Visions in American Film
University Press of Kansas, 2001.
$50.00, 350 pages, ISBN 0700611487 (hardback).
$19.95, 350 pages, ISBN 0700611509 (paperback)
Université du Littoral
Ray Pratts refreshingly unpretentious study addresses the ever
present question behind a few very good books published in the late
90s say, Jonathan Munbys Public Enemies, Public heroes,
or David Ruths 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 (Capones actual career)
and invented images of repulsive / attractive icons of the 30s and
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 Pratts 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 films 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 Kennedys killing. When
Oliver Stones 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 publics minds. Whats 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 publics 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 Pratts
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
What is the nature of this hidden knowledge? Pratt borrows
Dan Florys 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
Pratts 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
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: JFKs
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 Pratts
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).