Welcome to the pop-up edition of “At the Movies,” hosted by Donald Trump.
Our president and cultural commander in chief tried out a few riffs, working without a co-host Thursday night at one of his pep rallies, this one in Colorado Springs, Colo. With strategically situated African American and Asian American attendees in the audience behind him, on camera — the African American male to his left went sort of cold when “Gone With the Wind” came up — he lent the voice of federal authority to the opinion that no, “Parasite,” the staggeringly profitable hit from South Korea and a film not in English, shouldn’t have won the Academy Award for best picture earlier this month.
And by the way, Trump said: Bring back “Gone With the Wind”! Just in time for Black History Month.
“What the hell was that all about?” Trump said, in his wearily angry standup cadence, regarding the recent Oscars-not-quite-so-white. “We’ve got enough problems with South Korea, with trade,” he said. “On top of it, they give them the best movie of the year? Was it good? I don’t know.”
This was familiar, whiny territory for Trump, who goes public each year with his mockery of the Oscars ratings and the Trump-bashing acceptance speeches. This year the speech that bugged him particularly came from Brad Pitt, who won the supporting actor Oscar for “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” and who said he longed for a Quentin Tarantino version of the Trump impeachment, one with a different outcome.
“Never a fan,” Trump countered Thursday, noting Pitt’s “little wiseguy statement. He’s a little wiseguy.” If this administration has taught us anything, it’s that it takes a wiseguy to know a wiseguy.
We can take Trump’s cultural jingoism and adamant nationalist tastes as seriously as we like. When he pines for “Gone With the Wind,” as he did Thursday, it’s perhaps a heartfelt personal response to a movie he loves, either because or in spite of its evocation of gracious plantation living and genteel white supremacy and a deeply divided nation.
Thursday, Trump also name-checked “Sunset Boulevard,” a very different sort of Oscar winner (though director Billy Wilder’s black-hearted comedy of Old Hollywood gone psycho lost out that year to “All About Eve”). Our president does have his moments, tastewise. He has often listed Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” a film about the limitations of wealth and the life of a media celebrity turned sham politician, as his favorite. In 2002, for an uncompleted video project, director Errol Morris interviewed Trump on what “Citizen Kane” means to him. It’s fascinating.
In its own way the Orson Welles masterwork, unsentimental and unsettling in its sardonic vision, speaks to “Parasite.” Bong Joon Ho’s film is one that Trump probably wouldn’t hate, even with those damn subtitles. It does, after all, end with a garish explosion of violence, after tightening its narrative screws in fiendishly clever ways.
Jimmy Kimmel put it this way, after Bong’s social satire won four Oscars: “Parasite,” he said, tells “the story of a family who cons their way into a house they have no business living in, and things go very wrong from there. The American version of it is called ‘The Trumps.’”
Thursday night, following the president’s anti-”Parasite” riff, the Democratic National Committee tweeted: “Parasite is a foreign movie about how oblivious the ultrarich are about the struggles of the working class, and it requires two hours of reading subtitles. Of course Trump hates it.” Hasn’t seen it, apparently, but hates it on principle. America first!
As with so much with this leader, you can laugh, or you can weep, or you can ignore it. Trump’s Oscars recap, however, serves as a desolate reminder that there was a time, not so many presidents ago (one, in fact) when the White House opened its doors and championed a global array of artists and artistry. The Obamas couldn’t get enough music in their lives, and they brought it to millions; Audra McDonald sang a Frank Loesser song, and it was amazing. In 1961 Pablo Casals brought his cello to the JFK White House, and without a lot of fuss, the concert became more than a symbolic nicety. It was a moment of grace, and graciousness.
The power of film, too, is bigger than we tend to remember. It’s a way of seeing the world through a specific lens, and letting us see the universal in the culturally specific. When “Parasite” became the first subtitled film as well as the first South Korean film to win the best picture Oscar, it said something. The film’s international box office success says something else, something Trump allegedly understands and certainly admires: It cost $11 million to make, and has grossed more than $200 million worldwide.
Is Trump is just jealous of all the winning?
“Did this ever happen before?” Trump asked no one in particular at his ad hoc movie club Thursday. Though the rally crowd’s response to Trump’s mention of “Sunset Boulevard” was muted — you could almost hear the “was that the one about the dead guy in the pool?” mutterings — it was the “Gone WIth the Wind” reference that connected, and reminded us of who we have running the show.
The theatrical trailer for “Gone With the Wind” contained the line: “Filled with all the fire and fury of the times in which it happened!” No wonder it’s a movie club offering our president can get behind.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Michael Phillips is the Chicago Tribune film critic.
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