Conspiracy theories aren't just a feature of the fringe. They've been a potent force across the political spectrum, at the center as well as the extremes, from the colonial era to the present. In The United States of Paranoia, Jesse Walker explores this rich history, arguing that conspiracy stories should be read not just as claims to be either believed or debunked but also as folklore. When a tale takes hold, it reveals something true about the anxieties and experiences of those who believe and repeat it, even if the story says nothing true about the objects of the theory itself.
In a story that stretches from the seventeenth century to today, Walker lays out five conspiracy narratives that recur in American politics and popular culture. With intensive research and a deadpan sense of humor, The United States of Paranoia combines the rigor of real history with the punch of pulp fiction.
On a related note, here's a list of articles I've published since my last update on this blog. Most of them relate directly to the book's themes:
For the record, my favorite film of 1922 is Nosferatu, my favorite film of 1912 is The Cameraman's Revenge, my favorite film of 1902 is Le Voyage Dans La Lune, and my favorite film of 1892 is Pauvre Pierrot. I should probably note that, as far as I can recall, I've seen only two movies made in 1892, so I don't exactly have a big batch to choose from. But Pauvre Pierrot is a landmark, and it's genuinely good too. I like it better than some of the pictures on the Sight & Sound list.
I feel bad that I can't take this all the way back to 1882. Surely someone somewhere made a brilliant praxinoscope strip that year that pushed the boundaries of the art, a zoopraxiscope disc that transcended the medium, a flipbook that can move you to tears. Prehistoric cinema: the next frontier of online criticism.
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked back at 1932, it gave its Best Picture award to Grand Hotel, a flick that's a mixed bag. These are all better:
Directed by Carl Dreyer
Written by Dreyer and Christen Jul, from stories by Sheridan Le Fanu
Forget Dracula: This is the best vampire picture I've ever seen.
2. Island of Lost Souls
Directed by Erle C. Kenton
Written by Philip Wylie and Waldemar Young, from a novel by H.G. Wells
With the possible exception of The Bride of Frankenstein, this is my favorite American horror flick of the '30s: a mad pre-Code picture based on H.G. Wells' best book, starring Bela Lugosi and the great Charles Laughton. It also inspired an Oingo Boingo song.
Written and directed by Alexander Dovzhenko
Suppose you're a brilliant Ukrainian director working in Stalin's Soviet Union. Your last film upset the art commissars, and you've been assigned to put together a propaganda picture about the building of the Dneiper Dam. And then you turn in this crazy masterpiece. You, sir, have brass balls.
Directed by Tod Browning
Written by Willis Goldbeck, Leon Gordon, Al Boasberg, Charles MacArthur, and Edgar Allan Woolf, from a story by Tod Robbins
Keep forgetting Dracula: This is Browning's greatest film. Even its flaws work in its favor: Stiff acting usually drives me crazy, but here it actually adds to the movie's mysterious flavor—perhaps because it reminds us that these folks aren't actors in weird get-ups, but honest-to-god circus freaks.
5. Love Me Tonight
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian
Written by Samuel Hoffenstein, George Marion Jr., and Waldemar Young
This is as good as a Maurice Chevalier movie gets.
6. Horse Feathers
Directed by Norman Z. McLeod
Written by S.J. Perelman, Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, and Will B. Johnstone
"You've got the brain of a four-year old child, and I bet he was glad to get rid of it."
7. Boudu Saved from Drowning
Directed by Jean Renoir
Written by Renoir and Albert Valentin, from a play by René Fauchois
The anti-My Man Godfrey.
8. Land Without Bread
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Written by Buñuel, Rafael Sánchez Ventura, and Pierre Unik
The first great mockumentary.
9. Trouble in Paradise
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Written by Samson Raphaelson and Grover Jones
To see the range of what filmmakers could get away with in the pre-Code era, watch this cheerfully amoral romantic comedy back to back with Freaks.
10. Million Dollar Legs
Directed by Edward F. Cline
Written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Henry Myers, Nicholas T. Barrows, and Ben Hecht
"What a marvelous country. Say, I'll bet you if they laid all the athletes end to end here, why they'd reach—" "484 miles." "How do you know?" "We did it once."
11. Betty Boop, M.D. (Dave Fleischer)
12. Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg)
13. American Madness (Frank Capra)
14. Betty Boop for President (Dave Fleischer)
15. One Hour with You (Ernst Lubitsch, George Cukor)
16. Minnie the Moocher (Dave Fleischer)
17. Red-Headed Woman (Jack Conway)
18. Murders in the Rue Morgue (Robert Florey)
19. The Idea (Berthold Bartosch)
20. Kongo (William J. Cowen)
WHAT'S THAT, WALKER? you ask. YOU HAVE ROOM FOR THREE GODDAMN BETTY BOOP CARTOONS BUT YOU DON'T MENTION SCARFACE, THE SHAME OF A NATION? WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?
Look, I like Scarface, but it's an uneven movie. Now obviously I can forgive a certain unevenness if the high points are high enough: I listed Murders in the Rue Morgue, after all, and in the case of Freaks I pretty much counted the film's flaws as virtues. You could make the case that Kongo is nothing but flaws, crammed together into some sort of crazy pre-Code fever dream. But with Scarface, I can't get past that awful crime-doesn't-pay lecture that the studio insisted on inserting into the movie.
Yes, I let in Ivan, and it's full of propaganda for a totalitarian regime—quite a bit worse, morally speaking, than telling viewers not to be gangsters. But Dovzhenko played off the material that he was forced to include, made it part of its art, and subverted it. Howard Hawks just walked off the set for a while, let another director shoot the scene, and shoved the ungainly thing in. So the film falls off the list. If you want to imagine that it's at #21, I can live with that.
Of the films of 1932 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in Night at the Crossroads.
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked back at 1942, it gave its Best Picture award to Mrs. Miniver. I don't like that one. I do like these:
1. Cat People
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Written by DeWitt Bodeen, from a story by Val Lewton
The first and greatest of the Val Lewton horror cycle.
2. The Magnificent Ambersons
Directed by Orson Welles
Written by Welles, from a novel by Booth Tarkington
You can tell when the studio's excisions begin, because a perfect picture suddenly becomes a choppy mess. If the director's cut ever surfaces, this movie will almost certainly rise to the #1 spot.
3. The Talk of the Town
Directed by George Stevens
Written by Irwin Shaw, Sidney Buchman, and Dale Van Every, from a story by Sidney Harmon
"What is the law? It's a gun pointed at somebody's head. All depends upon which end of the gun you stand, whether the law is just or not."
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch, from a play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison
When I see the beginning of this movie, I tell myself This isn't as good as I remember. By the time I get to the end, I say Oh, right. It is.
5. The Man Who Came to Dinner
Directed by William Keighley
Written by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, from a play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
"I became a nurse because all my life, ever since I was a little girl, I was filled with the idea of serving a suffering humanity. After one month with you, Mr. Whiteside, I am going to work in a munitions factory."
6. The Palm Beach Story
Written and directed by Preston Sturges
"Sex always has something to do with it, dear."
7. The Major and the Minor
Directed by Billy Wilder
Written by Wilder and Charles Brackett, from a play by Edward Childs Carpenter
Here begins Billy Wilder's career as an American director.
8. To Be or Not to Be
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Written by Edwin Justus Mayer, from a story by Melchior Lengyel
Hey, Chaplin. This is how you do an anti-Nazi comedy.
9. The Male Animal
Directed by Elliott Nugent
Written by Stephen Morehouse Avery, Julius J. Epstein, and Philip G. Epstein, from a play by James Thurber and Elliott Nugent
The most political jocks-vs.-nerds movie ever made.
10. The Road to Morocco
Directed by David Butler
Written by Frank Butler and Don Hartman
"I'll lay you eight-to-five that we meet Dorothy Lamour."
I'm not going to post a full honorable mentions list for this year, but I'll give a shoutout to Random Harvest and Holiday Inn.
Of the films of 1942 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in Eyes in the Night.
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked back at 1952, it gave its Best Picture award to The Greatest Show on Earth, a ludicrous, bloated spectacle that I have to admit I kind of like. But there never was a chance that it would make it onto my list.
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Written by Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni
This would make an interesting double feature with It's a Wonderful Life.
2. The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice
Directed by Orson Welles
Written by Welles, from a play by William Shakespeare
My favorite Shakespeare movie. Or at least it's my favorite that isn't a loose adaptation set in Japan.
3. Singin' in the Rain
Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen
Written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green
This might have made it to the #1 spot but for Donald O'Connor, who wears out his welcome awfully fast.
4. The Lusty Men
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Written by David Dortort and Horace McCoy, from a novel by Claude Stanush
The title makes it sound like it's a gay thing, but that's not what it's about at all. It's about a man and a woman who want to buy their own ranch, you see, but then the guy partners up with a rodeo star and enters the older man's footloose, risky, masculine world, and the woman starts to worry that her husband's losing sight of their domestic dreams, and...oh.
5. Viva Zapata!
Directed by Elia Kazan
Written by John Steinbeck
"Now I know you. No fields, no home. No wife, no woman. No friends, no love. You'll only destroy, that is your love."
6. Water, Water Every Hare
Directed by Chuck Jones
Written by Michael Maltese
A sequel to Hair-Raising Hare. More dreamlike than the first film, and almost as funny.
7. The Narrow Margin
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Written by Earl Felton, from a story by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard
Assassins on a train.
8. Forbidden Games
Directed by René Clément
Written by Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, from a novel by François Boyer
One of those movies that I don't think I'll be able to watch again now that I'm a parent.
9. Umberto D.
Directed by Vittorio De Sica
Written by Cesare Zavattini
It teeters on the edge of sentimentality. Hell, sometimes it falls over the edge entirely (that music!). But the cast keeps it from going too far in that direction, especially the excellent Carlo Battisti, who knows how to earn our sympathy without begging for it. It's amazing that this is the only film he ever acted in.
10. Magical Maestro
Directed by Tex Avery
Written by Rich Hogan
Of all the Tex Avery cartoons I've seen, this one just might be the TexAveriest.
I'm not going to post a full honorable mentions list for this year, but I will give a shout-out to On Dangerous Ground, Rancho Notorious, and Son of Paleface. While I'm at it, I'll confess a fondness for Scaramouche.
Of the films of 1952 that I haven’t seen, I’m most interested in The Golden Coach. And also My Son John, though in that case I expect to find the movie more interesting than good.
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked back at 1962, it gave its Best Picture award to Lawrence of Arabia. I like that one better than I like most "epic" movies, and you'll find it in my honorable mentions. But I put something else at number one.
1. The Exterminating Angel
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Written by Buñuel and Luis Alcoriza, from a play by Jose Bergamin
This was the first Buñuel film I ever saw. A couple dozen pictures later, it's still my favorite.
2. The Music Man
Directed by Morton DaCosta
Written by Marion Hargrove, from a play by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey
A real movie musical, completely liberated from its stage origins, with a sophisticated score and an enjoyable anti-bluenose streak.
3. La Jetée
Written and directed by Chris Marker
Terry Gilliam remade/remixed this as Twelve Monkeys. I like that one too, but it can't match the poetry of the original.
4. Ride the High Country
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Written by N.B. Stone Jr.
"You can have one, because the Lord's bounty is not for sale. The rest are a dollar each."
5. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Directed by Robert Aldrich
Written by Lukas Heller, from a novel by Henry Farrell
"You mean, all this time we could've been friends?"
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Written by Kurosawa and Ryuzo Kikushima
Kurosawa's funniest film, though I wouldn't quite call it a comedy.
7. The Manchurian Candidate
Directed by John Frankenheimer
Written by George Axelrod, from a novel by Richard Condon
I'm probably putting a target on myself by saying this, but I like the movie better than the book.
8. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence
Directed by John Ford
Written by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck, from a story by Dorothy M. Johnson
Unravels one legend, helps invent another.
9. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
Directed by Robert Enrico
Written by Enrico, from a story by Ambrose Bierce
One of two templates for Siesta, Jacob's Ladder, Lulu on the Bridge, Abre Los Ojos, The Sixth Sense, Vanilla Sky, and Donnie Darko.
10. Carnival of Souls
Directed by Herk Harvey
Written by John Clifford
The other template.
11. Pitfall (Hiroshi Teshigahara)
12. Cleo from 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda)
13. Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean)
14. Lolita (Stanley Kubrick)
15. The House Is Black (Forough Farrokhzad)
16. The Trial (Orson Welles)
17. Knife in the Water (Roman Polanski)
18. Hell is for Heroes (Don Siegel)
19. The Tom and Jerry Cartoon Kit (Gene Deitch)
20. Cosmic Ray (Bruce Conner)
If you compare this to the version I posted a decade ago, the main difference you'll see—other than the addition of some new titles—is that I decided I like The Manchurian Candidate better than The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and I decided I like quite a few films better than Knife in the Water.
Of the films of 1962 that I haven’t seen, I’m most interested in The Connection. And at some point I ought to get around to watching Eclipse.
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked back at 1972, it gave its Best Picture award to The Godfather. As for me...
1. The Godfather
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Written by Coppola and Mario Puzo, from a novel by Puzo
Every so often, the Academy gets it right.
2. The Ruling Class
Directed by Peter Medak
Written by Peter Barnes, from his play
The rap on this movie is that it isn't as profound as it thinks it is. My response: Yes, but it's funny.
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Altman and Susannah York
This isn't usually classified as a horror movie, but it's one of the few films that genuinely scared me as I watched it.
4. The Candidate
Directed by Michael Ritchie
Written by Jeremy Larner
Every time I flip by this on TV, I wind up watching it to the end.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Anthony Shaffer, from a novel by Arthur La Bern
Hitch's most modern movie is actually rather traditional, once you look past the nudity and the graphic violence: a straightforward thriller about one of the director's most familiar characters, the innocent man wrongly accused.
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Written by Anthony Shaffer, from his play
"The shortest way to a man's heart is through humiliation."
7. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Written by Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière
At this point in his career, Buñuel is horsing around. He's earned the right.
8. The King of Marvin Gardens
Directed by Bob Rafelson
Written by Rafelson and Jacob Brackman
"Do you think that you're the only one who's entitled to be selfish?"
9. Cries and Whispers
Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman
One of the most painful films I've ever seen. Part of me thinks it should be much higher in this list. Another part doesn't want to include it at all.
Written and directed by Larry Cohen
A strange and engrossing little art-film/blaxploitation hybrid, starring the always enjoyable Yaphet Kotto.
11. Tup-Tup (Nedeljko Dragić)
12. Play it Again, Sam (Herbert Ross)
13. The Heartbreak Kid (Elaine May)
14. Fat City (John Huston)
15. Love in the Afternoon (Eric Rohmer)
16. The Getaway (Sam Peckinpah)
17. Deliverance (John Boorman)
18. The Mechanic (Michael Winner)
19. Junior Bonner (Sam Peckinpah)
20. Ulzana's Raid (Robert Aldrich)
Best film about a near-future simian revolution: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.
If you compare this list to the version I posted a decade ago, you'll see that the only major difference is that I added some honorable mentions (and that a couple of movies that used to be in the top 10 got squeezed down into the teens).
Of the films of 1972 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in What's Up, Doc? And I suppose I ought to watch Cabaret someday.