Movies in the Trump Years

Don’t Expect Movies to Serve as Our Social Conscience

Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator
Charlie Chaplin from the The Great Dictator, 1940. Photo credit: The Great Dictator / Wikimedia

In this week’s podcast, long-time San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle says that he doesn’t believe in the power of movies, or of any art, to change anything in society.

LaSalle tells WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman that we’re too split along partisan lines for even the best films to have any impact on our public debate. All we can expect are movies that eerily anticipate what eventually happens.

He reminds us of the blockbuster movies of the past three summers, when we’ve seen almost every major American city destroyed by either bombs or monsters or aliens. For several years now, the dominant strain of the most crowd-pleasing films has been either the apocalypse or civic chaos. According to LaSalle, these movies are not useful as cautionary tales, but instead represent a kind of “kinetic anticipation” of “fear and dread.”

As for classic politically-themed films, like Face in Crowd or The Manchurian Candidate, or movies reflecting on the Cold War or McCarthyism, like Dr. Strangelove or Apocalypse Now, he reminds us that these mostly came years after the fact, not during the actual crises when they might have affected public opinion.

After years of watching films in the dark, LaSalle is unremittingly pessimistic about the cultural power of movies, or art in general.

As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.

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Full Text Transcript:

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

During World War II, filmmakers became a part of the war effort. Filmmakers like Frank Capra, John Huston, John Ford, and William Wyler would use the experience of war to reshape how Americans view war. During the Cold War, Films like Failsafe, Torn Curtain, and The Manchurian Candidate, and even The Day The Earth Stood Still fed our paranoia and got under our collective skin. Even today elements of Star Wars and The Hunger Games warned of the dangers of despotism. Like some of these other periods, today we face a real, but internal, existential threat. We can only hope that the filmmakers of our day will use their art to warn and inform us. Until they do, it’s worth thinking about those films from the past that might already be a part of our cultural and political DNA. That might help inspire us, comfort us, agitate us, and maybe even provide an occasional diversion. We’re going to talk about that today with my guest Mick LaSalle. He is the head film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. He’s the author of two books about Pre-Hays Code Hollywood, and it is my pleasure to welcome Mick LaSalle to the program. Mick, thanks so much for joining us.

Mick LaSalle: It’s my pleasure, Jeff.

Jeff:  Thinking about this, I started a conversation with somebody the other day who had seen Sullivan’s Travels over the weekend and thought “Gee, that was an instructive movie for this period of time we’re living through.” It really kind of sparked this conversation about thinking about what might be the movies that are important to see and that really might have a profound impact on us in these difficult times.

Mick: I think of this is like when you’re on an airplane and there’s turbulence – it’s nice to have a diverting movie to watch. But if you have an airplane where the turbulence gets really, really horrible, it becomes impossible to pay attention to the movie. So I’m not sure what we have right now; if we have turbulence or if we have something really, really horrible. Because if things are really, really horrible, then it’s really impossible to concentrate on a movie. And no movie is going to make you feel any better. As far as movies giving us instruction and guidance, movies of course, by necessity, are about a year behind because it takes about a year to put them together and write them. At least that much time. Also they tend to play it safe, and so until something is already in the collective mind where everybody just agrees, movies won’t express the opinion. You know, you get these anti-war movies that have made the grade, anti-war movies are made about six years after every war. So I don’t know if movies are really going to do us much good, quite frankly. On this score I tend to be really just pessimistic.

Jeff: However, the difference with respect to turbulence, just to use your analogy, is that if things get really bad, there’s nothing you as a passenger can do about it. But maybe there were things we could be inspired to do or agitated to do, or as Howard Beale says in Network, “Get up off of our chairs and go out and say you’re not going to take it anymore.” Maybe there are things that they can be inspiring to us.

Mick: Possibly. But it’s much easier when the situation is like “we have to go to see Hitler.” Because it’s very clear, everybody agrees Hitler’s a bad guy and Hitler’s over there but we’re here. We have to just get it together and then do this thing. But it’s something else when the problem is internal. It’s almost as if trying to use mind control to get rid of an illness. Forget about serious illness, try to use mind control to get rid of a cold. It doesn’t work and so I don’t know. The whole country could be united and inspired, but the people who actually control the country are the people who control the government, who actually control the military, who control the weapons, you know. Everybody could be walking around with an incredible inspired feeling. The only thing you can change is popular opinion, and maybe in that way movies can have some use. But even then, things are much different than the movies of the ‘40s in that like TV news and like everything else movies play to specialized markets, whereas in 1942 to 1943 you can say that literally everybody was watching the same movie. In this case, you can make the greatest documentary in the world that proves really important things and basically the only people will go see it are people who want to believe the contents of that documentary. Nobody else, who needs to see it, won’t see it. I’m just not very optimistic about the uses of anything other than votes. I don’t really have much of a belief in the power of art. I believe in the power of art to move, but I don’t believe in the power of art to have an actual tangible effect in the world. I wish I did but I just don’t.

Jeff: Is there a value in movies and in art in being instructive at the least in understanding how we got here? I mean like a la Face In The Crowd or maybe better examples than that in understanding how we could get to where we are?

Mick: Yeah, we already know how we got here. We already know what happened and we know how it happened. It happened because of very specific things and it happened because of certain mindsets in the country. We can understand it all we like, but it doesn’t change it. A Face In The Crowd is actually…in a way it’s optimistic because in A Face In The Crowd you have a guy who’s actually quite talented.  Andy Griffith in the movie is wonderful. The movie A Face In The Crowd – forget about its instructive capacity, just watch it. It is a wonderful movie. It is a great movie and  it’s amazing because of Andy Griffith. This movie just shows what Andy Griffith, in the direction he could’ve gone and he’s played a total villain. But in a way Face in The Crowd is actually quite optimistic because it basically says if people only knew what this guy was really like, everybody would turn on him in droves. We soon found that out – I assume you’re making an analogy between Donald Trump and Andy Griffith in the movie – we found out what people do when they find out what the guy is really like because we have the extra [?] tape. What they do is they still vote for him. Then what they do is they forgot about it a month later. I mean really, it was like a month. So basically the only way things change is for popular opinion to change. I don’t think that’s through art. I think that’s through, unfortunately, bad things happening. It does not come from art. I may be a film critic but I don’t have the illusions about the importance of either what I do or even the importance of what it is. I mean, look at us sitting around, you know, watching Saturday Night Live laughing and feeling like that gives us some kind of comfort. But in the end it’s not going to really do anything. It’s going to be other things like popular opinion and bad things happening. Changing popular opinion, it’s going to be very hard. I’m not looking forward to it.

Jeff: What do you see in terms of somebody who sees so many movies and sees the changes taking place, but when would art and movies specifically have really reflected this bifurcation, this divisiveness, this segmentation that you were talking about earlier?

Mick: For the most part, movies are made by people who are kind of left of center and the movies are collectively, from a slightly or little bit more liberal point of view. Then you get documentaries which tend to be very liberal. You get other documentaries that are very conservative. That’s the bifurcation there. But when I think about movies in relation to the current moment, the thing that shows me is this: Earlier I said that movies are always a year behind the times and that is true except in one weird way. Movies have a way of anticipating what’s going to happen. It’s almost like they are dreams or something. It’s like some kind of unconscious knowing about something. For example, you get movies about the recession before the recession happened. There is an interesting Michelle Phillips movie by Kelly Reichardt. I forgot the name of the movie. But anyway, it’s about a woman and a dog but it’s all about the recession. That movie was made a year before the recession. So you get movies that are predicting things. If you look at what movies are about now, or what are the dominant strands of our movies, they’re all about life after the apocalypse and they’re about civic chaos. So it’s about two things: either civic chaos, or life after the apocalypse or both at the same time. It is almost as if there is some kind of anticipation of the disaster. But not always when the movies anticipate something, the bad thing happens. For example, in the ‘50s you had all these monster movies that were really about nuclear war and they are like forecasts of nuclear annihilation. They are all coming out of that anxiety and nothing really bad happened, really. It doesn’t mean if the movie anticipates it, it has to happen. But it is definitely something that was on people’s minds for at least for the full 15 years between 9/11/2001 and November 8, 2016. You just wonder what’s going on with that because I’ll tell you something, this post-apocalyptic kind of thing was not going on in our movies before that. It wasn’t going on but then suddenly it is. So there’s some kind of fear and dread. By the way, this fear and dread and anticipation of the apocalypse in the sense of living on the edge of things, I think, cuts across political opinion. Now there are people on the right who feel this as people on the left. That something is like ending and is something… they feel nervous. That something is about to go. Hopefully, that anxiety is baseless. But that’s the thing, to the extent when I look at movies and look at the current situation is the thing that makes me feel a little bit sick.

Jeff: Didn’t we have that kind of fear and that kind of movie during the Cold War period when we look at things like Failsafe, Strangelove, or evenManchurian Candidate? Certainly we had, you know, things like Body Snatchers and The Day The Earth Stood Still which were reflective in an entertaining way of the paranoia that everybody felt.

Mick: Yes. Yes, it is. Sometimes, the paranoia is based on something that could actually happen and I suppose sometimes it happened. But it does have a way of making movies look uncanny when the thing that they’re worried about actually does happen and then you say, “Whoa, what could that be? They sort of knew.” So yes. The answer to that is yes, absolutely.

Jeff: When we look today at these post-apocalyptic movies, what do you see? What does it tell us of these sort of dystopian visions of the future?

Mick: Well, it tells me that there’s something in the current psychological climate. It tells me two things. One, that people feel a dread of things coming to an end. But also – and this is the thing that is really weird – almost a desire to see it end in order to see what happens next. When I talk to people I know who voted, shall we say, differently than I did, they tend to say things almost like, “I wanted to see the end of the world.” They don’t say it quite that way, but they say things like, “Well, you know, I wanted to shake things up. I wanted to just blow it up. I wanted to see what happens next. I wanted to see something different.” They tend to say things like that. These are actual people I know. You know people your whole life and that’s like, “Really?” This is my close friend of so many years. It kind of doesn’t make you feel too good.

Jeff: There’s almost a religious aspect to it and in terms of the kind of end times view of the world.

Mick: Yes, I suppose, there may be an element of that for some people. I think there is this weird sense of anxiety. I mean, there is something weird going on in our cells. When you think about every summer – and this is before anybody thought they were going to have an election that turned out like this one – every summer we see a succession of very peculiar films that are so ubiquitous that we don’t even see them as weird. We see a series of films that depict throughout the summer, over the course of three months, all of our cities getting blown up, all of the seas destroyed by monsters, the space aliens, one after another. The Golden Bridge usually blows up two or three times in the course of the summer. New York is always destroyed. This is what we do and I just like to imagine what we would think, let’s say, of the French if all their movies were about the Eiffel Tower blowing up. Or if every Italian movie that came out for three months had the Coliseum blowing up. We’d start thinking “these people are mentally ill. There’s something wrong with these people. These people are not only showing us an anxiety but they are showing us a desire.” There is something here that’s weird and we don’t see it because it’s us, you know. I look at this, I look at that, and then I look at current trends in American life, and I say maybe we’re seeing the same thing. Maybe these are similar.

Jeff: If you look at movies that came out in the summer 10 years ago,15 years ago, was it appreciably different? Do you have a sense of that?

Mick: I think about 20 years ago and say yes, it would be appreciably different. You’ve seen them. You’ve got an occasional movie like Independence Day with things that are happening but it wasn’t like every movie, I mean. I’m serious. We went through a list. It’s cities getting destroyed. This is partly not only a sense of neurotic anticipation and desire – although I think we are saying that – but it’s also a kind of reaction to 9/11 which was a profound national trauma. We saw two big landmarks in New York – or you can count it as one – just completely vaporized as if it were in a science fiction movie. That has an effect and then as a way of penetrating imagination. But if you go before that, you do see it. But you don’t see it like the way we see it now. To the extent of it, it’s almost an – The thing is, it’s no longer to create a sense of fear. It’s almost to create a sense of excitement or spectacle. It’s not to create horror. It is to create like excitement and anticipation. I don’t know. I’m not a psychologist but I look at it and I do the reverse on it. I imagine if other cultures were sending us this kind of product. I’d start wondering about the sanity of these people.

Jeff: You mentioned Italy before. It’s a little like Roman circuses. It’s a little like what went on in the Coliseum before the fall of the Roman Empire.

Mick: Wow. Yes, that’s interesting. But, you know that it’s going to get worse. I mean, as the Romans left the Republican era and went into the Empire era, the spectacle got more and more intense. So…yes, by that analogy, I hope movies don’t get worse in the next few years..

Jeff: Laughs. We will keep watching. Mick LaSalle. I thank you so much for giving your thoughts and insights and chatting with us today.

Mick: Yes, I’m glad to cheer everybody up. I’m like the Paul Krugman of film criticism. When I read that guy, I want to hang myself every morning, you know. Laughter.  I’m glad to be such an upbeat guy.

Jeff: It doesn’t bode well for romantic comedies I think. Laughter. Mick LaSalle. I thank you so much for spending time with us.

Mick: Thank you.

Jeff: Thank you so much for spending time to thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

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