What the hell was that? I don’t know about you, but the last five and a half years have felt like I’ve been in the wrong movie, a German idiom (“Ich glaub ich bin im falschen Film”) to describe the sensation of being pulled into a reality you didn’t choose but have to navigate through nonetheless. As someone who tends toward the thought-, joy-, play-, and soulful, this disjointed, nihilistic, villainous mess of a Film
NoirOrange script was problematic from the gaudy downhill escalator opening scene to the never-quite-ending final chase out of office. But just like the majority of Americans who were cast in unsupporting roles when the Electoral Academy decided to award this whopper of a picture, I put on my best acting (secretary) face and jumped in as an extra to see if we could crowdsource a plot twist: Vive la résistance!
At first it looked like this dud about a cantankerous but ultimately boring and vacuous Cruello de Vil and his posse of groveling boors could be brought to life by injecting some sparkling humanity and artistic touches. We tried pink pussy hats, sassy scientists, and inflatable chickens to spiff up the set and lighten the mood, and for a while it seemed like our merry band of razzle dazzle resistance swashbucklers might be able to shake up the storyline at least enough to get a worldwide audience to unbury their faces from their hands. But the longer this production droned on, the further the plot unraveled into a Groundhog Day of needy mobster schtick, tossing what was left of our joie de vivre into the cold, dark B-roll vaults.
Now, we may all have had different points of exasperation at which we realized we were stuck in an ever-looping B-rated horror movie — kids in cages? Very fine people on all sides? Upside down bible scene? Pandemic clown show carnage? But no matter at what exact moment each of us threw in the towel on any soul nourishing pursuits in favor of spending every last ounce of energy on helping the country fly out of this cuckoo’s nest, if this moronic remake of All the President’s Men didn’t leave you drained of all creative juices you probably have some Vulcan in you. Which is a fancy way of saying that feeling a crushing void after being forced into a soul sucking alternate reality for several precious years of our lives is a perfectly normal human response, even if we finally managed to change the reel.
Before tackling the task of changing my inner dialog back from permanent insult comic dog towards something resembling higher human aspiration, allow me to acknowledge that this particular drama we found ourselves in over the past five plus years was not the first — and certainly is far from the worst — ill-conceived script in the annals of human history. Getting a taste of being involuntarily yanked into a madman’s grotesque interpretation of reality, I can’t help but think of Indigenous peoples across the world during the times when European colonialists first superimposed themselves onto their sets. Of the brave African souls at the prospect of being dragged into slave ships, their lives of self determination about to be unmoored forever. Or of my Jewish sisters and brothers in my native Germany, thrust into a plot so evil it was unbelievable until it was too late for so many.
And just as the scars of these historic horror movies have outlived their original unwilling casts, we will not be able to ever unsee this doozy of a flop. Underneath the cheap makeup, tacky wardrobe, and bad hair, the real life consequences of this tragicomedy — that made doubling down on punching down its leitmotif — will be felt for years, if not generations. Inserting a sociopathic tin-pot dictator into a democratic screenplay may make for good dramatic effect, but the long-term damage it does to the franchise is incalculable. Hundreds of thousands of people losing their loved ones due to criminal negligence, hundreds of refugee children cruelly ripped away from their parents forever, millions of citizens bamboozled into distrusting the electoral process — taking a chance on a juvenile game show host to play the lead role in these epic times when we could have had the most veteran, accomplished woman ever to have auditioned for the role turns out to be a real flop.
And yet, here we are, and forward we must look. While this twisted train wreck of a picture is far from over and there should never be a time in the future when we don’t pan its premise and hound its antagonists, if we are to refocus on depicting the true challenges and opportunities of our time, we have to begin to unspool the creepy clown show from our mental reel and reclaim our own storyline. Thus, as the discredits roll across a final foreshadowing in Georgia, I am granting myself the creative space to hit pause for an overture of what’s to come next. Sure, we’re all tired of this lousy flick, but let’s admit it, like the umpteenth season of Survivor, we’ve all got hooked on it, jonesing for one more conniving scheme to blow up and another deplorable wannabe kingpin to get kicked off the island. So, if we are to truly get out of this Theatre of the Absurd, our hearts and minds have to create new screens onto which much better frames can be projected.
So what can we do to flip the script? Well, for one, if you want to stop watching this flaccid Sopranos spin-off, you’ve got to change the channel. In my case, no more snarky tweet replies to the washed up mob boss and his trollish sidekicks. No more wasting of time with reviews about the crappy acting. No more reading of books about the movie. No more dinner table conversations descending into an orange hole of bottomless exasperation. Better yet, if you’re looking to not just get sucked into another movie, hit the off button to make room for your own storyline to develop. Pick up the old guitar collecting dust in the corner. Look out the window and — depending on your latitude — listen to the birds and bees or watch the snowflakes fall. Take longer than usual walks with intentional “wrong turns”. Grab a piece of paper and write down random thoughts and ideas. Don’t worry about “producing” anything… yet.
If you’re like me, you will find that it is much harder to extract yourself from this movie than you thought. You catch yourself refreshing your browser in the hopes that the villain finally had his comeuppance… in the last ten minutes. Your mind wanders back to the beginning to fret over what could have been done to avert so much gratuitous violence in the plot. You’re engulfed by the rage you feel about the pointless abuse inflicted upon innocent extras just to produce a rambling string of vacuous soliloquies with no happy ending. You really want to give the bombing lead role actor who has already been fired but is still serving out his contract with petty sore loser rants a piece of your mind. Instead, you hit the “donate” button to chip in another 50 bucks to Fair Fight.
That’s all good. If you find yourself going through similar withdrawal, don’t beat yourself up over our innate human challenge to escape a familiar scene. It’s okay to let go of these junk outtakes gradually. Also realize that this cult film will stay with us for posterity. Whether we like it or not, it does hold important insights about ourselves, our country, and our culture in this moment of time. It also tells us a lot about how variations of this same sordid screenplay run through our history and are guaranteed to resurface in the future. In fact, there are 74 million Americans who not only liked this fictional portrayal of a self-made real estate magnate who bragged he could fix a country all by himself, but they didn’t realize it was a mockumentary and are willing to pay money for a sequel. So we have no choice but to stay awake and make sure we don’t get a remake.
All that said, right now really is the time to pitch not only another movie, but a radically new franchise with the capacity to tell an entirely different story of what it means to be successful on Earth. One whose very premise can transcend the scarcity and conquest that are not only the allegorical devices of this particular clunker but that run through almost all storylines of modern civilization. One that can hold our attention without constant overproduced explosions and cheap emotional manipulations by developing characters whose motivations keep us at the edge of our seat because of the high ground they are on. One that can carry multiple plot lines without having to resort to binary hero/villain archetypes, reflecting the complexity of expressions of our humanity without losing the simple truth that we’re all on this little round ball together. And one that plays out against a backdrop of reality, addressing the very real challenges that real people face in overcoming and repairing the impacts of exploited eco-nomic and -logical systems, but driven by a bold creative vision conjuring new and previously unimagined realities.
For this new story to take hold, it can’t be written by a single person or the usual suspects who shape our imagination. To move beyond the zero sum myth of winners and losers that is holding sway over our collective consciousness and is eagerly perpetuated by the few who see themselves on the winning side, more of us will have to start sharing our own stories so we can change the depth of field to include a wider, deeper, and more representative angle of what truly matters to most people in the short time they have on this planet. The more we shift our focus from outsized individual “success” stories to a more kaleidoscopic reflection of diverse experiences, the more heart and soul oriented our vision for living together can become. As the overexposed stars fade out of our mental spotlight, the rest of us get to clear the storyboard and visualize characters, scenes, and sequences of events that can harmonize over the evocative soundtrack of justice, equity, and restoration.
The good news then about this fresh genre of being is that not only do we have the superpower to walk out of a shitty movie but we all get to play leading roles in our own blockbuster production. For me, this little short right here feels like a first step out of the schlocky horror show we’ve been trapped in, an attempt to reclaim my prose from the firehose of pointless chatter that’s been drowning out the real plot. If it resonates, perhaps I’ll throw in a few extra scenes in my next venture. I’m also tickled by the idea of panning my camera toward the objects that give me joy and hope — like daily mundane jubilation, creative exploration, and the prospect of a cooler planet through green new dealings — and zooming in on fellow solutionary storytellers in their own process of rediscovering their voices. Who knows, if we all do that for each other, we may finally end up in the right movie together.
Cover photo by Debra Baida
Story photos by Sven Eberlein