TRUMP'S USA: Fear as entertainment is a well-used bestseller and a Hollywood brand, although we do not often see fear as entertainment in political films that are socially critical

Ellen Lande
Ellen Lande
Ellen is a film director and freelance film critic. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: December 3, 2017

Scared Very Scared

Jay Rosenblatt

USA, 2017

Jay Rosenblatt confesses that the anxiety and fear he experiences in Trump’s USA is of such a degree that he either had to see a therapist or make a movie. The outcome is Scared Very Scared, a 7-minute long short film to premiere during th 60th anniversary of the Leipzig Documentary Film Festival in conjuction with Jay Rosenblatt’s Retrospective Homage.

Double dose

The filmmaker Rosenblatt can’t stop himself. He is looking for archival material until he finds his mildly camouflaged alter ego in an older educational film – an indignant psychiatrist with a Jewish appearance who provides advice on patient management. This chosen frame around the story points directly at himself. Besides the more famous descriptions as a “provocateur” and “film artist”, Rosenblatt himself is a psychiatrist. Placed into context, the choice of position as a medical expert gives us a pointer to the key interpretation. This perspective gives a completely different sublime quality and an alluring space for reflection than similar films that deal with Trump’s America.

America as mistreated patient

Dr. Rosenblatt is fond of metaphors. He leaves little doubt about who the patient represents – vulnerable anxious women and little boys who are bullied or do not dare to speak. A big and strong boy is holding a weak boy down by his throat. The little one: “I’ll do anything!” The bully loosens the grip with the famous words: “You’re on my side!”

Back to the expert who is constantly commenting on how incorrectly the patient is being treated by the well-meaning smooth doctor. At the same time, Rosenblatt takes his time to subtly build up the film. The doctor’s advice is to learn to relax more. According to the educational film, this is useless help – change of personality is impossible. The function of pain is to warn us of that which can damage us before the scale of it becomes too serious. The statement is illustrated with pebbles being taken out of a shoe. The patient is at breaking point, and all she wants is help to return to her former energetic self.

Worst-case scenario as dramaturgy

Marching, flag-carrying, Trump saluting Americans are juxtaposed with recordings of Hitler’s young Nazis before World War II. Just before, Nixon has leaned towards the microphone and jovially revealed that an accused politician ignores or denies everything to make sure he avoids being arrested. Reagan is taken under oath to a cheering mass of people; to a cut of a commentator who says that there are no limits to what a man with such a capacity can accomplish. The Ku Klux Klan are marching too. The children among them are the main focus. Even I haven’t seen footage of children in Ku Klux Klan before. I feel disturbed. The narrator’s voice lectures and pulls me along: “America was built on a gun.”

The structure of this black and white short film does not seem to be to the point. Has it been sufficently worked through? A few of my film and literature loving friends get a quick look on late-night visit. They both want a tighter start and an approach that is more to the point. Straight to the Hitler greeting accompanied by the swaying American flags at the beginning, is more to their taste. At the same time, like me, they are entertained. My 11-year-old daughter is thrilled. Particularly about the rich amount and variety of archival material.

Jay Rosenblatt

Rosenblatt is a master of the use of this sort of material, which all his films are based on. He knows how to exploit the familiar resonance this material p r o v i d e s . Recently he was celebrated with the prestigious h o n o r a r y award at the CamerImage Festival in Poland. What is his real agenda behind this film? Does this kind of film too quickly end up in the onedimensional category where the cinematic narrative becomes too simple?

«The perspective gives a completely different sublime quality and alluring space for reflection than similar films dealing with Trump’s America»

Many have thanked Trump for the fact that he, with his presidency, has re-actualized art as answer to a situation many find unbearable. Art has again become important. Many wish to say something. How can one accomplish something more than an ephemeral comment or a political pamphlet?

The usual suspects

Rosenblatt masterfully interweaves several layers. And yes, he is tempted to visit some standard themes. The regular arguments against the opposing party in this type of film are, as we already know, stereotypes. They do not surprise, and they rarely get people to change their minds. Many would go as far as to say that this is a work for the congregation. What will it take to engage people beyond the moment?

Children in a kindergarten have built a fort out of cardboard boxes; you can’t get in, go away. The words have a new and harsher sound. Seeing children in this situation gives us an unusually engaging stinging feeling. Rosenblatt balances the coarseness on its edge. The use of female and male genitalia from another educational film is elegant in its contextual placing. The commentator says there is no indication that this sensitive theme needs to be explored at this time. The use of this sort of sluggish humor as a side kick to Trump’s many and constant vulgarisms is liberating. The humor is never far away, but Rosenblatt does not leave us to rest in it. He soon returns to violence and turmoil. In one scene, we see a little child getting helped by his father, putting on some boxing gloves. In the next moment, the child is being brutally beaten by the same father. A furnished home is being invaded by shooting Nazis.

It’s not the obvious manoeuvers described above that fascinates me – it’s the doctor’s patronizing attitude towards the patient that interests me. Not only does the doctor systematically mislead and destroy all trust, he also destroys the patient’s possibility of selfnarration. To me, the choice of this material is summarizing. The pure and uninterrupted selfnarrative is therapeutic. I find this to be the essence of the film. Here, Rosenblatt has created a work that is larger than a political film-based pamphlet. He has created a work that dares to work far deeper, a mini-epic about what is happening in America’s psyche, regardless of regime. With the help of his cultural heritage, through archival material, Rosenblatt has made Her speak. The story has been completed.


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