ClandesTime 073 — Conspiracy Mockumentaries
Mockumentary is perhaps the best sub-genre of cinema, and conspiracy-themed mockumentaries even more so. In this episode we look at four films — The Conspiracy, The Last Broadcast, Trollhunter and Apollo 18 — and examine why conspiracy mockumentaries are so good. The blend of realistic documentary formats with fantastical and absurd subjects not only makes for very original and entertaining watching but also affirms and subverts the conspiracy culture at the same time. I consider the effect of this on the watching audience, and on their opinions of what is plausible vs. what is implausible.
Mockumentary is perhaps the best sub-genre in the whole of cinema. The ability to combine what seems to be real with the genuinely absurd makes for consistently good films. There are very few bad mockumentaries. I suppose that this is because choosing this sub-genre is itself quite a creative decision, one that would only be taken by someone with some genuine brains and creative talent.
Mockumentaries that I love
That is not to say all mockumentaries are great films, but a lot of them are. As I discussed in ClandesTime 010, The War Game is a superb 1960s mockumentary which is momentarily funny but mostly just horrible and shocking and terrifying. So terrifying that the BBC banned it despite it winning an Oscar and the government co-opted it and held private screenings for military brass and senior officials. Check out episode 010 if you have not already, because it’s a great film and a great story.
Perhaps the funniest mockumentary, and easily the film that defines the genre, is This is Spinal Tap, the tale of a British rock band on a comeback tour. I imagine most if not all of you have already seen it so I won’t bore you by talking about Spinal Tap, except to say that as a send up of British rock musicians it is almost perfect and that I do own the Spinal Tap album because the songs are genuinely good rock songs.
I’m also a fan of Best in Show, which is all about dog shows, that particularly bourgeois form of Darwinist ritual. Another good one is Drop Dead Gorgeous which is a take off of beauty pageants starring the rather hopeless non-actress Denise Richards and Kirsten Dunst who, as anyone who has seen Fargo season 2 will know, is exceptionally talented. So much so that it took me two episodes to realise it was Kirsten Dunst.
The other mockumentary I would especially recommend, and which I saw in the cinema, is Man Bites Dog. It is a Belgian movie about a film crew who are going round with a serial killer, a psychopath, filming him killing people and espousing his nihilistic philosophy. As the story progresses, the film crew get more and more involved in the crimes, helping him to carry them out and eventually completely participating in them. I imagine the point they are making is that there’s no such thing as objective, passive media coverage, that if you go and film a murder you are to some extent participating in that murder. I will be discussing this film and these questions in some detail in a future episode which will also look at the more recent movie Nightcrawler, which like Man Bites Dog is very disturbing but brilliant cinema.
These are some of the films that I really enjoyed and admired that somehow fit into this mockumentary sub-genre. But this isn’t just about mockumentaries as such, it is about the intersection of mockumentary and conspiracy.
Conspiracy Mockumentaries (Mockumentaries with Conspiracy themes)
There are four movies that I want to quickly run down for you before we dwell for a while on why these sorts of films are so good to watch. While there are other mockumentary films that are very good, these four are the four that I think are the best showcase for this type of cinema.
1) The Conspiracy
This tells the story of two young men who are making a film about a conspiracy theorist when he suddenly disappears. In reconstructing his research they discover a secret society called the Tarsus Club, based on the cult of Mithras. They decide to infiltrate the secret society’s next meeting, which culminates in them taking part in a complex initiation ritual.
We discussed this film back in ClandesTime 037 and it was one of the best episodes of this series so aside from pointing you in that direction I do not have a lot to say. Except that this film tells broadly the same story as Eyes Wide Shut, of a willing fool who is allowed into a secret society for ritualistic purposes, but precisely because of the mockumentary format I found The Conspiracy much more emotionally engaging. I was far more frightened for the two film-makers in The Conspiracy than I ever was for Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut.
2) The Last Broadcast
This is a mid-90s micro-budget horror film, and I mean micro-budget — this was a few friends and borrowed equipment and the whole thing cost only a few thousand dollars to make. The friends were people who worked in TV production or otherwise in technical production so they knew what they were doing. But it’s also very innovative in its use of digital editing, at that time only just becoming available on a mass scale, a lot of the transitions between shots are very cleverly done, it’s a really amazing piece of video given it basically had no money spent on it.
In essence it tells the story of a film-maker who is investigating the murder of two television hosts in the Jersey Pine Barrens. The hosts made a low budget cable access TV show called Fact or Fiction? where they investigated the paranormal, usually with hilariously weak results. They decide to do a big event, a live show from deep inside the Pine Barrens showing them searching for the Jersey Devil. The show goes out live on cable and internet at the same time and they take along a psychic to help them find the legendary beast. It all goes horribly wrong when the two hosts end up hacked or torn to pieces and the psychic is arrested, prosecuted and convicted of their murders.
I won’t give away all the twists, except to say that there are a few big ones including that the psychic was not, in fact, guilty. But above and beyond the storyline of this brutal murder with paranormal undertones this is also a film about the influence of digital media on people’s perceptions of reality. Because these guys went out into the woods to make a TV show they filmed a lot of the build up and preparation and the initial stages of the journey. This film was then used by the prosecution to frame the psychic — Jim — and make him look guilty.
I hope this clip entices you and inspires you to go and watch The Last Broadcast because it’s a truly amazing film, one of my favourite films of all time and my favourite of these that we’re looking at today. It is this beautiful melange, a seamless tapestry of the themes of conspiracy, the paranormal, postmodern media and good old fashioned murder mystery. The Last Broadcast is also the film that sparked off the rush of paranormal documentary/mockumentary type films. Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, this is now big business, and it all started with this movie that most people have never heard of that cost nothing to make but which is utterly unforgettable to watch.
Another one that I have discussed before, on James Corbett’s Film Literature and the New World Order series. In that discussion we got into the notion of disaster socialism, the exploitation of disasters or crises by a state that seeks only its own expansion and projection of power. Trollhunter tells the story of three young filmmakers in Norway who find out about a man who is killing animals without a license from the government. Norway is very much on the socialist side of European social democracy or democratic socialism, Anders Breivik aside, and so you have to have permission to go and shoot bears or deer or whatever. So the filmmakers follow this guy, and very quickly he gives up the game and tells them what’s really going on — that he’s the Trollhunter: an employee of the state who kills giant trolls.
The story then descends into some ludicrous fairytales that are quite amazing to watch and extremely well done given the budget of the film. This is by some way the funniest of these conspiracy mockumentaries and is very much trying to be so. I will say as a note for those of you who go and watch it — find a version with the original soundtrack and English subtitles because the English dubbing ruins the film, particularly the jokes. By the end of the film several trolls of ever-increasing size and aggression have been taken out, one member of the film crew has been eaten by trolls, and I won’t give away the ending but it isn’t a particularly happy ending when it is such a very funny flick.
4) Apollo 18
This is the only one out of these four that was in any way sponsored by the state. Apollo 18 received some help from the Science and Entertainment Exchange, which is a project of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The NAS is technically non-governmental, but it is one of those non-governmental organisations that was brought into existence by an act of Congress and who get 85% of their funding from the federal government.
For a little more on the Science and Entertainment Exchange I will point you in the direction of an episode of the Kojo Nnamdi show where they spoke with a representative of that organisation as well as two people from NASA including their multimedia liaison Bert Ulrich, and a media commentator academic. The whole show is very much worth listening to but this should give you a flavour of what the Science and Entertainment Exchange is all about:
So they are another organisation in this world that have got very little coverage but whose recent list of movies includes Thor, Prometheus, Ant Man, Tron Legacy, Battleship, The Avengers, Contagion and Apollo 18. Clearly these are not nobodies when they’re working on some of the biggest films around, and definitely some of the most overtly transhumanist films around and are running writers retreats for scientists and screenwriters sponsored by Google. The Science and Entertainment Exchange — one to watch.
Apollo 18 also got some help from NASA though this led to a very funny situation when the movie came out and NASA had to publicly distance themselves from the film and make big declarations about how it wasn’t a documentary. For those of you who have not seen the film it’s basically a found footage mockumentary of an additional Apollo mission to the moon which discovers that lots of the little rocks on the moon are actually highly dangerous, poisonous and aggressively homicidal extraterrestrials creatures, with hilarious results. Or not that hilarious if you’re me and you were terrified beyond recognition by this film, which is extremely rare for me, I usually don’t find horror films that scary but this one scared the bejesus out of me.
All the more reason why I love the film, and I do love this film. I’m not a big one for UFOs, aliens, moon mission fakery, I’ve never had particularly strong opinions on all that. Though reading Robbie Graham’s book Silver Screen Saucers has provoked a lot of old ideas and a lot of new ones too. I think it’s possible that we did go to the moon in the 60s in a tin can powered by a Nintendo Game Boy. It’s possible we went, found a dead rock with nothing on it of any great interest, so we stopped going because it was really expensive. I also think it’s possible that the moon is crawling with alien monsters with a serious dislike of humans who conveniently look just like benign moon rocks.
The Grand Narrative of Discovery
However, there is something serious at stake in this otherwise absurd film. Most of NASA’s involvement in movies is not necessarily about making themselves look good. A lot of it seems to be about promoting science, and what some call scientism — the religious-political worship of science. I prefer the term the French philosopher Lyotard used — The Grand Narrative of Discovery.
This view of the world holds that wars and economic crashes and suchlike are essentially distractions, that what really matters is the progress of mankind through this grand narrative of discovering the world and developing technology to improve it. This is where Enlightenment philosophy and its bastard child Transhumanism are most prominently manifested. Lyotard argument back in the 1970s when he wrote The Postmodern Condition was that this grand narrative as well as other more overtly political ones, were experiencing a loss of faith. Or rather, that humanity was experiencing a loss of faith in these grand narratives. So the notion that we are progressing towards a more free society, or a more equal and just society, or that we’re learning more and are able to improve our society as a result — these stories no longer convinced people like they did up until some point in the 60s or 70s when things started to shift.
Whether you accept Lyotard’s conclusion, that these formerly grand narratives now have to compete with many others including resurgent religious narratives and politically extreme ideologies, NASA is clearly worried. They want to protect their own status, but also the status of science’s importance to Western society. Hence their involvement in mass entertainment, particularly in stories which depict space as a great adventure, the new world beyond the new world of the age of discovery. Their way to re-instil faith in the grand narrative of discovery is simply to expand the horizons of exploration. Since that isn’t yet possible technologically, it must first be done through imagination, through fiction.
Just as the old new world, the Americas and later Oceania, have become part of the origin story of our society, films like Interstellar are forming an origin myth for a new new world, of colonising Mars and so on. So the story of exploration and discovery has to ultimately be a positive one, a successful one. We all know the name Christopher Columbus, even though that wasn’t his real name. We don’t know the names of all the people who tried to cross the Atlantic and failed and drowned. We all know the names of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. How many of us can name even one person who died in the Challenger disaster?
By contrast to these heart-warming myths about brave explorers and the great story of human discovery, Apollo 18 portrays space how it really is — cold, frightening, lonely and dangerous. And full of terrifying rock monsters who want to kill you. You know the phrase ‘some rocks you shouldn’t turn over’? That should really be the tag line for this film, because that is at heart what the film is saying, that exploration can be really dangerous. That it isn’t all amazing discoveries and exciting epiphanies. Hence why NASA went to such lengths to distance themselves from this film.
There’s an important point there — that the only state-sponsored conspiracy mockumentary I can find is one where the state felt it had to deny that the film was portraying real events. This is important not only because it would stupid of anyone to think that the film was real, so I don’t know what planet NASA are on and what planet they think the rest of us are on, but also because of the subversive power of these films. Which brings me onto the important question:
Why are Conspiracy Mockumentaries so Good?
Obviously I’m as biased as the next person and you may not accept that conspiracy mockumentaries are as great a sub-genre of films as I think they are. But if you don’t then you’d be wrong, and my challenge to you is to watch these four films — Trollhunter, The Conspiracy, Apollo 18 and especially The Last Broadcast — and ask yourself if you’ve seen anything as original, funny, imaginative, perplexing and thought-provoking from any other sub-genre of movies. Simply from an artistic point of view, these films are all great accomplishments. Also from a commercial point of view, none of these films cost a lot of money. You could make all four movies for about 10 million dollars, which is nothing in film production terms. Collectively they earned back at least three times that amount if not more.
But there are more pressing reasons why these films are so good and so important and why I love them so much. Their subversive power is a crucial element to consider. Because the films sit in that awkward place between fiction and reality they can inform and subvert both of those things. Most simply, in affirming that a conspiracy is true — which all four of these films do — they encourage belief in conspiracy theories which thus affects the political reality. Not as much as conspiracy theorists might like to think, but nonetheless this does have some real world political influence, and other real world influences too.
Film provide examples for people to use when trying to explain their suspicions about other things. And this works both ways, both in terms of popularising conspiracy theories in mainstream culture, but also in encouraging and shaping the perceptions and expectations of those within the conspiracy culture. Cinema more than any other medium is what gives shape to conspiracy theories, certainly more than books which contain things like facts and source material. I think this is one of the reasons why conspiracy theorists are so obsessed with hidden messages in films — it’s their own subconscious telling them that films are one of the main reasons that they think the way they do. But of course, if you’re ‘woken up’ then you think that you’re immune to subconscious manipulation, so this isn’t consciously considered as a possibility.
Films Give Shape to Conspiracy Theories
Nonetheless, cinema has done a huge amount not just to frame specific conspiracy theories about JFK or 9/11, but also about conspiracy more generally and especially the conspiracist worldview. Cinematic set pieces like a meeting with a whistleblower — we all imagine either Deep Throat from All the President’s Men or Mr X in Oliver Stone’s JFK. The conspiracy montage is also becoming increasingly popular — there are a few in JFK and other similar movies but if you look at, for example, the opening sequence of Homeland or the very similar title sequence of the new Spooks movie then you’ll see the same kind of thing — something that functions as psychologically gripping narrative exposition but also as an affirmation of conspiracy theories.
The essential framing done by most cinema of this type is that conspiracy theories are a few suspicious sounding facts strung together by a simple story. In turn, this is what 95% of conspiracy theories are — no subtlety or degree of interpretation, no consideration of multiple different factors influencing the outcome. Just a simple ‘these are the facts that dispel the official narrative, here is the equally simplistic replacement narrative’. And it is psychologically very effective, and is so regardless of its truth or truth value. While many conspiracy theorists recognise this when it comes to official government stories, that they are believed because a simple story repeated over and over is psychologically effective, very few conspiracy theorists ask the same of their own beliefs.
Having spent a long time observing and participating in the conspiracy culture I can honestly say that a huge amount of what is believed in this culture is due to it being delivered in a psychologically gratifying way rather than because it is factually and logically sound. Phrases like ‘the truth’ and ‘the real story’ and in particular ‘new world order’ are used so often that they have no meaning. They are applied to everything, hence they become redundant words incapable of carrying any specific meaning. So why do people keep using them? Because they are little emblems, little tokens of emotional reassurance that make the listeners feel like they know what is going on in the world.
‘New World Order’ is especially good for this because it is used to mean a specific group of people, or a system of control that some people are trying to implement, or a vision of such a system of control, or a general philosophy which implies implementing such a system. Just like ‘Al Qaeda’ ‘New World Order’ is a group of people, a working practice and an abstract ideology all at once. Which of these is being referred to at any given moment is unclear, and thus the little nod of recognition that conspiracy theorists give when they hear this term is not one of mutual knowledge but one of psychological reassurance.
This is how all religions work, linguistically speaking. You charge up words with so many different implications that they have a broader appeal and magnetism than other words. Then you use those terms at key points in your persuasive rhetoric, usually when you have a massive gaping hole because what you’re saying is bullshit. You cover up such holes with these psychologically reassuring emblems, like people wallpaper over cracks in the wall. Now, just like the crack in the wall it might matter, it might not. Some religions perform their function of social cohesion despite such intellectual dishonesties, so from a purely consequentialist point of view those dishonesties don’t matter.
What does this have to do with conspiracy mockumentaries? Inevitably, particularly with the more comedic of these films, the funnier ones, they mock this religious dimension to conspiracy theorising. And they do this whether or not they set out to do it, because of the dramatic relationship between the real and the absurd. The way these films work, to reiterate, is to combine the seemingly real and familiar — the documentary format — with something absurd — trolls, alien rock monsters, occult initiation rituals. Things you would not normally get to see in a documentary.
Thus, these films assert the truthfulness of conspiracies at the same time as mocking zealous belief in them, after all these films are fake. They’re suggesting that this sort of thing does happen, though in each case the actual enemy, the antagonist, is metaphorical. The Tarsus Club does not really exist, and I’m pretty sure Trolls don’t exist. Alien rock monsters — I remain to be convinced either way.
Two sorts of Conspiracy Theorists
In their affirmation of conspiracy theories these films are also to some extent mocking belief in them, they are informing conspiracy culture in shaping what conspiracy theories should look like and sound like and feel like, but subverting it at the same time. Because there are two sorts of conspiracy theorists, when it comes to this kind of thing — the portrayal of conspiracy theorists in popular culture. The first type feel ridiculed and get all defensive and start accusing the film-makers of being disinfo agents working for the elite. The other type find the films funny, they see the humour in the ludicrous nature of a lot of the conspiracy culture’s behaviour and beliefs.
After all, there are some people out there that take these films incredibly seriously, thinking that every prop and costume and bit of dialogue is laden with hidden meanings that only they and their brethren are privy to. Meanwhile, they miss the much more simple questions of ‘what does the story do, where does it begin and what happens and where does it end and what does that mean, what is the moral of the story?’.
The Power of Narrative
And herein lies something that it took me a long time to realise but which has informed almost all of my thinking since I realised it. The power of narrative is perhaps the most under-recognised element in understanding cinema. I’m not saying that props and place names and characters and settings and all of those things are unimportant. But fundamentally, storytelling is an ancient art form and cinema has made possible the telling of stories in a more vivid way that was ever previously possible in human culture. Humans think in narratives, a lot of the time. They envisage their lives and relationships in narrative form. They imagine conversations with friends and loved ones, they anticipate future events from important things like having children to mundane things like going to the supermarket.
Likewise, most conspiracy theories have a narrative structure. They usually have some basis, however loose, in real history and usually involve the stringing together of several events in order to make sense of whatever the theory is claiming about present or imminent events. They are good stories, essentially. And like in any other part of human culture, if it is a good story then people will believe it regardless of whether it is true.
This is not only under-recognised in interpreting cinema, it is completely unrecognised within the conspiracy culture themselves. As I say, their interpretive modes for not just films but almost anything, almost any input of any kind, uses narrative structure constantly but rarely if ever questions narrative structure itself. Thus, coincidences are almost always seen as suspicious. Narrative leaves little room for coincidence, everything has to happen for a reason, and conspiratorial narrative even more so.
So, to try to tie this all together, conspiracy themed mockumentaries are encouraging and subverting the conspiracy culture at the same time. It accomplishes this by the conscious use of narrative structure to make convincing something which would otherwise be absurd. Because the stories unveil the ‘truth’ in layers, just how discovering things works in real life, it makes the implausible more plausible. But if you actually find this funny, you can’t help but reflect on some of the more implausible things you believe in yourself.
That, in a nutshell, is why I think conspiracy mockumentaries are so good. If you get them, if you enjoy them, then they challenge your beliefs at the same time as encouraging you to be bold in your beliefs.