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You're not just imagining it

A wave of paranoia is engulfing books and films; in fact, conspiracy's cool. But it's not just mind candy -- there are real-world lessons.

August 29, 2004|James Verini | Special to The Times

There is a prescient line of dialogue in Ron Howard's "The Paper." A disheveled but with-it reporter -- you know the type -- thinks the mob and the government are after him (it turns out he is sort of right).

When did you become so paranoid?" his skeptical editor asks.

"When they started plotting against me!" the reporter shoots back.

"The Paper" is not a conspiracy movie, like last month's "The Manchurian Candidate" remake or, if you like, Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11." It is a comedy. But such distinctions no longer matter these days. Characters in all kinds of movies are talking like that reporter. From the studio blockbuster to the documentary, cabals of crooked intelligence agents, CEOs, politicos and police seem to be everywhere.

And paranoia has become, well, kind of cool.

The sine qua non of the conspiracy genre is the assassination-plot picture, and not one but two starring Sean Penn, Mr. Hollywood Cool, are to be released this winter: "The Interpreter," directed by Sydney Pollack, who made the 1970s conspiracy classic "Three Days of the Condor," and "The Assassination of Richard Nixon."

Take a sampling of this summer's fare. There was "The Bourne Supremacy," a meditation on the dehumanizing effects of American foreign policy masquerading as a summer blockbuster in which Matt Damon, a well-coifed and sensitive amnesiac, upended the CIA; "I, Robot," in which Will Smith, swaggering in and out of a fat-rimmed Audi, tries to warn the world of the dangers of robots; Spike Lee's "She Hate Me," where Anthony Mackie catches onto a bunch of scheming pharmaceutical executives and for his troubles ends up having a lot of consequence-free sex with ingenues; and "The Day After Tomorrow," featuring a very uncool vice president character who contributes to the freezing over of Manhattan and a cool Dennis Quaid, in cool snowshoes and goggles, as the guy who tried to stop him.

Oddly, the one overt homage to the conspiracy genre, "The Manchurian Candidate," comes off as stiff and a bit laughable, despite the microchips and flashy editing. Its classical brand of paranoia, all uniforms and lab coats, feels rather quaint.

In these frothy times, even the most rational among us subscribe to some large-scale caper. And so a banality of paranoia seems to have set in. Matters as abstract as global warming and cell regeneration have found their way into films' smoky back rooms. Where conspiracy used to be relegated to its own genre or fringe genres, it now affects even the simplest story arcs. Paranoia has become formulaic; the man who knew too much is a stock character.

If you require any more evidence, consider this: Justin Timberlake, the former 'N Sync frontman, will star in "Edison," about a young reporter investigating a coterie of crooked cops.

Nor is the trend limited to the cinema. Consider the success of "The Da Vinci Code," about a centuries-long historical conspiracy, or the brisk sales of "The 9/11 Commission Report," a 585-page government document that reads like Tom Clancy with the juice sucked out of it. The cool-set novelist Nicholson Baker (he wrote "Vox," which perpetually cool Bill Clinton famously gave to Monica Lewinsky) has just put out "Checkpoint," whose narrator plans to assassinate George W. Bush. Philip Roth's new novel, coming out in October, imagines what would have happened if Charles Lindbergh had beaten FDR in 1940 -- ex post facto paranoia. It is generating rumors of a Nobel nomination for Roth. The book is called "The Plot Against America."

Reality paves the way

Why all this stylish suspicion now? That, paradoxically, is the one question that requires no conspiracy theorizing. Just reading the morning headlines, it can feel like someone should cue up the R.E.M. song "It's the End of the World as We Know It" for background music.

The better question is: What desires does the conspiracy movie serve?

Certainly, part of its allure is that it allows us to forget about moral ambiguities and the drab notion of collective responsibility, if only for an hour and a half: That group of suits over there -- they're to blame. "It's a way of taking a gray world and putting it in black-and-white terms," said Brian Helgeland, who wrote the 1997 movie "Conspiracy Theory." The film is a template of sorts for the genre and a meditation on the pros and cons of being paranoid. "The idea that a world that's beyond understanding can be explained away by conspiracy. Especially today -- no one wants to sit down and figure out what's going on. You start thinking about cabals, which is much more comforting than thinking about a gray world."

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