Sunday, April 10, 2022

Operation Avalanche (2016).

The first thing I did after the credits was to head for one of my bookshelves.  I was looking for a poem.  I knew I had to look it up, because that's what the movie planted in my mind.  The idea was that if I found and re-read it, it would help put the finishing touch on everything I'd just watched.  It provides the last piece of context that completes the puzzle.  Before we get to all that, however, it's best to start at the right place.  In the beginning, there was a filmmaker, and a genre.  It all started with a break-in at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.  The whole thing was sort of a joke, really.  If only it were something interesting, like international spies trying to steal valuable secrets for nefarious purposes.  It might be just the stuff of pulp fiction, however at least its more interesting than the truth.  The actual facts of the case is that it was just this group of random punks off the street.  They weren't even affiliated with any dark organization at all.  These were just a bunch of indie filmmakers, who somehow managed to talk their way past the front gates, and enter NASA under false pretenses.

The leader of this band of erstwhile merry pranksters is a fellow by the name of Matthew Johnson.  From the looks of him, and the way he lists himself in the film credits, he seems like the kind of guy who tells you to just call him Matt right on first acquaintance.  He's a Toronto native who seems to have grown up with an early interest in the art of film.  He enrolled at York University, and from there began to establish himself on the Independent Cinema circuit.  Johnson is still a relatively new kid in town as of this writing.  So it poses the question of how much there is to discuss at such an early juncture.  One of the key bits of information I was able to pick up about him was that Johnson cited films like Zelig, and Forrest Gump as two major influences on his current style of filmmaking (web).  It's an admission that does the critic a favor in at least figuring out why Johnson would find himself drawn to the particular format he seems comfortable using for the moment.  Let's put it this way.  I'm surprised that Matt didn't think to add the likes of The Blair Witch Project to his list of influences.  All of which is to say that it's time to to talk once more about everyone's "favorite" form of black sheep filmmaking.

I'm talking of course about the Found Footage Genre.  Whether you love or hate it, the inescapable fact is that it seems like the format that's here to stay, even if its just the new type of poverty row cinema.  My own approach to the whole thing remains pragmatic, whether you think it's a fault, or not.  What's important to note is the two films that got Johnson interested in using this particular style.  One of the things that I think  lot of audiences and critics are slow to understand is just how old the Found Footage trope really is.  Something like Forrest Gump can be cited as an example of a straight-forward narrative film.  However, a movie like Zelig is one of, if not the earliest examples of what's now come to be known as a Mockumentary feature.  Just as Robert Zemeckis would go on to do a few years later, Woody Allen was one of the the first to beat the idea to the finish line by a good chunk of a decade.  Another example would have to be Steve Martin's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid.  Allen's technique was much the same as in the Tom Hanks film, except that the decade and subject matter were different.

He would shoot modern day footage of himself using old film stock and cameras dating from, at. or around the 1920s or 30s.  This gave the overall appearance of his movie the look of an antique from another time.  He then used roughly the same effects compositions as Zemeckis to help splice him into footage from the late dawn of the 20th century.  As a result, we're able to see moving images of Allen lounging around the New York Yankees baseball field circa the Jazz Age, or mingling with the likes of Eugene O'Neil, or Ada "Bricktop" Smith.  Allen's little experiment amounts to an example of movie magic at its finest, yet most understated.  It was this, combined with Zemeckis' achievement a few years later than appears to have acted as just the right spark on Johnson's imagination.  The director was born in 1985, so if we take that as our starting point, do a bit of math, and extrapolate from that.  Then it sounds as if Johnson's later exposure to the growing Found Footage format, combined with what he learned earlier from Allen and Zemeckis is what led him to choose the sub-genre as his own format.

One of the first uses that resulted from Johnson's enthusiasm turned about to be 2013's The Dirties.  An effective, troubling slow burn meditation on the phenomenon of occurrences like Columbine, or Sandy Hook, and all told from the perspective of a pair of high school students who decide to bring a camera to class one day, and film themselves in their slow descent into insanity.  In real life, Johnson and his frequent collaborators Owen Williams and Evan Morgan are much more of the affable slacker types.  Think Clerks except with none of the whiny angst and emotional baggage.  These guys know where they're supposed to be today, and they all seem perfectly happy with it.  Part of the appeal for these guys might stem from the fact that they take the concept of guerilla filmmaking seriously.  

In order to ensure a sense of "authenticity" for their first feature, Johnson and Williams went the extra mile of actually enrolling in a local public high school in order to not let themselves stick out like a sore thumb.  The filmmakers and their efforts received a generous amount of help and support from none other that the administration of the very school they were filming in, and they spent their time pretending to be individuals that they never were in real life.  The fact that they were never hassled, or that no one ever seems to have bothered to call them out must be some kind of testament to the skill involved in the filmmaker's efforts.  It may also be say something of the director's abilities for making this kind of movie.  He was so good at it that Johnson and his friends tried the same trick again with NASA.

The director explained the whole situation over the course of an interview with The Take.  The initial idea for his next film came together "when we were flying home from Slamdance in 2013, when we’d just premiered our first feature The Dirties (2013). We were trying to figure out how we could make a movie in the same style except about something slightly bigger, and we were looking at historical moments that we could make a fake documentary about. And the moon landing just seemed so catchy and interesting that as soon as we started talking about it we had, like, 200 ideas, basically, on how to make the movie that you saw".  Miller explains: "It was of those ideas that we were shocked nobody had done it like this before".

Johnson continues: "All those things we’d developed in our first movie, so those are holdovers from [The Dirties]. So it was a given that I was going to play myself, and there were going to be lots of tricks and lots of lies and things like that, and because we were already comfortable working in that style, we applied all those things instantly. In fact we never even really talked about them from a creative point of view. It was more like, Oh, it’ll be so cool that those things are going to come up. But it’s not like we were making those discoveries because we had already discovered those things".  Miller adds, "But we didn’t quite know, for instance, that the movie was going to be about Matt pretending to be a filmmaker sneaking into NASA as his cover and us basically doing the same thing in order to pull it off from a production standpoint. Those are some things that, as we were figuring out how we were going to make the movie, we stumbled onto that were very cool".  

When it comes to the major feat of sneaking into the the center of the central hub of the nation's actual freakin' Space Program(!), Johnson proved incredibly casual and off-the-cuff about it.  "It’s mostly what you see in the movie. In both cases, in fact, what we show the audience is more or less what we did. With NASA, we went in posing as a documentary film crew saying that we were from a film school in Toronto, which we both were at the time. And we said we were making a documentary about the Apollo program, in the exact same way the characters say they’re making a documentary about the Apollo program.  And then at Shepperton we did more or less what the characters do there as well, which is we just showed up. That was different because it was a private studio, but nobody kicked us out right away, and so we just went in and shot as much as we could before they did throw us out. They were filming The Avengers 2 [Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)] at that studio at the time. And when they did finally catch us they thought we were paparazzi trying to film Chris Evans or something (web)".

Based on just a simple reading of the director's comments, it's hard not to get the sense that there's a lot more bluster to his words than he lets on.  I don't doubt that he managed to sneak into NASA, believe it or not.  The film itself is his own backup on that score.  The finished product bears out everything Johnson says, and its a testament to his tenacity as an artist.  I just can't help thinking his words are a textbook example in studied nonchalance.  Something tells me that while he's learned how to put up a brave face on the aftermath of things, at the time it was all happening, he could have supplied an entire brick making factory.  I don't see how you can just waltz into a place like NASA and act like you have the right to be there without authorization.  Say sorry, yet it just can't be done.  It may be possible to bluff your way through there.  Johnson's exploits are proof enough of that.  Yet its sheer hubris to claim you don't have a care in the world while your trying to pull the bullshit off.  If he'd been caught, that was the kind of thing that could have landed him jail time, and maybe even the ruination of his career. 

You'd be better off trying that same stunt in a place like Disneyland, rather than an actual government facility.  What Johnson was able to pull off will have to go down as a textbook example of sheerest dumb luck.  The only thing weirder than the stunt Johnson got away with, are the results that wound up making the final cut.  Believe it or not, here's where the hole in reality begins to grow and widen.

The Story.  

This looks like as good a place as any for what I've got to say next.  I have a confession to make.  Like, I've got vices, same as everyone else.  It's just that I'm not real good at it.  I'm not even sure what I'm about to say even counts as a fault.  It's more like this weird quirk I've got.  You see sometimes I'll read up on a variety of topics that can best be gathered together under the heading of Unexplained Mysteries.  Some of you reading this must have some idea of what I'm talking about, right?  You know, Loch Ness, Bigfoot, Most Famous Haunted Houses or Cities?  That kind of thing.  As I say, it's a vice, just not like any of the real impressive ones.  This is more like indulging the mildest kind of sweet tooth.  It's a craving, not so much for anything fringe.  I mean I don't have time for, like, supermarket tabloids, and all that sort of stuff.  In fact, I'm not sure when was the last time I ever bothered to pick up one of those damned useless wastes of good pulp paper and ink.  It must have been so long ago that all I have to recall now is just a vague collage memory, like a jigsaw puzzle that's forever been scattered to the winds.  I have images of lurid, and garish pictures in black and white, depicting the most outrageous or grotesque claims.  There might have been something about a family keeping Bigfoot frozen in ice.

Another one might have been about America's morbid obsession with obesity.  The only other image I can remember is that of the famous "Bat Boy", or something like that.  As I say, my run-ins with that sort of writing  has been so minuscule as to barley leave an imprint in my memory.  I just know that what I've seen of it left me with a very skeptical take on that kind of periodical.  In fact, I just now remembered the most important experience I ever had of those damned fake rags.  It contained some sort of headline to the effect that the world would end on midnight of a certain day of the week.  I think I recall looking at the date given on the magazine's cover.  Then I sort of decided to play a waiting game.  I was very little at the time, just a kid, so all I had to work with was naive, little boy logic.

The funny thing is how it might not have been the worst choice I've ever made, as I was able to get some profit out of the whole experience.  What I decided to do next might be considered an ironic example of a little kid trying out the empirical method for himself, so far as his very limited lights can take him.  All I had to do was simple.  I got ready for bed on the appointed day, like I normally do.  Then I just stayed awake in anticipation of the big moment to arrive.  I think I might have just sat in bed reading to help pass the time, and yet my clearest memory of that night is of just lying in bed, with the lights off, paying attention and trying to listen in on something, anything that would tell that the final hour had come.  I was, as an old Boss Springsteen song has it, "Waiting on the End of the World".  The funny thing is how I don't recall being panicked about any of this.  In fact, I seemed to be amazingly calm.  The biggest amount of concern I  can remember expressing that night was as I was busying myself with my usual routines, and then I would recall what I was waiting for, and then I'd be like, "Oh yeah.  That could happen.  Huh".  Then I would either go back to waiting, or else just continue reading.

I'm not sure today if I was aware that the so-called doomsday hour had passed.  That part of the event is kinda sorta jumbled up in my mind.  Either I lost track of time, and when I looked at the clock again, the appointed hour had come and gone.  Or else I was paying attention the whole time, and when the midnight hour struck and nothing happened, I became a combination of curious puzzlement.  What I do know for sure is that at some point I realized nothing had changed.  The world still revolved on its axis, just like always.  The house I live in, the street one which I grew up was all still there, without so much as a pebble out of place.  Same as it ever was, in other words.  I paid attention to what someone else had said, and they were wrong.  The world hadn't ended.  The whole thing sounds like folly now, of course.  Maybe it even is ridiculous to a certain extent.  In fact, if you want to pile on the irony, there may be some bookworms out there who would be more than happy to point out the fact that I technically played out the plot of an old, Ray Bradbury short story.  The only difference is my exploits had a much happier ending.  For what it's worth, I tend to look back on it in the same way as a wise and knowing parent might have.  It was a useful experience for a growing boy, and all that sort of thing.

Sounds corny, perhaps.  Sounds just like the kind of nonsense you might expect to find on a hoary old Hallmark card.  To which all I can say is who knows?  Maybe those dime store sentiments really can hold true every now and again, or perhaps even more than most of us will ever expect (or respect, for that matter).  The point is it taught me a great deal about the need to be able to tell the difference between fact, and fiction.  It's a lesson I have tried my best to employ in my life ever since.  It also made me forever cast a very jaundiced eye on not just supermarket tabloids, but a lot of what people say about things such as lights in the sky, or spooky noises in the attic or basement.  The best way to explain it is to cite a number of books which sum up my final thoughts on the matter.  They are Peeble Curtis's Watch the Skies: A Chronicle of the Flying Saucer Myth.  The other two are written by the same author, Colin Dickey.  They are Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, and also The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession with the Unexplained.  Both writers take the same tack with each of these subjects.

Dickey and Curtis describe them all as myths and they make it clear that's all they are.  For what it's worth, yeah, that sounds like the right call to me.  If it comes to a question of evidence, then long story short, I've seen more against than for such ideas, if I'm being honest.  Say sorry, yet, there it is.  The curious part is how none of this has put a damper on my ability to enjoy these myths as just pure stories.  Even if I can't take claims of a monster in the lake all that seriously, I can still find that they work in the same way as all good folklore does.  I think this means I tend to view such creatures as Sasquatch, or the Beast of Bray Road as sort of like the constant building blocks from which an endless array of potential stories can be drawn.  That probably explains one aspect of my continuing fascination with this stuff.  The other one is much more commonplace.  There's just something that can sometimes be plain fun about it all, that's the real point.  It also helps in my case that Horror fiction has always acted as like the natural draw, the enthusiasm that helped spark an interest in all the other arts for me.  Nessie and Foot just seem to be part of the overall package as far as I'm concerned.  So yes, there can be a place for legends, even in this crowded and modern age.  That's not to say that there aren't problems here and there.

One aspect of this whole sub-genre of myths that can be troubling are the ideas that lend themselves to distortions of important facts.  The trick here is that with creatures like Ogopogo or the Grey Lady of Hampton Court is that its part of their nature that they have all the style and charm of a good old fashioned campfire story.  We can an indulge them at our leisure and enjoyment, and at the end everyone gets to go home happy and everybody had a good time.  It's pure fun at its most harmless.  When it comes to conspiracies about the moon landing, however.  Well, then I'm afraid all I can say is "Houston, we have a problem".  Like I've heard the various theories, and what concerns me more about them is the eerie tenacity with which the idea has managed to cling on to the public consciousness.

I won't bore you the all details of this particular "fan theory".  Instead, I guess it's best to just to give the simplest example of this crackpot idea that I know, or have run across.  Like this one time, I heard a while back how the whole thing was a spur of the moment scheme by a bunch of rookies.  The way I  heard it, there were these four friends, Matt (Johnson), Owen (Williams), Andy (Andrew Appelle), and Jared Raab.  The first three were CIA agents, the last one was a professional cameraman of some sort.  Some of the details are sketchy here.  Like, it's possible to tell the outline of the big picture, yet there are still some aspects of this story that remain murky to me.  For instance, I know they were all Central Intelligence employees.  Beyond that, however, there's not much else to go on.  They way the story was told to me, it sounds like all these guys might have met each other somewhere before.  Like they were all chums in high school, or something of that kind, and then they each decided to follow one another into the same profession.  Whatever the case was there, here's what I was told for certain.

So you have these four schlumps, and they all seem to have a passion for their chosen field.  The thing is that Matt is a bit more gung-ho than the others.  He was the one to get most easily excited about an assignment, whereas Owen and Andy tended to the more cautious, down-to-earth route.  Also Matt insisted on bringing Jared along to help film all their exploits for some reason I'm not at all clear about anymore.  From what I was told, they all sound like a bunch of frustrated filmmakers who had to fall back on a collective, soulless paycheck job in order to make ends meet.  Still doesn't account for why the kept the cameraman running around everywhere.  The only explanation I can think of for that is to wonder if maybe they were all just hippies dressed in respectable looking rags, and enrolling in the CIA was their idea of trying to expose the man by dragging Jared and his camera along.  You've got to admit that makes for a more interesting take on things, at any rate.  Anyway, Matt was the one with all the enthusiasm, and he would often drag, Owen, Andy, and Jared along after him.  Think Dan Ayckroyd and Chevy Chase in Spies Like Us, except this story takes a far different turn of events.

It all started way back in 1967, with the four friends stuck in the low-level, dead-end of life at the Bureau.  They've each managed to earn their stripes, yet they're not allowed to do anything interesting with it.  Then somehow Matt finds out that there's a sting operation in the works.  The Space Administration fears there may be a spy roaming the halls of NASA, and if that's the case, well, you can't have a snitch sharing government secrets behind the Iron Curtain now, can you?  Or at least you shouldn't.  However, in real life, the actual distinction between ought to and is, remains all the difference between world and want.  Maybe the real lesson here is that people shouldn't draw so much attention to themselves.  Whatever the case, when Matt hears about the project, he begins to see stars, and personally lobbies CIA Director Brackett (Ray James) to be assigned to the operation.  His pitch meeting goes so well, in fact, that even Matt and his friend are surprised to find themselves packing up, and headed to the Lone Star state, and the headquarters of the U.S. Space Program.  Their assignment is to pose as a group of filmmakers there to shoot a documentary about the Apollo mission, all while using their interviews and captured footage to help try and rat out the mole in the house.

At first it looks as if everything's going smoothly.  During those first few days at the target site, everybody is courteous and forthcoming.  No one seems to suspect they're part of a sting operation.  The only one privy to this information is the director of the Space Center himself.  Everyone else appears to be in the dark, which is just the way the Bureau wants it.  Then one day, while listening in on a what they believe to be a secure line, Owen discovers that their own phones have been tapped.  This necessitates an emergency relocation of their headquarters out of the Space Center itself, and into Owen's own family household, a fact which doesn't really sit well with Owen's wife (Madeleine Sims-Fewer).  Still, she seems to know what they say about beggars.  The second bombshell to fall in their lap is when Matt is going through a sample of calls made from the NASA director admitting to someone that the Apollo program won't be able to send a man into space by their originally set deadline.  Here's where I'm told the whole conspiracy was supposed to have originated.

When Matt shared the news with Andy, Owen, and Jared, everybody seemed kind of distraught over the whole idea.  This could be a real disaster to their way of thinking, especially since they now had proof there was a mole in the walls of the Administration.  What was to prevent this agent from reporting the same thing back to the Kremlin, and killing all the momentum that NASA had generated?  So then, as the theory goes, Matt concocts his own hair-brained scheme to help the U.S. save face.  It involves the same idea everybody is familiar with today, the idea that the moon landing was faked.  The way I heard it, Matt, Owen, and Andy were scouting around for ideas on how to pull this whole stunt off, when they stumble upon a fortuitous bit of news while scouting for a professional filmmaker who can help them make the ruse look convincing.  See, this is where I'm told most theorists got it wrong.  Everybody likes to think that Stanley Kubrick was officially tapped to help fake the landing.  Turns out that's not the case.  What I was told is that Matt sort of just stumbled upon the knowledge that ol' Stan was making 2001: A Space Odyssey at the same time, by complete accident.  Like it was the dumbest luck in the lottery or something.  Anyway, the four stooges got a backstage pass to Shepperton, met up with Kubrick, and that's how they all learned how to fake the appearance of outer space.

So that's the way the basic theory goes, then.  Or at least this is the story I've heard told.  There's not much else to tell when it comes to what happened next.  Matt and his friend compiled all the "supposed" resources they needed, took it home with them, and started to put it to good use, all without Kubrick or NASA being aware of what they were doing.  Things appeared to be going smoothly, until the surveillances started showing up at the out-of-the-way makeshift studio they'd set up for their little charade.  Then came the growing knowledge that they were all being watched, and the wort part is they couldn't tell if they were spied on by the Kremlin, or their own people.  It didn't take very long for Matt to realize that maybe the same compulsive streak that made him want to record everything for posterity might just come in handy.  In case anything bad were to happen to either him, or his friends.

Conclusion: A Pyrrhic Victory. 

I'm not gonna lie.  I got pissed off the first time I ever so much as watched the trailer for this film.  My single excuse is because I might have made a mistake.  I've said already that while I regard most of America's Unexplained Myths as just that, I also noted that they were all harmless fun.  What I should have added was that this postulate holds true for the most part.  With the concept of the Fake Moon Landing, we've sort of entered a boundary line, from my way of thinking.  We've stumbled upon that uncertain borderland between the harmless and the unstable.  Go beyond a certain point and you've reached the level where fun could turn to potential harm.  That's because after a while you're bound to come across the types of magical thinking that tries to show support for fringe ideas like chem trails, 9/11 Truthers, and the like.  It's a phenomenon of thinking in American society that we've all been forced to acknowledge of late, whether we wanted to or not.  It's more trouble than just a minor headache, and it's the kind of thing that history books will talk about with the passage of time.  The issue for this article is that it's something best avoided, and I'll have to admit I was leery of even the idea that someone out there was willing to entertain it as an idea for a feature-length found footage film.

A film like this can make the critic's task a bit more difficult than usual.  If it comes with the kind of baggage from the Urban Legend its based off, then that means in addition to trying to make a simple judgement call on a film as art, you might also have to pause every now and then to point out and avoid a sand trap or two along the way.  It's not an easy task by any means, so let's not waste time.  The best place to start is by noting the film's strengths, and then going on to observe the fundamental contradiction that it lands itself in.  A while back I took a look at very clever entry in the sub-genre known as Savageland.  There I spent a few columns speculating on the nature of the format, and how the makers of the earlier film managed to find ways of utilizing the Found Footage story in a way that was able to showcase all its strengths.  A full catalogue of what makes that film work so well can found in the original review.  All that needs to be noted here is that by taking a basic mockumentary approach, and finding a novel and effective solution to the necessary story's footage itself, the directors were able to present this type of film in a way that was able to show the kind of actual value a story like this can have whenever someone decides to use the bells and whistles of the format in an intelligent way.

With Johnson's film, we're back once more in familiar territory.  In terms of how he frames the setup, Johnson could be said to working with no more than the standard shakey-cam or Blair Witch approach.  The good news in this case is that doesn't amount to a strike against the director.  Johnson and Raab are able to prove right away that they have a greater deal of skill with the hand-held camera than the three inexperienced neophytes that took the genre mainstream.  Under Johnson's direction, Raab is able to handle his frame with a steady hand that allows the main cast to stay even and squared in the frame.  There's no need to fear the possibility that at any given moment the camera operator is going to cut off the main character's head using the very top of the frame.  Instead, Raab is able to establish his shots, and the film's overall style, in a way that shows its credentials.  You can tell with just a handful of frames that the movie's technique is polished and professional, while at the same time finding a neat and seamless way of blending in with the genre's essentially low-rent, poverty row aesthetic.

It's what allows the film to look and probably even be cheap, while still displaying the promise of a potential future a-list cinematographer.  Raab's skill leaves us with a viewpoint that is able to keep pace with his subjects, even when the action is frenetic and fast-paced.  We are treated to scenes where the camera almost appears to glide and float from in and out from one scene to the next.  Its a testimony to the filmmaker's skills in the editing bay, as well.  Their choices are sharp, and occasionally quick-cutting in a way that keeps the action moving without sacrificing the most important element of storytelling.  Some of the best shots in the film are those where the camera is just following the subjects through hallways as they arrive at certain locations in the story.  The two most notable are both NASA and Shepperton studios.  It's easy to tell why everyone is so determinedly on-point in these scenes, as those are the moments when the filmmakers are technically guilty of breaking and entering without permission.  Raab, Williams, and Johnson all manage to keep cool heads in these scenes, yet you can tell by the occasional looks the actors throw at the camera that they are all wondering when the shoe will drop, and their charade be revealed.  The interesting part is that they never are unmasked.

Instead, the camera is allowed to glide through the corridors of the historic Space Center and English studio and filter it all in a way that manages to come off as appropriate to the era in which the film takes place.  I don't know if this just down to the way the locations look in real life, and no one has bothered to update the inside of these buildings all that much since the 1960s, or else if it was a clever bit of special effects added into the camera later on.  I do there is some FX work going at one point in the film.  This comes in during what I have to admit is a pretty impressive sequence.  It's when the crew reach Shepperton studios, in the hope of gaining some helpful information from none other than Stan Kubrick.  Yeah, this story is postulated on the theory that while Kubrick himself never directed anything to do with the Apollo program, he nonetheless wound up giving some indirect, unwitting advice to the people who did fake the event.  And if you can't tell, something in my mood fell in just writing that.  In other words, I'll have to explain in a moment.  What makes this scene possibly the best in the movie, however, is the way Johnson and his team have managed to "Forrest Gump" the actors into the time period.  It gives us a great shot of the director asking Kubrick for an autograph in a moment that is edited and composited in a fashion that would make Robert Zemeckis proud.

It's probably the highlight of the film, which is what makes what I have to say next something of a problem.  When it comes to the story proper, we're in an interesting situation.  I suppose the best way to look at it is through the trajectory of the main character.  Johnson's avatar starts the film as someone who I can't tell if he's an historical anomaly or not.  The best way I can think to describe him is as a slacker dude-bro in a suit that doesn't look as if it belongs on him.  In other words, he's this gung-ho, enthusiastic boy scout type.  There may be a sense in which this character can be said to fit into the prototype of the Found Footage lead.  The way the genre works, the usual formula is that of a downward trajectory.  When we first meet the main character, we're sort of seeing them at the closest high point they will ever achieve over the course of any given genre entry.  Because most films of this nature tend toward the Horror genre, it makes a certain amount of sense that the main actors in this type of story tend to follow several classical beats of the Tragic Drama.  In other words, one of the ironies about being a Found Footage lead is that you are almost always slated for a gruesome demise.

It just seems to come with the territory by now.  That's why it's interesting to see how Johnson takes this basic material, and finds an interesting riff on the idea.  His main innovation seems to rest in holding true to the genre's inherent sense of the downward slide, yet also managing to take the trope in different directions.  Like many of the leads in this setup, Matt the Character is all hubris at the beginning, mainly in it for a sense of personal glory.  He keeps trying to goad all his friend in the CIA to keep pushing themselves harder, so they can find their way to a cozy set of coveted job positions.  Part of his goal in getting there is in making a crazy pitch gamble that pays off in them getting assigned to NASA in the first place.  It's here that another interesting thing takes place.  A lot of the familiar plot beats begin to play out as we go along, and yet because of the story idea Johnson has hit upon, and the way he winds up framing it, these old tropes do gain a certain amount of freshness.  I suppose a good way of describing it is to call Operation Avalanche a Ghost Story in which the Ghost never makes an appearance.  Or if the typical horrors of the Footage genre do have their moments in the spotlight, then it's gone about in such a way as to make them unfamiliar yet recognizable, if that makes any sense.

The first sign that something is off is when Our Gang discovers they are being bugged, followed by the film swiftly entering conspiracy theory territory with the supposed pick-up of a (non-existent) admission by higher ups that they don't have the necessary tech to land on the moon.  What Johnson does in this moment is to hit all the familiar plot beats of Footage Horror, and yet somehow manage to turn the volume down and re-frame the way they are presented.  A good way to understand what I'm talking about is to imagine how all the plot points I've just described would play out in a typical film of this nature.  It would probably feature Matt and his friend reaching the first obligatory jump scare of the movie.  The horror of the film would be brought in from backstage to give our protagonists a fright that sends them scurrying for the relative safety of the editing room.  From there, this alternate version of Matt and Company would realize they've discovered some eldritch creature with their camera.  Matt would get all psyched.  The others want to stop filming and leave.  Matt eggs them on, they keep filming to the point where it leads to their doom.  Rinse, recycle, and repeat; world without end, amen.

The irony is that I really have sort of described the basic plot beats that Johnson adheres to in Avalanche.  It's just that he's creative enough to find a new way of telling all these tropes.  In his case, the director has found a way to make the dictates of the genre blend with, and obey the settings and formulas of the political thriller.  That in itself is some kind of novelty, as I'm not sure I've ever see any of the other artists in this field try and take up such an idea.  It's a credit to Johnson's creativity on this point that he's able to think far enough outside the box in a way that allows him to find something, not so much new to say, as more that it's a relative breath of fresh air in a class of film that otherwise seems content to remain spinning its wheels in all the old, familiar tracks.  It's merely the choice of subject matter that prevents it from being a one-hundred percent new thing.  The theory Johnson is tackling has been around since about the 1970s, and it has long since taken on a puzzling life of its own.

It's to Johnson's further credit that he's able to prove equal to the material.  The trouble is that in finding a way to tackle an old conspiracy theory, there is a sense in which achieving victory itself amounts to an ironic sort of defeat.  If that sounds contradictory, you've probably got a point there.  I tend to think it doesn't happen as often, nor is it as applicable either in fiction or real life.  However, the irony in Johnson's case, at least, is that there is a sort of ironical trap hidden in the very subject matter the director has chosen.  Perhaps that's why it winds up fitting to say that both artist and character sort of fall into just this fatal snare by the end.  Everything runs smoothly until everybody has to start doing patrols for trespassers into their top secret studio.  It's not long before Matt the Character finds himself resorted to taking the entire film he's managed to get in the can, and bury it all in a remote field in the middle of nowhere.  The minute we start spending longer still shots of the main lead digging that hole ever deeper as the film goes on, the more you can tell its not going to end well.  That whole image in fact stands as the main symbol of the film.  It' also stands as a very ironic form of final verdict.

Like with everything else about the picture, Johnson the director is able to find ways of taking a familiar script and then flip it on its head.  At the same time, he winds up staying true to the genre's more familiar, tragic roots.  I'm going to go out on a limb and commit a bit of heresy by revealing at least something of the ending, here.  The good news, if that's how you want to call it, is that Johnson manages to find a way to leave his protagonist standing on his own two feet by the time the credits role.  The mixed news is that when we last see him, he is more or less stuck in the very pit he's been digging this whole time.  And it was in these closing moments that the final import of the film began to hit home.  When the film was over, I had a clear outline of the point it had just made, and it is one of the best examples I've found of a self-sabotaging pyrrhic victory.  It sort of left me with a sense of knowing that doesn't really go well in the film's favor.  Way back at the start I said the first thing I did once the movie was done is to go over and take a book off the shelf.  I was looking for something very specific.  It was a poem, one of the few written by an author who tends to cast a long shadow on this site, even when he's not always present and on-stage.  It was contained in the collection known as Skeleton Crew.  It's title was Paranoid: A Chant.  And it's author was none other than Stephen King.

The narrative verse open with an unnamed main character telling us that it isn't safe for him to venture outside anymore.  Though not for the obvious reasons you may be thinking of.  Instead, he tells us, it's to do with the fact there's a man in a raincoat smoking a cigarette somewhere nearby, not too far from outside his own door.  

"He knows that if I die
(or even drop out of sight)
the diary goes and everyone knows
the CIA’s in Virginia

"500 mailers bought from
500 drug counters each one different
and 500 notebooks
with 500 pages in everyone (345)".

In case we're having trouble following along, the speaker is helpful enough to enlighten us as to the purpose of all this collected trivia.  "I am prepared", the poem states with unambiguous finality (ibid).

"Men have discussed me in back rooms.
If the phone rings there’s only a dead breath.
In the bar across the street a snub-nose
revolver has changed hands in the men’s room
Each bullet has my name on it.
My name is written in back files
and looked up in newspaper morgues (346)".

"I have seen strange lights in the sky.
Last night a dark man with no face crawled through nine miles
of sewer to surface in my toilet, listening
for phone calls through the cheap wood with
chrome ears.
I tell you, man, I hear (347)".

There is one set of lines, or verses in the poem that stand out to me the most.  They're the ones that go:

do listen:
you must listen (346)".

I think the reason its so easy to latch on to that snippet in particular, out of all the others, is because it really says it all, doesn't it?  Those are the lines that sort of explain everything, and helped me understand the ultimate meaning of the film.  After a even a cursory read-through, it was easy to see that King's poem almost serves as a unintentional snapshot of how the main character of Johnson's story could wind up.  It could also serve as a neat thematic summation of Operation Avalanche.  It's that phrase King uses in his poem, the one that tells the reader "you must listen".  It's the same kind of vantage point from which all the Moon Hoax theories ultimately derive.  What's written next will sound like a grand detour to some.  Like I've switched gears by trying to explain one work of art through the use or lens of another.  I'd argue that's not the case, that sometimes the proper and full understanding of one artwork can best be arrived at with the help of another.  In the case of Avalanche and Paranoid, I'd like to make the case that what both pieces share in common is this overlapping sense of the paranoiac.

It starts as a small off-note in the film.  One that builds to a slow, gradual discordant harmony by the time Johnson allows the credits to roll.  Whereas King's poem begins with everything upside down right from the start.  Both products appear to wind up reaching the same, or similar conclusions.  It's the concept undergirding both poem and moving picture that I believe really unites the two into an unintentional, yet weirdly seamless whole.  At least as far as I can see.  It leaves us with the question of just what is it King is trying to get at, and what can it tell about about Johnson's cinematic efforts?  In his 1980 study, Danse Macabre, King brings up the idea of perfect paranoia as perfect awareness.

King believes to that "we could add that paranoia may be the last defense of the overstrained mind.  Much of the literature of the twentieth century, from such diverse sources as Bertolt Brecht, Jean-Paul Sartre, Edward Albee, Thomas Hardy, even F. Scott Fitzgerald, has suggested that we live in an existential sort of world, a planless insane asylum where things just happen.  "IS GOD DEAD?" asks the Time Magazine cover in the waiting room of Rosemary Woodhouse's satanic obstetrician.  In such a world it is perfectly credible that a mental defective should sit on the upper floor of a little-used building, wearing a Hanes t-shirt, eating take-out chicken, and waiting to use his mail-order rifle to blow out the brains of an American president; perfectly possible that another mental defective should be able to stand around in a hotel kitchen a few years later waiting to do exactly the same thing to that defunct president's younger brother; perfectly understandable that nice American boys from Iowa and California and Delaware should have spent their tours in Vietnam collecting ears, many of them extremely tiny; that the world should begin to move once more toward the brink of an apocalyptic war because of who is probably foggy on what he had for breakfast by the time the sunset rolls around.

"All of these things are mentally acceptable if we accept the idea that God has abdicated for a long vacation, or has perhaps really expired.  They are mentally acceptable, but our emotions, our spirits, and most of all our passion for order - these powerful elements of our human make-up - all rebel.  If we suggest that there was no reason for the deaths of six million Jews in the camps during World War II, no reason for poets bludgeoned, old women raped, children turned into soap, that it just happened and nobody was really responsible - things just got a little out of control there, ha-ha, so sorry - then the mind begins to totter.

"I saw this happen at first-hand in the sixties, at the height of the generational shudder that began with our involvement in Vietnam and went on to encompass everything from parietal hours on college campuses and the voting corporate responsibility for environmental pollution.  I was in college at the time, attending the University of Maine, and while I began with political leanings too far to the right to actually become radicalized, by 1968 my mind had been changed forever about a number of fundamental questions.  The hero of Jack Finney's later novel, Time and Again, says it better than I could: "I ordinary person who long after he was grown retained the assumption that the people who largely control our lives are somehow better informed than, and have judgement superior to, the rest of us; that they were more intelligent.  Not until Vietnam did I finally realize that some of the most important decisions of all time can be made by men knowing really no more than most of the rest of us (331-33)".

"But for all of that", King writes, "I found it impossible to embrace the mushrooming paranoia (333)".  And all of that, in essence, I think, is the closest any of us are ever likely to get to a full explanation for the meaning of the content within the Paranoid poem.  We also perhaps have a bit more of an insight into the larger background canvas of which Johnson's project is one result of.  By the way, how did you like the parlor trick?  What do I mean?  I'm talking about the sleight-of-hand I played while transcribing King's words.  Specifically, I mean the passage about the threat of an "apocalyptic war" due to a madmen who might be a little foggy in the brain.  For the record, those words were written way back in 1979 to 81.  King was referencing a conflict that is now so bygone you'd need an encyclopaedia to catch up.  None of that almost mattered, though, did it?  For a moment there, if you were reading along, it almost sounded like the words were fresh written some time during the recent month, and they packed a nasty shock.  For a minute there, it sounded as if King was talking about the current fears surrounding Ukraine.  Let those reactions stand as a lesson in the veracity of King's words.

Just a paragraph on or so, The Maine Scribbler goes on to relate a debate he got into with a campus radical on the nature of just who was driving the whole Nam debacle.  The encounter left King shaken, and the radical exclaimed, "You got a surprise, didn't you, man (334)".  Cut back now to the present day, and all of a sudden it seems like reality has given both men a bigger surprise than any of them could ever anticipate.  We've gone from a world in which conspiracies are the stuff of pulp fiction to a frightening problem that can sometimes get people killed.  I think even the long forgotten campus radical that King spoke with would blanche at just how far down the rabbit hole reality can tumble.  I wonder if both of them see a lot more eye-to-eye now.  Whatever the case, I'm convinced its stuff like this that acts as the kind of primordial soup out of which the belief that no one has ever landed on the moon is able to grow out of.  It's the sort of idea that can never have any kind of life without a given amount of the Paranoid Style in American Politics.  And that's what makes it so dangerous.

The problem with conspiratorial thinking like this is that sooner of later, the logical-illogical end of the chain of ideation all too often drips with someone else's blood.  In this sense, it's a wonder King never bothered to ask if it's paranoia itself that might help account not just for Moon Hoax theories, but also a lot of the atrocities he lists in the passage above, to say nothing of current woes.  I think we can at least say we're getting close to an answer for the conundrums he poses.  It's this same conundrum that Johnson's movie seems to be caught in, like a fly that doesn't notice the thin, fine gossamer of the spider's web in front of him until he's trapped in the net.  If the idea of the Fake Moon Landing has such an unstable pedigree, then it kind of begs another question.  Do you suppose Johnson, as the film's director, is at all aware of any of this?  The most logical answer I can find is to say, perhaps not.  Johnson's primary concern with this film remains where it should be, with telling the story.  That also appears to be about as far as his own unaided thoughts can take him as far as the pseudo-history of the main idea driving his story's engine goes.  He doesn't seem to have considered digging any further than that.

For the sake of clarity, the director has gone on the record as stating he knows that the Fake Moon Landing conspiracies are just that, and nothing else.  This is something he was willing to make clear, time and again.  No less an official source than has this to say about the film. "NASA gave the filmmakers access to historical footage and other resources, like the schematics for building a real lunar module. So far, the space agency has yet to complain about the false pretense by which the crew gained access to NASA's grounds. "If they have a sense of humor about it, they're going to love it, because it shows NASA the way that it was in the 1960s," Johnson said.  On the other hand, Johnson said he's learned "that NASA doesn't have a great sense of humor about [conspiracy theories about] the moon landing being faked."  Johnson said that while may have made a movie about how it could be possible to fake a moon landing, he does not deny that the moon landing happened. "It's a ridiculous conspiracy. But they don't like to engage in mythologizing that conspiracy, however much fun that is (web)".

To another source, Johnson admitted, "When we set out to make this movie, a big challenge for us was to how do we convince audiences of something we ourselves do not believe," Johnson said".  Before making this clear, however, the director also tossed off a few remarks that I can't except to regard as problematic.  "I think what it was for me and the team that I made this film with is there is so much mythology around it. And the mythology is kind of safe...," said Matt Johnson, the Canadian filmmaker and actor who makes mockumentaries where he names characters after himself, including fake documentaries about real things, like the moon landing.  "And who really cares?" he asked during a recent interview where the phone line — mysteriously — went dead for a few moments. "It almost doesn't matter if it was faked or not. It gives it a certain accessibility (web)".

And yet NASA made it clear to him that they don't like mythologizing a conspiracy theory like this.  I'm convinced they're right to be concerned, and that Johnson isn't taking things as seriously as he should, even if he is clear-headed enough on the essential facts.  The problem is that I'm left unsure of whether or not the director has a proper sense of the potential threat contained in the idea of "Post-Truth Thinking".  It's the kind of mindset that makes a man believe he can strike the Sun if he felt insulted by it, and think he wouldn't get burned in the process.  In retrospect, I can't help thinking that the emergence of Moon Landing Denial was or still is one of the first symptoms of a problem which used to be consigned to the fringes of the world stage, and which has now achieved a foothold in the global mainstream.  If that's the case, then I'm afraid all of us find ourselves saddled with an unexpected duty to make sure no one forgets what truth really is, whether we want it or not.  The ongoing operative irony here is that one of the fundamental functions of art continues to be that of telling the truth inside the lie.  It's what happens with Johnson's film, and it looks sort of like the joke is on the director.

The final punchline is that it's not at all clear that Johnson himself realizes this.  The darkly comedic result is that the director and his character wind up sharing more in common than is probably understood.  I've already outlined the mindset that creates the concept of a Fake Moonwalk, with the help of Stephen King.  Looked at from this lens, it is just possible to claim that the film Johnson wound up making classifies as a type of Sci-Fi Noir.  Earlier on, I described Johnson's movie as a Ghost Story in which the Ghost doesn't show up.  On further reflection, I suppose a better way of describing a film like Operation Avalanche is to describe it as an Alien Invasion story in which the protagonist fails to realize who the Martian is until he takes a good look in the mirror, and even then it's too late.  For all of these reasons, my final verdict has got to be one of the most paradoxical judgment calls I'm ever going to have to make.  Is the film bad?  I can't quite say that exactly, no.  Is it any good?  I'm not real sure about that either.  The reason why is because while the film does tell the truth, it winds up being one that the filmmakers don't seem to be all that aware of.  The result is a film that makes an unexpected confession at the expense of the artists, and that in itself turns out to be a very negative judgment call.

At it's core, Operation Avalanche is akin to a diabolical sort of magician's trick.  It starts out looking like a more or less straightforward act of prestidigitation.  We see the artist shuffling the cards, and making all the coins walk and disappear, like always.  What begins to happen as things go on, however, is that the nature of the trick begins to change, and this time its the audience that is aware, while the magician remains in the dark.  As the trick goes on, the meaning of its message becomes clear.  All we're dealing with in this film is an unintentional documentation of how some minds can begin a slow, defeating descent into a kind of quiet, paranoid fantasy.  In laying all this out, Johnson can be said to have found the truth inside the lie, and yet because of this, the film winds up asking its audience to pay it no mind.  There's just no real "there" to be had, except in the delusional ramblings of an unsound mindset, which is the real facts behind the conspiracy that the film is able to lay bare for all to see.  The film ends with shots of a parade being held in the Apollo astronaut's honor.  As I watched this small piece of real life intruding onto the movie's deranged sound stage, I found myself wanting to spend time enjoying the moment of actual triumph with the people from the land of bygone.  There was just something appealing about.  It seemed healthier than indulging the insanity I just witnessed.

Because of this, I'm afraid I find myself involved in one of those circumstances where I'm obliged to urge caution to the viewer.  The main reason for this is because of the unspoken lesson there is to draw from King's own description of the Paranoid Style.  The main difficulty with planlessness is that there is a very ironic catch to such an argument.  It lets bad actors off the hook.  It's all too easy for to imagine such philosophies leading to a scenario in which anyone who wishes to take liberties from others would try to justify such actions under the same rubric of meaningless that King outlined.  The trouble is that still doesn't explain an act of bad faith, such as trying to dominate others when its clear they don't want to be in such circumstances.  All of these reactions cry out for examination and explanation.  Hence, as Stephen King wrote in The Gunslinger "Everything in the universe denies "nothing (288)".  To try and live by such as suggestion, King believes, is the one absurdity.  It's an idea that contains quite lot of truth in it, so far as I'm concerned.  That's why the real lesson of Operation Avalanche is in the way the story and its director is defeated by the futility of its own subject matter.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of the entire film is the way it sabotages its own efforts.  I think this is down to a number of factors.  The first and most important contribution is the inherent absurdity of the Moon Landing Denialists in real life.  There is no real science to be had in any of their counter-claims.  The second is the fundamentally paranoid foundational structure of the whole idea, as outlined above.  The third and final factor might just have to be the mindset of the director himself.  What I think Johnson does over the course of the film is expose his own sense of naivete, and continued inability to grasp certain larger aspects of the material he's dealing with, and the potential cost, or price tags that come with it.  It's this lack of familiarity with the source material that I believe is the director's real stumbling block.  Rather than taking as firm and sure a controlling hand as might be necessary to handle a fundamentally paranoiac topic, Johnson instead somehow finds himself caught in the the circular logic nature of the very idea he's trying to capture on canvas.  He allows himself to become another victim.

It's a process that's not as dire in real life, as it is for the main character in the film's story.  However, I don't see how that does away with the inherent risks.  It's left me wondering whether it is even possible to create an actual good story around such conspiratorial source material.  Perhaps the answer is that not every voice can leave an impact.  My response to this whole thing can best be described as perhaps the exact opposite of a film like, say, JFK.  It sort of begs the question of what makes that other film work, whereas this one fails.  If I had to take a wild guess, then it might be because the Costner film at is at least operating from the searching desire for justice of some kind, anyway.  That in itself may be enough to elevate that 90s film above its origins, however over-the-top it gets in its execution.  Johnson's film, on the other hand, cannot claim to stem from any kind of noble sentiment.  The result is a story that grounds down to a dead-end halt.  And that's the best you can ever really say about it.


  1. (1) "You'd be better off trying that same stunt in a place like Disneyland, rather than an actual government facility." -- I swear, wasn't there a movie that actually did something like that a while back? Hold on, lemme Google something right quick ... hmmhmmhmmmm ... yep, sure was!

    (2) Bat Boy! Holy smokes, I haven't thought about Bat Boy in forever.

    (3) "When it comes to conspiracies about the moon landing, however." -- We are on the same page here, and then some. The only use I've got for that particular conspiracy theory is to amuse myself thinking about Stanley Kubrick intentionally making an entire movie ("The Shining") so he could troll the world on the subject. Well, and I guess I also get a kick out of that silly subplot in "Diamonds Are Forever."

    (4) " With the concept of the Fake Moon Landing, we've sort of entered a boundary line, from my way of thinking. We've stumbled upon that uncertain borderland between the harmless and the unstable." -- Yeah, for sure. I'm not sure where the line is, but there's definitely a line there, and the moon conspiracy is well beyond it for me. And I think we've seen an appalling amount of that type of thinking in recent memory. Probably not done seeing it, either; feels like that's going to keep on going for a while.

    (5) That King poem is kind of interesting, isn't it? I never thought a whole heck of a lot about that, at least until the past few years when it all of a sudden began to make a sweaty sort of sense to me. Not exactly the sort of work one is thrilled to find improving with age, but hey, if the shoe fits...

    (6) I suppose there's an argument to be made that all fiction is a lie, and that *most* of the people who ingest those lies are aware that they are willingly participating in something untruthful. That opens up the idea that if everyone is on the same page regarding what is happening, then everything is fine. What this movie sounds like to me is that the filmmakers wanted to push the envelope in terms of finding out what would happen if they removed the foreknowledge from as many members of the audience as possible. I'm with you, Christ; that's a dangerous idea. And art probably *should* be dangerous sometimes, but ... I dunno, this feels like a step or two too far.

    (7) With "JFK," I think maybe the way to look at it would be to speculate that since the truth about Kennedy's assassination is never going to be discovered -- and if it was, would not be accepted by at least half of the world -- then spinning almost literally any level of untruth about that incident and its aftermath is fair game. With the moon landing, we know the truth. Period. End of story. So if you want to tell a lie about it, well, that's fair game as long you announce your intentions. But trying to obfuscate those intentions; it's a no from me, dawg.

    (8) Great writeup on a movie I'd never heard of!

    1. (1) Yup, sure enough. I've even seen it. What's it like? Well, here's the thing, I can say I came away liking it. However, I'm pretty sure this is going to forever be a minority opinion. Like it's a future underground, art house, surrealist cult classic. That's the kind of territory that film is dealing with, for better or worse.

      (2) And yet it seems just like yesterday!

      (3) Forgot all about "Diamonds" while I was writing this on. Either I've got too much respect for Sean Connery, of I'm just that forgetful.

      (4) For me, the line comes in when things cross over from what amounts to having harmless fun with myths and legends, and verges into the territory where matters of trust become problematic. That's when the ethics involved can always take a turn for the worst. Like, no one ever gets hurt with Loch Ness. Somehow, though, when it comes to the Moon Landing, I get the impression someone could get hurt, strange as that sounds.

      (5) Like I say, King and that long forgotten campus radical might have more to agree upon these days. However, there is still such things as taking it too far, in my opinion. I'm not saying let the guard down, just sometimes there can be cases where the shoe fits a bit too well. Then you get into dangerous territory.

      (6) (7) Well, like I say, if anything, this film might just reveal that while most artistic fictions are harmless, sometimes there might be notions, such as "Avalanche" where the truth of actual, real life lies, becomes all too real. That's the sort of thing that can have real bad consequences if you take it too far.

      (8) The curious part is there is this one other Found Footage film about the Moon Landing which I'm willing to look on more forgivingly. Part of it is because (a) they don't deny we've been to the moon, and (b) the premise itself is sheer popcorn pulp. It's called "Apollo 18", and is best descried as an online Creepypasta brought to life.

      In fact, I think it works as a good demarcation line where the lies fiction are still harmless, with "Avalanche" acting as a signpost for when art has mistakenly crossed the border from fun to unhealthy. At least there's one way of looking at it.