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News Spin Is Fucking Out of Control and This Headline Probably Isn’t Helping

We chatted with Canadian filmmaker Ken Finkleman about how over-the-top movies seem honest by comparison. His latest satire 'An American Dream' premieres at the Whistler Film Festival December 1.

by Sarah Berman
Nov 27 2016, 6:53am

Still via 'An American Dream: The Education of William Bowman'

It's weird to imagine that Ken Finkleman's latest film was written before Donald Trump announced his run for president.

2016 wasn't even a twinkle in the eye of a news cycle dominated by llamas and dress colours, and Finkleman was thinking about mass shootings and conspiracy theories. Maybe you were thinking about conspiracies too—that Sandy Hook was an inside job was a popular one at the time—but you probably weren't guessing that nearly two years later, noted Sandy Hook truther Alex Jones would supposedly be taking thank-you calls from the President of the United States.

Finkleman wasn't guessing that would happen either, he was just seeking out logical extremes in the CNN coverage he watched every night. He's made a career out of skewering news media with shows like Good Dog and CBC's The Newsroom, and Wolf Blitzer's latest hysterics just seemed like an easy next target. In his latest feature, An American Dream: The Education of William Bowman, Finkleman has sketched out a new post-truth media dystopia, but what we've actually ended up with in recent weeks is arguably worse.

In this barely-distant alternate reality, recent grad William Bowman goes wide-eyed into a soulless Wall Street job incapable of reading between lines. Soon fired and left wandering across the United States, he takes everything he encounters at face value, including a suggestion that disasters are mass produced so that governments can build a narrative around them.

It's worth noting the film's description says it's "aimed at the post-Donald Trump era of American politics." When I ask Finkleman if he honestly expected that particular era to be over by now, he only notes the US election result is "very strange."

"These themes, really American themes, I had in my head," he said. "I don't think I'm unusually prescient, the ducks just happened to line up." This week real-life Nazi salutes were spun as "exuberance," which does seem to exceed the limits of any Canadian parody.

Our protagonist lives in a TV-saturated news and information environment, in which state executions are televised and news anchors are pretty much nine years old. Explosions stand in for human interactions, and he stumbles onto reality show in which a host finds homeless people to fuck on live television.

Though still somewhat dazzled by cable news reporters in action, Finkleman says he started to see reflections of his own Hollywood "hackery" in the trade. It turns out a CBS segment comes together a lot like Grease 2. "They talked about stories like this: who is the good guy? Who is the bad guy? Where's act two, where do we nail act three?" he said. "They were writing scripts using real footage instead of inventing it like we were. They used what was already available, structured it, and matched it exactly to the same dramatic arc that stories that you write in fiction."

"You don't get an understanding of any truth, you get a picture they paint. They've decided to paint what the reality is," he added. "They just have an instinct for the drama, and not a fucking care about the truth."

Finkleman has since seen that play out virtually every day of Trump's campaign, in alarming post-satire excess. At a rally with evangelicals, he remembers Trump literally thumping a bible. "He held up the bible and he said 'This is a terrific book. This is terrific, terrific. I love this book...' He didn't read the fucking bible, ever. And it was so obvious, and he was talking to these people who, this is the most sacred thing in their lives, and they couldn't see through that snake oil pitch that he gave about loving the bible."

It's enough to make you feel like over-the-top movie drama is more honest by comparison—at the very least up front about its Los Angeles-based worldview. But even that doesn't begin to comment on the proliferation of full-on news fakery we're only starting to learn about. Finkleman says he was amazed to see the twenty-somethings trading in caps-locked rumour and conspiracy here in Canada, too. "You start to understand, and see the model, and then you see also, how the model then can change."

All of this shows the difficulty of satire in 2016, and the way art changes meaning in the wake of world events. Up against four years in a Trump era, An American Dream doesn't quite go as far as the real thing, but it's pretty damn close.

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