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Visionary Paranoia

The American "conspiracy film" is a relatively recent sub-genre.
Christian Divine

Issue #34, October 1997

Though an entire cottage industry has grown in the past three decades around books, magazines and lecture tours exposing the vast covert webs that string our world, the American "conspiracy film" is a relatively recent sub-genre. Born from the atomic scars of the staid 50s and growing into the psychedelic shell of the 60s, these movies reached fruition in the Watergate weary mid-70s. Then Jaws and Star Wars came along and fucked everything up.

The dearth of these movies in the 80s seems due to the cozy pastel hum of the Reagan era, yet the films of that decade are actually quite paranoid in their own right-wing: the myriad anti-commie flicks (Rambo: First Blood ll; Top Gun) reek of xenophobia. Nonetheless, the conspiracy film continues to be an often-explored genre, though few 90s movies deliver the suspicious goods; most end up as contrived star-vehicles (Conspiracy Theory) or independent misfires (Kafka). The explosion of indy cinema has unleashed only a few more paranoid wonders (Welcome to the Dollhouse) while TV remains the dominant media of the conspiracy minded. Witness the never-trust-a-thing phenom X-Files.

Yet as long as the spectre of JFK, Roswell, Freemasons, Mormons, Men in Black (however much the film version revels in the fascism of a supercool covert force), Zionist cabals, CI-AIDS, etc., hovers over the ever-questing populace, rest assured that someone's subversive vision will reach the screen. Or maybe not ...

The following is not a comprehensive list by any stretch, merely a cross-sampling of cinematic paranoia and subversion.

Birth of a Nation
  1. Birth of a Nation (1914) — D.W. Griffith's and novelist Thomas Dixon's paean to the brave and beautiful Klansmen who saved the white women of the South from the clutches of greedy liberal white men and raping, barbarous Negroes. The film deconstructs post-Civil War Reconstruction to a level every fat jowled tobacco-spittin' porch-sittin' bigot can appreciate. Also astutely informs present and future white-sheeters that mulatto politician Silas Lynch was responsible for the South's ultimate post-civil war punishment: segregation.
  2. The Manchurian Candidate (1962) — Still amazing after all these years, John Frankenheimer's cold direction and George Axelrod's intricate script postulate a dark government landscape wherein Soviet spies disguise themselves as Conservative Republicans! Eerily predates JFK's mysterious assassination. The communist brain-washing tea party stands as one of the most clever scenes in any American film. Best line goes to Angela Lansbury, when she promises her hypnotized son, Laurence Harvey, that she will implement a society "that will make martial law seem like anarchy."
  3. Dr. Strangelove (or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) (1964) — Kubrick's best film (in my humble opinion) and still one of the few excellent American cinematic satires. No previous film ever so thoroughly revealed the conspiracy of political and military idiocy that governs our world. Ken Adams' amazing war-room set gave vision to the popular paranoid concept of spotlit figures making terrible plans in vast dark rooms. The first post-JFK film to reflect America's new-found cynicism.
  4. THX-1138 (1971) — A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, George Lucas cared about the human condition. This short film turned feature length production stands as one of the most devastating comments on technology run amuck. Lucas paints an intense portrait of a society that worships machinery and keeps its populace addicted to pills (sounds familiar ...). His cool camera eye records the brutal dehumanization with a subtlety wholly lacking in modern American cinema. Best scene: two off-screen technicians blandly monitor and measure the pain levels inflicted on a squirming prisoner. After Star Wars, Lucas would evolve into a die-hard technocrat, becoming exactly what his debut film warned against.
  5. The Parallax View (1975) — Simply put, the most paranoid American film ever made. Warren Beatty plays a reporter hot on the trail of a corporation called Parallax that may be involved in a deadly plot to recruit assassins and take over the government. Nobody can be trusted in this somber, intelligent thriller, directed with a cool, detached eye by Alan J. Pakula (perhaps the 70s most subtle director). Includes one of the most brilliant and bravest scenes in Hollywood history: along with Warren Beatty, we watch the complete five minute Parallax training film — a rapid-fire montage of peaceful and violent images that sum up American culture. This film would not be made today.
  6. Network (1977) — What seemed like an absurd satire in the late 70s has become visionary paranoia in the 90s. Bankrobbers film their crimes for TV consumption while ranting broadcasters are given their own shows by a devoted audience. The film is not funny anymore — it's the truth.
  7. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978) — America absorbed the corruption of Watergate and grew weary. This attitude shift is reflected in Steven Spielberg's epic tale of a universal conspiracy to unite man with his/her cosmic cousins. For the last time, Spielberg demonstrates emotional control as he details the massive government plot to turn Wyoming into the ET's landing pad. Everyman Roy Neary breaks through the web of a political/military cover-up and ascends to UFO heaven. The first part of the film shows exactly how a government can bury and fabricate information; the second part proselytizes that everything's gonna be okay anyway. In other words, Welcome to the 80s.
  8. The Thing (1982) — John Carpenter's critically attacked bomb can now be seen for the cautionary tale it always was. Military men on a Godforsaken Alaskan outpost succumb to an alien force that can assimilate any living creature. Bizarre, wonderful jaw (and head) dropping special effects highlight the tension as each man becomes suspect. The moment when alien blood leaps from a petri dish and scurries for cover becomes the perfect metaphor for the first AIDS generation.
  9. Brazil (1983) — Terry Gilliam's absurdist version of 1984 revolves around the lonely dreams of a Walter Mitty-type accountant caught up in a world far beyond his control. Cyber-Victorian machinery and Kafkaesque bureaucracy keep modern life depressing and miserable with only underground rebellion as hope for change. In the end, even that may be asking too much. Visionary and disturbing, Brazil remains one of cinema's great paranoid fantasies.
  10. Red Dawn (1985) — Macho writer/director John Milius found a whole country of jocks and yuppies eager to wallow in the right-wing nightmare of a full-scale Soviet invasion. Or is that a right-wing fantasy? Nevertheless, this hit movie allowed American suburban youth to see what would happen if those Ruskies touched our hallowed soil: first off, they'd rape your sister, kill your poppa and close all those McDonald's. Intriguing to watch because Milius obviously believes that if a teenage boy collaborates with the enemy under pressure, he should be executed for treason. One of the most frightening audiences I've ever witnessed.
  11. Repo-Man (1986) — Alex Cox's deft, energetic satire of a car, cult and consumer-obessesed society (in other words, Reagan's America) was one of the few 80s films to openly attack the ethics of "Just Do It!" White suburban punk Otto becomes a pawn in a giant game of secret government power and manipulation. "The more you drive, the less intelligent you become." And what is with those little trees in every car?
  12. Tribulations 99 (1992) — Craig Baldwin's schizophrenic audio/visual found footage collage starts out as a seeming parody of Japanese sci-fi flicks and evolves into a masterpiece of conspiracy fuzzy logic. Certainly not a mainstream American movie, but a textbook example of how to construct cinematic paranoid theory.
  13. JFK (1993) — The most popular and accepted Hollywood director of conspiracy theories remains Oliver Stone. Each of his films usually mix kinetic melodrama with a loose leftist interpretation of historical events. This whacked-out three hour odyssey into the black heart of our secret government uses myriad film styles to pound home the thesis that Oswald Did Not Act Alone. The fact that this revisionist movie made a shitload of money and was nominated for several Oscars shows that a lot of folks out there are mighty suspicious of our government.

And rightly so.

Christian Divine writes scripts. His agent sends them out. He waits. He writes scripts.

Copyright © 1997 by Christian Divine. All rights reserved.