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Political Theater in Transfigured Time

This election season, much of the regular political writing and theorizing reads as ill-equipped.

With Donald Trump, we have written about a candidate who has no concrete policy, speaks in pitches and not tones, needs not make sense to garner fervent support. And so pieces about him have ranged from too-easy satire to desperate, futile fact-checking. After months of his oft-caricatured face and imitated voice blaring across screens nationwide, even the shrewdest analysis about his popularity, xenophobia, racism, or general petty ignorance seems to no longer have a real audience to educate, challenge, or invigorate. The point of writing about Trump seems to be to have a record that it was done—that we said something, and did not simply let it happen to us.

The most relevant writing about Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has been relegated to the background, as both Trump and the people that she allows to speak about and for her (see: the Democratic National Convention) flood the headlines. The thoughtful, critical, and personal political writing about Hillary is there, but, at this point in the game, it’s unclear who this writing can engage or what conversation it can start as Trump rages on with empty signifiers and Bill Clinton ambles through an anecdotal account of how he pursued his wife.

And yet, in the face of an endless stream of political theater and absurdity, there seems to be a reading of this year’s race that has not yet emerged but should: one based on movement—on physical realities—rather than on words.

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AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Maya Deren’s Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946) is a 14-minute silent film that, instead of intertitles, uses dance to express themes around femininity, marriage, death, courtship, and doubling—themes relevant to this election—and it invites a different kind of reading, one we might adopt to better understand the 2016 political season. In watching the film, which begins with the framing of two women’s bodies in opposition to each other, in light and shadow, I began to think of the deliberateness of movement politics, of aesthetics and optics as central to (but ignored) in this election.

On one hand, this is an election that has accented starkly opposed political movements (Black Lives Matter and the emergence of an extremist American Right); on the other, we have literal physical movement, in which the candidates are scrutinized not necessarily for their substance but their presence. Cameras focus in on Clinton and Trump, and as their words fall into the same tropes and stances, their delivery—not in terms of tone but in terms of posture and movement—stands out. This season, political rallies show bodies twisted and contorting in affirmation and dissent, Trump shakes his head vigorously as Rudy Giuliani stretches his mouth out of bounds, and Clinton gamely but guardedly throws her head back in laughter alongside an open-armed Tim Kaine. They’re consistently trying to position their bodies in relation to others, but seem to be trapped within the images they make up, as viewers at home are watching, scrutinizing, and cutting up footage into five-second Vines. With Trump and Clinton, two politicians whose movements, physical and political, could not be more opposed, the results are almost uncanny as they enter into their own canon of political imagery.

It’s these images that have stood out but have eluded the hard analysis that would allow our more nebulous or ineffable worries, fears, hopes, and suspicions about these candidates to come to the fore. It’s these images, consisting of physical movement—even if frozen in time—that can actually tell stories throughout this election cycle, better than any policies or speeches. Like with Deren’s film, which deals in ambiguities, reversals, and confusions, we have to pay close attention to them in order to make sense of the narratives available to us.

Still from Maya Deren's "Ritual in Transfigured Time," from 1946. (Image from tumblr).

Still from Maya Deren’s “Ritual in Transfigured Time,” from 1946. (Image from tumblr)

Often politics are discursively aligned with the practical and real, and so its moving images—if not explicitly propagandistic or violent—are regarded as flat and ornamental. On the contrary, this year’s political theater is in the realm of the avant-garde, with Trump in the theater of the absurd, Clinton caught somewhere between Shakespeare and Alfred Jarry, and our experience of it all a kind of Deren-esque cinema. Words-focused political writing comes up short as it ignores the physical gags, dramatic flourishes, and senseless repetitions that determine the nature of the race—the way Trump’s lumbering yet brusque, direct movements and Clinton’s determined and stilted yet somehow gregarious poise are expressions of each candidate’s relationship to time.

Trump has seemed to appear from a void, and is throttling through, treating each new day, each new surge towards political power as seconds rather than weeks or months, benefiting from the efficiency of montage—the 24 hour news cycle never grows tired of him, and morphs his banal stupidity into lively if meaningless moments. Clinton, on the other hand, undergoes an endurance test—her body’s movements seem so grounded as if to ready the Secretary to withstand time. The careful angles of those movements are meant to appear indelible on screen, as though part of some grand historical arc that we cannot yet determine. Voters are constantly aware of the idea of “the lesser of two evils,” yet the exact nature of the evils in question are rarely defined. (At the DNC, Democrats re-appropriated the unchecked patriotism of the right—American exceptionalism re-written as optimistic, progressive values.) And I wonder if certain leftists’ aversion to Clinton isn’t only rooted in her policies but also in her physical relationship to the public sphere—the way she moves, if you will. Not necessarily that she is powerful, but the way she embodies that power.

Deren’s Ritual ends with a film negative of a woman dressed as a bride, seeming to fall through black, untethered space, though it is unclear in which direction, if any at all. This is what 2017 looks like: the beginning of a new union as some kind of undetermined movement, for better, for worse.

Header image: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images. 

Cassie da Costa is a writer who focuses on moving image and performance. She's based in Brooklyn and works as a member of The New Yorker's editorial staff while also producing the magazine's video podcast, The Front Row, featuring film critic Richard Brody.

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