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parallax |ˈparəˌlaks|


the effect whereby the position or direction of an object appears to differ when viewed from different positions, e.g., through the viewfinder and the lens of a camera.

April 26, 2010

Recently on Netflix I got sucked into a multi-part documentary called THE MEN WHO KILLED KENNEDY. I sat riveted, wondering if we’ll ever discover anything more concrete about the Kennedy assassination during my lifetime. (I am one of those people who can clearly remember where he was when he found out that Kennedy had been shot. The president spent his last night in Fort Worth, Texas, my hometown, flying from Carswell Air Force Base to Dallas on the morning of November 22, 1963. Later that day, just after our afternoon recess, my second grade teacher came into the classroom with a pained look on her face, telling us that we were all being sent home early. I walked the few blocks to my house and the neighbor kids met me on the street to tell me the president had been killed.)

I don’t think I know anyone who believes that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, and I often wonder if Oswald even knew what was going down. Was his involvement peripheral, or could he have been set up to take the fall? I guess we’ll never know, will we?

But does anyone really believe the Warren Report? Even Gerald Ford later admitted the CIA destroyed or kept from investigators critical secrets connected to the assassination of the president. He said the Warren commission’s probe put “certain classified and potentially damaging operations in danger of being exposed.” The CIA’s reaction, he added, “was to hide or destroy some information, which can easily be misinterpreted as collusion in JFK’s assassination.” Yes, I guess it could—the fact that the CIA had dealings with certain known mobsters, for example? We most probably will never know the truth in this matter, but one can say, with certainty, decisions are often made within our government that are secret, that obfuscate, that withhold the complete picture—an “end justifying the means” mentality, designed to “protect” us, the citizens, from the truth.

So we’re left to work it out in our art.

There was an article about conspiracy movies in the New York Times.  It was somewhat dismissive of the films that challenge the “official story” and suggested that “…this is not to say the conspiratorial narrative is exhausted as a form, only that its subjects have changed, for this is a moment when the likeliest source of threats are to be found not within the government but among those who seem to be nursing a deep-seated hatred of it — whether they are protesters vandalizing the offices of elected officials or the militia members indicted last week in Michigan on sedition and weapons charges.

I think this article misses the point. It’s not an either/or proposition. Government is not a monolith, all good or all bad. Similarly, the tea-party movement or militia movements are not organized along any guiding principles, which all participants subscribe to. Within these–or any group, organization, institution, or bureaucracy–there is an innate tendency toward corruption and manipulation—misinformation designed to protect power and position–and any cursory glance at human history reveals that the movement of it is most often dictated from behind the scenes.

People respond to conspiracy movies precisely because there is no way to really discern what’s happening in the present—we only ever receive partial information, filtered through the perspective of whoever is imparting it. And trying to make sense of the past is no easier. When one goes back to try to puzzle through the reality of a situation, it is almost always speculation and guesswork. There is an unknowability factor at work in so much of the historical record (this is even true among families—each person remembers the family history in a way that serves their own internal narrative). It seems to me that a psychological purpose of conspiracy films is to encourage skepticism and critical thought. Therefore, the subject matter is almost beside the point—the real lesson seems to be: don’t automatically trust what you’re told or even what you see. Perception is a matter of position.

Among conspiracy films, I particularly enjoyed THE GHOST WRITER, directed by Roman Polanski. It’s an object lesson in how to make a film—a narrative that is clearly and methodically constructed, a visual style that precisely supports the narrative, and performances that allude to more than is made explicit. The story revolves around an unnamed writer who takes the job of continuing the autobiography of a former British prime minister after the first writer is found drowned. This occupation itself reinforces the theme of nothing being as it appears—the writer is constructing a story that serves to enhance the P.M.’s public image, but the actual events he writes about may or may not have anything to do with the truth.

The entire film is shrouded in cloudy skies and rain—there’s no bright sunlight in any of the scenes, emphasizing the idea that the real story is clouded, hidden from the light.  There is a wonderful image of a gardener trying to rake up leaves, putting them in a wheelbarrow, but the wind continues to blow them away. At the end of the movie there is a callback to this image of futility, where the truth literally blows away in the wind.

To correctly discern the truth becomes a Sisyphean task, particularly in a world where facts seem to be fluid and words are increasingly used to mean their opposite, i.e. the realm of politics and the people who cover it.

Polanski has often examined the machinations of power in his work. CHINATOWN was one of the films that changed my own perceptions. When I first saw the film in 1974, the year I graduated from high school, I was disturbed by the perversity of it, its melancholy and cynicism, and its lack of resolution (its ending is brutal). But I also felt enlightened—as though I’d been shaken awake out of my naïve stupor (or at least it was the beginning of a broader awareness—it took me a few years to get out from under the incongruities of my conservative upbringing.) The film made me realize that business and politics are a nasty mix—unfettered capitalism is all about survival of the fittest at its most demented.  Human beings are often considered expendable in the process. How ironic that most of the religious right are die-hard proponents of capitalism, but furious opponents of evolution! (I had a wonderful professor in college who used to say that an honest politician is like a virgin in a whorehouse—sooner or later you have to jump out a window or join in with the rest.)

Polanski is a filmmaker who is frequently called pessimistic. His response:  “I think that’s a very superficial analysis of what I do and who I am. The fact that you don’t end a film with a forced happy ending doesn’t mean that you’re not an optimist. If you show tragic events, you have to have a tragic ending. That’s the definition of drama: it has to end in tragedy in order to have an impact on the viewer. If you show a bunch of people who do evil, and at the end they’re all wonderfully punished, it leads you to believe there’s nothing to be done anymore, because someone is taking care of it for you. I prefer to leave the responsibility with the viewer.

I recently re-watched THE PARALLAX VIEW, another wonderful conspiracy film from 1974, which deftly mocks the Warren Commission in its somber opening credits. The movie holds up very well, not so much because of its plot, but because of its mood, philosophy, and overall sense of skepticism. The sequence where Warren Beatty’s character watches the Parallax Organization’s indoctrination film is still thrilling and disconcerting. It is a clear demonstration of the power of editing and eerily prescient about the brainwashing propaganda of organizations like Fox News. Alan Pakula’s direction is precise and unsentimental, and Gordon Willis’ photography allows the frame to fall off into blackness, accentuating the feeling of paranoia and suspicion.

The movie asks questions it never answers and ultimately feels more powerful than Pakula’s other classic 1976 film about government conspiracy: ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. Even though the latter is also a great film, it proves Polanski’s point about happy endings. The satisfaction of seeing Nixon brought down by Woodward and Bernstein lets the audience off the hook, as it also seems to have done with the entire mainstream media (the idea of a couple of newsmen bringing down an entrenched power structure in the present day seems far-fetched—who, and what newspaper, would have the courage?) ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN creates a wonderful sense of modern noir—the garage scenes between Robert Redford and Hal Holbrook are chilling, in that they’re counter-intuitive–men meet in the dark to do the right thing.

The idea that power or long-held presuppositions can be challenged by art remains for me a very powerful idea. The same professor, who I quoted above, also said—people’s minds are not changed by politics, but rather people’s minds are changed by popular culture, which is then reflected in our politics.

Therefore, a show like “24” begins to make people comfortable with the immorality of torture. And a show like WILL AND GRACE, or a film like BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, makes people start to rethink their ridiculous assumptions and prejudices about gay people. To that end, I think it’s important to examine how narrative storytelling is used to question or support the power structures that dictate our culture and society, whether these narratives be short news pieces, reality shows, or feature films. We are influenced by what we watch, and we adjust our worldview accordingly.

It’s not simply enough to say, “I liked it” or “I didn’t care for it.” But to ask oneself deeper questions, about the specifics of one’s response—e.g. “why does this scene make me feel so uncomfortable?” Or “why do I get such enormous satisfaction out of seeing this villain punished in a particularly gruesome way?” Or “why does this sentimental scene make me cry but that similar scene in another movie make me scoff?” What does my response to any event that I watch, in television or on film, say about my own evolving psychology? I believe there is something about the visual image that takes us deeper, closer to our dream state, than do the images we conjure up from the written word in newspapers, magazines, or novels. And additionally, the experience that we bring to bear upon a visual work, based upon our previous associations with the actors, the director, the newscaster, et al, can have enormous implications.

Stanley Kubrick was a master at using film to make us dig deeper into the realm of the collective unconscious, and to question our most basic belief systems. His films stay with me, and continue to change me over time as I think about them more and more. When I first saw EYES WIDE SHUT my initial response was that I didn’t care for it. However, I felt compelled to watch it again…and then yet again…and yet again. I was perplexed as to what kept drawing me back to the film—I found Tom Cruise to be insipid, and it didn’t make sense to me. But like any worthy work of art, the more one looks at it, the more there is to contemplate. And perhaps Kubrick knew exactly what he was doing by using Tom Cruise in the role, drawing upon our collective impressions of the actor himself.

Tim Kreider has written a remarkable essay about EYES WIDE SHUT, available at this link.  READ THIS ESSAY–it’s that good! It will make you want to go back and watch the film again. It challenges the conventional wisdom that Kubrick missed the mark with his final film, and answers the critics who suggested that Kubrick was out of touch with modern sexuality. He castigates the reviewers who focused on the sexual aspect of the film, ignoring its more profound implications.

His thesis resonates with me: “The real pornography in this film is in its lingering depiction of the shameless, naked wealth of millennial Manhattan, and of its obscene effect on society and the human soul. National reviewers’ myopic focus on sex, and the shallow psychologies of the film’s central couple, the Harfords, at the expense of every other element of the film–the trappings of stupendous wealth, its references to fin-de-siecle Europe and other imperial periods, its Christmastime setting, even the sum Dr. Harford spends on a single night out–says more about the blindness of the elites to their own surroundings than it does about Kubrick’s inadequacies as a pornographer.” He furthermore states: “Kubrick’s films are never only about individuals (sometimes, as in the case of 2001, they hardly contain any); they are always about Man, about civilization and history.” 

And then this wonderful quote: “…Evil among our elites is more often a matter of willful ignorance and passivity–of blindness–than of any deliberate cruelty. And Kubrick emphasizes that culture and erudition have nothing to do with goodness or depth of character; in this film they have more to do with the exhibitionistic display of imperial wealth.”

In many ways, EYES WIDE SHUT has become my favorite conspiracy movie, because it boils everything down to the most essential elements of conspiracy—power, sex, and money—presented in a dream world that evokes, as Kreider points out, our deepest fears and desires, and our collective memory of other times and places as well as our own. This removes the ideas from the realm of contemporary (and passing) politics, or the superficial arguments over American exceptionalism, and puts them squarely into the realm of psychological inquiry. Because ultimately, what is the point in trying to figure out what’s really happening unless the pursuit of that question gives us some greater understanding of ourselves?


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