It’s time, in this summer of Trump and Suicide Squad, to think more closely about the uses of shock. Do outrageous provocations merely galvanize an otherwise inert body politic, as a brain-dead frog is made to twitch in the lab? Or can the tactical deployment of grotesquerie and offense fulfill a higher purpose, blowing the dust of habit off our eyes? Some aestheticians have argued that by making the ordinary seem strange, shock effects can renew the mind, refresh the will, and awaken the spirit to delight.
In which case, is the Trump campaign a work of art?
To the degree that ambiguity of purpose and unpredictability of effect are decisive in art, at least in the modern era, then yes, we have now become a captive audience to one of the weirdest road shows ever produced. I watch the performances and wonder: Where the hell is this going, and what does the man really want? Trump is nakedly avid beyond the political norm in his pursuit of material gain, whether from tax cuts, payouts to friends and family, or the sale of bottled water; but more tellingly, he exceeds other candidates in his urge for self-expression, a force so powerful in him that he’d rather sacrifice votes than abandon a one-liner. Not a principle, mind you—what few tenets he mouths go no deeper than the tan and the hair, and mean less to him than either. But by fending off the advisers who keep begging him to behave properly, Trump has proved to be paradoxically authentic in his need to unburden himself and unload on others. He’s as emotively bold as van Gogh, with the difference that the severed ears he waves around belonged to other people.
Going beyond traditional ballyhoo to avant-garde outlandishness, Trump’s campaign has turned American politics into a spectacle of the odd, the brutal, the uncanny, and the improbable. And it’s not just politics-as-usual that his campaign has made to seem strange. Trump has slapped a surrealizing exclamation point on the full range of his own clichéd tastes and attitudes, as well as those of his supporters. Acres of gold and marble! Bosomy blondes! Red meat and red blood! White supremacy! Everyone has long recognized that such banalities are widely shared in America—but no one is used to seeing them paraded about in this way, except in the works of R. Crumb and Philip Guston.
Those are clearly the wrong points of reference, though, for the Trump Gesamtkunstwerk. If you want to know whether Trump, considered as an artist, will produce the promised spiritual benefits of his shock effects, you might do better to look elsewhere: at the wildly lucrative blockbuster Suicide Squad.
The closest analogue to the Trump campaign currently in theaters, Suicide Squad is linked directly to the candidate through one of its executive producers, Steven Mnuchin, who has gone on to head Trump’s fund-raising efforts. But the money trail is the least of the reasons why this movie seems to emanate straight from Trump World. More to the point, Suicide Squad embodies, to the nth degree, our current standards of mainstream movie entertainment, which it then exposes as utterly bizarre.
The comparison with entertainments of an earlier period is unavoidable, since Suicide Squad harks back to The Dirty Dozen—Robert Aldrich’s extraordinarily revisionist, antiheroic World War II movie, made at the height of the Vietnam War, which proposed that certain crucial Army missions were suited only to units of condemned criminals. The producers of Suicide Squad gave the job of updating this notion to writer-director David Ayer, a specialist in platoon movies (The Fast and the Furious, Sabotage, Fury) who must have seemed just the guy to dispatch a team of misfits through the old ultraviolence. But because Ayer is working almost 50 years after The Dirty Dozen, his misfits aren’t soldiers but comic-book villains; the authority that has assembled them isn’t the Army but a shadowy government agency outside any recognizable chain of command; and the mission for which they’ve been chosen is purely speculative—they only might be needed. But so long as they’re waiting around, they may as well destroy an ancient extradimensional being from South America (I think I’ve got that right) who has the powers of a witch, talks like the voice-over for an old sci-fi movie trailer, and looks like a recently electrocuted Cara Delevingne.
This is as close to a perfect intellectual vacuum as you’ll find outside the average Trump foreign-policy statement. Historical events and government structures are reduced to the status of rumor. Mortal threats are unspecifiable but omnipresent, coalescing out of black smoke and lightning flashes. A coldly arrogant, wine-sipping bureaucrat—“An African-American woman, by the way, have I told you that, folks?” as Trump might put it—wields power without regard for human life. From other corners of the DC Comics universe, occasional figures pop in and out like random headlines from the National Enquirer. And the world’s hopes rest exclusively on the outlaws, who aren’t bad people, you understand; they’re just living affronts to political correctness—like Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the fun-loving, Trump-ready, blond sex slave who is proud to live in a permanent state of juvenile regression.
Form, such as it is, matches content. Like so many other blockbusters that now pass for normal, Suicide Squad is a shuffled playlist of pop songs, a graphic display of trading-card stats (Deadshot, Killer Croc, Diablo—collect ’em all!), a ceaseless whack-a-mole game in which the splattering pests are human, a periodic shower of 3-D debris. Mishmash predominates. The members of the Suicide Squad are all “metahumans” with ungodly powers, except for the guy who’s just good with firearms, or the crazy pigtailed girl who swings a baseball bat. The government wields absolute power over these characters and keeps them under constant surveillance, though it will allow them to contact arch-criminals on their iPhones. As for the supernatural South American, she can teleport and emit vaporizing energy bolts; but when confronted by the good bad guys, she prefers to engage in five minutes of fisticuffs. Does this make no sense? No problem! It will all be over in a couple of hours, not counting the trailers for similar mainstream productions, one of which will soon be the next to have “won the weekend.”
As a lifelong enthusiast of cinematic delirium, I groan at the very thought of Suicide Squad. Loud, lurid, incoherent, and ostentatiously, meaninglessly rebellious, it doesn’t lift you to the visionary bliss of a L’Age d’Or, Holy Motors, or Mad Max: Fury Road. It drops you instead into a muddle of reflex reactions. And we must face facts: This is what the public wants—a large segment of the public, anyway—just as millions of voters want what they’re getting through Trump’s performances.
I’ll leave it to The Nation’s political writers to assess the extent to which Trump’s audiences have been shaken awake by his vulgar effrontery, flocking to him because no one else seems to address their grievances, versus the extent to which they’re galvanized frogs. My role—a very modest one—is to consider the artistic merits of Trump’s shock campaign, judging it according to the current standards of Warner Bros. and the major theater chains.
I say it stinks.
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Opening theatrically in September after a well-received run in the festivals, Marcin Wrona’s Demon is a ghost story in several senses. It’s a tragically posthumous work by the Polish writer-director, who committed suicide at age 42, just before the film’s premiere. It’s a modern-day evocation of Jewish legends about dybbuks—unquiet spirits who take possession of the living—realized in a tone that’s at once eerie and satirical. And it’s a recollection from beyond the grave of Michal Waszynski’s 1937 Yiddish feature Der Dibuk, which (thanks to Wrona) you might imagine as the turning point in a phantom Polish film history that didn’t get to happen.
Loosely based on a play by Piotr Rowicki (Adherence) but thoroughly and assuredly cinematic in method, Demon is set on the outskirts of a drab village of broken connections and deep but discreet excavations. When Piotr (Itay Tiran), a young Englishman of Polish background, arrives to celebrate his wedding, he has to take a disorienting ferry ride to reach the village, because the bridge was destroyed by the Germans and still hasn’t been rebuilt. Upon disembarking, Piotr isn’t reunited with his bride-to-be—whom he’s courted mostly on Skype, in another instance of tenuous connections—but first must visit the quarry run by his hearty, gruffly insulting future father-in-law (Andrzej Grabowski). Piotr has to be put in his place, and also given the loan of one of the quarry’s excavators, which he can use to improve the grounds of the ramshackle old house that’s his wedding present. Only then does he get to meet and embrace his Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska, looking like a young, Polish Cate Blanchett)—but not for very long.
As Demon moves into its main action— a riotous, dusk-to-dawn wedding party held in the barn of the old house—rain begins to pour, a sense of dread overcomes Piotr, and some old bones either are or are not unearthed in the garden, depending on whom you talk to and when you ask. A second woman in a bridal gown, shorter and darker than Zaneta, begins to drift in and out of the groom’s sight. Soon, Piotr is causing enough of a stir—whether from the effects of vodka, fever, or epilepsy—that his father-in-law sagely decides he’d better be put in the cellar.
All this takes place in a brooding atmosphere created by Pawel Flis’s enveloping wide-screen cinematography (which seems to condense light out of the constant rain and the wedding guests’ sweat), and by a mournful, softly disturbing musical score by Krzysztof Penderecki and Marcin Macuk. Sly jokes and none-too-gentle burlesques keep puncturing the otherworldly tension as it grows. (The town doctor, drunk as usual, tries to entertain the guests by performing a Chopin prelude and is rebuked with a shout of “Play something Polish!”) Meanwhile, Piotr repeatedly interrupts the revelry with his obsession about skeletons, his inexplicable mentions of someone named Hana, and his inability to waltz without writhing on the floor.
The writhing is extraordinary. I don’t know if Itay Tiran trained as a dancer, but he’s a remarkable physical performer whose tremblings, contortions, and postures contain nothing less than the soul of Demon. Because of him, there’s no room in the movie for mere metaphor. He takes the story’s meanings into his own body.
A ghostly connection is made in the flesh. A conjugal connection is broken. (Zaneta, played with wonderful vividness by Zulewska, has her own tragedy as the only member of her family who grasps what’s happening, and cares.) The past is excavated, perhaps inadvertently, and a brusque cover-up is effected, with more self-righteousness than fear. This subject matter is not unfamiliar, but Demon is imaginative in its approach, faultlessly modulated in execution, and hauntingly faithful to the original subtitle of Der Dibuk: “Between Two Worlds.”
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From Werner Herzog’s new documentary, I learned that the first long-distance computer-to-computer communication crashed during log-in. The letters “L” and “O,” transmitted in 1969 from UCLA to Stanford, managed to get through, but the “G…” never made it, with the result that the original Internet message reads like the introduction to a prophecy. From this bit of history, Herzog gets both the title of his film, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, and its Manichean theme.
Herzog goes straight for the fantasies of good and evil that people associate with the digital age. “We are now entering a sacred location,” says Leonard Kleinrock, one of the founders of the Internet, as he leads Herzog into a small office at UCLA that houses a tall white metal cabinet: somebody’s closet, you might think, but actually the computer that transmitted “LO.” It almost goes without saying that Herzog soon gets the opposite opinion, speaking with a woman who was tormented by online trolls after her daughter’s death. “I have always believed,” the woman says, “that the Internet is the manifestation of the Antichrist. It is the spirit of evil.”
Maybe not. But over the course of his film’s 10 chapters, Herzog tilts toward the people who see digital connectivity as a false god—including the legendary hacker Kevin Mitnick, who ought to know—rather than toward the worshippers (like Elon Musk) who await the day when the Internet will reside on Mars, dreaming of itself.
Hanging over them all—perhaps because the film was initiated and paid for by NetScout, a company that manages digital traffic—is the fear of a new dark age should the Internet ever be disabled. As the maker of the apocalyptic Lessons of Darkness, a documentary on the first Gulf War, Herzog appreciates this foreboding; but, again, he seems to side with the people who have fled the Internet, some of whom now live in a pastoral setting of unspoiled, unwired hills and bluegrass music.
Their departure looks like a virtue in itself. For Herzog, the problem of the Internet is that you no longer have to go anywhere—which is also the problem with Lo and Behold. Herzog has no cave to explore this time, no smoldering volcano to approach, which leaves the film without a goal. All the more reason why it’s a pleasure to hear Herzog’s narration as he observes, admires, disparages, and occasionally tells an obvious fib. His commentary is the center, however provisional, of a world that has become a directionless network. His voice is the sound, still present, of human contact.