The “crisis in confidence” we described in the previous chapter coincided in the seventies with the appearance in film of desires for powerful leaders and secure institutions, desires that would be realized in the 1980s with the coming to power of a right-wing president. If culture precedes and prepares the way for politics, then in this case politics followed culture with a mimetic vengeance, filling in all the psychological gaps that are so evident in films of the period. But the crisis of confidence also led to a set of critical demolitions and reconstructions on the level of cultural representation. Previously respected institutions like government and business were cast in a negative light, and the crisis of confidence gave rise to a confidence of criticism. Indeed, it was what conservatives later would call the spirit of “self-flagellation,” the liberal and radical critique of American society which culminated in the mid-seventies, that provoked many to turn to a more affirmative and positive vision offered by conservatives in the eighties.
Here we will examine from a historical perspective the impact of that critical spirit on the generic patterns of Hollywood film. Genre films have been some of the most powerful instruments of ideology, as we saw in the last chapter. They secure a sense of object constancy by providing a sense of repetition and familiarity. But the close tie between genre films and social ideology means as well that genre films are among the most fragile forms, the most vulnerable to the effects of social change. A crisis of confidence in public institutions is necessarily a crisis of the cultural representational forms that construct the social world in a way that helps hold those institutions together, endowing them with the psychological glue of credibility and legitimacy. Distrust of leaders leads predictably at this time to a debunking of the cultural icons associated with the ideology of business and government leadership. The basing of self-identity on cultural representations of public authority implies that disappointment on the public level is felt as a personal disappointment, wound, or loss. For this reason, perhaps, Jimmy Carter, widely perceived as a somewhat ineffectual leader, was the final straw in conservative tolerance of liberal criticism. The middle of his reign coincides with a turn from criticism to affirmation in American culture (1977-78) that marks the beginning of the triumph of conservatism in the contemporary era. Thus, a study of generic transformations at this time also entails a study of the failure of liberalism in the seventies.
The cultural radicalism of the sixties initiated the debunking of public institutions and generic stereotypes through camp parody. The darker, more pessimistic mood of the mid-seventies emerges in the generic noir revival, as well as in the development of a new generic cycle of conspiracy films. These changes describe a trajectory from criticism to pessimism that culminates around 1977. This is the highpoint of liberal reappraisal, but it is also the point when the failure of liberalism during the contemporary period is most clear. The Carter presidency signaled that the Democrats were no longer capable of handling the sort of economic crisis that two major recessions had brought about. While Carter was blaming Americans morally for the country’s economic dilemmas, the people were demonstrating, through the appeal of certain films around 1978, that they wanted a more positive sense of the future, a more affirmative political vision. After the peak of pessimism around 1977, more affirmative and optimistic generic transformations occur—the rediscovery of fantasy adventure films (Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark), sports success films (Rocky), neomilitarist war films (The Deer Hunter), mindless musicals (Grease), urban neowesterns (Every Which Way but Loose), and conservative family melodramas (The Turning Point). If these latter events prefigure the resurgence of conservatism in American political life, the mid-seventies films can be read as cinematic articulations of the failure of liberalism that would pave the way for that resurgence.
Genres hold the world in place, establishing and enforcing a sense of propriety, of proper boundaries which demarcate appropriate thought, feeling, and behavior and which provide frames, codes, and signs for constructing a shared social reality. We are speaking now of genres in a broad sense which includes the different areas of social behavior—public as well as private. Each area is a locus of conventionally determined behavior, and we have argued that the prevailing generic division in American social life segregates a hypertropically empathetic or sentimental “home” and family life from a capitalist work world whose conventions prescribe either cutthroat competition or obedience, separation or fusion. Film genres participate in this process by sorting out the different values and ideals a social order requires to be internalized if it is to survive. The traditional western, for example, aided the construction of a social reality in which it was believed that males appropriately dominated the public sphere, while the traditional melodrama constructed a social reality, a commonly held set of precepts, attitudes, and beliefs, which promoted the domestic sphere as the one appropriate to women. Transformations in these social arenas necessarily provoke changes on the level of the cultural representations that hold them in place. This is what seems to have happened as a result of the movements of the sixties and the social crises of the seventies. Fundamental social attitudes like patriotism, optimism, trust in government and business, sense of social security, and so on were either deliberately overturned by such things as the counterculture or undermined by events like Watergate. As a result, the generic divisions which maintained boundaries around proper public dress and behavior or between public morality and immorality were crossed. Idealized cultural representations of public authority in the western and detective genres, for example, could no longer hold in a society in which young people scorned public figures and repudiated authority. Similarly, the cultural ideals seemed less valid the more the people they figuratively idealized (presidents, for example) proved corrupt and inept.
Some of the most critical revisions of traditional genres during this period were carried out on the western, the detective, and the musical. Each was associated in the American cultural tradition with ideological values and institutions—the frontier myth, individualism, the ladder of success, magical romance. During this period, all three genres underwent transformation, and these transformations coincided with changes in the values and institutions that the generic representations helped construct.
Genres depend on receptive audiences who are willing to grant credibility to the conventions of the genre to the extent that those conventions become invisible. Once that is accomplished the generic illusion can assume the character of verisimilitude. It no longer seems to be constituted through the manipulation of coded formulae. A certain occlusion of rhetoric and convention, therefore, is crucial to the successful transmission of ideological beliefs to the audience. What this means, however, is that once the generic conventions are foregrounded, the genre can no longer operate successfully as a purveyor of ideology. The conventions become unstable and variable; history increasingly intervenes in the realm of myth; and the generic signifiers themselves increasingly become signifieds, the referents of films rather than the active agents of cinematic practice, a matter of content rather than a vital form.
This process can also be described rhetorically. Genres are metaphors. Generic idealization (of the western hero, for example) enlists those who might be moved to dispute the reigning social divisions, as a result of material oppression, into the maintenance of their unequal position. The western hero made capitalism legitimate even for those on the out because, as a metaphor, he universalized specific concrete interests, making them abstract and transportable across class lines. Detached from their specific capitalist class anchor, they could be moved and adopted by other class groups.
What undermines generic idealization is the reduction of the metaphor to its literal components, the framing of the metaphor so that it ceases to be universal and becomes citable as an example of a specific rhetorical strategy. The ideal thus becomes historicized and materialized. All of these can be described as metonymic rhetorical moves. Each renders the generic ideal material in a way which displays the concrete connections which link it to the specific social realities that metaphor seemed to transcend.
All genres create a tradition that can become an object to be cited, an occasion for reflexivity. In the western, this tendency is exacerbated by the fact that the western is linked to a specific historical moment that has passed. The classical Hollywood western resolved contradictions between economic reality and cultural ethos in a way that permitted the changing configurations of American capitalism to be made legitimate for the public. It was an essentially conservative genre. Perhaps for this reason alone it was damaged by the cultural revolutions of the sixties, which were characterized by a liberal ethic that rejected many of its major values. By the mid-seventies, the western had all but disappeared from the screen.
Classic westerns like Red River and Shane promoted values of competitive individualism at a time when the U.S. economy was still relatively market-oriented, while later westerns like The Professionals and The Wild Bunch legitimate the technocratic-elitist ideology of corporate capitalism.1 As U.S. capitalism becomes more corporatist, technocratic, and “postindustrial,” it is no longer appropriate or effective for western myths to portray a world of rugged individualist competition in a frontier setting that is an allegorical version of the capitalist marketplace. Nor is a myth of a corporate elite on horseback sufficient. The social alliances that capitalism must forge to survive require myths that contain a range of character types which can represent government, labor, and business, as well as different professions and ethnic groups. These diverse groups must then be able to band together against a shared external enemy in order to legitimate the new class alliances. The western could no longer supply these needs by the mid-1970s. No external enemy from the western repertoire could be placed on the horizon, and the western’s range of characters, designed for heroizing entrepreneurial capitalism within the context of a threatening frontier-market, could not supply the ideological needs of a transnational capital faced increasingly with a threat less from domestic government (which could easily be reined in) than from the Soviet Union and from national liberation movements that increasingly turned to socialism rather than capitalism. High-tech transnational westerns like Star Wars seem to be the solution. They have the needed character range, the external enemy who represents various forms of the current nemesis of capital, and a technological environment that is itself an advertisement for a robotized, automated, and computerized economic system. Capitalism in crisis would seek more mythic and fantastic fare to purvey its ideology of superior entrepreneurial individuals to whose elite executive power all of society should submit while forming a seamless corporatist order—Jedi Knights, for example.2
Instead of legitimating entrepreneurial individualism or corporate professionalism, by the early seventies the western tends either to demystify the myth of the West or to depict the closing of the frontier and the end of the mythic space of the traditional western (Will Penny, Monte Walsh, etc.). During this period, the western undergoes a process whereby its conventions are made visible; it increasingly assumes the form of a tradition that is reflected on and referred to in film. That process takes several forms—elegy, historical realism, and genre subversion and satire. Perhaps the most elegaic filmmaker of the era is Sam Peckinpah. In films like Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, and Junior Bonner, the western conventions are signaled as being lost. The usual generic motifs of individual heroism and male bonding are represented as under siege from mass urban society and from corporate interests that put values of money and efficiency before the blood and friendship bonds that define the ethos of Peckinpah’s West. His “post-westerns” nostalgically mourn the passing of the West and the increasing obsolescence of the western hero in the modern world. The conventions are cited as belonging to an earlier era.
His films are particularly interesting ideologically because the theme of the passing of the West is invariably linked to a nostalgia for a small-business world of heroic entrepreneurship prior to the ascendance of corporate capitalism. For example, in The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) and Junior Bonner (1972) the main characters are latter-day cowboys or individualist small businessmen who are out of place in a modernizing and corporatized world. For each, the end of the frontier where individual courage can be proven is associated with big money (either banks or businessmen) and machines. The disappearance of the frontier is signaled by the car, a symbol of modernity, that kills Cable and the bulldozer that destroys Junior’s father’s house. Whereas Junior’s brother commercializes the West by turning it into a tourist attraction, Junior upholds the cowboy values of individualism and silent courage. On the other hand, Cable Hogue stands for small-business values against a stagecoach company; in his case, the theme of the end of the frontier is joined to a statement about the end of a small-business economy.
In Peckinpah’s films, the idealized myth is still operative, but now there is some separation of the myth from its signifiers. Without any real content, the signifiers themselves are exaggerated and shifted to the foreground. The cinematography of the death scenes of High Country and Wild Bunch is selfconsciously mythologizing; departing from the usual reality effect of the traditional western, it makes the dying men larger than life and highlights the conventionality of the hero. (An even more self-consciously cinematic version of the separation of myth from reality is evident in Siegel’s The Shootist (1976); as much an elegy to John Wayne as actor as to the western character he plays, it begins with a series of clips from Wayne’s western movies.)
A cycle of more historically “realistic” westerns, initiated in the 1960s, depicted the West as dirty, hostile, and violent. These representations undermined the mythology of the western hero and the generic idealization which legitimated the violence of the “good” hero against “bad” Native Americans, Mexicans, or villains. The historical realism of films like Cheyenne Autumn, Soldier Blue, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, and The Missouri Breaks presented both outlaws and established authorities as vicious killers whose use of violence was equally arbitrary and destructive; in addition, the films frequently presented Native Americans sympathetically.3 These films also often display the conventionality of the western by ignoring the conventions altogether, or by explicitly recoding them. Far from being a conventional western hero, McCabe is a brothel owner who shoots men in the back, while Brando’s “regulator” in The Missouri Breaks is a paid executioner who dresses in drag and shoots men while they’re at toilet and the central character is a rustler who grows cabbages as a cover.
Finally, in satiric films like Robert Downey’s Greasers’ Palace (1972) and Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles (1974) the conventions are made fully visible. Brooks’s film ends by breaking the fictional frame entirely—the actors leave the western set, get into a fight on the set of a musical, and go watch themselves in a theater. And Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1977) self-consciously exposes the pretentiousness of western myths and ideals.
The eclipse of the western was thus fostered both by the subversion of its generic conventions and by its exhaustion as a mode of ideological legitimation. The change confirms the triumph of liberalism over traditional conservative interest groups, which is the political hallmark of institutional politics during the sixties. And it signals the transformation of the United States from a small-business economy into a full-blown transnational corporate economy. Yet first indicators of the ultimate faltering of liberalism in the late seventies are signaled by the absence of any affirmative alternatives to the western, of anything asserting a post-western, post-conservative set of liberal values and ideals. The Hollywood liberals could debunk the conservative myths of the traditional genre, but by not filling the gap with an alternative vision, they portrayed themselves as a negative force and left the discovery of a positive alternative to the conservatives. One major problem, of course, was that liberals had no alternative vision to offer, and as the mid-seventies ushered in the closest thing to a depression the United States had seen in half a century (the social discomfort index was the highest since the thirties), that lack became striking. Thus, the political triumph of Democratic liberals in the mid-seventies (the post-Watergate war on government corruption and CIA wrongdoing, as well as the overthrow in 1976 of an incumbent Republican president) coincided unfortunately with economic recession, and the negative critical spirit of seventies liberalism could not respond to the psychological needs for reassurance generated by this crisis. An increasing sense of frustration is especially apparent in the transformation in the detective genre during this time.
Mid-seventies private and police detective films like Serpico and Chinatown articulate the mid-seventies liberal ethos by depicting a society that is controlled by corrupt economic and political elites. Chinatown (1974), directed by Roman Polanski and written by Robert Towne, inserts into the private detective genre the figures of skepticism and pessimism that were prevalent in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era. The story depicts the effects of water and land monopolies in 1930s Southern California and portrays a society dominated by a corrupt economic elite. Detective J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) investigates a public water scandal and learns that water is being diverted for private ends by a ruthless mogul, Noah Cross (John Huston). Gittes falls in love with Cross’s daughter, Evelyn (Faye Dunaway), who agrees to help Gittes because her husband was murdered by Cross, the father of her illegitimate child by incest. Cross is an unscrupulous capitalist patriarch, and “Chinatown” (a generic reference to the concluding setting of Welles’s noir classic A Lady from Shanghai) is a metaphor for an environment controlled by ruthless men and for a world where the good intentions of decent individuals only result in the death of innocents.
Chinatown, in an anti-heroic gesture consistent with the sixties sensibility that lies behind it, recodes the figure of the detective hero by portraying Gittes as a flawed man who cannot control events. Throughout much of the film he wears a bandage on his nose, signifying his weakness and vulnerability. The tough guy detective of Hammett, Chandler, and others, by contrast, is a paragon of individualism who is courageous, resourceful, and usually successful. He stands outside of the corrupt universe that he inhabits, subscribes to his own code of honor, and usually succeeds in exposing and defeating evil. Such a figure, Chinatown suggests, is an anachronism. In the film’s pessimistic conclusion, Evelyn is killed by the police, and Gittes’s involuntary complicity in her death is suggested by the fact that he is handcuffed to the policeman who shoots her. Gittes tries to explain what has really been going on, but is rebuffed; one of his associates tells him at the end, “Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown.” A formulaic film noir crane longshot of the street, as the camera elevates (a reference to the opening sequence of another Welles noir film, Touch of Evil), shows the dark environment enveloping and overpowering the small human figures, powerless against the dominant social powers.
Chinatown is a striking articulation of mid-seventies cultural pessimism, and it suggests the direction the liberal critique of traditional conservative economic interests was taking. Indeed, the entire film noir revival of the mid-seventies can be said to instantiate the emerging reality of political liberalism—that it was powerless against the entrenched economic power blocs of the country. It could do nothing against steep price rises and the bleeding of the country by oil companies. It is in the tragic figure of the noir detective, determined to do right yet incapable of changing the basic realities, that the liberal ideal, with all of its well-deserved self-pity, finds its strongest expression at this point in time.
Traditionally the film noir of the late forties and early fifties depicts a dark world of contending, sometimes ambiguous, moral forces, in which deception, treachery, and murder are commonplace. Dialog is frequently abrasive, and the style is usually characterized by night shooting, dark shadows, sharp lighting contrasts, askew camera angles, symbolic environments, and convoluted narratives (the classic example of which is The Big Sleep). These films frequently feature detectives who operate on the edge of the law as hard-bitten loners only marginally able to relate to women (who are frequently the source of evil). The films usually expose corrupt wealth and power; crime and business often seem interchangeable.
Indeed, the noir world is characterized by crossed boundaries. In films like Out of the Past, moral transgression is connoted by backlit figures whose boundaries merge. The breakdown of representational clarity is associated frequently with a collapse of conservative moral imperatives. More often than not, these transgressions are recuperated, and many noir films end moralistically, affirming traditional morality, often in natural settings. Nevertheless there is something troubling to a conservative social ideal of proper distinctions in this breakdown of representation. That the lines can be crossed at all suggests that they are conventional, rather than natural. These films thus underscore the link between styles of representation and the institutions of social order.
The revival of the noir form after 1967) Point Blank and Bonnie and Clyde—considered as a reprise of They Live by Night—arguably the initiators) could be said to coincide with the breakdown of conservative moral and social boundaries that characterized the sixties. As in earlier noir films, in contemporary films like Night Moves (1975) it is difficult to sort out good from evil in a clearly boundaried way. Normal institutions like motherhood are corrupt; and the trust usually associated with family relations is betrayed. The supposedly innocent delve into incest, but their death is not in any way justified as moral retribution. The moral dilemma is often due to the incursion of the past, the return of the repressed. Noir flashbacks often highlight the power of past guilt in determining the present, and this abreactive form undermines the “eternal present” of Hollywood film, the appearance that everything occurs in a nonhistorical space. The narrative turns in these films are part of a general moral rhetoric which confuses simplistic conservative moral judgment by overturning the logic of moral responsibility. If individuals are evil, it is usually because they are examples of a class structure.
The contemporary noir revivals can be said to pertain, then, to that strain of populist distrust or loss of confidence which animates so much of the critical activity of the era. The rich and powerful are usually portrayed as corrupt, and this representation was not very distant from the actual characterization of them in the media at the time. Yet the films also say something about the transformations in liberalism during the era. The demise of public confidence and the erosion of public institutions took a toll on public psychology that could not ultimately be remedied by liberal kindness and self-reflection. In 1967, the noir hero of Point Blank could walk away from wealth after having struggled to recover what was rightfully his. It is a sixties gesture, a righteous rejection of a corrupt world in favor of personal salvation. By 1975, after the rejected world had proven just how corrupt it really was, it was no longer possible to pose a realm of personal righteousness against the structures of power.
The mid-seventies noir revivals are distinguished by a sense of pessimism devoid of even the individual triumphs that the traditional noir detective enjoyed. Marlowe (Robert Mitchum) in the remake of Farewell, My Lovely (1975) remarks, “I’ve run out of trust in this joint” and “Everything I touch turns to shit.” Distrust constitutes wisdom in this world, and power is defined exclusively in monetary terms. The detective is even more flawed in Penn’s Night Moves. “I didn’t solve anything,” Harry Moseby says. “I just fell in on top of things.” Moseby is a virtuous man, but even the ethical gestures that seemed to redeem things a bit in Farewell count for little in Night Moves. Everyone double-crosses; all are out for profit; and the innocent are slaughtered in the process. The plight of the detective is that, like Gittes, he himself becomes an inadvertent perpetrator of evil. He ends up in a boat which goes around in circles.
Thus, the mid-seventies peak of liberalism in American culture is characterized by a sense of hopelessness about structural, especially economic, corruption. As the decade progressed, the shortcomings of the liberal agenda became more emphatically marked, and the people eventually fled from an ineffectual Democrat to an affirmative Republican. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the detective genre swung back into line. And despite the portrayal of a humane and successful noir detective in Burt Reynolds’s Sharkey’s Machine (1982), by the early eighties Clint Eastwood was back as a tough detective in Sudden Impact (1983) and Tightrope (1984), and he and others like Lawrence Kasdan even attempted to revive the western (Pale Rider, Silverado). The period of contestation leaves its mark, however. After criticism, ideology cannot simply continue as it was. It must recompose itself in the terms of its adversary. It is significant, therefore, that a seventies Dirty Harry film like Magnum Force (scripted by John Milius and Michael Cimino) must respond to criticism of vigilantism aimed at Dirty Harry by showing Harry fighting police vigilantes, or that The Gauntlet (1978) seems to respond to charges of sexism by showing a strong woman. The genre even comes to incorporate its own satire in City Heat, in which Reynolds and Eastwood play detectives who at one point comically compare the size of each other’s guns. The continued popularity of macho detective films like Sudden Impact, however, confirms the power and success of conservative representations in the early eighties.
Transformations in another traditionally ideological genre—the musical—substantiate our claim that there is a strong relation between changes in sociocultural configurations and changes in generic representational forms. Early to mid-seventies musicals evidence the critical spirit we have noticed in certain western and detective films. Later musicals, however, indicate the turn American culture was taking in the late seventies toward more conservative visions.
Barbra Streisand’s characterization of singer Fanny Brice in Funny Girl (1968) and Funny Lady (1975), two of the most popular musicals of the era, depicted Brice’s failures to find love and happiness within her musical career. Both were strikingly pessimistic in comparison to earlier musicals. Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972) projected an even darker vision of life in Nazi Germany on the eve of Hitler’s ascension to power; it uses the musical review format to engage in social critique through songs that satirize bourgeois values. The story of the sexually freewheeling Sally Bowles and her gay friend—Christopher Isherwood—in Berlin is recounted in a quasi-Brechtian narrative that ironically intercuts scenes of Nazi violence with images of cabaret performances. The juxtaposition of historical realist scenes with melodramatic segments creates a sense both of menace and of blithe ignorance. The rhetorical strategy is evocative, a warning of sorts against naivete. The love story, once again, is of failed rather than successful romance.
If Cabaret breaks down the boundaries between conventional stage performances and historical events, it also crosses sexual and moral boundaries of the sort a conservative mentality would prefer held fast. It instantiates the personal or cultural radicalism of the era, which sought to reconstruct structures of social relations around such issues as homosexuality and women’s sexual liberation. Its style is metonymic or disseminatory, rather than metaphoric. The rhetorical strategy of juxtaposition suggests contiguous relations between stage art and real events, and it thereby demystifies the aura of art which usually operates to elevate certain values into metaphoric absolutes. In this film, values are contingent, matters open to decision and construction, and representation pertains as much to the social as to the artistic world. Such a viewpoint, however, imposes responsibility, and it is a significant indictment of the characters’ naivete regarding the rise of fascism that their irresponsible lives are narrated in juxtaposition to that event. Yet the film is not moralistic on this point. It celebrates their very nonfascist liberality, while also questioning it. If the rhetoric of the film is metonymic, it is also to a certain extent undecidable—a refusal to draw absolute moral boundaries or to exercise judgment. Even the Nazis are presented for what they are—blond-haired singers of charming songs who are capable of murder.
Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977) is equally pessimistic, another articulation of the critical spirit pervading American culture down through the mid-seventies. A “realist” musical, it situates the narrative of failed love between a singer and a musician in the era of the great musicals. The film is critical to the extent that it depicts a man’s inability to accept the independence and success of his female partner. The segregation of music onto the stage in critical musicals of this sort suggests that the transformation of everyday life in traditional musical numbers was becoming an impossibility for modern audiences and calls attention in itself to the artificiality of musical conventions.
It is significant that New York was made in 1977, roughly the high point of the critical, satiric, pessimistic vision of the seventies. It is the year of Annie Hall, Missouri Breaks, Twilight’s Last Gleaming, and other countergeneric, critical, or pessimistic films. With that year, the critical noir revival also comes to an end. If the major box-office films of 1976 are One Flow over the Cuckoo’s Nest and All the President’s Men, the hits of 1977 are Star Wars and Rocky. They signal the beginning of an affirmative tendency that would continue into the eighties. Criticism gives way increasingly to ideology. It is of course also the first year after the end of the “Watergate era,” the first year of the tenure of a new president who promised national renewal (only to fail).
The changeover is marked in the musical genre by Grease, the most popular film of 1978, which returned to the conventional musical format and revived as well patterns of ritualized romance, traditional gender modeling, and masculinist posturing. It also participated in the nostalgic return to simpler times that would mark the youth film of the period and brought back defanged fifties popular music, women in bobby socks, and “greaser” ducktail haircuts. All the social crises and tensions that made the seventies so insecure, and escapist fantasies like Star Wars or Grease so popular, evaporate into worries over dates.
A history of significant generic transformations during this period thus can be mapped onto sociopolitical changes. And those transformations indicate important movements in the metamorphosis of American culture from liberalism to conservatism. The demolition of the western myth under a satiric and critical liberal gaze from the late sixties through the mid-seventies helps create a vacuum of ideology, the lack of a reassuring set of beliefs, ideals, and values in a culture whose traditional institutions had been undermined. That vacuum gives rise to a sense of loss, pessimism, and despair that appears cinematically in the mid-seventies noir revival films as a hopeless vision of the social universe. But out of the night, affirmations emerged. The vacuum began to be filled in the late seventies, with revivalist visions of the sort on display in some musicals of the era. The only problem is that those visions sometimes took the form of men who carried whips, which they occasionally used on women and non-whites, or rode space battleships that fired torpedoes at Soviet-like enemies. The night coincided with the failure of liberalism during this epoch, and the emergence into light in consequence coincided with affirmations of conservative values and ideals.
The social problem film genre has traditionally been a battleground between conservatives and liberals regarding such social issues as crime, political corruption, drugs, and youth gangs. In the late forties especially, the social problem genre was characterized by liberal and leftist points of view. The susceptibility of the genre to political change was demonstrated in the fifties, when, during a period of conservative ascendancy, the percentage of social problem films fell off markedly.4 The leftist revival of the sixties brought with it a renewal of interest in the genre. Indeed, one of the major generic transformations of the era is a revival of the social problem film in the seventies and eighties. These films testify to the power of the new anticonservative voices that were unharnessed by the social radicalism of the sixties. Yet they also are a major indicator of some of the crucial shortcomings of liberalism which would lead to its defeat in the late seventies.
In the seventies and eighties, crime and problems of criminal justice were a major focus of social problem films. While liberals continued to militate for more humane ways of dealing with crime, conservatives countered with arguments for harsher punishment. Eventually they would win out, and one sign of their success is the eventual return of the death penalty accompanied by strong public support.
While liberal social problem films of the early to mid-seventies like Serpico (1973) concentrated on corruption in the institutions of criminal justice, conservative films tended to portray crime as a problem best solved by violence. Crime in these films is the result of an evil human nature, not of social conditions. The popular “Dirty Harry” films (Dirty Harry, number 5 in box-office gross in 1972; Magnum Force, number 4 in 1974; The Enforcer, number 8 in 1977) are the most notorious examples. In these films, Harry generally has as difficult a time battling liberals as he does criminals or terrorists.
A less strident antiliberal statement is made in Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). Scriptwriter Schrader’s usual heavy-handedness is salvaged somewhat by Scorsese’s lighter, more ironic touch. An inarticulate bumpkin, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), is stranded between a cosmopolitan liberal social world that has no place for the likes of him and the underworld of drugs, sex, and youth gangs that he detests. He drives a taxi, a ploy that permits him to observe the seedier side of city life. After being rebuked by a blonde campaign worker for a liberal politician, Travis meets a young prostitute, buys guns, and eventually cracks up. His attempt to assassinate the liberal politician fails, so instead he decides to liberate the prostitute by killing her pimp. He becomes a media hero. Travis’s choice of targets is not altogether fortuitous, for it is the liberals, according to conservatives, who are responsible for the “moral” corruption Travis turns to instead of the politician. The narrative displacement suggests that liberal permissiveness and hypocrisy allow crime and vice to flourish.
The film displays the shortcomings of the moral response to social inequality. The categories of moral thought are personal and individualistic. The notion of systemic “evil” is alien to it. Moral programs thus seem inevitably to demand the punishment of individuals, rather than the transformation of systems. The moral conscience is fetishistic because it breaks down complex ethical problems into discrete elements—individuals and individual acts—and because it privileges single acts of violence as vehicles of individual redemption.
Visual texture correlates with Travis’s moralistic paranoia and instantiates the ethical fetishism of the film. The recurrent images of smoke, expressionistically represented colored lights, and the pervasive use of red visually code the city as an inferno. Like his moralism, the style is fetishistic. The opening shots of the taxi emerging from the fog to the sound of neo-fifties Bernard Herrmann music suggests both terror and reverence, two components of paranoid fetishism. Like a fetish, the taxi seems to transcend its surroundings and to elicit a riveting attention. Moreover, throughout the film, Travis’s experience of the city is represented through images that underscore the fragmented nature of that experience. As he drives, images of small parts of the taxi—the outside mirror, the windshield, the rearview mirror—make up the composite of his phenomenal world. The style concentrates on fragmented and isolated parts instead of wholes, and the camera is enclosed, like Travis himself; it looks out on a world that can only appear threatening from so circumscribed a point of view. The representational rhetoric of the film, therefore, is as fragmentary and fetishistic as Travis’s moral vision. It touches on surfaces and immediate street-level experiences, but it does not indicate the interconnections of the system that gives rise to the things that repulse Travis and motivate his actions. A more radical filmmaker might have used the vehicle of the taxi driver to depict the tremendous inequalities of wealth that are on display in large cities like New York. And such a depiction would have probably required a different representational style altogether, one that would be less fetishistic, one more concerned with the metonymic relations between the different parts of the social system, more tolerant in consequence of difference in point of view, and therefore more multiple in its perspective. The alternative to conservative representations of fusion or isolated withdrawal into hyperbole is therefore not “realism” in its banal empirical sense, but rather a complex, systemic, and differentiated representation of the object world in its interconnectedness. And such a representation entails a conceptual and abstract understanding of the operative principles and underlying or nonempirical rules of the social system.
The social problem film that made the most explicit statement for the conservative position on crime was the vigilante film Death Wish (1974), in which a liberal who is initially tolerant of urban crime converts to a radically conservative position when his wife is murdered by a gang of young thieves. It is noteworthy that the vehicle of his conversion is a Sunbelt rightist, the social type that would indeed take over from the liberals in the eighties as the dominant social policy voice in the country. His social views are bolstered by an ideology of nature—that new housing developments, which are meant to be white enclaves, should conform to the shape of the land—which will, as the decade advances, come increasingly to be the justification for a number of right-wing themes—the market, the family, patriarchal authority, etc.
A comparison of the film with a liberal film of the period—Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975)—dramatizes the differences between the conservative and liberal postures on crime while displaying the ways different representational or rhetorical strategies construct distinct realities.
The rhetorical format of Death Wish combines ironic cynicism with romantic sentimentalism. The film signals the sentimentalist basis of its predatory conservative social ideology at the outset. Paul Kersey and his wife are in nature (a white middle-class tourist nature—Hawaii), basking in romantic sunsets. She is his fetish object, a treasure captured in photographs. Throughout the film, women are associated with whiteness, purity, and religion. It is significant that it is an attack on this sepulchral femininity that motivates Paul’s conversion to conservatism. The dual structure of private sentimentalism and public violence is, we have suggested, characteristic of conservative social thinking. The necessity of male public violence is associated with the hyperbolic elevation of the female private sphere as a locus of empathy. An extreme form of fragility, that sphere must be defended. The attitude appropriate for such violent defense is ironic cynicism, a pose which demeans others and situates them as distanced objects. A deflationary stance, it hyperbolically reduces the value of others, transforming them into targets of literal violence. It is fitting, then, that the film alternates between scenes of cloying sentiment, as when Paul visits his catatonic daughter, and scenes of extreme objectification, when Paul kills muggers and blacks and poor people. Indeed, the entire narrative is dominated by a rather nasty irony. Paul’s liberalism is ironized by the brutal treatment of his family by criminals; the liberal city government officials are ironized by the fact that Paul’s exploits reduce crime, obliging them to want to squelch the story. The cynical rhetoric is evident in one aside particularly: a conservative woman says snidely to a man who complains that the vigilante’s victims are primarily black that perhaps the number of white muggers should be increased by affirmative action “so that we’ll have racial equality among muggers.” Cynical irony is also enacted in the camera rhetoric. When Paul attacks his victims, the camera rarely places them both in the same frame. The literal distance marked by the editing is itself a correlate of the objectifying, demeaning attitude that is the public rhetoric of conservative sociality.
The sentimentalized domestic sphere in the film is associated with the concept or site of nature, which is represented primarily by the Sunbelt. Like the private sphere, it represents a place outside civility or urban civilization, a site associated with the male subject conceived as a private entity, the bearer of rights of property and propriety whose boundaries must be protected with violence. The exaltation of the male individual in conservative thought is always linked to nature for this reason. Nature is unconstrained. The privileging of male rights in nature is a noticeably conservative concept in that it eschews social responsibility altogether. The more “natural” Sunbelt is thus a metaphor for the conservative ideal of individual freedom, the exaltation of individual rights over collective responsibility. Over, that is, a metonymic social rhetoric of material contiguous connections between people. The metaphor of nature permits a separating out, an individuating of the self, which is also a denial of a rhetoric of connection and responsibility. For if Paul Kersey were really thinking, he would see his own role in the generation of the poverty which creates crime. But that requires a structural mode of thought, a metonymic rhetoric for constructing the phenomenal world and social reality which is alien to the subject-centered, personalized vision of this conservative film. Instead, Paul separates from others by exercising violence against them. What is at stake in the film, then, is as much a problem of establishing boundaries around the male self, of constructing the “individual,” as it is an issue of crime. That construction requires a metaphoric mode which idealizes private thought by radically separating meaning from its material vehicle. The sense of private meaning in metaphor is inseparable from a concept of the self as private and separate from the material, literal social world around it. Such self-idealization and separation also entail a rejection of literal materiality, and this takes the social form of wanting to construct Sunbelt white havens apart from the material world of urban poverty. The more natural Sunbelt is a metaphor in several senses then.
Like all ideological metaphors, this rhetoric of social representation is undermined by a metonymic literality which displays its material basis. The metonymy underlying the natural metaphors in Death Wish concerns anality and retentiveness. Paul’s Sunbelt friend, Ames, is careful to point out that one “can’t even hear the toilets flush next door” in the southern enclave. And he refers to New York as a toilet. A literal or material connection is harbored within the metaphoric structure of conservative self-idealization. A turning away from something threatening or dirty or shameful motivates that ideal. Fear of bodily functions is a common trait of conservative psycho-pathology. But in addition, the sadism evident in the film is often associated with anal retentiveness. And one can at least speculate about the relationship between this fear, conservative defensiveness over property, and the conservative tendency to support violence against class enemies.
It is also noteworthy in this regard that the only strong “relationship” in the film is between men. The women are dispensed with almost immediately, and it seems that a flight from women’s physicality is also a factor in the evident anal-sadism of the men. Conservative male misogyny is compounded with a strong sense of male alliance, of course, and it is probably fitting that Ames’s gift to Paul is a gun in a red velvet box, a sign of an erotic attachment if ever there was one. But conservative homoeroticism can never be realized because of the conservative moral injunction against such things. Instead it is transmuted into its inverse, a pose of violence against other men. This is the price of a social structure of shared male power, one which requires homoerotic bonding yet enjoins it at the same time. Rather than assuming a healthily expressed form, those homoerotic energies become perverted into an entirely de-eroticized stance toward other men, a stance realized in Paul’s gunmanship.
These arguments point toward a deconstruction of the two major metaphors which support the ideology of the film. The first is the isolation and elevation of the individual male subject, his anointment with sovereign powers that place him above the mass and beyond the communal constraints of liberal legality. An examination of the metonymic connections, the literal references, that surround that metaphor suggest instead that the conservative individual is a victim of a set of repressions and constraints which he cannot recognize. The second is the metaphor of a ground of self-evident, precivil value in nature which legitimates conservative class, race, and sexual social power. The counterforces in the film point to a reading which sees that ground as a perversion of natural tendencies like homoeroticism into sanctuaries of purity, guilt-free realms, purged of the taint of materiality, that assuage the anxiety regarding anal eroticism that necessarily inheres in an all-male power system.
Films display the material basis of their ideology, the violence underlying it, for example, at points that might seem marginal, moments of representation that seem tangential to the central argument. But if ideological values entail strategies of representing the world and are in fact effects of such strategies, then marginal points of representation are as essential or central as supposedly more conceptual matters. Thus, the anal sadism that energizes Paul Kersey’s conservatism appears on a formal level in the distance that separates him, through scene composition and editing, from his victims. In Sidney Lumet’s more liberal Dog Day Afternoon, the camera moves in what seems a random manner through a bank being held up by two inept robbers. The women employees make caring statements to each other, and they seem like asides in relation to the more central problem of the robbery. But one of them is also playing with one of the robber’s rifles, and he is showing her how to drill with it. The pan shot that catches these marginal moments instantiates the liberal values of the film. Unlike the radically oppositional editing that separates Paul Kersey from his victims, the shot includes all of the characters in a way that suggests their commonality and their shared predicament. It has already been established that the robbers think of the women employees as people who are as much oppressed as they. The pan reinforces that sense of equality in its horizontal movement. Rather than isolate and elevate, it connects. One could say it is a metonymic as opposed to a metaphoric camera style.
Sonny (A1 Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale) are trapped inside the bank by the police. After a long day of negotiation, they make a deal, but at the airport they are betrayed by the FBI, who kill Sal and capture Sonny. The ethos of the film is liberal, democratic, and egalitarian. Gays are portrayed positively, a fairly daring gesture in 1975. Sonny’s motivation for the robbery was his need for money to finance his male wife’s sex-change operation. Indeed, one of the tenderest scenes is between the two lovers, as they talk for the last time. Although Sonny is the focus, no individual is heroized; all the primary characters are flawed. Those who might be heroized in a conservative film—the police—are portrayed either as well-meaning boobs, unempathetic technocrats, or trigger-happy killers. “He wants to kill me so bad he can taste it,” Sonny says of one. And the crowds that gather to cheer on the robbers shout “Attica,” recalling the police murder of inmates and their hostages at the New York state penitentiary.
Against the strategy of rhetorical elevation, the film proposes a representational method which promotes a sense of empathy and common cause, even between the police and the robbers. Some of the most empathetic moments occur between Sonny and his hostages. They become friendly, almost intimate, and they express sympathy with each other’s problems. The robbers are troubled by doubt, guilt, and remorse. It is not a rhetoric which would permit a simple opposition to be established between good and evil. No decisive moral meaning stands in as a metaphoric substitute which sums up the events and gives them a conceptual or ideal order. Most significantly, the hostages and robbers discuss working-class life, the difficulties of working for little to support a family. The film thus draws attention, in a liberal mode, to the social origins of crime. Rather than objectifying the criminals as opposites to a heroically conceived paragon of righteousness, the film’s rhetoric situates the criminals in a context which prevents objectification. In Death Wish the audience remains external to the robbers; their murder is justified by a certain cinematic point of view. The isolation and separation of the male subject in the metaphoric mode of representation require a balancing isolation and separation of the world into an object to be treated coldly and unempathetically. In Dog Day, no such separation is possible; instead, a complex web of horizontal, material, metonymic connections links the characters and anchors them in their environment in a way that precludes either exalted subjectivity or debased objectivism. The two robbers are often drawn together in the same frame. The materiality of everyday life, that from which conservatives flee, is depicted in scenes where workers express a need to go to the bathroom and police stand about eating sandwiches. The same resolute everydayness is evident at the beginning when, during the credits, the camera moves about New York City picking up bits and pieces of street life. One could speak of this as realism, but it is more relevant to describe it as a specifically metonymic rhetoric of representation that constructs a certain sense of the world, a more egalitarian or horizontal and contextual phenomenal reality.
Death Wish enacts its moral ideology of purity on the representational plane. The narrative is fairly univocal; the cinematography is unsullied. The decisiveness of the isolated subject’s will, the purity of his motives, is thus reinforced. We related this sense of moral purity to a fear of anality, of the homoeroticism which accompanies conservative male tribalism. In Dog Day, a certain undecidability of moral judgment is accompanied by a certain impurity of representation, as well as a thematic emphasis on the acceptance of social impurity, that is, of social difference and “deviance.” The camera’s attention to physical aspects of everyday life suggests a greater acceptance of the materiality of the world, less of a need to flee into self-exalting subjective visions which idealize one’s own will and sense of moral righteousness as something which supposedly transcends everyday reality. Camera rhetoric and moral vision are indissociable.
Many liberal social problem films of this era pit a basically good individual against a fundamentally corrupt society (Bruhaker, The Border, Fort Apache, the Bronx, The Verdict). Some show the corruption to be so overwhelming that change is impossible, while others validate the traditional Hollywood liberal notion that a good individual can make a difference (Brubaker). In films like Fort Apache, Absence of Malice, and The Verdict, Paul Newman has played tired, flawed heroes driven to decisive action and redemption by intolerable corruption. Although the actions sometimes have socially beneficial consequences, they primarily enact the moral redemption of the individual. In films like Fort Apache and The Verdict, the universe is so corrupt and fallen that no real social change seems possible. All that seems to matter is that individuals maintain their integrity. The liberal project of social reform is thus displaced in these films in favor of more individual alternatives. This development could be read symptomatically as a tacit acknowledgment on the part of liberals that more general social change was beyond their reach. They could no longer turn with pride to the accomplishments of the liberal programs of the sixties, since those programs were being blamed increasingly by the Right as the sources of economic decline and of crime. All that was perhaps left for liberals to cling to at a time when public politics was being successfully monopolized by the Right were more personal models of reformist hope.
That a large majority came to support capital punishment, which liberals had managed to neutralize in the sixties, suggests that the conservative cultural argument won out over the liberal one regarding crime. The one liberal film overtly critical of vigilantism—The Star Chamber (1983)—failed, while early eighties vigilante films like Death Wish II, The Exterminator I & II, and Sudden Impact were much more successful with audiences. But that development is indicative of a larger “social problem” that largely accounts for the general failure of liberalism. An essentially conservative socioeconomic system generates crime among oppressed poor people, especially during times of recession of the sort that occurred in the early and mid-seventies. It is part of the tautology of conservative power that liberal solutions to this problem inevitably fail, since they are based on altruistic assumptions about human nature that an essentially cutthroat economy refuses to permit to thrive and on a liberal individualist concept of “rights” which does not deal with the underlying structural inequalities that are responsible for crime. In such a situation, in the absence of socialist alternatives that address the structural sources of the problem in the capitalist maldistribution of wealth, only conservative solutions to crime will succeed politically, precisely because they offer images of power and just punishment to people rendered fearful, insecure, and resentful by the same unstable social and economic conditions that fuel crime.
One of the primary arenas for liberal critiques of U.S. society during the seventies was a new genre of “conspiracy films.”5 These films are of interest because they reverse the polarities of earlier political thrillers, which generally affirmed American institutions, by suggesting that the source of evil was those very institutions. These films also permit an analysis of one of the major problems that led eventually to the failure of liberalism in the late seventies. Liberals often promoted causes (equal rights for women, opposition to nuclear energy, etc.) that were eventually embraced by the population at large, but they also eventually found themselves out of step with public opinion on several crucial social issues (welfare, affirmative action hiring, taxation, etc.) which the majority of people came to view negatively by the late seventies. In the mid-seventies, liberal filmmakers especially were very close to public opinion regarding government and business; the conspiracy genre accurately represents public perceptions after the revelations around the Pentagon Papers, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Watergate, the ITT scandals, the CIA investigations, etc. But as the decade advanced and as the economy continued to decline, public needs changed, and the critical liberals found themselves out of sync with a broad popular desire for a more positive alternative.
We will argue that this is in part due to the failure of liberalism to live up to the populist expectations that it helped foster in the mid-seventies. In liberal conspiracy films, large institutions like the CIA are depicted as being corrupt, and such representations (in films like Network especially) appealed to populist distrust of big institutions and politicians. That distrust turned to more overt resentment as the decade progressed. Liberal federal taxation programs became targets of overt hostility in the late seventies as recession and inflation combined to diminish the earning power of lower-and middle-class people. Even populist Democrats like Jimmy Carter turned on the federal bureaucracy. Thus, liberals helped to promote the undermining of their own chosen instrument of social reform. Liberal filmmakers played to populist fears of big institutions, yet by the late seventies conservatives would turn those fears into a program for dismantling the liberal welfare state.
In a sense, liberals could not have done otherwise. The American cultural lexicon defines social reform in strictly individual terms. The liberal faith in individual, as opposed to institutional or structural, remedies or reconstructions limited the parameters of the liberal critique. Indeed, in order to play successfully to broad populist anxieties, it had to refrain from proposing structural change. The populist distrust of big institutions also took the form of a distrust of big institutional change. The same polls that reflected a crisis of confidence also indicated that while distrust of public officials and business leaders had grown, people continued to have faith in the institutions themselves. If the remedies offered were individual, it was in part because people perceived the problems in individual terms.
But in limiting the options for reform to noninstitutional remedies, liberals ignored the structural causes of the sorts of economic decline. Liberalism’s philosophical commitment to the individual as the central social category prevented it from doing anything about the conservative individualist structure of the U.S. economy, while permitting the state to be represented as threatening and impersonal, the source of people’s troubles. Liberalism’s commitment to the state as an instrument of reform placed it at odds both with the anti-statism its own individualist ethic fostered and with the sort of radical neoentrepreneurial individualism that conservatives were beginning to mobilize against liberal statism.
Liberalism was thus in a quandary. Without a structural vision of how institutions like capitalism caused social suffering, it could not justify institutional change. Without a notion of class, it was limited to arguing that unrestrained capitalism was bad for individuals and that only individuals could change it by changing the bad individuals who run the system. But liberalism’s commitment to remedying the negative consequences of capitalism through the only available instrument—the federal government—put it in contradiction with the rampant individualism of capitalist culture. In a culture in which the maintenance of artificial scarcity (in goods and jobs) was a necessary part of the economic system and at a time when inflation and unemployment were high, federally legislated equality, through such programs as affirmative action, was not likely to sit very well. Indeed, more and more people were blaming the federal government, not business, for inflation, a popular perception conservatives would successfully exploit. Thus, liberal politics set itself on a collision course with conservative economic reality, a collision that occurred in 1980.
One of the first political conspiracy films of the era, Executive Action (1973), concerns a right-wing plot to kill John Kennedy, the Democratic president of the early sixties. The film suggests that he was assassinated for being too liberal. The conservative plotters are afraid he is going to cut oil-depletion allowances, make peace with the Soviets, end the war in Vietnam, and strengthen the civil rights movement. At first, a powerful oil man refuses to join the conspiracy, but after seeing clips of Kennedy speeches in which he takes liberal positions, he joins in.
The film successfully transcodes the popular discourse of conspiracy around the Kennedy assassination that thrived in the early seventies, but it also instantiates a problem of the left-liberal conspiracy genre as a whole. The very premise of a conspiracy requires a prior assent on the part of the audience, one might say a generic assent, since it resembles the predisposition to believe that audiences must bring to formulaic film genres like the western. The ploy of the hidden conspiracy is socially critical in that it does dramatize a real aspect of power in the United States. Power must not present itself as simple power unmediated by democratic participation or by the rules of populist equality of participation or fair play. The democratic populist temper of American life obliges those in power to pretend they are not in power; they are merely representing the people and their interests. But the conspiracy ploy must turn the systemic concealment of real power structures into a personalized account of secret intrigue. Such intrigue can be shown to be for the defense of a class or of power (as in Action), but this strategy ultimately plays to the paranoid side of the populist imaginary, which conceives of evil in the world as personal and is incapable of conceptualizing the systemic character of power.
The discourse of distrust transcoded in Executive Action was extended in Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974), which deals fictionally with Kennedylike political assassinations, and All the President’s Men (1976), a key Watergate film. They form, along with Klute (1971), what has been called a “paranoid trilogy.”6 The Parallax View concerns a reporter’s attempt to get inside an assassination bureau that operates for profit. All the President’s Men, based on Bernstein and Woodward’s book, depicts the uncovering of the conspiracy behind the Watergate affair.
Parallax depicts a society in which corporate powers kill with impunity. Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) changes from a skeptic, when a fellow reporter tells him that a political assassination was carried out by an assassination bureau, to a determined investigator of the bureau who is ultimately used by the bureau and killed. Film style and narrative structure reinforce the conspiracy theme by inducing a sense of unease in the audience, who are aware that a conspiracy is underway, though they do not know who controls it. The audience is first positioned in Frady’s point of view, seeking to uncover the conspiracy, but by the end the audience is privy to the fact that Frady has been uncovered by the corporation, and by assuming the corporation’s point of view concerning Frady, it in a sense participates in the conspiracy against him. Lack of knowledge is connoted by windows through which one cannot see well—at the beginning when a senator is assassinated and later when the Parallax men observe Frady from a glass booth. The word “view” in the title suggests vision or looking, and Frady shifts from someone looking for something to someone being looked at and controlled. Shifts of vision also occur in the plot; rapid reversal is a prominent narrative and editing device. A woman reporter is alive in one frame and already in the morgue dead in the next; a helpful sheriff tosses Frady a sandwich one moment and pulls a gun on him the next. Many of these events are initially presented opaquely; their causes are not evident. Low-key lighting and off-center framing make the audience aware quite literally that it is not being allowed to see or know what is really going on. The result is a sense of unease, and indeed, at the end knowledge is still denied; the viewer is left frustrated. The power of the corporation seems insurmountable. The traditional “emergence into light” convention, with its coded expectation of salvation, is inverted as Frady emerges from a darkened auditorium into bright daylight—and is shot point blank.
While Executive Action excessively personalized systemic wrongs, the rhetoric of Parallax can be faulted for exaggerating in the opposite direction. The members of the corporation are depicted as faceless businessmen, the dark lighting and extreme long shots of the concluding tribunal scene make the commission of inquiry into impersonal functionaries of corporate society. There is no recognizable enemy that the audience can identify as a nemesis or against whom negative emotion can be mobilized. In addition, architectural space and scene construction operate to make Frady seem overwhelmed by an impersonal environment over which he can have no control. Thus, the film is an exemplary rhetorical exercise in critique through negative representation, but it lacks the elements required to draw an audience into the sort of sympathetic identification with character that permits political films to be effective or to have an impact. Parallax may destroy the “American hero myth,”7 but in doing so, it prevents an induction of the audience into its point of view. It is difficult to sympathize with Frady’s death, because he too is depersonalized as a character. As in political allegories like The Revolutionary, Parallax may provoke the audience to think, but at the expense of making it feel. And some sort of identificatory feeling for victimization seems necessary if audiences are to be angry at the victimizers. At the end of Parallax, there are no victims; there are only bodies. It is not surprising that Pakula’s more positive, resurrected hero film—All the President’s Men—was more popular. That film also uses space and shadow to connote the systemic character of political corruption, but it poses against the corrupt conservative political system the brightly lit newsroom as well as the identificatory appeal of the enthusiastic newsmen.
In 1975-76, during a period when the Watergate hearings and revelations, the Rockefeller Commission, the Church and Pike congressional investigations, and reports of CIA wrongdoings were beginning to enter popular cultural discourses, Hollywood for the first time dealt critically with the CIA. Whereas Executive Action hinted at a secret CIA force, Three Days of the Condor (1975) explicitly portrays such a possibility. Robert Redford plays Joe Turner, a CIA researcher who is chased by killers because he inadvertently discovered the plans of a renegade faction within the CIA to invade the Middle East in order to protect the flow of oil to the United States. The film ends on a note of ambiguity characteristic of the mid-seventies. Turner tells his former CIA boss that he has given the story to the New York Times. But the man asks him if he’s sure they’ll publish it. The film concludes with a freeze frame of the look of uncertainty on Turner’s face.
Condor adheres more closely to the conventions and formulae of the traditional Hollywood representational codes, and unlike the more intellectual Parallax, it situates itself within a populist framework. For these reasons, it is possible that it was more effective at promoting its ends; at least, it succeeded in being more popular (number 17 in box-office gross in 1975, compared to number 71 for Parallax in 1974). Like Parallax, Condor relies on uncertainty and reversal to motivate and structure the narrative. The popular attitude of distrust at the time is transcoded into a plot device; no one can be trusted in this world of double-cross and deceit (not even the New York Timesl). What appears one way can easily be reversed. Yet, unlike Parallax, the narrative development along a line toward the clarification of uncertainty and a termination of reversals culminates somewhat more successfully in Condor. Turner, at least, finds out what’s up. The all-American hero reaches a positive conclusion, even if, as is usually the case within the populist framework, institutions like the Times can’t be counted on to come through on the side of truth and the American Way. A more conventional character construction also distinguishes Condor from Parallax. Turner’s characterization is marked by down-home traits (he’s out to fetch lunch when the killer first strikes), a traditional love interest, and the aura of the all-American ideal of the tinkering common man. In one scene, for example, he taps into the telephone lines of the CIA. Although at a loss at first, he is ultimately able to confound the telephone system, and the images of confused telephone circuits seem to connote the individual’s triumph over bureaucracy.
Thus, the film operates within a more hopeful liberal outlook while playing to populist prejudices regarding big institutions, and the representational conventions it deploys (character, narrative, etc.) reflect that thematic. It is conceivable that the more traditional conventions helped make the film more accessible, more popular, and perhaps more effective. But the price of popularity is a diminution of radicality; the political vision of Condor (which includes a sympathetic portrait of a “good” CIA man, suggesting the redeemability of the institution) falls far short of the more extreme indictments of the corporate political power system found in Parallax and later films of the genre.
Indeed, as the decade advances, pessimism and distrust regarding the U.S. political system turn to overt cynicism. In Robert Aldrich’s Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), for example, a disgraced military officer attempts to disclose a secret document that reveals that the United States pursued the Vietnam War simply to maintain the “credibility” of the political and military establishment, despite authoritative intelligence reports that the war was politically unnecessary and militarily unwinnable. The president wants to disclose the document to the public, but his advisors have him and the renegade general killed. Eventually the political conspiracy genre became so recognizably generic that it gave rise to semiparodic excesses (Winter Kills, 1979) and to performances of the generic conventions (Blow-Out, 1981) devoid of the political critique present in earlier films.
Parallel to the political conspiracy films, a genre cycle of corporate conspiracy films emerged in the 1970s that critically question business institutions and values and show the interests of business to be antithetical to the public good. Network (1976), written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, is one of the first and most popular. It constitutes a cinematic extension of a growing scholarly and popular discourse about the power of the media as determiners of what will be perceived as “real” in American society. Like its predecessor, Kazan’s Face in the Crowd, Network combines the styles of social realism and absurdist satire to attack both the media and corporate capitalism. A newscaster becomes an extremely popular “prophet of the airwaves,” a populist critic of society who gets people to shout, “we’re not going to take it anymore.” Then he is converted to the ideology of corporate capitalism, the belief that “the world is a business . . . one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.” He preaches his new message and loses his audience. His ratings slip and he is assassinated by his corporation on the air as a promotion stunt.
Like political conspiracy films, Network shows the defeat of a resentful common man by impersonal large corporations, and thus, with films like Blow-Out, participates in the mode of populist tragedy which is pessimistic but which also operates to affirm the individual against the institution. Indeed, that representational strategy of affirmation-through-negation is a formal version of the dominant attitude of the film—populist resentment—which operates as an aggressive affirmation of the individual through a negative reaction to the corporation.
The popularity of Network suggests that liberals in the mid-seventies were successfully appealing to those populist themes of the culture (the small-guy hero, resentment against the system, distrust of power and big institutions) whose libertarian, individualist, traditionalist, and antiauthoritarian strains would be so well exploited by the Right later in the decade (in the form of the conservative attack on the federal government). In Michael Crichton’s Coma (1978), for example, the health industry is depicted as a conspiratorial and greedy monster that induces comas in order to extract organs for sale. The idea of corporate profit is successfully linked to traditionally fear-provoking elements of the popular imaginary like impersonal technology and the loss of power associated with medicine in general. Little guys are shown taking on the big guys and winning.
But liberalism also begins to falter during this period. Liberals could appeal to populist themes, but the social goals of traditional New Deal liberalism (social welfare, primarily) contradicted the populist theme of freedom from big government regulation (since social welfare required more government taxation and bureaucratic management). With the economy on the skids in the mid to late seventies, the liberals were in a jam. The limits of the populist outlook (such as its empiricism) meant that the government, not business, would be blamed for economic hardship. People could see (empirically experience) the government taking their money in the form of taxes, but the perpetrators of higher prices were invisible. And it was liberals who were most closely linked with the idea of big taxes for a big government. As a result, the Right successfully exploited the populist opposition to big government taxation to overthrow the liberals. One could vote for a new government and restore a feeling of power lost, but one could not vote for a new economic power bloc.
Something of the liberal quandary is evident in Stanley Kramer’s seventies films. Kramer’s work instantiates one of the problems with liberalism in general as a social program. It bases itself solely in political themes grounded in the individual conceived as an atomized, noncollective social agent. When the individual confronts the systemic character of corporate power, he will invariably be defeated; consequently, the only alternative to a naive individualist optimism for the liberal is a pessimism that is equally off-target, since it is predicated on the inevitable defeat of any individualist-based attempt to rectify systemic inequality, an inequality rectifiable only by nonindividualist structural change.
More generally, Kramer’s conspiracy films evidence the limitations of liberalism that were becoming increasingly apparent in the mid-1970s. Kramer’s earlier R.P.M. (1970) points to the inability of liberals to relate to the more radical movements of the 1960s in the story of a liberal professor’s encounters with student radicalism. His next picture, Bless the Beasts and Children (1971) is a fantasy of children, surrogates for sixties radicals, who share values and engage in actions that a sentimental liberal can accept (i.e., fighting to preserve an endangered species, the buffalo). As the decade progressed, liberals became increasingly pessimistic about the possibilities of liberal programs and values in the political sphere. Thus, while Kramer’s Oklahoma Crude (1973) depicts small guys triumphing over large corporations, in The Domino Principle (1975) large impersonal institutions win out over the individual. The ending of that film instantiates the predicament of liberalism at this time. As the hero walks alone along a beach whose expanse highlights his individuality and loneliness, he thinks about how one has to keep on struggling, never give up hope. The camera draws back to reveal a rifle pointed at him. The individual is affirmed, but the power of impersonal modern institutions (like the corporation) is also acknowledged.
Films that go further to the left point beyond the quandary liberalism got itself into in the late seventies and early eighties, when it found itself outmaneuvered by the Right in appealing to the population. For example, The China Syndrome (1979) focuses on the corporate power structure behind the nuclear energy industry, and depicts it as putting profit before public welfare. The corporate executives are portrayed as ruthless and unscrupulous, but the film holds out the hope that a few good individuals can nevertheless make a difference against these bad individuals.
A popular film, Syndrome won the Oscar. It uses traditional conventions to make radical points. The narrative moves from naivete to conviction, and the slow transformation of ordinary people into informed opponents of the corporate system probably appealed more to audiences than if the characters had begun as radicals. The model naive character is Jack Goddell (Jack Lemmon), an employee at a power plant that has almost suffered a nuclear disaster. He is encouraged by newspeople to investigate, and together they uncover wrongdoing on the part of the corporation. The film operates by situating the audience in a position of privileged knowledge. The narrative suspense that comes into play when the corporation tries to prevent that knowledge from emerging into public light is thus linked to a political position.
If our survey is to be believed, this rhetorical strategy works well: 37% indicated that their opposition to nuclear power began on seeing this film. But certain limitations need to be taken into account in interpreting this figure: 48% of our sample had not seen the film; a greater percentage of blacks than whites had not seen it; and 68% of those who had seen it earn over $30,000 a year. Clearly, the film appealed to white professionals. Still, of the 84% who, as a result of seeing the movie, believed business is willing to risk lives to make money, 23% come from working-class backgrounds. And 72% of the participants thought the movie’s suggestion that business is unscrupulous was accurate; 93% of the working-class viewers chose this option as opposed to 63% of the middle-class viewers. Despite its white professional aura, then, the film still struck home with some non-middle-class viewers.
Nevertheless, The China Syndrome could be faulted for relying too heavily on traditional Hollywood stereotypes (the bad guys wear black). To a certain extent, the personalization of the corporate system is a necessity imposed by this particular form of narrative. It aids the enlistment of audience identification even as it misrepresents the reality. This strategy should be contrasted with that of a related film, Silkwood (1983), which portrays the effects of corporate malfeasance on workers without depicting the corporate bosses as ever-present, sinister, black-clad figures. The film thus conveys a greater sense of dread regarding the self-protective impersonality of corporate power. And while it offers a compelling picture of individual struggle, it does not suggest that the problems of capitalist life can be solved by such efforts. Indeed, it portrays the rather violent defeat of a purely individual initiative. Implicitly, it suggests that liberal solutions are not likely to succeed against a rapacious system whose fundamental laws are immune to liberal reform.
The one perspective that accurately represents that system—the socialist one—is itself a target of liberal criticism in a number of films like The Formula and Network. This seemingly marginal debunking of the radical alternative is in fact central to the cultural process that results in the political quandary of liberalism. For liberalism fosters the rejection of the one solution to the social problems which liberalism so unsuccessfully addresses. In so doing, liberals assure their own survival as well as their own defeat. In the American cultural context, where individualist values prevail, liberal filmmakers aid the acculturation of people to subjectivist outlooks that end up in the polling booth as votes for conservatives promoting individualist solutions to social problems. And this is indeed what would happen in the eighties, a time when a powerful counterattack by right-wing capitalists made it evident that liberal reform was a little bit like throwing a wet towel at a forest fire.