Internet Conspirancy Films and the Spirit of the Timesby Owen Roberts
It’s telling that Dylan Avery started writing his popular 9/11 conspiracy film, Loose Change, as a novel, but instead turned it into a documentary. The film, besides having relatively clean graphics and video editing, stands out among other web-based conspiracy movies because of the strength of its narrative. It resembles mainstream political documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11, and it strings together apparently legitimate sources into a compelling story that seamlessly explains the US government involvement in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Despite the vast amount of criticism debunking the theory, the DVD has sold fifty thousand copies, and the film has been viewed online over ten million times, even eliciting a response from the U.S. State Department. However, there has been little critical attention paid to the filmmaking itself.
Loose Change has spawned an abundance of YouTube videos that support, deny, or provide alternatives to its arguments about 9/11. The most recent film to gain similar web popularity, though almost no attention from the mainstream media, is Zeitgeist, a three-part attack on what it claims as the pillars of the American establishment: Christianity, the 9/11 conspiracy, and the Federal Reserve bank. Despite the lofty ambitions of the two-hour film, it appears to be successful, as its creators claim, somewhat dubiously, 2.1 million views per month on Zeitgeist’s website. I first heard of the film from a friend and Google employee, who last year lost one hundred dollars in a bet that the film would change his thinking.
A lover of the conspiracy genre myself, I went to zeitgeistmovie.com that very night. The film, which was first released on Google Videos, began with more than ten minutes of twisted psychedelia: disturbing footage of war, poverty, and crime, mixed with computer-generated footage of the earth, sun and stars from outer space. This collage of sound and imagery is alarming to say the least, but not very different from what many have come to expect from politically minded video art such as Robert Boyd’s Xanadu. After ten minutes the narration begins, and what follows is a fast-paced, intriguing story that references a staggering amount of sources (few of which come from any major publisher or news outlet) in an attempt to change viewers’ perceptions of almost every aspect of their lives. The film concludes with what is an ultimately disappointing and typical conclusion—that the elite establishment’s goal is to enslave the entire world, and implant them with identity chips, in order to create a “one world economy.” It ends with more trippy visuals, including large, multicolored irises overlapping one another for about two minutes. Confused as it is, Zeitgeist in its own way may capture the spirit of the time.
Each of the film’s three sections aims at big targets. First up is religion, and here Zeitgeist offers up a deconstruction of mythology and symbolism that any undergraduate religion major would be familiar with. Its foundation is the same theory found in The Da Vinci Code: that the establishment of Christian theology was a political move by the Roman Empire to enslave its constituency. However, the point of the first section is not just to debunk the Christian myth, but also to establish the practice of mythmaking by the power elite. It does so in order to demonstrate the power of myth in American history, including those pertaining to 9/11.
Focused on 9/11, the second section then relies heavily on clips from Loose Change as well as other conspiracy accounts, creating an apparently seamless argument for the U.S. government’s involvement in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Loose Change, in its current incarnation, does not claim that the U.S. government is responsible for the 9/11 attacks, but instead suggests that Bush administration allowed the attacks to happen for its own political gain, thus making the event a “new Pearl Harbor.” Zeitgeist contends that the Bush administration has used 9/11 to create an enemy image, necessary for both the cohesion of our society and the acceptance of increased government control over our lives.
Part three begins with clips from the famous Zapruder film of the John F. Kennedy assassination, a cornerstone of Internet conspiracy movies. The footage, no matter how many times viewed, or how poor the quality of streaming video, is always gripping. But Zeitgeist then does nothing to tie the JFK assassination into its greater narrative, instead leaving the viewer to make the connection between that conspiracy and all of the others documented in the film. The third section then argues that elite conspiracies—initiated by the Rockefellers, the Morgans and the Bush family, among others—explain every war, recession, and depression our country has experienced. From the early twentieth century through the present, according to the film, the Federal Reserve has been the primary vehicle of elite control. By providing only tenuous connections between the three major conspiracy theories, the makers of Zeitgeist allow the viewer’s imagination to fill in any blanks that might exist. Like The Da Vinci Code, which is ultimately incomplete in its exposé of the Catholic Church, the film doesn’t offer any means by which to understand or combat the conspiracy that it promotes, other than a vague message at the end claiming love will overcome oppression. Despite the consistency of the film’s message, the strength of its narrative flow and the apparent logic of its argument, in the end it amounts to little more than shock “journalism.” Zeitgeist’s popularity is clearly the result of its power to entertain, and not its ability to inform.
I find it impossible to trace the political motives of the makers behind Zeitgeist. Little information is available on the filmmakers. There are no credits, and the website names only one filmmaker, Peter Joseph (imdb.com lists Zeitgeist as his only work). It is equally difficult to infer the political leanings of the film, other than the obvious anti-establishment message. Unlike the website for Loose Change, zeitgeistmovie.com offers little in the way of activism or political action. Its most overt political endorsement is for the candidacy of Ron Paul. The site’s “Activism” section contains several links to YouTube videos of Ron Paul, in which he expresses certain policies that are in accordance with the theories of Zeitgeist, including his opposition to the Federal Reserve bank, income taxes, and the hypothetical North American Union. Yet the organizers behind Zeitgeist are promoting “Z-Day” on March 15, when volunteers will be hosting multiple screenings of the movie in cities across the U.S. and the rest of the world, including more than twenty in New York. Most of the screenings are at college campuses or independent theatres. Tribeca Cinemas will have three screenings on the 15th.
What I find fascinating about Zeitgeist is the way that it blends documentary film making and entertainment. It’s not Borat, which employs the opposite formula: it is a fictional work that imitates documentary, and confuses the viewer regarding its fictional and non-fictional content in order to make political commentary. Zeitgeist uses outrageous politics and the premise of non-fiction in order to entertain. As a novel or fictional film, as Loose Change was originally slated to be, Zeitgeist would be no less entertaining, but it’s likely that it wouldn’t have received a fraction of the attention it has gained as an underground conspiracy film.
Both sections two and three of the film use extensive footage from the 1976 film Network, which satirizes television programming in telling the story of Howard Beale, a washed-up anchor man who goes off the deep end and starts spewing hateful conspiracy theories against the corporate structure that employs him, while the network keeps him on the air because he is saving their ratings. Beale is a hopeless political fanatic used to make blockbuster entertainment. However, Zeitgeist appears to be presenting footage from Network in all sincerity, as though it has taken up the cause of the fictional Howard Beale. It’s doubtful that the filmmakers don’t understand the point of Network, but the use of that footage represents their willingness to present obviously non-factual material in their documentary. I doubt it’s a gesture toward self-satire.
The end of Zeitgeist offers several sound and video clips that serve as solutions and conclusions that can be drawn from the film. One peculiar clip comes from Bill Hicks’ Revelations, a work by the comedian known for his social criticisms and political diatribes. After criticizing the media’s portrayal of LSD use as biased, Hicks says, “The world is like a ride at an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real, because that’s how powerful our minds are.” This statement could be applied to Zeitgeist itself. While you watch the film, you choose to believe it’s real, because that’s what makes it frightening, and that fear is entertaining. But how many people continue to believe the theories after the film ends?
So why make Zeitgeist? Why go through all the effort of reading a bunch of books by nutcase conspiracy theorists? Why spend the hours editing, recording and writing to create entertainment that is fundamentally misleading? Why steer people towards pointless and absurd activism? Perhaps the film is successful in opening viewers’ eyes to the world around them, and the possibility of systemic oppression, but it attacks a loosely concocted and vague group of elites, using obviously false information and doing logical acrobatics to construct its theory, while ignoring the reality of forms of systemic oppression like racism and sexism. Like all conspiracy theories, it taps into the powerlessness felt by the masses. But in the end, it seems that Zeitgeist exists more as a way for Peter Joseph, and whoever else was involved in the film, to break into the entertainment industry than as a call to real political action.
Owen Roberts is a writer based in Brooklyn