Wednesday, July 16, 2008

David Cherniack's UFOs: The Secret History

I caught the world premiere of Canadian documentary filmmaker David Cherniack's new film UFOs: The Secret History, on The History Channel here in Canada tonight. The film is must-see viewing for anyone interested in UFOs, but at the same time its accessible to the general public whose only real exposure to the UFO phenomenon has been The X-Files. A compelling, and at times lyrical, examination of the history of the UFO phenomenon and our relationship to it as a species, UFOs: The Secret History is an example of a documentary that manages to convey information in a compelling and entertaining manner, and which raises more questions than it answers. In short, it is superior filmmaking.

The film is not without flaws. Dr. Jacques Vallee and others like him are dismissed in a minute or so - Jerry Clark refers to Vallee's approach to the UFO phenomenon as "debunking with a more pretentious name", and Cherniack in his narration largely dismisses it as a result of the fascination with Eastern mysticism that arose in the counter-culture of the late 1960s. Cherniack makes a few factual errors as well - he refers to Dr. Edward Condon, for example, for example, as an astronomer, when in fact Condon was a physicist and a pioneer in quantum mechanics. I also dispute Cherniack's contention that Close Encounters of the Third Kind was the first great UFO film, and a turning point where UFOs left the scientific realm and became firmly ensconced in pop culture, a conclusion that ignores a long and rich history of UFOs as part of pop culture, from Orson Welles' War of the Worlds to The Day the Earth Stood Still to Stanley Kubrick's classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

These are relatively small things, however, when compared with what the film gets right. It details the history of the UFO phenomenon from the late 1940s to the present day in just an hour, and manages to hit most of the high and low points along the way, from the founding of NICAP and the work of Dr. Jim McDonald on the one hand to the "swamp gas" and alien autopsy fiascos on the other. Cherniack shows how the United States Air Force and other government agencies, notably the CIA, have not been completely forthcoming about the UFO phenomenon, but he does so without the kind of rampant conspiracy theorizing that seriously marred Richard Dolan's otherwise useful book UFOs and the National Security State. Indeed, in the second half of the film, Cherniack shows how the descent of ufology into the fringe world of crashed flying saucer stories, conspiracy theorism, and the abduction phenomenon, has obscured the reality of the UFO phenomenon in the past thirty years, with the result that there is no real hope for a serious scientific inquiry into UFOs, and the UFO story gets ignored by the mainstream media now as being inherently silly.

Cherniack spends very little time on Roswell, for example (Stan Friedman gets less screen time here than he did in the ABC News documentary Seeing is Believing a couple of years ago), because at best it is inconclusive, and at worst it has proven to be a huge distraction from the search for the truth. Cherniack devotes more time to showing how Roswell led inevitably to the fraudulent MJ-12 documents than he does to the case itself, and we get to see rare clips from the legendary UFO Cover-Up Live program that featured Jaime Shandera and Bill Moore, as well as "Falcon", and stories that the aliens like Tibetan music and strawberry ice cream. That is where crashed saucer tales and things like MJ-12 have led ufology, and Cherniack wonders whether the UFO phenomenon has been deliberately manipulated to cover up what was really going on, whether extraterrestrial visitation or top secret US government testing programs.

But Cherniack is no debunker - he shows the absurdity of the US Air Force's Project Mogul explanation, for example. In one of the better segments, he also demonstrates what a pivotal moment the Colorado Project was for the serious study of the UFO phenomenon, and how it was a complete and utter scientific fraud foisted on the general public by the US Air Force and Edward Condon - much to the chagrin of many of the people who actually investigated the cases for Condon, including Dr. William Hartmann, who found the 1950 Trent photos case compelling (Hartmann appears briefly in the film).

At its core, however, UFOs: The Secret History is as much about us as it is about the UFO phenomenon. Whether UFOs are real or not isn't really the issue, he seems to be saying. It's our need to mythologize the phenomenon that's truly fascinating, and he delves into that aspect of the story with an expert hand, as he notes, for example, that whether abductions are real or not, "they were touching upon something deeply mythic". But Cherniack is not just about this angle either - like me, he is clearly convinced that there is an objective reality to the UFO phenomenon. Although he isn't quite sure what UFOs are, the hundreds of excellent cases that remain unexplained, and which feature multiple witness accounts and hard data like radar hits and other physical evidence, are impossible to ignore.

Like a great figure skater or gymnast, Cherniack completes his "routine" with a perfect ending. The version of contact that we have imagined, he says, is a myth that we have created to shield us from a reality that we have little hope of understanding, given that we may well be dealing with civilizations or intelligences millions or even billions of years more advanced than we are. As long as we are focused on crashed flying saucers, and conspiracies, and other fringe elements with no real evidence, we are truly missing what could be a very important story.

Cherniack's film demonstrates how we have held ourselves back in terms of our understanding of the UFO phenomenon through our own self-imposed perceptual limitations, and the "noise" we have ourselves created. At the same time, however, Cherniack shows us that there is still a "signal" out there worth looking for, if only we have the courage and the intellectual open-mindeness to try.

UFOs: The Secret History, is a profoundly rich and thought-provoking film, well worth repeated viewings. Here's hoping that it gets the attention that it deserves, and that people embrace a nuanced film that refuses to fall into either fundamentalist debunkery or died-in-the-wool believerism.

Paul Kimball


Mac said...

Jerry Clark. Sheesh.

Greg Bishop said...

Looks like Cherniak may have finally produced the kind of film I actually want to see.

Now we have to take it further!


Anonymous said...

Paul, thanks for your compliments and intelligent insights into the film. A few comments:

You're correct in that I shouldn't have called Condon an astronomer. I'm not sure how that happened though I may have unconsciously picked out the latter phrase in his bio at University Libraries:

"...he moved to Boulder, Colorado, as professor of physics and fellow of the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics."

However that doesn't excuse getting it wrong...

Speaking of getting things name is spelled "Cherniack"

Also, while Vallee is only mentioned in relation to Passport to Magonia, I don't consider that "dismissing" him. That was his major contribution to the subject.

Also, Jerry Clark is not dissing Vallee, at all. His comment is aimed at the armchair psycho-social theorists that followed in his wake.

Also...and I don't mean to go on pointing these things out...The Day the Earth Stood Still is referenced in the film. But it is my opinion that neither it, nor 2001, nor Well's War of the Worlds broadcast are fully fledged UFO subject films as Close Encounters is, nor are they in the same league in generating the mythic sense of awe that shifted the UFO phenomenon firmly into the realm of pop culture narratives. Still, that's just my opinion.

BTW the film's credit roll begins with:

"For Mr. Kubrick, who pointed it out."

"it" being the mythic profundity that is at the heart of our searching for our place within this vast and ancient universe.

Again, by pointing these things out I don't wish to minimize your considerable insights into the film. Thanks for taking the time to bring them to the attention of your readers.


Paul Kimball said...

Hi David,

Thanks for the comments. I shall correct the spelling mistake on your name immediately! :-)

As for Jerry Clark, the way that the segment is structured, it definitely leaves the impression that he was referring not just to the psycho-social theorists, but Vallee as well. I watched the film twice, and the first time with friends - we all agreed that this was the impression that was left.

As for Vallee himself, I don't think you can distill his contribution to UFO research down to just Passport to Magonia and what came from it. Vallee's clasisfication system, for example, improved on Hynek's earlier system for classifying UFO reports, and provided a crucial element of scientific methodology to the study of the UFO phenomenon. Vallee was also a very active investigator of cases in the field, unlike many modern ufologists, who never leave the comforts of their own home. I think his import and legacy was not adequately represented in your film.

As to the films, we'll just have to agree to disagree. I would argue that the Welles War of the Worlds broadcast had far more impact on how we view extraterrestrial life, and that it carried on well into the 1950s, when the course of how we view the UFO question was really shaped.

But these are relatively minor quibbles - I think you made a wonderful film, and wish you all the best in your efforts to secure for it the widest audience possible!

Best regards,

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,

Here's the transcript of the Vallee section. Jerry's comment is immediately preceded by the narration reference to the researchers in Europe who subsequently embraced Vallee's idea that UFOs were the "modern face of an old phenomenon." I suspect that your imputing his comment as directed at Vallee may have more to do with other things...psycho-social in nature :)

[Jerome Clark]
In 1969, Jacques Vallee wrote a book called "Passport to Magonia", where he links modern UFOs to traditional beliefs about faeries, demons, gods, entities of various kinds.

Jacques Vallee had been one of Allen Hynek's graduate astronomy students, and Vallee's influence had been one of the reasons for Hynek's change of heart on UFOs. In his new book, Vallee pointed out that the reports of faerie encounters of yore, and modern UFO occupant reports had many qualities in common.

In Europe, many researchers embraced this idea, that UFOs were the modern face of an old phenomenon. One that was psycho-social in nature, not extraterrestrial.

[Jerome Clark]
The whole premise was that these things couldn't be happening. This was implicit. It was really the debunking view, by another, more pretentious name. And so there was this great effort to study the most extreme kinds of experiential claims. And without really much empirical investigation or documentation, just claiming that by their nature, they were explainable as the witness's deep-seeded psychological or spiritual needs. Often, ascribed to witnesses, that the writers had never met and knew nothing about, except what they had reported.

Paul Kimball said...

Hi David,

Thanks for that, but it merely confirms my original impression that the film left that Clark was talking about Vallee, from whom the whole psycho-social approach was derived, at least as far as one can tell by the way your narration and structure of this segment sets things up.

Jacques Vallee had been one of Allen Hynek's graduate astronomy students, and Vallee's influence had been one of the reasons for Hynek's change of heart on UFOs. In his new book, Vallee pointed out that the reports of faerie encounters of yore, and modern UFO occupant reports had many qualities in common.

In Europe, many researchers embraced this idea, that UFOs were the modern face of an old phenomenon. One that was psycho-social in nature, not extraterrestrial.

[Jerome Clark]
The whole premise was that these things couldn't be happening. This was implicit. It was really the debunking view, by another, more pretentious name...

The key words in all of that is this idea, which draws a direct link in the mind of any reasonable viewer (and I was sitting with several) to what Clark says immediately afterwards.


Paul Kimball said...


P.S. - I'm happy to accept that this is not what Clark meant, but then I would have to criticize you for what I would consider sloppy editing in this part, which at best leaves it unclear to the viewer exactly whether or not Clark was referring to Vallee and his theories. As I said, I watched it twice, and the second time I paid particular attention to this part, and I was left with the clear impression that Clark was talking about Vallee from the way you structured the segment.

Again, however, a small criticism all things considered.


Anonymous said...

"it merely confirms my original impression that the film left that Clark was talking about Vallee..."

I suppose I could respond that this merely confirms my suspicion that your impression was formed out of some deep-seated psycho-social need to interpret Jerry Clark as talking about Vallee....but I won't :)

Thanks for the comments. Onward and upward.

Alfred Lehmberg said...

Well! All things considered so far is that Mr. Cherniack is every bit the class act you've bestowed to less than deserving others, Paul, and presuming the appellation was lost in the needlessly prolonged contention let me just say that I'm near breathless with anticipation to see the work myself and remain confident that it will be in the same class as _your_ very excellent film... even if it is a little more willing than you are, to, you know, call a spade a spade regarding that pesky duplicitous "mainstream," its non-accountable agencies, and its prosecution of the obvious "Watergate."

It's good to see, too, that you're coming around on Richard Dolan even with the disclaimer, Paul. I suspect Dolan doesn't write the _half_ of it, eh? It's a whole lot more sinister than even _he_ lets on.

Hey, just go ahead and give up, you know? The approaching concresence makes Dolan —and Cherniack— inexorable. [g].
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Paul Kimball said...


Actually, I think when you see David's film you'll find that Best Evidence is more to the point in calling out the USAF in particular for keeping things secret (I don't buy a "Cosmic Watergate"). David is a bit more circumspect, and I think, if I read his film correctly, he has as little use for conspiracy theorism as I do.

As for the mainstream, considering he made his film for Canada's History Channel, which is owned by Alliance Atlantis, one of the world's largest media congolmerates, I would say David is closer to the mainstream than I am. ;-)

Which just goes to show that you can make good UFO-related films within the mainstream, contrary to what some folks would have you believe.

Best regards,

Unknown said...

Just finished my third viewing of Mr Cherniack's documentary. This topic is a relatively new interest of mine, and while I don't have the background of the other posters here, it was a beautifully balanced and riveting film - a real pleasure to watch! Such an impressive amount of work went into it. What's next, Mr, Cherniack? :-) Are you still as captivated with your subject at this point? Loved the childhood film clip of you!

In another documentary, "The Hidden Hand," I believe there is a quote from Speilberg which says that NASA wrote an extensive letter to him, asking him to desist from making "Close Encounters..." Does that ring a bell with anyone?

I would like to throw one question out there to anyone who would care to comment: WHY are our presidents forbidden to see the "classified' info on UFOs? That rather blows my mind.