In the previous two sections of this provisional Trump-era film studies syllabus, I have grouped together films that examine two key thematic aspects of Donald Trump as a political phenomenon: first, how populism has been expressed and critiqued through Hollywood film; and second, how the commercialization of television and other news media has affected and contaminated political perceptions in advanced capitalist societies. In this section, the films I’ve assembled provide various perspectives on fascism: as we witness what seems to be the resurgence of a global fascist movement from the far right, it pays to examine not only how American cinema has represented earlier forms of fascism, but also how it resides close to the surface in some of our most popular entertainments.
Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972)
Bob Fosse’s elegantly directed adaptation of Isherwood’s writing about the rise of Nazism in 1931 Berlin is among the most unsettling depictions of emergent fascism. While we’re used to seeing Nazis as uniformed, mustache-twirling sadists in everything from WWII movies to Indiana Jones adventures, Cabaret presents it emphatically as the reactionary response to a permissive, hedonistic, and thoroughly liberal culture. By following the romantic and creative adventures of an Englishman visiting bustling Berlin, we see how a “new normal” slowly but surely creeps in, even as several of the main characters (like Liza Minnelli’s Sally Bowles) remain unaware and/or indifferent to it. The rise of fascism is witnessed in brief outbursts of anti-Semitic (and sometimes random) violence, but the most chilling scene is this outright appeal to nostalgia and nationalistic tradition.
The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965)
Slavoj Žižek’s stupid and irresponsible “endorsement” of Donald Trump was roundly criticized, but his analyses of the latent fascist elements in American popular culture are spot-on. His brief dissection of The Sound of Music is especially keen, as he explains succinctly how the film stages a conflict between a rural family and Austria’s emergent Nazism that functions as a textbook fascist text, while simultaneously disavowing its ideological direction. It’s the same trick pulled by The Lion King, where Scar’s degenerate hyena forces are visualized as goose-stepping Nazis, while both the basic narrative of white supremacy and the Riefenstahl-esque opening sequence are as steeped in fascism as anything Goebbels ever produced.
The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013)
Scorsese’s epic three-hour wallow in the ugliness and noise of American capitalism is well worth revisiting in light of the Trump phenomenon. For while he clearly doesn’t physically resemble either Leonardo DiCaprio or the real-life Jordan Belfort, his mythology is steeped in the same kind of bad-boy entrepreneurialism that is either satirized or celebrated in The Wolf of Wall Street. The film perfectly matches the completely divided cultures resulting (in part at least) from our social media bubbles, as audiences have enjoyed the film as an endorsement of capitalist excess and misogyny, while others have applauded Scorsese for providing such a merciless critique of corporate greed. But whichever way you view it, the culture surrounding Belfort’s authoritarian, dictatorial, and thoroughly corrupt regime provides a fascinating glimpse of the fascist tendencies in capitalist corporate (and popular) culture.
Blow Out (Brian de Palma, 1980)
The last –and greatest– of the conspiracy thrillers of the 1980s, Brian de Palma’s masterpiece pits John Travolta as a jaded and cynical sound engineer against ruthless executive power of a wholly corrupt political establishment. Having unwittingly witness (and recorded) a political assassination, his character comes alive for a moment as his ideals are momentarily re-awakened, and he comes to believe in a way of collaborating with America’s obviously inept news media to expose the real depths of corruption. State power in the film is exercised by a deeply unsavory –and ultimately uncontrollable– coalition between the political and the private sector, as entrepreneurial hit man John Lithgow soon finds unsurprisingly misogynistic ways of cleaning up this mess on the behalf of the deeply entrenched surveillance state he serves. It’s among the most despairing, most prescient films about American political life, revealing a state apparatus that maintains absolute control via the news media, while female bodies pay the price for its proto-fascism.
Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven, 1997)
When Paul Verhoeven’s third American sci-fi adventure film was released, most American critics dismissed it as a superficial and excessively violent action movie, while a few (most famously Time magazine critic Richard Schickel) lambasted it for its fascist elements. But even if it went largely unnoticed when the film was released, Starship Troopers is fully committed to its fascism, showing uneasy viewers how easy it is to cheer along gung-ho soldiers fighting a fully “othered” species under the command of a totalitarian state. Verhoeven consciously drew on the generically attractive cast members of shows like Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place, so audiences would be lulled into identifying automatically with familiar faces. But not only does the elaborate world-building in the film slowly but surely identify itself as an ethnically diverse and gender-neutral fascist society, but the film also goes out of its way to show that the text itself is structured as an explicit propaganda film for that society. Would You Like To Know More?
Marvel’s The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012)
There is something intrinsically fascist about the aesthetics of the superhero genre. This doesn’t mean that all superheroes are fundamentally fascist: while Superman has often been compared (somewhat irresponsibly) to the Nietzschean Übermensch ideal, characters like Captain America, Spider-Man, and many, many others have historically embodied anti-fascist positions more strongly and more emphatically than any other. Nevertheless, there is something about the way in which violence is organized and framed in superhero comics, cartoons, and movies that has always reminded me of Susan Sontag’s famous definition of fascist art:
[Fascist aesthetics] flow from (and justify) a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behavior, and extravagant effort; they exalt two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude. The relations of domination and enslavement take the form of a characteristic pageantry: the massing of groups of people; the turning of people into things; the multiplication of things and grouping of people/things around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader figure or force. The fascist dramaturgy centers on the orgiastic transactions between mighty forces and their puppets. Its choreography alternates between ceaseless motion and a congealed, static, “virile” posing. Fascist art glorifies surrender; it exalts mindlessness: it glamorizes death.
While this kind of aesthetic more clearly dominates Zack Snyder’s macho posturing in Man of Steel and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, it is also clearly at play in the exquisitely choreographed action spectacles in otherwise more liberal-minded entertainments like The Avengers. Watch this climactic fight scene –especially the breathtaking “one-shot sequence” that begins in the sixth minute– and consider how its dramaturgy is indeed centered on those “orgiastic transitions between mighty forces and their puppets” – how its choreography does nothing but “alternate between ceaseless motion and a congealed, static, ‘virile’ posing.” It’s a troubling example of how certain fascist tendencies and preoccupations appear to be embedded deep within the visual and narrative vocabulary American popular culture thrives on, irrespective of the supposed ideological contents of the film in question.