We all see patterns. In information, in art, in life. We look because we need to find meaning and purpose, to tell ourselves that our lives aren’t arbitrary and random. The world isn’t chaos; everything has structure and order. But occasionally this leads us to places where we see things others don’t. We insist and plead, but try as we might, they don’t see it. We’re alone. Are we crazy, or is there something there? Could it be both?
Academics like George Meade have created phrases like “filmnoia” to refer to a kind of film narrative which mutates over time to exploit this feeling so filmmakers can reflect the anxieties of each new generation. Critics more generally refer to it as the “cinema of paranoia” or the “conspiracy thriller.” What am I referring to? Dangerous ideas. Conspiracy theories. Patterns.
Conspiratorial cinema isn’t new. Early works of horror and science fiction like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Metropolis (1927) hinted at theories like mind control and a secretive elite manipulating society. But “conspiracy cinema” is still relatively young. Technological and social changes in the sixties and seventies brought greater access to movies—and a deeper immersion into dangerous ideas. Films like The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964) began introducing audiences to conspiracies as a matter of fact. Soon, life was imitating art. JFK, MLK, and RFK: dead. The CIA and FBI: caught surveilling and harassing Americans. Watergate.
How should you respond when the world you envisioned as dark and dangerous turns out to be even worse? As Umberto Eco once suggested, you “reach the point where there is no longer any difference between developing the habit of pretending to believe and developing the habit of believing.” Conspiracy cinema emerged as a unified theory of everything. It transcends any one genre or theory, bringing together and tossing to the side ideas for only as long as they’re useful. It can pop up in mainstream films such as the mutant offspring of the biopic JFK (1991), or it can appear as a series of low-budget independent films like the Christian Apocalypse franchise: Apocalypse: Caught in the Eye of the Storm (1998), Apocalypse II: Revelation (1999), Apocalypse III: Tribulation (2000), and Apocalypse IV: Judgment (2001). Conspiracy cinema can cover an entire movie or an underlying theme. It’s there to those who can see it.
In fact, the best example of this isn’t a movie. It’s an archetype that developed out of many different kinds of film: the Lone Man fighting reason itself. This is a character who others see as crazy because he sees things they don’t, recognizes patterns in the chaos happening around him, but may be the only sane person alive. He might be the street corner preacher yelling about the apocalypse, or he could be the strange loner who learns the world’s secrets through the mistakes of others. Isolation is central to this figure, because while he may start off normal, his journey must lead him to a place of loneliness. Only he will know the truth and everyone else will attempt to stop him from uncovering it.
The Lone Man exists throughout cinema, frequently as a joke, but is most often found (and taken seriously) in genre films. The character persists in horror and science fiction because, like those genres, he speaks to our inner irrationality, our fear that the world may not exist as we see it upon first glance. “You’re next, you’re next, you’re next!” screams Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) as he tries to warn passersby they’re being overrun by an invisible threat. The appeal of the Lone Man is that he can see anything and everything. The original Body Snatchers is a warning against the conformity of Communism AND an attack on red-baiting McCarthyists. The 1978 remake might be about the popular embrace of New Age psychobabble, or it might be about the breakdown in trust of formal institutions in the wake of Watergate.
While I use the phrase “Lone Man,” the character can be either male or female. The nineties remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, its title shortened to simply Body Snatchers (1993), swaps the male leads of the prior two films for a female protagonist, as does the most recent update, The Invasion (2007). Men and women are equally capable of uncovering conspiracies—we all know the only way to be sure you’re not crazy is if everyone else is sure you are—but there are often distinct differences between being a Lone Man and being a Lone Woman on the screen. Lone Women frequently end up getting pulled into and becoming a part of the systems they’re resisting as a way of reaffirming the power of those systems. Rosemary Woodhouse initially tries to run from the forces of darkness that pursue her in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), but the film’s ending suggests a reluctant acceptance of the things she cannot change. And Joanna Eberhart tries desperately to resist the patriarchal conservatism of the men who control Stepford, Connecticut, in The Stepford Wives (1972), but she too becomes a part of the system she fights, replaced by a robotic doppelganger.
The Lone Man, on the other hand, must be destroyed. In the film Shutter Island (2010), U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are discussing Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, when Daniels states bluntly, “They’re experimenting on people here.” His partner, leery, retorts, “How can you believe a crazy guy?” Daniels, believing himself aware of what’s actually happening around him, responds, “Mental patients are the perfect subjects—if they talk, nobody listens to them!” But a late revelation throws a kink into Daniels’s sense of self. The doctors at Ashecliff tell him he is, in fact, a patient at the hospital disassociating after the murder of his wife. Daniels has a choice; is he the patient everyone else is telling him he is, Andrew Laeddis, or the man he believes himself to be, Teddy Daniels? His answer is clear. When faced with the destruction of both identities, he asks, “Is it better to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?”
The Lone Man persists because over time he comes to realize there is something more important than the truth: having others tell you you’re wrong. Sociologists like Michael Barkun refer to this as stigmatized knowledge, or claims regarded as valid because mainstream institutions reject them. This kind of knowledge is unpopular formally because it pushes back against the logic of the crowd, and for the Lone Man that’s its appeal—the freedom that comes in knowing everyone else thinks he’s wrong. It allows him to see the shape of the world around him as it really exists, its secret architecture, its hidden dangers. He can recognize the line we all walk everyday, the one that separates what society deems acceptable from what is true. Above all else, he can spot the liars, the deceivers, and the shapeshifters.
When you see the world in this way, when you become the Lone Man, it can become easy to lose the plot. Does the government train psychic assassins to kill people in their sleep? The lizard men are sucking adrenochrome in their tilted houses. To understand the Lone Man you have to realize that conspiratorial thinking isn’t always bad, just misunderstood. As with any kind of mental framework, you have to separate what’s useful from what isn’t. Though people will doubt you, call you crazy, laugh at you, it’s not wrong to say there are forces that exist in this world that are conspiring against you. As alleged crackpot Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gibson) observes midway through the film Conspiracy Theory (1997), “A good conspiracy is an unprovable one. If you can prove it, they must have screwed up somewhere along the line.” The thing you must always ask yourself: who is right, but more importantly, who isn’t—and what can they tell you?
The Lone Man stretches back to the very beginning of film but certain periods find him appearing more often. The seventies, for example, were a time of heightened paranoia. Frequently films cast Lone Men against society in grand battles of good against evil. Thrillers like Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974) and Sydney Pollak’s Three Days of the Condor (1975) pitted man against Big Brother; horror films like The Crazies (1973) found men running from the (intentional?) incompetence of the military; and science fiction went to war with evil corporations in films like Soylent Green (1973). The one constant was a pursuit of the truth—or rather, the acceptance that others saying you’re wrong might be the only true sign of your sanity. Near the end of Three Days of the Condor, a CIA analyst named Joseph Turner (Robert Redford) confronts the deputy director of the CIA, a man known only as Higgins (Cliff Robertson). The CIA lied to Turner. He thought his work was simple. Read some books, break their codes, save the country. Things are never simple when it comes to The Company. Members want to start a war in the Middle East for oil. (Don’t they always?) Turner finally snaps, asking his superior, “What is it with you people? You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth.” Higgins, displaying an acute awareness of reality, closes their conversation by telling Turner he’s about become a very lonely man. He’s warning Turner, though he could just as well be talking to us. The truth is conditional and that condition is who holds power.
But lonely men are difficult. They ask questions. They see what isn’t supposed to be there, those things we aren’t meant to notice. The eighties, like the seventies before it, was a lonely decade but what characterized this era was a transition from a belief in human threats to secretive cabals manipulating society. Movies like Blow Out (1981) and Cutter’s Way (1981) signaled the end of the seventies cycle, replacing a blunt cynicism towards humanity with surrealism, and a new crop of lone men emerged to chase phantasmagorical threats in Hangar 18 (1980), Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), and Society (1989). This would reach its apex at the end of the decade via an unusual vehicle: the Hollywood action film.
In 1988, John Carpenter released They Live, updating the paranoia of seventies science fiction for the MTV generation by taking the anti-authoritarianism of a Soylent Green and filtering it through eighties sensibilities of professional wrestling and cable television. The film follows John Nada (Roddy Piper), a down-on-his luck construction worker who has moved to Los Angeles after a housing market crash in Denver. Nada, like most Americans, believes his country is a fundamentally just place and his recent run of bad luck is out of the ordinary. “I just want the chance, it’ll come,” he says to his friend Frank (Keith David). “I believe in America. I follow the rules.” But, as Nada soon learns, America isn’t what it’s made out to be to be in the movies or on TV. Aliens run the country and they’ve lulled us into a waking sleep through our jobs, through advertising, through media. When Nada finally awakens from this slumber, thanks to a pair of sunglasses created by a small-band of human resisters, he discovers the surface images we stare at everyday—billboards, dollar bills, entertainment media—contain hidden messages directing us “CONSUME,” “THIS IS YOUR GOD”, and “OBEY.” Will anybody believe him?
In his monograph on They Live, writer Jonathan Lethem assesses the appeal of the film by stating its “probably the stupidest film ever to take ideology as its explicit subject.” That isn’t an insult. Lethem compares watching They Live to a game of peekaboo. It’s a “giddy thrill of unmasking what may from some vantages be regarded as howlingly obvious, yet goes by common consent unspoken.” Put another way, the message of They Live is reduced to a language so simple, so explicit it can’t be misunderstood: they live, we sleep. Lethem compares Nada to the “unthinking lumpenprole” of Marxism, but a better comparison would be to the Lone Man.
When we first meet Nada he is asleep. Not literally, but in the sense that, like everyone else, he can’t see the world around him. He’s not dumb, he’s just unaware. But Nada has an advantage those around him don’t. His position as a member of the precariat, workers whose lives are defined by irregular work due to economic insecurity, grants him long stretches of free time between jobs. In other words, loneliness. Nada uses this time to observe, to watch, to look. Where one might notice the police approaching a street preacher as he yells about the apocalypse and look away, Nada watches their movements with suspicion; where others might see people filing into a church and think nothing is out of the ordinary, he observes the caravan of people coming and going at odd hours and grows curious. That his journey is set off by his look at simple, everyday occurrences and questioning why they’re happening is precisely the point. To wake up, to see the world as it truly is, one must first recognize the ordinary is actually extraordinary. Our daily routines are not “normal.” What we do everyday to get by—and why we do those things—is arbitrary, because these actions exist to serve someone else far above us, out of view. It’s only when we begin pointing out the absurdity of these actions and the world responds with scorn, tells us we’re wrong, that we begin to see the world as it really is.
Lethem isn’t wrong in saying that They Live is stupid, if only we consider that stupid in this context means obvious to the point of absurdity, but it’s the perfect representation of the Lone Man for that reason. The thrill of the Lone Man—of watching the Lone Man, in being the Lone Man—is in seeing the obvious where it goes unsaid and saying it aloud. We all see a dollar bill and recognize we treat it with an unusual kind of reverence, but few of us see a dollar bill and acknowledge it is our God because that kind of statement would seem so brazenly stupid upon first pass that most would not dare utter it aloud. We don’t look at our political opponents and call them aliens because of taboos society has constructed against demonizing political opponents. We don’t ask the CIA if it lies because, without having to say it, we know they do and understand the repercussions of speaking up. The Lone Man does these things because he knows others will tell him he’s wrong. But he also knows the world isn’t what it seems and if he keeps at it, it will only be a matter of time until you’re wrong too. The true climax of They Live isn’t Nada’s sacrifice at the end of the film, it’s the near seven-minute fight scene between Nada and his friend Frank. Frank knows there’s something wrong with the world but refuses to see the true nature of the problem until Nada forces him to.
Which begs the question: what do you see? If you speak up, if you say it, you run the risk of being wrong. Is it better to stay silent so everybody thinks you’re sane, or are you okay going it alone? We all see patterns, but only some of us can connect the dots.