Conspiracy Theory

(Richard Donner, USA, 1997)


I’m not far from considering that one of the best adaptations of a William Burroughs novel is in the first two or three reels of Conspiracy Theory. Richard Donner, who would have expected?

– Olivier Assayas, Cinema Scope, no. 14 (Spring 2003), p. 32


Just what is it that stirs within me when I see a good paranoid-conspiracy-theory movie – or even a bad conspiracy-theory movie, or a plain indifferent one? Conspiracy is a topic I find endlessly compelling as spectacle, as plot, and as brain teaser – or thought experiment, as they say these days (where yesterday we called it a hypothetical).


Personally speaking, I think it has something to do with my vocation as a critic. Critical interpretation is, at one level, about finding meaning in anything and everything presented to the eye. Critics – me, certainly – are obsessed with connections: connections between one movie and another, between movies and culture and the world. They – we – are always looking for the logic of things, the underlying system, the big global picture. The more meanings, the more connections, the better – and this, taken to exaggerated heights of delirium, is a good working definition of paranoia, and of the conspiratorial mind-set.


I’m not a conspiracy nut in my daily life – at least, I don’t think I am – but stories that activate conspiratorial fantasies always cause me to reflect on how the act of criticism itself is a form of projection, an exercise of fantasy. And that’s exactly what Salvador Dalí had in mind when, long ago, he proposed (in his 1930 essay “The Stinking Ass”) a theory of paranoiac criticism. Paranoiac criticism is a kind of acute, mad vision that sees hidden meanings and links everywhere. Dalí happily suggested that paranoiac criticism/vision is a good tool for creative artists – because the greater the number of crazy things you can see or intuit, the more you can invent or conjure.


That’s also the joke behind one of my favourite films, a magnificent conceit by Raúl Ruiz titled The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1978), in which an art historian drives himself to magnificent frenzies of interpretation by employing a dizzying array of critical methods in order to reconstruct a certain, famous stolen painting. Critical hypotheses are often the purest instances of paranoid thinking – and it’s no accident that pop culture has been gripped for over a decade now by that form of public debate and exercise of the imagination known as, precisely, the hypothetical.


There have been two incidents in my life that have fundamentally shaped my perception of the paranoid impulse in film and culture. The first concerns a leftist filmmaker from the 1970s that I encountered while teaching at Melbourne State College in the early ‘80s. He made (as I recall it) an eight-hour movie on Super-8 about Australian history and society. [Note: my memory of the details may be hazy and/or exaggerated here, but I’m referring to Gary Patterson (born 1945) and, I believe, his Some Aspects of Australia project.] The centrepiece of his movie was a segment of footage that he would personally screen to anyone (me included) at the least provocation.


It was a recorded conversation with a grizzled old geezer he had encountered by chance in a country pub – some mysterious ex-government insider who proceeded to outline what he secretly knew to be the grand conspiracy-theory of world capitalism, with special emphasis on the global banking system, its insidious mergers, and the age of computerised finance soon to be upon us. This was, you understand, almost a decade before a procession of similar encounters with obsessives-with-total-theories in Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991)! As far as the filmmaker was concerned, many things predicted by the guy on this precious, uncopied reel of film, had already come true – so we’d better believe what he said. This incident suggested to me that political theory, like arts criticism, can also be a form of fantasy projection. But then again …


My second formative experience in the paranoid arts has nothing at all to do with politics; instead, it involves religion. One night in my early teens, bored out of my brain in the country town where I was holidaying with my family, I stumbled into the local picture theatre. Playing that night was not a film but a bizarre audio-visual presentation: as a series of slides was projected on the screen, the tape-recorded voice of a woman unfolded the story of her life – a life which started out quite ordinarily, but became increasingly strange, eventful, fated.


The woman whose voice we were listening to (she wasn’t there in person) believed that, as she grew up, her life came to exactly parallel one of the great female saints. But she didn’t discover this divine connection for many years. So the various stigmata, bleeding wounds, dizzy spells and hallucinations she experienced were something of a tormenting puzzle to her. Then she stumbled upon a published life of the saint in question, realised the divine plan of her days, and accepted her lot as the appointed double of this saint in the modern world.


The presentation ended with heavenly music and a montage of the stars and heavens. I came out of that tiny theatre with about two other people, into the cold air, completely spooked – wondering paranoiacally about what saintly fate might be in store for me, too. I checked for tell-tale signs of any stigmata under my coat sleeves …


I’m happy to report that, these days, I’m obviously in sync with a wider public vibe when it comes to a keen interest in conspiracies and hidden designs explaining all things. Paranoia has become an extremely popular idea in mass culture, and that is mostly due to the TV series The X-Files (1993-2002, 2016-2018) and its many spin-offs and copycats, notable and tawdry, like Millennium (1996-1999) and Nowhere Man (1995-1996) – plus a wonderful series that it seems almost nobody watched, VR.5 (1995).


The X-Files takes up the central idea of the paranoid tradition: the obsession with truth, a hidden truth structuring the whole world, which can at last, just maybe, be deciphered. The truth is out there: so goes the famous X-Files tag line – and just enough of that truth has been leaked so that we can pick up its traces in bizarre news items or in certain dark corners of Internet … or in the silhouettes of strange new buildings or towers appearing on the horizon. (A friend once whisperingly informed me, in all seriousness, that the sight of birds massing around the tops of certain electrical towers in rural areas was an indication of dastardly American Secret Service interference in Australian society.)


But The X-Files also put a new and very fruitful spin on the whole paranoid mind-set in popular fiction. It stresses the tortuous complex mechanism of belief via the character of Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) who “wants to believe”, and it plays his desperate desire off against the skeptical attitude – also a prominent and enduring feature of pop culture – embodied in Mulder’s sidekick, Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). Scully is a rationalist, a scientist – she forcefully does not want to believe – and she definitely doesn’t want to be hoodwinked by a delusion or a stupid, too-perfect idea. She’s like Umberto Eco, the arch-rationalist, whose novel Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) is (like much of his work, fiction and non-fiction) essentially a critique and send-up of lofty, mad conspiracy theories.


By posing Mulder against Scully, often in an extremely exaggerated, comical way, The X-Files succeeded in having it both ways on the topic of paranoiac wisdom. On the one hand, the series feverishly promulgates the dream or myth that the truth is really out there, that everything can be eventually explained if enough layers of secrecy, cover-up and dissimulation can ever be peeled away by resourceful investigators. On the other hand, The X-Files makes a feast of the patent absurdity of so much conspiracy-theory thinking – speculations pieced together by crazed nerds hunched over their computer terminals. The X- Files creators worked themselves into a very good position to realise a project sketched years ago by B movie maestro Larry Cohen: a satirical comedy which would knit together every major conspiracy theory into the one vast, global plot. In Cohen’s words: “The idea was to make it really ludicrous” (Columbia Film View, Fall 1987, p. 9).


Sometimes the history of paranoid movies is confined essentially to those with an overtly political subject matter. This tradition ranges from the classic The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962) through the high era of 1970s paranoia: The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, 1974), Executive Action (David Miller, 1973) and the lesser-known but crucial Winter Kills (William Richert, 1979). And then onto the full-blown, big-budget epics of the ‘90s, such as Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991). In other words, all those works spinning out from the speculation around the Kennedy assassination and the obscure history of Lee Harvey Oswald (a quasi-mythological matrix that also feeds the cinema of Brian De Palma) – as well as sundry other assassinations, mysteries and cover-ups, taking in Watergate and related political scandals.


I think we need to take a slightly wider view of paranoia in the cinema in order to fully understand its reach and compelling power. First, we need to include at the heart of this mini-tradition or genre all those films where the discovery of a conspiracy happens in a completely serendipitous way, utterly by chance in the middle of mundane, everyday surroundings and routine events. One example is the fabulous Miracle Mile (Steve de Jarnatt, 1989), which starts with a guy idly answering a phone that happens to be ringing in a public booth, and ends with … well, with the end of the world. Did I need to provide a spoiler alert on that? Sorry!


Second, we also need to include movies that stress a deeply internal element of personal nightmare – stories where someone realises that the dark, personal secret welling up in their troubled psyche is also, in some truly frightening way, the key to a larger, global apocalypse that’s about to burst through the cracks in the public sphere. D.M. Thomas’ heady, provocative mixture of Freud and the Holocaust in his 1981 novel The White Hotel – slated for filming by, at different moments, Emir Kusturica, Terrence Malick, Bernardo Bertolucci, Pedro Almodóvar, David Cronenberg, and David Lynch (from a script by Dennis Potter), but finally buried under a mindboggling chain of litigation (which Thomas documented in excruciating detail in a 2008 book) – crystallised this particularly agonised form of the personal/political nexus for ‘80s and ‘90s culture.


This long preamble on cultural paranoia brings me to a big budget, paranoid movie from Hollywood called, amazingly enough, Conspiracy Theory. For a film that starts out so awfully, it certainly displays an exponential improvement curve. Unfortunately, even though it’s directed by the very able Richard Donner (I loved his underrated Assassins [1995]), this is not quite a great movie – and it could easily have been. Many people will just dismiss it out of hand as a formulaic, flippant take on the entire X-Files trend. It probably is that, but that doesn’t necessarily stop it from also being weirdly compelling and thought provoking, even if it doesn’t artfully seize the possibilities of everything that it handles. Ultimately, it turns into a curious pop culture event: a movie with not a great deal going for it in objective terms, but one that flies on a terrific core idea and a handful of engrossing, gripping plot complications.


Virtually every key paranoid movie ever made finds its echo in Conspiracy Theory; Brian Helgeland’s canny script weaves together models and influences from 35 years worth of the genre’s highlights. It’s the tale of Jerry, a crazed Everyman, a flipped-out cab driver played – rather weirdly, it must be said – by Mel Gibson. He’s not believable for a second as a fuzzy, feral, unlovely nerd. The actor may be miscast in this role, but the part itself is interesting. Jerry is the paranoid hero who intuits secret hints and links in every single thing he encounters: every small news item, every billboard image, every stray remark uttered over the radio or, indeed, in the back of his cab.


He’s a comic figure, in fact, ludicrous; but he’s also a version of Don Quixote – like Justin Playfair (George C. Scott), a deluded, would-be Sherlock Holmes in the briefly popular They Might be Giants (Anthony Harvey, 1971). Like Justin, Jerry, for all his delusions, actually does stumble across a hideous reality. Paranoia really does work for him in uncovering the truth that’s out there. Hampered by Gibson’s at times irritating performance, Donner spins the material, for a long time at the outset, as a nutty comedy – a legacy, no doubt, of their collaboration on the Lethal Weapon (1987-1998) hits. Fortunately, when the dramatic complications begin, Donner can turn on the intricate, detailed work that characterises his best films.


Early on, we get an enigmatic flash of jumbled mental images that continually torment Jerry, images he doesn’t understand. We start to figure out that they are probably repressed memories fighting their way to the surface of his conscious mind. When this part of the intrigue gets going, Conspiracy Theory evokes all those classic tales of mind-control, hapless individuals programmed by sinister government agencies to perform horrendous deeds – from The Manchurian Candidate [remade by Jonathan Demme in 2004] to Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990) [remade in 2012] and beyond. Here, corporate villainy is concentrated in the body of Dr Jonas (Patrick Stewart), who is a little reminiscent of Larry Olivier’s bad guy, Dr Szell, in Marathon Man (1976).


Conspiracy Theory is so aware of this wealth of references to past films that it even has its characters cite and discuss them. And this acute, often joking self-awareness brings in the crucial X-Files factor, already canvassed, that no contemporary film can seemingly ignore: the dual sense that a conspiratorial mindset is absolutely nutso, but also perhaps utterly necessary to decipher and navigate the strange, subterranean world we live in. Look to those birds flying around tower tops!


Jerry’s ally in his desperate quest for the truth is Alice, a resourceful and skeptical government worker. This is something of a reprise for Julia Roberts of her luminous role in the underrated The Pelican Brief (1993). Their encounter is a love-match of sorts, but the film is not terribly compelling on that level. Gibson is meant to be the Beast beside Roberts’ Beauty, but the combination never gels with any chemistry. (Gibson often has this trouble, I find, of necessary chemical reaction with fellow actors, whether female or male! His best parts, like Mad Max, concentrate on him as a figure of solitude, emphasising his lack of bonds, or inability to bond, with others. He therefore also does OK as RoboCop type in WendersThe Million Dollar Hotel [2000].)


More importantly, Alice’s piece of the action also revolves around the surfacing of memories: not repressed mind-manipulation in her case, but certain key, formative moments and traumas from her past, the meaning of which she has never fully understood. The White Hotel alert! These past events concern her father – and here Conspiracy Theory dips, with some daring, into the genre of the Female Gothic.


In its own heightened, melodramatic way, this paranoid fiction tries to find the closest intersection of political and personal life – to tie up the tiniest, most intimate aspect of individual experience with the largest and most far-reaching world-political context – and manages it better, more vividly, than most earnestly political films (such as Ken McMullen’s woeful Zina [1985], a pale relay of The White Hotel) usually do.


I’m being deliberately hazy about the specific plot moves here, because it’s better to experience them without forewarning – the film has some of that hallucinatory, nightmarish quality typical of paranoid fictions, the sense of manifesting before your eyes some of the very worst things you are imagining and anticipating (a De Palma specialty in Blow Out [1981], in particular). Suffice it to say that, like The X-Files, Conspiracy Theory is very adept at having it both ways. When Jerry starts raving about “them” and “they” behind the great global conspiracy, Alice asks him the obvious, show-stopping question on every spectator’s mind: well, who are “they”? Jerry repeats blankly “Who are they?” and everyone in the audience I sat with laughed wildly at his affectless response. [Is this the inspiration, I wonder, for the dialogue of David Duchovny’s post-X-Files cameo scene in Zoolander [2001]?]


It’s easy to dismiss Conspiracy Theory as a contrived, opportunistic piece. Yet, at the same time, it taps into, and keeps expertly needling, one of our darkest, deepest fears: that there’s a network of power in our world which we don’t understand – and that it has already left traces deep in our individual minds and our collective histories. The film thus mounts an assault (with whatever degree of subversive intent) on the defense mechanisms that structure the modern psyche. We need more of that!

MORE Donner [1930-2021]: Ladyhawke

© Adrian Martin August 1997 [with updates]

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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