"What do we do now?"
Culture in the Trump years
"What kind of art can grow from a nightmare moment, and who will be the one to make it?" That question was posed by Time’s Stephanie Zacharek last Wednesday, November 9, just hours after it'd become clear that Donald J. Trump would become the 45th President of the United States of America. At that moment, while half the country was celebrating, many of us were too stunned to think about much other than immediate concerns, such as friends and family whose very identities were threatened, implicitly or explicitly, throughout the campaign. A moment or two later, we might begin worrying, too, about that Supreme Court vacancy or the Paris Agreement. But art? For me personally, to carry on blithely tweeting about movies that first day or two after the election bordered on the obscene. Made me a little nauseous.
Not Stephanie Zacharek, though. With astonishing fortitude, she arranged what might at first glance appear to be a flurry of disparate thoughts into a powerful argument for the vitality of culture especially in times of crisis. Just a snippet:
Hal Ashby’s Shampoo, made in 1975 and starring two of the most beautiful humans who then graced the Earth, Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, is one of the great films of the just-post-Watergate era, a picture brushed with awed despair that America could be brought so low by just one wretched, duplicitous president. Ashby was a bit of a weirdo, an outlier—he’s never included in the first tier of great 1970s filmmakers, a la Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. He isn’t part of what we now see as something of a cultural elite among filmmakers, people who made the big, defining statements about the era. But to the people who love his movies, Ashby occupies his own exalted little space. What will the first great post-Trump film be, and who will make it? Is it someone we already know, or someone we’ve never heard of? Will it be a person of color, or a person whose gender doesn’t strictly conform to the humanoid figures formed out of stiff rectangles and triangles on restroom doors everywhere? (Who came up with those, anyway?) There is a future here, because there has to be. Even as the Sex Pistols were telling us there was no future, they were creating one.
A couple of beautiful paragraphs later, she issues her call: "Preserve the dying arts and push the thriving ones further. Take your smallest idea and turn it into gold. Turn it into something that will long outlast him."
"This was an election won on culture," argued Dan Schoenbrun, also on November 9, in his column for Filmmaker. And he calls on everyone who makes films, in whatever capacity, and perhaps, too, on anyone who values cinema to whatever degree, to "reacknowledge and recommit ourselves to an important truth: That every film is a political film."
The sentence in the column that IndieWire's David Ehrlich focuses on is this one: "For the next four years (and long afterwards), every time someone leaves a movie theater feeling contented, feeling set in their values, feeling numbed and entertained and nothing else, that’s a problem." And he asks the CriticWire network, "How does filmmaking—and film criticism—need to adapt in the age of Trump?" Responses range from the soul-searching to the bullet-pointed program; I, for one, will be taking Vadim Rizov's, sort of a furious mix of the two, to heart. Again, just a snippet:
Be rigorous with your thoughts, avoid cant, and, when the moment is right, go deep in some weird direction. The point is not NOT NOT NOT NOT to latch onto the most obvious thing that’s Wrong with a movie—its latent sexism, casual imperialism, all those CGI extras dying by the hundreds, whatever—but to demonstrate some kind of ability to think something through. I know this sounds frustratingly vague, but it’s important to be able to demonstrate that original paths of thought are available. And if you can call out embedded hegemony, that’s fantastic, but be clear and targeted. The worst kind of liberalism is the kind that knows exactly when your ideal reader is going to nod in useless agreement.
Richard Brody responds as well, and a few days earlier, he posted a piece for the New Yorker, "What the Movies Miss about Trump's America." He suggests that "perhaps the most potent cinematic indicator of our current crisis is the string of overtly political recent Hollywood and off-Hollywood movies, in which the liberal consensus finds itself reflected back upon itself with confident self-satisfaction. These movies of incontrovertible decency, such as Boyhood and Spotlight, The Big Short and Dallas Buyers Club, replay serious troubles with apt empathies and reassuring verities, but without a sense of the depth or weight of the opposition. What’s more, such films’ political palliatives are almost always matched by an easy-watching, earnest, blandly confident aesthetic. They are designed to comfort rather than to provoke, to confirm rather than to understand."
Jacob Silverman, writing for the Baffler, argues that reaching for pop culture narratives as a way of working through what's just happened will not help: "It’s more than the occasional Twitter personality popping off about how 'winter is coming.' The retreat into juvenilia is epidemic. Dumbledore’s Army is now recruiting, reports BuzzFeed. The Hunger Games is 'our most relevant dystopia,' a YA model for the coming horrors, explains Vox. The election is The Walking Dead, says Mashable. No, it’s like The Purge—because of voter ID laws or racist violence or something…. But these are not models for political thinking, nor are they any kind of map for the present crisis. By their very design, blockbuster fictions excite cultural anxieties only to soothe them, leaving consumers spent and satisfied."
And what's a roundup without at least one link to another roundup? For frieze, Jennifer Higgie has put together "a small sample of recent articles and clips about the current status of protest art [that] reveal that it’s alive and flourishing.