Sunday, June 30, 2013

Room 237 and Kubrick Conspiracies

Being both a film critic and a researcher, I've always had a particular fondness for the theorists that pair the two disciplines.  They have many similarities, truth be told.  Both are concerned with bringing the obscured to light -- the film maker's meaning or the conspirators' plot -- and each attracts a certain type of type of individual blessed (or cursed) with the ability to perceive meaning where others do not.  That said, society typically takes an equally dismissive view of both.  The conspiracist is brushed off as a crackpot or paranoid, and the critic is accused of reading too much into what is ostensibly entertainment; the "it's just a movie" argument.  There are, of course, many in these fields about which these and other criticisms are true, yet all academic disciplines are plagued by a surfeit of professionals who cling to their theories and ignore any evidence to the contrary. 

This idea of "pet theories" plays heavily into the new documentary Room 237 by Rodney Ascher.  Ascher has assembled five theorists who have unique views on Stanley Kubrick's 1980 The Shining, and illustrates these theories via the film itself.  The Shining can be seen as a document of a man's descent into madness, and Room 237 positions itself as a look into the same.  Though Ascher never adds commentary on the theorists' views, he employs the "give 'em enough rope" method of documentary filmmaking, preferring to let the participants malign themselves.  Instead of editing their thoughts to be more concise, Ascher allows each speaker to trail off, pepper their speech with "like" and "ummm" to a distracting degree, and, in one instance, temporarily leave the discussion to check on a crying child.  Contextualized correctly, the latter incident would have had a humanizing effect on the speaker, but here it is used to highlight the individual as unprofessional, i.e. someone to whom you shouldn't bother listening. 

Professional film critics certainly picked up on Ascher's plan and ran with it, calling the ideas presented in the film "laughable," and seemingly taking great umbrage that anyone not formally granted admission into the ivory halls of Film Criticism, Inc. would dare to attempt to analyze a film on their own.  The "give 'em enough rope" and "look at these wackos" style of documentaries have been the status quo for over a decade now, yet the typical reaction is one of pity, not scorn, for those involved.  Even positive reviews of the film itself went out of their way to take potshots at the participants, which I would be suspicious about if I were only slightly more paranoid than I already am.

In Ascher and the critics' defense, only three of the five speakers present their ideas in a coherent enough manner as to be worthy of summarizing here.  (The other two bring up some interesting ideas, but never tie them together or attempt to go anywhere with them).  The three Shining theories elucidated in the film are:
  • That the film was Kubrick's analysis of white Europeans' colonization of America.  Cited are the many Native American references and visual motifs in the film and the idea of the past colliding with the present.
  • That The Shining is Kubrick's round-about method of making a Holocaust film because he felt it could not be represented directly.  Evidence here is more tenuous, citing old Looney Tunes shorts and typewriter models as proof.
  • Lastly is the theory popularized by Jay Weidner: that Kubrick encoded his "confession" about faking the moon landing for NASA into The Shining
It is on the latter that I'll delve in deeper.  Weidner is likely known to many of you as the filmmaker behind Kubrick's Odyssey I & II, themselves masterful examples of both conspiricism and film criticism.  Weidner makes the best showing in Room 237, likely because he's honed his Kubrick theorizing the most, and his insights take us down a strange road of conspiricism that has been travelled by many others.

Weidner did not come up with the theory that Stanley Kubrick filmed a faked moon landing.  I've never been able to pin down exactly who first promoted this theory, but it has its origins in the documented relationship that Kubrick had with NASA during the filming of 2001: a Space Odyssey.  The 1968 film is cited by many theorists (Weidner included) as being a "test shoot" for Kubrick's eventual faking of the landing in 1969. Other than the obvious thematic similarities, there is little to link Kubrick's cinematic marvel with the grainy, black-and-white footage of Aldrin and Armstrong, but Weidner solves this problem by observing that both utilized the technique of forward projection in their filming.  Forward projection is a complicated technique to place actors in a different setting, and is less obvious to viewers than chroma keying ("green screen" or "blue screen") or backward projection (think the way driving was filmed in old movies).  Weidner maintains that the faked moon landing utilized forward projection, so naturally the party responsible would had to have been the artist who mastered the technique, Stanley Kubrick. 

Weidner still maintains that America did in fact land on the moon in 1969 and that it was just the footage that was faked.  To date, he's been mum on why such an effort would have been necessary, but his belief in a real moon landing puts him at odds with the majority of moon landing conspiracy theorists.  Moon landing conspiracies are among some of the most inventive in all of conspiracism, and it's a rabbit hole I neither have time nor space to delve into sufficiently here. 

Weidner's theories regarding Kubrick's films are intriguing and well presented, but I'd advise the curious to steer clear of Room 237 and get them straight from the source in his Kubrick's Odyssey films.  His Room 237 compatriots aren't up to his level of analysis or possess as engaging a personality. 

There are a number of conspiracy theories in which Stanley Kubrick factors heavily, and I'll present a more formal analysis of that evidence in later posts.

For a more in depth look at Space Conspiracies, please refer to my book, Conspiracy Cinema.

Some of my favorite destinations of "conspiracy criticism"
The Secret Sun currently doing an excellent exploration of Star Trek & its connection to the shadowy intersection of the CIA and New Age UFO chasers.
Subliminal Synchrosphere (currently on hiatus)
Data Asylum - real headscratcher....I'm not 100% sure on how to take all the information presented here, but I'm engrossed by it.

There are several other films dedicated to filmic analysis that will be discussed in-depth in later posts.

Monday, June 24, 2013

TWA Flight 800 Review

TWA Flight 800 (2013)

Directed by Kristina Borjesson, based on the research of Tom Stalcup

TWA Flight 800, a Boeing 747-100, departed from JFK International Airport at 8:02 PM EST on July 17, 1996 en route to Paris.  Approximately thirty minutes later, air traffic controllers and ground-based emergency services began receiving reports that a mid-air explosion had occurred off the coast of Long Island.  Eye witnesses both in the air and on land reported seeing an explosion followed by a large fireball (in some cases two, depending on their vantage point) falling into the ocean.  There were no survivors from the 230 passengers and crew on board.  TWA Flight 800 was one of the deadliest air accidents in American history, and immediately sparked an intense investigation by the NTSB and the FBI, and became the focus of much media scrutiny and speculation.

The official conclusion of the NTSB/FBI investigation was that an electrical failure in the center fuel tank caused the explosion.  This theory, however, was at odds with the numerous eye witnesses who reported seeing TWA 800 being struck with “something” (a “streak of light,” a “firework,” or a “flare”) before exploding.  The missile strike theory quickly became the buzz in both conspiracy and mainstream media channels long before the conclusion of the government’s four-year investigation.  So prevalent was this theory that the NTSB/FBI had to structure their findings report to specifically refute the popular perception that TWA 800 was downed by a missile. 

As it turns out, there was more evidence to support the missile theory than just eye witness accounts, as revealed in the 2013 documentary TWA Flight 800.  Directed by freelance investigative journalist Kristina Borjesson and based largely on the research of Tom Stalcup, TWA Flight 800 reveals to the public for the first time the large amount of concrete, scientific evidence supporting the theory that TWA 800 was shot down.  A physicist by trade, Stalcup has dedicated years to researching the crash and the evidence presented in the film is not simply persuasive, it’s convincing.

Stalcup and Borjesson have enlisted the actual NTSB investigators themselves to tell the true, uncensored story of what evidence they found and what their superiors and other government agencies did with it.  Early on in the film, it is revealed that they found entry and exit holes in the plane’s structure and traces of powerful explosives on several parts of the wreckage.  They state that this evidence was either ignored or actively covered up during the course of the investigation.  FBI malfeasance during the investigation ran the gamut from simple stonewalling to evidence tampering ranging from misclassification to destruction of parts of the plane itself.   

The second half of the film is dedicated to a point-by-point debunking of the official government theory and a listing of the evidence that supports a missile strike.  It is at this point that the film truly hits its stride both from a filmic and a persuasive standpoint, becoming one of the more engrossing documentaries I’ve seen in a while.  A recap of this evidence here would not do it justice, as Stalcup’s arguments are highly technical, which the film ably walks viewers through.  The conclusion of the film is a call to re-open the investigation into TWA 800, supported by both the former investigators and the families of the victims.

Impressed as I was by TWA Flight 800, I found myself wondering if it was truly an example of Conspiracy Cinema or not.  The film certainly makes an outstanding case for the falsity of the “official version” of events, but never addresses the key issue here: why? TWA Flight 800 proves that specific individuals and government agencies made a concerted, deliberate effort to mislead the public about what happened to Flight 800.  This campaign of disinformation was both expensive and time-consuming, and would have required the involvement of persons of a high standing in the United States government to authorize and coordinate.  We must ask who would benefit from this and why?  TWA Flight 800 leaves this question unanswered, and its silence on the topic is deafening. 

The film fails to follow through on some of the most tantalizing pieces of evidence it presents.  Specifically, I’m referring to two incidents reported by the NTSB investigators in regards to their interactions with the FBI.  In the first, they were shown footage of the wreckage still underwater but it was clear to them that it had been doctored to remove sections of the tape.  The second – and most egregious – is the report that surveillance footage in the research hanger revealed that FBI agents were entering at night and hammering on pieces of wreckage to bend it into shapes that better fit the official version.    Why such activities would be necessary will be in the forefront of every viewer’s mind, but the topic is never broached by the film.  Furthermore, the film’s ultimate theory that TWA 800 was struck by three missiles, rather than just one, will be shocking even to conspiracy researchers and practically demands more exploration.

I do not fault Stalcup or Borjesson from not entering into the murky waters of conspiracy, however.  Stalcup’s research is solid and deserves to be presented in such a way that it isn’t easily dismissed, which it would be were he to assign a motive or a culprit to the crash.  TWA Flight 800 will hopefully get more people interested in this topic and, based on the publicity it has received so far, that will likely be the case.  Some will be convinced, some won’t, but all will be left wondering “Why?”

The “Why” or “Whys” behind the crash of TWA Flight 800 is still an open question and one deserving of more research.  For the interested, here is a brief summation of the two most popular conspiracy theories regarding Flight 800:

·         The “Friendly Fire” theory: TWA 800 was struck by missiles accidentally launched by the US Military.  This theory gained a good deal of attention when it was supported by former White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger.  The Friendly Fire theory would certainly account for the need to cover-up evidence supporting a missile strike.  The primary argument against this theory is the fact that missile launches are heavily regulated affairs involving a chain of command and multiple people and are specifically designed in a manner to avoid such errors.

·         The terrorism theory: TWA 800 was downed by foreign terrorists using either an on-board explosive device or ground/boat launched Stinger missiles.  The subsequent cover-up was done to prevent a national panic and to hide the embarrassment of a terrorist attack originating from American soil.  The arguments against this theory are two-fold:

o   No group stepped forward to claim responsibility.  Reports could have been suppressed in the US but would have surfaced in other nations.

o   Three years prior, the bombing at the World Trade Center had caused neither a panic nor a backlash against the US government.

There are issues with both theories, and both of them exculpate the government of any intentional wrongdoing, at least any with malicious intent.  One theory I’ve seen floated around but never given any serious attention is one that is a synthesis of the two: that TWA 800 was intentionally shot down by the US government.  It has become increasingly popular in the wake of 9/11 to label any and every event a “false flag,” yet this claim is never made regarding Flight 800, likely because the government did everything in its power not to capitalize on the tragedy.  It is the official position that this is a horrific yet mundane event; a sad accident but one with a known cause. 

There are some similarities between the TWA 800 crash and an earlier, high-profile air disaster where there was also concrete evidence of a government cover-up: the 1972 crash of United Airlines Flight 553.  UA 553 is best remembered as the “Watergate crash” because the plane was carrying CIA agent Dorothy Hunt, wife of Watergate plumber E. Howard Hunt.  Mrs. Hunt was carrying $10,000 in small bills, rumored to be a payoff to her husband to keep quiet.  These allegations appeared in no less reputable a source than the July 8, 1974 issue of Time magazine courtesy of Chuck Coulson, who in no uncertain terms told the magazine that the CIA downed the plane specifically to get Mrs. Hunt.  Among the many curious circumstances surrounding the incident, FBI field agents were on the scene in such a short amount of time that it would have required them to have had advance knowledge that the plane was going down.  Furthermore, Nixon made hasty appointments of long-time cronies to important positions -- Bud Krogh to Undersecretary of Transportation, Alexander Butterfield to head the FAA, and Dwight Chapin to United Airlines – effectively ending any serious inquiry into the crash.  There are a litany of other mysterious circumstances so I’ll refer you to Sherman Skolnick’s The Secret History of Airplane Sabotage (excerpted on his website here) for more details.

Who, then, would be the target of such an attack on TWA Flight 800?  The passenger list (available here) reveals no one immediately recognizable, yet has a high percentage of executives of various financial and pharmaceutical firms and/or their relations.  One name – or a lack there of – does stand out: an “unnamed passenger” listed as traveling with a known passenger for whom there is no biography. 

Clearly there is room for more research on this topic.  TWA Flight 800 is a remarkable documentary and one that provides a lot of answers, while at the same time underscoring just how many questions remain unanswered.

TWA Flight 800 airs on Epix on July 17, 2013.

CIA produced animation detailing the official theory (Count the number time "NOT A MISSILE" is said)
Note: Conspiracy Cinema readers can also refer to my review of Silenced: TWA 800 & the Subversion of Justice for more information.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

An Introduction to Conspiracy Cinema, the blog

In May of 2012, my book Conspiracy Cinema: Propaganda, Politics, and Paranoia was released by Headpress.  The writing and research process began in late 2009, and the path from an idea in my head to an actual, physical book in my hands was an exciting, occasionally stressful, but very rewarding journey. I am very pleased with how the book turned out, and thankful for the support and encouragement I received from my publishers, my wife, my family, and my colleagues. 

My first thoughts after seeing the finished product were mixed, however.  I felt that there was more to say on this topic, a suspicion that led me back into the world of Conspiracy Cinema not soon after I had left it.  The release of Conspiracy Cinema coincided with a boom period in the genre where new films were being released almost daily.  The pace has slowed considerably since then, but those filmmakers who have continued working in the genre have released works that compare favorably -- and sometimes outshine -- those that I have previously considered to be the best the genre had to offer.

I felt these works deserved the same attention I had given to their forerunners and decided that a blog was the best format for this.  The ability to provide a truly multimedia experience as well as direct links to the works themselves in many cases presented me with a unique opportunity to create an interactive resource for other researchers and the simply curious.  Additionally, this format allows me a wider focus than the narrow confines of a single-volume book, and will allow me to expand the analysis to conspiracy books (I have a backlog of several dozen titles awaiting review) and even to comment on the wealth of conspiracism and research available on the Internet.  Finally, this venue will allow me a place to present my own research and commentary on various para-political and metaphysical topics.

Conspiracy Cinema will be updated at least once a week with new reviews, news articles on current events, and/or commentary. 

For more information on Conspiracy Cinema, the book:

Reviews of the Book
Excerpts and Extracts from the book
Purchase the paperback through (US)
Purchase for Kindle/eReaders
Purchase the Signed & Numbered Hardback, standard Hardback, and standard paperback direct from Headpress (UK)