By Andy Clark
Especially, In Election Season.
In this election season few things seem to make sense. At or near the front of the pack are two outsiders, Trump breaks every rule of what you should say and gets more popular, Bernie Sanders – an outspoken socialist – is an inch behind party favorite Hillary Clinton.
In this article, it needs to be said I am not going to take sides, and even when it is about politics it isn’t about politics, it’s about narratives, images, style. It’s about art and how it springs up and foreshadows our actions. We all on some level imagine our life as a work of art and fiction and human nature varies less than we imagine over time, at least in my opinion of things, so we can usually find in entertainment and art the various things going on that seem new well before whatever the “new” thing is. This election is no different. In specific three films, first the most obvious, Network, second The Candidate and third the extremely peculiar Gabriel Over The White House. Why film? It is arguably the most popular and accessible art, one in which the popular opinions of our country are perhaps most clearly expressed. Film theorist Siegfreid Kraucer, in his book Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, argued film, in its dreamlike format, projects onto the screen the subconscious worries of a nation.
1976’s Network is about a fictional network and “the mad prophet of the airwaves”, Howard Beale. Beale’s message is a great but vague anger at the system. The character expresses rage and perhaps justified anger at the current order, anger at a perceived political elite, anger at the way we are usually spoken to by leaders. That sentiment is not uncommon today. We can even imagine the line, “we’re mad as hell and we aren’t going to take it any more!”, flowing from Trump’s lips. In the movie, the speech that follows that outburst states that all that is pulling the strings is the ebb and flow of currency – which isn’t too far off from what Sanders is railing against.
The Candidate, made in 1972, is a parable about elections. It is a parable about the political system and how a candidate who is an outsider becomes homogenized by his trying to appeal to the general public. This election, I would argue, is perhaps chiefly a result of people coming to cynically despise the election dog and pony show. It is about disliking inoffensiveness and non-opinions. It is the anxiety that what the process of elections truly does is to stop change from happening because it requires a bland product that can be sold to the general American public. Neither Sanders nor Trump are bland, and both refuse to pitch themselves in a familiar way. They make Obama’s game changing campaign seem routine.
Trump’s appeal in particular is that of the strong man. Trump espouses rage at politics itself. He rejects debates, he rejects nuance. He appeals to the frustration of things seemingly not getting done, he’s a business man. He will – if nothing else – make things happen. These circumstances remind me of a movie made during the Great Depression. 1933’s Gabriel Over the White House has to be one of the odder films in American history. It was produced just before the election of FDR and was financed by William Randolph Hearst.
An ineffective president, Hammond becomes possessed by the angel Gabriel, dismisses the house and senate due to the squabbling. Hammond/the angel Gabriel proceeds to fix America. In one scene he sits next to a lost soul of the Depression listening to his problems. It is a film whose message clearly states that we need a populist strong leader who realizes the political process is some game with byzantine rules wasting time and money. So the angel Gabriel in Hammond makes himself an American autocrat. Behind its religious imagery this is a film that sees government as a failing business that needs someone to take over. The necessity of a strong and effective CEO of sorts is something that would naturally appeal to the film’s patron, Hearst. My meaning is not that Trump wishes to be a dictator. He simply appeals to the American love of strength and the sentiment of apathy towards processes while embracing action with a capital ‘A’. The sentiment lends itself well to American contempt for the slow-moving management of public and political sectors while the idealized private sector produces perceived superior results.
This particular election cycle and the feelings that propel it have already been tapped into and inspired cinema. Like most times, what can be seen as uniquely contemporary concerns is actually part of the dialogue taking place in the psyche of America. Our psyches can be viewed on film for all to enjoy.
Andy Clark ([email protected]) is an extension school guest writer for the Indy!