thought to be safe (ocean liners, airplanes, cities, the Constitution.)”  Hoberman points out an important theme in these paranoid films made in the 60’s (though released in the 70’s.)  While matters were made worse by “top public officials” who were often portrayed as not honest, pure or competent, the films, he indicates, “were fundamentally reassuring.” Hoberman explains that everyone else behaved heroically, reinforcing the belief that everyday people were basically decent and denying that “Americans had become permissive or that traditional values had collapsed.” (pages 390-392).

In David Nutter’s 1998 film, Disturbing Behavior, paranoia has evolved, to new levels. This film tells the story of a family who leaves the big city, here Chicago, to seek a safer life in the picturesque, isolated community of Cradle Bay Island. The viewer quickly comes to suspect that all is not at as it seems. A conspiracy unfolds, which involves the police, the school and the parents of the island, revolving around the “Blue Ribbon” students( the high school in-crowd.) No one, other than the school outcasts and an seemingly dimwitted school janitor can be trusted.  Paranoia in American films has evolved.  The main character, Steve, is new to the town and we see through his eyes. In this clip, we see the seemingly paranoid Gavin, who has befriended Steve and introduced him to another outcast: Rachel. The scene is framed with Steve in the middle between Gavin and Rachel. They are arguing back and forth, with Rachel as the voice of reason against Gavin, who appears to be having a paranoid rant about what is going on in the town. Steve is in the middle both literally and figuratively with the two of them trying to pull him onto their side, as though they are the actualized angel and devil on his shoulder, telling him what to believe.  But the distance isn’t equal between the characters.  While Steve and Rachel are in the car together, Gavin is outside in the rain, almost out of frame.  No one believes him, leaving him completely isolated.

In this scene, we start to hear about what might really be going on in the town that the police are covering up.  The paranoia is derived from the lack of trust in all of the authority figures.  Gavin suggests that the Blue Ribbon students’ violent behavior is the fault of those in control of the town, leading to many questions.  What lengths are the adults going to, to keep control over the adolescents?  And who can you trust when the people in charge of taking care of you are the ones out to get you?  Unlike Hoberman’s argument that American values still hold up, Disturbing Behavior shows that these values and the failure of living up to them are the problem, not the solution.  If you’re not good enough, they’ll get you, fix you, and erase who you are.

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