Okay, where was I? Oh yeah, having my whole concept of what was, and what wasn't, true challenged as I sat in front of the tube watching the Watergate hearings. 1973... right.
I was too young to really understand what was going on, but in my memory I felt the tension. For sure, now, I can go back and watch clips on youtube, but I'm trying more to think about what it meant back then.
Let me start with a Charlie Chaplin reference, cuz, um why not? When I lived in Toronto in my 20s, I fell in love with Repertory cinemas – I'd always loved movies, and especially the weird ones (it was a few decades before I would hear the term "art house" or "indy films.") The Rep houses were my education in weird film, as well as really old films. There was one theatre called the Nostalgia that showed silent classics, Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and of course, Chaplin. When I started watching them, I didn't get it at first. Chaplin was funny and gifted to be certain, but so many of his routines and physical comedy had been done before. Then it hit me. Wait a sec... Chaplin did them first. I remember that moment with great clarity. I saw that all the others were impressions of Chaplin, but he had started it. Hard to explain, but this was a pivotal moment.
I digress, silently, like Chaplin – but for a reason.
Maybe this is a stretch (probably is... and too late), but I think of Watergate in these terms. In our current society, we have come to expect that politicians will lie – corruption and falsehoods are just part of it. Sure the current orange cheeto that is unexplainably still in power, has pushed this to an even farther extreme. And I'm not going to say he has made an art out of lying, because no credit of any kind should be given. But let's just say we have become used to lying politicians. No one expects campaign promises to be fulfilled.
I am not saying that Watergate was the first time politicians lied, or even the first time they were caught doing it. I'm sure a quick look at Wiki-google-pedia will pop up many instances of people in power lying. Go have a look. I'll wait.
But here's the thing, Watergate was the first time that this sort of hearing was put across all the major networks, and beamed into our living rooms. Even the little Canadian ones, like mine, kicking off Star Trek, Hogan's Heroes, Gilligan's Island, Columbo, or any of the wonderous shows of my growing up. I already talked about this in the last post, so it must just be a sore point (and to be honest, those might not have even been the shows that were pre-empted.)
My point is this was a major shift in culture – amidst a plethora of other shifts, which made for a turbulent time, but also a fascinating time for artists and film makers. In no way am I making light of the severity of the corruption by saying – oh well, at least great art came out of it. But it is interesting to look back at American movies in the 70s (referred by many as the Golden Age of American film), and see how a society was trying to make sense of these shifts. More than the shifts, trying to make sense of a government that told lies.
As mentioned before, the heyday of paranoia films came out of the 70s. Have a look at the Parallax View, staring Mr. Major Lefty, and oscar flubber, Warren Beatty himself. Altman films also had that paranoid vibe, as did Coppola movies (especially The Conversation). And a crime movie that I've blogged about before, Night Moves with Gene Hackman. The endings of these movies did not offer much solace. Beatty's character (Joe Frady... Frady for Pete's sake, why didn't I recognize that before?), when he finally understands the conspiracy in the Parallax View, is killed. Hackman's character at the end of the Conversation destroys his apartment looking for bugging equipment, and then plays the loneliest sax solo in his self-ransacked bathroom. Hackman, again, at the end of Night Moves is on a boat that goes in a slow continuous circle, a sign that nothing has been solved. The 70s were full of downer endings – so it wasn't like we were being told, "yes, you are being lied to, but it will all work out". Because it didn't.
I reflect a lot on this time in history – the 70s remain my favorite movie era of all time – but even more so in our current climate. We know we are being lied to, we may even be complacent to it (sometimes it sure seems that way). But like the odd complacency of seeing Chaplin do all those "old" routines, I pivot in my brain and remember that time when TV told me that people in power were lying to us... to me.
Here is a paragraph from my novel Fall in One Day that captures a similar moment happening to the lead character Joe Beck, a 15-year-old. Joe is stuck in front of the TV when Watergate comes on, and talks to his dad about it. (The Martians has to do with that lovely green glow that early TV sets had when the colour was wonky.)
I’m pretty sure nothing like that has ever happened around here, or not that anyone has ever told me. Just like those guys on TV, the real stuff gets hidden.
“A bunch of liars.”
“What did you say?” Dad asked.
“Those guys. You can tell.” I pointed at the glowing screen slowly being filled up with Martians.
Dad got up to fiddle with the knobs. “This is complicated stuff, Joe. I don’t think someone your age can quite understand what’s going on.”
Mom brought in supper to us—the burned smell was the roast, but at least the gravy was good. She put the food onto the foldout tables, and the three of us listened together. My mother smiled as she passed me the salt, whispering, “Here you go.”
Finally, they finished what they called a Special Report, with one last picture of a guy with slicked-down hair. None of these guys looked like crooks, but I knew right then that I was right. These guys were definitely lying. And I figured something else out: they were really good at it.
The above from my novel, Fall in One Day - which is now available for pre-order at Amazon.
Thanks for reading!
And finally the trailer from Parallax View: