SO THERE’S THIS competition-style reality show on. It’s the one that pits the bloviating, orange-haired pustule who spouts incoherent, racist free verse against a grandparent with the temerity to possess a vagina. The show asks America to make the agonizing decision: Which one’s worse?
Well, according to several sources, this is no mere entertainment: In just a few short weeks, the results will be used to determine which striver will occupy the most important job in the country for the next four years (or until he gets bored and quits). As usual, one can turn to H.L. Mencken: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”
The fact that electioneering and entertainment have become so incestuously linked is the subject of the NW Film Center’s fall series Print the Legend, which lines up 17 movies between now and Election Day that tackle the intersections of politics and mass media. The series kicks off with the movie its title quotes, 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Director John Ford and stars John Wayne and James Stewart are all poster boys for Americana, but the movie is a clear-eyed, old West examination of how much manufactured myth went into our national story.
Media frenzies also dominate 1979’s Being There, 1996’s Citizen Ruth, and 1941’s Meet John Doe. But the most bracing depiction of journalism in film history belongs to Billy Wilder’s 1951 masterpiece, Ace in the Hole, in which Kirk Douglas burns through the screen as a reporter who exploits a trapped miner to restore his reputation.
The 1990s are well represented, with the aforementioned Citizen Ruth (the funniest movie ever made about abortion), Michael Mann’s The Insider (which made me quit smoking, about five years after I saw it), Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (the most insightful film to feature a gratuitous co-ed shower scene), and Warren Beatty’s Bulworth (a movie no studio would make today).
All are worth revisiting, though the final films in Print the Legend really bring down the hammer on one Donald J. Trump. Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957) stars Andy Griffith as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, the epitome of manipulative populism—an aw-shucks folk singer who rises to fame and political rabble-rousing while maintaining a secret, sneering condescension towards his fans.
Then, on Election Eve, there’s Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), which takes on the dehumanizing, exploitative nature of capitalism with hilarity, humanity, and grace. If you see it and end up voting Republican, you may have missed the point. (Then again, if you see it and end up voting at all, you may have missed the point.)
This series is part of an apparent effort by the NW Film Center to incorporate more locally programmed content. Plus, practically every movie featured is a classic. Which is, weirdly, kind of a problem: These are all films that everyone should see, but they’re also films most film buffs have already seen. It’s certainly worthwhile to look at them in the context of each other, and it’s always great to have a chance to see Brazil, Medium Cool, and Dr. Strangelove on the big screen, even if it’s only at the Whitsell Auditorium. (Think how great Starship Troopers would be in a beefier theatrical environment!)
The Film Center’s role in Portland’s cinematic ecosystem, though, should be to showcase stuff you simply wouldn’t be able to see anywhere else, not stuff you can rent for $3.99 on Amazon. This is also a case of preaching to the choir—are any Trump fans going to wander into A Face in the Crowd and change their tunes? Unlikely. But for those seeking fodder for their outrage—or, at least, comfort that it’s always been this way—Print the Legend fits the bill.