Shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent...
So there was a plot. Buried in the dark heart of the establishment is an even darker secret. They killed her. The long arm of royal influence stretched across the Channel, took hold of the steering wheel and plunged the armoured Mercedes into the central reservation of a Parisian underpass. It also likely that it unbuckled the passengers’ seatbelts and took a few paparazzo photographs of the dying Princess, though it was later made to give those back.
The Butler claims to have seen it all coming. He was given a letter sealed in an envelope with his name on it, containing four sheets of paper covered in what seemed to be Diana’s handwriting. I like to think she might have been using automatic writing or experimenting with a planchette at the time, but that might be taking all this a little too far. What is inarguable apparently, is that a conspiracy is at hand. Of course, there isn’t any real evidence of this plot, only grief, paranoia and that sweet human refusal to accept that sometimes people die when you’d really rather they didn’t.
As far as conspiracies go, it is an odd one. No one really gained from it. No shadowy organisation preserved its ability to control the successions of Europe’s monarchies by killing a doe-eyed clothes horse; there was no irascible and boundlessly ambitious LBJ to bully John Glenn’s wife and then arrange the death of the president. Diana wasn’t friends with the mob, and if she met Sinatra at all, it was probably during that period of his life when he was hobbling around Japanese stages, trying to forget that the orchestra sounded much better when Nelson Riddle or Billy May was in charge. No, if profit is the motive for this conspiracy, then send the Black Maria down to the headquarters of Interflora, and be careful to avoid the Deadly Nightshade by the front door. As far as I can tell, the car didn’t really contain anyone of significance (surely an important factor in a good conspiracy killing), just a couple of people with greater confidence in the structural integrity of the ‘S’ class than most would be prepared to wager.
So why does the conspiracy refuse to go away? Why does it multiply endlessly, gaining new layers of skin without shedding the old ones? Quickly it becomes a fat narrative snake, consuming column inch after column inch to maintain its cold-blooded momentum.
Conspiracies are like theologies or ideologies. They presuppose the existence of an architecture upon which life is built – and thus an architect that built it. Conspiracy theories serve the exact opposite purpose to the one you might expect. Far from imbuing the world with a greater sense of mystery or excitement, they make it predictable. They deny the underlying chaos of life, its blank-staring unfairness. If Prince Philip cut the brake cables, or LBJ handed the man on the grassy knoll forty pieces of silver, the world simultaneously becomes more explicable, and safer (after all why would anyone want to kill you or I… we don’t matter). It is far better for our peace of mind if the High Priestess of compassionate privilege died for her beliefs and the happiness of her children, than for want of a clunk and a click.
Added to this historical comfort blanket effect, is the sense of inclusion, of being one of the initiated. Conspiracy theories are exclusive: those that enact the conspiracies are powerful and insubstantial figures, who curl around world events like a fog which burns off immediately whenever the lights are turned up for a little scrutiny. So if you are one of the few who has performed the trick of looking out of the corner of your eye and noticing the figure crouching behind the throne – that makes you and them kin of a sort. Jon Ronson’s ‘THEM’ illustrates this brilliantly. The self-satisfaction of the conspiracy hunter is exactly the same as the imagined satisfaction of the conspirator… they have climbed higher and seen further. Not for nothing is the friendly rhetoric of the conspiracy theorist similar to that of an evangelical speaking about the devil. They use terms of familiarity, almost of endearment: He’s an old so-and-so, a tricky feller… the unspoken assumption you are invited to make is that to speak of the devil on these terms, you have to have a little of his power, his know-how.
There are different flavours of conspiracy that suit different paranoias and different aesthetics. A well-constructed conspiracy is absolutely beautiful; a fabrication that binds the history of the world to the history of the individual, that binds art to cryptography and religion to mendacity. The conspirator is a micro-manager of the past, in which nothing that matters is beyond his control. ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’ takes this discipline to its logically absurd conclusion, where there is nothing that is not inter-connected, but perhaps this is not the real ideal. An infinity of disparate conspiracies is a conspiracy in itself; a conspiracy against the seeker of truth. Without a unified theory of deceit there is only an ever expanding alternative history, as large in terms of narrative as the version presented to us on a daily basis, but requiring a colossal level of analysis and interrogation before it will give up its secrets.
Unsurprisingly, conspiracies work rather well on film. The viewer is always playing the role of initiate, no matter how undemanding the film they are watching; the conspiracy movie simply chooses to utilise this inevitable side effect of passive observation. I could wade through countless worthy and intricate politically aware thrillers of the 1970s, glorying in their ambition, but frankly that all seems a bit shallow, a bit obvious. After all, if a conspiracy has a shiny glowing edifice, it is more likely to already have been noticed.
The current advert for Channel 4’s ‘Hundred Greatest Scary Moments’ special ends with a shot of the head of the Wicker Man, burning in the Hebridean sunlight (unfortunately in terms of the shock of that particular image, it is shorn of Edward Woodward’s terrifyingly fervent declamation of ‘The Lord’s my Shepherd’). ‘The Wicker Man’ is perhaps the most powerful conspiracy movie ever made – it conspires against our not-entirely sympathetic ‘Christian copper’, and it conspires against the viewer. We are led through Howie’s investigation, spotting clues moments before he does, invited to revel in how clever we are at seeing the alternative version of events unfurl before the detective does. Our intelligence is flattered in exactly the same way as Howie’s, we are in effect led to the Wicker Man ourselves, which is perhaps why it comes as such a shock to those seeing the film for the first time. I question the inclusion of the climax of ‘The Wicker Man’ in a poll of scary moments – it is not like the dénouement of ‘Don’t Look Now’, the film it criminally played B movie to in 1973 – the sacrifice is theatrical, almost comical as it must be in order to reflect the anarchic, frenzied and joyful celebrations of May Day, still seen in bowdlerised form in towns like Padstow. Howie’s death has its own unavoidable logic; once you have realised what that is, it is impossible to be scared of it.
The characters themselves are impenetrable, everyone chuckles openly at the big joke, there isn’t a sad looking islander in the whole film. Christopher Lee in drag singing ‘Summer is a-cumen in’ is a frightening sight, but not in the blood-chilling sense. It is the documentary movement of the camera among the smiling celebrants that makes the burning such an unsettling sequence. Throughout the film a fictitious world has been presented as fact, from the thank-you to the people of Summerisle at the outset, to the use of local people as actors in the harbour and during the procession. The photography is washed out and two-dimensional like TV, rather than glossy and wide-angled like much of the rest of 1970s cinema.
Also the music serves only to confuse and undermine. Opening with a beautiful skipping arrangement of Burns’ poem ‘Corn Rigs an Barley Rigs’, the soundtrack is a compelling mix of folk songs and incidental pieces composed and performed by Paul Giovanni. The unexpected mood of pastoral anachronism is established through songs such as ‘Gently Johnny’ and the hugely bizarre ‘Maypole’, sung to the accompaniment of Jew’s Harp and trilling children’s choir. However, revealed in the musical sequences are the underlying and ultimately horrifying themes of the film. Sexual license, paganism, sacrifice – all the things Howie discovers have been set to trap him are conveyed to us within these traditional deft melodies: they drift in under the radar, fearsome beneath the soothing cladding of flute and softly strung guitar.
The traditional conspiratorial form is that of the brilliant elite against the unwitting world. What makes ‘The Wicker Man’ such an unusual and memorable example of the genre is that it explores the hopelessness of being the sole victim of a conspiracy designed and played out by the rest of the world.