ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

Bertolt Brecht vs. the Aliens

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Erich Kuersten

The concept of secrecy runs counter to the entire flow of media in our media-saturated culture, even our media-constructed reality. We're so used to the news feeding on itself, making public every last thing about everything remotely interesting that when news goes in the opposite direction it becomes automatically discredited. We take comfort in the illusion that since so many secrets leak out -- spousal cheating, corruption, scandal-- surely those in power can keep nothing from us!

We're also told flat out not to believe everything the news reports, and what those in power say, yet we still back off of any topic the media belittles, as if we're still struggling with school yard-taunting trauma. We don't want to be considered crazy by mentioning we think some high powered cabal in the corporate-governmental substrata is keeping the truth about UFOs from us, for example. And we rise up in mob vengeance when some whistle blower pulls the curtain back before we're done trembling at the great and powerful Oz. That "We can't handle the truth," is proven daily by our willingness to laugh it off when it comes to us, to call anyone who claims there's a man behind the curtain--or that aliens are real--crazy; you could be thinking that right now, about me, and I haven't even said whether or not I believe. Already though, you might be getting hostile. Can you feel it?

And yet, UFOs are a part of the culture. Everyone jokes about flying saucers, haha, and yet through the joking about it they at least begin to follow the news about them, occasionally even watch a few of the constant stream of documentary cable shows. Is constant access to these documentaries perhaps some slow burn acclimation process by the media? It's a way of deflecting real concern, perhaps. When we're still stuck on square one (do they exist?) then we're not freaking out about square three (what do they want from us?) and square four (there's nothing we can do to stop them). Thus the media depicts our doubt and disbelief as a kind of preemptive weapon

One idea I find utterly fascinating is the concept of disinformation: the upper echelons of a black ops government use Brechtian post-modernism to simultaneously educate and placate the world on the subject of UFOs, aliens, and our spiritual future. In this way they tell the truth but cushion it with enough lies and misdirection to avoid a panic. If we're not sure they're authentic, we can look at a photos of aliens and not go running through the street screaming the world is over. You already know this to be true. Read all about it in Bruce Rux's classic book, Hollywood Vs. The Aliens!

There's two schools of thought on this issue, one of which is that the UFO-alien connection is a fabrication by black ops military to cover experiments with saucer-shaped craft pioneered by the Nazis (brought here via Project Paperclip). Another is that the truth of an actual alien presence is deliberately muddied via the tactics of post-modern Brechtian theater. Such an example lives in the two headline switch of Roswell in 1947 -- from 'Alien UFO crash' to 'weather balloon!' And then later, the "truth' report that the military were testing a secret spy device high altitude balloon and let it be misinterpreted, twice, to throw off the Russians. So we either deny it's alien so the public thinks it is alien, i.e. that we're covering it up, and so never suspects it's actually Nazi tech; or it actually is alien and we cover it up by saying it's not so people think it is actually Nazi.. well, you see, it can go back and forth endlessly, that's the genius of it.

A classic way to imagine this on a less controversial scale would be via the films of Godard. There's a scene in First Name: Carmen (1983), for example, wherein a shoot-out between sexy young terrorist bank robbers and French police is going on in a hotel lobby. Blithely unconcerned with their youthful violence, the elderly residents and staff mop up, read newspapers in the various arm chairs, etc. They act like how grandparents might react to their grandchildren running through the living room with toy guns. Ah, but are they supposed to be toy guns? Which realm of belief are we on, the cops and robbers side, who see the shooting as real (narrative immersion), or the elderly hotel guests who see it--if at all--as young people making a movie, or just acting out May 68-style agitprop theater?.

How can we tell which is which as far as what's supposed to be 'real' within Code Name; Carmen? By interjecting chaotic, comic but pedestrian elements into real-life bank robberies, for example, the situation can become confused. If you rob a bank dressed as clowns with someone filming like it's a Hollywood action film, how would people react? What if the tellers gave you the money, real money, while still confused about your authenticity, but if it was a movie they didn't want to be cut out of it or seem unhip by taking it seriously, so they comply, laughing. No one knows how to react in those metatextual situations. There is no correct response. What can they do? The bank patrons become very uncertain and opt to laugh it off with hip disaffection. The last thing any of them (or us) want is to seem like squares dumb enough to fall for the 'candid camera' stunt theater!

This confusion puts reality into a realm known as Brechtian post-modernism, where all these differences between imaginary, symbolic, and the real are transcended. Ideally, in these instances, the 'real' beneath the signifier is revealed; the absurdity of money itself, of class, of ownership, of government, and capitalism as a whole, of living and dying for slips of what's basically Monopoly money, slips of paper with old men's pictures on them, is laid bare.

Now apply this to a UFO crash, something so unbelievable in and of itself, so out of the realm of normal experience that it makes our previous example of the hoax bank robbery seem inconsequential. Here much more is at stake than capitalism's tenuous hold on our collective psyche. It is the Big Other government's job first and foremost to protect this hold, to re-attenuate it if it's been weakened, to placate the public so everyone can go about their business without panicking. Whole governments and economies can collapse within hours if there's ever mass panic. It's like that scene in Red River when the cowboys are all being very quiet at night because a howling coyote and the dry desert heat has gotten their massive herd all fidgety; when they do stampeded, one of the cowboys get's killed, and it's a big mess, all their food and coffee, and wagons, for example, are destroyed. Considering the size of the herd they have to keep calm and gentled down, can you blame the Big Other for doing anything and everything to avoid a human stampede?

This is where the Big Other's 'retournement' of Brechtian theater comes into play. If the Big Other brings a lifesize alien dummy to a UFO crash scene the whole believability factor evaporates. By making a mask of an alien face and pulling it off a human being at a press conference you instantly relegate all alien faces as mere masks. In the below video about the 1987 Phoenix lights, we see how the mayor tried this approach, and it worked beautifully. Naturally the thousands of witnesses who wanted answers and were all freaked out and scared became irate and insulted over the alien costume, but that was the purpose of it; now they weren't scared and panicked (and ready to stampede) now they were just irate and insulted where they just go home and write a terse letter to the Arizona Sun Times. The mayor shifted their terror (which he could do nothing about, as the UFO was completely unknown and therefor unstoppable) to anger at him for not taking them seriously. But the thing is, the mayor saw the lights too. He did what he had to do, the way a magician distracts with one hand to hide the other (a magician could actually have actual magical powers and not freak everyone out, as long as they thought he was just faking, for example- as in Clive Barker's Lord of Illusions).

When people for example call the police after seeing a UFO, they show how we're not ready for full UFO disclosure. Because we're still expecting our Big Other to come in and 'make it better.' The cops cannot 'solve' it for you. The mask used in the AZ press conference in this way perhaps harkens back to the mimetic magic and demonic masks of tribal ceremonies throughout the world. In creating masks of demons, the actual demon is contained in the realm of fiction. Anthropologist called it mimetic magic; Jungians call it myth; you can call it post-Brechtian 'razzle-dazzle'!

Furthering this strategy are films like Hangar 18 (1980), which retrofit the truth with unbearably crappy special effects: the captured crashed saucer (below)looks like a bunch of suitcases spray-painted together in a big pile and the aliens look like they were kicked out of a Star Trek Next Generation audition room. However it is their very cheapness that makes them feel more authentic. Part of this is because we're conditioned to associate 'education' and 'truth' with bad, faded film stock and crappy special effects because of low budget 'safety' films from elementary school, splice-ridden film strips, faded educational documentaries, and outmoded bus safety films. Hanger 18 takes its ideas from 1970s paranoia films and its look from 70's TV like the Rockford Files: everything from NASA to the press to Air Force HQ to the president seems to all take place in a single low budget set. The titular hangar is just hanging out there in the middle of nowhere.

In Hanger 18 we follow the the military crew under officer Harry Forbes (Darren McGavin) who are initially excited about the recovered alien craft they found. Such earth shattering news! But the next day Forbes tells him it's all been classified top secret; those who discovered it are left out of the loop via some hilariously dissociative language from Harry. He tells them it's all being taken care of on a need-to-know basis: "It's not necessary... it's all going to come out in the report. That's all you have to know for now... everything's going to be all right."

That's all the public needed to know: everything was going to be all right. The extreme cheapness of the film serves the same ingenious propaganda purpose: "Everything's going to be all right. Look at how underfunded the aliens are! How fake! You'd be a fool to take them seriously. Nothing to worry about, ask us no questions, just go about your business."

The whole issue of belief is central to American thinking, to the point where even atheists feel the need to trumpet loudly all they do not believe in. In Russia, Hangar 18 was the first western movie shown on TV, and a whole generation of Soviet kids grew up to be diehard fans. They know the events are true! Being Russian, belief never even enters into it. Maybe that's part of their heritage vs. ours, and is something so eloquently discussed by Slavoj Zizek, that in life under communism everyone knew they were just pretending to believe in the communist system; they celebrated and marched in solidarity purely as a performance for the Big Other. When communism fell and the wall came down, it was a tipping point moment --suddenly everyone finally admitted there was nothing there. In this way tyranny can set you free, because it shows you the folly of belief itself (and that includes atheism) rather just knowing nothing is real.

As humans we need mysteries; they distract us from the ugly realities of time and space. These mysteries get us ready for bigger things. As children, once we found out where babies came from, that sad shock of ugly bio-awareness signaled the beginning of the end of childhood. As long as we are snooping through declassified documents and parent's bedroom drawers we are innocent and excited about the mystery of our origin. Once there can be no doubt where we come from, we're grossed out. Tragic as that is, we're better off knowing the boogeyman is real, no matter how much sleep we lose. Then again, as long as we have the shadow of doubt, the long shot it's just monsters in the closet and water under the bed, maybe we can get to sleep, sink back into the narrative of the imaginary, and dream a little dream of time, space, logic, God, and capitalism. .

Next: The Accidental Brecht (or How to Take the Fun out of Godard)

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