Kian Bergstrom looks back to “All the President’s Men” for Cine-File Chicago


The paranoid work of art makes terrible demands on us. The world, it says, is built with you in mind, and malevolently so, with a double existence to everything, a public face, which exists to fool you—exactly you—and a private one, which isn’t really private at all, but known widely to everyone but you, the dupe and victim of deception. It is the scary flip-side to Dziga Vertov’s kino-eye, a cinema that could reveal the world as it really was, erased of all ideology and mystification, that would let us take control of our lives and society and be our own masters. Paranoid cinema also tells us that the world as it is is different than the world as we believe it to be, but so we can better understand the degree to which we will never be free from the inescapability of the forces that have us in their thrall. Vertov and Alan J. Pakula, director of the high water mark of paranoid cinema, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, share few surface similarities in terms of style, but Vertov’s philosophy of technological vision, his theories of how cinema could show us reality, could have privileged access to the actual that we with our fleshy limitations could not have, and thus how movies could be tools for revealing that which pernicious forces wanted kept concealed, is a powerful tool for understanding Pakula’s magnificent and troubling works of the 70s and 80s. In this film, which chronicles the fall of Nixon’s regime after the Watergate burglary, Pakula constructs a web of dizzying shots that interfere not just with one another but even, crucially in the deeply moving final image, with themselves, producing dialectical frissons that, while horrifying Vertov with their fictionality, encompass more than almost any other filmmaker I can think of the ideal cinema he imagined. Spaces in Pakula’s hands turn ghastly, haunted. Performances fight each other for dominance—notably Hoffmann and Redford, each of whom seems unable to be in the same shot together without attempting to consume the other with capital-T Technique. Secrets become physical, hoarded, liabilities that weigh us down with their sad, precious inertia. Pakula brilliantly uses his zoom lens and split diopter to continually show a space and then disrupt that space, show us one projection of the world only to then undermine that projection. Like De Palma, whose debt to this filmmaker has yet to be sufficiently examined, Pakula capitalizes on various changing optical distortions to make his film a network of half-glimpsed secrets, of tantalizingly concealed truths always noticed just when they’re being lost. Vertov wanted to use cinema to emancipate the world from its political and economic masters; Pakula’s film uses it to show how duped we’ve always already been by the forces of power. As Woodward and Bernstein trace the unraveling strands of the vast Presidential conspiracy they’ve stumbled across, their efforts are undone and neutralized not merely by the conspiracy’s members but by Pakula’s moving evocations of a Washington, DC that is horribly legible, deeply logical, but whose truths are inaccessible to us, and whose methods and intentions are directed at subverting and perverting everything we hold dear.

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