The Ministry of Politainment
In the new documentary The Reagan Show, the former President of the United States is shown before and after moments of public address, where he comes across as meek, dumb, old, compliant, and ideologically rigid. He tells stolen jokes about Soviet communism. His wife Nancy feeds him lines before complaining she prefers “the actor” to the politician. Often, when put on the spot, Reagan struggles to exercise his storied wit. Mikhail Gorbachev, presented as Reagan’s foil, mocks him for repeating the same Russian proverb in consecutive meetings. The audience in New York, at the Metrograph, where I saw the film, laughed heartily—it struck me as a nervous response to a reality-horror movie.
An ambitious failure, The Reagan Show wants to draw a straight line from Reagan’s Hollywood presidency to Trump’s administration of politainment; though Trump never appears in person, the earlier president is shown inviting his base to make America great again. Yet the filmmakers undercut their aims with the latent authenticity of un-doctored images; Reagan, no Trumpian renegade, self-presents as a dithering fool beholden to the mise-en-scène of his backroom handlers, who inject Shakespearean pomp into the affair by claiming “policy-making is staging.” Meanwhile, talking heads like Peter Jennings and Sam Donaldson roll gentle criticism into the spectacle, admonishing Reagan’s PR tactics while inviting viewers to stay tuned. If there is a throughline from Reagan to Trump in The Reagan Show, it’s buried here: whatever their differences, Reagan and Trump have both required a media and an audience in thrall to entertainment.
My viewing of The Reagan Show began with an accident. When I arrived, I entered the wrong theater, where I watched five minutes of George Lucas’s THX 1138 (1971). For a moment I wondered if the directors of The Reagan Show had ingeniously fronted their film with an artifact of proto-New Hollywood cinema. “You’re in the wrong film,” I was told, but my mistake set off flashbacks about the vacuousness of Hollywood cinema leading up to and during Reagan’s presidency.
The Reagan era saw “the virtual disappearance of significant work from the Hollywood cinema.”
The coincidence of Reagan’s rise and tenure with the empty, Manichean (good vs. Soviet) fantasies ejaculated by Hollywood in the late 1970s through the mid-1980s was noted by critics at the time. One of the most interesting and committed of these critics was Andrew Britton, a now forgotten writer who died of AIDS complications in 1994. Perhaps Britton’s sharpest piece of criticism is the 1986 essay “Blissing Out: The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment,” an incisive survey of Reagan-era films: special-effects extravaganzas under the sway of what Britton calls “the ideology of entertainment.” Reading the essay today, its effect is doubled: not only does Britton convincingly tease out the back-and-forth between the Reagan administration and its cinema—he goes much further than rudimentary mentions of Reagan’s Star Wars missile defense and “Evil Empire” posturing—he also persuasively argues that liberal Hollywood directors began to provide “conservative reassurance” in the form of witless make-believe. “With the exception of Blade Runner, Six Weeks (1982), and King of Comedy (1983), it is difficult to think of any mainstream American film released since the spring of 1982 which is of even moderate distinction,” Britton writes. “The virtual disappearance of significant work from the Hollywood cinema over so long a period, and the audience’s rejection of such significant work as there is, are phenomena of some importance.”
The purpose of Reaganite cinema, Britton writes, is to present itself as entertainment by way of an audience-flattering self-reflexiveness. Just as Reagan the politician invited an awareness of his own PR stunt-making, Hollywood at the time catered to an in-joke knowingness, a solipsism that absolved director and moviegoer alike of consciousness beyond the presented film. The aim, Britton writes, was “to produce a certain kind of complicity with the spectator, a knowing sense of familiarity with the terms of the discourse.” And so . . .
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) refers to Republic serials of the ’40s and the timeless “Boy’s Own” mode of imperialist tub-thumping, and the Superman films to decades of movies and comic strips. The walls of the children’s bedrooms in Poltergeist (1982) are festooned with Star Wars memorabilia, and both Poltergeist and E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982) make knowing jokes about sharks. As the children cautiously approach the toolshed in E.T. one of them hums the theme tune from “The Twilight Zone,” and now Twilight Zone: the Movie (1983) has laboriously re-created, for the edification of a new generation, four sententious contes moraux from one of the institutions of Cold War Midwestern adolescence.
It’s not that we are told not to think, Britton adds, it’s that we’re told “there is nothing here to think about.” All of the thinking, in the Spielbergian-Reaganite recipe, is baked into the dough of references. There’s nothing left to do but gorge.
This winking mania of self-reflexiveness has of course intensified in contemporary cinema. New Hollywoodism is now pervasive enough—its form so dominant—that it’s rarely examined. There is no end to the built worlds and universes, the comic-book hangovers from Reagan. Even today’s non-comic Hollywood blockbusters are remakes of Reagan-era films—Star Wars and Alien and Blade Runner. Or else there are remakes of films that were, a moment ago, remade: a confusing procession of Spider-Men. Consider, too, Ronald Reagan’s own anti-communist smittenness with Rambo and Rocky alongside Sylvester Stallone’s reappearance in Creed (2016). And if you think none of this has to do with politics, remember that if Stallone had accepted Trump’s offer to become head of the National Endowment for the Arts, we might not be awaiting its total dissolution. It’s unsurprising that the dream of the NEA’s destruction began with Reagan, a Hollywood president, and will likely reach fruition with Trump, a TV president.
The remarkable thing about Britton’s “ideology of entertainment” is not its newness but its irritating familiarity—the “spirit” of New Hollywood filmmaking now inhabits everyday film criticism; just as critics of Reagan’s theatrics were rolled into the spectacle, many contemporary film critics prop up Hollywood even as they criticize it. Paper-of-record writers report on the ideological relevance of Hollywood films and suggest—just see it for yourself—that they still suck. Or New Yorker writers dare Cahiers-lite rescues of Hollywood bullshit with promises that a sanctified auteurism lurks beneath the surface. Worst of all, left critics graft ideology critique onto films that have been produced in part to provoke that exact reaction—every review of every film by Christopher Nolan comes to mind.
Today we live under the dominion of television and its presidency—we were warned. In an excellent section of his essay, Britton illustrates, with reference to Marxist critic Noel Burch, that TV in the 1980s had started to co-opt the “entertainment” effect of New Hollywood cinema. “It is beginning to appear to me today,” Burch wrote in 1986, “that United States television . . . mobilizes a number of strategies whose cumulative effect is to induce a certain disengagement, a certain feeling that what we see—no matter what it is—does not really count. Distancing, in short, has been co-opted.” By “distancing,” Burch was alluding to Brecht’s alienation effect, the long-suffered device of choice for Marxist artists. Britton points out that such an effect may never have possessed the “magical properties” ascribed to it, and he hints at a future where TV will have elevated the use of such devices in favor of totalized disengagement.
The obviousness with which reality television and TV wrestling and other forms of entertainment have used Brechtian distancing effects should go without writing, but Britton’s argument is rather that these forms eliminate other forms that are meant to be mulled over instead of consumed. Which is to say that there is little art in contemporary television or Hollywood cinema, which are anyway more and more identical. Once we had films that thought about entertainment versus social responsibility, even if they sided with the former. (Take Sullivan’s Travels.) Today we have near-total conquest by TV entertainment, and we deal with a president who tweets doctored pro-wrestling videos about CNN.
In the unending flow, you may believe you registered some incidents as happening in the wrong film.
“Television has crept into our homes without asking our consent, without as much as talking to us beforehand,” the great literary critic Viktor Shklovsky wrote in his final piece, published in 1984. “We were not prepared for this. We were dumbfounded; for a long time, we were disputing if television would destroy everything we had created.” Shklovsky, the inventor of Russian formalism, a genius of defamiliarization, knew well that TV was a form as much as a medium; thirty years later, we call streaming video “television.” And it is destroying much of what we have created.
If The Reagan Show presents Reagan as the Great Communicator who can’t communicate, Trump’s medialogical positioning is that of a would-be builder who doesn’t build—like Shklovsky’s television, he destroys. In this respect, he resembles Walter Benjamin’s destructive character:
The destructive character is young and cheerful. For destroying rejuvenates, because it clears away the traces of our own age; it cheers, because everything cleared away means to the destroyer a complete reduction, indeed a rooting out, out of his own condition . . . The destructive character is always blithely at work. It is Nature that dictates his tempo, indirectly at least, for he must forestall her. Otherwise she will take over the destruction herself . . . The destructive character does his work; the only work he avoids is creative. Just as the creator seeks solitude, the destroyer must be constantly surrounded by people, witnesses to his efficacy.
And Trump destroys with what TV theorists once called flow. In his 1974 book Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Raymond Williams describes flow as the “defining characteristic of broadcasting, simultaneously as a technology and as a culture form.” Even in the mid-1970s, Williams sensed that television was morphing into a stream. “What is being offered is not, in older terms, a programme of discrete units with particular insertions,” he writes, “but a planned flow, in which the true series is not the published sequence of programme items but this sequence transformed by the inclusion of another kind of sequence.” (Hence binging.) Seen as a practitioner of flow, Trump now streams himself on cable television, Twitter, and Amazon Echo, destroying our short-term memory and good sense in a way foreshadowed again by Williams. “I can still not be sure what I took from that whole flow. I believe I registered some incidents as happening in the wrong film, and some characters in the commercials as involved in the film episodes, in what came to seem—for all the occasional bizarre disparities—a single irresponsible flow of images and feelings.”
The historian Enzo Traverso has written that Trump, whether post- or neo-fascist, is best understood as a TV president. “He does not organize and mobilize the masses; he attracts an audience in an atomized society of consumers.” Whatever their differences, this too would link Trump to Reagan, who did as much as anyone bolster our “atomized society of consumers.” To this end, the German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck writes in How Will Capitalism End? that the “politically constructed political autonomy” of the market economy is what gave rise to politainment in the first place. “The vacated public space”—where the idea of a collective good was once a live option—is now “re-dedicated to consumerist politainment.” There’s no business like show business—as the self-reflexive adage has it. The Reagan Show goes on.