There are few real-life figures more beloved in American cinema than Steven Spielberg. He’s earned that adoration without question, but his worship retards the dialogue around his work. Like his buddy Colonel G. Lucas, Spielberg is a brand first, a businessman second, and a filmmaker last.
It’s time to loosen up the conversation. Spielberg is less an auteur and more Hollywood’s greatest journeyman, a master craftsman whose natural talent allows him to tackle almost any material. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t common themes that run throughout his work. A lot of breath has been devoted to his sense of wonder and awe, his parent’s divorce, his love of children. But there’s a darker current to his work, one that appears less subtly in thrillers like The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor, and other conspiracy films of the New Hollywood era. It’s a sense of paranoia, of suburban invasion, of small men stumbling into much larger worlds that begin to unravel around them, of alternate histories and hidden truths. Just like we rarely speak of Star Wars as an allegory for the Vietnam War, despite its story of a guerilla faction taking on a mechanized empire, Spielberg’s films are always viewed as what brought about the end of Hollywood’s supposed renaissance, not as the logical continuation of that era’s post-Watergate fears.
I’d never thought about Spielberg’s films in this light until I saw filmmaker Damon Packard’s camcorder-and-chemtrails conspiracy treatise, Reflections of Evil. Packard is one of the few true underground filmmakers of our day, the modern gatekeeper to Kenneth Anger’s Los Angeles, or the Kuchar brothers if they made YouTube fan films. Like Anger, Packard obsesses over the cult-like sway popular entertainment has over American (and global) audiences. Throughout his career, he’s devoted much of his artistic energy to those two cinematic Siamese star children, Spielberg and Lucas. Packard seems equally in awe of and haunted by the impact films like Star Wars had on him and millions of others as children, and he’s spent much of his career exploring and lampooning the influence of biggest of the blockbuster brats. He’s a visual critic with the gall and the balls to take on the most untouchable figures in American cinema.
Reflections of Evil is unquestionably his magnum opus, a post-9/11 nuclear puke sesh. Packard plays Bob, an overweight watch salesman. Bob spends the two most overwhelming hours of your life vomiting, shoveling food into his mouth, yelling at strangers, being yelled at by strangers, barking at dogs, and being barked at by dogs as he wanders around Los Angeles. Packard’s use of quick cuts, intentionally poor special effects, dubbed dialogue, night vision, and bizarre sound effects (many taken from the Star Wars prequels) makes for an even more disorienting experience. Such a project would never have received conventional funding; Packard financed it with a large inheritance he received following the death of a relative. Even if he had acquired backing, distribution is another matter all-together; Packard pressed thousands of DVDs and distributed them himself, sending many to celebrities. It exists on YouTube in chunks, but because of rights issues, it can be difficult to see in full. Luckily, streaming service Fandor has it available in its entirety, along with many of Packard’s shorter works.
Reflections of Evil uses the media and Los Angeles’ endless proliferation of print ads as the basis for its amped-up anxiety. One of the most impactful shots in the film frames Packard’s chronically ill character against an advertisement for Disturbed’s 2000 album The Sickness. Posters and billboards for Miss Congeniality appear repeatedly, Sandra Bullock’s lifeless eyes following Packard on his parade of puke and paranoia. In a flashback scene, the child Bob visits Universal Studios while a young Steven Spielberg conducts a shoot that goes horribly wrong. His crew begins to die, but Spielberg tells the survivors to keep rolling; apparently he’s just as soulless as the stiff one-sheet of Sandra Bullock. Packard’s paranoia is even inspired by one of Spielberg’s films itself; Universal Studios Hollywood’s E.T. ride serves as a climax to Reflections of Evil’s campaign of terror. Bob enters the ride as a camcorder films in night-vision. As the film cuts rapidly between props and set pieces from E.T., helicopter noises, sirens and other sound effects assault the viewer. The camera peers into the green-black night to reveal E.T. for what it truly is: a paranoid nightmare set in the mind of a child oblivious to the bureaucratic machine encroaching on his home.
That nightmare doesn’t begin or end with E.T.; Spielberg’s fears appear in his earliest work. The made-for-TV movie Duel, later distributed in theaters, concerns an emasculated man who goes up against something much bigger than himself. The truck that stalks the main character, David Mann, makes Mann question everything in his path, and even though the viewer sees the truck attempt to kill him, his grasp on reality remains in question. But Spielberg doesn’t reach peak paranoia until a little later in his career with Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Almost 40 years later, Close Encounters is almost unbearable to watch. In some ways, E.T. seems like an apology for Dreyfuss’ character. E.T. could even be a sequel to Close Encounters – their father isn’t with Sally in Mexico, but on Mars with spacemen. E.T. wasn’t left accidentally, but as an apology to Elliot from his father, a phone call home from a place where there are no phones.
E.T. apology aside, Dreyfuss makes for a pretty despicable dad. His behavior causes his wife and children real pain, even if he can’t help seeing shapes in the shaving cream and mashed potatoes. Teri Garr channels her normal neurotic frenzy into a performance of heart-wrenching frustration. It’s impossible to forget the tearful face of the youngest son as he watches his parents fight. Dreyfuss plays the only protagonist in Spielberg’s films that could be properly considered a conspiracy freak, except he’s not to blame. His dabble with “psychosis” is an extra-terrestrial phenomenon, despite its real-world impact on his family.
I’m reminded of a passage about whistleblower and former MI5 Agent David Shayler from journalist Jon Ronson’s book The Psychopath Test. Ronson focuses on Shayler’s dalliances with an extreme edge of the 9/11 truther movement, the “no planer” theory, which claims that the planes used in the attacks were holograms. In Ronson’s interview with Shayler, Shayler attests to the strain this belief put on his relationship with his then-girlfriend. But in Shayler’s mind, it’s not his fault, just like it isn’t Roy’s fault. Both are compelled by something beyond them, whether extreme paranoia or aliens. The only difference is that Dreyfuss ends up actually being right; he leaves his family, but somehow, Spielberg makes us feel good about it.
Whether E.T. is an apology for the abandonment of Close Encounters or not, it’s considerably lighter in tone, despite the government hanging its head over the young heroes. Throughout E.T., the feds monitor constantly. Elliot’s mother communicates this fear more than anyone else in the film; as the astronauts enter her home, she screams that it belongs to her. But privacy and property mean nothing to these blank-faced men in black. Other than Peter Coyote’s character, we never get a true sense for who these agents actually are, so the government becomes an invisible yet ever-present capital-T They. The aesthetic of this They is the stuff of classic conspiracy: men in black clutching revolvers and walkie-talkies, quarantines in residential areas, spacemen in-suburbia. They listen in to conversations. They search homes without warrants. They live!
Reflections of Evil only helps to reveal They (or, alternatively, Them, as a nod to Spielberg’s beloved B-movie ants) in E.T., but on closer inspection, the same They that appears in his previous film, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Though we only ever see two government agents, the looming presence of the great American They bookends the film. Indy suspects the G-men from the jump, and he retrieves the Ark of the Covenant not for King and Country, but to further intellectual truth. As practical as Indiana might be, as prone as he his to choose revolvers over religion, he’s still an idealist when it comes to academic matters. They take advantage of that and use Indiana to secure the government’s interest. As the Ark is stowed away in a mysterious storage facility we later learn to be Area 51, a question arises: how many times has the government played this game before? How many secrets, both historical and spiritual, have been snatched away and locked inside a vault deep in conspiracy country? Spielberg would never dare to draw a comparison between the U.S. and the Nazis, but this incident does question the government’s moral imperative. The Nazis wanted to use the occult objects for their own apocalyptic gain; could America ever do the same?
This element of supernatural and spiritual power has played a role in all the Indiana Jones films, but Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull gets into an entirely different aspect of the paranormal in its suggestion of lost histories. There’s a factual basis for the Ark of the Covenant, but crystal skulls, psychic research, and experimental military tech seem taken more from Ancient Aliens than the annals of history. Maybe Indy’s historical foundation isn’t so secure; the two most famous artifacts he searches for, the Ark and the Holy Grail, could almost be considered religious conspiracies, pre-urban legends that were then deified into truth. In the first film, Indiana teaches that most archaeology takes place in the library, but he’s changed his tune by the fourth, instructing his students to “get out of the library” to be good archaeologists. The emphasis then changes from academic learning to alternative forms of education, which encourages students (and viewers) to find and create their own histories. Bury a worthless conspiracy in the sand for a thousand years and it just might become the truth.
All of the Indiana Jones films suggest that widely-accepted history is not what it seems; the British were wrong about the Thuggee cult, just like the Ark and the Grail were more than fairytales. Indiana points out at the end of Crystal Skull that the natives’ word for gold translates to “treasure,” though their treasure wasn’t gold, “it was knowledge.” In all the Indiana Jones films, those who thirst after treasure, whether material or intellectual, receive swift justice, often from heaven or another comparable beyond. The series seems to suggest that even though conspiracies might be true, it’s probably better to leave our noses out of them, unless we want said noses melted, aged rapidly, or sucked into an interdimensional portal. Who knows what true theories could have been lost to time like a “broom to their footsteps,” as Ox puts it, but maybe we should just leave those theories alone.
However, Spielberg himself isn’t shy to suggest a theory or two. The alternative method of alien invasion he suggests in War of the Worlds, in which aliens invade not through saucers but capsules buried deep in the Earth, allows room for comparison to 9/11 conspiracies. As pointed out by critic Mike D’Angelo, the underground capsules are reminiscent of terrorist sleeper cells. Yet they also bring to mind explosives inside the towers themselves. Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams, but maybe lasers and little green men that ride the lightning can. Perhaps the wormhole of “Back to the Future predicted 9/11” videos on YouTube aren’t too far off.
It’s easy to believe Spielberg’s protagonists because they don’t seem like conspiracy freaks. They’re children, cops, and charming rapscallions, and their paranoia is almost always justified. When a character thinks they’re being watched, they’re usually being watched. Morgan Freeman’s voiceover, which opens Worlds, informs us that through all of mankind’s history, alien “invaders” have peeped through mankind’s blinds. In Minority Report, the population of Washington, D.C. is constantly under surveillance, even into the future. The powerful, destiny-shaping hand with which the police operate makes them more like “clergy than cops”- it’s a conspiracy extended to the cosmic level. Despite the absurdity of the surveilling superstructure, no one believes that Anderton has actually been set up. No matter how much society dismisses them, Spielberg’s heroes are always right, just like the young Spielberg depicted in Reflections of Evil. His art may have cost lives, but it makes good entertainment, right?
When Chief Brody said there were sharks, there were sharks. When Anderton said he’d been set up, he was indeed set up. Notice the difference between Spielberg’s treatment of Tom Cruise’s paranoia in their two collaborations than Kubrick’s in Eyes Wide Shut. Although Syndey Pollack’s character confirms what Cruise sees, we can’t ever be quite sure of what actually happened. Spielberg, on the other hand, never questions. Spielberg does as Spielberg does, and he’s always right. We as a viewer are rewarded with that trademarked feeling of wonder for believing the outsider, for co-signing the conspiracy. His awe can be interpreted not just as awe at our own relative insignificance within a much larger universe, but as paranoia. There’s something out there, something we don’t know or haven’t been told, something bigger than us. Whether that something is frightening or fluffy doesn’t matter, since it always reveals itself to Spielberg’s protagonists. It’s always real. Paranoia exists in the eye of the beholder.
I doubt Spielberg himself buys into many conspiracies or thinks he’s being watched; at the very least, he’s no Damon Packard. But then again, maybe he does. Author Nicole LaPorter claims in the book The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks that Spielberg has a motorcycle outside his office in case he ever needs to flee. But flee what? War of the Worlds, though adapted in part from H.G. Well’s novel, was informed by Spielberg’s sense of confusion after 9/11, an uncertain time for many Americans. Maybe it’s less about being right and more about being certain. By justifying his protagonist’s paranoia, he lessens the uncertainty.
Spielberg’s an Important person and he knows it, but the level of human empathy in his cinema doesn’t make it seem like he thinks everyone’s after him. It’s less egomania and more about, well, being human. All humans have uncertainties. Conspiracy theories about alien invasion and ancient artifacts help explain them away. As Spielberg probably knows, movies can too.
— Nathan Smith