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Secret Pizza, #pizzagate and Hyperreality: How My Film About Alternate Realities Was Swept Into One

Automatic at Sea (credit: Zach Lanoue)

“In the province of the mind what one believes to be true, either is true or becomes true within certain limits.” – John C. Lilly

“I don’t believe anything, but I have many suspicions.” – Robert Anton Wilson

“Reality used to be a friend of mine.” – P.M. Dawn

My name is Matthew Lessner. I have been making films for the past decade, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d never seen any of them. Several of my films have screened at big-name festivals, but none of them have been exactly championed or widely released. I’ve never been mentioned in this publication outside of festival line-up press releases, and the few times my work has been written about in the trade papers it hasn’t garnered much attention in Hollywood (“Sophomoric philosophical drivel”– Hollywood Reporter; “Aimless satire with no narrative shape” — Variety) — though a few obscure German socialist newspapers have responded positively, cheers Sozialismus. It’s true that I’ve had a few high-profile collaborators throughout the years, but those have mostly petered out. A few years ago I retreated from the west coast of The United States to Sweden, where I’ve been living and working on my first gallery exhibition (which opened last spring at Nevven in Gothenburg) and putting the finishing touches on my new film Automatic at Sea, which I have been attempting in vain to summarize for well over a year now, and which will screen in the Beyond section at Slamdance next week.

Given the above autobiography, I might seem an unlikely candidate to helm a covert media propaganda campaign for some of the most powerful people in Washington DC, perhaps in the world. So it might surprise you to learn how I (think I) came to hold just such a position in the minds of a group of unknown strangers.

In late November 2016 shortly after learning that Automatic at Sea had been invited to screen at Slamdance, I resumed a longstanding effort to write a suitable synopsis for the film (which in my mind has more to do with the exploration of a series of questions about the nature of reality than the unfolding of a particular narrative, but I knew I couldn’t say that). On the surface the film is about a young Swedish traveler who finds herself trapped on a private island with an American heir. It’s about this character attempting to distinguish the real from the unreal, and to some extent it’s an invitation to the viewer to do the same. The film is about the ways our beliefs shape reality, it’s about the trappings of privilege, and it’s about the terror of hyperreality (in which what is real and what is fiction are seamlessly blended together so that there is no clear distinction between where one ends and the other begins). It’s difficult to describe without sounding like an asshole.

While procrastinating from this seemingly elusive task I checked my e-mail and found a message from YouTube informing me of a new comment on my short film, Chapel Perilous. The comment from “patrick lane” simply read “#pizzagate.” I found this mildly unusual for two reasons: 1) Chapel Perilous, named for a psychological state popularized by Robert Anton Wilson, in which an individual cannot be certain whether they have been aided or hindered by some force outside the realm of the natural world, or whether what appeared to be supernatural interference was a product of their own imagination, was released a few years ago and hasn’t spurred any activity since last spring when “Cody Walnut” noted “Anything will get on Sundance these days” and 2) there is no pizza in the film. Despite these anomalies, I didn’t think much else of the comment and resumed my fruitless endeavor.

The following day, while again avoiding the task at hand, I checked my e-mail and discovered another message from YouTube informing me of a new comment on Chapel Perilous. This one, from “RobPaul” said “#PizzaGate Pedophiles You will pay.” Hmm. This warranted further investigation. I Googled “#pizzagate” and read of an alarming theory, alleging that a child sex trafficking ring was being run out of the basement of a DC pizza parlor called Comet Ping Pong. Apparently the theory was born from the same hacked and leaked e-mails of Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, which had just played a role in the recent presidential election, and continue to make headlines. It seems a string of e-mails between Podesta and the owner of Comet Ping Pong, James Alefantis, regarding a Clinton fundraiser, somehow led to allegations that Podesta and the Clinton’s were involved in an occult cabal supplying child slaves to be sold through secret rooms in the pizza place. The allegations were followed by threats of violence and death. Hmm. Though little of this made much sense, the YouTube comments suddenly had a bit more context. As fate would have it, James Alefantis, the owner of Comet Ping Pong, was also one of the executive producers on both Chapel Perilous and Automatic at Sea — brought on to both projects by my friend and producer David Henry Gerson, whom I’d met at Sundance after a screening of my first feature, The Woods. I’d only met James once at Sundance when we screened Chapel Perilous, but he certainly didn’t strike me as the human trafficking type.

I logged into Twitter and discovered a barrage of flattering personal accusations (“a writer/director that works for podesta”), dissections of my work (“Setting of Automatic at Sea not dissimilar to Jeff Epstein’s island. See creepy trailer #pizzagate”), and vague threats (“Don’t want 2 cause unneeded trouble. Can u confirm that photo is same J. Allefantis that’s EP on ‘Automatic @ Sea’?”), as well as repeated references to “secret pizza.” Hmm. It seems that when those behind #pizzagate found Mr. Alefantis listed on IMDb as the executive producer of my films, they felt they had discovered a smoking gun upon reading the final sentence of the original synopsis for Automatic at Sea (the very synopsis that I had just been attempting to re-write). It concluded, “…Gradually the idyllic natural beauty of her surroundings dissolves, and Eve finds herself trapped in an unstable reality punctuated by feverish visions, dimensional shifting and secret pizza.” According to those making the accusations, “pizza” is a deep web code word for trafficking in young women. I had intended it as a catchall for everything I felt I couldn’t easily explain. What a coincidence.

I reached out to my producer David, who had been receiving similar messages, and then it seemed all at once we began to hear from other collaborators on the film who were being hassled as well. Livia Hiselius, a Swedish actress in the film sent me an e-mail and said “Many people have wrote me on facebook about the film and asked about James Alefantis, if I know anything about him, If i met him etc. Hmm, what can I say? Or what is it with him? The person quote from imdb “bizzare visions, dimensional shifting and secret pizza” and then mention James.” The other actress in the film began receiving messages from “John Smith” containing amongst other things, images of color-coded graphs of the “FBI handkerchief code” (“Yellow – Watersports, Orange – Anything, anytime”). You learn something new every day.

Though Automatic at Sea had yet to be released and was not available online, this did not stop interested parties from scouring any available piece of information related to the film, which resulted in detailed analyses of screen grabs from our Kickstarter campaign video and examinations of promotional material for all my past work, which just so happened to contain an abnormal amount of occult symbolism and terminology. This was not lost on the #pizzagate crowd. It seems I had been writing my own role in this unfolding narrative for years.

It may be worth noting here that I have long been sympathetic to a wide range of ideas that might be considered “conspiracy theories” by the mainstream public. For years I’ve carried my cellphone in a homemade case designed to limit EMF radiation, and I always leave the room when someone is careless enough to use a microwave in my presence. I’ve also utilized a number of opportunities to have fun with the narrative related to the creation of my work, including taking certain liberties during interviews, and an admission of collusion with the Illuminati during an acceptance speech for the Audience Award for Chapel Perilous at Sundance. Additionally I’ve dabbled in the creation of “fake news” myself. Back in 2008 I started a YouTube channel called “Little Known Facts About Presidential Candidates.” I only ever finished three videos, which I narrated myself. All of my “facts” were made up. One of the pieces about Ron Paul purchasing Michael Landon’s leather jacket at closed auction for $200,000 seemed to cause a bit of a stir amongst a certain corner of the libertarian crowd. Though I had no particular agenda in the creation of these videos, nor in the manipulation of my own narrative, I have long been interested in the ability of manufactured truth to impact reality. Needless to say the idea of suddenly being embroiled in something like #pizzagate had a kind of ouroboros vibe.

Things took on a more ominous tone several days later when shots were fired inside Comet Ping Pong as an armed man attempted to free the alleged child slaves from a basement that apparently did not exist. In response to the shooting, David strongly suggested that we change the synopsis, (which I was still unsatisfied with, but at that point had already been submitted to Slamdance), omitting the reference to “secret pizza” and replacing it with “secret soda.” (While I don’t want to give too much away about the film, I can reveal that “secret soft drinks” and “secret snacks” were discussed as possible alternatives, and would, I feel, have been equally as relevant.) As you may have already guessed, the “secret pizza” omission in our updated synopsis did not achieve the intended goal of calming the fire surrounding the film and its purported link to #pizzagate, but rather ignited it anew. The change was promptly noted by interested parties and seen as a further implication of guilt, and as such the theories and speculation became more far reaching and vast (and confusing):

“Rydal”: “Nice find… they have media coordinated on the fake news and they have access to erase web occurrences. This really could get swept under the rug. We could hedge our bets and invest in psych medication based big pharma!”

“Empire_of_the_mind”: “They are used to having power and are only now discovering that it doesn’t work the way it used to. This is what a failing organization looks like. They are becoming impotent by the day and are on their way out.”

“GrislyAddams”: “This is the equivalent of changing your story in the middle of an interrogation. Keep it up. If he feels the heat enough to change something so minor, then we are pushing the right buttons.”

Shortly after the shooting the #pizzagate threads were shut down on sites like Reddit and 4chan, where many of the more unusual theories were brewing. But new sites quickly popped up along with fresh accusations of our collaboration with “shadow governments” and allegations of Kubrick/moon-landing style coded messaging contained within the film, which it was suggested was funded by the Clinton Foundation. While no one wants to be associated with accusations of child trafficking, I can’t say it wasn’t at least a little flattering to have strangers like “totesgoats908234” postulating, “How much you want to bet they finance these movies to try to make them in the same subliminal style as Stanley Kubrick.” How much indeed!

While the #pizzagate crowd certainly wasn’t my intended audience when making the film, it was exciting to finally have people examining my films with this level of scrutiny. I was forwarded an entire page dedicated to documenting every use of the ouroboros symbol in my work (quite recurrent as it turns out), as well as detailed breakdowns of occult symbolism and meaning in my past promotional material — though even amongst this crowd the critics remained. (“stickittotheman” wrote, “More so-called “ART” linked to “pizza.””)

Things quieted down considerably during the holidays, to the point that I assumed the controversy was over, but then a few days after Christmas I checked my e-mail and found a new message from YouTube in my inbox. It seems even Internet conspiracists take vacations. Suddenly the threats had become more ominous. “SCOTSMAN” warned “+montelomax the tables have turned, run scatter! Little satanic cunt. Illuminati whore, BE CAREFUL (frowny face emoji).” “Antipas” added, “you be careful… God is ever watching.” And “tammy leibelt” (whose avatar is, coincidentally, the very same illustration of Jesus hugging a baby lamb that my grandfather had hanging near the fireplace in his living room) offered “child lover pedophile pos burn in hell.”

In retrospect it seems that much of the thought that influenced Automatic at Sea, also foreshadowed the post-truth world we now seem to find ourselves increasingly inhabiting. In The Precession of Simulacra, Jean Baudrillard outlined four steps of reproduction related to hyperreality: (1) basic reflection of reality; (2) perversion of reality; (3) pretense of reality (where there is no model); and (4) simulacrum, which “bears no relation to any reality whatsoever,” or which is more real than real, truer than true. Hmm. Here we are.

I made Automatic at Sea in an attempt to explore a number of questions about reality that I found particularly haunting. The result is a film that is intentionally open ended, an invitation to interpretation. In many ways what has transpired with #pizzagate has underscored the value in creating art that explores the human capacity to imaginatively shape reality. It has also helped me articulate a narrative about the film that strikes at its core intent and purpose, a narrative that I might not have been able to articulate otherwise.

However, it has also revealed the strikingly advanced state of hyperreality we find ourselves immersed in. In his latest film, HyperNormalisation, Adam Curtis calls into question the responsibility of the artist in relation to the current state of the world, in which the lines between real and unreal, fact and fiction are ever blurred. He suggests that in the 1970s a shift began in which artists increasingly detached from reality and retreated evermore into themselves to mine content for their work. He claims that this kind of individualistic self-expression is antithetical to political change and has aided in the creation of a “fake world,” in which power structures benefitting from this false reality remain largely invisible and unchecked.

While creating a film that seeks to explore our capacity to influence and inhabit alternative realities still feels of importance, I’m left wondering to what extent it might also be an irresponsible act, particularly at a time where people are interpreting reality as they want to, often with chilling results. As we mentioned on our Kickstarter campaign page, Automatic at Sea is a film intended to evoke questions. A question I didn’t anticipate being evoked that now sits with me regards the role of the artist in such an advanced state of hyperreality. What does it mean to create from a place of personal exploration and invite interpretation in art in an era when reality itself has become open to interpretation, when truth has become subjective, when someone will shoot up a pizza parlor in search of a fabricated child sex ring, but many true atrocities continue to go unexplored and unaddressed?

I am curious to see how this narrative continues to evolve next week when Automatic at Sea is actually seen, perhaps by some of those that think they already know the truer truth. Hmm.

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