The individual versus the system in American New Wave cinema

Yesterday I re-watched for the umpteenth time one of my favourite films – Alan Pakula’s All The President’s Men. It’s one of the great films of the American New Wave of the 1970s, and characterizes the paranoia and claustrophobia of that cinematic movement. The New Wave explored the comedown from baby-boomers’ late 1960s anarchist optimism, from their belief that they could somehow magically free themselves from all their hang-ups and all the corrupt institutions of the state, and throw off the past like they threw off their clothes at Woodstock. It’s a very American aspiration: to shake off the past and be born again without hang-up or sin. It’s the same belief that led the Pilgrims to leave Europe for the ‘New World’.

But that wave of Sixties anarchist optimism hit the rocks and dribbled away. Nixon was re-elected in 1968, Martin Luther King and both Kennedys were assassinated, the Vietnam War continued. The baby-boomer utopians were faced with the brutal fact that there were powerful political and economic forces in America, and they were not about to disappear just because you’d taken LSD. So the baby-boomer artist moved from an anarchist optimism (we can change the world!) to a sense of individual isolation, paranoia, and claustrophobia. The individual is dwarfed by the vast machinery of the state.


Many of the best films of the American New Wave explored the failure of the individual to free themselves from the corrupt institutions of the past. Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather (1972), for example, explores how young Michael Corleone becomes ever more enmeshed in his Mafia family’s criminal practices, despite his best intentions to remain free and untainted. Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) shows a private detective failing to protect the woman he loves from the corrupt institutions of the family and the state. He is told, in the film’s last line: ‘Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown.’ Chinatown is, in the film, a symbol of the limits of our moral idealism.

Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver (1976) shows a man going vigilante because he doesn’t believe the institutions of the state work anymore. Moral idealism has turned vigilante, because the system doesn’t work – a theme explored in another key 70s film, Dirty Harry, about a supra-judicial vigilante. This theme eventually leads to the birth of the superhero movie with Superman in 1978: the superhero is necessary because the state doesn’t work. America takes a collective flight into fantasy.

Even a comic jape like Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973) explores an individual desperately – and farcically – trying to resist and escape an all-powerful state…and failing. There is nowhere for him to escape to.

This exploration of the individual versus the system is also an indirect commentary on the relationship between the auteur and the Hollywood system. Because, in fact, the American New Wave of the 1970s was a brief moment of remarkable freedom, when individual auteurs like Scorcese and Coppola were handed a surprising amount of money and power by the Hollywood studios to go off and make big-budget art-house films like The Godfather (this is well-described in Peter Biskind’s excellent book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls).

But this moment was very brief, before the studios lost their nerve after the expensive failures of Apocalypse Now (1979) and Heaven’s Gate (1980). The 1970s ended with the rise of the blockbuster event movie: Star Wars (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Superman (1978). The system won in the end (at least, it won for a decade, until David Lynch rescued independent cinema and the auteur).

All The President’s Men (1976) is a key part of this New Wave exploration of the individual versus the system. The film really developed the aesthetic, thanks to the partnership of director Alan Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis. You might not have heard of Willis (I hadn’t before last week), but he was a defining influence on the New Wave aesthetic, and was cinematographer for All The President’s Men, Klute, Godfather I and II, Annie Hall, and Manhattan. He was nick-named the ‘prince of darkness’ because his shots were so much darker and shadowy than usual – a technique he used to devastating effect in All The President’s Men and The Godfather, films that explore the shadows and corruption at the heart of American power.

In Klute, The Parallax View, and particularly in All The President’s Men, Pakula and Willis developed an aesthetic of paranoia and claustrophobia. It’s the complete opposite of 1960s anarchist optimism – the individual is dwarfed by the huge concrete institutions through which they walk. They are watched, bugged, spied on. Willis often shoots the heroes from high above, or shows them creeping through concrete landscapes (like the garage where Woodward meets his FBI source, shown on the right). In one famous shot in All The President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein are looking for clues in the Library of Congress, and the camera pulls up and up, until they are tiny dots in the great geometric shape of the reading room. Or he shows their car crawling along the streets of Washington like a bug, while they try and track down clues. It’s Kafka-esque – the individual as a bug, lost in the institutions of power.

And yet for all its paranoia, All The President’s Men is an optimistic film. Two junior journalists at the Washington Post stumble across a story, and they track it down, they move through hunches, uncertainty, lies and threats…and they get the story. They bring down the president. It is the Oedipal triumph of the baby-boomer generation – Luke Skywalker defeating Darth Vader, but not in science fiction – for real.

And All the President’s Men also has a more optimistic vision of institutions than most New Wave films. Yes, most of the institutions we meet in the film have gone wrong (the FBI, the CIA, the Justice Department, the White House – there’s a great line in the film from their FBI source, Deep Throat: ‘this involves them all’). But one institution comes out of it well: the Washington Post. Bernstein and Woodward, the two reporters who get the story, are helped by the institution of the Post. They are guided by its practices, prevented from making mistakes, and helped by the wisdom and authority of its elders (in particular the Post’s editor, Ben Bradlee). So there are some ‘wise elders’ in the film – Bradlee is Obi Wan Kenobi to Nixon’s Darth Vader.

You can see the influence of the 70s aesthetic on many modern movies, but particularly on the work of David Fincher, who is one of my favourite contemporary directors. We see a very similar aesthetic in films like Se7en, Fight Club, and Zodiac. Se7en, for example, shows a man who despairs of the corrupt institutions and practices of society, so he becomes a vigilante murderer – like the hero of Scorcese’s Taxi Driver. The world of Se7en is very much the shadowy, half-lit world of Gordon Willis’ 70s films.

Fight Club, meanwhile, explores the clash between the anarchist-utopian individual and the systems of society. Again, it’s a shadowy, underground world we move through – and Fincher acknowledged the influence of Willis on the film. Again, as in the 70s New Wave, there’s a sort of despair in Fight Club – the individual can’t really win – although it’s more of a violent, nihilist despair. The individual is prepared to resort to blowing society up in order to free himself from it. That’s what it’s come to.

I wonder if the Occupy movement, that sudden swell of anarchist utopian optimism, will lead to more films like these, that explore what happens when the individual meets the system – they usually lose, sometimes they go postal, sometimes they manage to bring down a politician or two. But the system remains.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *