Grounds for Suspicion

Texas and the conspiracy movie.
Photograph by Sara Stathas

In TerrorStorm: A History of Government Sponsored Terrorism, a 2006 documentary reissued with new footage last month on DVD, we watch a pudgy, gravelly-voiced Dallas native named Alex Jones travel to the United Kingdom to try to prove that the July 2005 London terrorist bombings were secretly carried out by the British government. The absurdly prolific Jones, who has produced more than a dozen similarly incendiary documentaries (titles include Police State III: Total Enslavement and 911: The Road to Tyranny), doesn’t have much legitimate evidence to back up his assertion. So he resorts to interviewing shadowy-looking figures who parrot his crackpot theories right back at him. When all else fails, the director makes like Michael Moore, grabs a bullhorn, and shouts in front of the British parliament that George W. Bush was responsible for September 11. (“Do you think that people in a cave were able to have all of this happen?” he proclaims, moments before the London police show up.)

Watching this, you might be likely to roll your eyes or just reach for the off button. (The movie is also viewable on Google Video.) The more appropriate reaction, however, may be one of civic pride: Leave it to a Texan to carry forth the tradition of the conspiracy movie into the twenty-first century. Easily ridiculed and frequently dismissed, this is a genre that rarely gets the attention it deserves. But films like JFK (1991), Interview With the Assassin (2002), or even Slacker (1991) all hint at a fascinating “secret” history unfolding just beneath our noses. Even if you aren’t convinced by the odd mixture of fear, libertarianism, and sheer chutzpah on display in these efforts, you still have to acknowledge that they are an essential part of Texas film history. Jones (who also hosts a nationally syndicated radio talk show in Austin) turns out to be the latest in a long line of filmmakers who remind us that, when it comes to paranoia, Texas serves it up more effectively (and consistently) than any other state.

Conspiracy theories, of course, are nothing new, especially not in the cinema (in forties noirs like The Maltese Falcon and The Woman in the Window, intrigue lurked around every dark street corner). But the more modern iteration of the conspiracy film, in which the paranoia is directed at the American government, was born on November 22, 1963, when a Dallas clothing manufacturer named Abraham Zapruder recorded John F. Kennedy’s motorcade as it traveled down Elm Street directly into the crosshairs of Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle. The Zapruder film, which was entered into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 1994, is not a movie in the conventional sense; it’s simply an unadorned visual document of a historical event. But with its flickering, bordering-on-abstract images and its sudden shift from placid calm to blood and chaos, it does what all great conspiracy movies must: It hints at possibilities and alternatives; it makes us wonder if we’re witnessing the full story.

Think of the Zapruder film as the spiritual godfather of all the Texas-based conspiracy films that have followed. Oliver Stone used the Zapruder film as his springboard in JFK, returning to those nightmarish images again and again to piece together a mesmerizing three-hour symphony of suspicion. In the barely seen Interview With the Assassin, director Neil Burger ( The Illusionist) seizes upon our lingering Kennedy obsessions to craft a spooky (if not entirely convincing) mock documentary about a “second gunman” who confesses to the assassination. But there have also been any number of non-Kennedy-related homegrown conspiracy movies, most notably Slacker, Richard Linklater’s sly ode to Austin’s anarchists, yahoos, and UFO obsessives, and the excellent documentary Waco: The Rules of Engagement (1997), which coolly attempts to separate myth from fact as it analyzes the Branch Davidian standoff.

Perhaps it’s that Texans have a long history, dating back to the 1845 annexation of the Republic, of feeling as if the federal government is putting one over on them. Or maybe it’s just that, between the Kennedy assassination, the University of Texas Tower shootings, David Koresh, and “cheerleader-murdering mom” Wanda Holloway, the historical reality of modern Texas seems too outlandish to be taken at face value. Whatever the case, there’s no denying that there’s something about the Lone Star State that inspires filmmakers, once inside these borders, to unleash their most paranoid delusions. Indeed, the ethos of conspiracy is so deeply ingrained in Texas film that it infects an offbeat comedy like Robert Altman’s Dr. T and the Women (2000), which features a Kennedy assassination tour guide (Tara Reid) as one of its main characters. The movie is one of Altman’s few unmitigated disasters, but it gets this much right: No first-time visit to Dallas could possibly be complete without a stop at the grassy knoll.

As for Alex Jones, well, he’s definitely not the next Oliver Stone. But give credit to his balls-to-the-wall zeal: How many non-Texans would have the nerve to casually assert that the United States military systematically tortures and executes journalists who write articles critical of the occupational government in Iraq? And in his willingness to look beyond Texas to find conspiracies, and to use the Internet to virally send his messages across the globe (on Google Video, one version of TerrorStorm has been viewed more than one million times), he also feels like a truly modern paranoid, the crank who knows no borders.

Sure, it might seem as if we’re far away from Abraham Zapruder and his antiquated 8mm images. But really we’re closer than ever: a Texan and his movie camera, serving up just enough mystery to let our imaginations run wild.

National Conspiracy Month: September unleashes the usual suspects.

It’s perhaps the most unexpected consequence of 9/11: Every September, along with the tributes and remembrances, we get a new wave of conspiracy movies flooding the Internet and the multiplexes. This year is no different. Alex Jones is releasing yet another DVD, titled End Game, which “documents

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