The Sticking Place

Watergate Hearings

In the early 1970s, Mackendrick wondered whether certain principles of narrative fiction filmmaking could be applied to non-fiction documentary material. Former student F. X. Feeney says that “Sandy’s discussion of the broadcast Watergate Hearings was his way of getting us to understand that everything on television –  whether fiction or non-fiction –  should be looked at in cinematic terms. The fundamentals of film grammar can be found everywhere, even in the most elementary piece of news reportage. There were clearly things the camera picked up from Barker and Gordon Liddy’s secretary that someone sitting in the room with them at the time might not have seen or understood. Sandy was anxious to demonstrate to us that there was someone structuring the narrative of the broadcasts in a very effective way.”

With an interviewer in 1975, Mackendrick discussed a sequence from the Watergate Hearings that he found particularly interesting, explaining that he had been “looking at the exchange between Howard Baker, the Senator, when he was asking questions of Liddy’s secretary, and she was claiming, probably quite justifiably, that when she had typed out the reports of the bugging in the Watergate, she had no idea of what it was she was typing. It’s hard to believe in some ways, though secretaries will tell you it’s true. But at the same time secretaries are naturally curious people and like to know what it is they are typing. Baker said, ‘Is this what you’re telling me, Ms. So-and-so.’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ He looked at her, and she looked back, and he looked at her, and said to himself, ‘Well, OK then.’ What happened in those gaps was that the smart editor cut away on ‘Is this what you’re telling me?’ which meant on that particular line we saw a close shot of her as she prepared her answer, which was simply ‘Yes.’ Then it went back to Baker, who looked at her. His look said to us, the audience, ‘I don’t believe a word of what you’re saying.’ Then it went back to her, with her look of ‘You may not, but that’s all I’m going to say.’ Then we go back to Baker: ‘Cool one. I’m not going to get anything out of her. Let’s continue.’ Now, the silences, the unspoken language of that exchange, is the language of television and video, and is the language that we know better even than words.”

Here for Mackendrick’s student handout.

Here is an analysis of that sequence from the Watergate Hearings, from June 1973, which includes commentary from Mackendrick and a number of his students.

Here is a longer clip from that broadcast.