Parallax View
Political paranoia

by Fred Kaplan

from Jump Cut, no. 3, 1974, pp. 4-5
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1974, 2004

The conspiracy crazies are coming into their own. The phenomenon of a widely disparate, independently acting faction of mankind setting out to concoct the wildest intrigues involving usurpation of power—usually by “them” against “us”—is, in this country, as old as the Republic. In the rest of the world, it’s as aged a pedagogical source of ideological energy as Western civilization itself. The Jews, the Catholics, the Masons, bankers, Britons, Communists, intelligence agencies, foreign powers — all these and numerous others have been hoisted up on the political stockade as Manichean whipping boys at various, and explicable, moments in history.

The latest chapter in this fascinating chronicle is, at heart, the same old story. But here there’s something of a peculiar twist involved: a basic and fundamental distrust of, disillusionment with, and alienation from, the U.S. government as a whole. It is seen as an absolute evil, not because of subversion by alien elements, but because of the ignominy of the United States itself and all that it stands for. The great demarcation line marking the beginning of this new paranoia can be drawn at the point of the JFK assassination. It began almost immediately after the event or the Warren Commission’s report. Then such theses as those by Mark Lane, Thomas Buchanan, Jim Garrison and a stack of others began to attract the hearts and minds of a growing portion of the book-reading population who sensed something fishy about the entire affair. The trend intensified when several leftist magazine editors, nightclub comics, other fringe social commentators, and finally, perhaps just as a curiosity item, the general mass press picked up the ball. Urged on by the Vietnam trauma, revelations regarding the CIA, and a growing social malaise and tension, the more “committed” of this faction took the Great Leap and began disseminating to their receptacle of similarly-minded subscribers numerous speculative “scenarios” involving conspiracy and collusion of all sorts. Now, with Watergate, urban crises, a growing sense of insecurity, cynicism and lack of confidence regarding most of our major institutions, the time is ripe. Conspiracy theorists—the scholarly and the shoddy—have found time, space and popular response on such otherwise ostensibly apolitical media as afternoon TV talk shows and the Hollywood movie screen.

The most blatant manifestation of this milieu can be seen in the film, EXECUTIVE ACTION. Not a disguised fiction hidden behind veils of pseudonyms, this is a scenario of the JFK assassination itself. On paper, it’s a heavyweight project, written by Dalton Trumbo from a book by conspiracy freaks Mark Lane (Rush to Judgment) and Donald Freed (The Glasshouse Tapes), directed by David Miller, who helped out Trumbo in his blacklisted days.

The film itself, on the other hand, is a total fiasco. It is so improbable, so filled with holes, so negligent even in the task of raising good, hardcore questions. Even if there were a conspiracy, I doubt if its schemers have much to worry about here. According to the collaborators, the assassination was spearheaded by a handful of rightwing Big Businessmen who feared that JFK was going to strike the oil-depletion allowance, enforce strong antitrust laws, incite black revolution, sign a test ban treaty, and pull out of Vietnam. With all these threats to this power elite’s position and ideology (C. Wright Mills spins in his grave again), the only possible course of action—it is taken for granted—is “Executive Action,” i.e., assassination of The Executive. And who are they going to get to pull off this intrigue? Well, the CIA recently fired some Cuban trainees as a result of the Bay of Pigs scandal; they're available, and can be bought ...

And on it goes. Much of this is based on two of the earliest and most nonsensical conspiratorial writings on the subject: the oil business in Buchanan’s Who Killed Kennedy (the assassin leader being a wealthy oilman named Mr. X who wanted to test the limits of his power), the assertion of a sharpshooting double for Oswald in Richard Popkin’s The Second Oswald. (Popkin teaches a philosophy of history course at Washington University which, so a student there tells me, might as well be entitled, “Tales of Intrigue,” the entire expanse of world history taking on conspiratorial overtones at every significant juncture.)

There are whoppers all through this movie. Perhaps the biggest begins to strike us ten minutes through the plot. Namely, these businessmen (squintingly sinister and coldly unidentified) have many connections and great power, enough to pull together a grand conspiracy and an equally magnificent cover-up, stealing civil defense code books and disconnecting the D.C. phone lines to get the gunmen out of the country, and knocking off 18 witnesses to keep it hushed up. Thus one would think that they'd also be able to bargain for group-interest privileges, as they have throughout modern history, without having to resort to such risky dealings.

There are also a fair share of half-truths in all this, and loose ends trip things up too. Ruby’s role in the plot is equivocally presented, and the Officer Tipitt shooting is very weakly explained. And what about those eighteen witnesses? Who were they? What did they witness? Trumbo and Miller don't get bogged down in details; they simply ignore them.

But it’s all a cop-out anyway. The film opens with a disclaimer that this scenario is, in effect, just a “maybe. “ And director David Miller has said in interviews, “We have no proof that these people in the film did it. The only thing we are trying to prove is that one man could not have accomplished this feat.” The most dismal failure of EXECUTIVE ACTION, then, is that, in fact, Miller & Co. present no persuasive, much less compelling, evidence leading to this conclusion either. Strip away all the leftwing fantasy, and there is nothing remaining that would be inconsistent with the theory that Oswald did it alone.

Still, variations on the same theme are on their way. The first to follow is THE PARALLAX VIEW, craftily directed by Alan J. Pakula, starring and financially backed (in part) by Warren Beatty—who also had a heavy hand in MICKEY ONE, that classic of the paranoid thriller genre. PARALLAX VIEW is a well-made film, with fine acting, solid visual technique, and a genuine feel for suspense. In another spirit, it could have made a nifty spy adventure tale in the tradition of THE IPCRESS FILE or a gruesome satire the likes of OUR MAN IN HAVANA. Regrettably, its makers opted for what Richard Hofstadter once dubbed “the paranoid style in American politics.” What we end up with is another item that blatantly exploits the JFK phenomenon. In this case, at the same time it also tends to induce a frightening paranoia in the minds of conspiracy buffs, pseudo-Marxists, and all types of people who, confused throughout their lives, find in such conspiracy-hatching a simultaneous scapegoat and a release hatch that provide both a confirmation of their ingrained insecurity and an easily-grasped version of a “meaning to it all.” More than this, the film ultimately fails to provide any viably political substance, nothing even to stimulate rational debate, discussion, or provocative contemplation.

The film begins with a good, liberal, Kennedy-type Senatorial candidate assassinated on top of Seattle’s Space Needle while giving July 4th speech. We see that there was a second assassin involved. An investigative commission, in a sequence presented in such a way as to make us feel that the court has convened in the darker pits of hell, concludes that the assassin was one lone nut. Three years later, it becomes apparent that people who were up there on the Needle that day are now being systematically knocked off because they are possible witnesses to what really happened. Beatty plays one of the attendants, a brash young newspaper reporter who at first dismisses those who cite conspiracy as explanation. But after he begins to smell something rotten about the fact that seven people who were up there have died already, he becomes a true believer. Especially important, he discovers that the whole thing is being run by the Parallax Corporation, an organization that hires certain psychological types (primarily anal-retentive in the extreme) as professional assassins, and then has them kill off select individuals in ways that make the victims’ deaths seem unplanned.

Those whom we see killed (or, in one case, almost killed) are, except for the possible witnesses, political candidates. However, nothing truly political is made of this. The candidates are, one supposes, variously liberal. Their views are never expressed, except on such vague, catch-all categories as “freedom, “ democracy,” and so forth. Likewise, the Parallax Corporation seems to be a mere assassination services organization, not necessarily rightwing or exclusively political in complexion. (It’s a big corporation, with East and West coast branches. If its sole function were to kill liberal politicians, one would think, there wouldn't be very many liberal politicians left.) Additionally, in what appears to be a mouthpiece-spoken speech, delivered by the Beatty character to his skeptical editor, it is stated that the Corporation is probably not a CIA or FBI outfit, and that the investigation by the Commission wasn't a deliberate cover up. However, at the end, Beatty is thought to be the assassin of a political candidate at a rally rehearsal. While running away, he’s machine-gunned down by a Parallax Corporation employee who’s waiting for him. Then we cut to a cold long shot of the same nearly faceless and soulless Commission that we saw in the beginning. The Commission’s Chief again pronounces the same conclusion of the group’s “rigorous” search into the matter, opining that Beatty was a lunatic in search of publicity. He then exhorts the press not to indulge in conspiracy-crying antics, and he adjourns the conference, no questions please. The Chief, we note, says nothing about Beatty’s being killed; so it seems that the Commission is part of a cover-up. But this jells with nothing else in the film. We get no sense of motivation, reason, or logic in its presentation.

In short, in both its general conception and in particular details, the men who made this film didn't know what the hell they were trying to accomplish. As in the EXECUTIVE ACTION disaster, there is no sense here of political dynamics. We know nothing about the makeup, structure, origin, or purpose of the Parallax Corporation—nor anything about the investigative Commission. One is tempted to guess that such nebulosity was deliberately calculated, so that whatever scenario the neurotic viewer might have in mind (the “corporate dictatorship,” CIA pervasiveness, infiltration of Organized Crime, perverted power elite, what have you), such a vision would be confirmed in the beholder’s mind.

But this hypothesis is doubtful, since the film is so obviously unplanned on other grounds. For example, it is absurd that the corporation waits three years to get at the two big journalists up on the Needle, since they are probably the most accessible witnesses of all. It is even more improbable that, when Beatty, under an assumed name, applies for membership in the Corporation, nobody recognizes him. On the same line, it is at best confusing that someone from PC is sent to poison Beatty’s editor, who is just coming to believe in a conspiracy. This would not happen unless they knew that the Beatty character had convinced the editor—in which case they would know who Beatty is, in which case they, obviously, would not have let him into the Corporation.

But noxious is the only word for THE PARALLAX VIEW’s implications. The Kennedy allusions are obvious. It’s implied that the PC has killed off all sorts of people, including most of the important political figures assassinated recently. The 18-witnesses routine recalls the JFK assassination “plot.” The political pretensions are slammed down our throats from start to finish. The inference drawn is that Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, James Earl Ray, Sirhan Sirhan and who knows how many others might have been—and there is that eternal tease copout: might have been—hired by some similar agency, the nature and raison d'etre of which are ... Unknown.

But if the internal logic of the film serves as any indication, it is improbable that these quite logical conclusions even occurred to anyone involved in the film’s production. Which leads to a basic question: Why was THE PARALLAX VIEW—and for that matter, why was EXECUTIVE ACTION—made? The answer seems fairly clear: Money. In this social climate, an audience for such rampant, illogical, unrealistic, paranoia-drenched entertainment exists. Indeed, EXECUTIVE ACTION was being rejected by all the studios—until Watergate flashed its way onto the television sets of millions and the front pages of every newspaper in the land. The box-office potential for such fare suddenly zoomed upward. As EXECUTIVE ACTION’s producer, Gary Horowitz, said, that made all the difference. In other words, these films are merely playing on the highly volatile sentiments of the time. Not in any rational or even truly relevant fashion, mind you—the films explain nothing about Watergate or any other political phenomenon—but simply for its own grubby sake.

And so, in this time of crisis, the conspiracy craze is being bolstered. As in most other times, there are superficial and extremely shaky foundations upon which conspiratorial scenarios can rest. There are plots in government, corporations do indulge in duplicity and intrigue, all these things in all their complexity appear highly mysterious to the general public. The paranoid mentality, however, is one that observes these general trends. Then, feeling surrounded and enclosed by them, the neurotic hysterically exaggerates the potency of the forces involved so that the paranoid himself won't feel as insignificant as he truly is. He proceeds to construct his “evidence” into a single, all-encompassing chain or pattern so that, finally, he feels superior to all the evil in the world, having exposed its underground roots. This reasoning requires several sometimes wild leaps into the imagination. Yet the paranoid is dexterous enough to keep the discourse on such a level as to make it all seem perfectly logical to those who feel equally insecure in life. As Hofstadter commented,

“The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a ‘vast’ or ‘gigantic’ conspiracy as the motive force in historical events. History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power.”

The whole notion of these vast conspiracies, as Mills and others have pointed out, is an unnecessary and misleading trifle. Social ills are manifestations of a social system, a power structure whose elites help shape and dominate social values through mutual sets of common interest, and by dint of similar backgrounds and training. This neither necessitates nor logically implies the notion, or even the efficacy, of conspiratorial assassination as a means of domination. To think that a few people in a single power core run the world, is to engage in mindless personality-politics, in short, to take an opiate.

But such is precisely the nature of these two films. In EXECUTIVE ACTION, the focal point of all power is traced to a small number of absolutely evil and omnipotent oil men. In THE PARALLAX VIEW, the audience is shown that anyone can be shot down at any moment, and this due to an anonymous, impersonal, fascistic Corporation whose offices exist somewhere up there in one of those tall skyscrapers that loom over the lone individual with such intimidation already.

The difference between this new wave of paranoia and most of the others that have come and gone is that, in the mid-20th century, we find that an exploitive mass medium (for the first time in the history of widespread paranoid sentiment) composes or copies ideas from the paranoid mentality and being tosses them out on display to a literate public. And that public is now attuned to and readily mobilized by several mass media, crowded in urban centers where neurotic patterns of behavior are naturally conducted, living without the assurance of a tomorrow, much less a hereafter. Further appeals to this atomized state of being can, if anything, only exacerbate tension and insecurity. Such films tend to confuse, frustrate and pamper, rather than attempt to clarify, enlighten and change. Such a political cinema in this country remains on this level of wanton non-thinking, with scare tactics and oversimplification spelled out as the name of the game. As long as it does so, it can make no contribution to enhancing the conditions of this country’s political reality. Indeed, if the terms of these films are taken as an assumption, any action by the viewer will only be in vain. The viewer will but be making footprints in the clouds.