What happened on the 8th of November was a historic turning point in every respect. Against all odds and in defiance of everything, pollsters and pundits had conditioned us to expect what was once a joke became reality. Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States of America.
It’s not unusual for media predictions on a political candidate’s performance to be wrong. But these mistakes go deeper than mere miscalculation; their very existence is a self-demonstrating summary of everything that went wrong – of everything that is still very wrong – with the existing political system, not just America’s, but that which governs all mainstream Western thought. Too certain of their moral righteousness, too complacent in the verifiable knowledge granted by their facts and figures and too closed-off from the concerns of everyday people to experience life beyond their socio-culturally homogenous echo chamber, the politically privileged – among which I count myself – have been dealt a violent reminder of their status. With two consecutive victories under its belt, the large-scale reactionary movement that has been brewing in the West for the past two decades is now marching on full speed.
It will be up to clear-minded sociologists, journalists and demographers to fully assess the situation in the hopes of finding leads for an appropriate political response. But one thing is certain: Nothing can ever be the same again. Paradigms that we have so long taken for granted are undergoing a dramatic shift the outcome of which remains unclear. For better or for worse, our global culture is changing; it is the artist’s imperative to address these changes and the critic’s imperative to guide them along the way.
How do we do so? From what angle should we look at these changes? What conclusions must we draw from them? There is no single correct answer to these questions. There are, however, examples and counter-examples from both our past and our present that we can learn from. The first and most important lesson is this: Do not settle for political grandstanding. Do not content yourself to nod and cheer whenever a film, song, tweet or statement from a creator you love voices your beliefs. And never mistake these creators, however talented they may be, for great political thinkers. Whether you like it or not, most of the artists, entertainers and writers whose work you love are part of a privileged elite. Irrespective of their political leanings, they tend to gravitate in the same kind of socially insular environments as the people responsible for these changes and thus their perspective is, more often than not, a limited one. Celebrity culture is a political poison.
For proof of this, look back to the heyday of George W. Bush’s presidency, particularly the first three years of the Iraq War, when being anti-Bush was all the rage in Hollywood. It was cool, it was rebellious and it was exciting: you were fighting the power, potentially risking your career if your audience veered on the conservative side (just ask the Dixie Chicks) and taking part in a global movement for change. You were using your talent, your craft and your riches to change people’s hearts and minds for the better.
You were also likely producing mediocre art.
This may be a harsh statement but it is sadly true, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the many political films produced during that era. For eight years, audiences were treated to sanctimonious tales of corruption and injustice which took the Bush administration to task for its violation of core American principles, either through solemn war dramas (In The Valley Of Elah), attempted historical parallels (Good Night, And Good Luck), satirical comedy (Borat) or action-packed adventures (the Jason Bourne films). And none of them managed to contribute even the slightest thing of value to our culture’s understanding of warfare, terrorism, bigotry, oppression or corruption. Rather than sincere explorations of the American psyche, these films were, by and large, self-congratulatory works of cinematic and political academicism designed to score points with a cool kids’ club. The entire trend can be summarized by its single enduring image: a Guy Fawkes mask, repurposed and mass-produced as the face of millennial agitation, worn by a movement as superficially impressive and politically immature as the film inspired by it.
The fatal flaw common to all those films, even those that at least succeeded as entertainment, is the same that has gotten us into this mess: arrogance. Wrapped up in a star-spangled blanket of moral certainty, they preached to a middle-class liberal choir and mistook it for a crowd. Such blind self-satisfaction will not do. More than loud performances of rebellion, we need sober reflection and self-criticism. More than demonstrations of moral superiority, we need exercises in radical empathy.
To achieve this, no need for any straightforward political spectacle or elaborate audiovisual treatises; we get enough of that on 24-hour news channels. Simply look for films that transport you, kicking and screaming, beyond your comfort zone and into new intellectual or emotional territories. Seek out voices and experiences that differ from your own, not so that you can pat yourself on the back for your open-mindedness, but as part of a sincere effort to connect to others and know them. Look at films like last year’s magnificent Songs My Brothers Taught Me or Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch; brush up on classics like Wanda, Nashville, Meet John Doe or Lacombe Lucien, as well as more recent fare such as Nightcrawler, Dear White People or Caveh Zahedi’s little-seen The Sheik And I. These films don’t just dramatize socio-political issues for entertainment or name-drop fashionable talking points for approval. They neither take their audience’s opinions for granted nor attempt to lecture them as if they were bored students in an amphitheatre. Each one, in its unique way, calls us to our individual responsibilities as citizens, artists, filmgoers and people. Far from the platitudes of most corporate “issue movies”, these films demand serious intellectual work from their audience and do not reward them with ready-made answers.
The phenomena behind these changes – globalization, immigration, Islamism, racism, identity politics – are not going anywhere. For cinema to remain a relevant force for human elevation, their effects on society must be addressed by civic-minded artists with clarity, humility and compassion. Only by taking greater leaps into the unknown and daring ourselves to think outside our self-made boxes can we hope to triumph over the facile solutions offered by politicians, pundits and demagogues of all stripes.
We have a lot of work to do.