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A fast-paced cinematic impeachment trial

DB here:

Donald Trump did not lose the 2020 U. S. presidential election. He was inaugurated on 4 March. Joseph Biden was arrested and executed.

Or, if you like: Trump will be sworn in on 20 March, the anniversary of the founding of the Republican Party (in Ripon, Wisconsin). Or Trump is President already and working with the military to prepare the mass executions of Democrats. Meanwhile, the Pope was arrested, or will be.

These are among the many lies and delusions  promulgated by fantasists, particularly QOnan (not a typo). But these are also narratives.

Narrative in many manifestations, from jokes to comic books, is one of my keen interests. While mostly studying storytelling in film, I noticed some years back how the term and concept of “narrative” became a part of political discourse. I used that buzzword as a path into analyzing the yarn-spinning around presidential campaigns (here and here) and, inevitably, stages in the fascist coup attempted by the fumbling but indefatigable Trump regime (here and here and here and here). The coup effort continues, now at the level of Republican state legislatures.

The 6 January assault on the US Capitol, an atrocity many of us followed in real time, has been recast as different stories. The versions range from treating it as an escalation of Trump’s seething rallies to brazenly caricatural accounts, notably the version promulgated by my senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin), a man of invincible ignorance. The versions I want to look at are those laid out in last month’s impeachment trial (Trump’s second) by the Prosecutors from the House of Representatives and the ex-president’s legal Defense team.

The trial began on 9 February with consideration of whether the Senate could impeach a President no longer holding office. That issue was settled by a vote that impeachment could proceed. The trial proper began on 1o February. The charge was that Trump incited the riot that led to the invasion of the Capitol on 6 January 2021.

On 10 and 11 February, the House Impeachment managers presented their case. On 12 February, the Trump attorneys presented their defense, after which both sides entertained questions from senators. The final day, 13 February, was taken up with debates about whether witnesses and further testimony would be invited. After that was resolved, the proceedings ended with a vote on conviction. Sixty-seven votes would have been enough to convict Trump, but only 57 votes for that outcome were cast. Trump was acquitted.

Trump’s original speech to his followers is transcribed here. Official transcripts of the Senate sessions are available on the Congressional Record site. A video record of the proceedings, with good quality on the video clips, is on the C-Span site. This also includes a rolling transcript.

Both sides used film to make their arguments. The House team promised what the press called “a fast-paced cinematic case,” and the Defense responded with pieces of cinema of their own. What resources of cinema did they use? And how do the uses differ?

 

Narratio as you like it

In Film Art: An Introduction, Kristin and I contrast narrative form with other options. We suggest that a film (or a literary text or a TV show, etc.) could be organized in various ways. Take whales. Using categorical form, you might provide a taxonomy of whales. Using rhetorical form, you could make an argument about whale conservation. With associational form, you might provide a poetic meditation on whales as metaphors for strength and grace. With abstract form, you might film whales in ways that turn them into pure patterns of imagery and sound. And using narrative form, you might tell a story about how a stubborn young girl helped get a stranded whale back into the sea.

Any given film could combine these principles. An argument for conserving whales could include sequences that give us information about genus and species, while other sequences could poeticize the great behemoths in the Whitman manner, or let us appreciate their abstract beauty. Since we all like stories, there will be a strong temptation to “narrativize” when we can. Even a film that tries to make an argument is likely to include some passages involving agents and actions, goals and obstacles.

A rhetorical film doesn’t have to include a narrative component, but it may well do so. Our example in Film Art, Pare Lorenz’s The River, relies on the classic rhetorical  structure of problem/ solution. But inserted in that structure we find stories about how the Dust Bowl came to be a disaster area and how the government has taken steps to improve things.

A court case is a prototype of rhetoric. Aristotle accorded little importance to storytelling in forensic rhetoric, but later thinkers recognized the powerful role that it plays. Theorists came to call narratio the portion of the argument that tells the story, or rather competing stories, of the matter in dispute.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that we shouldn’t be surprised that the House Prosecutors and the White House Defense team would float some stories. But what stories were told? How did the advocates tell them? Do the presentations push beyond narrative to other types of form? And what implications do these strategies have for how political actors use moving-image media?

To analyze the cinematic strategies at work, it’s useful to know how they further the broader cases being made. So for each side, I’ll try to show how its use of cinema grows out of its general rhetorical/narrative strategies. Beyond that, we are in a strange re-creation of the situation dramatized in Fritz Lang’s staggering Fury (1936), a film for our moment if ever there was one. There people accused of lynching a man must watch a courtroom screening of their actions during the crime.

     

Needless to say, there was much less self-examination shown by Republican senators when confronted with powerful sounds and images showing the fury they unleashed and did nothing to forestall.

 

Witnesses, plenty, for the prosecution

Analyzing a piece of rhetoric demands that the audience be considered. Since rhetoric is centrally about persuasion, how is the argument shaped to suit the audience’s inclinations?

Almost no one expected that Trump would be found guilty, so were the House’s efforts to mount a case a hollow exercise? I think not. The House advocates, it seems to me, were addressing two audiences: the general public and, to put it grandiosely, history. Representative Jaime Raskin and his colleagues treated the matter as a criminal case, offering a detailed reconstruction of motive, method, and opportunity. Assuming that future analyses would be skeptical and rigorous, looking for holes in the Prosecution account, they tried to make it tight, evidence-based, and the most plausible explanation of the events of 6 January.

Their account can be revised in the light of new information (such as recent findings of who funded the rally and how it was coordinated with the White House). Still, it aspired to be a reliable first draft of the most accurate and comprehensive story of the event. The managers injected emotion into their account by emphasizing the casualties of the melée, the narrow escape that legislators made, and the damage to American ideals when the seat of government was ravaged.

The Prosecution accordingly constructed a complex, time-looping, “novelistic” narrative. Taking advantage of the primacy effect, they laid out their story in a dense fifteen-minute video at the start of the first day, during the argument about constitutionality. I’ll consider that montage shortly, but the crucial point is that it concentrated on the attack, with immersive and brutal footage.

Over the next two days, the House managers spiraled out from the attack footage by means of a plot structure that starts with a crisis. This strategy introduces us to the action just before the story’s climax and then fills in what led up to it.

The Prosecutors’ first step was to establish the story’s antagonist, the “inciter in chief.” Trump was put front and center in a flurry of quotes pulled from moments before, during, and after the raid, ending with him declaring to his followers: “We love you, you’re very special.” Who opposed this central figure? Interestingly, the Protagonists initially cast the Capitol police, particularly the black officers who were stunned by the racism they confronted.

Settling on Trump as the gang leader who fled the scene, the House team set out to prove, through detailed timelines, that the attack was “well-orchestrated.” The presentations were divided neatly into parts and chapters. The sections are mostly chronological, showing events leading up to the crisis, though further flashbacks are embedded. The first full day of the case provided a “moving spotlight” narration on the events, roaming back through time and skipping around in space. Thanks to cellphones, we can get a godlike view of the whole event–a crucial choice of viewpoint for the prosecution. I reconstruct the plot as follows.

The immediate provocation: Three messages (The Big Lie, Stop the Steal, Fight Like Hell) were hammered on after the election and then restated as talking points during the rally.
    Flashbacks [establishing motive and method]:
     Pre-election: Trump announced his resistance to any reports of losing.
     Election: On the big night, he tried to stop the counting and declared that he won.
     Post-election: He refused to concede, fought in the courts, and tried to round up phantom ballots. After failing to win over reluctant senators and he Department of Justice, he saw Pence as his last chance to overturn the electoral results.
When Pence demurred, Trump sought another avenue for action. He invited his followers to come to DC on 6 January to “stop the steal.” “Will be wild!” “He knew what he was doing.”
     The means: Violence. Trump has a history of support of militias and white supremacists (e.g., Proud Boys). His alt-right supporters reciprocated through social media, championing Trump’s Big Lie and declaring 6 January as Armageddon.
[The opportunity:] Back to the 6 January rally, with a split viewpoint: Trump’s speech is intercut with crowd response, using footage from participants’ phones.
Just after the rally: A timeline from 12:20, when the march to the Capitol began, to 2:10, when marchers overwhelmed the police and broke in.
The attack: The timeline continues to the end of the day. Multiple viewpoints provide phone imagery, surveillance footage, and tracking devices to follow the mob’s movements through the building. The assault is crosscut with the responses of police, legislators, and staff. Pence and others were rushed to safety. The mob filled the Crypt, burst into the House, and ransacked the Senate chamber. Outside, rioters boasted of the destruction. “I bled on it.”
Parallel action: “What was happening at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue?” A new timeline traces Trump’s action from 12:20 at the rally (“I’ll be there with you”)  onward. At 2:38 Trump acknowledged the attack in a tweet. Meanwhile, his staff and members of Congress pleaded with him to call the marauders back. At 6:01 he urged the mob to go home and “Remember this day forever!”
Dispersal of the mob: At 7:00 PM the Senate certified the Electoral College vote.

Thus ended the first day of the House managers’ incitement case. The first stretch of the next day was devoted to replaying events from different points of view, as a novel or film might take us into individual characters’ experience.

The rioters’ testimony: Trump had a bond with the rioters. They asserted that he summoned them. “Our President wants us here.” “He’ll be happy.” His control over them was demonstrated when he asked them to go and they dispersed.
    Flashbacks establishing the power Trump has over his followers:
     Over the years: Trump roused his crowds with insults, making news on TV and nodding to white supremacists. He praised the militias that invaded the Michigan capitol, a “state-level dress rehearsal” for the 6 January siege. Trump did not upbraid the men who plotted to kidnap the Michigan governor; he joked about it at a rally. “This is his essential M.O.”
Trump’s response after the riot: Even after the rampage Trump declared his speech “totally appropriate.” He showed no remorse and failed to condemn the attacks. Even his order to go home was couched sympathetically (“We love you”). His video of 13 January regretting the violence refused to admit that Biden won the election, thus maintaining the Big Lie. Even some Republicans, including former members of his administration, have castigated his failure of duty .
Consequences for the radical right: Most immediately, there was rejoicing on social media (this was “the first stab”) and the riot was proof-of-concept for further missions. There were reports that his followers planned to attack Biden’s inauguration and are continuing to target minority communities. Long-term, this is Charlottesville’s “Unite the Right” rally writ large. Trump has forged a powerful coalition of the fringe groups on the right
Implications for the stability of government: Trump was prepared to sacrifice members of the legislative branch. Through television reports, he knew that everyone, especially Pence and Pelosi, were in mortal danger. While lawmakers were saying goodbye to their families, Trump abandoned his duty. In addition, Trump had no concern for the police or the other staff caught up in the turmoil. Some people were killed and many seriously injured. Ex-service staff called the siege worse than what they had seen in the Middle East.
Implications for national security: Other countries rejoiced at the failure to protect the center of government. (Russia: “Democracy is over!”) Allies were shocked and horrified.
Anticipations of defense arguments (confutatio in the rhetorical trade): This isn’t a Free Speech issue; indeed, Trump launched an attack on the First Amendment. Nor has Trump been denied Due Process.
Conclusion (peroratio): Summing up, with emotional weight added. If this isn’t an impeachable offense, what is?

My outline can’t do justice to the fine-grained detail of the evidence provided in the speeches and the fusillade of images and sounds. I want just to indicate that the argument that a “high crime” was committed and needs to be punished is framed almost completely on the basis of a chronological chain of cause and effect–i.e., a narrative. That narrative indicates motive, method, and opportunity, but these categories of culpability lie beneath the plot we’re given. A man incited a riot by priming the Big Lie, building a violent following, scheduling a provocative gathering during a crucial moment in the transfer of state power, and ranting at a rally.

Beyond the commission of the crime, there is a plea not usually heard in a criminal case. Letting this prominent man off not only sends a harmful message but threatens the future of American democracy.

On the first day, the Prosecutors screened a video that condensed the narrative they propose. While the clip includes some footage not previously shown in the media, it doesn’t include all the new material, some of it quite powerful. Those shots are sprinkled through presentations shown in the following days. The later presentations also recycle many of the shots and sounds presented in this montage, usually to recontextualize them. This montage introduces some of the stylistic methods that would reappear in the days to come.

From Trump’s speech at the rally to his final benediction (“Great patriots. . . .Remember this day forever!”), the video traces a completed arc of action There is no voice-over narrator to guide us, although somber intertitles, white on black, frame the sections. Similarly, there is no music. We hear only the voices and noises in the scenes, although subtitles are brought in to clarify muddy lines and to stress major turns in the action (“They’re leaving!”).

The overall style is that of direct cinema, where the technical roughness conveys the authenticity of events caught on the fly. While some news reportage is included, there’s no editorial comment or punditry. The fact that most of the footage was recorded by the rioters themselves adds conviction. Later presentations will draw on surveillance video to provide a more detached perspective, but the immediate purpose is to immerse us in the participants’ viewpoints. Their blasé attitude toward chronicling their crimes will support the Prosecution’s claim that they believed they had the president’s permission to invade the building and fight for him.

From the start, the video stresses the almost mystical bond between Trump and his supporters. Like Lang’s courtroom scene in Fury, the rally is cut to show both the event and the crowd’s reaction. In eyeline-match editing Trump’s acolytes respond eagerly to his words. After he says go to the Capitol, they reply, “Take the Capitol!” Later his speech is played over shots of their march–the sort of “sonic crosscutting” pioneered by Lang, again, in M (1931). When POTUS says he hopes Pence has the courage to reverse the electoral count, we cut to a shot of Pence. Soon enough the rioters will take up the call: “Traitor Pence!” It’s all part of a single chain of causality.

The Prosecutors anticipated that the Defense would play up Trump’s pro forma aside that the demonstration should be peaceful. But what exactly were the demonstrators supposed to do at the Capitol? To show that violence was really their only plausible option, “Stop the Steal” becomes a unifying thread of the piece. Announced by Trump, picked up by the crowd, and flashed before us in signs and hollers during the insurrection, the phrase suggests not a strategic plan for later primary campaigns but a demand for an immediate tactic, something short and sharp to halt the electoral process.

Crosscutting to show simultaneous events is central to the video’s style. Crosscutting links Trump’s speech to his crowds on the march. It broadens out to trace, for the sake of suspense, many fronts in the assault on the Capitol. While Mitch McConnell rebuts the Big Lie, crowds burst over the barriers and pound on police. Images of the panicked legislators and staff alternate with events elsewhere in the facility, with the danger coming ever closer. Moreover, thanks to some slight sound bridges, the editing gives the impression that the mob is just out of frame in certain shots of the House and Senate chambers.We aren’t far from Griffith’s celebrated crosscutting in The Lonely Villa (1909) and other last-minute-rescue plots.

Just as important, the crosscutting anticipates the parallel timelines that the Prosecution will flesh out in the days to come. Another method, that of split-screen commentary and comparison, is established; it will become useful for yielding the God’s-eye view central to the Prosecution’s case.

     

The video saves the most harrowing footage for its climax, as we see the rampaging mob battling police in the corridors. Ashlii Bobbitt is shot dead. Handheld imagery from the packed crowd records brutality at close quarters. Shots of the raiders hurling themselves forward in unison are intercut with shots of a guard crying out when his head is pinned in a doorway.

     

The epilogue takes us back outside the building. Trump’s video calling for peace is undercut by savage assaults on police on the front steps. Throughout, occasional shots of seething bystanders on the sidewalk have functioned as an ominous chorus (“30,000 guns”/ “Next trip”). Now the video ends on the sidewalk, where an alt-rightist calls for assaults on state governments. A title summing up the seven deaths that resulted from the attack is followed by a shot of Trump’s tweet, bookending the opening, thanking the raiders.

In the days afterward, the Prosecution’s case became an audiovisual one; in the age of Powerpoint, verbal arguments are supported by the evidence of images and sounds. Slides of tweets, Facebook pages, news headlines, and other texts were added to a surge of video clips, along with audio recordings from the beleaguered officers. The direct-cinema quality of the material is amped up by the presentation of body-camera footage from an officer beaten down by the mob.

The fallen-camera convention of pseudo-documentary films (like, say, Cloverfield and Georg) wouldn’t be as powerful if we didn’t know that in violent situations like this, cameras–and camera wielders–do drop. In this instance, the approximate optical POV of the stomped officer makes his attackers seem even more brutal.

The Trump Defense team will claim that the senators know all about what happened and so don’t need to have the entire attack played over and over. But the Prosecutors maintain that in fact we still don’t know a lot, and at the time nobody had a view of the whole drama as it unfolded. That’s the rationale for the timelines, for all the crosscutting and side=by-side juxtaposition of images of things happening at the same time.

This omniscient viewpoint is crucial to the case, and is seen with particular density and vividness during Delegate Stacey Plaskett’s use of visual evidence to complement legal documents. She mobilizes Facebook posts, surveillance footage, audio recordings from barricaded staff, and scale models to trace the rioters’ progress through the building. The section is capped by a confession from perhaps the most famous perp.

These God’s-eye views give a new meaning to the crosscutting initiated in the opening montage, filling in both specific locations and moment-by-moment changes in the rioters’ positions. The bonding of the mob with Trump is recalled when one uses Trump’s nickname, “Crazy Nancy.” And the scrutiny of the footage yields details like the stun gun carried by Barnett, aka Bigo. (Bigo, who “will not back down,” is now apprehensive about his prison stay.) The sweeping range of knowledge is counterbalanced by moments of intimacy, such as the whispers of staffers into their phones.

One advantage of the House managers’ omniscient framing is to mark out two layers of complicity. The parallel timelines make Trump’s actions during and after the assault integral to the act of incitement in the rally. As with an arsonist who sets a blaze and then sticks around to watch and impede efforts to put it out, Trump’s dereliction of duty is presented as of a piece with what Mitch McConnell would later denounce as his “provocation.”

Apart from the feelingful appeals of the succession of speakers laying out the case, the aggressiveness of the action captured in imagery and sound (the thudding doors, the babble of obscenities) and the panicked voices of police and staffers calling for help intensify the emotional dimension of the case.

 

Playing the Trump card

The Defense team were also playing to the general public, particularly the right-wing media. But their chief audience was the Republican senators, who needed a peg to hang their inclinations on. Declining to offer point-by-point rebuttals of the Prosecutors’ case presented a wide-ranging batch of arguments, a buffet of options rather than a tightly focused throughline. There are some sketchy counter-narratives in there, but they’re accompanied by other points, some legalistic, some evidentiary, and some simply suggestive.

The governing emotion, I think, was barely controlled outrage. The House charge, the Defense maintained, reflected a deep hatred of the President and the ordinary Americans he represented. The impeachment was an act of “political vengeance.” While the Defense often said that it would be better if everyone simply calmed down, there was little doubt that the best response to Democratic intemperance was equally fierce counterattack.

Trump’s Defense team relied heavily on arguments of principle. They didn’t try to refute the Prosecutors’ narrative. Indeed, they simply chopped off large stretches of it. They agreed that the sacking of the Capitol was “horrific,” but all the violence there was irrelevant to Trump’s case. The real perpetrators must be rounded up and brought to justice. If he didn’t incite the attack, then he’s not responsible, and all the shocking footage, all the timelines and tracking of the mob, is so much sensationalism.

How to show he did not incite the attack? Mostly by appeal to categorical form. For one thing, the Defense wanted to explore the relevance of two legal concepts. These the Prosecution correctly anticipated in its pre-rebuttal.

First, the Defense team asserted that Trump was denied Due Process on many grounds. Evidence that would be challenged in court was put forth as reliable. Video clips were edited to omit statements in Trump’s favor, and some of the slides of tweets had errors in dating or attribution.

The House evidence of Trump’s encouragement of violence was likewise claimed to be selective and taken out of context. Trump is a man of peace and he has never stoked anger–unlike the Democrats who in many speeches have indulged in hateful rhetoric. Nor is questioning an election result inherently inciting; many Democrats claimed that the 2016 election was stolen.

All this mitigating evidence would have come to light had Trump been given Due Process. Witnesses would have been called; depositions would have been taken; the Defense could have interrogated those accounts. As presented, the case for incitement would not stand up in any court. It is a prime example of the category “Politically motivated injustice.”

Second, Trump was said to be simply exercising his First Amendment rights. Contrary to the opinions of the 140 law professors who declared that Trump’s remarks fail as Free Speech, his statements at the rally are, perhaps lamentably, within the range of current public discourse. His urging his followers to fight simply echoes what Democrats have told their crowds on many occasions.

The Defense videos, fewer in number than the Prosecutors but recycling many shots several times, were designed to drive home these points. Significantly, the first video was designed to establish the “political vengeance” motive.

Apart from ascribing a vendetta to the impeachment initiative, this montage sets up the impromptu category of “Currently acceptable political discourse.” Specifically, the clip plants the “fight” motif that will dominate the later proceedings. It also prepares us for the throbbing music that will underscore the big sequence to come.

The Defense began by bracketing off the entire insurrection, explaining that they wouldn’t be showing footage of it.

They [the Prosecutors] don’t need to show you movies to show you that the riot happened here. We will stipulate that it happened, and you know all about it. 

The Prosecutors’ embrace of the omniscient perspective sought to show that none of the legislators could have “known all about it” then or even now. But the Defense’s dismissal of the entirety of the sacking of the Capitol cleared the way for the case predicated on categorical form. In backing up the argument against conviction, the Defense’s major video sequence assembled samples of prevailing political rhetoric drawn from Democrats’ speeches and statements.


Unlike the Prosecutors, the Defense team relied largely on material from the news media. (Presumably these excerpts don’t count as Fake News.) And, again, the clip is accompanied by throbbing, ominous music evocative of an urban action thriller. If the House case resembled a direct-cinema documentary, the Defense case is stylistically closer to a political ad. All it lacks is a title telling the viewer the sponsor who approved it, and where to send money.

Some of these Democrats’ remarks, taken singly, are pretty abrasive. But although the extremism on display is regrettable, the Defense argued that the Democrats have a perfect right to make them. So does Trump. The Democrats were not telling their crowds to resort to violence, and neither was he.

There is a certain irony in the Trump team’s use of editing to reiterate a concept. It’s a technique we can trace back to other Griffith films, like A Corner in Wheat (1909), but it’s most associated with Soviet filmmakers like Eisenstein and Vertov. The pounding rhythm of “fight, fight, fight” has some of the same force we get in those percussive intertitles in Russian silent classics.

And maybe, the Defense asked, the Democrats aren’t so innocent? A sketchy narrative is invoked in the first sequence above, which arranges statements chronologically to suggest a crescendo of cries for impeachment from the beginning of Trump’s term. The editing of the last montage moves even more strongly toward narrative patterning. Didn’t Democrats’ incendiary rhetoric play some causal role in the summer 2020 civic unrest?

Unlike the Prosecutors, the Defense sequence gives no specifics, no timelines or maps, no link between these sound bites and particular actions in particular places. Many of the Democratic speakers are declaring that they will fight; they aren’t all urging their followers to do so. Unlike the MAGA-blazoned rioters in the Capitol, the street fighters in the videos go unidentified. The episodes of street fighting are a cinematic version of Republicans’ equivalency between Black Lives Matter protests and the assault on the Capitol. This loosely plotted story gives many senators a peg to hang their preferences on.

What happened when the Defense got down to linking up events more exactly? In contrast to the panoramic sweep of the Democrats’ narrative, the Defense scope is very narrow: essentially, just the rally. Apart from some parsing of what Trump meant by “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville, there is no mention of his long record of inflammatory remarks. Instead, the Defense constructed a story of what Trump was really asking his crowd to do in that particular speech. They did not try to explicate the many other statements on 6 January, such as the tweet at the top of this section, that congratulate the rioters. The Defense team rewrote the rally as an isolated event, a stand-alone scene whose principal lines demand careful interpretation.

Split screen is used to show the edit points of House videos and to suggest that what Trump said in toto was mitigating.

According to this story, on the day in question Trump was not demanding violence. His call for courage and fighting was simply a request for his supporters to challenge errant Republicans in future elections. If any Trump supporters did engage in the riot, it was because they misunderstood him.

Their error was no greater than that of the Prosecutors, who initially believed that Trump was calling for blood. Once the House managers realized their mistake, Defense attorneys reasoned, they found other pretexts for attacking him. They whipped up the myth of the Big Lie about electoral finagling. Why is it a myth? Because in previous certification ceremonies Democrats accused electors of irregularity as well. They didn’t get away with it because they lacked Senate support and were shut down by the presiding official–in one case, none other than then-VP Joe Biden. Nonetheless, questioning electors’ bona fides, the Defense argued, is not uncommon after a presidential election.

Another, rather sketchy Defense story invoked the possibility that the violence visited on the Capitol was conducted by groups independent of Trump’s control. Some rioters came planning to attack the building and used his rally as a pretext for their mission. They “hijacked the event.” Trump could not incite something that was going to take place anyway. Moreover, some of those people were anti-Trump activists wanting to make mischief. Little evidence of these claims is adduced, but again a proper trial would presumably have brought such information to light.

In all, the people to blame are the Trump followers who misunderstood his message, the alt-right renegades who wanted to make trouble, and the undercover provocateurs from the left. Trump’s remarks, protected by Free Speech, remain distinct from the actions of these troublemakers.

A larger narrative, ultimately more powerful for the public audience, involves motives. First there was Trump’s motive. Trump, on the basis of his speeches, was said to be the most pro-police president in history. He would never encourage his followers to put peace officers in danger. But what about the other side?

Just as the House Prosecutors sought to show that Trump’s desire to retain power made him ever more desperate, the Defense claimed that what fueled this entire proceeding was irrational hatred of a duly elected President. Democrats have “lusted” for impeachment since 2017. The attack on the Capitol gave them the chance to unseat and disgrace him–and keep him from running again. Another montage of quotations, echoing the initial sequence, was invoked. In sum, this is a political trial and the defendant is being railroaded.

The Prosecutors created an intricate narrative centering on Trump and his MAGA army, with those on the other side–from police and staff to legislators both Democratic and Republican–cast as victims. A deadly attack was summoned into existence to keep a man in power. The Defense avoided a long-form narrative but pivoted to categorical organization: Trump’s situation became an instance of denied Due Process, and his tirade exemplified Free Speech in the currently overheated partisan dialogue.

But the Defense didn’t wholly avoid telling a story. It focused on the rally as a single incident that has been misconstrued.  And their broader story, probably the overarching one, pits Trump and his patriotic followers against the vengeful Democratic party and its army of summertime hooligans determined to unelect him, and make him forever unelectable.

 

There’s a lot more to be said about the structure and style of these fraught sessions of the Senate. They will be scrutinized for years by students of law, politics, social change–and, I hope, media. We can bring to the table some tools that allow us to analyze how traditions and conventions of cinematic forms and styles interact with the exigencies of occasion and ideology. They alert us to the ways in which our buttons are pushed and our thoughts and feelings are steered this way and that.

I should say, in case you’re wondering, that I find the Defense case preposterous–sophistic, evasive, streaked with irrevelancies and contradictions. That’s because I side with Aristotle’s view that rhetoric should be a packaging system for sound thinking. Logic and science are truth-tracking, whereas rhetoric makes no discoveries. It is a skill set, a tool kit for presenting ideas and opinions in ways that people will accept. Rhetoric is needed because a lay audience needs help in grasping the premises and conclusions of specialized inquiry. That means, for Aristotle, rooting arguments in not only plausible inference and ethos (trust in the speaker’s moral character, as displayed in the speech) but also appropriate emotional appeals that will engage the audience in the pursuit of understanding.

Ideally, the ideas and opinions set forth are the ones with the best rational and empirical backing. But they may not be. Prejudice, stereotypes, and quick-and-dirty inferences are the rhetorician’s stock-in-trade. Still, we can be on guard against weak rhetoric. Educators could go back to teaching high schoolers the fallacies of informal reasoning; a huge swath of political babble, including the Trump Defense case,  exemplifies tu quoque and ad hominem. And when films and videos take rhetorical form, our skepticism can be reinforced by awareness of how movies work. Studying film can alert us to the ways we can be gulled, blinded, or reinforced in our own prejudices.

It can also show how a rhetorical case can rest on a foundation of more or less plausible explanation. That, I think, is where the Prosecutors’ case leads us, thanks to its strict structure of likely cause and effect. But no less than the Defense, the House managers used the resources of the medium to quicken the impact of the documents they assembled. Fortunately, thanks to modern media, those documents are themselves vivid records in the moment. They will remain, after many viewings for decades to come, powerfully convincing–at least, to people of open mind. The question is how many of those people will still be around.


Geoffrey O’Brien has an engaging discussion of the ways current conspiracy theories echo those of earlier eras in “Hitler in Antarctica” at the New York Review of Books site.

I discuss the role of the crisis structure in classical American film in Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling.

It may be relevant that I thought and still think that Bill Clinton, a man utterly lacking in personal honor, should have been convicted in his 1999 impeachment exercise.

P.S. 21 March 2020: The New York Times has assembled an astonishing montage of mostly new footage of the combat outside the Capitol, showing the police trying to hold the insurrectionists back. Twelve Republican representatives voted against awarding Congressional medals to these officers. One of those opposing the legislation, Rep. Bob Good, was discovered to have a connection to the riot when it was revealed that his district’s party director and her husband were part of the crowd converging on the facility.

     

Left: Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) in the Senate Gallery during the impeachment trial; drawing by Art Lien.  Right: Extract from Prosecutors’ video montage. The speaker says: “There’s gotta be something in here we can fucking use against these scumbags.”

Madalena, Rosalind, and Suzanna: More Rotterdam revelations

Madalena (2021).

DB here:

A mixure of moods and tones for our final communiqué from the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Its fiftieth year has been a lively one.

 

The Madalena mystery

Madalena (2021).

In earlier entries (especially here) I’ve noted that the thriller genre is well-adapted to festival circulation. It doesn’t require the budget of a blockbuster. It can attract major actors who want tricky parts to play. It can be shot on contemporary locations. And the appeal to suspense and surprise fits comfortably with edgy narrative strategies favored by art cinema. At the limit, a filmmaker can arouse our thriller appetites and then try a bait-and-switch that not only warps the genre’s conventions but sets us thinking.

The Brazilian film Madalena, by Madiano Marcheti, starts as a classic mystery. In a vast field of soy, reas stalk gracefully as a monstrous pesticide-sprayer grinds toward them. But among the rows lies a corpse.

What follows is more fractured and prismatic. A first section attaches us to Luci, a friend of Madalena’s who works as manager of a club. She also picks up work dancing for TV commercials, one set in that very acreage. Then we follow Cristiano, whose father owns the land and demands he hustle to harvest. A third section takes us with trans woman Bianca and her girlfriends, who sort through Madalena’s belongings before setting out for a day of driving, swimming, gossiping, and teasing one another, the memory of Madalena never far from their thoughts.

Marcheti skips some of the standard scenes. We never see the police investigation, or even the discovery of the body.  The crime plot has been a pretext to reveal a cross-section of life in the community, from the wealthy farmers to the cottages where the staff live. The resolution shifts the question of who did it to the broader impact of the death, and how it stands for a horrifying statistic: Brazil has the world’s biggest murder rate of transgendered people.

Throughout, sexualization of bodies is a central motif. Luci and her posse hang out at curbside, Bianca and her posse turn tricks and find boyfriends, and Cristiano, after sizing up the crowd at Luci’s bar, winds up dancing with himself in mirror reflection.

To say much more would spoil things, so I’ll just note that this story is filmed with a pictorial intelligence that one seldom sees these days.  The imagery of the soy fields is at once magnificent and ominous. Drones hover over it like birds of prey, and its horizon haunts the people’s lives.

     

     

Overwhelming as the landscape is, it doesn’t blot out the characters’ routines and the crises that disrupt them. Moving from Luci’s aimless days and nights to Cristiano’s panic to Nadia’s quiet  tribute to Madalena, a locket set adrift in the stream that runs along the field, the film pauses for intimate moments. It reminded me a bit of Varda’s great Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi), in which an enigmatic figure’s fate charts the range of human indifference, but also affords glimpses of sympathy.

An informative discussion of the film with Marcheti is provided by IFFR here.

 

As we too like it

As We Like It (2021).

This movie saw me coming a mile away. It does for As You Like It what Lurhmann did for Romeo and Juliet, but to an Asia-pop beat. Four romantic couples lose and rediscover one another in a magical milieu–not the Forest of Arden (currently under corporate development) but a district of Taipei with no Web connections.  In Heaven, a sign informs us, there is no Internet.

Accordingly, people must deliver messages in person, seek out each other by dint of shoe leather and motorbikes, and actually meet face to face. So Rosalind’s quest to find her father the Duke (a genial tycoon) intertwines with Orlando’s search for her. But of course she’s disguised as a boy and aided by Celia, a fortune-teller who’s the dream girl of Orlando’s sidekick Dope.

The film’s world is maximum kawai, pushing beyond camp to a fangirl fantasy of irresponsible sweetness. This candy-colored city, with its pink blimps and anime posters, spills over with tweens, teens, and twentysomethings shopping in malls, flirting at stalls, and sipping bubble tea.

     

In the process, old stuff becomes cool.  Tradition, in the form of calligraphy and handmade paper, is a retro decorator choice, while letting your date clean your ears old-style makes him a friend with benefits.

     

It might all seem sappy, but like Tati’s Play Time and Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express, the film seeks to distill authentic poignancy out of kitsch, schlock, consumer clichés, lethal cuteness, and the detritus of urban lives. Frivolity must be good for something; why else would God give us giggles?  Comic form, as Shakespeare acknowledged, redeems a lot of silliness, especially if the gags are hurled at us with the ruthless conviction that anything goes.

Did I mention that all the roles are played by female performers?

In a switcheroo on Elizabethan theatre, globalization inverts the Globe. The film, a final title tells us, is dedicated to Shakespeare “but also to the patriarchy who would not allow female actors upon the stage.” The frisson is akin to that of Tsui Hark’s Peking Opera Blues and The East Is Red, where gender-blurring yields both humor and genuine feeling. From instant to instant, you see a character go male or female or something in between; a painted-on mustache and a swaggering gait become cosplay, not deep definitions of you. Unless you want it to be.

     

Identities are fluid. Okay, says Orlando, so he falls in love with Rosalind, then Roosevelt, and refinds him/her as Rose. What’s in a name? You get to call yourself, and be, what you wish, and love whoever.

     

Not a fresh-minted message these days, but the sparkle comes with how it’s all carried off. Every scene finds a clever way to amuse or bemuse. When Rosalind as Roosevelt slips into a trim suit, she pads out the crotch with a towel, and teeny gull-like waves waft out. That’s soft power, the equivalent of a mystic ring. Eventually she has to go along when Orlando visits the men’s room. While he stands at the pissoir, she ducks into a toilet pretending to take a dump, her groans covering the sound of peeling open a maxi-pad.

     

The project was co-directed. Wei Ying-chuan, a graduate of NYU’s Educational Theatre division, is a founder of Shakespeare’s Wild Sisters Group in Taiwan. Chen Hung-yi’s feature The Last Painting was chosen for IFFR in 2017 and won a best feature award at Cines del Sur. The pair bring an unflagging energy to the task of creating a paradise of easy living and loving–bereft of villains, open to any piece of harmless fun and heartbreak. As We Like It is a must for every LBGTQ film event, but its hella dirty fun for any festival whatsoever. Couples welcome.

Again, the IFFR provides a fine discussion of the film with the directors, moderated by our old friend Shelly Kraicer.

 

St. Tropez, mon amour

Suzanna Andler (2020).

Eric Bentley once described great serious literature as “soap opera plus.” Anna Karenina, Othello, and the rest offer us tormented love affairs, sexual jealousy, hidden schemes, and forced confessions of betrayal, but it’s all endowed with wider significance through characterization, implication, style. But can we have soap opera minus?

In Daisy Kenyon, Anatomy of a Murder, and other films, Preminger moves in this direction, banking the fires of conflicts drawn from lurid bestsellers, but other filmmakers have gone further in de-dramatizing melodrama. Dreyer’s Gertrud and some of Oliveira’s adaptations offer examples. Here we have the classic fraught situations, but muffled and fragmented and punctured through long pauses and wayward, looping, maddeningly banal conversations.

Marguerite Duras made this artistic strategy peculiarly her own, notably in her masterpiece India Song (1974) and its counterpart Son nom de Venise en Calcutta désert (1976). In a curious reversal, she often prepared the film first and then published the text as a quasi-play, as if scraping away the luscious imagery and ripe sound would create something even purer, soap opera distilled to Racinian starkness.

Suzanna Andler, a Duras theatre piece from 1968, has now been adapted to film featuring Charlotte Gainsbourg and three other players. The result isn’t as severe as the play reads, since director Benoît Jacquot has filmed it in a gorgeous villa overlooking the Mediterranean. It remains, however, in the tradition of kammerspiel. The bulk of the action takes place in a salon and the terrace outside, with one sequence, also in the play, set on a rocky beach.

The situation is sheer bourgeois melodrama. Suzanna is in a loveless marriage with the philandering Jean. She has apparently stayed with him for the sake of their children and the wealthy life they lead. Now Michel, a young journalist, has tempted her into a love affair, and she has for the first time cheated on Jean–who seems okay with it. Today’s crisis, if this counts as one, is her need to decide: Will she lease this villa for the summer with the kids? Or will she accept Michel’s invitation to go to Cannes? In the course of about four hours, she may make up her mind.

If some of my synopsis seems hazy, it’s partly because the exposition comes out in bits as Suzanna and others chat about her past, and partly because what she says may not be wholly truthful. She sometimes admits to lying. And what was her relation to the never-seen Bernard Fontaine, who has just been killed in a car crash? The blurry backstory is one strategy Duras uses to tamp down the melodrama, which usually gives its plots clear-cut contours and definite revelations.

In filming the play, Jacquot has taken an approach that approximates the rigor of Duras’s aesthetic. He has shot the blocks of action using slightly different techniques. Not for him obvious alternatives like color/ black-and-white or a range of tonalities. The differences are made harder to spot because Jacquot has not given us separate chapters corresponding to the act divisions; the scenes blend, punctuated only by long shots. So there are stylistic spoilers coming up.

At the start, Suzanna is shown the house by the real estate agent de Rivière. This segment is filmed in distant shots that emphasize the landscape and straight-on views of the sitting room opening out onto the terrace and the sea. The agent is seen from behind or at a distance, while the few close views we get concentrate on Susanna.

     

Staying behind alone, she falls asleep and awakes when Michel enters. This is a second phase of the play’s first act, and now Jacquot’s camera setups take a more oblique view of the room. The full-length windows dominate again, but now at an angle that recalls the magic mirror of India Song (on which Jacquot was an assistant).

     

The couple is often seen at a distance, but now closer views of Suzanna emphasize the mirror motif.

     

At a high point, the camera celebrates a momentary reconciliation with a track in to their embrace (the first such florid move in the film, I think).

In the sequence corresponding to the second act, Suzanna meets her friend (and Jean’s ex-lover) Monique. On the beach they talk of their pasts. Now the conversation is rendered in many rapid, tight shots of the two women. The orthodox shot/ reverse shot setups are sometimes given a strange emphasis when instead of A/B alternation we get two (but only two) variants of a view of each one as she speaks (A1/A2, then B1/B2). So a cut like this::

     

. . . is followed by ones like these:

     

Back at the villa, Suzanna answers a phone call from Jean, and they discuss their plans, with the uncertainty typical of all the film’s conversations. This scene is handled in circular tracking shots around Suzanna, from a moderately close distance.

     

As the conversation ends, Michel returns. After he reveals some key information about his relation to Jean, he stretches out on the sofa. In a long take running several minutes, the camera swings around them in a half-circle, clockwise and counterclockwise, often adjusting to her shifts in position.

     

The changing angle also captures Suzanna perched against a painting of very 60s boomerang shapes that echo the camera’s trajectory.

As the action approaches what might be a climax, Michel drifts out to the terrace and sits on the balustrade above the sea. Suzanna approaches.

Telling you what happens next would truly be a spoiler. On seeing it, I thought it was something that Jacquot added to the play, but nope . . . it’s there in the text, and he’s perfectly faithful to it.

As if all this patterning doesn’t look finicky enough, the scene on the beach is punctuated by a single shot of the Quai de Passy with a Métro train rumbling by.

This bump comes exactly halfway through the film, at the moment Suzanna mentions the surge of attraction she felt when Michel looked at her on their first encounter. Believe it or not, the line in the play also comes midway through the text. This alien shot functions expressively, I think. It underscores the epiphany Susanna felt upon learning she might be loved. Another filmmaker might have stressed the moment with music under her monologue, but Jacquot goes for a formal bonus: breaking the visual texture just here further articulates the design of his film.

The rigorous geometry Jacquot has clamped down on the play is interesting in itself, and the abstract array of options adds, I think, to the hieratic quality Duras is after. Yet each style matches the tenor of the action it carries and doesn’t conceal the subdued feelings rippling through the scenes. This dimension depends on Gainsbourg–her slim silhouette, her microdress, and especially her face, with her alert chin and hard mouth. Her vacillations have nothing of the diva about them, but still she stands forth as a new avatar of The Confused Woman so beloved of art cinema (Voyage to Italy, L’Avventura, The Headless Woman). Without those closer shots, the film might fall flat.

Once asked what would be his ideal final shot, Jacquot replied: “A distinctive glance [un certain regard] in close-up.” His ending delivers that.

Duras is doing something similar to what Wei and Chen do in As We Like It. She is seeking genuine emotion in clichés (unfaithful husband, wrung-out wife, surly rescuer). But she  hasn’t exempted her characters from social critique. Hiroshima, mon amour renders the meeting of two lovers as an intertwining of two national histories. The colonialists of India Song, drifting through their sparsely attended embassy parties, trying to replicate salon society in the tropics, cannot hear the voices offscreen of the people they subjugate. Likewise, Suzanna’s anxiety may or may not register some distant tremors. In summer of 1968 her world is sliding into something she isn’t prepared for. Far away from St. Tropez, in Paris students are hoping to find their own beach, but they’re doing it by tearing up the pavement.


Again, thanks to Gerwin Tamsma, Monika Hyatt, Frédérique Nijman, and their colleagues at the International Film Festival Rotterdam for allowing us to visit their event virtually. Here’s to another fifty years of ambitious programming!

A very helpful edition of Suzanna Andler has been published in conjunction with the film’s release. It contains a lot of stimulating background information and critical commentary. Bentley’s comment about “soap opera plus” comes from The Life of the Drama (Applause, 1991), 14. Thanks to Kelley Conway for sharing with me the Jacquot interview  in “Réponses à tout,” Libération (14 May 2004), 1.

Jacqout’s rendition of Duras’s play exemplifies what I called in Narration in the Fiction Film “parametric narration.” This rare approach consists of playing out a range of expressive possibilities, scene by scene, in ways that both shape the ongoing plot and “anthologize” sharply contrasting cinematic techniques. Noël Burch first proposed this idea in his enduring Theory of Film Practice (1973), although Eisenstein and Bazin envisioned it. But then they envisioned everything.

P. S. later: The Rotterdam prize winners have been announced (per Variety).

As We Like It (2021).

1917 and DUNKIRK: A conversation

1917 (2019).

DB here:

For over twenty years, the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts at the University of Georgia at Athens has hosted Cinema Roundtable, a series of film screenings and discussions. Covid-19 hasn’t stopped them from keeping it going, and they kindly invited Kristin and me to visit, virtually, and talk about two war films. The title is “Wartime Suspense in ‘Dunkirk’ and ‘1917’: A Conversation with Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell.”

We discussed aspects of style and genre. Many participants, notably Professor Tanine Allison of Emory, brought up other points about these two intriguing movies. It was also nice to see some old friends from Wisconsin logging in.

The entire session is on YouTube.

We enjoyed participating and thank our hosts, Dick Neupert and Dave Marr. In preparing for the session, I think it’s fair to say we liked both films better on rewatching them.

And no, we haven’t yet seen Tenet. Health precautions keep us at a distance. But we are keen, and when we can write about it, we will.


In a piece of good timing, Tom Shone’s book The Nolan Variations came out three days before our session. It’s excellent and offers the most comprehensive overview of this director’s achievements.

Our e-book on Christopher Nolan is available for download here. (Thanks to those Willson attenders who picked it up!) There’s some background on the book here. Our various blog entries on Nolan’s work are here.

Dunkirk (2017).

Little stabs at happiness 6: Breathe

Commander in Chief (2020).

Last summer, in hope of reviving spirits in these times, I ran a series of clips I admired for their ability to arouse and energize. They created a sort of disciplined exhilaration through adroit editing, camerawork, and music. They reliably gave me a lift, and maybe you too.

Now, in the Caligula phase of Trump’s presidency, it seems appropriate to pay my respects to a masterpiece of engaging agitprop. I’ve registered my reservations about the Lincoln Project in an earlier entry, but there’s no denying that these walking wounded of right-wing partisanship have recruited some very talented filmmakers. Their “Covita” assemblage was superb, and they have outdone themselves with this morning’s triumph.

Here it is:

Experience it–but then we should study it.

It’s an excellent example of what we call in Film Art associational form–a blending of images, sounds, and texts to imply ideas and provoke feelings, in the manner of lyric poetry. The text itself is a lyric poem, at once ode, elegy, and apostrophe. Demi Lovato’s choked, rising and falling vibrato is in itself powerfully expressive. Just as important, the audiovisual texture enriches the text. Sometimes it’s a matter of the image echoing the words, and sometimes the associations are purely visual. An element in one shot, such as a gesture or facial expression, will call up something similar, or a contrast.

The effects flash by quickly. Taken just as images, what do these shots have in common?

Nothing but a pulse: Labored breathing on a ventilator matches the flicker of an emergency vehicle’s turn signal, as if life is running out before our eyes..

The structure mimics the song’s layout. We move from problem to solution, from crisis to resistance, from emptiness to crowds, ending on a resolution that puts action in the hands of the viewer. Threading it all together is the way “I can’t breathe” gets redefined. The phrase shifts from being associated with George Floyd and other victims of police atrocities, to the COVID-19 pandemic, before adding a twist: Trump’s own bout with the virus, capped in a direct address to him. How does it feel to be able to breathe? By the end breathing becomes metaphorically linked to voting. How does that feel?

As I mentioned in that earlier entry, contemporary agitprop reminds us how much every filmmaker owes to traditions. The techniques used in Commander in Chief stretch far back into the history of cinema; the upraised fists of the finale could have come straight out of Soviet montage.

It might seem pedantic to talk this way about such a powerful piece of cinema. But the point is that the things we study are really out there, crafted by creative filmmakers and having an impact on viewers. The art we care about has concrete effects, and in studying it we can clarify just how those effects are achieved. Analyzing forms and styles can broaden our sense of what cinema can do, and it can strengthen our respect for the filmmakers who explore it.

A similar analysis could be undertaken with many of the best current polemical documentaries, like Unfit and Totally Under Control. These galvanize us not just through their subjects and “messages” but through their fresh use of conventions of form and style. (The sequences of Totally Under Control devoted to First Capon Jared Kushner will remain models of satiric montage.) As with the best of Adam Curtis’s work, these are important contributions not just to political discourse but to the history of film as an art form.

Those goosebumps, that quivering gut, those tears? They come from cinema, grand synthesis of the arts.


Another documentary working in this vein, Leo Hurwitz’s Strange Victory, is discussed here. It’s completely appropriate to our current crisis.

For other reflections on the Trump coup attempt, go here and here and here and here.

P.S. 9 December 2020: After winning an Advertising Age award for the Lincoln Project campaign videos, Rick Wilson explains the strategy and assesses their success in the first of four parts.

P.P.S. 24 December 2020: More backstory on the making of these videos from producer/director Ben Howe.

Totally Under Control (2020).

David Bordwell
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