The New York Times and Trump’s first year

Another documentary, another boring subject! We’re only halfway through Trump’s second year and already we want a rehash of his first? That sounds like the quintessence of staleness—material well known, and too close to have been forgotten. On top of that nearness, the far-ness of dealing not with the primary subject himself, but a second hand view through the distancing filter of the media.

How did anyone know there’d be such a good story here? I suppose the campaign of 2016 gave warning of that. One characteristic of the Trump era is that things don’t hold still, but move at nerve-wracking speed. We have never seen anything like this before, and might thus imagine that Trump is setting the pace himself, like a reality show host manufacturing rivalries, creating bogies, throwing out childish nicknames.

But these four programmes show over and over again that ‘events’ do not sit there for the taking, clearly marked and distinct. Especially when the government is bent on keeping you from finding out, the task of recognising what will constitute a real event with important consequences often presents an intellectual challenge of a high order. The nature and significance of the famous meeting between Donald Trump Jr and Russian emissaries had to be pieced together out of scattered hints threatening to vanish under a flurry of lies.

Often stories don’t have single authors and contributions come from far afield. The cast of characters is vast and verges on confusing. These films disobey one of the basic rules for creating human interest: pick out one or two individuals and stick with them, making a person stand for an amorphous group. The filmmakers opt instead for breadth, jumping from reporter to reporter to convey the headlong plunge of this terrible period in the history of the country.

Participants in the films never allow themselves a melodramatic phrase like ‘this terrible period in the history of the country.’ They avoid heat and vehemence to a superhuman degree. Their devotion to finding out the truth is expressed in tellingly individual ways. In a quixotic quest for neutrality one reporter hasn’t voted in the last two presidential elections. A striking expression of their search for accuracy is the evolution of headlines for crucial articles, shown on screen as successive versions blotting each other out.

These are films about Trump in which he hardly appears. That seems a stroke of genius. We see him very briefly around the white supremacist episode in Charlottesville, once when he is saying there is fault ‘on both sides, on both sides,’ repeating the key claim as a fragment, drumming it in. The other clip is equally chilling, when he is blaming ‘the fake media’ for what happened at Charlottesville and sicks the crowd on reporters sitting at their desks behind flimsy barriers at the back of the hall. The scene turns nasty and the reporters pack up their gear and file out silently.

Americans will still be obsessively interested in these topics for a long time to come, however and whenever Trump’s direct influence on events ends. However it all finishes, the quiet persistence of the team of reporters and editors we meet in these films stands right now as a heroic example, inspiring hope for better days.

 

Reporting Trump’s First Year: The Fourth Estate, 4 hour-long episodes by Liz Garbus on BBC Storyville

The Bhagwan

I met the Bhagwan first in London. Every night at midnight a small group dressed in red went down our street laughing maniacally. They seemed possessed, but conveyed at the same time that they knew what they were doing. They were followers of an Indian guru with their local headquarters in a nearby street. At the time I assumed they were just on their way home from a meeting; now I wonder if it wasn’t something more sinister.

Later I heard their leader, the Bhagwan Rajneesh, on the radio. He had a hypnotic voice and drew out the ends of words with a hiss like the snake in Disney’s Jungle Book. He was preaching freedom while casting a spell to which you might submit.

Now, thirty-three years after the Bhagwan’s most ambitious venture imploded in a remote American location, along come two complementary versions of the history of the cult and the debacle in Oregon. There’s a six part Netflix series called Wild Wild Country with a large cast of outlandish characters you might think it would take a novelist to invent. And there’s a soberer and more compact version from the Oregon Historical Society which talks to an almost entirely different set of locals and a more mainstream group of cultists.

The story begins in India with a successful ashram headed by an ex philosophy professor who attracts well heeled Westerners, who throw everything they have into the pot. We get a sanitised version of why they need to leave India. Later, large scale tax fraud is floated as the stimulus. Anyway, Oregon is selected as the destination, to which the Bhagwan absconds without telling his followers he is leaving. They have bought a huge ranch for which they have extensive plans and soon find themselves in conflict with the nearby town of Antelope, population 40. The Rajneeshis despise the locals, which they don’t trouble to conceal. They soon outnumber the natives and peace and love give way to oppression.

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The star of the Netflix series is not the Bhagwan but someone few viewers will have heard of, his deputy Ma Anand Sheela. She is physically attractive and alarmingly intelligent and energetic. As time goes on she reveals darker sides, more than one. The most wonderful feature of the series is the powerful suspense it creates about the characters and where their warring impulses will lead them next. Inevitably the most profound conundrums are posed by the cultists, but there are enigmas among townspeople and officials too.

Two of the most articulate cultists, a young Australian woman and an American lawyer, speaking in the present, keep us in perpetual doubt about whether or how much they ever got out from under the spell. However many explanations one comes up with for how so many intelligent people succumbed to the Bhagwan’s persuasions, it remains a puzzle without a solution, or at least without a remotely palatable one.

 

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How could the 1960s and the expansion of consciousness and greater openness to experience which they brought have spawned the essentially totalitarian attitudes of cults? ‘Extremes meet’ was Coleridge’s favourite proverb: freedom’s excesses are adjacent to slavery, it seems. The happy grins of the Bhagwanites call up in me a mixture of envy and mistrust, and share something with the calmer stares of lobotomised patients.

The Bhagwan himself remains an enigma to the last. His smile looks witless judged by the standards of the world. Even intelligent disciples find his enthusiasm for Rolls Royces a lovable trait, which they feel compelled to indulge. For me, it rules him out as a spiritual teacher. He was wise to keep quiet for most of the time in Oregon. When he unleashes his ire against the disloyal Sheela his unexpected coarseness is shocking. The morning after her departure he turns up fully informed of her crimes, hidden from him before. Now he judges her regime a fascist state and relaxes the main rules, like the red clothing and his own sanctity. Collapse is bound to follow: god has come out as an unbeliever.

 

McQueen

This wonderful film is billed as a documentary but doesn’t exactly feel like one. True, it is stuffed full of interviews with the amazing crew of youngsters (now older) that Alexander McQueen assembled round him, or drew toward himself by the strange attraction that his early designs exercised on those susceptible. It must also include, when you think about it, much archive footage, especially the reruns of old fashion shows, dating back to the 1990s. I can’t tell how much of their own magic the directors have worked on these materials, which are electrifying.

I have a problem with high fashion, which is just the extreme tip of humankind’s insane interest in clothes. McQueen is wonderful because he understands instinctively what is so awful about the catwalk as conventionally practiced. He doesn’t abandon it though, but turns it into a scene of deep conflict and confrontation, a form of torture for everyone involved, the models or actors and the audience or spectators, who are faced with ugliness so unexpected and elaborate that it comes to seem a weird kind of beauty.

In McQueen’s shows this is wrapped up with feelings about the body, with things done or threatened to young bodies, suggested not by actual abuse of persons, but by violence practiced on the clothes, on the cloth they are constructed of, and by the shapes they are made to assume or prevented from assuming. From the beginning McQueen inspired terror with a pair of scissors, feeling a destructive urge to upset harmonies and continuities by simply ripping large complacent expanses of cloth, or cutting roughly apart elements that had been too neatly joined together.

There is occasional talk about where his urge to deface settled orders comes from, from ‘my dark side’ or from abuse suffered as a child. Family plays an inordinate role in McQueen’s life, not just in the early scenes where he is noticeable for an excitement always on the point of exploding. There’s something in there waiting to get out, ungovernable, and at this point more mischievous than alarming, but never quite comfortable.

Later this will seem an innocent time, when Lee (his name in the family, only changed to Alexander, his original middle name, by Isabella Blow to give him gravitas) applied himself with maniacal intensity to learning the tailoring trade from a fascinating series of employers, conventional and unconventional, who supply some of the most perceptive comment on his character. He impressed them all, but none of them could really contain him. Then, how he got to St Martin’s School of Art, definitely the place to be, but what made him want it or think he could do it?

His first designs and shows are my favourites, made of materials found on the floor (cling wrap) or in Borough Market (thin wire mesh) and paid for with his dole money. Although he had a powerful drive to be noticed, at this point he had to keep himself out of public view in case the job centre caught sight of him. It’s a wonderful moment when he and the art school crew come crashing into Paris, where Lee has been hired by Givenchy, who’ve just lost a key designer.

But it is also the first breath of the frightening worldly success that will destroy him. It’s easy to detect this pattern in his life, too easy, because Alexander McQueen is not just another casualty of the Romantic cult of genius, corrupted by fame, money, stardom. The destruction which is a powerful element in so many of his designs was not just a personal aesthetic but something desperately seeking expression. With success, a nasty side of this seemingly benign character began to appear. He cut old friends off from his later triumphs and abandoned others for supposed betrayals. Fashion’s obsession with the body eventually swallowed up Lee too. He lost weight—we aren’t told how—and stopped being the pudgy mess who was such a paradoxical container for that wild imagination. He succumbed to the frightening treadmill of production, 14 shows a year at his peak, and we get quite a good idea of what these cost in every part of life that isn’t work. How strange that the most ephemeral of trades should make such unending demands on its practitioners.

The film involves us to a daring degree in the rat race of these shows, each outdoing the last in lavishness, weirdness and narrative power. McQueen had always tried to make all the designs, impossible to call them ‘dresses’ or ‘outfits’, take parts in the overall story of the show, but it is also important to let individual designs have their own space. Not in the way they would have it in the big museum exhibitions where they’d be standing there motionless as if on pedestals, but filmically, as they are in the brilliant credits at the end of this film, one dress after another that progresses into kaleidoscopic distortions of itself before the next name and next ‘dress’ replace it. So we end with a fluid sense of how far beyond our ideas of something to wear McQueen took what he constructed. These were as remote from everyday life as modernist art and music have regularly been from what people ordinarily see or hear.

McQueen prided himself on bringing gritty reality to the catwalk, but his work twists clothes beyond recognition to create profound experiences that speak of suffering and death, instead of a dogged concentration on what is wearable. These experiences are often not just costumes, but intensely engaging actions, like large robots spraying a rotating model with paint that begins with bold curves on her skirt and ends with a random spatter of dots on her face and her surroundings.

McQueen, 2018, 1 hr 51 min, directed by Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui