Richard Burt Duly Noted or Off the Record?



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“We have the notes”


One could put critical pressure on Jameson’s account of the postmodern conspiratorial film by showing that its modern antecedents in journalist and police procedurals such as The Picture Snatcher (dir. Lloyd Bacon, 1933), From Headquarters (dir. William Dieterle, 1933) and Call Northside 777 (dir. Henry Hathaway, 1948) were already questioning the transparency what was then “new” media. Instead, I want to put pressure directly on what I take to be Jameson’s fundamentally structuralist account of a postmodern period of the conspiratorial film: only by presuming that information is stored in discrete media units by discrete media storage devices can Jameson allegorize the relative legibility of a given medium to its vanishing and replacement by “newer communicational technology machinery” that evade “conventional representation altogether” (1995, 79).14 The indivisibility of media allows Jameson to temporalize them both into micro moments in which it some media become “anachronistic,” and even “posthumous” And into macro periods, modern and postmodern. Through a deft dialectical maneuver, Jameson can then freeze frame this temporalized flow of successive, invisible media, as it were, by rendering that flow spatially. Jameson thereby saves the concept of social totality by making it representable in cinema even while conceding that the social totality can never be empirically represented.

To show how the postmodern conspiratorial film calls into question Jameson’s ahistorical, structural oppositions between what can and cannot be represented, between the old and the new, between the visible and invisible, between record and recording device—on which Jameson’s account of media allegory depends, I turn now to an analysis of reporters’ notes in All the President’s Men. Taking Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffmann) and Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) investigative reporting as its narrative center, Pakula’s film tells the story of Watergate: President Richard M. Nixon’s plot to make George McGovern the Democratic Party’s Presidential nominee in 1976. Pakula begins his film with the break-in at the Democratic Headquarters at Watergate, Nixon’s attempt to cover it his criminal dirty tricks, and Nixon’s resignation.

Notes appear prominently at a number of points just after the police capture the men, or “plumbers,” breaking into the Democratic Party offices in the Watergate hotel. Woodward is first shot taking notes at the arraignment of the plumbers, then at his office desk, and then in several extreme close-ups of handwritten notes show how he first follows up that lead. When Woodward and Bernstein go to Bradlee’s office, Woodward always their notes. “Deep Throat,” an F.B.I source Woodward knows, leaves a typed letter for Woodward that says “I’ll leave a note on page twenty four of the New York Times” if he wants to speak to Woodward. Woodward says, “it’s down on the record,” after taking notes on a phone conversation he just had. Bradlee asks Woodward and Bernstein if they’ve “got good notes” and Bernstein says “verbatim.” And near the end of the film, after checking with an F.B.I. source, Bernstein says triumphantly “We have it in the notes.” The reporters’ notes become more important when they become divisible into writing that is discarded and writing that is kept. When Bernstein returns to Woodward’s apartment after staying up all night to interview a source, he takes out all kinds of pieces of paper from various pockets on which he has taken notes. But Woodward, seated at his desk about to type, gathers these pieces of paper together, bunches them up, and then leaves them to the side on his desk. He asks Bernstein if he has something he can take the story down with, and Bernstein says yes, giving him a book with notes in it, joking that he is a “walking litter basket” as he takes still more notes out of his shirt and pants pockets. Yet we never see either of the reporters throwing the bunched up fragments of notes into a wastebasket, nor do we see either reporter keep them in a file. And even the notes Bernstein gives Woodward don’t matter because Bernstein starts summarizing the story aloud and Woodward takes down Bernstein’s his dictation based on memory alone.

The reporter’s notes paradoxically become even more powerful as they gradually disappear from view. Parallel medium close-up shots of Woodward and Bernstein at their desks interviewing sources on the phone first shot them taking notes with the notes being visible; in a later scene with Woodward talking on the phone to Kenneth Dahlberg, however, Woodward’s notes are not shown. We can tell Woodward is taking notes, but we only see the eraser tip of his pencil. The next shot is a tighter close up and we can infer from his eye direction and his facial expression when he is writing; we can see Woodward insert paper into his typewriter but not the machine and not the typing (we hear it). In a later, parallel shot of Bernstein when he is talking to Mitchell on the phone, we see only the eraser end of his pencil. Similarly, early shots of Woodward and Bernstein reporting to Bradlee in his office always show them holding their notes. Later in the film, when the story has gotten stronger, Woodward and Bernsteina are shot in Bradlee’s office without any notes at all. Bradley does not ask to see their notes, saying that he can’t do the reporting for his reporters and so has to trust them.

By the end of the film, the journalists’ notes are no longer necessary to authenticate their story. None of the three reporters on the same telephone line in the same shot take anything down during or after the conversation. The fact that the three reporters heard the same person speaking effectively does away with any need for notes. In the final, sracking-focus, long shot of the film, the camera zooms in slowly showing—in focus-- Nixon on a TV set in the left foreground being inaugurated for a second term—and slowly racking the focus to Woodward and Bernstein, alone at their office desks, while cross-cutting at regular intervals full frame shots of the events happening on the TV screen. When the camera stops zooming in, all we see and hear is the reporters typing, the cannons at the inauguration firing on TV. The shot dissolves into a series of extreme close-ups of very loud teletyped stories about the convictions that preceded and ended with Nixon’s resignation, the date of which loops back to the very first extreme close-up shot of the film, when that date is slowly typed in letter by letter and number by number, on typing paper so hyper-visible that its grain becomes evident.

Notes function both as the extra-legal and legal “record” insofar as they get remaindered in All President’s Men. The film’s narrative unity and clarity, its linearization of the story’s epilogue into verdicts and sentencing in the final shot, are achieved by redividing the record in ways that paradoxically, if not ironically disintegrate, or, in the film’s diction, shred that record to the paradoxical point where it becomes a referential non-referent (like a “non-denial denial”). We may grasp now the importance of the divisibility of the singular overhead shot of the Library of Congress that Jameson celebrates as a mirror image of the long shots of the White House. Never showing the inside of the White House and showing Nixon on TV or members of his staff at their apartments or relaying their voices through a telephone is not merely a clever narrative strategy but a condition of the film. The divisibility of notes secures the indivisibility of the executive’s sovereignty. By ending with a teletyped report of Nixon’s resignation rather than with footage of its TV broadcast, All the President’s Men saves the Presidency from a particularly bad President, dividing the office from the office-holder.

Jameson closes his chapter by attending to “the very famous and seemingly gratuitous shot of the Library of Congress, which literally rises from the very small (the reading-room call slips) to the social totality itself (78). Jameson’s account of this show is worth citing in full:

This mounting image, underscored by the audible mergence, for the first time in the film, of the solemn music that so remarkably confirms the investigation’s and the film’s telos, in which the map of conspiracy itself, with its streets now radiating out through Washington from this ultimate center, unexpectedly confirms the possibility of cognitive mapping as a whole and stands as its substitute and yet its allegory all at once. The mounting camera shot, which diminished the fevered researches of the two investigators as it rises to disclose the frozen cosmology of the reading room’s circular balconies, confirms the momentary coincidence between knowledge as such and the architectural order of the astronomical totality itself, and yields a brief glimpse of the providential, as what organizes history but is unrepresentable within in it. (1995, 79)

Jameson’s account is technically incorrect, how: the overhead shot of the library is not a single take but three different shots, each of which dissolves into the other taken from a higher point from the same angle.15 The shot is divided into three shots. More crucially, the library is a dead end for Woodward and Bernstein. They go there in order to “get something on paper,” but come out, directly after the overhead shots, frustrated and empty-handed. The library’s divisibility immediately produces conspiracy effects: Woodward and Bernstein offer several explanations as to how the slips may have gone missing but can’t decide if they missed it or if it was removed. Unlike the overhead library shot, there is no similar shot of the Bernstein’s notes, and the only one that comes close is a long shot of Woodward and Bernstein sitting in a hotel room with Segretti’s receipts laid out on the floor that follows a montage of close ups of the receipts as they are stacked on top of each other.

The Washington Post reporters whom Bradlee comes to call “WoodStein” assembles their story not by only linearizing successive moments but by looping back to a source after rehearsing what they have in the form of “the story” whenever they reach a dead end.16 At one point, editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) yells “Where is the goddamn story?” The answer does less on the number of confirmations the reporters have then it does on a medium that escapes Jameson’s notice, namely, notes taken by the Washington Post journalists. The gradual divisibility and final erasure of their notes during the course of the film paradoxically serves to guarantee their referential status: having “it down on record” depends on the recording itself going off the record, becoming waste, not to be filed.

Jameson’s allegorical account of All the President’s Men reproduces its narrative structure: just as the notes serve most strongly as an indivisible referent for “the record” when they are not represented, so the impossibility of empirically representing the “social totality” serves as an indivisible referent for Jameson’s division of history into modern and postmodern histories of increasing media penetration of global flows of capital. In addition to circling back to Michel Foucault’s paranoiac account of biopower as the always increasing intensification of discipline of docile bodies through surveillance and what we would now call the biometrics of dataveillance, Jameson necessarily reinscribes a revamped reflection model of historicism. Cognitive mapping of social space proceeds by way of analogy and speculation. Cinema is a crucial resource for Jameson, even though he does not say so, because it frames other media and can reflect itself. Jameson’s notions of allegory and cinema are both indivisible: film may narrate history allegorical because one term may be substituted for another, politics for economics, or vice versa, just as a newer medium displaces an older one.

To achieve total allegorical clarity, Jameson must exorcize paranoia from cognitive mapping, an historical spirit, or Geist, from conspiracy: as in The All the President’s Men, paranoia is always on the side of the investigator determined to discover the secret truth even only by way of analogy; just as we are never given access to the paranoia inside the White House that drove the desire to know what the Democrats were doing, Jameson does not grant access us to the social totality, just the conspiracy in which it takes form. The way state secrets do not allow for reflection Jameson finds in the Library Congress may be grasped if we move comparatively to consider how they were formulated in Prussia. Vismann observes that “the wording of all administrative instructions was classified as a ‘state secret’ . . . to ensure that the traffic between cabinet and chancery remained secret” (108). Sublatern scribes were not required to have “the ability to reflect” (108). Secret counselors could read the documents only because “the secretaries were no longer responsible for keeping things locked and secret; they were themselves locked away” (109). A fantasy of secret reading depends on a bureaucratic fantasy of a division between scribes, who cannot read what they transcribe, and ministers, who can.

How can another see into me, into my most secret self, without my being able to see in there myself and without my being able to see him in me? And if my secret self, that which can be revealed only to the other, to the wholly other, to God if you wish, is a secret that I will never reflect on, that I will never know or experience or possess as my own, then what sense is there in saying that it is “my” secret, or in saying more generally that a secret belongs, that it is proper to or belongs to some “one,” or to some other who remains someone? It is perhaps there that we find the secret of secrecy, namely, that it is not a matter of knowing and that it is there for no-one. A secret doesn’t belong, it can never be said to be at home or in its place [chez lui]. Such is the Unheimlichkeit [uncanniness] of the Geheminis

[secret] . . . .



--Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship, 92.




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