How Movies Are Helping Us Voice Our Fears About Trump
How could we ask "Is Trump a Manchurian candidate?" without The Manchurian Candidate?
When news broke that Turner Classic Movies would be airing Elia Kazan’s 1957 film A Face in the Crowd following the inauguration, the connection was immediately made that this particular piece of programming may be a wink-nod protest action for film lovers. TCM denies there’s a correlation between the inauguration and the film’s airing (it’s actually to commemorate actress Patricia Neal’s birthday), but it’s difficult to think about Andy Griffith’s portrayal of a swaggering loudmouth — whose tells-it-like-it-is treachery turns into a successful populist political moment — and not think of Donald J. Trump.
An early, haunting scene in the film has Larry Rhodes (Griffith) talking smack about a mattress company sponsor on the radio. The mattress company withdraws from its advertising agreement, erroneously thinking that informed citizens would do better than to back an ad-libbing drunk who gets off on insulting people. Instead, people take to the streets to burn their mattresses — this is a film that reveals how quickly good people can be taken in by unleashed, charming megalomaniacs.
As we huddle around our laptops and watch important films like Kazan’s, it’s necessary to remember that the very existence of these films tells us that this has all happened before. In some way, in some place, what we fear under a Trump presidency has already been documented in film.
Andy Griffith as charming megalomaniac Larry Rhodes
Last week, I wrote about the deeper history behind George Cukor’s 1944 film Gaslight — from which we derived the term gaslighting — and how the play on which the film was based is really about anti-fascism. But every time Trump tweets something provoking foreign nations or congratulating himself for doing something he never actually did, I can think of a different movie that perfectly explains his behavior and puts it in context.
Late last year, at the L.A. Press Club’s National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, Angela Lansbury was the honoree and was asked onstage in front of hundreds of people, “Do you think Donald Trump is the Manchurian candidate?” She laughed and threw her head back, replying, “Oh God, I hope not!” We were talking about a movie — The Manchurian Candidate — but we all knew what that question really meant: Do you think Trump is compromised by foreign agents? The film’s title has become a shorthand to talk about a complex problem, like a secret language created by artists to undermine their would-be oppressors.
From The Dead Zone and Dr. Strangelove to The Pelican Brief, Miss Sloane, Erin Brockovich, Bulworth, Brazil, All the President’s Men and, yes, even Death Race 2050 and Escape From New York, we find in movies a solace that what’s happening now has either already happened or been prophesied in film. The shared experience of watching these movies reminds us that we’re not alone, that there are so many like us who’ve devoted hundreds of hours committing these stories to celluloid so that others in the future can see the light. I can’t imagine possessing any sanity right now without these kinds of movies that depict decency and morality as the norm and robber baron loudmouths as wicked and aberrant. These movies mirror back to us the grotesqueness of humanity when seduced by greed and power. What would we say to one another without Gaslight, if the playwright Patrick Hamilton hadn’t watched a decade of Nazi propaganda ravage his home and gotten the support to pen an allegorical play about it? How would we find the words?
In addition to the many unnecessary and unjust budget cuts on Trump’s agenda, his administration now seeks to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities and PBS. Taking away our ability to create art means taking away our language. Hollywood now has a heavy obligation: Make films that grant us a new vocabulary to tackle an unprecedented danger. We’ll sure have some inspiration after this inauguration.
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