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Wednesday, February 4, 2015

February 4, 2015: American Conspiracy Theories: Men on the Moon

[Americans sure can believe some cray cray things. That’s right, I said cray cray. In this week’s series, I’ll AmericanStudy five such conspiracy theories, past and present. Please share your own conspiracy theories—ones you believe, or just ones you find interesting and worth studying—for a suspicious weekend post!]
On two interesting pop culture responses to conspiracy theories about the Apollo missions.
The third leg of the Cold War triangle of cray cray that includes my two prior topics this week (the Roswell and JFK assassination conspiracy theories) would have to be the ongoing and multi-layered theories that the six manned NASA moon landings between 1969 and 1972 were all elaborate hoaxes. These theories, which commenced almost immediately after the first landing, began to be developed in earnest with Bill Kaysing’s book We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle (1974); they have since been taken up by the very appropriately named Flat Earth Society, have led to numerous other works including William Brian’s book Moongate: Suppressed Findings of the U.S. Space Program (1982) and Aron Ranen’s film Did We Go? (2005), and have most humorously extended to include a multi-faceted theory about the landings as a blockbuster film, one financed by Disney and directed by none other than Stanley Kubrick.
The moon landing conspiracy theories are perhaps the most implausible of any I’ll engage with this week (given the sheer number of people who would have had to be in on the hoaxes and stay silent about them, for example), but a couple of the pop culture responses to those theories are well worth our time and thought. In 2002, French filmmaker William Karel created a brilliant mockumentary, Dark Side of the Moon (its original French title was Opération Lune), which explored and parodied the Kubrick connection at great length, including invented stories of the assassination of Kubrick colleagues by the CIA (among many other delightful such details). Karel’s mockumentary is so expertly and carefully done, so rich with seemingly believable information and interviews, that it has been accepted by many moon landing conspiracy theorists as an authentic text within their canon of evidence, perhaps the greatest compliment a mockumentary can receive (although Spinal Tap songs becoming accepted rock and roll classics has to be on that list as well).
Karel’s film isn’t the only nor the first innovative and interesting pop culture response to the moon theories, however. On their seminal 1992 album Automatic for the People, R.E.M. included the song “Man on the Moon,” a tribute to comedian Andy Kaufman that uses those conspiracy theories to engage with parallel ongoing theories about Kaufman’s allegedly faked death. Filmmaker Milos Forman was so taken by this metaphorical connection that he subsequently named his Jim Carrey-starring Kaufman biopic—a film that ends with a sly wink to the idea that Kaufman survived his “death”—Man on the Moon (1999). And I would argue that the R.E.M. song and its connection of Kaufman to the moon landing hoax also helps us think about another side to such conspiracy theories—the ways in which they are irrevocably tied, as were Kaufman’s life and work, to our age of media and celebrity, a period in which it has become increasingly difficult to discern the difference between reality and performance, the simulacra and the simulations. It’s the truth that we put men on the moon—but it’s equally the truth that we’ve been creating alternative truths ever since.
Next conspiracy theory tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other conspiracy theories you’d highlight?

And PPS. Thanks to AnneMarie Donahue for the initial idea for this post (and thus the week’s series)!

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