A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Donald Trump has been good for certain art forms. The dystopian novel is experiencing renewed interest and vitality thanks to the fear and uncertainty he creates, and books like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Plot Against America have been flying off shelves. I was reminded of one of the best films that seems to address the Trump phenomenon thanks to a screening this week at the Egyptian Theatre of A Face in the Crowd. I’m not a huge fan of Elia Kazan’s films, but A Face in the Crowd is his most biting and least histrionic film. (Try watching some of James Dean’s acrobatics in East of Eden without wincing.)
Written by Budd Schulberg and based on his short story, the film charts the discovery and rise of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes. He’s introduced as a charming, guitar-slinging denizen of a rural Arkansas drunk tank, and he’s given his own radio show on the strength of an improvised song. Rhodes knows how to push people’s buttons—he can whip his fans into a frenzy thanks to his folksy, aw-shucks delivery and his ability to speak truth to power. But it’s not really truth that he speaks—Rhodes tears down those above him because of his own desire for power. His demagoguery and ruthless ascent turn him into a monster. Andy Griffith made his film debut as the malignant voice of the common man, and was never better. The best part of the film involves the origins of Lonesome Rhodes; it would have been easy to make a film about a man corrupted by power, but Kazan and Schulberg make it clear that he was always a charlatan and a psychopath. What’s most terrifying isn’t that he’ll do everything he can to obtain power and influence, but that so many dopes would willingly hand it off to him. Rent it on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and Google Play.
The Eye of Vichy (1993)
French director Claude Chabrol’s documentary delves into the creation of Vichy, the governing state of occupied France during the Second World War. Led by Marshal Pétain, Vichy was really just the mouthpiece of Nazi Germany masquerading as a free state. What’s most interesting about the documentary is how Chabrol focuses his attention on the broadcasting and propaganda efforts of the Vichy regime. Recent analyses of “fake news” and media manipulation leading up to the 2016 election tend to treat media manipulation as a new and chilling development, but The Eye of Vichy shows it’s been around for quite some time. Stream it with a Fandor subscription.
World of Tomorrow (2015)
Don Hertzfeldt’s animated characters aren’t much more than stick figures, yet his films and shorts have a great emotional depth. Hertzfeldt hones in on our hopes and fears and ruthlessly exploits them. In this Oscar-nominated short, a little girl is transported hundreds of years into the future by her own glitchy, digitized clone. Hertzfeldt finds great comedy in our digital disconnect, but everything is imbued with a sense of sadness. Stream it on Netflix or rent on Vimeo.
Slack Bay (2016)
Bruno Dumont’s 4-hour masterwork, Li’l Quinquin (2014), was a departure for the filmmaker. Best known for incredibly depressing dramas, Dumont emerged renewed with his dark comedy about a seaside French town besieged by a serial murderer. Dumont returns to another murder story with his follow-up, Slack Bay. Set in the early 20th century, the film follows a privileged family of dandies visiting their summer vacation home. One of the children, who dresses like a girl on some days and a boy on others, falls under the spell of a lunkheaded boy whose family ferries visitors across the bay. But tourists have begun to disappear, and the boy’s family knows something about it. Serial murder has never been quite this funny, and Juliette Binoche, who starred in Dumont’s earlier dour films, has never been as unmoored. Stream on Netflix or rent on Amazon, Vudu, and Google Play.