This piece originally appeared in my book Dissenting Views.
Glossary of Common Terms
Political discussions can sometimes become a Babel Tower cacophony, as people talk over each other without ever arriving at common ground. I want to avoid confusion in this book and explain precisely what I mean when certain terms are used, so please refer to the following glossary when necessary.
If a term defined in this glossary appears in another definition, it is italicized.
American Values: The belief in the inherent goodness of American intentions and the rightness of our collective cause, without any reference to what is sometimes called ‘the external world.’
Anti-American: This is a broad term that implies resistance to American Values. This can include such activity as thinking, reading books or magazines outside the range provided by your local airport, speaking to other people about topics that are not established by television, and other forms of revolutionary terrorism. This should not be confused with one who is Anti-Swede; as the name implies, this would be simply be a person with an aversion to Ingmar Bergman films.
Bad American: A corrective supplied by Bill O’Reilly, when he announced that he would no longer label people who resisted the Iraq War as “un-American.” These degenerate infidels would, he said, now be referred by him as “Bad Americans.” Bad Americans are stupid and going to Hell, but should not be immediately imprisoned unless there are additional crimes such as suspected thinking.
Conspiracy Nut: Any individual who asserts that persons of great power and influence may, like all other humans, take actions in pursuit of their perceived interests.
Conspiracy Theory: Any notion suggesting that human beings in positions of power will, all other things being equal, attempt to act in their perceived best interests if they think they can get away with it. By definition, can never be supported by evidence.
Evidence: Information supporting core beliefs and American values.
Evil: Any person or group who behaves in their own interests to the detriment or potential detriment of the United States, Great Britain, or Israel. See terrorist.
FBI Investigation (on Television): A massively coordinated effort that includes the collection of all available forensic evidence, the following of leads, the interviewing of relevant parties, and the arrest and eventual confession of the perpetrator, in under one hour including advertisements.
FBI Investigation (Real Life): A massively coordinated effort that includes the destruction of inconvenient discoveries, the failure to interview relevant suspects, the identification of an alleged perpetrator despite a total lack of evidence, and the failure to arrest even the alleged perpetrator due to lack of interest.
Fair and Balanced: The scientific discovery made by noted social scientist Rupert Murdoch that there are two sides to every issue, one acceptable to sinful deviants and one acceptable to normal people. You decide which is best.
Fair Trade: A Marxist-Leninist idea concocted by hippies and other wild-eyed leftists that asserts that global welfare, not corporate interests, should dictate policy.
Free Trade: A global market system that respects the rights of NATO countries and their allies to vigorously pursue the economic assault and dismantling of less fortunate countries.
Freedom: Your right to obey the Blackwater mercenary holding the automatic rifle.
Freedom Fighters: A group of revolutionaries who have aligned their goals with the desires of the United States, Great Britain, or Israel; for example, the expansion of increased territory from which to buy and sell narcotics. Sometimes freedom fighters, once they have attained power, will begin to demand a larger percentage of the profits or -- if they become truly evil -- start using their profits to rebuild the infrastructure of the country they live in. Such activity automatically turns them into terrorists.
Globalism: The interconnected world that will magically raise the living standards of ordinary human beings, if only we wish with all our might. By no account should it ever be confused with a concept that will result in near-universal misery but enormous profits for a tiny elite and its paid cheerleaders in the mainstream press.
Historical analysis: The recognition, based in fact, that historical events are so complex and motives so arcane that no one can ever ascribe any given activity to the will of any person or group of people. Unless, of course, it happened in Stalinist Russia or something.
Historian: A paid professional, adept at tracing shadows on the cave wall.
Insurgency: What happens when a people conquered by NATO forces fail to submit to freedom. The British sometimes refer to this behavior as being a “poor sport.”
9/11: The murder of 3,000 people on American soil by Osama bin Laden and his dark minions, the imperative for wars with Afghanistan and the Middle East, the reason Rudy Giuliani is a hero of the realm, and the event that proves the pressing need for a tax break for the wealthiest one-tenth of one percent of all Americans.
‘Possibly linked to Al-Qaeda’: This phrase refers to people who are Arabic, Indian, African-American or otherwise scary and disliked by The American Public and are found to have possibly contributed some money to a charity that may have been connected to a mosque that could theoretically have had a known terrorist’s cousin in the same county. This also refers to people such as Saddam Hussein, who has no known connection to Al-Qaeda but is also not well liked by The American Public. This emphatically does not refer to those who definitely have a link to Al-Qaeda, such as Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Propaganda: Information at odds with core beliefs or American values.
Supporting the Troops: This consists of praising the heroism and sacrifice of soldiers as they fight and die in operations benefiting military contractors, munitions manufacturers, and a handful of investment bankers and their stockholders. Suggesting that the best way to support the troops would be to bring them home is, of course, seditious and a clear example of thinking.
Targeted Assassination: The only sensible response to terrorist actions that doesn't involve saturation bombing.
Terrorism: Any activity that thwarts or attempts to thwart U.S., British, or Israeli interests. Note: can also refer to a conquered people’s refusal to take any action other than throwing themselves under the treads of advancing NATO tanks.
Terrorist: Any person who is no longer perceived as useful to the U.S. Department of Defense and is therefore now off the payroll; i.e., Rafael Trujillo, Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, etc.
Thinking: The use of one’s cognition to make judgments that could, at least in principle, conflict with those handed down by the proper authorities. Such behavior invites ridicule, ostracism, and potential imprisonment.
 ‘Anthrax Probe Hampered by FBI Blunders,’ San Francisco Chronicle, 11 Nov 2001. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/chronicle/archive/2001/11/09/MN153227.DTL
 ‘Bush-Cheney 9/11 Interview Won’t Be Formally Recorded.’ New York Times, 28 April 2004. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/28/politics/28BUSH.html?ex=1398484800&en=e97c72d90a660676&ei=5007&partner=USERLAND
 Speech by FBI Director Robert Mueller, 19 April 2002. http://www.fbi.gov/pressrel/speeches/speech041902.htm
 George W. Bush Press Conference, 13 March 2002. http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/03/20020313-8.html
 Zbigniew Brzezinski interview in La Nouvelle Observateur, 21 January 1998. http://www.globalresearch.ca/articles/BRZ110A.html
This essay was included in my book DISSENTING VIEWS II, published in 2011.
A President and his brother are assassinated, for what reason and by whose order I’m still not certain.[i]
-Republican Senator George Murphy, speaking in 1970
The killing of Robert Kennedy on June 5, 1968, essentially ended the left-wing democratic movements that had been surging throughout the decade. With his brother John dead, as well as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King – in April that same year – there were no other figures of equivalent stature remaining to carry the banner for the left. Meanwhile, the civil rights gains so celebrated now had alienated the Southern Democrats, and as a result the Republicans had been able to flip once-blue states to red.[ii] The immediate beneficiary of the shooting, of course, was Richard Nixon, who gained in 1968 what JFK had denied him in the election of 1960.
The emotional impact on the people still associated with the Left was devastating, throwing into chaos the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Congressman Allard Lowenstein, who had aided Bobby Kennedy’s election campaign, appraised it as such: “A man was killed on the fifth of June…and our experiment in democracy – in political action – was stopped.”[iii] Lowenstein himself proved to be far more moderate than the political forces he allegedly represented, and indeed had been compromised by his association with the CIA.[iv] It was to these forces that the Democratic Party was ceded.
Warren Beatty had gotten a close-up view of this situation. Taking time out from Hollywood, he had joined the Robert Kennedy campaign in March of 1968. Beatty had been a friend of the Kennedy family for years; John once told him that he would have preferred Beatty for the lead in PT 109, the film based on JFK’s own experiences in World War II. The role was eventually played by Cliff Robertson.[v] After the assassination, Beatty was understandably shaken. He later described the RFK assassination “as a ‘horror’ in a handwritten letter to Jean Howard, Charles Feldman’s first wife, a week later.”[vi]
Whether this experience led him to make politically conscious films (eventually devolving into the unfocused cynicism of Bulworth) is unknown, as he has never addressed the subject in detail. One might venture that such an event must have had some long-term effect on his political views. In any case, in 1973 he teamed with the director Alan J. Pakula to make The Parallax View, one of the most incisive, political, and indeed radical Hollywood films ever made. The structure and observations of the film remain trenchant to this day.
Pakula himself had already made Klute, which depended on a feeling of paranoia created largely by the claustrophobic beauty of Gordon Willis’s cinematography and the motif of a recording device that plays a conversation at irregular intervals during the film. The suspense in Klute, however, depended on a single deranged personality; by contrast, The Parallax View depicts the system itself as mad. Pakula commented: “We live in a Kafka-like world where you never find the evil. It permeates the society…We live in a world of secrets, a world in which we can’t even find out who is trying to destroy our society.”[vii] These “destroyers” serve the will of bureaucratic men, as nameless mercenaries operating for a private network outside the government. The film draws as inspiration the details surrounding the assassination of Robert Kennedy, and goes on to explain that murder in the context of these private networks, which presage corporations like Wackenhut and Blackwater. I will be looking at both of these connections at length.
The Opening Sequence
Frederick Ives applied for a patent in 1930 on an object he called the “parallax stereogram,” a device producing a three-dimensional image for the viewer. The technique used was analogous to stereo, in the sense that separate images were presented to the left and right eyes. It was the combination of the two independent visualizations that connected to form the single three-dimensional illusion. The parallax concept – merging distinct points of reference into a single illustration or measurement – refers to a literal process in calculating the distances of astronomical objects, but also serves as a useful metaphor in our case.
In The Parallax View, the concept is applied to vantage points both in a literal sense and a larger epistemological sense. At one level, the key event is an assassination, and the attempt by one reporter to piece together the various points of reference to produce a single image of the real killer. On another level, the investigation leads into an analysis of how one regards reality. Is reality simply the collected observations of the participants, or something beyond that? Pakula suggests this second theme in his use of surreal moments and ‘time-stretching’ scenes that crop up at odd intervals. The story, credited to screenwriters David Giler and Lorenzo Semple, Jr., is also quite ahead of its time in supposing that hired mercenaries and/or assassins could emerge from a private network with no particular loyalty to anything other than money.
The opening sequence of the film is a beautifully executed set-piece by director Alan J. Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis. We first see a totem pole in the foreground as the camera shifts slightly to allow the Seattle Space Needle to emerge in the background. Then we are at the ground floor of the Space Needle, as reporter Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss) narrates events for a television audience: As Senator Carroll pulls up with his wife, she mentions his independent nature, possible presidential aspirations and how good-looking the couple looks in person. As someone who makes her living from visual presentation, she seems unable to discuss anything but the symbolic virtues of the candidate. “He’s the perfect husband, the perfect father figure,” she says. Carter then interviews Carroll’s aide, Austin Tucker (William Daniels) who refuses to second the reporter’s suggestion that Carroll will run for President while not seeming displeased at all by the remark. Then, in a characteristic Pakula move, we first see the main protagonist Joe Frady (Beatty) in a group of other people with no effort made to pick him out for the audience. Frady, apparently lacking press credentials, tries to use Lee Carter to get up in the elevator, but she declines in such a way as to indicate a past relationship. Being ever resourceful, he manages to get up to the top anyway.
Pakula doesn’t bother to show us how this occurs; as a recurring motif in the film, Pakula often denies us the “how.” In trimming the story down to its most efficient elements, Pakula leaves out a great deal of the action – appropriate for a mystery in which much will be unresolved, including the specific identities of the killers. This is just one of the many idiosyncratic elements that give the picture quite a different feel from other thrillers. In place of Point A to Point B choreography, the film relies on the viewer to make intuitive jumps to connect the flow of action – again, highly appropriate given the content of the piece. Instead, the director opts for a sometimes languid surrealism.
The film cuts to a pan inside the Seattle Space Needle. A thin, small-statured waiter goes from the restaurant out to the observation deck. One can’t help but notice that he bears a marked physical resemblance to Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, the accused assassin of Robert Kennedy. A series of cuts tells the story: We see another waiter (Bill McKinney) exchange glances with the “Sirhan” waiter and the latter gives his tray to the former. Meanwhile, the “Sirhan” waiter goes back inside the Space Needle restaurant. The Senator takes the microphone and begins his speech by stating that it is July 4th, Independence Day, and that he has been called “too independent for my own good.” At that moment two shots strike him in front, go out his back and he slumps to the ground. The “Sirhan” waiter has a gun in his hand and is being wrestled by bystanders. Meanwhile, the Bill McKinney character, whom we now see was also firing, puts his gun away and calmly walks away from the scene. The presumed assailant breaks free, climbs onto the roof, and after a struggle falls to his death.
The montage that tells this story, despite the horrific nature of the sequence, is executed with a great degree of elegance and efficiency. Each cut tells us only what we need to know in as little time as possible. From the shot of McKinney putting away his gun, to the amazing shot of the “Sirhan” patsy rolling off the top of the Space Needle, the sequence is an object lesson in cinematography and editing.
In addition to being an attention-getting opening for the picture, the sequence also contains many parallels to the Robert F. Kennedy assassination, and it seems clear the filmmakers had this in mind. Besides the physical similarities between Sirhan Sirhan and the patsy in the film who fires shots at Senator Carroll, there are numerous other parallels. The most important of these concepts is the notion of a ‘second gun,’ which we become aware of in the movie by a quick shot of a second man – the real assassin – pocketing his revolver. This shot tells us that the man who fired the shots and falls from the roof is not the real shooter but merely a distraction.
After the fall occurs, the film cuts to the grinning Bill McKinney character, now at street level and several blocks away from the Space Needle. He’s escaped. Another cut and the credits begin, as a governmental commission – the most obvious analogue of which is the Warren Commission, although there have been several such entities that produced questionable reports after the fact – declares that the dead man was the lone assassin and there is no conspiracy.
We thus begin the film in a privileged position. We know there is a conspiracy because we’ve seen the second gunman. That places us in a very different position from those who investigate real-life crimes, and it also gives us an advantage over the Joe Frady character. He starts off not believing in conspiracies, only acknowledging their existence because of the evidence. We follow along with him as he uncovers one detail after another, fleshing out the malevolent system behind the assassin that we, as the audience, have already glimpsed.
What are the true facts in the Robert Kennedy case, and how do they relate to what Pakula and Willis present in The Parallax View?
To begin with the most basic facts, the murder occurred at 6:30 in the evening inside the Ambassador Hotel. Kennedy had just given a speech in reference to the California primary. Following the speech, he rode the service elevator down to the kitchen pantry of the Embassy Ballroom inside the hotel. He addressed the crowd there briefly and was escorted out through the pantry by assistant maître d’ Karl Uecker at approximately 12:15 a.m. Sirhan Sirhan at this point approached Kennedy from the front and began firing.[viii] Once Sirhan had been apprehended and the confusion had subsided, Kennedy was transported to Good Samaritan hospital, arriving at 12:50 a.m. He was pronounced dead at 1:44 a.m.[ix]
The gun Sirhan used to shoot in the direction of Robert Kennedy was described as a .22 caliber Ivor Johnson. It was an eight shot revolver, and according to the official police report, it expended every shot because eight shell casings were found. Of these shots, one was lodged in the plaster ceiling; four struck other victims; and three struck Kennedy. Kennedy received entrance wounds in the “right rear back,” in the “right rear shoulder,” and the “head behind the right ear.” Each shot struck him at a distance of “one to six inches.”[x]
It was later discovered, however, that there were in fact ten bullets recovered from the scene. Two bullets had been found in the center divider panty doors in the kitchen.[xi]
The closest person to Senator Kennedy, Karl Uecker, who was in fact holding his wrist at the time Sirhan fired the shots, testified that Sirhan was in front of Kennedy:
I have told the police and testified during the trial that there was a distance of at least 1½ feet between the muzzle of Sirhan’s gun and Senator Kennedy’s head. The revolver was directly in front of my nose. After Sirhan’s second shot, I pushed his hand that held the revolver down, and pushed him onto the steam table. There is no way that the shots described in the autopsy could have come from Sirhan’s gun. When I told this to the authorities, they told me that I was wrong. But I repeat now what I told them then: Sirhan never got close enough for a point blank shot, never.[xii]
Uecker testified to the grand jury that Sirhan fired only two shots before he was able to grab Sirhan and hold him down. According to police, eight shots had been fired. According to the physical evidence, more than eight shots had been fired. This is just the first anomaly – could Uecker, the closest witness, a man who actually wrestled the gun from Sirhan at the scene, have been wrong about his firing two shots instead of eight or more? All of the witnesses agreed on the arrangement of Sirhan in reference to Kennedy, generally within 1½ to five feet away when the shooting began.[xiii] This showed some slight variation at the furthest end of the observed distance; Pete Hamill, for example, who witnessed the shooting, thought that Sirhan was “seven or eight feet” away.[xiv] However, there were zero witnesses who placed Sirhan behind Kennedy or closer than 1½ feet. In addition, the autopsy report prepared by Chief Los Angeles County Medical Examiner Thomas Naguchi confirmed that the bullets all entered from the rear at an upward angle (e.g., as if the person who shot Kennedy had been behind him and on the floor.)[xv]
As it turned out, there was a man standing behind Kennedy: a security guard named Thane Eugene Cesar. He worked for the Ace Guard Service, where he had been working day shifts at Lockheed. He told police that he was standing directly behind RFK, had been knocked to the floor, and even that he had withdrawn his gun. He thus put himself at the scene in an ideal position to create the wounds noted by the Naguchi autopsy report.[xvi] In an interview in Ted Charach’s documentary about the RFK assassination, Cesar even admits that he didn’t particularly like Bobby Kennedy and would not have voted for him. In fact, Cesar belonged to the furiously right-wing John Birch Society.[xvii] Despite these remarkable concessions, Cesar was never more than a witness to the investigation, rather than its focal person of interest.
As anyone can see, the RFK case is quite simple. The eyewitness reports, physical evidence, and coroner’s report all agree: Sirhan Sirhan did not shoot RFK. It is scientifically impossible. And yet the general public and every media outlet “know” that Sirhan did it and to suggest otherwise is crazy. Contrary to that knowledge, a little research into the true facts of the murder show that suggesting Sirhan did the shooting is crazy.
An enormous amount of information supports the notion of a second gun in the RFK case (indeed, the evidence supports a possible third gun) but much of this came to light after 1973. Additionally, the farcical trial of Sirhan Sirhan (in which his own defense lawyer, Grant Cooper, stipulated to Sirhan’s guilt, thus denying the jury the opportunity to hear the evidence regarding the second gun) supports the conspiracy verdict.[xviii] Relevant to our discussion, however, is what was used in The Parallax View to construct the opening sequence. It derives principally from the notion of having a patsy witnessed in full view at the scene, a real assassin at a totally different angle from the patsy, and the concept that an establishment body, within a few months, declares the total absence of a conspiracy based on a lone nut theory.
With regard to the target, Bobby Kennedy had revealed the same streak of independence that Senator Carroll in The Parallax View echoes. When his brother was murdered, his first call went to Langley, where he demanded: “Did your outfit have anything to do with this horror?”[xix] That is, did the CIA kill John Kennedy? He later met with John McCone who assured him this was not the case, but this apparently did not settle the matter for him. As reported in David Talbot’s Brothers: “There were others behind Lee Harvey Oswald’s gun…the Kennedys made it clear that they did not believe he was acting on foreign orders. They were convinced that JFK was the victim of U.S. opponents.”[xx] He had therefore made himself a danger to the establishment in that it seems clear, in retrospect, that one of the things Bobby would have done as President was to reopen the case of his brother’s death.
There were those who publicly questioned the RFK investigation in the years following the murder. One of them was, ironically, Allard Lowenstein, who drew attention to the disparities between the evidence and the official version, accusing authorities of covering up the crime.[xxi] In addition, a ballistics expert from Southern California, William Harper, made the same charge, stating that the LAPD had not only suppressed evidence but that microscopic analysis revealed a second gun was used to kill Kennedy.[xxii]
Joe Frady’s Discovery
After this opening scene plays out, Frady is told by his friend and former lover Lee Carter that “someone” is killing off the witnesses to the crime. This seems to be a reference to the large number of suspicious deaths following the JFK assassination that Penn Jones, one of the earliest Warren Commission critics, did a great deal to publicize.[xxiii] Frady dismisses her fears, but after she is found dead, he reassesses the situation and begins investigating the murder himself. At this point Pakula sets up a couple of action sequences designed, I think, to seduce the audience into believing that Frady will be able to overcome any obstacle. He first gets into a standard 1970’s bar fight with a deputy, replete with broken tables and people crashing through walls. Then, after besting an evil sheriff, he shows off his driving skills by navigating a 1970’s police chase, complete with air jumps and gaping onlookers. Car chases of this nature were, of course, a standard motif in films of the period, and the one in Parallax is more akin to Live and Let Die then, say, the more realistic Two-Lane Blacktop. The subliminal message is that despite his countercultural attitude and long hair, we are dealing with a two-fisted Hollywood superhero and can relax: Pakula’s not going to kill Warren Beatty. Alas, this expectation is subverted in the film’s climactic sequence.
All of the action sequences end after the 35-minute mark in the film, when Frady takes a questionnaire he’s found to a psychologist. The questionnaire, designed to pull out “potential homicidal qualities,” belongs to the Parallax Corporation. Frady’s inevitable slide toward destruction begins with his decision to enroll himself as an assassin in an attempt to find out the inner workings of the organization. Frady, a newspaper reporter, becomes blinded in chasing the story, because it never seems to occur to him that his behavior is more than dangerous – given what he’s already seen, it’s suicidal.
It is in this latter section that rather than looking backward (i.e., at the details of the Robert Kennedy assassination) the film instead begins to acquire a prescient quality. We are introduced to the concept of a privatized network of trained assassins. In the film, Frady discovers that the Parallax Corporation is in the business of recruiting assassins on a purely mercenary basis, without regard to political affiliation. In fact, the assassinations which bracket the main action of the story are of two candidates on opposite ends of political ideology.
The film shows us two of their techniques in recruitment once a possible candidate for employment has been found. First, Parallax deploys a handler to meet face to face. In this case that man is Jack Younger, played with relish by Walter McGinn. Younger is urbane, unfailingly polite, and yet sinister, and when he feels he’s established a rapport with Frady he exudes a certain grim sexuality. In one notable scene, Frady has deliberately given Parallax a false identity for them to uncover and reveal his second false identity as a flasher. Younger takes his confession with serenity. “I’ve tried to be a friend to you,” he tells him in a slithery Peter Lorre voice as they both sit in darkness. “Isn’t that right?” Younger’s facade invites both fatherly trust and incestuous affection.
In addition to this direct handling, the second tactic employed is active brain-washing, depicted in what is perhaps the film’s most famous sequence. Frady is asked to come to the Parallax offices. He is told to sit down on a chair and place his fingers down carefully on the provided slots. (One may speculate that the direction is both to monitor his physical responses but also to obtain his fingerprints, which are then used on the gun found at the end of the picture.) The lights go out, a screen comes down and Frady watches a drama unfold – a series of images with both Freudian and Jungian overtones. The commencement of violent, sexualized, and patriotic images encourages the subject to identify with both a photo of a weeping child but also, by the end, with the Marvel Comics character Thor as an embodiment of Aryan godlike power. The five-minute film thus depicts brainwashing by way of self-actualization.
The film itself is a striking montage of stark horrors intermixed with Rod McKuen-like fantasies of childhood love that gradually climax in repeated showings of the Thor image to complete the ego-identification of the subject. The subject, assumed to be a social misfit, receives a new and palatable explanation for his prior failures to connect with other human beings. It is not due to any inherent problems within the subject, but rather to his incipient power and greatness. The brilliant sequence was entirely composed in post-production by Pakula himself, who tinkered with the various images for four months before settling on what is shown in the movie.[xxiv] Most previous commentators have noted the intense nature of the film and its potential effects on an actual psychopathic personality. While there is no doubt of its interest in that vein, it could also be seen as a metaphor for the moviemaking experience in general. After all, Frady enters into a dark room, sits down, and then receives a series of images arranged to depict an onscreen fantasy version of himself. Isn’t this precisely what most films do? In “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” Pauline Kael observes that audiences “don’t see the movie as a movie but part of the soap opera of their [own] lives.”[xxv] Since most movies depend on an ego identification with the “hero” of the story, and the heroes of most Hollywood films are near immortals (think of James Bond dodging machine gun fire while sniping away with his Walther PPK, or Clint Eastwood killing hundreds in such entertainments as The Outlaw Josey Wales), isn’t the typical movie creating a Godlike personality for each audience member to experience? William Goldman addresses this same point in talking about the real-life heroic actions of a fireman and whether it would play onscreen. Even a dynamic rescue by a fireman whose heroism makes the morning papers is insufficient to tickle the interest of audiences, however. “This is what Sylvester Stallone does in an action picture before the opening credits start to roll…Stars do not – repeat – do not play heroes – stars play gods.”[xxvi] Precisely.
Here the epistemological question is raised: What is the relationship between the moving image and reality? And more explicitly, how do we know that our own perceptual cues coincide with the real world? In formal logic, many problems arose from the assumption that the syntax of language formed a one-to-one correspondence with the objects in existence. This creates philosophical confusion when one gives attributes to things that do not exist; for example, one can correctly say that Joker is the enemy of Batman without also insisting that the Joker and Batman exist as anything other than concepts. (If this seems elementary, please note that it did not seem so to Plato. Indeed, a similar confusion underlies Kant’s ontological argument for the existence of God, in which “existence” is categorized as “one of the perfections.”) Bertrand Russell attempted to get around this with his theory of descriptions.[xxvii] However, the main philosophical point for our purposes is that The Parallax View touches upon some of these issues as well as the more overt political references. Just as logic was once thought to bear a correspondent relationship to reality, so it could be argued that our perceptions give us a direct line to it. In the real world, things are more complex than that, and it gets muddier still when one considers the brainwashing aspect of Parallax’s operation.
The Manchurian Candidate
The cult mentality or “brainwashing” aspects of The Parallax View also directly echo the evidence in the RFK shooting. Going back to the opening sequence of the film, we may recall that the assassination required a patsy or, in this case, a literal fall guy – the waiter who tumbled off the Seattle Space Needle. Since we’ve now seen Parallax’s homicidal and sexually frustrated corporate training film, we can now infer that the Space Needle patsy had undergone similar “training.” That is to say, he was a “Manchurian Candidate.” Sirhan Sirhan himself gave many indications of being such a person. The term, of course, refers to Richard Condon’s novel (adapted for two subsequent films) about a hypno-programmed assassin. Could such a thing have any basis in reality? Indeed, it could and does.
This is apt to be a controversial claim for some, so we should perhaps first begin by establishing that there was such a thing as a brainwashing program, and that this was pursued by the United States government. In 1978, The New York Times reported on internal documents showing that the government began a program to find out whether a person could be made to unconsciously commit murder upon command. It was part of the original Operation Artichoke, which existed from 1949 to 1974. The story goes on: “Several groups have studied the documents from the standpoint of whether they may provide any evidence in the continuing inquiries into the assassinations to President Kennedy or the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”[xxviii] Artichoke had started out under the name “Bluebird,” one of the operations that eventually became MKULTRA.
Spymaster Richard Helms had been deeply involved in the MKULTRA project. Having been instrumental in Project Paperclip, under which a number of Nazis – including Klaus Barbie – successfully escaped from Germany after World War II, only to receive financial aid from the CIA and jobs training death squads in Latin American countries, Helms knew his way around a covert operation. Klaus Barbie would later turn up in Bolivia in 1980, leading private mercenaries (wearing black uniforms and Nazi armbands) during the famous ‘Cocaine Coup.’[xxix] The future CIA Director Helms made all future research into MKULTRA difficult when he personally ordered all of the records from the project destroyed.[xxx]
MKULTRA activities fell under the auspices of Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, head of the CIA’s chemical division of technical services staff beginning in 1951. Gottlieb experimented with dosing patients with LSD and other mind-altering substances for the purpose of perfecting mind control. He also assisted with the funding of Dr. Ewen Cameron, the Canadian psychologist who conducted similar torture experiments at the McGill Clinic in Montreal. The financing was handled partially through the CIA and partially through Rockefeller Foundation grants.[xxxi]
One of the locations where MKULTRA mind control experiments took place was at Vacaville Prison in California, while a certain Charles Manson was serving time there. Over the years, Manson has made several cryptic remarks about that period, including making a reference to a rash of suicides among the doctors performing the testing. “The last wave…the last wave of these guys who sent me to Vacaville, are all gone now,” Manson says. “Dr. Morgan blew his brains out.”[xxxii] It is unclear to what Manson refers, but the implications are interesting. Dr. Louis “Jolly” Jolyon West, one of the most prominent figures in the mind control atrocities committed in this country, worked at Vacaville during the period of Manson’s incarceration there. Even more intriguing, his studies focused on behavior modification with an emphasis on controlling disaffected youth.[xxxiii] Whether there is a connection there I cannot say, but as noted it is interesting – particularly in light of another famous U.S. criminal, Ted Kaczyinski, the ‘Unabomber.’ As a Harvard college student, Kaczyinski had agreed to be the subject in experiments conducted by another MKULTRA specialist, Dr. Henry Murray. Dr. Murray was also well-known for conducting a personality profile on Adolph Hitler at the behest of Wild Bill Donovan, then-head of the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA. The experiments Dr. Murray performed on the young Kaczyinski involved brutal psychological torture, and friends reported that he was a changed person after the experiments.[xxxiv]
And no wonder. A CIA memo written in 1955 provides a list of the “materials and methods” that the project will be dedicated to finding. Among the items listed are “Substances which will promote illogical thinking and impulsiveness to the point where the recipient would be discredited in public… Physical methods of producing shock and confusion over extended periods of time and capable of surreptitious use,” and “Substances which alter personality structure in such a way that the tendency of the recipient to become dependent upon another person is enhanced.”[xxxv] Could such experimentation have any effect on subjects like Manson or the future Unabomber?
This experimentation with drugs extended to its own employees, such as in the case of Dr. Frank Olson, who had been employed at Fort Detrick, Maryland, in the biological weapons laboratory. Gottlieb gave him a drink spiked with large quantities of LSD on November 18, 1953. That same evening Olson jumped out of hotel room window and fell to his death. Although some might argue for murder, this was considered a suicide, even during then-DCI Stansfield Turner’s testimony at the 1977 MKULTRA Senate hearings:
Senator INOUYE. In February 1954, and this was in the very early stages of MKULTRA, the Director of Central Intelligence wrote to the technical services staff officials criticizing their judgment because they had participated in an experiment involving the administration of LSD on an unwitting basis to Dr. Frank Olson, who later committed suicide. Now, the individuals criticized were the same individuals who were responsible for subproject 3, involving exactly the same practices. Even though these individuals were clearly aware of the dangers of surreptitious administration and had been criticized by the Director of Central Intelligence, subproject 3 was not terminated immediately after Dr. Olson's death.
In fact, according to documents, it continued for a number of years. Can you provide this committee with any explanation of how such testing could have continued under these circumstances?
Admiral TURNER. No, sir, I really can't.[xxxvi]
There are specific reasons why Sirhan appears to be a controlled, Manchurian Candidate-style patsy. Psychologists who spent time with Sirhan realized that he was an eminently hypnotizable subject who, in fact, showed himself to be adept at self-hypnosis. He remembered nothing of the events concerning the shooting of Robert Kennedy and harbored no personal ill-will toward the man.[xxxvii] During the shooting, witnesses described the “tranquil” expression on Sirhan’s face, and George Plimpton stated that his eyes were “peaceful.”[xxxviii] Sirhan’s lawyer, Lawrence Teeter, described an incident in which a psychologist informed Sirhan, under hypnosis, that he was a monkey. According to Teeter, as soon as he was signaled to do so, Sirhan scrambled up the bars of his cell and hung upside down while making ‘monkey’ noises.[xxxix]
The passive mental state and readily hypnotizable attitude of Sirhan made him an ideal patsy. To this day, he has never been able to remember nor give a coherent account of the assassination.
The Parallax View dispenses with the two patsies in the film by having them killed at the scene – the ideal situation for a political murder. There is therefore no trial. Even a trial as farcical as the one Sirhan received nevertheless provided a written record of numerous anomalies in the case, such as the aforementioned test firings of two different weapons by the LAPD. Even in a controlled investigation, such a record provides evidence for researchers to plumb.
Does Frady Actually Undertake the Assassination?
In the final sequence of the film, a second assassination takes place. Frady is in the rafters of a high school gymnasium, where Senator John Hammond is having a fundraising dinner. A high school band performs patriotic tunes in rehearsal, and Senator Hammond shows up to go through the motions. We see that the tuba player in the band arrives late, appears to be older than the other students, and seems unable to play. Soon a shot rings out and the Senator is struck.
The somewhat surreal nature of the cutting in this scene may lead to a possible confusion with regard to whether Frady himself actually fires the fatal shot or not. Frady notices that a rifle is up in the rafters with him, but no shot shows him firing the weapon himself, nor anyone else. However, the tuba player from below fingers Frady by pointing up at him and shouting, “There he is!” He attempts to escape, but is gunned down by an unknown assailant – possibly the real Parallax-contracted assassin or perhaps the local authorities. Although Frady never handles the weapon so far as we are shown, as noted it is possible that had his fingerprints been obtained during the earlier brainwashing session, they could have been planted on the rifle here. In any case, the frame-up is now complete, and in the scene following Frady’s death we see a new independent commission releasing its verdict that he was a “lone nut” who had “acted alone” in shooting Senator Hammond. By the end, of course, we know the truth: Hammond was a contract killing performed by a highly efficient and professional private company.
Blackwater and Beyond
Whenever people think of contract killings, it’s very often in the context of the Mafia, of mobsters bumping one another off. And the CIA has contracted at least one assassination through the Mob: Fidel Castro. Both entities wanted Castro dead for different reasons. For the CIA’s part, Cuba was of course seen as part of the overall cold war strategy against the Soviet Union, and its proximity to the United States made it a widely discussed threat in Pentagon circles. Santos Trafficante, who had run the Havana operations for underworld boss Carlos Marcello, was also very interested in killing Castro because the latter had ruined all his businesses. Whereas the Mob had enjoyed free reign under the Baustista regime, with the coming of the revolution Trafficante found himself forced to leave the island under threat of imprisonment. The CIA-Mob connection was fostered by Howard Hughes confidant, Watergate figure, and government operative Robert Maheu:
An alliance with the Mafia was one of the eight conspiracies hatched by the CIA from 1960 to 1965 to eliminate Castro and topple his leftist government. In the summer of 1960, the CIA asked Robert Maheu, a former FBI agent with Mob contacts, to find Mafiosi who could pull off a hit on the Cuban dictator. Maheu enlisted John Roselli, a Los Angeles hood, who brought in Chicago’s Sam Giancana and Tampa’s Santos Trafficante Jr. Of the trio, only Trafficante had intimate knowledge of Cuba and close ties to anti-Castro exiles.[xl]
However, none of the various plots against Castro ever worked, and most of them were quite absurd. This shouldn’t be surprising, since although mobsters may kill each other all the time, this is not the same thing as planning an assassination. A good example could be found in the names provided. Both “Handsome Johnny” Roselli and Sam Giancana were called to testify to the Church Committee in 1976. However, Roselli went missing, only to be found chopped up inside a 55 gallon oil drum. Five days before Roselli’s body was found, Giancana had been shot seven times in the head at his home.[xli] This is messy work, characteristic of the Mafia. Assassins, as Kevin Costner observes playing the role of Jim Garrison in JFK, are generally military.
We’ve entered a whole new era of contracted murders here in the United States, in which the relationships are out in the open and justified by the “War on Terror.” The contracts, however, go to military-grade professionals, not streetwise petty criminals. And one of the most interesting things about The Parallax View is its intimation of this corporatized mercenary industry. It’s a quite logical extension of Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex, in that Lockheed Martin develops weapons to confer mass casualties on foreign populaces, so why not individual personnel for individual targets? Without civilian oversight, red tape, or any annoying need to make occasional reports to Congress, such an approach makes perfect sense.
In September of 2007, for example, Blackwater employees slaughtered a number of Iraqi civilians. Unfortunately, the firm exists without controls. “CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] Order 17 says private contractors working for the U.S. or coalition governments in Iraq are not subject to Iraqi law. Should any attempt be made to prosecute Blackwater in the United States, meanwhile, it’s not clear what, if any, law applies.”[xlii] Faceless men, trained for war, given full impunity to act as they please on a civilian population without fear of consequences? Would any reasonable person expect anything other than atrocities to arise from such a situation? One of the milder effects is the creation of a black market which these mercenaries fill for profit, and indeed Blackwater employees are accused of smuggling weapons into Iraq by the Iraqi government itself.[xliii]
There are more paramilitary and civilian contractors in Iraq at present (over 180,000) than actual troops.[xliv] Because of the enormous commitment in the Middle East, the Louisiana National Guard was unable to deploy in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck. In their place marched storm troopers wielding automatic weapons on the ground, or else driving Sport Utility Vehicles with windows tinted black. “Within two weeks of the hurricane, the number of private security companies registered in Louisiana jumped from 185 to 235.” The firms included such corporations as DynCorp, Intercon, American Security Group, Blackhawk, and Instinctive Shooting International.[xlv] Instinctive Shooting International?!? Yes, that’s what it’s really called – an Israeli company specializing in defending the propertied from the unpropertied like Plato’s dogs. The lesson of our times is that there is not one Parallax but many, as the driving engine of mass capitalism breeds imitation; a thousand Parallaxes paid to do the bidding of the powerful.
These Blackwater thugs and Wackenhut security installations have become the new centurions. Indeed, we cannot rule out the involvement of private industries being at the root of numerous assassinations of political figures, mostly of the left, throughout the last 40 years. Many of these killings also bear the earmarks outlined in The Parallax View: a seemingly brainwashed, mentally defective patsy, and the possible involvement – in either funding or training – of private institutions. This has happened time and again, with Bobby Kennedy’s murder being but one example.
Private industries have been able to perform duties that would normally be handled by federal employees, which not only increases profit but decreases liability. When John Negroponte (himself infamous for studiously failing to notice the presence of CIA-trained Contra death squads in Nicaragua beginning in 1981) became the Ambassador to Iraq, he traveled everywhere with a contingent of Blackwater guards.[xlvi] As previously noted, these guards were above Iraqi, American, and International law, undoubtedly convenient for a man like Negroponte. However, at the same time, Blackwater argued in court that its dead mercenaries were ineligible for anything except government-funded insurance.[xlvii] This slippery mindset – floating between federal and private – should perhaps be unsurprising given that these firms are generally started by people who were once in the federal government. The concept is to get all of the advantages of state power and private means without any of the limitations. Blackwater itself, for example, was started by Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL.[xlviii] Similarly, Wackenhut began as a detective agency in 1954 created by former FBI employee George Wackenhut. With the aid of his influence, the agency lived off government contracts, but the company really took off in the late 1980s with the prison industry. They are now the third largest prison contractor in the United States.[xlix] Their prisons have a remarkable reputation for poorly trained guards and violent incidents. A report, for example, created for the Scottish government when contemplating expansion of Wackenhut prisons in that country collects numerous violent incidents across six states, notes their terrible reputation, close ties to the CIA, and lack of controls. It also points out that Ronald Reagan’s notorious CIA director William Casey, before he was placed in that position, was Wackenhut’s lead counsel.[l] Given Casey’s involvement in the Iran-Contra operation, among other crimes, this does not inspire confidence in the organization.
This leads perhaps to another pressing issue in the explosion of the privatization of violence. As noted in The Parallax View, such companies obey nothing but money and power. It makes no difference to them whether they kill a leftist or a right-winger, a criminal or a great statesman; their loyalties are not to an ideology but their stockholders. Is it an accident that the huge increase in the numbers of private prisons over the last twenty years has been accompanied by an equivalent increase in the number of people incarcerated? Is it an accident that the profit margins of private mercenary firms mirror the increase of instability across the globe? The motivation to pursue profit is not the same thing as the motivation to pursue justice.
Accompanying this change has been a change in how criminality itself is perceived. Whereas criminal behavior had been seen as deviant from prescribed norms or the result of poor socialization, current models show crime as an inevitable byproduct of group activity in a mercantile system. The theoretical position is that theft is an outgrowth of the desires capitalist societies instill in their citizens to maintain themselves. Or, as George Carlin puts it: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods – now this [Commandment] is just plain fucking stupid. Coveting our neighbors’ goods is what keeps the economy going.”[li] This attitude, of great utility to those who would profit off crime, means certain changes in the way crime is viewed:
A thousand small adjustments are required. Replace cash with credit cards. Build locks into the steering columns of automobiles. Employ attendants in parking lots and use close circuit TV cameras to monitor city centre streets…Encourage local authorities to co-ordinate the various agencies that deal with crime.[lii]
That is, the movement is to create a surveillance society permeated by new business interests that fill the various social requirements. Close circuit television cameras are made by a manufacturer who has the same goal that every business in a capitalist society has: to expand. This is precisely what has happened at the Pentagon, as contracts are handed out to such entities as Halliburton to take over aspects of war that used to be handled by the government. In 2003 this resulted in a $1.7 billion windfall for the company.[liii] This creates a situation in which huge corporations such as Halliburton, Lockheed Martin, McDonnell-Douglas, Blackwater, Wackenhut, DynCorp and Booz Allen Hamilton, among many others, have a vested interest in increasing the relative amount of chaos in this world.
The Establishment View
Critical response to The Parallax View was generally harsh. In the case of Vincent Canby, he asserted both that the picture was not successful entertainment, complaining that the screenplay did not have the “wit [of] Alfred Hitchcock,” but also that to “treat a political assassination conspiracy merely as a subject for fun is frivolous.” He thereby in the same breath desires that the film be less realistic and sober, but also not treat its given subject lightly. At bottom, he doesn’t take it seriously:
According to this film, the Parallax Corporation has a recruiting program as thorough as that of General Motors, and much more paternal. Parallax seems to be vaguely right-wing, but the movie is fuzzy on this. It's also fuzzy on logistics. If, as is shown, Parallax insists on eliminating not only contracted targets but also all possible witnesses, as well as witnesses of witnesses, it would seem the population could, theoretically, be reduced by half in eighteen months.[liv]
Richard Schickel, writing for Time, seems to be offended by the very conception of the film, relying on his amateur psychoanalysis to assess the entire enterprise: “It is apparently comforting for many people to believe that the course of the world is changed more by rational planning, however evil, than it is by irrational individual actions.” He actually praises the action genre elements of the film, calling the fistfight and car chase “smartly handled,” while failing to understand their placement within the overall context. He then dismisses everything that happens after these routine elements. He goes on:
But there is no way to build an overparanoid thriller or to provide a satisfactory ending. If the hero can break the conspiracy unaided, it cannot be much of a conspiracy. If, on the other hand, the conspiracy is all powerful, then the audience is robbed of the basic pleasure of identifying with the protagonist's triumph over the odds. Pakula opts for the latter resolution in Parallax and it is a downer. Though a touch of paranoid fantasizing can energize an entertainment, too much of it is just plain crazy—neither truthful nor useful. And certainly nothing for responsible men to try to make a buck with in the movies.[lv]
Schickel thus invokes two highly typical responses to conspiracy films and also conspiracies in general: on the one hand, he states that they are essentially psychological constructs rather than evidential ones, while also implying that “paranoid fantasy” is somehow too serious of a subject for commercial exploitation. Like Canby, he seems unable to resolve the internal confusion here. Either the subject is too serious for entertainment purposes, or it is not entertaining enough, but surely it cannot be both. And yet Canby and Schickel, both well-respected critics, share this quandary.
For both critics, it seems that in any case a film like The Parallax View must be pure fantasy, and a distasteful one at that. It could not be the case that the film could have a kernel of truth at its core. At a more fundamental level, the thought process depicted here in these critiques is that all conspiracy-thinking is not to be taken seriously; indeed, it may even be dangerous. But all of this a priori rejection of such thought takes place without reference to any facts, and neither review takes any time to place the film within any meaningful historical context. This deliberately ahistorical approach makes it impossible to understand the deep structures that underlie the drama.
We see this approach taken by establishment writers time and again when facing films like The Parallax View in dealing with subjects anathema to national pride. The most extreme example, of course, is with JFK, in which TIME Magazine ran a critical story of the picture before it was even released, based on a stolen draft of the script. However, there is this continual methodology of distancing the subject from the real world, and then expressing disapprobation at any overlap, with a hint that the filmmakers have a strong financial motivation to “make a buck” exploiting real-life scenarios. These are, however, the techniques of the propagandist; in applying invented motivations for both the creators and the intended audience of the film, they fail to address the subject head-on. Evidence is dismissed in favor of broad general assessments – a characteristic of thought that Tocqueville, I might observe, felt was instinctual and habitual with Americans.
Nevertheless, the evaluation of The Parallax View’s credibility depends entirely on one’s familiarity with the evidence that its method of representation has some relationship to reality. For most people, entering into the theater under the veil of ignorance, it represents a yarn, perhaps even a disturbing one. But one cannot appreciate the depth of its critique without having gone through some of the real-world incidents that it observes and reflects. I have tried to dig out and present some of this information, in the interest of changing paradigms blinded by an inability to accept unpleasant truths. Unlike what occurs in the parallax stereogram, alas, the two images – one presented by orthodox wisdom, the other presented by the dirty details – can never be reconciled.
[i] Bill Boyarsky, “Murphy Hints at Plot in Kennedy Murders,” Los Angeles Times, 16 September 1970.
[ii] Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy (Viking: New York 2006), 179-181.
[iii] Richard Cummings, The Pied Piper: Allard K. Lowenstein and the Liberal Dream (InPrint.com, Inc.: New York 1985), 359.
[iv] David Harris, Dreams Die Hard (St. Martin’s Press: New York 1982), 108; also see “Allard Lowenstein: an Exchange,” The New York Review of Books, Volume 33, Number 1, 30 January 1986, which cites, among other things, an FBI informant who told the agency about Lowenstein’s CIA status.
[v] Suzanne Finstad, Warren Beatty: a Private Man (Harmony Books: New York, NY 2005), 389.
[vi] Ibid, 394.
[vii] Jared Brown, Alan J. Pakula: His Films and His Life (Backstage Books: New York 2005), 126.
[viii] LA County District Attorney’s Report, part 1, from the FBI’s file on the RFK assassination.
[ix] LA 56-156 FBI report on time of death, from the FBI’s sub-file Vol. 1 on the RFK assassination.
[x] Officer DeWayne A. Wolfer’s official report dated 8 July 1968. Obtained at the Poage Legislative Library, Baylor University, Penn Jones Papers.
[xi] “Ten shots from an eight shot revolver,” Los Angeles Free Press, 6 June 1969. Obtained at the Poage Legislative Library, Baylor University, Penn Jones Papers.
[xii] Statement by Karl Uecker, Stern Magazine, February 1995 issue.
[xiii] Lilian Castellano, “Truth Committee Releases Conspiracy Evidence on RFK,” The Midlothian Mirror, 22 December 1970. Obtained at the Poage Legislative Library, Baylor University, Penn Jones Papers.
[xiv] Police interview of Pete Hamill, 6 August 1968, from the FBI’s file on the RFK assassination.
[xv] Jerry Policoff, “New Evidence That Sirhan Missed Bobby,” The Iconoclast, Vol. VII, No. 12, 8 June 1973. Obtained at the Poage Legislative Library, Baylor University, Penn Jones Papers.
[xvi] William Turner and John Christian, The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy (Carrol & Graf: New York 1993 ), 166-168.
[xvii] Interview can be seen in Ted Charach’s documentary film The Second Gun.
[xviii] James DiEugenio and Lisa Pease, ed., The Assassinations (Feral House: Los Angles 2003), 539.
[xix] David Talbot, Brothers (Free Press: Simon & Schuster: New York 2007), 6.
[xx] Ibid, 32.
[xxi] United Press International (wire), 20 February 1975.
[xxii] Zodiac News Service (wire), 17-18 February 1975.
[xxiii] John Kelin, Praise from a Future Generation (Wings Press: San Antonio TX 2007), 315-317.
[xxiv] Brown, 134.
[xxv] Philip Lopate, ed. American Movie Critics (The Library of America: New York 2006), 364.
[xxvi] William Goldman, Which Lie Did I Tell? (Random House: New York 2000), 83.
[xxvii] Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (Simon & Schuster: 2007 ), 830-831.
[xxviii] Nicholas Horrock, “C.I.A. Documents Tell of 1954 Project to Create Involuntary Assassins,” The New York Times, 9 February 1978.
[xxix] Michael Levine & Laura Kavanau-Levine, The Big White Lie (Thunder’s Mouth Press: New York 1993), 55-58.
[xxx] Alexander Cockburn & Jeffrey St. Clair, Whiteout (Verso: New York 1998), 198.
[xxxi] Alexander Cockburn & Jeffrey St. Clair, ed., “CIA’s Sidney Gottlieb: Pusher, Assassin, & Pimp,” Counterpunch, http://www.counterpunch.org/gottlieb.html.
[xxxii] Television interview of Charles Manson, 1997.
[xxxiii] Cockburn & St. Clair, Whiteout, 201.
[xxxiv] Alton Chase, “Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber,” The Atlantic Monthly, June 2000, http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2000/06/chase.htm.
[xxxv] “MKULTRA Materials and Methods,” declassified government document, 5 May 1955.
[xxxvi] CIA Director Stansfield Turner’s testimony, 1977 Senate Hearings on MKULTRA, 35-36.
[xxxvii] Turner and Christian, 194.
[xxxviii] Ibid, 197.
[xxxix] “CIA Interventions: The Role of the CIA and the LAPD in the RFK Assassination,” lecture by Lawrence Teeter, 14 November 2000, from the DVD The Life and Work of a Genuine Working Class Hero, obtained through JusticeVision, http://justicevision.blogspot.com/.
[xl] Selwyn Raab, Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires (St. Martin’s Press: New York 2006), 144.
[xli] “Deep Six for Johnny,” TIME Magazine, 23 August 1976, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,945646,00.html.
[xlii] Alex Koppelman & Mark Benjamin, “What happens to private contractors who kill Iraqis? Maybe nothing,” (Salon.com, 18 September 2007), http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2007/09/18/blackwater/print.html.
[xliii] BBC News, “Blackwater ‘arms smuggling probe,’” 22 September 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/world/americas/7008058.stm.
[xliv] Koppleman & Benjamin, “What happens to private contractors who kill Iraqis? Maybe nothing”
[xlv] Jeremy Scahill, “Blackwater Down,” The Nation, 10 October 2005.
[xlvi] Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater (Nation Books: New York 2007), 282-283.
[xlvii] Ibid, 232.
[xlviii] Ibid, 28.
[xlix] Kenn Thomas & Jim Keith, The Octopus (Feral House: Los Angeles CA 2004), 32.
[l] Phil Taylor & Christine Cooper, Privatised Prisons and Detention Centres in Scotland: An Independent Report, http://visar.csustan.edu/aaba/Cooper&Taylor.pdf.
[li] George Carlin, from his standup performance Complaints and Grievances (2001).
[lii] David Garland, The Culture of Control (University of Chicago Press: Chicago 2001), 129.
[liii] Michael Dobbs, “Halliburton’s Iraq Contracts Exceed $1.7 Billion,” The Washington Post, 28 August 2003.
[liv] Vincent Canby, “The Parallax View [film review],” The New York Times, 20 June 1974.
[lv] Richard Schickel, “Paranoid Thriller,” Time Magazine, 8 July 1974.
A few years ago, I tried to make a list of my 100 favorite films. It's an absurd task, and the results are absurd - because this sort of thing is inherently impossible - but I do love every film on this list. So it works to that extent.
01. 2001, A Space Odyssey
02. The Maltese Falcon
04. Rio Bravo
05. Blade Runner
06. Le Samourai
07. A Night at the Opera
08. Aguirre, the Wrath of God
10. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
11. City Lights
12. Grande Illusion
13. The 39 Steps (1935)
14. Brief Encounter
15. The Exterminating Angel
17. Dr. Strangelove
18. The Searchers (1956)
19. The Ruling Class
20. The Parallax View
21. The Shop Around the Corner
22. Night of the Iguana
23. The Spook Who Sat by the Door
24. Blow Out
25. To Have and Have Not
26. The Big Sleep
27. The Rules of the Game
28. The Thing (1982)
30. Anatomy of a Murder
32. His Girl Friday
34. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
35. Double Indemnity
36. The Third Man
37. Habla Con Ella
38. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
39. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
40. Atlantic City
41. Modern Times
42. The Stunt Man
44. Citizen Kane
45. Throne of Blood
46. Broadcast News
47. Glengarry Glen Ross
48. Night Moves
49. Being There
50. There Will be Blood
52. Breathless (1959)
54. The Public Enemy (1931)
55. The Conversation
56. Do the Right Thing
57. The Man Who Fell to Earth
58. Singin’ in the Rain
59. Groundhog Day
60. To Be or Not to Be (1942)
61. Red River
62. Au Revoir Les Enfants
64. Wild Strawberries
66. Cross of Iron
67. Point Blank
68. Last Year at Marienbad
69. Through a Glass, Darkly
71. The Ninth Configuration
72. Medium Cool
73. The Big Red One
74. Cyrano de Bergerac (1950)
75. Before Sunrise
76. Hard Boiled
78. Miller’s Crossing
79. They All Laughed
80. Jackie Brown
81. Le Cercle Rouge
82. Seven Days in May
83. Fort Apache
84. Blue Collar
86. Topsy Turvy
87. Solaris (1972)
88. The China Syndrome
89. Youth of the Beast
90. Ed Wood
91. The Prisoner of Zenda (1931)
93. Withnail & I
94. Miracle Mile
95. Inglorious Basterds
96. Year of the Dragon
97. High Fidelity
98. The Princess Bride
100. Nothing but a Man
Directed by Orson Welles. Written by Orson Welles & Oja Kodar. Featuring John Huston, Peter Bogdanovich, Oja Kodar, Robert Random, Susan Strasberg, Joseph McBride.
by Joseph E. Green
Joseph McBride relates in his book Orson Welles a story from the filming of the new Netflix release The Other Side of the Wind, a project he was involved in for six years. In the instance described in his book, the cast and crew had just completed an indoor shot when break was called. Everyone went outside. In McBride’s words: “As the door was rolled back, revealing a brilliant orange sunset over the Hollywood skyline, Welles stared at the natural spectacle outside, took the note of the oohs and aahs around him, and muttered to himself, ‘It looks fake.’” (202)
The Other Side of the Wind is so unique in its creation and its unlikely revival by the streaming giant Netflix that the story threatens to overshadow the film itself. And the unique method of its construction also complicates what is already a complicated production. So let’s begin at the beginning.
The film has essentially two main narratives. The first narrative is a kind of faux-documentary about the last day of Jake Hannaford’s life, a Hollywood motion picture director (played by John Huston) who was once acclaimed but now has trouble getting funds for his movies. He is having a birthday party and has invited a large group of people to his home. This narrative is captured on all sorts of film cameras, variably in color and black and white, and on different formats. The second narrative is the film that this director has been making, in an effort to appeal to contemporary audiences. The conceit is that the people at the party are screening this new film. Some of the execution of these scenes suggests Woody Allen’s film Stardust Memories, although it seems unlikely he would have seen any of the Welles picture in the late Seventies. Still, there are echoes.
Many of the characters shown in the film have real-life analogues, including Huston playing some version of Welles himself. Producer Robert Evans, film critic Pauline Kael, and many others are represented; and, indeed, the film-within-the-film is another representation – primarily evoking the style of the director Michelangelo Antonioni. That film, also called The Other Side of the Wind, stars Oja Kodar and Robert Random as young beautiful people who follow each other through ominous expressive settings as a prelude to sex.
Antonioni had first found fame through a picture called L’Avventura, which screened at the Cannes festival and drew praise and boos in roughly equal measure. A sedate, languid film, the film tells a story of a woman who disappears and the search – more or less – for her by her ‘friends.’ I personally find the film fascinating, but understand why others disagree. The same is true for other Antonioni films, such as L’Eclisse, Red Desert, La Notte, and Blowup. However, Welles took special aim at Zabriskie Point, a picture which even Antonioni’s most ardent fans (such as myself) will not defend with much vigor. Welles, in fact, shot much of his film in a house adjacent to one that Antonioni had blown up in Zabriskie Point.
In Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind, author Josh Karp notes that “…the world Antonioni created on screen bothered Orson to no end. Because while Welles tangled with love and hate, life and death, and the unknowability of man, Antonioni’s films were about existential ennui with characters who lived empty lives covered by another layer of ennui. It defined all that Welles despised about the auteur theory.” (64) In an Orson Welles film, the characters are all very strong personalities, with clearly defined goals and principles – although they may fail, and indeed Welles may find that emptiness lies at the end of the striving, there is striving. Charles Foster Kane may wind up a recluse wishing for his childhood toy, but a burned-out torch once had a fire. Antonioni’s films are not characterized by fire. The characters in Antonioni films often carry around thousand-yard-stares of blank affect, paralyzed by the neurosis of modernity. His greatest ingenue, Monica Vitti, most often presented no expression whatsoever. Indeed, in Antonioni’s most famous film, Blowup, a photographer (David Hemmings) who specializes in capturing reality finds that he cannot trust reality – and is only moderately distressed by the discovery. In the end, he decides to shrug and play along.
As Joseph McBride noted in my recent interview with him, however, it is interesting to note the similarities between Antonioni’s own La Notte and The Other Side of the Wind. Both films take place during a party, over the course of one night, and partly around a pool. The screenwriter William Goldman once observed that he spent a very enjoyable evening listening to film students discuss water images in La Notte. Perhaps Welles had been influenced a bit, even by his aesthetic enemy?
Perhaps. But that leads us into one of the subjects of this complex film: Welles’s relationship with the critical public. In The Other Side of the Wind, Jake Hannaford (Huston) is beset by hangers-on, old friends, old enemies, and photographers. He does most of his communicating through a protégé, Otterlake, played by Peter Bogdanovich, who serves to blockade somewhat the most inane questions – such as when Mister Pister (McBride) asks him if his “…camera is merely a phallus.” The trouble is, however, that Hannaford hasn’t had a success in a long time, is having trouble making the bills, and his legend – running on fumes by this point – only survives through those fans and film scholars. Or, as put by one of many quips that zip by at the party, “You wouldn’t know a cineaste from a hole in the ground.”
Hannaford, we are told, is the “Ernest Hemingway” of filmmakers, although what at first sounds like a compliment begins to sound like tragedy by the end. He is a man out of time. We watch him watching his own film with drunken indifference and perhaps bewilderment. At one point the projectionist complains that he’s showing the reels out of order. “Does it matter?” Hannaford asks.
Gradually we find out it does not. He’s in dire straits. His leading man bolted from the production. The money’s gone. And then, in one of the most powerful scenes, he goes to his last resort: attempting to borrow money from his protégé, Otterlake, who declines. Inevitably the scene echoes a Henry-Falstaff relationship, as the betrayal plays out. “The forty million that was mentioned…” he starts to say, but Hannaford interrupts him: “I know kid, let me finish the line for you. It’s still a distant hope. How’s that for dialogue?” Otterlake, taken aback, then responds: “What did I do wrong…Daddy?” This seems to have been a preoccupation with Welles’s later years, as Joseph McBride points out that in the film F for Fake, Welles also explicitly mentions Falstaff and Henry in connection to the hoaxer Clifford Irving, who exposed the forger Elmyr de Hory. McBride then connects Welles’s identification of the Irving-Hory relationship with Mr. Arkadin and the protagonist’s relationship with his “…biographers, who expose his guilty secrets to the world.” (182-183)
And so the son must kill the father. Bogdanovich, in his book Who the Devil Made It, relates a story about Dennis Hopper at a small dinner party in which the classic Hollywood director George Cukor (The Philadelphia Story, A Star is Born) was also present. Hopper made a point of telling Cukor, “We’re going to bury you, maaaan.” Cukor politely responded, “Well, sure. I’m sure.” Hopper, who has a small role in The Other Side of the Wind (typecast as partygoer on a drug trip) broke apart all the old Hollywood rules with Easy Rider, ushering in a world that Hannaford only half-heartedly tries to keep up with in his film.
This crossing over between the “real” world and the picture happens in virtually every scene, lending depth and shading to the proceedings. It also makes this a picture for film buffs – the same “pests” that Welles complains about during the course of the film are also his chief audience. And finally the construction of the film means that it echoes both films of the past and the future in strange ways. So while it is possible to see the influence of Godard and Antonioni, certain scenes also seem like influences (although they can’t be!) on films as diverse as William Peter Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration and Oliver Stone’s JFK (particularly in some of the black and white montage sequences). The Other Side of the Wind is a postmodern commentary on itself, and is as far away from the perfect-pitch execution of Welles’s early films as imaginable.
The other potential influence on the film – and a question I would love to have answered – is the question of “El Boom.” During the 1960s and 1970s a group of young Latin American novelists broke through to commercial success in America, an event which is referred to as “El Boom.” These novelists – the Argentinean Julio Cortazar (whose short story formed the basis for Antonioni’s Blowup), Gabriel Garcia-Marquez of Colombia, Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru, and Carlos Fuentes of Mexico all seemed to arrive fully formed at once. Their novels were in turn heavily influenced by French literature in particular, but also Jorge Luis Borges, the spiritual father of these novelists to one degree or another. Borges had been a film critic in his youth (one of his reviews was of the original King Kong) and Hollywood had an impact on all these men.
The Other Side of the Wind contains many elements reminiscent of these fiction writers, particularly in its overly experimental nature. Cortazar, for example, wrote a novel in which the reader can pick which chapters he or she can read (Hopscotch), and a short story in which a murderer targets the reader of the story. This experimentation was a specialty of Borges as well – in one famous story, a man rewrites Don Quixote word for word, and the temporal distance makes his work a deeper and more interesting than the original. Another story concerns a detective who gets so lost in Hebraic word-puzzles he fails to see his own death prefigured (shades of Blowup). Orson Welles, in this film and F for Fake especially, took to deconstructing the nature of filmmaking itself, just as these writers were exploring the limits of word, story, and novel.
However, the novel that kept coming to mind watching the film was A Change of Skin by Carlos Fuentes. The first of the three sections of the novel is titled “An Impossible Feast,” a play on the Ernest Hemingway novel A Moveable Feast, just one of the many pleasing connections. The novel concerns a trip taken by a few characters with conflicting backgrounds, and a betrayal that takes place among them. In one section of the novel, the narrator, Freddie Lambert, invokes memories of the films they used to see:
“You don’t remember. I bet you don’t. But we used to know them all. Every afternoon after school we used to go to the movies. Or we would sit in the soda fountain and ask movie riddles, to see who knew the casts best, the cameraman, the other technicians. Yes, we even knew the names of the cameramen. And today the only ones I remember are Tolland [sic] and James Wong Howe…” (132)
Tolland refers to Greg Toland, Orson Welles’s cameraman for Citizen Kane. And it just so happens that Fuentes had previously borrowed the structure of Kane for his most famous novel, The Death of Artemio Cruz, published in 1962.
In A Change of Skin, the ending takes place at a party, in which actors portraying the characters of the book repeat some of the major incidents of the book – a metafiction in the same way The Other Side of the Wind is a metafilm.
The play’s the thing.
Was this part of the framework of Welles’s influence? Who knows. One would think he would have been aware of “El Boom,” especially as he spent so much time in Spain prior to 1970. In terms of literature in that period, Latin America was where the action was. Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow wasn’t out until 1973, although John Barth had already put out Lost in the Funhouse by 1968. Meta-narratives were in the air.
Although there is one other story that seems to have been a major influence on the film: The Dead by James Joyce, which also takes place during a party and ends – expressed in some of the most gorgeous prose ever committed to paper – with a kind of betrayal. And a recognition of a passion which is buried, and will remain so, for eternity.
John Huston’s last film was an adaptation of The Dead, in 1987. For his part, Josh Karp notes that Orson Welles died in his bathrobe at age 70: “Just like Jake Hannaford.” (236)
Paraphrasing Orson Welles, happy endings are all about where you end the story.
Joseph McBride mentioned that producer Frank Marshall felt a certain melancholy about The Other Side of the Wind, because death is baked into its very structure, right up until the incredible final sequence of images. McBride disagreed; the film is out; the rest is celebration. Bogdanovich once said to me that “no special effect can compete with the human face,” and this film is a testament to that. The film exists, is available to be seen, and after more than 40 years it’s hard to see this development as anything other than a happy ending.
Joseph McBride on Orson Welles and The Other Side of the Wind
by Joseph E. Green
Once upon a time there was a young man from Wisconsin who flew out to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune. While he was there, he met and befriended many of his heroes – and then, wound up acting in a film by his hero, another gentleman from Wisconsin: Orson Welles.
That’s the situation Joseph McBride found himself in, starring in a “home movie” (but not the last Orson Welles movie, despite the press) along with John Huston and Peter Bogdanovich: The Other Side of the Wind.
However, like so many Welles projects, ill fortune waited. The film was presumed lost for almost a half century, before Netflix – to their eternal credit – decided to try and piece it back together. McBride, for his part, stayed busy, developing one of the most unique resumes imaginable. Through Roger Corman’s production he acted in Hollywood Boulevard, starring Paul Bartel and directed by Allan Arkush and Joe Dante. He later co-wrote the Ramones movie, Rock ’n’ Roll High School, and grew into one of the most eminent Hollywood biographers ever, having produced biographies on such figures as Steven Spielberg, Frank Capra, John Ford, and – most recently – a critical study on Ernst Lubitsch, How Did Lubitsch Do It?, a gorgeous book which has drawn well-deserved rave reviews. In his spare time, McBride found the time to make several important discoveries in the Kennedy assassination investigation, as well as writing one of indispensable works in that field, Into the Nightmare: My Search for the Killers of President John F. Kennedy and Officer J. D. Tippit.
It was the latter book that made him a natural to participate in a project that I had been hired onto – a film (Dallas in Wonderland) and accompanying documentary (King Kill 63). We flew Joe out to Dallas to walk the scenes of the J. D. Tippit murder and other important Dallas locations. We also, naturally, took the opportunity to talk films and filmmakers whenever we could. We were sitting around near Dealey Plaza when I asked him about one of my favorite directors of all time.
JOE G.: So how do you like [Michelangelo] Antonioni?
JOE McB.: He’s kind of pretentious.
JOE G.: Sometimes I like pretentious.
Which will help explain the last question of this interview.
The Other Side of the Wind, and two accompanying documentaries - They'll Love Me When I'm Dead and A Final Cut for Orson: 40 Years in the Making - all drop on November 2.
JOSEPH GREEN: Welles once said that Citizen Kane was, I quote, "an attack on acquisitiveness." And he was asked, “Did you intentionally put that in there?" And he said, "Well, I'm primarily a storyteller, but, yes." Although Kane is not a Leftist or Marxist critique of what you might call monopoly capitalism. So you can have these sorts of criticisms without necessarily adopting Marxist language or a Marxist point of view.
JOSEPH McBRIDE: Well, he was never a Marxist, but he was very progressive. He was very...Leftist in those days especially. He was throughout his entire life, but he was very outspokenly on the left at the time.
There's a good book on Kane by Laura Mulvey for the British Film Institute BFI Classic Series. It goes into the politics of Kane quite a lot, which I think has been sort of neglected because it is a real attack on fascism and on people like Hearst and domestic tyrants. What that whole kind of tyrannical personality entails, in terms of their personal and their public lives.
[Joe just sent me a note about his answer to this question about Welles and leftist sentiments which reads as follows: "And when I say Welles was never a Marxist, I wonder if that was right. He was accused by the FBI of being a Communist, which he never was. But his work has some Marxist influence. If asked again I might like to quote what Lee Oswald said when asked if he was a Communist or a Marxist: “No, sir, I am not a Communist . . . Well, I have studied Marxist philosophy, yes, sir, and also other philosophers. . . . Well, I would very definitely say that I am a Marxist, that is correct, but that does not mean, however, that I am a Communist.”
Which is a good example of how one interest can inform another.]
And even what are now sometimes called false sponsorship or false flag operations, I mean, in some sense.
Like in the famous line where he says…
Ah! "You furnish the pictures and I'll provide the war."
And that was actually taken directly from Hearst's life. There was a famous exchange of telegrams with Frederic Remington, the great artist, who was doing drawings for him in Cuba and they cooked up the Spanish American War with the false flag sinking of the Maine, etc.
There were some things in the script that were more overtly political than Welles was allowed to put in the film. For example, Hearst was accused of encouraging the assassination of McKinley because one of his papers actually called for McKinley to be shot. And then when he was shot by an anarchist, Hearst got a lot of publicity for all that. Welles had that in the film and they cut it out.
The film’s editor Robert Wise told me that they showed Kane at Radio City Music Hall when Hearst was trying to stop the film. Welles showed it to the lawyers and executives of all the corporations that ran the movie business, so they could make a decision on whether to shelve the film or let it come out.
Wise said that this was Welles's greatest performance. He gave a very passionate speech about fascism and how it was taking over Europe and we had to stop it. And so suppressing the film would be giving in to that fascist impulse. Welles’s very powerful speech worked – they released the film, but they made him cut things out and Wise told me he spent five weeks recutting it. One of the things that went was the blaming of Kane for the McKinley assassination. There's a little allusion to it in the film. It's at one point in the newsreel; it's sort of incoherent at that point because they made some cuts. That's just one example. But it has a lot of pretty overt political references. I mean you see Kane with Hitler, for example.
Well, and Welles maybe met Hitler. I was gonna ask you about that, too. He did know Churchill apparently. How much truth was in those stories?
He claimed that as a boy in 1929, he met Hitler in a Munich beer hall. Pat McGilligan's Young Orson tried to track down all these stories. It may be one of these stories that you can't prove or disprove. But he claimed was in some beer hall and sat next to this guy and later realized it was Hitler.
The thing that Pat told me was - he's a very good researcher - is that a lot of the stories that people thought Welles made up turned out to be true. Like he claimed that he was a bullfighter and everybody thought, "That's absurd." But then he found out Welles had been a bullfighter briefly and he was able to get proof. He said most of the stories Welles said were true.
And that, the fistfight with Hemingway and, you know, those are…
You know that actually happened.
It boggles the imagination to have had a life like that.
Yeah, well that's part of Pat's - Have you read Pat's book? It's really good.
I have not, but I'm going to now.
I helped him with some research and, but he did prodigious research on Welles's youth and nobody'd ever looked into his parents, for example, who were both amazing characters and his very unusual childhood. And then the whole theater and radio days. It goes into detail on all kinds of these amazing stories. And Pat said that basically he found that Welles just had an extraordinary life, and a very privileged one. I mean, he was privileged because the family was wealthy and his father and mother both introduced him to a lot of people in show business. Then he traveled widely, and he got into all - he was a very daring and adventurous young man, so he got into all kinds of situations.
The idea that he would direct the black Macbeth at age 20 in Harlem is pretty astonishing. And the black actors and crew people all became very devoted to him even though they had some quarrels. But the chutzpah of a 20 year old guy doing that is astonishing. [Orson Welles directed a theatrical production of Macbeth featuring an all-black cast – rather ingeniously resetting the play from Scotland to Haiti. This was in 1936. – editor’s note.]
Yeah it is. It is. And speaking of that sort of thing. I was trying to think if there were precursors or if there's any - had anybody really attempted something like Chimes at Midnight? [Joe does a commentary on the recent blu-ray edition of the film.] Uh, rewriting Shakespeare, sort of.
Well, there's been so many Shakespeare films, um... You know, I mean, there was even a silent Shakespeare with Sarah Bernhardt in it. But when they did silent Shakespeare, obviously they were pretty loose in their rendering of it.
But Welles was trying something very ambitious by combining several plays in one. He had done that as a young man at the Todd School. [The Todd Seminary School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois.] As a boy at the Todd School, he did Richard III and he combined various plays. And then in 1939, he did a big production called Five Kings, in which he played Falstaff and it was kind of the precursor to Chimes at Midnight. That was a famous disaster because it was too ambitious and too long and technical things didn't work out and they lost a lot of money on it. That's one reason he went to Hollywood – he needed money after that debacle. But he did Chimes of Midnight onstage in Ireland as a kind of rehearsal for the film.
So it is quite astonishing what he did combining these things. And he took a very free approach to Shakespeare. He did that in his early days as a stage director, too. He would freely cut Shakespeare or even take lines from different plays and put them in some other play and, you know... There was an old joke at the time that one of the actors in one of those plays said "When is this ever gonna come out?" And the guy said "When Orson finishes writing it."
for Shakespeare and taken seriously in that regard. And I don't know that there is another American actor like that today. Is there?
Well, there were people like Maurice Evans and the Barrymores. There were Americans who did a lot with Shakespeare, but Welles had a very cosmopolitan personality. I think that made him unusual in that he was really a man of the world, even as a boy. He was not purely an American figure, although many aspects of Welles are very American. I mean, he was actually blacklisted and that's why he was in Europe from '47 onward and came back in 1970. So, he was like a European art film director in a way.
Part of my book, What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?: A Portrait of an Independent Career, part of the thesis, which I borrowed from Douglas Gomery, who's a very good film historian…he and I went to college together…he said that Welles was always an independent director even when he was working at RKO. He was, as Doug put it, he briefly was using the resources of a major studio but remained an independent director from the beginning in the sense of doing it his way and breaking new ground. So when he goes to Europe and left Hollywood behind, he embraced his avocation as an avant-garde director. But then he always was; I mean, Kane is a very avant-garde film.
As are many of his films. In some cases, creating genres, like F for Fake.
Even The Lady From Shanghai, for example. It’s a genre film that's very bizarre and very adventurous. So, throughout his career, he was independent and then, later, when he left the studios behind altogether after Touch of Evil, he was literally a home movie maker. He was making movies in his home and he was doing them with his own money mostly. And he was just doing just what he wanted, shooting film all the time. That's one thing people don't realize about him – he was always working. When he died, The New York Times said in their obituary he had been inactive as a director for the past several years and they had to retract that because it wasn't true.
I met him in 1970 and I knew him until the end of his life in '85. And I worked with him for those 6 years on The Other Side of the Wind and I think one reason he put me in the film as an actor, aside from the kind of serious young film buff that I was, was to have a historian on the set because he was frustrated by a lot of false reporting out of his films. There were a lot of mythical tales spun about his work and so, here was somebody he knew that was a reliable historian who could report on what was happening.
And I'm in a new documentary that's being made called They'll Love Me When I'm Dead, which is about the making of The Other Side of the Wind and also about that whole later period of his days in Hollywood before he died. And, so I'm using that experience as an on-the-set historian to share with the man who's making the film, Morgan Neville, and, he's the guy who made a fine documentary on William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal. You may have seen it.
Oh, yeah, that's a great documentary. [Best of Enemies, which I reviewed on this blog. Neville also had a great success this year with the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?]
Yeah, that's wonderful. Morgan is doing this really interesting film…Welles often would call me over and explain what he was doing or tell me where he had got the idea for certain lines or scenes and explain the background of things. And I think he was doing that on purpose so I'd pass it along.
So that was part of what I was doing back then. I was an historian while these people were still around and I was very fortunate when I came to Hollywood that most of the great directors who I wanted to meet were still alive and available.
I realized when I was putting Two Cheers for Hollywood together that I've been writing about 50 years exactly, because I sold my first film article in 1967 to Film Heritage magazine. Although "sold" is a euphemism because I didn't get paid for a couple years…but I started getting published in Film Heritage. I should say Film Heritage was edited by Tony Macklin, who I'm grateful to for getting me published, and then Ernest Callenbach the editor of Film Quarterly, brought me in and said, "I like your work. Would you write for us?" I started writing for them.
So I was, for a while, writing for several film magazines. I was very ambitious to get things published when I was starting out and writing all kinds of articles, six, seven a year in these magazines. I was also doing my book on Orson Welles, which started in '66 because I'd seen Citizen Kane in a film class in September 1966 at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and that got me interested in a life in film. I wanted to write about film and make films.
So I started writing a book on Kane, and somehow I managed to borrow a copy of the film on 16 millimeter, and I watched it over and over. I've seen it over 100 times now-
[Citizen Kane] was my cinematic textbook – along with the script, which I found at the Wisconsin Historical Society. They had a copy of the script, so I went there with my portable typewriter for a month and typed an exact copy because I couldn't afford to Xerox it. So, I was teaching myself how to write screenplays and making short films...
Then, after a couple years I realized Welles had done so many good films and there wasn't a good book in English on him, and I should expand [the book] to his entire body of work. I finished that in 1970 and then I did my book on John Ford with Mike Wilmington, which came out in 1974 although we finished it in 1971. It took three years to get published because those first two books were published in England by the British Film Institute and Secker & Warburg. The Welles book was picked up by Viking in the US, Viking Press, which was my publisher.
I heard it sold 15,000 copies, although I never got any royalties at all from that. Secker & Warburg cheated me. Finally, after about 20 years I made a settlement with them and got the rights to the books back and we got the Ford book. The point I was going to make was that Ford was so out of fashion in America that no American publisher would publish it.
The publisher was using that as an excuse to not put it out in England. I saw in the contract there was nothing that says all this is contingent on having an American publisher, so I actually went to London and walked into the office and demanded the book back, and they got the book published but by then Ford had died. It could have been two years earlier.
Anyway, that's what I was doing in the early days. So, some of this book goes back to some of those earliest articles that I wrote, and some that Mike and I did together. For example, the Swedish film The Emigrants and The New Land, two different films, were being made in Wisconsin. I said, "Let's get on the bus and go find them." So we got on the bus one Saturday and drove out in the countryside and found the filmmakers doing this film with Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann. That was the first film I'd ever seen shot, so we wrote about that in Sight and Sound, and they were delighted to get the article because it was so unusual, you know?
That was one of my tricks I found out. The other with Sight and Sound, David Wilson, who is another one of my editors. He said, "When a Bergman film comes out, we have 50 essays on him. We probably will run one. But when you send in something, nobody else in the world has thought of doing it, so we'll always run your stuff." That was part of my success – thinking of unusual things.
I would interview directors, for example, who were kind of unknown or unappreciated, for example, Richard Lester, who I always admired a great deal. People loved A Hard Day's Night and Help! and other films, but he had made The Bed Sitting Room, which is a fascinating apocalyptic, absurdist comedy. I liked it a lot but hardly anybody in the world saw it…I went to London in '72 and just picked up the phone and called him. He answered and said, "Come on over." That's probably my favorite director interview in the book. We really had a good rapport. He's such an intelligent man. It's really a delight to read it.
Yeah, it's great. It was somebody that I wasn't expecting to find in the book [Two Cheers for Hollywood: Joseph McBride on Movies]. Of course, I come in much later on that. So, because when I was a kid, for a while Superman II was my favorite movie.
I prefer the Lester version. They recently came out with a Donner cut, which basically takes out the humor.
Lester is essentially seeing this as, this is basically ... A superhero movie is essentially comic. Now they’re taken very seriously, which is ridiculous. It’s fine. But I think Lester’s take is right on.
He loves to satirize genres, too. He was one of the directors who was doing that post-modern, satirical approach to genres back then.
Well, sure. That John Lennon picture he made, that was sort of favorable towards Germany…
No, I wouldn't say that, How I Won the War?
Yes. Well perhaps I shouldn't say that it was favorable towards Germany, what I mean is it dared to treat the German people as people, I would say. Recognized their humanity.
Yeah, and it also mocked Churchill and other pretensions of the British upper classes. He was a real iconoclast and that's one reason people liked him. He would get people upset because he had a puppet of Churchill in How I Won the War that kept saying, "I want a battle! I want a battle!"
Right, yeah. So there must be miles of footage of The Other Side of the Wind extant.
Well you know one thing, you and I may have talked about this with Randy [Benson], that's a ...he put out that set [of his film The Searchers] and I bought it, which was the uncut interviews he did for the film, which was...I mean it's a really valuable set, because you have people like Mark Lane and John Judge, who are no longer with us.
So you could do that with your raw materials [for King Kill 63]. You had so many good people on camera, and it would be valuable. I want to propose that for The Other Side of the Wind, by the way. I have this crazy idea that we should put all ninety-six hours of the raw footage out, just as a special set for super Wellesian buffs, so that you could just look at everything he shot.
And you could also...I could see film students reconfiguring and remixing the material, too.
Yeah, there's some of that going on. You know that film, Too Much Johnson, which I wrote about in Two Cheers for Hollywood: Joseph McBride on Movies. That's online, because it was a Welles film that was rediscovered and it's in the public domain, but it was the rough cut. Various people have done cuts of it, but Eastman House has the material, they're preserving it, and they put the raw material online, which I thought was great, because they didn't try to re-edit the film.
There was a guy named Scott Simmon who did his version, and then Bruce Goldstein of the Film Forum did a version with an editor. And I actually kind of advised them on that, and we had a lot of fun doing it. So you can edit that film in different ways. As long as you don't claim it's Welles' cut, as long as the original doesn't get thrown away or anything like that.
Did Welles shoot the whole picture? Of The Other Side of the Wind?
Well he shot everything but two shots, as I understood. [Actually, a few more special-effects shots had to be added by Industrial Light & Magic]. I asked Gary Graver, his cameraman, and…there are two shots he didn't do [at the end]. One you see from a distance smoke rising from a crash.
They need to shoot two things. [There’s a] drive-in where they were shooting [the last scene], but it has been destroyed. It no longer exists, so they'll have to recreate it somehow on CGI, but that's not hard to do now.
There’s some irony there. His films were forever being reconstructed by others even when he was alive. The Magnificent Ambersons – I think they took like three reels out of it, right?
They took fifty minutes out of it, roughly, and then they re-shot parts of it. One of my dream projects, which I've been thinking of for a number of years and I've been making some headway on. I want to go to Brazil and look for the missing print. Welles had a print down there which was thirty-one reels of film, which is a lot of stuff. There were rumors that he left it behind because he went down there with the rough cut and some additional reels of material and he and Robert [Wise] were supposed to finish editing the film. Wise was supposed to come down there, then the studio reneged on that.
They blamed the fact that...there was a war on, you couldn't get a plane. I don't know if that's the real reason, or not, but they were cutting the film back in Hollywood, and Welles would send cables and make phone calls that they were ignoring what he wanted to do. But he had this print, and at a certain point...Well in December of '42, RKO had destroyed the negative material that was cut. But the material he took down there could still be floating around Brazil. This is the rumor, anyway. And as late as 1944 there is some indication that it was maybe at the Rio de Janeiro office of RKO, and I don't know why Welles didn't take it back with him, except that it was hard for him to get back to Hollywood. It took him like two months just to get himself back.
He was working for the US government partly as a diplomat, doing goodwill speeches and things. So he did some shooting and it fell through, and then he flew back in little planes. Maybe carrying thirty-one cans of film might have been impossible. But there was a rumor that he may have left it with a guy who owned a film studio down there in Rio, who was a film buff, collector guy. A friend of mine, Bill Krohn, who co-directed the documentary It’s All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles, theorized that Welles might have given it to him, and it might be in that company which still exists. The man's daughter now runs the company. Bill actually checked, and she didn't think they had it, but you know how film labs and film companies sometimes don't know what they have.
So I want to go down there, and I have a couple former students who are resilient, and I want to make a little super cheap documentary of me looking for the film. Kind of like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Even if the film can't be found, I really want to make an effort to see if it can be found. And stranger things have happened. Like The Passion of Joan of Arc, the original prints showed up in a Danish mental hospital in the early eighties.
And then Metropolis, they found a print in South America that was 30 minutes longer than the one we have, and so it's conceivable the film might be down there. And I want to make the effort. I'm going to do it, it's just a question of when. I was invited to a film festival in Rio a couple years ago, and I was pretty sick at the time. I had been traveling a lot, but I realize I could only...I had like two or three days to look for it, that's not good enough. I'd have to go down there for at least three weeks and just really have time to plan the whole thing.
So I'm going to try to make that happen once I get free of these other books that I'm working on. [McBride did a half-hour video interview for the November 20 Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition of The Magnificent Ambersons on RKO’s mutilation of the film and Welles’s firing by the studio.]
That sounds brilliant. How does it feel to have finally seen the The Other Side of the Wind on the big screen? Was it what you expected?
After the American premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in August, I was on a panel with Frank Marshall and Peter Bogdanovich. Peter said it was a very sad film, which it is, and said he felt it was the end of everything. Frank said he felt bittersweet about its completion, since he’d been hoping to complete the film for almost fifty years and although he felt a great sense of accomplishment, he wondered what he would do now that it is finished. When I pondered my reaction, I thought of what Hemingway said, that you have to think hard about what you really feel and not what people expect you to feel. I realized what I really feel is that we had all pooled our talents and hard work to help realize Orson’s vision. As members of VISTOW (Volunteers in Service to Orson Welles), we had been part of the greatest creative endeavor in our lives. So I don’t feel sad or bittersweet but how a marathon runner must feel winning a marathon — the triumph of finally getting over the finish line.
And the film itself is even better than I had thought it would be, and I always believed in it and fought to get it completed as a feature, not as part of a documentary, as some (including even Welles) had suggested doing at one time or another.
Welles had a history of getting his films taken away from him and re-edited. For The Other Side of the Wind, the editing took place for artistic reasons, by people who care about his work. Would Welles have been pleased by the result?
I think he would, since it follows the editing and stylistic template he established in the parts he did put together. The rest is a dedicated attempt to honor that vision. And the people who finished it felt a strong sense of responsibility to do it well. I have a few reservations about the final result, but that’s inevitable. It took a team to finish it, and no one, no matter how admiring of the material, would have exactly the same view of the final result.
I always knew some people who like it and some would not. And without Orson here, it’s not exactly how he would finish it. But in many ways that’s an idle question, since he constantly reevaluated, rethought, and even reedited his own films, so who knows what he would have done with this material in 2018? He always evolved artistically. But I believe he would be proud of the final result and grateful to Bob Murawski for his editing and to the producers for their yeoman work.
Last question: Would Antonioni have liked the film?
Perhaps not, but it’s ironic that he is such an influence on Welles’s film, both in the parody of Zabriskie Point and in the strange similarities between The Other Side of the Wind and La Notte, which also deals with one night at a drunken party that represents a civilization in collapse. Welles’s editing is definitely more active and propulsive than Antonioni’s generally languid style, which Welles detested.
But Welles, despite himself, was influenced by Antonioni. Antagonism is partly based on attraction or what Hitchcock called attraction/repulsion.
This is Joe Green's blog.