The Culture Beat

September 14, 2008

Conspiracies R’ Us

Filed under: General Pop Culture,Movies,Uncategorized — Alex @ 5:37 pm

In times of political and global crises, with populations and nations polarized against one another, the tendency to discern or imagine fiendish plots against one’s groups or interests grows. This recurring pattern is nothing new–the Jewish people have been the object of horrendous libel for centuries as Anti-Semitism that fed the persecutions culminating in the Holocaust. But the paranoia that feeds conspiracy theories can happen to any person, tribe or nation. When historical forces array themselves in threatening ways, the besieged may develop elaborate explanations that neatly explain complex conditions and demonize the source of their perceived victimization. And movies have always been a powerful way to depict paranoid fears.

The “Paranoid Style of American Politics,” a 1964 article by Richard J. Hofstadter, described this belief system as not limited to any specific ideology, but any group that fearfully exhibits, a “sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” While at the time of his writing, the most obvious example of the paranoid style was the far-right hysteria of the John Birch society, those watching coverage of the recent Democratic and Republican conventions would note the protester decrying that “911 was an inside job,” and other fatuous demonizations of the Bush administration. Hofstadter’s description covers any shade of the paranoid mentality:

The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional).

Screenwriters and television producers have long exploited (and fed) paranoid fears by spinning yarns positing secret government cover-ups (Any of the four versions of the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Television’s paranoid classic is of course, The X-Files, which got 9 seasons of mileage from the idea that evidence of alien activity was being murderously hidden by lawless government officials. After 9/11, a new rationale for they’re-out-to-get-us fears suddenly seemed far less farfetched–radical Islamic fundamentalist terrorism was on the front burner, but there was no fresh wave of Hollywood tales in the high tide following the worst attack on American soil in history. Fears of stereotyping Muslims was one proffered explanation for the dearth of anti-terrorism features. (Television’s 24, in production before 9/11 was a prescient exception.) Was this potato too hot to handle? Was there a secret agreement among America-loathing liberal Hollywood types to stay away from such risky material and let the terrorists win? (See how contagious conspiratorial thinking is?)

Lost is an example of the conspiratorial plot done well–it’s endlessly convoluted plotting is designed to pull in viewers without explaining exactly what the nature of the threat is because the characters are stuck on their strange island and have no way of knowing the larger stakes of the forces arrayed against them. The plot serves to highlight individual characters’ own struggles for redemption–and they are not seeking to heroically defeat a conspiracy so much as figure what’s going on and whether they survive with their souls intact.
Lost‘ creator, J. J. Abrams’ latest series, Fringe, appears to be in the X-Files genre of paranormal/weird science fueled by far-flung conspiracies as a team of unlikely investigators and scientists struggle against a giant high-tech corporation that is experimenting with fatal new inventions and biological perversions. Judging by the uncompelling pilot, the show’s plot looks too familiar, its cast lacks chemistry, thus, it’s everything Lost is not.

The current state of pop culture conspiracy-mongering seems rather tired–I think it’s meant to be understood against the backdrop of international terrorism with the fear of WMDs and the fracturing of civilizations. The movie trailer that sparked this post is the one for The International, a Clive Own thriller that posits an international bank is the source of all the evildoing in the world–the institution’s tentacles extend to geo-political machinations, with the cooperation of governments and only one man, our hero, understands and has the guts to track down the vast and hidden corporation’s head baddie.

There is one upcoming movie that takes same elements as The International‘s — a far ranging international organization, so secret that it’s not even on the radar of the intelligence agencies of western nations–a frightening notion since it has its operatives everywhere–and again, only one man can stop them–Bond, James Bond. Quantum of Solace, the 22 Bond spectacular, should benefit from knowing a thing or two about sinister secret organizations–Bond has fought the KGB, SMERSH, and SPECTRE and now, Quantum stirs the paranoid pot as Bond goes after those even his own government trusts–so British Intelligence is out to stop Bond. Sometimes, it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.


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