Special Effects and the Invasive Camera

Enemy of the State and The Conversation

How to Cite

Starr, P. (1999). Special Effects and the Invasive Camera: Enemy of the State and The Conversation. M/C Journal, 2(2). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1747
Vol. 2 No. 2 (1999): Invasion
Published 1999-03-01

This article is a brief attempt to outline some of the difficulties involved in reconciling a film like Enemy of the State to itself. Perhaps a short synopsis: Will Smith plays a lawyer who unexpectedly encounters an old acquaintance who passes him something before being murdered. The acquaintance had become privy to a conspiracy involving members of the NSA who are responsible for the death of a politician. The politician was obstructing the passage of a new surveillance Bill, and the conspiracy is one of expanding the possibilities of invasive surveillance by the state, or at least rogue elements of the state. The conspirators work at watching and hounding Will Smith until they can retrieve the information. Jon Voight plays the lead conspirator.

What this synopsis didn't mention is that Gene Hackman plays a reclusive, grouchy ex-NSA agent and surveillance expert. What the film doesn't mention is that he has done this before, in Francis Ford Coppola's early 1970s film The Conversation. Hackman's character in the earlier film has been described as "a private and suspicious man who lives with as little traceable human reference as possible, as if fearful of the threat of surveillance" (Thomson, America 185). Such a description is entirely applicable to his character in Enemy of the State. It is worth comparing certain aspects of these films not as simply an exercise in critical or textual analysis, but because the differences are illustrative of some key points pertaining to contemporary Hollywood film culture. One such point is that Enemy of the State can throw into relief the fraught relationship between special effects and the technologies of surveillance, a relation even more fraught for its visibility in an action film with a very large budget.

The film of Tom Clancy's novel, Patriot Games, starred Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan. There is a sequence in that film that illustrates some of the binds in which Hollywood films can find themselves when they attempt to moralise about the invasive potential of image technologies. A live satellite feed has been arranged for American intelligence viewing of a raid on a suspected terrorist training camp. Low resolution, high angle pictures are recorded and relayed to the American audience of commando units acting on the intelligence analysis (image analysis) of that same audience. The data dies live to air.

Ford's Jack Ryan is drawn into watching the fruits of his previous scrutiny. He is eventually disgusted by the armchair quarterbacking of the other viewers and turns away from the images. Not before we, the viewers have had enough time to recognise what we have seen and perhaps reacted to the "gee whiz" potential of that coupling of new image and new image technology. Ryan's disgust is actually a little intrusive on our appreciation. But there is enough of Indiana Jones in Jack Ryan for us to be convinced he truly believes in the integrity of acting at first-hand rather than at an inter-continental remove.

Harrison Ford's character in Coppola's The Conversation has no adventurer's taint. More like one of the replicants in Blade Runner, with a liberal dose of Richard Gere's pretty poise in American Gigolo. Ford is genuinely bland and genuinely menacing under Coppola's direction in The Conversation. That film, made almost as a penitential act after The Godfather1, confines its special effects budget almost entirely to the soundtrack. Sounds, and their editing, are much of the surveillance of the film. Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, "the best bugger on the West Coast", a surveillance expert for hire, with a somewhat shadowy background of bugs half-legend. Part of that background concerns a triple murder where information he provided to a client caused the deaths of three people. Caul is haunted by the chance of that happening again.

Hired to bug a couple conversing in a crowded square, Caul and his people take photos and record a conversation that he subsequently edits into audibility. Increasingly afraid that the infidelity his surveillance uncovered will cause the deaths of the couple involved, Harry attempts to prevent the transfer of the data. His attempts are for nothing, as it turns out the couple murder the corporate executive husband of the overheard woman, Caul himself is under their surveillance, or perhaps just the surveillance of corporate underling Harrison Ford. Caul demolishes his apartment at the end of the film, fruitlessly trying to find the bugs.

Enemy of the State's most basic problem is the casting in the male lead role of Will Smith. This is a film about paranoia, and release publicity deployed paranoiac pop culture jokes of some staleness such as "You're not paranoid if they really are out to get you". The male lead is scripted as the site at which real anxieties about intrusive levels of government surveillance are to be deployed and made visible. Will Smith, with Independence Day and Men in Black recently behind him, does not function in such a register. It is the persona of the comedian that lingers (and is cultivated by directors and producers) over Smith as an actor, a persona in part defined by the desire for attention, the wish for surveillance. At some level, the film is Smith's wish-fulfilment of more attention than he can handle -- except that he does handle it. Think of how different the entire film would have been with Denzel Washington as the lead, or Spike Lee.

The fact is that conspiracies have become one of the great comforts of Western popular culture. The security of knowing that in spite of visible chaos someone out there knows what is really going on. The vogue for conspiracy is a nostalgia for metanarratives. In Enemy the conspirators are rogue elements of the State. What has been displaced is the entirely more edgy prospect suggested by Coppola's film, in which corporations commission acts of surveillance, or elements within corporations spy on each other. Rogues within rogues. Enemy, on the other hand, gives us the individual, the family man, in a desperate battle against the massed resources of the State. But this is not all there is to see or say.

For me, perhaps the most interesting aspect of Enemy of the State is the relation between the special effects of the film and the invasive technologies of surveillance whose misuse the film is critiquing. This is not the time to address the issue of the varying aesthetics of special effects, save to note that there certainly are a range of aesthetic criteria on which spectator judgments about effects "quality" are made. At least one of these criteria is that special effects should visualise the new. Related to this is that they should provide new visual experiences2.

Enemy has as its new visual experience the expanded resources of contemporary satellite surveillance technologies, along with various miniaturised surveillance devices. The only "conventional" big special effect is a building exploding. The rest of the film is engaged with using surveillance footage as special effects, in on-screen chases and pursuits. The crucial problem on which the film founders is that in generating viewing pleasure from the invasive application of these technologies, a double marking of the technology as special effect and the technology as invasive is made available to the viewer. The pleasure and the object of criticism share the same sign. The result is a vacillation. The screen jockeys in the film, childishly willing accomplices of Jon Voight and the rogue State, taking the pleasure of "cool" from a new image, are the viewers of the film, taking pleasure in a cool special effect. The attempts to render those spectators morally culpable for the plots of the film are, not surprisingly, shallow.

To me, this film functions as a sort of limit case for special effects. It is as if the distance between effect and subject has been allowed to shrink a little too far, leading to a sort of collapse. As a note in closing, I would like to suggest that in the genre of the Hollywood action film, perhaps the only close relative of Enemy of the State is the "failed Arnie", Last Action Hero. Whereas that film deployed reflexivity about special effects and entertainment and hence to some degree trivialised the pleasures of its audience, it similarly marks a problematic convergence of special effects technology and spectators' acceptance of the moral consequences of vision.

Author Biography

Paul Starr