The Movie Waffler 13 Movies For America's New Regime | The Movie Waffler

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13 Movies For America's New Regime

We look at some classic movies that may become increasingly relevant in the times ahead.






Words by John Bennett

Since the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States, I’ve found myself resisting lighter movies. When I sat down to re-watch the Coen BrothersHail, Caesar! I couldn’t help but think, between laughs, of the uncertainty of the political future of my country. There’s a very serious wave of populism running throughout the West whose enduring effects remain to be seen, and the politically engaged moviegoer finds him or herself in an interesting predicament: how do I go about watching the kinds of films I like without turning a blind eye to what’s going on in the world? Well, here is a selection of movies that may be useful or enlightening to watch or re-watch during the early days of President Trump’s tenure—many of which function as great entertainments and all of which function as finely observed and pressingly pertinent social commentaries.



A FACE IN THE CROWD and BEING THERE

No matter where your opinion falls on the new President, it’s hard to deny that his way of speaking differs vastly from his predecessors. Whether his direct, monosyllabic, conversational, and often inflammatory tone inspires admiration or inquietude, millions of people are paying attention to his words, and for a clear vision into the way Trump wields his words, you might want to make a double feature of Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957) and Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979). The uncanny germaneness of Kazan’s 60-year old A Face in the Crowd has not gone lost on various film programmers: The Film Forum in New York included the film in a series it presented on film demagogues in November, and Turner Classic Movies broadcasted the film on the night of the inauguration. In Kazan’s visceral rags-to-riches-to-rags cautionary tale, Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffifth) is discovered by a local radio producer (Patricia Neal) as he sings expressively in an Arkansas jail. Listeners respond to his folksy, authentic—if caustic—manner, and soon he becomes not only enormously popular, but enormously influential as well. Sponsors abandon him when they think he becomes too toxic, but they come flocking back when his sheer magnetism and popularity supersede his controversial demeanour. Still, his influence does have limits, and when he turns on his supporters, his self-immolation is as spectacular as his ascent. At the peak of Rhodes’ influence, his audience responds to the sense of authenticity that reverberates throughout his music and speeches, just as many of Trump’s supporters respond positively to the same kind of self-confident authenticity that characterises practically all of his speech.

Trump’s more demagogic side doesn’t represent the totality of his appeal, however: Americans have also responded to Trump’s sheer tone of sincerity. On the campaign trail, Trump was able to relay his messages with more conviction than his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Clinton may have believed her economic and social messages, but there was something about her delivery that rang calculated—which played directly into the right’s narrative of her untrustworthiness. This idea of sincerity gaining political traction, no matter how empty the words are, is wonderfully illustrated by Hal Ashby in Being There (1979). Chance (Peter Sellers) is a loveable dullard, for lack of a better term. As he becomes inadvertently swept into a world of political influence, his halting speech and basic observations are mistaken for the profundities of a deep thinker. One comment made of Chance in the film that could also be made of Trump is that he doesn’t speak like a normal politician. Trump’s language, like Chance’s, is emotionally appealing while staying vague enough to allow people to foist their own interpretation onto Trump’s unfinished sentences.

Trump embodies all the rage of Larry Rhodes and all the opportunity for projection of Chance. The thing to watch for now will be if Trump faces the irreparable exposure like Rhodes in A Face in the Crowd or comes out unscathed, as he often magically has in the past, like Chance in Being There.



WANDA and HARLAN COUNTY USA

Hillary Clinton lost the election by losing a string of states that Barack Obama won twice: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin—raising the question of the political identities of the quintessential Trump voter. The left is often quick to dismiss such voters; Clinton even received a substantial backlash for referring to a portion of Trump supporter’s as “deplorables.” This certainly applies to his voters who are unrepentant racists, but other communities supported Trump for far more legitimate reasons. One important American stratum that adamantly threw its weight behind Trump was the coal mining community—a subculture that exists largely in those states that Clinton couldn’t carry. Not known for any Hollywood-esque glamour, coal country has not received enormous screen representation, but two notable films, Barbara Loden’s drama Wanda (1971) and Barbara Kopple’s groundbreaking documentary, Harlan County U.S.A (1977), take a humanistic approach in depicting the real struggles these communities face. In Wanda, we follow a woman who, running away from her family, teams up with a bank robber as he tries to pull off a heist. In Harlan County U.S.A., we witness a group of coal miners courageously strike against the powerful mining company for their right to unionise. Both films beautifully capture the industrialised landscapes of Pennsylvania and Kentucky (both states went for Trump) in grainy styles that are aesthetically ravishing yet unaffected. Still, what’s more important than style in these films is that the citizens of this part of the country aren’t depicted as inferior uneducated hicks; they’re real people with real emotional lives. If certain political rhetoric ignores the humanity of this portion of the population, Wanda and Harlan County U.S.A. draw caring attention to that sense of humanity. It’s an inevitable truth that coal is not the energy of the future, but watching Wanda and Harlan County U.S.A. reminds us that many people in these communities have worked hard and suffered a lot. Donald Trump’s words, whether they were sincere or not, resonated with these communities, and these films give us a better understanding of why they resonate.



KILLER OF SHEEP and WATERMELON MAN

Nevertheless, one thing that the white working class has a moral imperative to recognise—an imperative that seems to have gone relatively unfulfilled in my view—is that they are as entitled to all benefits and rights of U.S. citizenship as working class members from urban, minority communities. This is why it might make for an enlightening cinematic experience to pair Wanda or Harlan County U.S.A. with Melvin Van PeeblesWatermelon Man (1970) or Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977)—thus giving a viewer a robust portrait of the American working class across racial and geographic boundaries. In Van Peebles’ comedy, Jeff Gerber (a funny and thoughtful Godfrey Cambridge) is a crass white middle-class family man with flippantly racist attitudes. He wakes up one morning to discover he has mysteriously turned black (Cambridge, who was black, played the character in whiteface before the transformation). Though Van Peebles uses this conceit in a comedic fashion, Watermelon Man blooms into a very sober reflection on different facets of racial inequality in America. In Killer of Sheep, Burnett shows with simple, profound tenderness and dignity what life is like, in moments of daunting work and purgatorial leisure, for urban working class African American communities in Los Angeles. These two extraordinary films present a complete, clear, non-didactic window into existing racial and economic manifestations of inequality, just as they convey a sense of appreciation for the inherent dignity of the human being. Now that the country’s first African American president has been succeeded by a businessman who has been sued for housing discrimination against African-Americans, stereotyped African-Americans on the campaign trail and picked a fight with John Lewis, a civil rights icon in the House of Representatives, watching Watermelon Man and Killer of Sheep can give some important perspective regarding the African American experience for an era that’s far from post-racial.



ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN
The press finds itself in a strange position. In last week’s press conference, the first that Trump had held in roughly six months, Trump obdurately refused to grant CNN a question, accusing the organization of being “fake news”, a moment that felt like a culmination of his campaign’s persistent hostility towards organisations that did not portray him in a favourable light. And, though Trump clearly cherry-picks articles and editorials that flatter him and decries the ones that don’t, it’s useful to remember that even President Obama could be cagey and inaccessible to the press. As a reminder of the importance of the press in maintaining an open, honest, and ethical political culture, regardless of which party is in power, now may be a good time to revisit Alan J. Pakula’s classic All the President’s Men, the film that thrillingly recounts how Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) investigated and broke the story of the Watergate scandal—one of the biggest political scandals in United States history. The film not only exhaustively outlines the procedural and ethical questions that surround professional, legitimate journalism, it also reminds us of the serious importance of the freedom of the press provided for in the U.S. constitution.



NETWORK and NASHVILLE
All the President’s Men reminds us that America’s freedom of press is vastly important for ensuring some degree of accountability on the part of American political figures. But the media needs to be held accountable as well. A lot of the election coverage from centrist (and even centre-left) news outlets was rife with false equivalencies. Instead of covering one of Clinton’s policy speeches in May, many major networks chose to broadcast an empty podium before a Trump rally. This no doubt bolstered his mythic aura as an entertainer to be listened to at the expense of reporting on Clinton’s actual policy proposals (why some Trump supporters chanted “CNN sucks” at rallies is a mystery; the network worked wonders in legitimising Trump through its near constant coverage of the then-candidate). This lopsided coverage can be attributed to two factors: the uncertainty of how to cover a nontraditional campaign, and, more importantly, the profit motive the press had for covering the Trump three-ring circus. In Sidney Lumet’s Network, we can see how media organisations become complicit in generating the very news on which they sensationally report. In Network, we follow Howard Beale (Peter Finch), an elderly TV anchorman whose tenuous grip on his sanity leads him to act dementedly on air, something that viewers eagerly take to. This year, we were all a little bit like the TV audience of Network; we all clicked on links and watched TV spots on any number of outlandish Trump trivialities, and to a certain extent, many of us were shouting “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” out of our windows without defining what we were mad about or even considering if our anger was founded. The media has a responsibility to report objectively just as we have a responsibility to consume wisely—now, more than ever, is the time to recognise the importance of these responsibilities, and watching Network serves as a great way to ignite that recognition.

Still, the coverage of the 2016 presidential race raises an important question: is there something inherently entertaining in the spectacle of a candidate running for president? If you watch Nashville (1975), Robert Altman’s masterpiece of cynical Americana, one can see just how inextricably intertwined politics and entertainment can be. Nashville’s mysterious central figure is Hal Phillip Walker, a third-party candidate (representing the fictitious Replacement Party) whose grassroots support grows as he spills platitude after platitude from the loudspeaker on top of his campaign van. As the film’s two-dozen principle characters inexorably dovetail in the middle of the eponymous city’s country music scene, politics and entertainment begin to blend during the film’s incomparable finale, just as the two blended during the 2016 election cycle.



SEVEN DAYS IN MAY and ADVISE & CONSENT
One important thing to remember is that candidacy differs from actual policy crafting and governing. So far, Trump has selected many cabinet members (many of whom still have to be confirmed in the Senate) who, like Trump, have little to no experience in public service. Even Newt Gingrich, one of Trump’s staunchest, most combative surrogates, confessed that the Trump administration may not be prepared for the sheer vastness of the American government’s bureaucracy. For two excellent films that explore the wonky, complex nature of American governmental institutions, check out John Frankenheimer's Seven Days in May (1964) and Otto Preminger’s Advise & Consent (1962). In Seven Days in May, General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster) and his allies in the U.S. military plan a coup to overthrow President Jordan Lyman (Frederic March), whom they perceive as being insufficiently hawkish towards the U.S.S.R.. Advise & Consent deals with congressional intrigue surrounding the confirmation of the President’s (Franchot Tone) controversial pick for the position of Secretary of State, Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda). It’s impossible to say what effect a Trump presidency will have on fundamental tenets of American democracy, but Frankenheimer and Preminger’s political films, in their clear and considerate elaboration on the specific functions of specific governmental institutions, show that those tenets are indeed durable when tested (if nearly 250 years of various historical crises didn’t illustrate this idea thoroughly enough already).



HANDS OVER THE CITY
Still, just because the American government is designed to be self-regulating and self-sustaining doesn’t mean that elected officials can’t act unethically. And if they act unethically, there can be real, detrimental consequences. To see the story of a real estate developer who becomes an elected official with loads of conflicts of interest, refer to Francesco Rosi’s 1963 film, Hands Over the City. Edoardo Nottola (Rod Steiger) uses his public position to develop building projects, making himself wealthier in the process. When a cheaply constructed apartment building tragically collapses, an investigation finds that Nottola used his clout to side-step regulations. Rosi, a political filmmaker if there ever was one, shapes his fascinating narrative to show that regulations, while limiting in some regards, exist to protect a citizenry. Trump, as a President who has refused to release his tax returns just as he has refused to totally divest of his business holdings while in office, faces potential conflicts of interest that could potentially dwarf Nottola’s. Hands Over the City illustrates that this can not only be potentially damaging in the future for Trump, but it could be dangerous for the American populace as well.



THE DAMNED
For the purposes of full disclosure: I did not vote for President Trump and campaigned actively for Hillary Clinton—so take my recommendation of Luchino Visconti’s brilliant work, The Damned (1969), with a grain of salt. It’s an outstanding shocker with all the visual splendour of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate and New York penthouse and a Gotterdammerung as perverse as Pussygate or the urine-soaked unsubstantiated rumors of the Trump Dossier. The Damned traces the spectacularly nasty fall of the Von Essenbecks, a family whose vast steel empire maintains close ties to the Nazi Party after it is elected into power at the end of Germany’s Weimar era. Visconti shows how a family with a business empire can cozy to a treacherous political ideology for personal profit, and how that paring can lead to a great moral collapse. At one point, one character pontificates that, “we are in an elite society where everything is permissible,” and The Damned lives up to this thesis of unfettered depravity. The film may be extreme in this regard, but there still are some pointed parallels between even the film’s most extreme moments and some things we’ve seen from the president-elect and his camp. The Damned features an unsettling scene of incest—a scene that’s more extreme but nevertheless comparable to the unnerving moments in which Trump has talked about his daughter, Ivanka, with a certain degree of lechery. The Damned’s most famous scene may be the one in which the despicable Martin (Helmut Berger) performs a Marlene Dietrich song in drag. Want the real contemporary correlative? Watch this old video of Trump motor-boating his erstwhile surrogate and former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani.





Trump has, time and time again, proven he could fit right in with the Von Essenbecks and their brand of power-driven debauchery.

What’s more, I’d ordinarily be apprehensive to link a contemporary political figure or movement to Nazism. But on top of a spate of swastika-laden hate-graffiti that had been popping up around the U.S., a recent alt-right conference in D.C. featured a large crowd of men actually giving a straight-arm sieg heil as Richard B. Spencer, a prominent voice among white nationalists, proclaimed “hail Trump; hail our people”. Though such incidents seem to have mercifully abated for now, the fact that they happened at all should galvanise people around the world into extreme watchfulness.

I end with recommending The Damned as a film to watch at the dawn of the Trump era not because I’m pessimistic about the uncertain time we are entering, but rather because, as it is an uncertain time, it’s useful to exercise caution. The Damned, as a worst case scenario narrative whose decadence powerfully resonates into the 21st century, serves as a reminder that consolidated money and power can turn very bad, very quickly. Now that Trump is in power, now that the UK has left the European Union, and now that far right leaders like Marine le Pen in France and Frauke Petry in Germany are gaining popularity, we need stories like The Damned to shock us into awareness of potential endgames of abuse of power and disenfranchisement. Now that President Trump is officially in office, we can turn to The Damned just as we can turn to less extreme socially engaged films to best maintain our ability to be hopeful, informed, and aware as we explore new and uncertain political horizons.




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