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Dallas through the Looking Glass: Post-Truth and Kennedy Assassination Movies by Chris Evangelista

By Yasmina Tawil

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Here’s an alarming statistic: a recent CBS News poll revealed 74% of Republican voters believe the conspiracy theory that the offices of Donald Trump were wiretapped during the 2016 presidential campaign, despite there being absolutely no evidence to support that claim. But conspiracy theories are easy to grasp onto. Another poll, this one by Fairleigh Dickinson University, says 63% percent of American voters believe in “at least one political conspiracy theory.” There’s a strange comfort in believing a conspiracy—a sense that you are in the know, while others are on the outside looking in; that you, and a select few others, have discovered the truth, while everyone else is still in the dark.

Conspiracy theories surrounding presidents are nothing new. The wiretapping conspiracy theory, however, had the unlikely distinction of being made popular by the president himself, via Mr. Trump’s serially inaccurate Twitter feed. Trump himself has made his entire political career about conspiracy theories: his current ascendance in the world of politics, for instance, owes something to his leadership of the “Birther” movement—the not-so-thinly veiled racist belief that President Barack Obama is not an American citizen. At the time, Trump and his hateful ilk were on the fringe. Now they’re running the country. Welcome to the post-truth era. Welcome to the world of “alternative facts.”

Shortly after the startling 2016 presidential election, the Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth” as the international word of the year. The term is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Yet this post-truth way of thinking is nothing new—rather, it has finally gone from existing somewhere on the fringes to playing a role in the mainstream. Perhaps the most overwhelming source of post-truth logic had been in plain sight for the last 53 years, in the conspiracy buff movement that has studied and dissected the November 22, 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. And, as is the case with any event that shocks the world, it was only a matter of time before art attempted to make sense of reality.

In 1973, ten years after JFK’s assassination, Executive Action found its way into theaters, starring Burt Lancaster, with a script by Dalton Trumbo. Imagine if in 2011 a film about 9/11 being an inside job written by Aaron Sorkin and starring Tom Hanks had been released, and you might have some concept of how startling Executive Action likely seemed. Here was a no-nonsense thriller, inter-spliced with actual newsreel footage of Kennedy, concerning a shadowy cabal of businessmen who make up their minds to murder the president. They have their reasons: Kennedy pulling out of Vietnam will be bad; Kennedy’s support of civil rights will lead to a “black revolution”; Kennedy is taking the country in a distressingly “liberal” direction. What are a group of businessmen, oil tycoons, and ex-US intelligence members to do but put together a very intricate, somewhat convoluted plot to kill JFK and frame a hapless patsy, Lee Harvey Oswald?

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Executive Action was the brainchild of attorney and conspiracy buff Mark Lane, who wrote multiple books on the assassination. (Although rumor has it that it was actor Donald Sutherland who came up with the idea first, and tasked Lane with writing a script for him to star in.) Director David Miller’s approach to the script is workmanlike: lots of medium shots, lots of by-the-numbers blocking. No frills. But there is an undeniable effectiveness to the film, mostly in how calmly everything is handled. When you contrast this film with Oliver Stone’s JFK (more on that later), which tells almost the same story, it’s night and day. Stone’s film is frantic, unhinged, to the point that you can almost see the perforations as the film shakes off the reels. Executive Action is cold, businesslike, much like the men who nonchalantly plan to kill the most powerful man in the world. Lancaster, with his clipped cadence, has never been so chilling. He has a simple job—hire men to kill JFK—and he does it the way any everyman might approach a difficult but not impossible task. There’s no drama, no wringing of hands, no moral conundrum. It makes Executive Action all the more believable. Everyone is so calm and collected here that you can’t help but think, “Well, maybe this is how it happened.” (It’s not.)

On the heels of Executive Action came Alan J. Pakula’s darkness-drenched The Parallax View. Parallax isn’t a direct take on the Kennedy assassination, but the implications are unmistakable. Once again, we have a group of shadowy captains of industry pulling the strings behind the scenes. Once again, we have an unfortunate patsy set up to take the fall for a political assassination. Notice a thread here: a lone gunman is framed and blamed. An angry lone nut takes the fall while the real killers go unnoticed, or worse—remain in power, unstoppable. So disillusioned were the American people by both JFK’s death and Watergate that it was easy to believe the forces of darkness were calling the shots.

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A Playlist - What We’re Listening To 1/20/2017

By Yasmina Tawil

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Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here.

Oscilloscope has never been shy about expressing our opinions concerning a certain repugnantly pumpkin-hued reality TV shill, who, by seducing and deluding the uninformed, desperate, and in some cases bald-faced deplorables of our fair country’s vast electorate, has managed to find himself elected to the highest office in (arguably) the entire world.  

Pleas for...

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'All the King’s Men’: Your Guide and Non-Guide to the Post-Election United States by Steven Goldman

By Yasmina Tawil

It’s shocking to realize we don’t have a good collection of cinematic equivalents to help us navigate the difficult post-election interregnum of 2016-2017. We have celebrations of democracy by the dozen and more dystopias than you can count, most of them science-fiction films more interested in dealing with the action possibilities created by political failure than with politics and governance. We also lack films that, depending on your political orientation, sincerely celebrate an ascendant American right wing or picture the United States on the edge of dystopia as a result of that same ascendency. Nor, for that matter, do we have too many films exploring either outcome as the result of a triumphal liberalism. 

At the risk of employing an overbroad shorthand, whether embracing a point of view for or against their subjects, such films would be exploring the potential for an American fascism, which from certain perspectives is indistinguishable from the triumph of an American democracy. The word “triumph” is used pointedly, for this is one subtle but important message of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propaganda masterpiece The Triumph of the Will. The overarching theme is of the deification of Adolf Hitler and a display of power and unity meant to restore Germany’s reputation after the supine years that followed the Great War, but the images themselves contain a warning: There are 700,000 people at this rally. This is a mass movement, and what is democracy but a mass movement? Democracy, freedom of thought and choice, the lasting gift of the Enlightenment, contains the seeds of its own destruction.

Thus did Benjamin Franklin say, on the eve of the adoption of the United States Constitution in 1787, “This is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.” He could foresee the way the downfall of democracy would work.

Only one major American film attempts to grapple with Franklin’s prophecy in anything like a realistic fashion and, despite winning an Academy Award for Best Picture, it makes a total hash of it. Put aside such flawed films as 1933’s Gabriel Over the White House, an outright plea for fascism in which the president is transformed by an accident into a galvanic one-man government, and Frank Capra’s 1941 classic/mess (a film can be both) Meet John Doe, which tries to have it both ways by simultaneously celebrating the goodness and gullibility of the people—only Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men, a 1949 adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, takes place within a recognizable American political system utilizing characters drawn from the real world of the 1930s in its depiction of the attenuated rise of Governor Willie Stark. Modeled after Louisiana governor (later Senator) Huey Pierce Long, Stark in his cinematic form is meant to provide an object lesson in the corrupting nature of power. Consideration of both Stark and Long may help us better recognize where we are and where we may be going. If not for an assassin’s bullet, it might have been someplace we’d already visited. 

Long (1893-1935) was the closest thing the United States has had to a dictator, and although his power was circumscribed by the borders of Louisiana, at the time of his death he was actively interfering in the politics of adjoining states and building a national organization that likely would have seen him try to challenge incumbent president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and split the Democratic vote in the 1936 election. The resultant repeal of Roosevelt’s Depression-fighting New Deal programs might have created enough political dysfunction that Long would have been elected by acclamation in 1940, possibly on a third-party ticket. He would have been beholden to no one in the existing power structure and imbued with dictatorial possibilities. 

We’ll never know, but this was Roosevelt’s belief about Long’s maneuvers around him. What is certain is that Long’s national organization, the Share Our Wealth Society, claimed over seven million members at its peak and had been delegated to Gerald L.K. Smith, an avowed fascist and anti-Semite who was simultaneously seeking to affiliate with Hitler fan William Dudley Pelley’s Silver Shirts movement (as Benito Mussolini had Blackshirts and Hitler had Brownshirts, American fascism would be styled in argent tops) and would subsequently found the isolationist America First party to “preserve America as a Christian nation” against “highly organized” Jewish subversion. (At that moment, Jews were being highly organized into ghettos and gas chambers, but that was merely a pesky detail.) Such alliances, if Long was aware of them, would have been purely incidental to him. As he said, “I haven’t any program or any philosophy. I just take things as they come.” For Long, the means justified the end—securing and maintaining power for himself.

To understand All the King’s Men, it’s relevance to today, and where it let down as a guide to the issues it explored, even in its own time (which was contemporaneous with the rise of the House Un-American Activities Committee as a disruptive force in Hollywood and elsewhere, Richard Nixon, and Joseph McCarthy), we have to also understand Huey Long and where he and Willie Stark part ways. The Louisiana into which Long was born had long been neglected by its political establishment. In the post-Civil War world, the Republican party didn’t exist in the South. It has more life in California today than it had in the former Confederate states then. The lack of competition meant that the politicians in power didn’t really have to do anything. Sure, there were different factions within the southern Democratic Party that vied for power, but in the end, whoever won would end up cutting deals with the defeated segments to maintain the status quo. In that sense, each election was really a referendum on the distribution of graft.

The state suffered as a result. It is no insult to say it was a backwards place. As Robert J. Gordon wrote in his recent book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, “Except in the rural South, daily life for every American changed beyond recognition between 1870 and 1940.” That is to say electrified houses? The rural South didn’t get that. Indoor plumbing? Nope. Cars instead of horses? No again, and as Warren points out more than once in the novel, most of those “horses” were actually mules. The illiteracy rate exceeded 20 percent among whites and therefore must have been appallingly high among African Americans. A state that was a patchwork of bayou and whose major city is wedged between the foot of the almost-inland sea that is Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River had few bridges and almost no paved roads. New Orleans, the seat of the political old guard more so than the state capital of Baton Rouge, may have been a modern city—to a point; collusion between the government and the power utility limited even its development—but the countryside existed in a near state of nature. 

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No one in power cared so long as they got paid. This is the Louisiana Randy Newman sang about in the 1974 song which became an anthem in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. All of the above—Louisiana before Huey Long, the great Mississippi flood of 1927 (which is the subject of Newman’s song), and the aftermath of Katrina—are stories of the ordinary citizen being caught between hostile nature and an indifferent ruling class:

President Coolidge came down in a railroad train
With a little fat man with a notepad in his hand.
President say, “Little fat man, isn’t it a shame
What the river has done to this poor cracker’s land?”

Note that in the song President Coolidge only marvels at the destruction of the “poor cracker’s”—that is, the peasant farmer’s—land; he doesn’t offer any help. The real Coolidge didn’t even go to Louisiana when the Mississippi flooded in 1927, killing 500, displacing 700,000, and doing a billion dollars’ worth of damage. He did something worse: He sent Herbert Hoover. And Hoover, who didn’t believe government should do anything for anybody, called the Red Cross. For Louisiana, it was just more of the same, a continuation of the past and a preview of their “Heckuva job, Brownie” future. Huey Long claimed to be an alternative to all of that neglect. The problem was that no one knew if he was sincere or not.

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No Future: How Richard Linklater and Eric Bogosian’s ‘SubUrbia’ Foreshadowed Donald Trump’s America By Russ Fischer

By Yasmina Tawil

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Disappointment is powerful and insidious. When an object of desire slips away, particularly something we believe we deserve, the sense of loss can be intense. It’s not that we failed to get something; that thing was taken from us. The characters in Eric Bogosian’s 1994 stage play SubUrbia, and the 1996 film version by Richard Linklater, boil with this disappointment—for perceived promises unfulfilled, for the stacked odds against fame, success, happiness. The emotion is transmuted into a sense of victimization, and anger.

The venomous spit of SubUrbia wasn’t out of place in 1996 as the mainstream accommodated an influx of indie culture in the arts, but the film played like the bitter b-side to Linklater’s sunnier Dazed and Confused. What can we glean from a bunch of malcontents, high school friends now in early adulthood, who express feelings of futility and pain plus racism as they drink away their nights in a parking lot? Few of the characters are likable, with many exuding an odious sense of entitlement. This skewed snapshot of the stereotypically disaffected Generation X has largely fallen off the radar, in part due to years of poor home video availability, despite Linklater’s growing reputation as a major American filmmaker.

Looking at the film anew two decades years later, SubUrbia howls with middle-American anxiety, the same voices that have been resounding through political rallies for the past six months. This movie is more than a mid-’90s time capsule: It’s a potent advance warning of the crippling sense of American loss and failure that fueled the political rise of Donald Trump.

Trump courts a voter base made up of a spectrum of Americans dissatisfied with economic status, security, and race relations. The long-since eroded American middle class—adults whose early 20s might have looked a lot like characters in SubUrbia—is his feeding ground. He galvanizes moderate and conservative voters without college educations who believe they’ve been abandoned by a system skewed toward elites, especially in racially tense states. Only a bit of clever editing would be required to make SubUrbia look like a Trump campaign ad.  

As a precursor to the abrasive post-rock soundtrack that accompanies most of the film, Linklater opens SubUrbia with the more gently ominous “Town Without Pity” by Gene Pitney. “How can anything survive?” in a place like that, Pitney sings. Indeed, as so many citizens we see in fictional Burnfield, Texas turn their anger and frustration outward, rather than devoting energy to fixing their own problems, we watch what little community they have wither away.

Linklater doesn’t tame Bogosian’s characters (the playwright scripted the film), but the director’s slowly roving camera reveals sympathetic notes in the small-town group of friends, who hang out near a convenience store drinking and talking and harassing the store’s immigrant owners. Linklater amplifies the humanity of the going-nowhere characters without diluting their bile. Several may be unlikable, but they are not at all inscrutable.

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White Guys Always Win: The Allure and Legacy of Bruce Willis by Anthony Kaufman

By Yasmina Tawil

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For many a boy of the 1980s, Bruce Willis was a profound (though slightly embarrassing) influence. Not nearly as macho or tough as other action stars of the Reagan-Bush years (Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson), Willis derived much of his allure from his regular-guy-ness and quick wittedness. To be like Bruce, you didn’t need to spend hours in the gym or survive Vietnam; you...

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