Is it scandalous that a fake documentary won the Academy Award?
Before you go ballistic on all things Michael Moore—not that we all don’t love a good Bowling for Columbine discussion every once in a while—do cool those jets, because here I’m talking about the 1971 nature-might-run-amok classic The Hellstrom Chronicle.
Produced by David L. Wolper, written by David Seltzer, and co-directed by Walon Green and Ed Spiegel, this Best Documentary Oscar winner is a beguiling mix of fact, philosophy, and fakery. It was brilliantly designed to serve not just as an educational product—its stunning macrophotography revealing the insect world up close as we’d never truly seen it before—but also as a work of doomsday alarmism, a desperate warning coming from an erudite man that humanity is in danger of being wiped out entirely by hidden enemies we’re not taking very seriously.
That erudite man is Professor Nils Hellstrom, M.S., Ph.D—as played by actor Lawrence Pressman. Hellstrom is an entirely fictional character, a Cold War-era Nostradamus prophesizing the end of mankind once insects secure enough biological advantage to outlast the poisons steadily introduced into the environment by a weaker species (humans) hell-bent on maintaining its dominion over the planet but ill-equipped to evolve no matter how much a conscious desire for individual achievement spurs its members forward to fight a battle it cannot win.
After a brief introductory sequence lays out the broad strokes of Earth’s creation (equated to rape with hushed authority by our gravely-voiced narrator) with images of erupting volcanoes, slow-motion raindrops, the formation of crystals, and the division of cells—all set against the creepy dissonance of a Lalo Schifrin score that recalls Jerry Goldsmith’s work on Planet of the Apes—the Hellstrom character is set up to play well to the conspiracy-minded. We watch him stroll through a park among young lovers, a man ostracized by mainstream thinkers for his unpopular ideas:
My name is Nils Hellstrom. If that name rings a bell at all, it’s probably in connection with the words fanatic, lunatic, heretic. These other descriptions have come as a result of my dedication to my work. My obsession with certain findings I’ve made. It’s not easy to be obsessed. In the past 18 months it’s cost me two fellowships, one assistant professorship and even a few friendships. I don’t care about that really. In a way it’s kind of flattering. What I really regret is that after nine years of concentrated work, I’ve learned something that no one wants to hear. But unless someone does hear, unless someone is at least exposed to it, we as a species might pass from existence without ever knowing why.
We are with him now, of course. A brave man is taking the heat for all of us. They said Galileo was a heretic, too, you can picture many an educated viewer in the audience silently nodding as they prepare to receive the secret knowledge that will one day save the world, even at the cost of this good teacher’s reputation.
And so we follow the professor to locations like a radiation lab in Rock Valley, Nevada, where he talks about a study that has revealed that the insect can survive and adapt to the radiation that man has unleashed into the atmosphere;
Hellstrom drives through the night in his car, turning to us and confiding what he alone is prepared to admit: that the insect is the only creature that can successfully adapt to every change man makes to the planet;
Hellstrom strolls through the main computer center of the California Institute of Technology to discuss how humans fall short in the evolutionary contest:
Unlike man, whose physical limitations are dictated from the moment of his birth, the insect is born with the ability to actually improve upon his own body. When he reaches the limits of his capability, he transforms into an entirely new being.
And it is here, perhaps, where the canny viewer might first spot the clever mix of fact and bullpucky. Man cannot improve upon his own bodily limitations? Guess all that diet and exercise crap is a perverse load of hooey. Pass the cheeseburgers and hand me the remote. (We won’t even get into all the examples of how this is bullpucky because man surpasses his biological limitations all the time through the creation of technology. Can’t fly? Planes. Can’t survive a bullet? Body armor. And so on.)
We’re probably too preoccupied anyway with the beauty of the sequence in which a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly to be making these kinds of detached observations about Hellstrom’s pure “logic.” This is how The Hellstrom Chronicle—and other works like it—achieve their aims. The discourse contains just enough fact to distract and legitimize the more questionable assertions that bring on our pure terror.
Compared with man we have to admit that the insect does not display what we could describe as intelligence. But don’t feel too proud about that—because where there is no intelligence, there is also no stupidity.
“Where there is no intelligence, there is also no stupidity”? Sounds like a good motto for everyone who can’t get enough of the martyrdom in being rejected by the lamestream.
But Hellstrom isn’t near done yet, now hauling out the effective conceit of the hidden camera to demonstrate our innate fear of the insect. One of the rich ironies of this film is that most of the footage involving humans other than Hellstrom—including these bits where shoppers accidentally grasp at bugs in the produce section, or the scene where Hellstrom interviews a farmer who has seen his crops devastated by locusts and too-powerful insecticides— appears to be very obviously staged and fake. So much so that by the time we get to the snuff film portion of the picture, where Hellstrom claims to kill a live mouse “in thirty seconds” by subjecting him to a fatal insect sting, you can’t help but feel a little like there might be some editing tricks being played.
The insect and all the lower forms are dedicated to species survival…for man, unless the setting is right, the perfume is right, the music is sweet—and at least one partner feels loved by the other, the reproductive act might never occur.
Well, sure. “At least one” has to feel loved by the other. Whatta guy.
We know we’re in a ‘70s film when the discussion of the mating habits of the black widow provides an excuse to cue up some electronic jive on the soundtrack. As if this strange choice of turning this sequence into a Them-meets-Foxy Brown moment wasn’t enough to furrow the brow, Hellstrom takes the questionable tack of advancing his credibility on the back of insulting any viewers who might occasionally fall prey to the banal:
Ever notice how from a great height a society of human beings takes on the appearance of so many ants scurrying to and fro? If you have it’s rather a dull witted observation, because there’s really no similarity whatsoever.
With that, we get to it, though, because a careful viewing of the film starts to reveal to us that this movie may also not be “just” about the coming war between man and insect. Call me a weakling member of the human species for contextualizing what is not spelled out explicitly by the film, but in my opinion, The Hellstrom Chronicle is of exceptional value today because it is clear that we were, and are, meant to analogize this man-insect divide to matters of inter-species peril:
If we seek a so-called perfect society, then we must look to the community of bees. For here there is no competition, no ego, no individual need. Each coming into this world with an instinctive understanding that he must support the rest. The foundation of this society is The Worker…
COMMUNISTS! COMMUNISTS! THE BUGS ARE DIRTY COMMUNISTS!
When one bee finds a rich bounty of nectar, she shares it with all.
In the cooperative society the fate of each is the destiny of all.
Who are they but a bunch of heathenistic creatures, without even a passport to Heaven?
Just when I am ready to laugh off Hellstrom’s red-baiting “chronicle,” though, he gets me.
The penultimate sequence of the film works us by hitting on our most universal concerns, relating the story of the humble mayfly, whose short—and thus to us, quite precious—lifespan is marked by a lack of introspection over its imminent demise. Without the blessing (and curse) of human consciousness, the mayflies simply live to live. For them, there is no burden of achieving perspective. Ever.
Every one of these con games, from the end-of-humanity screed to cold psychic readings, to “talking with the dead” events, plays on our common fears about death and our collective wounds over loss. If a doomsday grifter can get this connection right—if he can reach you with this gentle commiseration—the rest of the story is much easier to sell. You are in a vulnerable state now, and more open to the blood and thunder of revelation.
And what a revelation we get. When the climactic scene is unleashed, it’s as strong and disturbing a final sequence as the most frightening of horror movies. The film builds to this so well that, in its own way, the sequence showing the siafu (or driver ant) at work produces visceral chills to rival the ending moments of Freaks, The Exorcist, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre:
Mindless unstoppable killing machine. Dedicated to the destruction of everything that stands in its way. Each of them is completely blind, driven forward through the darkness by a single demanding need within – the need to kill and plunder.
As I watch, I think to myself, the ants look like jihadists pouring across the desert.
And that thought makes me shiver at how well the movie does its job.
Walking across some dusty ruins, Hellstrom shares his final observations about our precarious situation. How, exactly, is he successfully arguing the case that a species has “failed” in this setting when indeed, humans did survive and flourish despite the wreckage of this man-made wasteland he’s ambling though? I’m confused. But at the end, something remarkable happens:
Today we’re not used to this sort of candor—the veil being pulled back clearly, to make certain we’re aware of what was “real” and what was “pretend.” It seems like we should have more of that today. People are pretty smart, but we may well be overestimating our fellow man’s abilities these days when it comes to sorting out fact from fiction, news from performance.
I keep looking at Hellstrom’s face—that scene when he’s walking among some hanging puppets of bugs on a dark stage—and thinking, where have I seen him recently?
But wait. What if Glenn’s right? What if we really are edging further towards a society controlled by a very few of the wealthy and powerful? Is there something to what he says? Should I be frightened?
A disclaimer of some sort would be helpful.