Cinema, we know, has the unique power in art to capture dreams. But it has another quality as well, more subtle--the power to capture memory. Memory's selectivity, salience, and perhaps most alarmingly its ability to fade or be repressed altogether. To tell the truth, I see all these characteristics in film. Media and films are a way to remember, with documentarian clarity often, but frequently with selectivity on the part of the writer or editor, and, unfortunately, with too much of a capacity to disappear from recollection altogether.
These are some fresh thoughts in my mind in light of the Election. There's a number of movies which I think cover a lot of this moment. This is a list of nine. Those who don't learn history are doomed to repeat it. Film as a way that we remember and as a piece of cultural fabric can illuminate us now. We can cast back over what we've seen before and how we remember where we've been before. So let's start at the beginning:
Triumph of the Will (1935)
I'm not an expert on German cinema, although we'll see a lot of it here, even so here's is a movie I've spent a lot of time studying. As part of the German propaganda, director Leni Riefenstahl was given unprecedented resources for filming. Some of the most powerful imagery in cinema was pioneered here. When you see a really convincing piece of performance and cinematography come together, the directorial choices that made it possible frequently came together here first in their best articulation.
Riefenstahl brilliantly used relationships of symbols within the image, between images, movement, the human face, nature itself, to relate the viewer not so much to the experience of the 1934 Nuremberg rally as the feeling of being there. That feeling spans from when the film was made to today. This film, this filmmaking is as powerful as ever. As a work of art it has the life of the Dutch masters--falling out of the frame at us.
We reach as the German people reached. It's impossible not to be drawn toward such an ecstatic cinematic masterpiece. It's only from context that we feel revulsion at being played by the film this way. By being drawn toward some of the greatest horrors of history. Triumph of the Will is not scary for the power it shows the Nazi's having, although that is terrifying in retrospect. No, it's also scary for how well it works. It's a standard for much of the best in filmmaking in this way.
Understanding the events of the middle of the 20th Century has shaped German cinema ever since. How do we relate to these chapters of history is something I think German cinema, perhaps all of Western literature, is only now pulling away from. Downfall is a powerful reflection on that time.
Downfall, incredibly creative and brilliantly acted, takes us into the last days of Hitler's life. We see this man beaten and his inner circle clinging to empty ideals, struggling, and often committing further atrocities, showing their depression, anxiety, wrath in growing paranoia, as they come to grips with where they are and what they've done. With the end, the undoing of fascism.
The film is sort of hyperreal you might say, it's detailed and realistic to a fault. And yet this realism is the key to it's success, it's brilliance. The events that unfold are almost too bizarre to be believed. The real made surreal in remembrance. Like the scene where Hitler awards the last Iron Crosses of the Third Reich to children. These are real scenes from history, this is what the last days of Hitler looked like. Nationalism couldn't be more distant, the dream more enchanting, and the reality more stark.
Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)
George Clooney's sophomore directing effort is, I think, a bit of a forgotten masterpiece of early 2000s film. Good Night, and Good Luck came out at a time when some Americans were looking back to dark pages of history and remembering how the slippery slopes of the Cold War were handled and mishandled.
The film makes a number of very interesting directorial choices, playing out entirely in interiors, having essentially no non-diegetic music, using long stretches of documentary footage, some excellent black and white cinematography for such a recent film to name a few. All this goes a long way towards creating the urgency and the fear of the CBS offices at the time.
But what Edward Murrow did was place our fears correctly and report on the side of history when it was hardest. The media went out on a limb to succeed in this respect too. The phrase "good night, and good luck" conjures hope for our fourth estate.
The Remains of the Day (1993)
The Remains of the Day is a masterful film and brilliant romance played out in the smallest details, a film that almost makes you wonder how it didn't win Best Picture in 1993 until you remember the film it was up against, Schindler's List (1993). But in addition to all that, it asks us about where we stand in history.
The Remains of the Day follows a man who can't admit his complicity at the beginning of World War II as a result of his social status, commitment to work, and the denial of his feelings. The film is unsettling somehow in this way. Totally benign, yet also tense, balanced on a razor's edge.
How will we look back at where we were and what we did at the critical moments in history? In our lives? At the intersection of where we're from and what we believe in? How does the future become decided?
The Lives of Others (2006)
Germans also deal with the difficulties of reunification. There are some really powerful scenes in Good Bye Lenin! (2003) which give that powerful sense of unreality between generations, but The Lives of Others is more concrete. Again, here is a look at the practices of oppression, surveillance, interrogations, state sanctioned murders in action.
The result is an open wound on the lives of the people involved. Things like the events depicted in this film and a number of other films like it really happened. And although the Wall came down, there has been so much mending to do. This film is made in it's closing minutes.
Frost/Nixon reflects with a little distance on events in American history which are still in the consciousness of many people who are alive today. It also has a degree of dispassionateness, having seen the entirety of the events play out, that other films, even great ones like All The President's Men (1976), may lack.
At the center of this film, though, is the notion that Nixon had terribly disrespected the office of the Presidency and needed to be held accountable. I think through a surprising degree of feeling on the part of the actors, and an apparent love of this period of history from director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan, these blows hit modern audiences as hard today as they would have been to live through at the time. Frank Langella inhabits Nixon in a rare performance.
Looking back from today's vantage point though, I am struck by a few things about the Nixon-Frost interviews. Nixon devalued the office of the Presidency, but despite his paranoia and his collusion, left the Constitution in tact. By contrast, today the Constitution seems at risk. Nixon merely devalued the Presidency.
But furthermore, Nixon had it within him to be repentant. Richard Nixon proved himself to have some honor. His apology, drawn out by David Frost, is something which I think we're not likely to get from many we see in office today on the right; "I let down the country... the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government.... Most of all, I let down an opportunity... to proceed on great projects and programs for building a lasting peace." History has shown Richard Nixon to be the last conservative of any quality.
American Psycho (2000)
Who is Donald Trump really? I'm not sure the answer to this is entirely clear. Before The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) put into really stirring reality the lives of excess that were coming about in the 1980s and 1990s, Bret Easton Ellis and American Psycho proved more forward looking about who these people at this time were. Donald Trump isn't some Patrick Bateman, but he is of this circle and this is something that people who voted for him have been fleeced by. Trump couldn't get a reservation at Dorsia, but this is what he wants.
The great irony of American Psycho, of course, is that Bateman is the only of his friends to seem to think about what he's doing. This makes all his murders somehow understandable; his apparent internal desire to be punished for his actions conflicted with his desire "to fit in" makes him relatable in a way. This person is so thin, "illusory." But I think if you want to know where Trump comes from, this is essential viewing.
Listening to Bateman speak hollowly for contradictory and seemingly worthy things and be so ernest about it creates an enigma between cynicism and belief. He's so concerned and disbelieving of the differences between business cards.
American History X (1998)
White supremacy in America. This isn't an issue to to be tackled by one movie alone. I like Malcolm X (1992) as another example of showing the effects and the complex interactions between race and activism in America. But American History X is gets under the skin as a film. Movies like Malcolm X and 12 Years a Slave (2013) are really powerful depictions of how racism is woven into the history of the country, American History X and Do the Right Thing (1989) show racism and the scourge of white nationalism in our society. American History X takes, schools, streets, and the dinner table as the grounds zero for continuing race problems in America.
But one of the interesting features of this movie, you might say, is that the tragedy here isn't that of the dream deferred. It's more about our capacity to change against the possibilities to change. Obviously this is all dawn out in characters: How Derek (Edward Norton) is able to do something so horrible and live a better life after. How Danny (Edward Furlong) loses that chance, seems like a loss for all involved. How Cameron Alexander (Stacey Keach) is so invited to continue to rally. How Dr. Sweeney (Avery Brooks) will have to continue to fight.
The Queen (2006)
There are a lot of divisions developing in the wake of these political machinations. But there's a simple human element here that's, unfortunately, likely to be lost on younger generations, I think. Today in America there's a huge population of women who know that they may have lost the chance to see another woman in the highest office in the country.
The Queen looks at the difficulties faced in one week by Elizabeth II but paints a portrait of what it is like to be the most powerful woman in the world. This film seems to reserve some judgement on it's subjects, although the Royals come off looking pretty good. But this is a result of looking at them as people.
The current state of affairs in the United Kingdom and America, and quickly spreading in the West, is not completely unlike the days shown here. Politicians handling power which threatens to upset the established order. What are the reasons for such events and how do they unfold? The Queen shows us. This is also true of satire such as In the Loop (2009) or Dr. Strangelove (1963), but The Queen is more sobering in many ways. This is a movie which looks at how people govern and how they deal with their personalities when in power, their commitments and their own histories and legacies are in the balance. It takes stock of what it means to be a woman in office.