Eight years after the destruction of the World Trade Center — the result of one of the most devastatingly successful conspiracies in history — Americans still take comfort in paranoia.
The great historian Richard Hofstadter had it right 45 years ago when, in his all-too-relevant essay "The Paranoid Style of American Politics," he identified an increasingly influential lunatic fringe — a half-century before Glenn Beck, mind you — whose take on history was "distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone's will." This hidden, all-powerful cabal is an enemy who "controls the press . . . has unlimited funds . . . has a new secret for influencing the mind."
Back then, those pushing this paranoid political point of view were McCarthyites and John Birchers. Today, they are the 9/11 Truthers, the Holocaust Deniers, the Birthers, the Teabaggers, the Death Panel believers, the Town Hall agitators, and the Obama school-speech muckrakers — a cacophony of distortion and delusion, manipulated by the cynical for power and gain, which dominates what passes for political discussion today.
And I haven't even mentioned Hollywood yet. After all, the movie industry makes a living catering to the darker angels of our nature. So it's no surprise that, at a time when such lunacy floods every other medium, nearly all the films that have topped the box office this summer involve a paranoid conspiracy: Harry Potterand the Half-Blood Prince, Transformers, G.I. Joe, G-Force. . . and those are just the ones for kids.
The difference between Hollywood's paranoid conspiracy theories and those drummed up by talk radio, the Internet, and Fox News is that Hollywood can't afford to be partisan or ideological — it would alienate too many potential ticket buyers. Consequently, the irrationality these movies touch on is more deep-seated and universal.
Still, it's led to an unprecedented glut of paranoia films. Maybe I'm being paranoid myself, but could these movies be telling us who's really pulling the strings? The ones we really should be afraid of? Is the truth about the hidden malignant powers controlling our destinies being revealed in movies already released in the past year, like The International, Watchmen, Duplicity, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, or War, Inc.? Is the secret plan behind the ongoing disasters of history revealed in newer 2009 releases, like Terminator Salvation, Angels & Demons, In the Loop, District 9, and Gamer? Or could the evil scheme underlying everything be uncovered in the onslaught of hotly anticipated upcoming films, such as The Informant!, Pandorum, The Vampire's Assistant, Surrogates, The Fourth Kind, Shutter Island, Men Who Stare at Goats, 2012, The Twilight Saga: NewMoon, and Red Dawn? Should we be afraid of the Reds, Catholics, the CIA, evil wizards, the Illuminati, ruthless corporations, the Trilateral Commission, and rampant technology — or just the movie industry itself?
The birth of a genre
In his 1964 essay, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Hofstadter notes that the paranoid style permeated American politics long before the Cold War, dawning in the first days of the Republic, when people were scared of freemasons and Catholics. Likewise, paranoia and conspiracy mongering played a major role in the earliest motion pictures. Acclaimed and blamed for many cinematic innovations, D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915) also demonstrated the dramatic payoff derived from a healthy dose of delusion, scapegoating, and misinformation.
In Griffith's version of history, the Radical Republicans — ironically, the liberal Democrats of their day — were responsible not only for the Civil War but also the reign of corruption, miscegenation, and denigration of the noble traditions of the South known as Reconstruction. (The "good guys" riding to the rescue were conspirators in their own right: the Ku Klux Klan.) So successful was Griffith's blockbuster that it rewrote history, as well as influenced it, pumping up the then-sagging popularity of the actual Klan and reviving enthusiasm for what was then the national pastime: lynching.
A couple of years later, over in Europe, World War I ended with Germany defeated and humiliated and looking for answers in all the wrong places. Seeing an opportunity to indulge persecution complexes and paranoid fantasies, the burgeoning German film industry responded with The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920), a highly successful expressionist thriller directed by Robert Wiene (who subtly but profoundly altered the original screenplay by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer). In it, a young man suspects that the carnival mesmerist of the title has been murdering people by means of a "somnambulist" whose mind he controls. But is Caligari an insane serial killer and all-powerful criminal, or is the guy who suspects him the one who is insane? Ultimately, the movie has it both ways.