Heads Without Bodies
It rained in Brooklyn the day after Donald Trump was elected President. Overnight it had become a damp, drizzly November. The ceiling in the room where I’m writing this developed a leak that morning. Rust-colored water stained the white paint around the light fixture, spreading outward until a steady drip fell off the light bulb into the square glass shade, filling the translucent pan with brown water.
I noticed the leak when the water began to trickle off the corner of the shade nearest my desk. I got a bucket and a stepladder, tipped the shade into the bucket to pour off the dingy water, then unscrewed the shade and removed it. I put the bucket on the floor, looked up, and saw a hole in the ceiling, open to the rain. Here it is, I thought, the first day of the Trump era. I stopped writing, went to the store, bought some cigarettes, and started smoking again.
Late that summer a friend had called from Canada to predict that Trump would win the election, and to invite me, should that happen, to come up and check out the democracy. I lit a cigarette and phoned her. I wanted to be out of the US for Trump’s inauguration in January. Could I come up then? I mentioned there was a hole in my ceiling. When we got off the phone I bought a plane ticket to Toronto. It was not expensive. Most people do not travel to Ontario in January if they can help it.
The city of Hamilton, where my friend lives, is about forty-five miles southwest of Toronto on Lake Ontario, which, as I found it, was covered in dense fog. Despite the sunlessness, the lake was only part frozen. Hamilton was chilly and gray, a steel town in winter dotted with thrift stores, coffee places huge by New York standards, and record shops selling thrash and grindcore LPs.
My friend does not have television, so we looked for a bar where we could watch the inauguration live on a big flatscreen. I was glad not to be in the US, but I wasn’t going to miss the moment a reality-TV con man was sworn in as President of the United States. For some reason I figured Hamilton would have a lot of bars with TVs in them open by 11:30 on a Friday morning. That was not the case. Some bars were open by 11:30 for lunch but had gone gastropub and didn’t have televisions anymore.
Our search turned up a place called Fisher’s two blocks from the lake, a spot with a long bar, booths, plenty of TVs, and menus in Lucite frames on the tables advertising fishbowls, giant drinks made to share, served in clear globes. Three dozen or so local businessmen, who probably would have gone there to eat anyway, had also gathered to watch the inauguration. Some regulars at the bar cheered when Trump appeared on-screen. The people at the tables looked concerned as Trump was sworn in and surprised when he let go with his “carnage” outburst. The waitress, realizing I was an American, told me she was sorry.
On TV, the Missouri State University Chorale, dressed in black overcoats and burgundy berets, sang “Now We Belong.” They sounded as joyless and funereal as they looked in their black coats. It was overcast in Washington, DC, and the student chorus sang in the rain, which Donald Trump later claimed let up for his address even though it had not.
Behind the new President, Barack Obama looked like he had a migraine. Paul Ryan grinned his new grin, a crazy-looking rictus he had worn since the Republican National Convention. The new Vice President, Mike Pence, appeared serious to the point of menace, as if he had bitten the head off a bald eagle to prove a point and would do it again. George W. Bush, goofy in the kind of transparent rain poncho sold in vending machines in bus stations, showed the world he was a man who had left care behind now that he would not go down as the worst President in American history. Much of the rest of the crowd was made up of Dick Tracy villains, rubber masks from a forgotten part of the 20th century, and blondes in the Fox News style. On TV, the helicopter that took away Barack and Michelle Obama rose in silence and slow motion.
After the inauguration, the network cut to a group in the crowd called Bikers for Trump, there from New Jersey. One of them, a man wearing a cap that said Sick Boy on it, complained about the protesters in Washington that day. “I don’t have time to protest because I have a job!” he yelled at the camera, even though he was there and not working. Trump declared his inauguration a “national day of patriotic devotion,” but it was not a federal holiday. Even as he bellowed about “tombstones across the landscape of our nation” in his crap-weird speech in the rain, postal workers delivered mail in the US and life went on. We ordered another pint as lunch hour ended and the businessmen of Hamilton went back out into the fog.
The next day we went to the Hamilton Women’s March, which, with Canadian concern for inclusiveness and safety, had been changed to a Women’s Rally because of “accessibility issues.” It was held in front of Hamilton’s impressive modernist City Hall, a two-tiered, eight-story mini-UN next to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. Outside, a statue of a receiver reached prayer-like for a football in the sky while a tackler wrapped him around the waist. The two silver athletes looked like toy spacemen from a 1960s version of the future. My Canadian friend pointed out that the tackler also looked like he was giving the receiver a blow job. We stood among the pink-knitted pussy hats dotting the gray weather in the nonmarching crowd and listened to Canadian speeches about what had happened in the US. Nearby, a teenage girl stood on a concrete planter holding a large sign she had drawn in neat serif caps, the first line in mint green, the next in pink, the last in cornflower blue. It read
The night before the inauguration, we saw a movie at a place where bands play. Doors Pub features an outsize portrait of the heavy-metal singer King Diamond’s face in close-up next to the bar, and hosts a 16mm-movie night called Trash Palace. That Thursday, the film was The Thing with Two Heads, a cheap American B-grade movie from 1972. It stars Ray Milland as a white surgeon and Rosey Grier as a black convict on death row for killing a cop. Grier is the football player who was standing next to Robert Kennedy when he was assassinated in 1968. The Welsh Milland won an Oscar in 1946 for The Lost Weekend, in which he played an alcoholic. By 1972 he was choosing his roles with less care, more daring.
The film’s tagline was “They share the same body . . . but hate each other’s guts!” I was told that the timing was a coincidence, but even before the film began it was clear that this was a movie about America under Donald Trump. I wasn’t prepared, however, for how much Milland would resemble our new President, especially after his head is cut off and grafted onto Grier’s left shoulder. Trump and the Ray Milland of 1972 have the same hairstyle and hair color and the same bellicose, insulting demeanor. Their look-alike hair is especially obvious in shots where Milland’s head is fake, a mannequin wig-holder for when his decapitated head is carried around independently of its body, or in long-shot chase scenes in which Grier rides a motorcycle with the bewigged paste head attached to him.
Milland’s character is terminally ill but has a plan for survival. “I want to transplant my head on a healthy body,” he explains. “There is no other way for me to live.” The catch is that for a month the two men must share Grier’s body while it gets used to the new head. Then Grier’s head will be cut off and the body will be Milland’s alone. Grier volunteers for this because he believes he can prove himself innocent while the two men share his body. Milland, already established in the film as a racist who won’t work with black doctors, is not told who the only volunteer is.
After the operation, Grier wakes up and sees Milland’s Trumpesque head on the operating table next to his own. “Where’s the rest of you?” Grier shouts in this new, extra head’s face, a reversal of Ronald Reagan’s “Where’s the rest of me?” from 1942’s Kings Row. Appalled that he is now attached to a black man, Milland has Grier chloroformed. “The black bastard,” he says. “How am I ever going to control him? He could kill me.”
Humankind cannot bear very much reality, but it can bear a lot of reality TV.Tweet
The Thing with Two Heads devolves into chase scenes and jokes about racism, but not before making it clear that men like Milland’s wealthy surgeon believe experimenting on and killing black men is fine if it allows white men to live, if it gets them closer to living forever. The film is resonant because we know this happened in this country in real life. The story of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment broke in the New York Times the same week The Thing with Two Heads premiered at drive-ins and in grind houses around the country.
Forty-five years later, little has changed. Jordan Peele’s Get Out, which premiered a month after the inauguration, updates The Thing with Two Heads by eliminating the severed head and making the “coagula” a mind-meld requiring just a touch of brain surgery. In Peele’s film, the white man, seeking to extend his life, completely inhabits and controls a younger black man’s body, head and all. The body cannot reject the mind that now occupies it, can’t argue with it or punch it in the face. The two are fused, and black consciousness stares out from within the film’s “sunken place,” immobilized and silent. Get Out, unlike The Thing with Two Heads, decouples The Defiant Ones from The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.
Grier’s character in The Thing with Two Heads, sitting on death row, was already expendable and doomed. This campy sociopolitical horror film from the Watergate years literalized the conflicts of the civil rights struggle in a grotesque way, asking viewers to take it seriously while inviting them to mock it at the same time. Since then, the film has existed below the level of serious commentary. Yet all of a sudden it speaks to us, because of Trump’s head.
Earlier in his career, in 1989, when he was merely a rich gasbag and an annoyance, Trump bought a big ad in the New York Times so he could publicly call for the executions of the Central Park Five, young black men accused and convicted of assault and rape. The men were exonerated by DNA evidence in 2002 and released from prison. They sued the City of New York and settled for $41 million. Trump went out of his way last year to let voters know he still believed they were guilty. This is how he thrives. Now he has grafted his head onto our collective body, with his horror-movie hairdo always in our face. Trump’s head is struggling to control our actions and responses the same way Milland’s head struggled to control Grier’s body in this cheap movie. The devil finds work where he can. The Thing with Two Heads was too dumb to be noticed by James Baldwin in his book-length essay on race and the movies, and I had to go to Canada to run into it. Now it’s the kind of stupid we live with every day.
In May, the comedian Kathy Griffin posted a photo on Twitter and Instagram in which she’s holding a model of Donald Trump’s severed head by the hair, blood dripping from its neck and eyes. The caption she provided referenced Trump’s sexist comments about Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News host who moderated a Republican debate during the campaign. “There was blood coming out of his eyes, blood coming out of his . . . wherever,” it read, gender-switching Trump’s remark about Kelly.
The photo’s resemblance to various paintings of Judith holding the severed head of Holofernes, the Assyrian general bent on destroying Judith’s city, was noted by some, casting Griffin’s stunt as feminist and political beyond the way she had intended. Judith’s story, which appears in the Apocrypha, has been a subject for artists since the Renaissance. Caravaggio and Lucas Cranach the Elder painted Judith with Holofernes’s head, as has, more recently, Kehinde Wiley. Komar and Melamid depicted Holofernes as the stone head of a statue of Stalin held aloft in a little girl’s palm. Women artists have been understandably drawn to Judith as a subject. Artemisia Gentileschi painted Judith’s beheading of Holofernes in the 17th century; Tina Blondell in 1999. Judith has appeared in movies, too. The year before he made The Birth of a Nation, D. W. Griffith made a film called Judith of Bethulia.
The image of Trump’s decapitated head created an uproar. Griffin was condemned by pretty much everybody, including Trump himself, who claimed the image upset his youngest son. Everyone agreed Griffin had crossed a line, and that she was even lamer and more useless than before, now truly abject. Griffin is not a painter or a film director. She is a reality-TV star, like Donald Trump, former host of The Apprentice, and, like him, an avid Twitter user. Griffin’s photo was judged to be a stupid, ill-conceived publicity grab, reflecting on her desperation as a self-conscious D-list celebrity — My Life on the D-List was the name of her Bravo reality show. Her social-media stunt delivered both politics and art history as trash, little more.
Griffin casts her opposition to Trump in a War of the Reality Stars, using an image of Trump’s head, the “big head” of TV close-ups, disconnected from the rest of its body. More artfully, the German magazine Der Spiegel depicted Trump’s head as a flaming planet hurtling toward Earth, like the planet gone out of its orbit in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. Griffin’s apology for her photo, her botched non–press conference, and her public crying jag all point to Trumpancholia, a psychological condition now afflicting much of the planet’s population, who have traded the things they used to enjoy for the constant monitoring of Trump’s reality-TV spectacle, which is broadcast twenty-four hours a day and consumed worldwide. In claiming he wants to make America great again, Trump promised to bring the country back to the Reagan era, to “morning in America.” Instead, we have entered a period of mourning in America, with Trump not as Ronald Reagan but as another 1980s character, Max Headroom, a demented TV pitchman, all face and head: an irreal, televised presence in a rubber mask who can pop up anytime because he doesn’t sleep.
In the age of streaming prestige drama, it looked like reality TV was on the wane. But since the Trump retrenchment, the dinosaur broadcast networks have brought back American Idol and Big Brother. While networks are desperate to get viewers to watch live television in prime time, they have less of a problem in the off-hours. The inauguration, White House press conferences, the Comey hearing — these are examples of reality television unfettered from prime-time scheduling and its half-hour or hour-long formats. As streaming drama can leech onto viewers’ lives in the form of binge watching, so can the constant stream of Trumpian reality TV consume viewers’ lives in the form of browser-based live bingeing, a back-and-forth between news sources with a heavy thumb on the refresh button. The scheduling of this kind of reality TV is unpredictable, spontaneous, and extends out from live television into social media. It starts and stops according to Donald Trump’s whims, while viewers wait for it. It can assemble itself quickly and appear suddenly, going from buffering to full-on catastrophe in a second, with twenty-four-hour news networks trailing behind. Its goals are to monopolize our time and waste our lives as we feed it and keep it alive.
As with competition reality shows in prime time, there are no real winners here besides the producer-host. Any season’s winners are discarded and forgotten, and fast. At the time they appear, competitors are main characters, future celebrities, potential stars. In the end, they are all the USA Freedom Kids, those tween girls who performed a Trumpified version of the World War I song “Over There” in patriotic cheerleader costumes at a Florida Trump rally early in the race. Unpaid, the Freedom Kids had to sue the Trump campaign for the money they lost when they were not allowed to sell CDs at their performance.
Where are they today? Nowhere, neither here nor over there. They existed to be televised, briefly. Such acts show up to manipulate our emotions, then disappear. We are appalled by their awkward brainwashed patriotism, or we love it, or both. Like the contestants on America’s Got Talent — a deaf girl with a beautiful singing voice, or a little blond girl who projects her equally beautiful singing voice without moving her lips, through the puppet mouth of a cartoon rabbit ventriloquist’s dummy — they create a momentary disjunction that tugs on the heartstrings, a kitsch mini-catharsis. “America’s Got . . . what is going on?” becomes our reaction to these convulsive post–Susan Boyle performances, in which ordinary people overcome their disadvantages through televised displays of short-form virtuosity, just to give us one more minute of hope. Humankind cannot bear very much reality, but it can bear a lot of reality TV.
In Charles Chaplin’s 1952 movie Limelight, a dancer tells Calvero, the character Chaplin plays, that an upcoming benefit might be “the greatest event in theatrical history.” “I’m not interested in events,” he responds. As Trump news has shoved everything else out of the way this year, the same way Trump pushed aside the prime minister of Montenegro in Brussels, I have begun to feel like Calvero. I’m not interested in events. Or I wish I wasn’t.
It has been hard to concentrate on reading books and seeing movies since the election, let alone the kind of blockbusters that begin to appear in early summer, the kind for which critical reception is a selling point. Mild controversy is built into these event movies, a kind of bait for critics, superfans, and trolls. This year, in any case, that has backfired on the studios, who blame the domestic failures of Alien: Covenant, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, and The Mummy on the aggregated critical response at Rotten Tomatoes. When most critics love a movie, as was the case with Wonder Woman, the system is working fine. When they don’t, critics are destroying the film industry. The studios have the same relationship to the press as Donald Trump. It’s love or nothing, and anything less is treason. The studios love an embargo as much as Trump hates leakers, and they depend on China to finance and sell their toxic, low-grade products to an audience they consider even less discerning than the one in the US.
I made it to one failed blockbuster this year, Baywatch. It was playing at the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn at the same time as the restored version of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, “one of the most immersive and rarefied experiences in the history of cinema,” as the Drafthouse put it. I could not picture myself sitting in the theater, contemplating ordering an alcoholic milkshake named for a Big Lebowski character while rewatching a film the Soviets tried to shut down, a film shot in an irradiated landscape that poisoned people who worked on it. My mistake.
If the people who worked on Baywatch were not sickened, they should have been. Ostensibly an opportunity to ogle girls in bathing suits, Baywatch is instead wall-to-wall dick jokes and father-figure longing, featuring a corpse-defilement scene in a morgue that is also a dick joke. Who is the audience for watching Zac Efron fondle a dead man’s penis? Paramount thinks everyone is. The film ends with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, pumped into rage on natural steroids, killing a woman with a bottle rocket. That she is one of the most beautiful women in the world makes it sexy.
Baywatch, like the Trump Administration, was made for the fans, not the critics. As a soft-power exercise in indulging Johnson’s presidential dreams, the movie works as preview of his future cabinet. His lifeguard character is presented as a natural leader whose battle with drug lords is impeded by a stickler cop. Johnson, a nice-guy strongman, surrounds himself with bimbos played by actresses who went to the Dalton School and Greenwich Academy. The men on his team are Efron, a former Disney star who could someday introduce the candidate at a nominating convention, and an overweight, lovelorn tech nerd, the movie’s clumsy fixer and audience stand-in. This cast made Baywatch the only movie I’ve ever seen that should have come with a chart showing how tall everyone is.
Pamela Anderson’s cameo in Baywatch, reprising her role from the original TV series, comes at the end of the film. The living Anderson of the present day is pasted into her scene using digital effects, making her appearance seem posthumous. A ghostly presence returned from the 1990s, she is like Laura Palmer in the new Twin Peaks. She is dead, yet she lives.
Twin Peaks, a revival from the 1990s like Baywatch, is also an event. But Twin Peaks: The Return is an event that is an antidote to these other events. It begins with the boredom of staring at a glass box, then demands that we slow down, experience it, think. The sense of dread that the show creates settles in after each episode is over, and the credits roll over some indie band playing a slow song (please bring back Julee Cruise or even Chris Isaak). These interludes provide a contemplative break in this enigmatic anti-cliffhanger’s narrative of violence. If it is an exercise in nostalgia and franchise-building, Twin Peaks is not an empty spectacle like Baywatch, in which a trivial item from the past is resurrected solely for financial reasons, underscoring the growing gap between artistic worth and presumed box-office value. (The show is seven parts in as I write this.)
FBI special agent Dale Cooper resembles James Comey now that Kyle MacLachlan has gotten older. Trapped in the Red Room, seated in a chair in his black suit and dyed black hair, his aging Boy Scout’s confusion in the first episode was a preview of the Comey hearing in the Senate. Maybe this is what it was like to be alone with Donald Trump, when Trump nonasked Comey to drop the Flynn investigation. I can hear Trump saying it backward-forward: “I hhhhope you can let this ggoe. Hhheee’s a ggood gguy.” Picture Comey at the White House, our new Black Lodge and Trash Palace, reluctantly moving away from the curtain and toward Trump with that awkward smile on his face, waiting to receive the handshake. It’s a scene from a David Lynch film, the nice guy pulled toward Frank Booth in Blue Velvet or Mr. Eddy in Lost Highway. We are pulled in the direction of madness.
And possible decapitation. The severed head has been an image in Lynch’s films since Eraserhead. Right away, in a bed in an apartment in South Dakota, the new Twin Peaks exposes us to a woman’s decapitated head placed on top of a dead man’s headless body. This confusion of heads and bodies points to forces the characters in Twin Peaks can’t see, which can nevertheless inhabit them and control their lives. Twin Peaks foregrounds a kind of American emptiness of the soul that is filled by violence. The show, hopscotching between its original locations and South Dakota, New York, Las Vegas, and Philadelphia, places this evil in the whole country now, not just in a single town.
Dale Cooper slowly wakes up to this new world after twenty-five years in the suspended animation of the long post-Reagan era. The original Gen-X viewers of Twin Peaks were presented with two possible futures that mirror the lives of the now-fragmented Dale Coopers. One future was to become an amoral criminal; the other, a doddering office worker and domesticated nobody. The “real” Dale Cooper, who confronted esoteric mysteries and searched for answers while flirting with Audrey Horne, has been held in place by evil beyond his control, frozen in the nonspace of the Red Room all this time.
Laura Dern’s Diane, Agent Cooper’s natural match in Lynch’s mystical FBI, has escaped those choices, but is now embittered by the loss of Cooper to a parallel universe. Looking at the evil Cooper through the glass of an interrogation room, she can tell something is wrong but only knows for sure that at some point her world broke with no explanation. Diane is not a murder victim like Laura Palmer, or a housewife like Laura’s mother, but she lives bereft, in alcoholism, in alienated rage, and in a helmet wig covering her ears.
“Cheers to the FBI!” Diane snarls as she downs a vodka nip, her belief in the bureau destroyed by years of neglect. We wonder what Cooper and Diane will find when they come back to consciousness amid the random violence and pervasive corruption that has spread from Twin Peaks to the darkest corners of the American nightmare. Longing for resolution, we wait for another head to roll.