Cautionary tales of cinema, the culture war and Donald Trump
Cautionary tales of cinema, culture war and Donald Trump
©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
As a film buff and cultural journalist I naturally look for connections between cinema and social-political currents. There’s been much written about the parallels between a certain 1950s film’s fictional themes and today’s real-life the rise of Donald Trump to the seat of American power. I refer to Elia Kazan’s scathing 1957 “A Face in the Crowd” written by Budd Schulberg (the two previously teamed for “On the Waterfront”) that imagines a narcissist reprobate named Lonesome Rhodes, magnificently played by Andy Griffith, seducing segments of the nation through his insistent, cloying presence in the media and coming to a position of high influence. Only in “A Face in the Crowd” this egoist is exposed for the fraud and monster he is by those closest to him. But nothing dramatic like that happened in the case of Trump. So far. Instead of being called out and brought down, Trump rode waves of racism, classism, isolationism and xenophobia to win his party’s nomination and eventually the presidency. I mean, plenty of people outside the Trump camp pointed out reasons why he is unfit for the job but those cautionary notes about his character were variously ignored, dismissed, discounted and countered by Trumpsters who would stop at nothing to see their champion of alternative facts gain the Oval Office. What the Kazan-Schulberg film failed to anticipate is that unlike in the 1950s, when there were very limited primary means of people getting information – print, radio and TV – the number of news, information and opinion channels has exponentially increased. Where Rhodes used radio and especially TV to fool people into loving him and then became the victim of that same medium, Trump largely bypassed traditional media and used social media to directly appeal to his base and thus build a movement unaffected by the three major networks or PBS or CNN. We are far past the time when an Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite or Ted Koppel or some other trusted media news figure can make a difference by taking an editorial stand. There are far too many clamoring voices for any one pundit to count in the culture war being fought.
Then there’s the old but new phenomenon of some of the electorate and public turning a blind eye and ear to data, reason, even common sense out of sheer naked allegiance to ideas based in fear, not fact, and without the discernment to separate real news from false news or irrefutable facts from alternative facts.
Is there someone brave enough in the Trump inner circle to go rouge and reveal whatever may be the darkest, damning secrets and lies behind what we already know about his house of cards private business empire, his shady dealings, his fascist leanings? Or will it take someone in a prosecutorial or oversight role looking from the outside in to let in the light and awaken the sleeping masses of his supporters?
Two earlier films starring the same actor, one based on a famous novel. “All the King’s Men” and the other based on a hit play, “Born Yesterday,” have Broderick Crawford portray bellicose men whose blind ambition and power corrupts them absolutely. Whatever populist ideals they once espoused and perhaps even believed have been corroded by rank avarice. There are some obvious overtones with Trump in these characters and stories.
But the more I think about it, the film that most particularly speaks to the venal way Trump operates is “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), whose J.J. Hunsecker is the true antecedent of The Donald. The character of Hunsecker was patterned after such predatory real-life columnists as Walter Winchell, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons who could make or break careers with their alternately golden and poison pens.
Alexander Mackendrick directed the black and white classic that he co-wrote with Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets. In the figure of Hunsecker, brilliantly played by Burt Lancaster, they imagine a vain, mean-spirited big city newspaper columnist who wields inordinate influence through his opinions, many of which are thinly veiled innuendoes, attacks and disparagements. Hunsecker cows people by threat, coercion, vendetta and the force of a bullying, overbearing personalty and a dark, sinister character that can neither tolerate the light of scrutiny nor the flame of truth. Hunsecker is at the center of his own world that he expects to orbit around him to pay him fealty. He’s also more than ready to do verbal battle with and to threaten acton against anyone he views as an opponent or obstacle. As far as Hunsecker’s concerned, your either with him or against him. There’s no middle ground. Hunsecker sees only black and white and he’s predisposed to see the worst and weaknesses in people because that’s what he preys upon in order to exert influence and to extort favors.
A figure like Hunsecker can only survive by appealing to the lowest common denominator, i.e. an uneducated population’s fears and resentments, and by parlaying the weird cult of celebrity and authority that attends anyone in the public eye. A Hunsecker can only rule if he’s aided and abetted by toadies, stooges and functionaries who gladly put aside morals and scruples to further his ends and their own agendas. And a Hunsecker is only as powerful as the public’s gullibility allows.
Does this sound like anyone who’s recently maneuvered his way into the halls of power in our present day real world?
The difference being that Hunsecker, just like his real-life inspirations, never got this much power. The closest that an American political reactionary got to this much power in the last century was Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who was nothing more than a gangster and opportunist posing as a public servant. McCarthy was undone in large part by how poorly he came off on television. Trump plays poorly in the media to those predisposed to dislike him but he apparently comes off well to those inclined to support him, which may speak to both the idealogical divide and the weird space occupied by reality TV figures and their followings. If Trump could get this far with so little to offer other than his huge personal bankroll and eventual big GOP dollars, then who’s to say someone even more outlandish or dangerous than Trump might not rally enough support to follow in his footsteps?
In these reactionary times amid decentralized new media and dumbed-down public education, the once unthinkable notion of a Trump coming to power in America has happened. What comes next may be even scarier.