(Above: Roddy Piper, ‘They Live’)
Are classic conspiracy films a liberal conspiracy?
Talk about paranoid! The National Review’s film critic Armond White earlier this month slammed “These Films Cannot Be Trusted,” a movie series at the Brooklyn Historical Society, as “obsessive fear-mongering” and “propagandistic.”
The movies in question? Theodore J. Flicker’s The President’s Analyst (comedy thriller, 1967), Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (mystery thriller, 1975), and John Carpenter’s They Live (sci-fi thriller, 1988). The magazine labeled all as “political films” whose showing “stokes paranoia and fans the flames of the #resistance.”
These three films from three different decades have one thing in common. Their main characters — played respectively by future Oscar winner James Coburn, future Oscar winner Robert Redford and former wrestling champ Roddy Piper –fight back against conspiracies that threaten their freedom.
A funny thing about conspiracy theories, though: They can appeal equally to both the left and right wings of the political spectrum. So, while The President’s Analyst might have been conceived originally as a satire on LBJ-era shenanigans, and Three Days of the Condor as a Pentagon Papers analogy, those two movies’ tales of rogue FBI and CIA agents today fit right in with Trumpism’s fears of a “deep state.”
Then there’s They Live, whose conspirators are illegal aliens — from outer space. As noted by Rafer Guzman, Newsday’s film critic who put together and hosted the Brooklyn Historical Society series, “this film, about an insane conspiracy theory, became one.” In the three decades since its release, groups ranging from Marxists to neo-Nazis and white supremacists have all championed They Live as advancing their causes.
But John Carpenter himself tweeted, “They Live is about yuppies and unrestrained capitalism. It has nothing to do with Jewish control of the world, which is slander and a lie.”
Now, if The National Review’s White wants to criticize a film that really “caters to the particular, peculiar distress of today’s #resistance movement,” let me direct him to another movie screened at a Brooklyn film series this month.
At Brooklyn Bridge Park’s “Movies with a View,” we watched a foreign family struggle against all odds to reunite after being pulled apart trying to immigrate to the US. A current indie film? Nope. It was An American Tail, the animated feature from 1986.
With the actual Statue of Liberty visible beyond the screen, an onscreen chorus in front of an animated Lady Liberty sang the statue’s now-suddenly controversial words: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
The huge crowd in the park was silent, but you could hear the tears flow.
Where to stream the movies
All four films referred to above can be streamed for $3.99 each in HD from various providers like Amazon, YouTube, Vudu and Google Play. Three Days of the Condor can also be streamed by Amazon Prime subscribers, free with ads on PopcornFlix, or free without ads if your library is a Kanopy participant. An American Tail can also be streamed by Netflix subscribers.
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