Trump Media: A Film Studies Syllabus (III)

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.

Popular Fascism

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.

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4 Responses to Trump Media: A Film Studies Syllabus (III)

  1. Reader says:

    A very interesting read. I’ve read all 3 pieces of post-election movie suggestions know. But this time, I have some questions.

    Firstly, the link to Žižek’s endorsement of Trump doesn’t seem to be working. I end up at a video of one of my favorite living philosopher’s analyzing the Sound of Music. Which was interesting to. But since I didn’t know he endorsed Trump, I would love to see the link you intended (I’m going to google it myself to after my comment).

    Secondly, have you seen Žižek’s take on the Titanic? I saw it a long time ago know, so maybe I didn’t remember it correctly, but if I’m not mistaken he talks about the capitalist ideology in this movie. My question then is would the Titanic fit on this list too?

    Thirdly, your description of the fascism in the Avengers makes me wonder. Is any action movie with a depiction of violence a form of fascism? Because a film is always organized and constructed. So the depiction of violence and battle (defining or attacking) in movies is always thought out. You talk about a kind of aesthetic in these superhero movies/comics, but I don’t think I fully understand the aesthetic and it’s boundaries. Is this aesthetic present in the plane fight sequence in Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Arc too? And what about the Matrix movies? I would like to know more about the fascist aesthetic you talk about, if you can find in every movie and your take on it.

    Finally, since Trump got elected something is bothering me. I was a fiercely against Trump before the elections. I hated his circus, his lies, his fascism and everything about the guy. Much like you I dropped some terms like sociopath or narcissist when I described him. (I must say, I hate the voting system more, but I don’t have a viable alternative for it and the voting system isn’t a living organism so I can’t call it a sociopath.)
    I was shocked when he was elected president. Time to reflect on my own actions, the things I have said and done in the past and what I could’ve done differently.
    First of all, I lived in a bubble. One created by media for sure, but also one I maintained myself. Everywhere I went I assumed everybody had the common sense of not liking or supporting Trump. So when I was on a university and the elections where brought up, I immediately assumed people where against him. This was a mistake I made. I didn’t explain why I thought Trump was a sociopath, or even why his ideas where dangerous. I just assumed everybody saw the same thing I did. I even assumed that his exclusion of minorities and his comments about women where obviously morally wrong that I didn’t think it needed any explanation. But it does. I imagine that every time I say the elections where catastrophic without explaining why, I create a rift between me and the opposing forces. Everytime someone is calling Trump a sociopath without explaining why – how obvious such a statement might be – can simply be seen as a bully by every Trump supporter out there. Assuming that it was morally wrong and illogical to vote for Trump was irresponsible of me. The same goes for the assumptions I made that his political views where indecent or that calling him a sociopath was the only logical truth. I should’ve explained my points of view in depth. I even should’ve asked everybody listening to me what they thought of the matter. I should have broken my bubble by talking to the opposition. Breaking my bubble and theirs.
    So that ties in to the second point of my reflection. In stead of only talking about the conclusions I made of Trump, I should talk about how I got to these conclusions. For example: I called Trump a homofobic man. Another person who supported Trump immediately said that he himself wasn’t homofobic but did believe in some statements of Trumps campaign. Our discussion then focussed on why the other person wasn’t homofobic. My conclusion offended him, but I didn’t at all tell him why I thought Trump was homofobic. So, back to the basics. And finally, to my question to you. You started your first blog with describing your frustration and telling the reader you wanted to do something in light of the election results. I have a suggestion, maybe a request:
    Please, write a blog about Trump explaining why you think he is a fascist, why you think the media is a problematic tool used by Trump and what Trump stands for in your eyes. Make it transparent so that you enter a conversation without only concluding things. Maybe even address the Trump supporters. Go back to the basics. It is exhausting to have to explain yourself, but it is the only way to break the bubble and to reach out to the Trump supporters out there.
    So instead of calling Trump a sociopath, tell us why he is one according to you. Don’t avoid the conversation. I’m not saying you’re avoiding it, but when I read your blogs, I saw the same assumptions I made in talking about Trump.
    And don’t forget, to start a conversation you also need to ask questions.

    I hope I didn’t offend you and that I formulated my views correctly. English isn’t my first language. I look forward to your next blog!

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments. The link to Zizek’s earlier Trump comments has been fixed (since then, he has said in an interview that his ‘endorsement’ should of course not be taken seriously). I certainly join his take on Titanic as an expression of a certain type of fundamentally capitalist ideology – but then, most Hollywood films tend to operate along these lines. But I don’t see an obvious connection between Titanic’s romanticization of capitalism and the specifics of the Trump phenomenon.
      I am not inclined to make blanket statements about the depiction in film of violence as inherently fascist: the Sontag essay I quoted provides a fairly specific set of characteristics that can help identify what she terms a ‘fascist aesthetic’, and it’s one that we can easily recognize in many superhero movies. The action sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy struggles to survive and ultimately defeat those Nazi soldiers seems to me further removed from this register, as the focus throughout the scene is more on his character’s vulnerability and humanity: this is quite different from the way in which the superhero team operates in the sequence I singled out in The Avengers.
      Finally, in response to your suggestion to enter into more of a dialogue with Trump supporters: I have certainly attempted to do this in the context of public debates and media interviews and discussions. But there is no shortage of articles providing elaborate and articulate critiques of Trump along those lines, and I’m not sure the world needs another little-read blog piece making those same points – especially because based on my experience interacting with those Trump supporters (in real life and on social media), I strongly doubt that many of them would even consider reading something by an established ‘leftist PC intellectual’. So this syllabus is intended in the first place simply for students and fellow scholars struggling (like myself) with our current reality, and openly inclined to engage with film culture to reflect on cultural trends via film history.

  2. Pingback: Monday Morning Links! | Gerry Canavan

  3. Pingback: Trump Media: A Film Studies Syllabus (V) | Dr. Dan’s Medicine

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