Projecting Paranoia: Conspirational Visions in American Film
Ray Pratt
University Press of Kansas, 2001.
$50.00, 350 pages, ISBN 0700611487 (hardback).
$19.95, 350 pages, ISBN 0700611509 (paperback)

Dominique Sipière
Université du Littoral

Ray Pratt’s refreshingly unpretentious study addresses the ever present question behind a few very good books published in the late 90s – say, Jonathan Munby’s Public Enemies, Public heroes, or David Ruth’s Inventing the Public Enemy: “How are popular films a valid indicator of social attitudes or behavior?” (42). Such books are currently widely read by students interested in “Organized Crime in the USA” and they claim to provide useful parallels between hard facts (Capone’s actual career) and invented images of repulsive / attractive icons of the 30s and the 40s.

Pratt covers a larger period (1940-2000) and his specific subject matter is what he calls “paranoia”, viz: “the belief among significant sectors of the public that their lives are no longer under their own control…” (2). Or, more widely: “paranoia, in the most general sense, is the belief by an individual, or among a group, that it is being conspired against with the intention of inflicting harm”(12). His first two useful chapters both describe past weaknesses in the so-called “mirror” studies (Brecht and Kracauer) and current research trying to keep a careful balance between film texts, their alleged meaning(s) and what the public actually made of them. Of course, “any film can function in a political way even though its primary intention may be to entertain” (31), but one needs a little more for a start. Here are Pratt’s four steps to begin with (influenced by Douglas Kellner): “First, what, precisely is the ‘message’? Second, does the audience ‘get’ the message? Does it understand the film’s creators’ intended meaning (to the extent that there is one)? Third, how does the audience ‘use’ it? Fourth, how is the initial message structured or inflected by the systems of production and transmission or diffusion?” (41)

Pratt rightly insists on the fact that films do not create public opinion: as early as 1983 more than 80% Americans did not believe Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole agent in Kennedy’s killing. When Oliver Stone’s JFK was released in 1992, only 9% of the public samples saw it, which suggests a very modest influence of the film. The question then is whether such films bear witness to – let alone “mirror” – anything about what actually happened in the public’s minds. What’s more, Pratt points out that the message of a film can be very different from the use people make of it: “Content should never be confused with effect” (42).

Now, the reader must not expect this rather long but very well documented study to answer a difficult question: which came first? Was it the egg or was it the hen? Are people influenced by film paranoia or do films merely express the general public’s paranoid tendencies? The main bulk of the book is rather a carefully pedagogic panorama of film history and film genres (Noir…) and above all, of specific films: such descriptions are not particularly new, but Pratt’s steady concern is to trace paranoia without being too paranoid himself… About Film Noir, for instance, he quotes Steven Marcus: investigators “deconstruct, decompose, deplot, and defictionalize” the initial “reality” which is “a construction, a fabrication, a fiction, a faked and alternate reality”. And he typically goes on: “this distinctive narrative quality of film noir appealed to leftist social critics as a potential radical political form of expression, though it might also fuel paranoid or conspiratorial delusions” (55)…

What is the nature of this “hidden knowledge”? Pratt borrows Dan Flory’s four categories of dangerous secrets: 1) The sort of information that lies at the base of so-called family life. 2) activities or relationship that must be kept hidden from the law. 3) knowledge that endangers those who have it. 4) knowledge revealed, effectively shattering the ‘foundations of knowledge itself’. Obviously, these categories do not address the same sorts of films, number four being rather in the X Files line…

Pratt’s book is extremely clear and descriptive, which makes it very useful (the index affords comfortable access to specific films, but I did not find the “bibliographic essay” quite palatable) but rather frustrating when it comes to its main theme, paranoia. For example, its excellent analysis of Force of Evil (pages 73-77) has almost nothing to do with paranoia since what Polonsky described was just a fictionalized presentation of real facts … Many other close analyses of separate films prove illuminating but – even when their theme is actually a paranoid world (The Truman Show)! – one almost feels they could have been read in alphabetical order.

The general structure of the book is apparently chronological, but one soon realizes that Pratt rather selected a few fields in which American paranoia expresses itself: mistrust of social organization (Noir), “moral protest of revulsion against the dominant cold war liberal consensus of the post-1946 era and the society it had produced” in the “Resistance” films of the 60s, “Conspirational Paranoia” of the Nixon era, dystopic views of the Reaganian family values, etc… Two chapters are devoted to male paranoia and they rightly go back to films of the 40s (Out of the Past, 1947). The last chapter deals with larger paranoid structures: JFK’s assassination, general state conspiracy and, of course, X Files.

The author does not try to organize a logical typology of paranoid narration. Instead, he concludes with Debord and Baudrillard - on a sociological level rather than on filmic theory – and he seems to lament a lost sense of History (and of its felt actuality) among the general public: “history is reduced to a series of plots in a context where less and less seems to make sense in terms of earlier modes of understanding.” But is it not our job to make our readers more aware of such meanings? We could use Pratt’s very apt phrase about The Truman Show: “Sometimes what is thought to be paranoia is really heightened awareness”.

One could add two last things: the book calls for an additional chapter (to be written in five years) for the after 09/11 era; and for a twin study about the opposite tendency in Hollywood film: the way naïve (anti paranoiac?) heroes like Forrest Gump re-emerged in the 90s with their inability to connect things and their power to assert individual presence, emotional acceptance and healing.

Ray Pratt is professor of political science at Montana State university. He is the author of Rhythm and Resistance: Political Uses of American Popular Music (Praeger 1990).