The Austin Chronicle

Page Two: Grand Schemes and Enthralling Documents

Film, conspiracy theories, and conspiracy theories on film coalesce as SXSW looms

By Louis Black, February 27, 2009, Columns

Two weeks from today, on Friday, March 13, South by Southwest kicks off, with SXSW Film's opening movie screening that night. The excitement level keeps rising, as it usually does at this point, and – as in most good years – it still charts slightly higher than the anxiety level as the event looms closer. It is the culmination of a full year's work for a one-time, 10-day event, so everyone is working as hard as they can, all focused on the bigger picture and the smallest detail, determined to get everything right.

There are a few films on this year's extraordinary schedule for which I'm going to bang the drum not terribly slowly, as well as awfully loudly. I get to praise one in particular to the skies, because basically I had almost nothing to do with it.

I'm pretty sure I'll be going on a lot about The Promised Land. I had to look at the film for a number of reasons, one of which was to be dutiful, but it proved to be enthralling. Route 10 cuts across the bottom of Louisiana; a little north of it and as far south as New Orleans is the country of Cajuns and Creoles. A world unto itself, it has its own languages, customs, food, ways of celebrating, and music. I've spent as much time as I could hanging out there – in Lake Charles, Jennings, Lake Arthur, Lafayette, and Baton Rouge – whenever I've had any kind of excuse.

The film is about a supergroup of local musicians that comes together to make extraordinary music. Now, some of the musicians that live around there have regularly played with Philip Glass; their groups have toured the world, but come Friday and Saturday night, you can find even the biggest names playing at clubs where the locals come to dance, so they had better be playing great dance music.

There is something about the way folks live there, their style and sense of life. They hunt, fish, play instruments, cook, drink, and eat. This style, the culture, the food, and the music all seem to come out of the land directly. One of the reasons I'm not in favor of gun control is due to the time I've spent with hunters in Louisiana and Vermont, in Maine and North Carolina. They have the most natural, honest relationships with the world around them that I've ever come across. Their views are not polluted by Walt Disney imagery; the way they are of the land, and the land of them, owes more to nature than to poetry, more to the intuitive than to philosophy. In so many ways, this sense of continuity stretches far beyond hunting, into the whole lifestyle. There is more to say about The Promised Land – don't worry; it will be said.

In 1974, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, directed by Tobe Hooper, was released, changing horror and independent filmmaking forever. It had an impact in a lot of other ways as well, but that's another story. It is still regarded as one of the great classics of American horror films.

A few years before Chainsaw, in 1969, the first film Tobe Hopper directed, Eggshells, was released. Aside from a number of screenings at the time, it's been rarely seen and long regarded as a lost film. Eggshells will be screened at SXSW 09, and you can bet there will be more about it in this column.

Another new documentary from much beloved Canadian filmmaker Ron Mann is always cause for celebration. Know Your Mushrooms, his new film, should be especially welcome in these parts.

"You talk about the people of the United States as though they belonged to you. When you find out they don't think they are, you'll lose interest. You talk about giving them their rights as though you could make a present of liberty. Remember the workingman? You used to defend him quite a good deal. Well, he's turning into something called organized labor, and you don't like that at all. And listen, when your precious underprivileged really get together – that's going to add up to something bigger than – than your privilege, and then I don't know what you'll do – sail away to a desert island, probably, and lord it over the monkeys."
– Leland to Kane after he loses his race to be governor, Citizen Kane

I was being interviewed for a documentary about conspiracy theories. I represented, of course, the voice of dissent in the piece, with most of it being given over to conspiracy theorists themselves. The interviewer was much more sympathetic toward conspiracy theories and theorists than I. He asked some excellent, probing questions, coming at the topic from a number of unique angles.

In passing, we were talking about Nazi Germany. He used that as a leaping-off place for a really excellent question. He talked about a concentration camp that was in an abandoned quarry surrounded by mountaintops and small, mostly affluent villages that looked down directly on this camp. One of the ways inmates in the camp would be killed was by being thrown off the edge of the sheer stone cliffs created by the quarry. After the war, everyone who was interviewed in these surrounding towns claimed he or she had no knowledge of what was going on in the camp. Yet, of course, there was no way they could have avoided seeing the camp. He asked me if, in such a situation, conspiracy theorists wouldn't have been of value.

I thought about this a long time and have thought about it since. In a totalitarian society, there are not conspiracy theorists. Such theories, in order to flourish and gain momentum, need open dialogue and a readily accessible exchange of information. Dictatorships usually quickly kill or imprison people who openly express such views. There can be underground resistance movements, though in Nazi Germany there was very little in that regard. People can be organized to try to resist the government militarily and to spread suppressed literature and censored stories.

A widespread, nationwide conspiracy-theory movement, however, requires a free, open, and tolerant society to at least some degree in order to exist, much less to flourish. I am not proposing that if there is a conspiracy-theory community, ipso facto they are wrong. There are always subtleties and exception. Still, in this continuing discussion, I hope I've made it more than clear that I neither agree nor sympathize with the 9/11 and New World Order conspiracy theorists. If I'm wrong, then I am a dupe, an enabler, an enemy of democracy, and a facilitator of fascist oppression.

There is a lot of historical precedent for incidents being staged or propaganda spread to get nations to go to war. In this context, the idea of 9/11 as an inside job has precedent, which neither validates nor dismisses it. On the other hand, the only precedent for a conspiracy of a small group secretly dominating the country, taking it over, enslaving its people, and wiping out much of the population are other conspiracy theories. Yes, the French attacked the Huguenots, the Jews were exiled from England and Spain, and the Knights Templars were suppressed by the church. Yet each of these examples is a case of the dominant majority of the population turning on a minority of it.

Now, if you believe conspiracy theories – that Lenin was part of the international Zionist movement or Mao was serving the international bankers – well there you are.

I believe that Mao sincerely started out wanting to free the Chinese people from an often-callous monarchy. The long years of revolutionary fighting and the need to control the population led to Mao's regime being a totalitarian, oppressive dictatorship that in the end was responsible for many more deaths than were the emperors.

Similarly, Lenin, Trotsky, and the other Russian revolutionaries started out with an honest desire to end the oppressive government and empower the people. There were different dissenting groups among the small number of Russian revolutionaries, with the Bolsheviks being one of the smaller groups. Still, they came to dominate the revolution. One can argue that things began to fall apart as soon as the 1917 Revolution occurred. A more definitive and agreed-upon date for marking the loss of the revolution's ideals would be the Red Army's suppression of the Kronshtadt uprising in 1921. This was a mutiny of sailors, many of them contributors to the Bolshevik victory of 1917. The Red Army violently stamped out this mutiny, killing many of the sailors at the time and later executing more of them as traitors.

Again, if you believe that international conspiracies were manipulating these leaders or that they themselves always operated with evil intentions, okay. I think what happened was that they came across one of the most disturbing situations of all for revolutionaries – when the people empowered decided they didn't completely agree with what the revolutionary leaders wanted but actually desired something quite different. Saving the revolution in such circumstances requires military might and a certain number of executions in the very populations being liberated. This is organic to most revolutions, especially those conducted by a small group of true believers dominated by charismatic leaders. Usually, there is widespread agreement on the evils of the current regime that unites the revolutionaries and the people. After the revolution, however, when actual changes need to be implemented and policies formed, is when the intense disagreements begin, often leading to violent solutions.

There are a few exceptions, including the American Revolution, but the outcome of so many insurrections should give pause to would-be revolutionaries. Our conspiracy brethren, of course, believe they know better; they are well aware that all history has been controlled by the conspiratorial elite – be they the Freemasons, Tri-Lateralists, the Illuminati, the papal conspiracy, the New World Order, the international Zionists, the British first family, international bankers, or the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy and his Company C co-conspirators. This means all revolutions that ended up corrupted did so because they were secretly directed by the elite from the beginning. Since believing in conspiracies essentially makes you a better, more aware, and more knowledgeable person than the rest of us, according to such theorists, they are wrapped in the cloak of purity and bathed in the blood of the lamb. In general, I worry a lot more about the theorists than I do about the conspiracies they are so busy documenting.  

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