The Specter Haunting Infowars

The new documentary A Gray State, executive produced by Werner Herzog, explores a murder-suicide that has become a far-right obsession.

Michael Atkinson December 7, 2017

A Gray State, directed by Erik Nelson and executive produced by Werner Herzog, airs on A&E in December.

In Erik Nelson’s new doc­u­men­tary, A Gray State, we get the gran­u­lar low­down on the David Crow­ley case, which has become a fringe cause, as a sup­posed symp­tom of the dark­er forces so enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly per­ceived by Amer­i­cans with­in their own social structures.

Nelson benefits from both Crowley’s ambition and his megalomania, and even exploits them, but the problem with A Gray State remains with how Crowley fails to represent anything beside his own very private conflicts.

Crow­ley, a hand­some, elo­quent and quick-think­ing Iraq War vet­er­an, returned in 2009 from an unwant­ed extra deploy­ment in Afghanistan with a bit­ter chip on his shoul­der and imme­di­ate­ly enrolled in film school. The fea­ture film he began plan­ning, Gray State, is a pedan­tic indie B‑movie about the fas­cist takeover of Amer­i­ca by mon­eyed elites, neces­si­tat­ing cit­i­zens (like Crow­ley) to take up arms and fight back.

Unem­ployed and obsessed, Crow­ley shot an elab­o­rate trail­er for the film, net­worked online and attract­ed thou­sands of fans” eager­ly await­ing the fin­ished movie. He even got real Hol­ly­wood pro­duc­ers inter­est­ed. Then, things went mys­te­ri­ous­ly wrong, and before any­one knew it, in 2015, Crow­ley, his wife and their 5‑year-old daugh­ter were dead.

With Allahu Akbar” writ­ten on the wall in the wife’s blood, the ques­tion is inevitable: mur­der-sui­cide or assas­si­na­tion? With­in the super-cul­ture of para­noiacs and key­board free­dom fight­ers, the car­bon­ic odor of black-op injus­tice is still in the air. The lib­er­tar­i­an rev­o­lu­tion,” bull­horned along by the likes of Alex Jones, would have Crow­ley as a mar­tyr-artiste, mur­dered by the state.

Nelson’s film is a fair­ly straight­for­ward police-file-and-talk­ing-heads affair, ener­gized by the use of Crowley’s own store­house of footage, and in essence posit­ing him as a co-direc­tor. (Crow­ley gets his only legit film cred­its here, for music and cin­e­matog­ra­phy orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed for his movie.) The weird dynam­ics of watch­ing the repur­posed footage of a dead man is fas­ci­nat­ing and more than a lit­tle voyeuris­tic, as it was in Wern­er Herzog’s Griz­zly Man. (Nel­son pro­duced Griz­zly Man, and Her­zog is list­ed as a pro­duc­er on A Gray State.) As it is, Nel­son ben­e­fits from both Crowley’s ambi­tion and his mega­lo­ma­nia, and even exploits them, but the prob­lem with A Gray State remains with how Crow­ley fails to rep­re­sent any­thing beside his own very pri­vate conflicts.

We see footage of him being cel­e­brat­ed at mili­tia ral­lies, but most of the Crow­ley we see is stuff he shot him­self, as pro­mo mate­r­i­al, as home movies and some­times as sur­veil­lance footage he seems strange­ly unaware of. There’s lit­tle or no sense of the man objec­tive­ly. His gun-hap­py lib­er­tar­i­an pol­i­tics were sim­ple enough, until he ceased being polit­i­cal alto­geth­er and with­drew behind a sud­den veil of mud­dled evan­gel­i­cal beliefs. No one in his friend cir­cle can explain why he and his wife might decide to die togeth­er and be rap­tured.”

So much for con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries — Crow­ley didn’t need help falling off the edge. But with­out them, there’s no larg­er way to see Crowley’s sad sto­ry as reveal­ing any­thing about the boil­ing caul­dron of Amer­i­can divisiveness.

Did Crow­ley deserve the hub­bub to begin with? What nags about Nelson’s film is how it, like so much else in the cul­ture at large, blithe­ly agrees with the rest of main­stream media that online atten­tion, mea­sured in views,” is actu­al­ly worth the pix­els it’s illu­mi­nat­ed by. Most of the time, gar­ner­ing that atten­tion boils down to mak­ing some­thing, be it a vlog post or ide­o­log­i­cal web­site or what­ev­er, that a few thou­sand peo­ple glance at, and even like,” before they move on to the next inter­net splooge. Hard­ly a man­date for rel­e­vance. (That is, unless you’re an adver­tis­er.) The New York Times may reg­u­lar­ly report when social media blows up,” and even quote a lucky meme-ster. But in real­i­ty, hav­ing a cer­tain num­ber of Twit­ter fol­low­ers or Face­book trolls or fans” very often sig­ni­fies exact­ly noth­ing. Crow­ley is just anoth­er ephemer­al inter­net ghost, fleet­ing­ly famous for all the wrong reasons.

If any­thing, Crow­ley might be tak­en as a cau­tion­ary tale about alt-right extrem­ism, lend­ing anec­do­tal yet pun­gent evi­dence to what may seem appar­ent to most of us any­way: that full-throt­tle invest­ment in fas­cist fan­tasies and para­mil­i­tary self-suf­fi­cien­cy is like any oth­er kind of irra­tional faith, a brand of dis­as­so­ci­a­tion that leads to self-mythol­o­gy, trib­al spite and vio­lence. Giv­en our cul­ture of guns and fame lust, maybe we should con­sid­er our­selves lucky Crow­ley end­ed his jour­ney with­out leav­ing the house.

Michael Atkin­son is a film review­er for In These Times. He has writ­ten or edit­ed many books, includ­ing Exile Cin­e­ma: Film­mak­ers at Work Beyond Hol­ly­wood (2008) and the mys­tery nov­els Hem­ing­way Dead­lights (2009) and Hem­ing­way Cut­throat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Con­duct.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH