Over the past week, I’ve assembled a long list of films that I thought might be appropriate choices for reflecting on Trump’s presidential campaign, and what I still can’t see as anything but the dystopian nightmare of an actual Trump administration. The themes around which I organized suggested film screenings – populism, media commercialization, fascism, and racism – are obviously not exhaustive, nor are my selections of films much more than an intuitive selection of titles I know well. I will end this syllabus with a fifth and final installment that groups together movies portraying the resentments and antagonisms festering beneath the surface of American “civil society.” We are currently witnessing an unprecedented attack on the institutions that maintained what now appears to be a startlingly thin illusion of a “Western civilization.” Trump’s barrage of attacks on the media, the political process, and any person or organization who crosses him seems to have opened up the floodgates of hatred and bigotry, while the algorithmic reorganization of our media landscape has left starkly divided groups with very little common ground.
America 2.0: The Uncivil Society
Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968)
The first modern zombie movie isn’t about zombies. It’s about a society that has lost its ability to engage in productive dialogue in order to resolve its own internal tensions. The real tragedy of the zombie apocalypse is therefore not the appearance of flesh-eating ghouls. The survivors’ fundamental inability to function as a collective and maintain (in microcosm) the traditions of civil society is the real focus of this film’s political critique. This type of zombie movie thus articulates our worst fears about the fragility of our public sphere, and the seething antagonisms that lurk underneath it.
Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)
Better by a country mile than the rather tedious P.D. James novel, Cuarón’s film abandons the book’s Catholic allegory, using the basic conceit of an unexplained “infertility epidemic” as a potent symbol for the despairing mindset of post-industrial capitalism. As Slavoj Žižek has pointed out, the film continues to resonate so strongly because it offers a reflection of a Western culture that has become unproductive in the most literal sense of the word. The dramatic gap between rich and poor, the loss of civil liberties, and the growing pandemonium that has infected all of public space all overdetermine the film’s breathtakingly realized background. And while the uncomfortably phallocentric Hero’s Journey seems to offer some superficial shred of hope for the narrative’s future, it is the total breakdown of society that lingers in our memory after the film has ended.
Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969)
Long before filter bubbles, platform capitalism, and red and blue Facebook feeds, Dennis Hopper’s countercultural road movie mapped out the boundaries that separate two different Americas in very clear terms. Reflecting on the deteriorating civic environment, ACLU lawyer George Hanson (played by Jack Nicholson) reflects on the transition they’re witnessing: “You know, this used to be a helluva good country. I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.” The dialogue about freedom that follows this remark at first sounds like the usual self-aggrandizing rhetoric from white middle-class dropouts in the 1960s. But the resentment Nicholson’s character describes here is –of course– ultimately about labor: “It’s real hard to be free when you’re bought and sold in a marketplace.”
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998)
While Easy Rider attempted to document the culture war between 1960s alternative youth culture and the “square” status quo’s hostile response to their rebellion, Gilliam’s gloriously excessive Hunter S. Thompson adaptation shows a nation fully adrift in its own violence and hypocrisy. It’s a world where the drug-addled Thompson paradoxically functions as a lone voice of reason, constantly expressing the paralyzing sense of defeat that remains after a stubborn utopian dream has been definitively crushed: “We were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West. And with the right kind of eyes, you can almost see the high-water mark: that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
The Mist (Frank Darabont, 2007)
After The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, Frank Darabont’s third Stephen King adaptation is by far the best of the bunch, and ultimately really the only one worth caring about. A dark and twisted Twilight Zone episode blown up to epic proportions, The Mist operates in the same register as Romero’s “living dead” cycle, mercilessly showing how seemingly strong civil and social bonds between neighbors are broken, and how long-standing resentments, frustrations, and suspicions grounded in race, class, and religion can rise to the surface at the drop of a hat. The film’s social critique is further strengthened by its use of grotesque Lovecraftian monsters as uncanny reflections of the barbarous histories of exploitation underlying America’s melting pot.
Gimme Shelter (Maysles Brothers, 1970)
A film that could easily top my lists of best documentaries, best concert films, and best horror movies, the Maysles’ filmic record of the Rolling Stones’ disastrous attempt to organize their own West-coast free music festival is also one of the most astonishing statements about violence in America. Where Michael Wadleigh’s utopian Woodstock film expressed an unshakable optimism about American youth culture, Gimme Shelter documents how quickly that dream evaporated in the face of commercial concerns, egomaniacal celebrities and entrepreneurs, and a deeply irresponsible and hedonistic drug culture.
South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (Trey Parker, 1999)
My favorite-ever movie musical is still among the best things to come out of two decades of South Park. Without the self-imposed one-week production schedule of the TV show, Parker and Stone put together an acidic satire of American civil life that is taut as a drum and sharp as a razor blade. The fictional town of South Park may be a small community in rural America, but it is neither homogeneous, backwards, or “out of touch.” Instead, the town’s inhabitants are ruled by the many petty and selfish conflicts that underlie American civil life – with the deeply sociopathic Eric Cartman an uncanny embodiment of a truly Trumpian spirit. The film depicts its microcosmic examination of American political and civil life not as a melting pot, but as a seething cauldron of tensions informed by categories like race, gender, religion, sexuality, class, and age – all of which ultimately feed into a military-industrial complex that is always eager to locate a scapegoat for the country’s own irresolvable contradictions.