By Alan Scherstuhl
By Amy Nicholson
By Charles Taylor
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Brian Feinzimer
By CAROLINA DEL BUSTO
By AMY NICHOLSON
By Amy Nicholson
Oliver Stone and Paramount have been intent on getting out the message that World Trade Center doesn't traffic in fringey speculations about the 9/11 attacks—since the unabashedly liberal director's JFK (1991) stands as the most mainstream movie elaboration of conspiracy theory to date. Paramount retained Creative Response Concepts—the same marketing firm responsible for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign and numerous other conservative causes—and Stone's talking point became "This is not a political film." Studio reps screened portions of the film on Capitol Hill weeks ago in a preemptive strike against potential red-state congressional grumblers. And indeed, right-wing pundits have so far embraced the movie: "It is one of the greatest pro-American, pro-family, pro-male, flag-waving, God Bless America films you will ever see," Fox News' Cal Thomas gushed in his syndicated column.
But Stone's attempt at muffling his JFK rep has raised hackles within the burgeoning world of conspiracy theorists. David Slesinger of 911courage.com—one of countless sites devoted to alternative explanations of the events of Sept. 11—organized a "call to action" to his fellow "9-11 Truth activists." Slesinger proposed staging nonviolent protests on the film's opening weekend by flyering and picketing "suburban mall theaters" that explicitly prohibit such activity, in hopes of garnering media attention through activist arrests. TheResistanceManifesto.com, run by one "John Conner" (presumably self-styled after The Terminator's hero), denounces World Trade Center as "the biggest 9/11 whitewash in history." Asks Conner: "Was Stone used by the Illuminati as an unknowing pawn to whitewash the 9/11 conspiracy theories to the masses?" When lefty news aggregator the Raw Story posted a release linking to Slesinger and Conner, it drew so many readers that Conner's site temporarily crashed from bandwidth overload. Another site, prisonplanet.com, argues that advance clips from World Trade Center seem to include the sounds of bombs going off in the buildings. "Only when Oliver Stone's movie is rolled out nationwide," Prisonplanet writes, "will we be able to comb through it for more proof that Stone is clued in to the 9/11 truth movement and the complete fraud of the government fairy tale."
Thanks to this active online community, 9/11 Truth seekers don't need Stone to see their theories propounded in cinematic form. In the half-decade since 2001, as a loose congeries of varied political fringe groups and conspiracy hounds melded with a newly radicalized crop of Bush-burnt Americans to form a growing network of like-minded skeptics, the movement has fostered a robust filmmaking subculture of its own. Nearly 20 feature-length videos have been circulating through its ranks, first on DVD, more recently for free through video services like Google and YouTube. Directors have become important figures within the movement. And the audience is out there—more than you might think. An oft quoted May 2006 Zogby poll found that 42 percent of Americans believed that "there has been a cover-up" about 9/11 on the part of the government and the 9/11 Commission.
With forthright titles like The Truth & Lies of 911, The Great Conspiracy, and September 11th the Con, the Conspiracy, the Cover-Up, these home-brewed affairs play like the audiovisual descendants of old self-published conspiracy books: cheaply made, but spiced with highly idiosyncratic, lurid aesthetics. Their world-historical urgency is often endearingly undercut by an ill-lit, room-toned cable-access vibe, or the pasteboard rented-studio stiffness of a late-night infomercial. Their raison d'être, without exception, is the presentation of "evidence" that key parts of the standard narrative just don't "add up." The litany of examples changes, but is drawn from a common pool: The twin towers and nearby WTC 7 could only have fallen the way they did from a controlled demolition, key video messages from Osama bin Laden appear to portray a bin Laden impostor, no footage exists of a plane hitting the Pentagon, and so on. The conclusion, always, is that 9/11 was an "inside job." Though the skeptics don't agree on the perpetrators, most point to the Bush administration and neocon high-ups, and nobody seems to think al Qaeda acted alone. On first viewing, some movies can be powerfully effective. For viewers already distrustful of Bush, they function as epistemological horror films, evoking fears that the state of the world may be even worse than it already is, due not to apparent hubris, negligence, and ineptitude, but rather a thrillingly brilliant cabal of evil elites: the perfect movie villains, and the inverse of the neocons' own terrorist demons.
A few conspiracy films include original interviews with witnesses (or more often, an echo chamber of fellow skeptics). The bulk of footage consists of the analysis of media artifacts found online: website pages of "buried" news stories, animated diagrams, tinny compressed video clips, and neo-Ken Burnsian digital zooms into pixelated photos. In this respect, these Truth movies feel like the birth of a documentary form uniquely native to the online culture: the DIY results of hours upon hours of Googling, blogging, and Photoshopping.
The most shoestring works, like Eric Hufschmid's Painful Deceptions, could barely be called movies, operating merely as multimedia slide shows with theorizing voiceover. Others, like BYU physicist Steven Jones's 9-11: Scientific and Ethical Questions, are little more than videotaped live PowerPoint presentations (though Jones' soft-spoken Midwestern timbre adds surprisingly powerful drama). The most extreme example of this info-centrism is 911 Stranger Then[sic] Fiction, in which a computer-generated voice reads scrolling text for two hours, occasionally interspersed with a flash of something grabbed from Google's image search. It's so sparsely experimental that one might mistake it for a work of video art. That is, until it begins railing against the "Zionist mafia"—another unfortunate tendency of the genre.
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