Sometimes movies can cross the boundary from boring-bad to exciting-bad. Often, they’ve had troubled productions with absurd scripts or misguided leadership, resulting in unpredictable cinematic train wrecks. For those of us in the business of watching movies, this can deliver a certain degree of catharsis (or if we’re being more honest, schadenfreude). There are only so many dystopian teen novel adaptations someone can sit through without wishing for a more spectacular failure, if only because a car crash is more interesting to watch than a parked car.
Some of that psychology crosses over to real life. We’re living in what The New York Times calls “The Age of Schadenfreude”, the word’s popularity surging from the late 90s to now, attributing it to everything from celebrity failures to corporate stumbles. Court cases and paternity suits, oil spills and Kanye West’s debt. We’ve become absorbed by the spectacularly bad because we can often see the charming misapplication of passion or, less charmingly, we can learn something from it while feeling smugly superior ourselves. WE never went millions of dollars into debt, despite what our student loans might feel like.
But what happens when this self-satisfied hate-watching culture shifts to politics? Not just the failures of current power, which is often well-documented, but when fiery, entertaining madness barrels into a stodgy field. That’s Donald Trump, the cousin of the prophetic Idiocracy’s (former pro wrestler/porn star) President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho. Donald Trump, TV personality and frequent pro wrestling guest, surged to popularity by spitting in the face of those with common sense. His misspelled tweets, angry diatribes, wanton cursing and genital references evoke the same anti-intellectualism as Idiocracy’s celebrated malapropisms and ridicule of the lead character’s “faggy” speech. Doesn’t that sound like something he’d say already? Playing on low-brow pandering and the media’s obsession with fascinating disasters, Trump embraced the “any press is good press” angle that has given life to fanbases for movies like The Room and Troll 2.
By bastardizing the so-bad-it’s-good tradition, a national joke became a viable candidate. A dangerous precedent has been set by giving undue attention to outliers, a precedent that also applies to movies with similarly troubling ideological and quality issues. Harmlessly bad movies, the charming trashterpieces born of passion, quail before the angry indulgence of these films. The transition from schadenfreude to acquiescence to unironic enjoyment culminates in London Has Fallen’s succinct and heartbreaking Cinemascore (a grade derived from audience polls) of A-.
London Has Fallen and Donald Trump have similar extremist politics and come from the same post-parody tradition of unapologetically brash tactlessness. While we recognize the danger of the “so-bad-it’s-good” candidate, Trump’s film equivalent is equally threatening because this kind of art encourages or reinforces acceptance of loud trash as long as the viewer somewhat agrees with the trash’s shouting.
Affecting an Old Spice commercial-style machismo, both Aaron Eckhart’s President Asher and Gerard Butler’s bodyguard Mike Banning have testosterone coming out of their pores, seeming to keep their excess in hidden IVs secreted on their persons. These are the tough cartoons that Donald Trump boasts to be. He’ll bomb anyone, force allied countries to finance walls and cast out millions — if this movie is to be believed, using only the sweat on his brow and a pistol. And people increasingly want to believe in an action hero caricature. Unapologetically jingoistic, London Has Fallen’s fantasy begins with the funeral of England’s prime minister and subsequent murders of the gathered world leaders. This fetishized death of Western civilization means messiah-like devotion to America’s stone-jaw-in-chief and his legislative metaphor/exterminator.
That leaves the only hope for the white man to fight off a group of vaguely Middle Eastern arms dealers (whose bone to pick with America is that a drone strike killed everyone at their family’s wedding except, apparently, any of the arms dealers). You think we might be in for a lesson about drone strikes and the desensitization to violence that goes along with raining death with a joystick. You would be wrong. Like Trump’s war-mongering Islamophobia, the lesson this film preaches is that we shouldn’t’ve stopped bombing until they were all dead.
At the same time, the writers of this hypermacho piece of NRA masturbation don’t think much of women, immigrants or anyone other than tough, beard-sporting white men who drink whiskey. Angela Bassett — as Lynne Jacobs, apparently the head of the Secret Service — is immediately reduced to a shrieking housewife, wailing and crying from the first sign of danger until her death. “She got schlonged,” as Trump might put it, already speaking in the sexist vernacular of action film one-liners. “He’s not a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured,” could be a Trump statement or some of the sloppily-accented tripe spouted by Butler’s character in London Has Fallen.
Obviously Iranian director Babak Najafi must not think much of Americans. Either that or he sees us far better than I can. His technically incompetent film highlights an America that is dumb, toxic, bloodthirsty and just as despicable as any jihadi might have you believe. Yet, despite this, Americans seriously enjoy the film. Cinemascore A-, remember? And despite the childishness, the discrimination, the vilification of every Other he can land his piggish eyes on, a large number of people apparently think Donald Trump is the best person to be President.
But perhaps in both cases, instead of “despite,” it’s “because.” Extremism can happen in the theater far easier than in the political sphere, but the same principles apply. The same cultishness that surrounds so-bad-it’s-good irony finds similar purchase with other, earnest genres. Group polarisation pushes large groups of people’s views towards the extremes when, alone, they may have a far more nuanced opinion. The same phenomenon that spurs violence at a Trump rally is present in a theater audience for a tasteless comedy or, say, action movie. Watching it alone, we may be horrified, or at least conflicted. In a mass, among friends and peers, we crave membership and identification.
The fear of looking stupid or not participating has a direct correlation to movie theater audiences and their network. Audience members may laugh or stifle laughter depending on the prejudices and opinions of those seated nearby. It’s easier to fall into entertainment or political echo chambers now than ever before.
Maybe your group of friends is patriotic. Nothing crazy, just proud, military-supporting, red-blooded Americans. Normal. Capable of nuance. But, when everyone in your group agrees wholeheartedly on something, and that something can be sold to you as increasingly tailored entertainment and political strategy over and over and over again, you tend to agree with it more strongly. In the patriotic, soldier-supporting community, you might earn favor by demonstrating that you’re the MOST patriotic or most militaristic. Your passion escalates, outstripping the realms of earnestness previously thought possible. And so, you’ve gradually become an extremist, whose American-flag print pants and tank-tops go past the point of parody to the realm of the real, just to prove to your fellow patriots that you belong. London Has Fallen can be seen as both a symptom and a cause of this echo chamber, encouraging real hate through what, to those of us outside its congregation, seems like an otherwise campy film.
“Terrorists are bad” turns into “we should kill terrorists” and adds “with a knife” then, jokingly at first, appends “slowly.” Then it takes place on screen and what was once a joke has now become a fantasy sold to a voter base.
So we, like the Chicago protestors, must take a stand and actively resist being represented by this commodified escalation, either cinematically or politically. A once-pure appreciation of misplaced passion, the hallmark of so-bad-it’s-good entertainment has been capitalistically leveraged. “Turn off your brain” movies have become some of our most highly politicized and the personification of one is running for President…. with a success so good that it’s very, very bad.
From AAA TV to Z-movies, Oklahoma City-based critic Jacob Oller (@JacobOller) would like to bring the world together through entertainment, writing about it for publications like The Guardian, the Oklahoma Gazette, and his own blog. He’s a decent impressionist, semi-decent karaoke participant, and terrible dancer, although you’ll have to get a few drinks in him first.