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Conspiracy Theories, Then and Now

Issue 273

A 1974 movie starring Warren Beatty has a lot to tell us today about conspiracy theories and why they attract so many people.

Rosa Marín Aug 20

A recent Reuters Institute report suggests that over 40% of Americans “actively avoid the news … because it grinds them down or they just don’t believe it.” Who can blame them? 

We’re living through a cycle of crises often referred to as “unprecedented.” However, this era of stark inequality, conspiracies and political instability has some kinship with the early 1970s, the first haf of which were defined by the embarrassing retreat of American forces from Vietnam and the Watergate Scandal. The OPEC oil embargo of 1973 — Arab leaders’ reprisal to U.S. support of Israel as it annexed major territories in the Yom Kippur War — triggered a worldwide recession. Major urban centers from Los Angeles to New York City were in a state of decay. There was nowhere to turn; freedom fighters around the world were being stymied and killed. 

The United States was reeling from a succession of political assassinations: Malcolm X in 1965, Martin Luther King in 1968, liberal presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy barely two months later and the young Black Panther Party activist Fred Hampton in 1969. In Latin America, Che Guevara had been murdered by CIA-backed counterinsurgency forces in Bolivia in 1967, and Chilean ­democratic-socialist President Salvador Allende killed in a U.S.-backed military coup in 1973. That same year, the OPEC oil embargo triggered a worldwide recession.

Public trust in government was at an unprecedented low, paranoia permeated the air and despair had become “as American as apple pie” — the advertising tagline for The Parallax View, a pessimistic cinematic gem released in 1974. Directed by Alan J. Pakula, it starred Warren Beatty as Joe Frady, an alcoholic journalist trying to uncover the truth behind an assassination. It’s a merciless film born of a merciless time. 

Directed by Alan J. Pakula in 1974, The Parallax View is a merciless film born of a merciless time. 

The film’s opening minutes unfold quickly and viscerally: It’s July 4 in ­Seattle, and Senator Charles Carroll, an up-and-coming politician and possible presidential hopeful, is assassinated atop the Space Needle in front of his wife, journalists and numerous bystanders, including Frady. After a chaotic scramble and chase, the alleged assailant plunges to his death, falling off the Space Needle. There is no reviving Senator Carroll, and we realize we won’t be getting many answers as to who or what was behind the assassination. 

The film does an excellent job at punctuating helplessness, such as when a faceless and nameless “committee,” shrouded in cinematographer Gordon Willis’ sinister shadows, tells the world that months of investigation and hearings have revealed that Senator Carroll was killed by a lone gunman. There is no “wider conspiracy.” Instead, it was an individual, now dead, with a “misguided sense of patriotism” and a “psychotic desire for public recognition.” 

The film’s ominous opening scene.

This explanation isn’t enough for Frady, as he slowly uncovers that the Carroll assassination is but a minute note in the grand orchestra of The Parallax Corporation, an entity with more sway than the American government. However, if the film title’s usage of the word “parallax” is any indicator, depending on from where one is looking, The Parallax Corporation could be an arm of the American government or vice-versa.

The film’s reality isn’t just relatable because of the existence of the simultaneously omnipresent and secretive corporation. It also expertly conveys the helplessness one individual feels in an increasingly complicated world, prophesying our era’s heightened obsession with shadowy cabals and mass murders by supposedly crazed, often white-supremacist lone gunmen. Vulnerability and isolation are amplified by the film’s wide shots, which  frame Warren Beatty’s Frady against large backdrops such as dams, buildings and crowds.

The film’s blindingly brilliant ending offers no way out in the face of calamity, warning us not to fall into the same trap as Joe Frady, who loses himself trying to single-handedly uncover an insurmountable plot.

Cinematographer Gordon Willis, known for his work on the first two Godfather films, shrouds much of this world in shadows. The shadows are so prevalent that one scene in particular, framing Joe Frady in the middle of a translucent room right before he is submitted to a visual test by The Parallax Corporation, comes as a shock to the eyes. This visual test, a centerpiece scene in a film with numerous contenders for such a distinction, disorients the viewer via a masterclass of editing and image-association that steadily turns dizzyingly violent. After the test, we’re not sure what spell we, the audience, has been put under, not to mention what has occurred to our all-too-curious journalist.

While there is something unique to The Parallax View’s Kafkaesque approach to the labyrinthine complexities of corporations and governments, the film was part of a wider movement known as the New American Cinema that for years directly and indirectly expressed dissatisfaction with the health of the body politic. In brief, the New American Cinema was the coalescence of various film movements, such as Italian neo-realism and the French Nouvelle Vague (or New Wave), at the intersection of young gallant American directors, such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, and studios willing to take a risk in them. Many of the films of the New American Cinema featured disaffected and alienated, if not outright disturbed protagonists, as seen in films as disparate as Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967) and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). These films didn’t offer easy solutions, nor did they wish to, as they embodied an angst and anger that had replaced the hopes shot down by assassins or beaten by police in the late-60s.

Pakula would go on to direct All the President’s Men (1976), which dramatized the Washington Post’s reporting of President Richard Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate scandal. The cynicism of Joe Frady’s ’70s eventually gave way to the yuppie decadence of the ’80s and Ronald Reagan, who brought the far right to power in Washington. 

Society crumbles in Alan Pakula‘s Parallax View.

The world of 2022 is as confusing and complicated as it is grim, which is what makes believing in conspiracy theories easy for a lot of people. Coupled with the lack of a materialist analysis of the world and no widespread politics of hope, late capitalism has created a cultural void that distracts from the fact that the rich and the powerful are actively conspiring against the workers of the world. Its compartmentalizing and isolating apparatuses heighten the risk of falling prey to false and predatory theories. Lone shooters are radicalized and inspired by the connections they make in the darker realms of the Internet. 

In watching The Parallax View in 2022, with the film depicting a powerful corporate cabal secretly orchestrating political assassinations and acts of terrorism to benefit the status quo, this writer could not help but draw parallels with the far right’s obsession with conspiracy theories such as QAnon, whose followers believe Donald Trump will save the world from a satanic cabal of pedophiles that includes Democratic politicians and Hollywood actors. Spawned on the internet nearly a half decade ago, the followers of QAnon exhibit a cult-like reverence to this all-encompassing theory as they wait for the return of Donald Trump to the presidency and the final defeat of the Satanic pedophiles. Since shortly after the turn of the new millennium, masses of individuals, mostly on the far-right, have grasped onto many a conspiracy. Meanwhile, legitimate questioning of government and power gets you labeled as a conspiracy theorist, anarchist, terrorist, etc. 

The film’s blindingly brilliant ending offers no way out in the face of calamity, warning us not to fall into the same trap as Joe Frady, who loses himself trying to single-handedly uncover an insurmountable plot. Given the current level of demobilization on the left, it’s hard to see how we can stop large calamities like war, climate change and a looming recession. However, we can organize our buildings, our workplaces and continue showing up for our neighbors at mutual aid spaces with an eye toward the day when we can fight for broader, systemic change. It is in these smaller settings that we can foster community and prepare for whatever is coming our way. The way to a better world isn’t by checking out, it’s by turning on, tuning in and doing something about it.The film is the second in Pakula’s loosely-related Paranoia Trilogy, following Klute (1971) and preceding All the President’s Men (1976).

The Parallax View
Directed by Alan J. Pakula, 1974
Paramount Pictures, 102 min.

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