Saturday, August 21, 2010

The golden age of paranoia

Alan Glynn, author of Winterland, looks back at the golden age of paranoia in an article on the Mulholland Books Web site. He traces the era from a morally serious period of high paranoia in the early 1970s, marked by Klute, The Parallax View, All the President's Men, Three Days of the Condor and The Conversation through a period of bloated, jokey weirdness (The X-Files), and on to a more recent revival.

These latter-day incarnations "take their nod from the golden age, and that's a good thing," Glynn writes. "Because at no time over the past thirty or forty years has that '70 sensibility seemed more relevant or, indeed, more necessary."

I was a bit surprised to read of Glynn's attraction to paranoia because, while Winterland impressed me greatly, I thought it more an amateur-gets-in-over-her-head adventure, albeit a violent, thoroughly contemporary one, than a paranoid nightmare. But what do I know? I can't read Glynn's mind — yet.

Glynn proposes an interesting division of post-1970s paranoia into the over-the-top school, whose representatives include James Ellroy's Underworld USA Trilogy, and more direct nods to the golden age (Peter Temple's Truth, Michael Clayton).

I'd have added Jean-Patrick Manchette to the roster of Golden Age paranoiacs and Dominque Manotti to the list of current practitioners, Manchette for how deeply power controls, warps and ruins the individual in his books, and Manotti for how widespread and ruthless the corruption is, and how high it rises, in hers.

What about you? Who are your masters of paranoia in crime and thriller fiction and movies?
© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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16 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

I just watched episode four of Breaking Bad and will add that any tale of crystal meth culture is bound to have a good dose of paranoia before too awfully long.

August 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know the effect of that particular drug, but I'll take your word for it, which does not at all mean what it sounds like.

Will Breaking Bad's paranoia be on the scale of Ellroy's or the extent of Manotti's, I wonder? Does it count if the paranoia goes away the next day ... hmm, until one day, maybe it doesn't.

August 22, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I don't know first hand myself, but second hand, I do know that a user could write some pretty crazy scripts.

Not advising it, of course.

August 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, now I'll get paranoid over whether such scripts reflect reality, or whether it's just the drugs.

August 22, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

In The Parallax View Warren Beatty jumps on a plane for Denver at the last minute and while the plane is in the air, pays $68.64 to the stewardess for his ticket. He had seen the guy he was following check in some luggage but when he finds that guy is not on board he realizes there's a bomb on the plane. Ah, the innocent days of the 70s when the bomber was the guy who didn't get on the plane.

Have you seen that Will Smith thing Enemy of the State? More a techno-thriller with a just a side order of paranoia but good fun nevertheless. It cleverly casts Gene Hackman in a role that evokes The Conversation. The bad guys are rogue bureaucrats within the government but not the government itself. 70s movies would have put the bad guys right at the top.

August 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Any number of crime stories evoke the days before air travel became the dreary ordeal it is today: A Big Boy Did It and Ran Away by Christopher Brookmyre and "It's a Hard World" by Andrew Vachss, to name two.

I haven't seen Enemy of the State, but you observe wisely that '70s movies would have put the bad guys right at the top. One might object that the filmmakers were trying to buy a little unearned subversive credibility by casting Hackman in that role, but then, that would be taking the matter seriously, and movies are all about fun.

To put your observation another way, the title Enemy of the State would have been provocative in 1974, intended to induce reflection on who the real enemies are and, if it rose above the merely polemical, to leave the viewer or reader with ambiguous, uncertain answers to that question.

August 22, 2010  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

I embody paranoia. Cannot read writers who trade on it-Michael Crichton's books just made me crazy.
I find spy novels/movies particularly troubling.

August 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, too serious subject to be the stuff of entertainment, is it?

Incidentally, Domininque Manotti's books are not spy novels, and they are paranoid in the Ellroy sense (though stylistically the complete opposite of Ellroy): The most powerful people, at the very top, are depraved and do awful things.

August 22, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, I've been trying to think of some genuine paranoia books and films and having a hard time thinking of any.

All of the so called paranoia thrillers are really just conspiracy thrillers where the protagonists' fears turn out to be perfectly justified - people really are out to get them.

The only one I can think of that comes close is Le Locataire (The Tenant) from a novel by Roland Topor, a screenplay by Gerard Brach and directed by Roman Polanski in 1976. Not a great movie but it does have the best attempted suicide I've ever seen.

August 22, 2010  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

The X-Files descended into self-parody after a few seasons. (Don't most series?) But some of those early episodes were amazingly good, more like The Twilight Zone than anything else. A couple standouts were "Eve" and "Blood."

August 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

All of the so called paranoia thrillers are really just conspiracy thrillers where the protagonists' fears turn out to be perfectly justified ...

That sounds about right. And, as you suggested earlier, corruption and, hence, conspiracy that reach the highest levels lend extra oomph, too.

August 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, I noticed that a character in the "Eve" episode was called Deep Throat. That's a nod to seriousness, I'd say.

August 22, 2010  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

When living in a culture that banned many classic books and films, one does not bother to read fiction that causes more adrenelin rushes.

One of my English teachers had spent most of his life writing, reasonably, about the differences between amoral and immoral works, all of which seemed very exhausting and which merely got him into trouble with the bishops.

Hitchcock still seems to be the master of paranoia in my book. I used read his collections of short stories, but his selections became more gloomy as time went on.

There was some question about what was popular in Ireland in the 1960s and'70s. "Ben Hur" was a box office success and many cinema goers tended to follow a favourite actor or actress. Any film with Robert Redford was bound to attract hordes of fans.

Simeon and his stolid Maigret were so popular one of the French texts were put on the Leaving Cert course. All I can remember is a general sense of rain, greyness and bad food.

Give me Alphonse Daudet any day...

August 26, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, North by Northwest might qualify as a tale of paranoia, except that there's just one victim, and no real sense that corporations or the government or some mysterious force are out to get everyone.

Not a lot of gaiety on Maigret, I thought, but his wife always prepared nice meals for him.

August 26, 2010  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

"Rear Window" is a good example of a psychological thriller, fuelled by the fear of watching and being watched... very consoling for anybody shopping in any place today which is wired with eternal cameras.
However, as you point out, it does not fit the genre under discussion.

"The China Syndrome" probably fits the bill very neatly... one of the most tiresome experiences I ever had in the cinema. At one point I actually wished the wretched nuclear meltdown would happen and put us all out of our misery.

There was a lot of talking...

As for Maigret, his wife's peasant cooking has been used by some analysts to indicate that she is more a mother figure in his life, an anchor of normal homely values. Tripe and Rice Tart only add to my awe...

August 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No doubt much that has been written about the psychology of Rear Window is accurate, but I have never paid much attention to such analyses because the movie is just too damned much fun.


That Maigret analsis makes sense. I would always get a wonderful sense of domestic warmth rather than pure gastronomic pleasure from the scenes of Mme. Maigret and le commissaire dining at home.

August 28, 2010  

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