We began class with a clip from MARATHON MAN (1976), directed by JOHN SCHLESINGER, featuring LAURNCE OLIVIER and DUSTIN HOFFMAN. OLIVIER plays the cynical, Nazi-dentist in search of something from HOFFMAN. The plot does not indicate what OLIVIER is actually in pursuit of, that information is irrelevant. However, the mystery of OLIVIER’S obsessive search enhances the paranoia motif and the audience’s support of HOFFMAN’S success. The audience nevertheless is lost: the plot unfolding feels vague. And like ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959), a film about an advertisement executive who is mistaken for a government agent by a group of spies, in which one wrong move will cost him his life, the ‘plot-drive’ is irrelevant to the suspense caused by the action and cinematography. We discussed the implicit fear people share concerning going to the dentist: as Freud would suggest, the mouth is an erogenous zone (sexual pleasure) as well as an opening for vulnerable/human sensations (speaking one’s mind/heart, kissing, eating, etc.), so the idea of that vicinity completely out of one’s control, instantly generates a slew of dreadful associations. We discussed how OLIVIER ambiguously repeating “is it safe?” to HOFFMAN also caused an abstract anxiety for the audience.
We discussed how MARATHON MAN (1976) like MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962), by way of the torture/interrogation scenes that both films have in common, reference the CIA scandal revealed by the NY Times, that government organizations had been torturing U.S. citizens for years. Does this reference make these films anti-American in that they cause political anxiety?
We related the sense of paranoia/fear in MARATHON MAN (1976) to the paranoia/madness in THE CONVERSATION (1974), and assumed GENE HACKMAN undergoes a decomposition of sanity. HACKMAN believes he can control surveillance—that he can tap into anyone’s life all while he maintains complete secrecy of himself from the rest of the world. His personal discretion consumes him. And in the end of the film, he realizes he has been wrong about his impression of his security, an assumption he had held with verity has now been shattered and replaced with the terrifying notion that he can never truly know who is watching him. We discussed this as the realization that the government is a stronger agent of cross-frontier surveillance that one can ever imagine, and that we are all just cogs in the great universal wheel.
The idea of corporate corruption and political corruption referenced in the films from lecture and recitation point to the Richard Nixon/Watergate Scandal: spying on the Democratic Party during his re-election, foul war-play covered up in Cambodia, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert and John F. Kennedy assassinations (the ambiguity surrounding each incident—the Federal court never provided conclusive answers): that U.S. citizens have been perpetually brainwashed by the CIA/and medical experiments conducted on easily targeted U.S. citizens have tucked under the rug.
We then watched a clip from ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976), directed by Alan J. Pakula (THE PARALLAX VIEW) with DUSTIN HOFFMAN and ROBERT REDFORD, Jaap explained it as one of the most important American films of the 1970s as it deals with the socio-political effects Watergate had on the psychology of the American people, highlighting real-life references. ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976) introduces DEEPTHROAT as a stock-film character: the insider who retrieves crucial information about the government, so must remain secretive for protection—just five years ago did the real DEEPTHROAT reveal his identity. From this movie onward, shows like THE X-FILES have arrested audience’s attention. Jaap mentioned that OLIVER STONE’S NIXON (1995) would be the perfect film to view adjacently to ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976).
We discussed visual similarities between THE CONVERSATION (1974) and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976). Space and architecture in addition to camera frame we agreed are present in each film; the parking lot, at the end of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976), like GENE HACKMAN’S office in THE CONVERSATION (1974), is made congested with various architectural/cinematic techniques—the office is literally in a cage, the lack of sound is constant, so when one is made, the audience is startled.
We transitioned to discussing the role of government and paranoia compared to the role of media and paranoia. In THE CONVERSATION (1974), it is apparent that media is not entirely factual and therefore untrustworthy. For example CINDY WILLIAMS who plays ANN, looks upset throughout the film about supposedly leaving her husband, yet turns out to have been planning to kill him. GENE HACKMAN’S equipment was inaccurate in its piecing together a correct story, proving media as a device that skews information and is to blame for the consequences of the actions it causes people to take. Media led Nixon to resign after the Watergate scandal, as it was hyper-exaggerated. Paranoia of the media can lead to madness; we reflexively considered the intensity of media and obsession in 2012—Jaap mentioned the relevance of David Fincher’s film, ZODIAC (2007).
It is fascinating how as censorship started to change in the 60s and 70s and artists and filmmakers became more compelled to push the boundaries of their artistic mediums, so did political awareness heighten along side skepticism and paranoia. During these periods, we start to witness in Hollywood a sort of community develop: a “new Hollywood” in which, HOFFMAN and REDFORD and particular directors were all working together.
Rebecca gave her presentation on the PETER BISKIN reading, THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, explaining that FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA incited “new Hollywood” with THE GODFATHER (1972). Despite the ups and downs the film endured in its production and post-production, it became wildly successful. It was the first fresh-take on a mobster film since SCARFACE (1932). In an age of socio-political reflexive filmmaking, THE GODFATHER (1972) deepened this trend in its exploration of the complex and dark themes of enemy sentiment, guilt, and loneliness. The film provoked the industry to change due not just to its production but also to its exhibition; SCARFACE (1932) made audiences aware of the disillusion of the American dream—its fallacies and empty promises. It is the first film presented as a ‘dark reality,’ returning to the gangster genre (always about family/the American dream) of the 1930s, but this time highlighting themes and perspectives recently accepted in the 60s and 70s. And finally COPPOLA created the first sequel that became a major success, introducing to Hollywood the box office success of banking on a film’s prior achievement.
In the last part of recitation, we screened a clip from BLOW UP (1966), a European art film sans narrative, directed by MICHELANGELO ANTONIONI, following DAVID JENNINGS (lead actor), a photographer in London—it begins as a murder mystery and resolves abstractly. Jaap mentioned that it was the inspiration for THE CONVERSATION (1974). In terms of its exploration of surveillance, THE CONVERSATION (1974) focuses on the delicacies of sound surveillance while BLOW UP (1966) challenges the honesty of the image/the-moving image in cataloging an experience. JENNINGS photographs a couple in a London park, noticing their quarrel, then something suspicious in the bushes. Is it a person? What’s happening? BLOW UP (1966) touches upon camera surveillance—layered by the meaning explicit in the limitations of seeing into a photograph by way of “blowing it up” over and over again. The film is also referential to the idea of the image over the moving image: a photographer is blowing up a negative to see clearer while being filmed by a camera—the layers of removal are infinite if one continues to ponder the notion of seeing and the lens and the inherently flawed hard copy.
Did the murder actually take place in THE CONVERSATION (1974)? At what point was HACKMAN’S collapse due to his delusion or imagination? When did his imagination begin to infiltrate his factual knowledge? The blood in the toilet scene seems like a horror-film special effect alluding the murder never happened—that it’s all HACKMAN’S pure paranoia. However the scene with the plastic bag suggests otherwise. It appears as though full-surveillance is impossible no matter how much media is accumulated; our human ability to be all knowing is limited by the imperfection of our documentation. Images and sounds distort the truth. We concluded: the relationship between reality experience and what is viewed on screen is often incongruent.