Oliver Stone and Paramount are intent on getting out the message that World Trade Center doesn’t traffic in fringy 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.” (See J.Hoberman’s review.) Studio reps screened portions of the film on Capitol Hill a few 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.org — one of countless sites devoted to alternative explanations of the events of September 11—organized a “call to action” to his fellow “9-11 Truth activists.” Slesinger proposes 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’s 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.
Other directors have begun to uplift Truthie cinema. Austin, Texas, talk- radio host Alex Jones has pumped out a string of slicker productions, including Martial Law 9-11: Rise of the Police State, 911: The Road to Tyranny, and Police State III: Total Enslavement, in addition to earlier pre–9-11 videos about other conspiracies. A strident opponent of the “New World Order,” Jones cuts a more Michael Moore–esque figure, inserting footage of himself “bullhorning” at protests, interviewing bystanders, and being subsequently harassed by police—and in his recent TerrorStorm, briefly confronts Moore himself. Jones’s preacherly theatrics have helped him rack up a few Hollywood connections. Charlie Sheen is an outspoken fan, and Jones has contributed animated cameos in Richard Linklater’s films Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly.
22-year-old director Dylan Avery of Oneonta, New York, has emerged as the hot young star of the skeptic set with his 2005 ‘tude-filled feature Loose Change. Avery claims in a recent Vanity Fair profile that he’s received over 50,000 orders for the Loose Change DVD and over 10 million viewings online, and says he’s in talks with a number of studios to release an updated cut of the film on September 11, 2006. His name frequently pops up in Technorati’s daily list of most searched-for keywords, and his MySpace profile boasts over 3,500 friends. By mainstream media standards, Loose Change remains ultra–low budget, but with Avery’s casual, no-nonsense voiceover, tight editing, and hip-hop DJ’d score, it’s by far the most accomplished and accessible example of 9-11 Truth cinema, though not free of the questionable fact-sourcing practiced by its peers (most egregious: “According to Wikipedia . . . “).
Despite these limits, the 9-11 conspiracy docs will surely inspire further imitation, and their wiki-style muckraking is bound to dig up something important during an administration addicted to data-fudging and cover-ups. In a world that increasingly seems all fringe and no center, other radical and niche ideologies will undoubtedly embrace the no-holds-barred, blog-friendly, direct-to-YouTube format. With any luck, we’ll see a whole new batch three years from now, made by embittered, paranoid conservatives who have been voted out of power.In true Internet fashion, Loose Change has even spawned a counter-video. Mark Iradian’s Screw Loose Change takes on “911 deniers” by subtitling a running commentary over Avery’s video, parrying and mocking his arguments as they unfold. William Lewis and Dave von Kleist’s woefully titled 911 in Plane Site also generated a critique, Not in Plain Sight. In this case, the attack comes from within the movement: Not in Plain Sight‘s anonymous author claims that In Plane Site is so full of errors that it must be intentional disinformation created to mislead and discredit the movement. (Not in Plain Sight also includes the most wonderfully bizarre music of any of these works: looping, whoomping synth blurts that resemble discarded takes from the 1980 Flash Gordon soundtrack.)