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Cautionary tales of cinema, the culture war and Donald Trump

January 28, 2017 2 comments

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.

 

 A Face in the Crowd (film) movie poster

 

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.

 

broderick-crawford

Broderick Crawford laying on couch and pointing in a scene from the film 'Born Yesterday', 1950.

Broderick Crawford laying on couch and pointing in a scene from the film ‘Born Yesterday’, 1950.

 

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.
Sweet Smell Of Success

 

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.

 
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Atticus Finch-Barack Obama give way to Bob Ewell-Donald Trump in this post-“To Kill a Mockingbird” world

January 24, 2017 2 comments

 

 

Hot Movie Takes  Atticus Finch-Barack Obama give way to Bob Ewell-Donald Trump in this post-“To Kill a Mockingbird” world

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

In this 57th anniversary year of the debut of Harper Lee’s 1960  novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the 55th anniversary of the 1962 film adaptation’s release, I reflect on some sobering truths taken from that classic, much beloved story. Truths reflective of today’s American civil-societal-political landscape.

The irony is that the story’s revered figure of Atticus Finch, a fictional white Southern lawyer who represents so many universally admired qualities, found his most direct expression in this nation’s first black president, Barack Obama. The comparison was obvious  and Obama’s admiration for what Atticus embodies was made evident when in his farewell address he quoted something that fictional character utters in the book and film. Obama said, “If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation,  each one of us needs to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction, Atticus Finch: ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.'”

 

Barack Obama farewell

Associated Press

 

Yes, Atticus turns out to have racist leanings in the long-delayed sequel “Go Set a Watchman” but that’s hardly surprising given the time and place he came from. None of us are free of sin or fault. Good principles and actions don’t require perfection. The revelation that Atticus attended KKK meetings and opposed integration while still defending a black man accused of a rape he didn’t commit is simply acknowledgement of how complex race is and how far as a nation we have to go in addressing it. In his farewell speech Obama told blacks to learn the struggles of other minority groups and he admonished whites to acknowledge the stain of this country’s earlier generations are not gone. When minority groups “voice discontent,” he said. “they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; that when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment our Founders promised.”

Barack Obama gave Atticus Finch his good name back and naturally, literature fans on Twitter

During his two terms the diplomatic, gentlemanly Obama championed social justice and opposed infringements on freedom and equality. Like Atticus, he walked the walk of virtue and idealism, of fair play and public service, and he extended his hand to the equivalents of Boo Radley and Tom Robinson in our midst. Though Obama had considerable support within the Democratic party and even more broadly throughout the nation and world, he was repeatedly criticized and stonewalled by the Republican controlled Congress. Many of us surmised this was due to the gridlock of entrenched, unwieldy party politics grinding the tried and true American system of across-the-aisles idealogical compromise to a halt. Racism may have been the bigger issue in play. The recent election revealed how reviled Obama is by a sizable segment of the American populace whose elected representatives are some combination of Republican, conservative and fundamentalist. Not every Obama detractor and Trump supporter is an out and out racist but it’s true about enough of them to show a clear pattern.

Trump’s angry man campaign was filled with bigoted, misogynistic, nationalistic rhetoric that put big business and capitalism ahead of human rights, civil rights, women’s rights, social safety nets and environmental protections. He referred to harsh law and order crack downs on those deemed to be disloyal dissidents and enemies of the state. He threatened closing borders and deporting undocumented millions. He connoted militarism with nationalism, patriotism and Christian values. In his first few days in office he seems hell-bent on following through on his alarming agenda.

All of this has gave permission to white supremacists and other hate mongers to react violently against people of color and different origins, to disrespectfully treat women, to ignore clear and present danger realities such as global warming and to override the will of the people by renewing projects that history tells us will deface and pollute precious lands and waters.

 

Donald TrumpDonald Trump.getty

 

It is as if Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, Ross Perot and Rudy Giuliani have somehow been melded together in the amoral heart of Trump. Just when America needs an Atticus Finch in its top leadership position, we now have someone who seemingly speaks more to the Bob Ewells of the world than to those of us who believe in the better angels of a more perfect union.

Instead of a voice of calm reason, considered compassion, resolute peace and sincere unity, we have a strident, histrionic voice of acrimony and division who speaks for the supposed moral majority and special interests of privileged white males. In movie-movie terms, I am reminded of the Franklin Schaffner adaptation of Gore Vida’s “The Best Man.” where the choice for a presidential nominee came down to a reactionary opportunist played by Cliff Robertson and a thoughtful, progressive essayed by Henry Fonda. It is unfortunate that Trump did not face anyone like the statesmen Fonda portrayed in “Young Mr. Lincoln,” “Advise and Consent,” “The Best Man” and “Fail Safe” or the socially conscious Everymen he played in “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Oxbow Incident” and “12 Angry Men.” Hillary Clinton embodied some of these same ideals, but America just wasn’t ready for her or for a woman like her as President.

How unfortunate, too, that there isn’t someone like the noble Atticus Finch or other figures of high character that Gregory Peck played (“Twelve O’Clock High,” “The Big Country,” “Captan Newman M.D.”) to lead us.

 

 

Then again, we had our Atticus Finch situated in the most powerful post in the world and a chunk of this nation rejected him and what he espoused. Obama even sounded a lot like Atticus when he called on people who want a more perfect union to not merely be bystanders but to be participants: “Show up, dive in, stay at it…Presuming a reservoir of goodness in others can be a risk, and there will be times when the process disappoints you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this work, to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America — and in Americans — will be confirmed.”

For all its enduring popularity, “To Kill a Mockingbird” still only speaks to those willing to learn its lessons. Too many Americans, I’m afraid, are still unprepared to accept The Other represented by Boo Radley and Tom Robinson. Even in 2017 the notion of embracing all people, regardless of color, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, physical-mental capability, is still too radical for a whole lot of folks to follow. These are the very same things Christians are called to do by 2,000 year-old teachings. Yet many bristle at the core idea of loving their fellow man even though this is the basis and essence for the very organized religions they’re baptized in and purport to believe.

 

To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch, Scout, Boo Radley... Just riveting, these relationships, these people.:

 

All of which tells us we are one hot mess of a nation. There’s nothing new about that, it’s just that events of the past few years make it easier to see things for how they really are. The cloak of civility and cooperation has been lifted. Maybe it’s a good thing the hate is there for the viewing and not all concealed or dressed up as something else. Now that it’s out in the open, at least we know who and what we’re dealing with moving forward.

We need all the Atticus Finch’s and Harper Lees amongst us to stand up and be counted lest the Boo Radleys and Tom Robinsons continue to be oppressed. The conspiracy of hearts who love what “To Kill a Mockingbird” and works like it teach about tolerance and love need to raise their voices against injustice. If this book and film that have touched so many can lead to social action, then their collective impact will be far greater than all the sales, box-office receipts and rentals they’ve earned over these last six decades.

 

Film Noir, Donald Trump and art imitating life (or is it the other way around?)

January 20, 2017 Leave a comment

Donald the Imperious is now the President. For some, this movie-movie moment of a real estate tycoon and reality TV star reaching the Oval Office despite losing the popular vote in an unusally divisive election marked by his ugly rehtoric casts a dark pall over the land. This melancholic sentiment, combined with the grey, misty, foggy weather in Omaha, got me to thinking that Trump bears many of the characteristics of heavies in my favorite cinema genre – Film Noir. That cinema of dark intents, moods, goings-on and settings usually has as its villainous center a suave mastermind or crass boss. You decide which Trump is. The protagonist is generally an anti-hero private eye, cop, attorney or newspaperman going up against steep odds and powerful, sinister forces to expose an underbelly of misdeeds. My screen-fired imagination can easily see this playing out in a real way. Would Trump and his gang get away with it, whatever it is, or would he take the fall and get his comeuppance? Who knows? But the speculation is fun. As for me, I content myself with the thought that we’ll likely to have Trump for only four years. Even if his time in office should play out like a film noir and take us down some shadowy paths, I take faith in the notion that a trench-coated tough guy with a five o’clock shadow and a crooked nose for the truth will make Trump heel and, if need be, bring lawbeakers to justice, even if that means the chief executive himself. Of course, nothing like this may happen at all, but it sure would make a good movie. However this dark art-imitating-life or life-imitating-art episode in American history plays out, it should never be boring and like any good film noir story it should be filled with some interesting plot twists and turns.

 

 

 

Film Noir, Donald Trump and art imitating life (or is it the other way around?)

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
The grey, misty, foggy gloom that’s settled over Omaha, combined with the United States presidential inauguration and transfer of executive power taking place today, has me in a Film Noir state of mind. The dark, ill-fated world of that cinema genre contains a certain beauty in its interplay of light and shadow, stark cityscapes, back alley brawls, smoky back room dealings, white hot neon seduction and cold betrayal. it is a dog-eat-dog, predatory world of nihilism and existenialism, of bald avarice, greed and lust. The genre grew out of German Expressionism and took root in a World War Ii America of waning innocence and idealism and had its heyday from about 1941 through 1959. The genre reflected the undercurrent of anxieties of those times: economic depression, hot war, cold war, the bomb, racial strife, organized crime and corruption, et cetera. Every once in a while film noir gets an update or homage when the genre seems a good template for a particulalry troubling period, and so “The Long Goodbye,” “Chinatown” and “Body Heat” spoke to their time. Even the most famous American film about a Whte House occupant brought down by an investigation, “All the President’s Men,” is at its heart a film noir.

Film noir is as apt a metaphor as I can find for the tenor that the new Commander in Chief and his henchmen are asserting as the new gang in town in this time of division and uncertainity.

Viewed in a certain noirish, fatalistic light, our nation’s capitol is a battleground between opposing mobs, syndicates and special interests that we just happen to call administrations, political parties, departments, think tanks, consultants and lobbyists. None may meet the technical or legal definition of crooks or criminal enterprises, but the corruption, under-handed dealings, budgetary overruns, hush money, slush funds, scandals, threats and vendettas are real. They certainly come with the territory. Some of our elected officials navigate this underworld with some subtlety. Others are more brazen about it.

Donald Trump is a lot like some of the heavies in classic noir. He doesn’t pose to be anyone than who he is – a rich, powerful man who will stop at nothing to get his way. Think of the character Noah Cross (John Huston) in “Chinatown” or – and how’s this for irony? – Ronald Reagan as Jack Browning in the 1964 made-for-TV adaptation of Hemingway’s “The Killers.” Yes. Trump has the part down pat. Calculating when it serves him and impulsive when things get tight. Ruthless, vindictive, self-centered, vain. A misogynist with a decorative dumb blonde on his arm. Always scheming to get what he sees as his. You cross him at your own risk. He’s right out front in his I’m-above-the-law attitudes and actions. Smug in his confidence that nothing, not even the rule of law, can touch him.

 

(credit: Paramount)  Reagan as the Bad Guy

Where before Trump had only partners and shareholders to answer to, he now has a nation, a party, a congress and an administration to hold him accountable. But will we? Will the office and responsibility he now holds change him? Will he grow emotionally and intellectually into the position? Will the system of oversight work to reign him in when necessary? Or will this rank opportunist find ways and loopholes to get around every modulating check and balance to feed his ego and greed?

What about his agenda? Is there really anything more to it than his nationalistic appeal to make America great again, whatever that means? Isn’t it just all about lining the pockets of rich people like himself? Will small business people and low to middle class workers really see any benefits, especially if they have to pay for health care themselves and if inflation spikes and interest rates go up? Won’t average homeowners and taxpayers pay the brunt of his plan?

Won’t Trump be just another CEO or Boss in this economic political landscape that puts the interests of corporations above the greater good? If he gets his way and follows through on his promises to deport the undocumented, to close borders, to crack down on undesirables, to force loyalty oaths and to cut the safety net for the vulnerable, won’t he be a capo or despot by any other name?

So, in this scenario who is the film noir equivalent of the hardboiled character that will take on Trump and his gang? if it comes down to it, who will help expose him in a journalistic or criminal investigation that looks deep into the shadows of some wrongdoing rising to the level of impeachable offense? Might it be a grizzled reporter or cop or attorney or even senator who has the guts and I’ve-got-nothing-to-lose chutzpah to poke his nose where it’s not wanted and risk getting it broken or slashed? Would any traditional media or law enforcement officer or court or elected official have the will and courage to risk everything to expose such things? Or would it have to come from an outlier like an Edward Snowden?

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to needing a Sam Spade or Jake Gittes to haunt those dark streets in search of answers to secrets and lies, plots and scandals. But if it does, I will try to view the brooding, menacing, treacherous America of Trumpland as a sprawling film noir and hope that a femme fatale or false move undoes it all and humbles him before our eyes.

My Early New Year’s Wish for America

December 9, 2016 1 comment

My Early New Year’s Wish for America

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

 

 

Given the fear and hate-mongering the recent presidential campaign brought to the surface, my fondest wish for the new year is that each of us find it in our hearts to love The Other. Healing the nation must start inside individual hearts and minds before recovery from distrust and division can be expressed through words and actions.

America is a fractured mosaic created by tumults and traumas that the nation has never fully addressed. Revolution, slavery, immigration, migration, civil war, world wars, economic depression and recession, social movements, mass industrialization, ghettos, riots, illicit drugs, violent crime, mass incarceration, hate groups, suburban sprawl-white flight, urban renewal, states rights fights and regional wars are just a few of the ruptures to have shaped America. The individual and collective weight of these fissures are incalculable and generational. The resulting psychological, emotional, social, economic consequences affect policies and systems as well as group dynamics that in turn impact people’s lives.

So many defining events in the nation’s history pit people against each other on one side or the other of some issue or cause or reality. Competing self-interests collide at every turn. The harder, more unsure the times, people tend to be extra protective of what they have and wary of anyone different from them. That is human nature. Minorities are often targeted for their differences and made the scapegoat for the disenfranchised’s struggles or reversals of fortune. The less empowered people feel, the more they blame others who are different from them and the more they look to groups they identify with to be their sounding board or acting out cover.

The more people erect figurative or literal walls to isolate themselves from The Other, communities and neighborhoods cease being unifying, free, open spaces for engagement and interaction and instead become closed circles of self-interest that keep folks apart.

Here’s hoping that those holding a grudge against another group or fearing another group, whether justified or not, take the opportunity to try and authentically connect with someone from that group. If your attempt is rebuked, well, at least you tried. If your attempt is accepted, well, then maybe, just maybe a bridge has been made that positively impacts two lives and perhaps stimulates a larger ripple effect beyond them. Big things start in small ways, after all.

On a larger level, here’s hoping some breakthrough happens during the Trump presidency whereby the president himself along with senators, congressmen or cabinet members of different races or faiths model embracing The Other as acceptable, desired behavior. America needs all the reinforcing it can get from the nation’s leaders that interracial, interfaith communion is not only healthy for the United States but necessary for its survival as a pluralistic, democratic society.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if the outgoing president who preached inclusion and appealed to the better angels of our souls only to be opposed at every turn were to lead a unifying movement with this president-elect who preached division and pandered to the worst in us? That kind of strange bedfellows union that overlooks personal differences for the greater good would not be a first in American politics but it has been sorely lacking in this era of uncompromising agendas and silo building.

Is it just wishful thinking that these two men so opposite in their beliefs, values and world views could put their differences and animosity aside in service of healing and unity? I pray not. If they could be joined in this effort by Bernie Sanders, Al Gore, the Clintons, the Bushes, Condoleezza Rice, Gen. Colin Powell and other players from past elections and administrations, then so much the better.

Whatever the occupant of the White House does, here’s to all of us choosing to build bridges rather than silos in 2017.

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