"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
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
Katzcan 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.
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 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
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.
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
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