"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 12 July 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Things that Go Boom in Night



As surely as sweaters in a San

Francisco summer, the arrival of

a season's worth of movie mush

stirs up the armchair

meteorologist in each of us. But

while the ruminations of Jon

Katz can be dismissed as wishful

thinking, and those of James

"It's the iconography, stupid"

Wolcott reek of a moldering

graduate degree, the magnitude

of this particular media storm

and the relative homogeneity

of its analysis are enough to

conjure conspiracy theories

in the most devoted agnostic.


Indeed, so euphonious is the

chorus of criticism ("Sci-fi is

huge!" "We're refashioning the

cold war!"), that we're almost

convinced that The Nation may

have been right after all: under

the regime of a National

Entertainment State, we're no

more free to create our own

analysis of pop culture than we

are to make the culture itself.


[Warner Brothers]

Of course, that's preposterous.

Still, as someone recently

pointed out, that's half the

attraction of paranoid schemes.

The other half of the attraction

lies in imagining one's

vindication, the sweet victory

that comes when your lone voice

of truth is joined by chorus. So

perhaps we'll all be singing a

different tune come the

Christmas releases, and it will

be a score by Steven Johnson,

the one voice squeaking sweetly

out of tune during the

orchestral media suite of Summer




Johnson argues that while there

are "plenty of conspiracies

whirring through the

infosphere...once upon a time,

the paranoiacs were the heroes,

the truth-tellers...nowadays

the conspiracy theorists come in

less appealing flavors: militia

men, letter bombers, Ross

Perot." But if it's true that

the "paranoiac as hero figure"

has disappeared from our view

screens like so much

disintegrating tape, perhaps

that's because the cultural

touchstones that made that

archetype resonant have shifted

from "unsettling suspicions" to

"unsettling assumptions."



While it's difficult to miss the

major stylistic similarities

among the blockbusters - they

kind of blow up in your face,

you know - what's most striking

(theoretically speaking) about

The Rock, Independence Day,

Mission Impossible, and Twister

is their dependence on conspiracy

as a starting point instead of



From the "evil corporate

sponsors" (Pepsi, apparently) in

Twister to the moles in the IMF,

conspiracy theories are rote.

Take The Rock - the reason Sean

Connery's character is in

government captivity: "Why, he

knows every government secret

from the alien landing to the

Kennedy assassination." Yes, of

course. No need to make a

grueling, two-hour, Costner-laden

melodrama - we already believe.


[Area 51]

When a character in Independence

Day asserts the existence of

Area 51, it's not a government

official but a grandfather. And

it's one of the movie's few

honest moments, because almost

anyone with a passing knowledge

of popcult knows the government

is involved in cover-ups, and

more than a few claim to know

what it is they're covering up.

Could be the Whitewater files,

could be the alien autopsy.

Could be the recipe for

Neiman-Marcus cookies.


But if the question is no longer

whether the government is hiding

things from us, and, to a lesser

degree, but in a deliciously

ironic way, it's not even

what they're hiding, one

question does remain: what are

we going to do about it?


Why, blow stuff up, of course.

Which brings us to back to what

all these summer movies have in

common. And, why, really, we

love them so very much.



However, "blow things up" is

only one of the many

possibilities for a modern

storyteller. More nuanced

directors and writers have gone

somewhere else entirely when

faced with conspiracy as the

starting point. By laying out a

string of coincidence but

refusing to explain their

connection, writers like Todd Haynes

(in Safe), the X-Files folk, and Paul

Auster (in The Music of Chance) instead

subvert the idea of conspiracy itself.

In these tales, you can truly

trust no one. Plots are drenched

in amorphous paranoia, focusing

on "villains" who themselves

cannot be held responsible for

what they do - in Safe, "the

environment" is the culprit.

These stories tell us that bad

stuff is something that just

happens. Their true statement of

conspiracy, and the most

alarming message they have, is

that maybe there's no master

plan after all.


And, most likely, no really good

reason to blow things up. Or out

of proportion. It's just a

movie, you know.

courtesy of Ann O'Tate