How Hollywood took on the Trumping of politics – Prospect

Posted: December 23, 2019 at 10:45 am


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Knives Out unravels a murder mystery in a wealthy family chock full of caricatures. Photo: Lionsgate

Is there a more tired pursuit than comparing a piece of pop culture to Donald Trump? Hes our pop culture president, a blob of references that could mean anything to anyone and nothing to everyone. The fiery blond tuft of hair, Twitter-happy demeanor and casual racism are so easily mimicked. From his rise as a property mogul with spurious ethics, to his unsolicited public intervention in the Central Park Five case, to playing hardboiled host on The Apprentice, Trumps hyper-powered branding machine has made him an integral figure of modern American history long before winning the presidency. It can be exhausting, then, when the T-word is used to make sense of all and any pieces of contemporary fiction. Everything is Trump, particularly now he lords over us all.

Which makes it easy to roll ones eyes when labels like Trumpian start getting thrown at films. Its become a crutch for industry watchers, looking for the things that keep movies relevant when the film industry increasingly faces competition from gaming, Netflix and Disney. Yet if art is a reflection of its era, then we are well and truly in a time of populist cinema. This year, Hollywood movies kept returning to themes of class warfare. They reveal the distance between the Trumpian idealism: that nostalgia for a simpler, halcyon Great Again era, and the reality of a country beset with fraught social division. In their efforts to explore this division, several of Hollywoods biggest films this year have inadvertently exposed the limits of using culture to fight politics.

The widening wealth-gap was sent up in Us, Jordan Peeles deliriously entertaining horror film that followed his phenomenally popular Get Out (2017). In Us, a rich African-American family is confronted by their doppelgngersshadow versions of themselves who can barely speak. Across a night of violence, the film makes allusions to the Reagan-era Hands Across America campaign (a nationwide movement to end poverty by asking citizens to hold hands).

Us is an open circle of references, dangling plot threads, and self-aware humour that come together in recurring visual symbols of rabbits and scissors. The film thus suggests that recovering a deeper meaning is merely a rewatch away. Its depiction of a wealthy family playing keeping up with the Joneses with their white neighbours shows a keen awareness of how race intersects with class. Even thoughUssfamily is ostensibly a Cosby Show sketch of American bliss, they still play catch up to their white friends.

Until things get untethered, the families live in a Trump-era fantasy. Their version of America is non-specific and prosperous, and they do not give much thought to those theyve had to tread on to get this far.Conversely, the Tetheredthe underground dwellers who come to wreck revenge on their upper-ground counterpartsrepresent those left behind in our world, but Peele cunningly shows that even the underclass harken to earlier versions of America to get their long-awaited dues. Their plot to reenact Hands Across America has no endpoint beyond the performative show of solidarity, because they know nothing else. Hold hands and itll all be okay.

The recent Hollywood mystery filmKnives Out attempts to make visible those left behind in Trumps America without causing any meaningful offence.Director Rian Johnsonspastiche of an Agatha Christie-style murder-mystery, Knives Out becomes a moral tale about a South American carers uprising against her wealthy white employers. With children still being kept in cages in America, this is a timely way to update the genre. But Johnson doesnt seem to know where to place his knife.

The family are such exaggerated caricatures of wealththeres a self-absorbed new-age influencer and a fanatical white supremacistthat their bigotry comes across as a mere punchline rather than the existential threat that many Americans face. Rather than burrow into the processes that mark inherited wealth, Johnson traffics in liberal cultural signifiers like Hamilton and angry Twitter storms. These buzzwords locate the film in 2019, but the film doesnt go any further than the ironic use of that line, Immigrants we get the job done. The very fact that Knives Outsgood-natured career, played by actress Ana De Armas, is constantly validated by the detective, played by Daniel Craig, as being a good immigrant, and is depicted without any real character traits outside of servitude to the family, suggests that the film only has a problem with patronising liberal pandering when its coming from the mouth of a person or character hes deemed too vulgar.

Us and Knives Out were among the only non-franchise Hollywood films to cross over 150 million dollars worldwide this year, showing a public appetite for these conversations. But their lack of staying power in public memorybox office and memes havent resulted in a cultural phenomenon like Get Outs sunken place, for exampleshows that the attempts to be all things to all viewers backfires. The world orbiting Trump is too wide-ranging for genre films like Knives Out and Us to handle. Can any single film match the sheer insanity of the American project?

Perhaps, if that film is three and a half hours long. The years most successful mainstream depiction of the American class system was The Irishman. Across six decades of American life, it depicts mob enforcer Frank Sheehan as a working stiff, a man who put in his hours, followed orders and worked for what he believed in. As he becomes more personally entwined in the business, his beliefs become corrupted and zealous.

Rather than make sweeping statements, The Irishmans relentless presentation of minute character details burrows into the issues, slowly infects the viewer with the progressive issues at play. Sheehan is actively complicit in the mob crimes without really questioning the specifics. And it is that blindness to the wider ranging implications of one persons actions in the name of a job that reflects how many of todays workers, locked in a desperate grab at a receding economy, are forced to overlook our own complicity in the destruction of the environment and the oppression of others.

Its in that sustained depiction of poisonous day-to-day banalities that Scorsese tells us far more than filmmakers who attempt sweeping gestures of hope. Like Martin Scorsese observing the long seep of the 20th century, its only by stepping back to see the common threads in 2019s best-intentioned Hollywood Product, that we can see what Trump Cinema really is.

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How Hollywood took on the Trumping of politics - Prospect

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December 23rd, 2019 at 10:45 am

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