Paranoia as it used to be

The seventies is my favourite era of film-making I think. I was just a kid back then, and my memories of the decade are scattered and largely incoherent – a bit of school, music, the adventures I had at home, a few girls, holidays at the beach, and a few iconic moments: the demise of Whitlam, the Rumble in the Jungle, the Centenary test (as well as a few other series), Cyclone Tracy and the Granville disaster.

My experience of the movies during the decade where largely that of a child. I remember going to see Grease on a school excursion, but avoided Saturday Night Fever. I’d go and see James Bond movies with my mates. I remember watching Rocky at the Were St cinema. For some reason Heaven Can Wait sticks in my memory, and I remember wagging school to watch The Wild Geese at Greensborough. Later on I saw American Gigolo, Alien, When a Stranger Calls, The Driver, and a whole bunch of other boy movies.

Looking back from this distance the it’s clear what a different time it was, which is ever the way. I only need look at family photos to recognise how personal style has moved on from then. There was a much different vibe to the era, coming out of the sixties, the Vietnam war, Nixon, and so on. I can recall parties from that time that in my child’s eyes seemed uninhibited, late nights, lots of booze and laughter, and music playing to the early hours – at our home Neil Diamond and Barry White.

The other thing is that the movies I watched then are much different to the movies I watch from that era today. I was a kid then, living the times; today I’m an adult looking back, and with a curious eye.

That’s a genre of movies particular to the early to mid seventies which I really enjoy. Coming out of Vietnam, Watergate, suspicion about the military industrial complex, and a general transition from the idealistic sixties to a more cynical seventies, saw the emergence of movies that pander to the paranoid fears of the time, fears of covert conspiracies, corruption and shady dealings on the margins of political-corporate life – fears perhaps not so paranoid.

For some reason a few of those movies have been on TV the last couple of weeks. The week before last I watched one of the best of them, The Parallax View. Last week another classic from the era, The Conversation. These are both pretty bleak stories in the end, but expertly done by classic filmmakers. Three Days of the Condor, All The President’s Men, Executive Action, The Domino Principle, maybe Marathon Man, fit into the category also.

For all the extravagance of movie making today there seem few movies of this type made anymore. I don’t think they’re any less relevant, but the difference now perhaps is that we have a much increased tolerance for these topics. What was fresh and scary back then now appears old hat. To be fair, the early seventies was an era ripe with intrigue. Not just the cold war and Watergate, but it followed on from a period of political violence. JFK, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy had all been assassinated in the previous 10 years just in America alone. Throw in the scary violence of the Manson murders, plus revolution, war and dissent abroad it was a volatile period.

Our times have a different kind of volatility. What was insidious then has become more general since. The bad guys are different, but still subject to caricature. Our fears are different too. We’ve become immune to burgeoning power and its abuse, and the threat of nuclear annihilation has been largely been replaced with the fear of terrorist attack.

The other difference I would posit is that we question less than we once did. The media is not nearly as independent as it once was, and generally more compliant. I’m not sure what came first, the chicken or the egg, but as citizens most of us have been happy to relax into comfortable lifestyle without troubling ourselves with the concerns or the issues of our grandparents.

Back in the day there was genuine unease, and often outrage, at the transgressions of our politicians and corporate leaders. These movies reflected that. They expressed a fear that vested interests were corrupting the system to suit their own ambitions. There was disquiet that conspiracies existed just out of sight, that we as people weren’t getting the whole story, and that all of us were being played as puppets.

I don’t know if much of that has changed since, but we have. There is little paranoia now because we have accepted a changed status quo. In a world where the NSA has revealed it reads our SMS messages, where Wikileaks has revealed widespread misconduct and political intransigence, we are remarkably sanguine about it. The media reports, but little is investigated meaningfully, and much of the commentary is designed to placate rather than rouse. For the most part our movies, with odd exceptions, reflect that. It seems to me we’re happy to have our strings pulled as long as we have a lovely flat screen TV, and some opiate to watch on it.

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