We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.
Years ago, I picked a book off a remainder table: Mirror Image: The Odyssey of a Male-to-Female Transsexual, by Nancy Hunt. Hunt describes her emotions following the surgical removal of her penis. She is elated, overjoyed. Good riddance to bad rubbish. She then describes the reactions of a patient whose penis has to be removed because of cancer. He is overwhelmed with grief.
So, what is the moral to this story?
There may be no such thing as basic human experience. No universal values. Most men would sob at the loss of their penis, but clearly that sentiment does not include Nancy Hunt.
A sobering thought.
Which brings me to the movies. Movies are like Rorschach tests. You watch a movie in a theater. As the audience files out, they’re questioned about what they have just seen. If you’re expecting unanimity of opinion, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Heraclitus was right; you can’t step into the same movie twice.
In 2002, I interviewed Donald Trump about his favorite movies. It was for a short film to run at the beginning of that year’s Academy Awards. I had in the greenroom, at one time, Iggy Pop, Jessye Norman, Walter Cronkite, Trump, and Mikhail Gorbachev—the Godfather of Punk, an opera star, “the most trusted man in America,” a real-estate baron, and the ex-head of the U.S.S.R. I thought, While I have these notable figures in front of a camera, I should give them an opportunity to provide more than a sound bite. Why not get them to expatiate at greater length about a favorite movie? Gorbachev talked about Tarkovsky’s The Mirror—his favorite movie by his favorite director. Also one of my favorite directors.
And then it was Trump’s turn. He was quite personable. The part I used was about King Kong. “He conquered New York, and I can identify with that.” (Although things did not work out so well for Kong in the end. The top of the Empire State Building, planes with machine guns, the 100-story plunge to the street below, and all that … ) We talked at greater length about Citizen Kane. It was revealing—not so much for what it said about Kane, but what it said about Donald Trump. Trump’s second marriage had ended, and he was dating Melania Knauss. A third marriage may have been on his mind. At the end of the interview I asked Trump, “Do you have any advice for Charles Foster Kane?” Without hesitation, he offered, “Get yourself a different woman.”
It’s true that Kane did have a lot of trouble with his second wife. Perhaps a divorce would have been helpful. But who was Trump talking about? Charles Foster Kane, a thinly disguised version of William Randolph Hearst? Or himself? Or both?
Kane believes he can turn his second wife, opera singer Susan Alexander, into a great star. As a newspaper baron, he can re-write the reviews and assure her of an artistic triumph. Or can he? For many, the tale is about self-deception and hubris.
Not for Trump. He sees it differently. Kane is brought down by the inadequacies of others. It’s not about his failure but the failures of those around him.
Which brings us to Donald Trump’s April 14, 2020, tweet:
Tell the Democrat Governors that “Mutiny On The Bounty” was one of my all time favorite movies. A good old fashioned mutiny every now and then is an exciting and invigorating thing to watch, especially when the mutineers need so much from the Captain. Too easy!
Where to start? For one thing, it wasn’t clear which Mutiny on the Bounty Trump was tweeting about. I have now seen three of them: the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty, with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton; the 1962 Mutiny on the Bounty, with Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard; and 1984’s The Bounty, with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins. And I’m sure there are more to come. All three concern a doomed expedition to bring breadfruit plants, a cheap way to feed British slaves, from Tahiti to Jamaica.
I asked Trump, “Do you have any advice for Charles Foster Kane?” Without hesitation, he offered, “Get yourself a different woman.”
But who is Trump among these characters? Is he Captain Bligh, cast overboard in the mutiny? In this interpretation, Trump’s tweet is responding to governors such as Andrew Cuomo, who contested Trump’s claim of absolute authority by pointing out that the Constitution states otherwise. Trump is mocking them, saying that governors’ efforts to oppose his authority are laughable—it’s rousing to be opposed by such needy pip-squeaks. (“A good old fashioned mutiny every now and then is an exciting and invigorating thing to watch, especially when the mutineers need so much from the Captain.”) The mutiny is pathetic and misplaced. (“Too easy!”)
Trump doesn’t see Captain Bligh as the bad guy, doesn’t care that the mutiny against him was successful, and probably doesn’t understand the motivations for the mutiny, which, by all accounts, didn’t have as much to do with the mutinous sailors needing “so much” from the captain as with the captain being a brutish thief and a sadist.
A second interpretation has Trump applauding the mutineers. And who are they? Not the governors but Americans demonstrating against lockdown orders, mask-wearing, and other public-health measures they decry as tyrannical. (The week he tweeted, there were protests in at least a half-dozen states.) Trump is all but acknowledging the protests were organized on his behalf and is encouraging more protesters to stand up against the governors. The governors are the Captain Blighs; the protesters are the mutineers who “need so much from the Captain.”
But wait. Trump is missing a fairly obvious analogy between himself, a democratically elected executive, and the governors who fill the same position for their states. Which would mean that Trump, like the governors, is fallible, is capable of losing his supporters. Yet he clearly does not believe that. Remember his election-year boast: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters, O.K.?” (Isn’t he as I write this trying to persuade the Supreme Court that he is absolutely immune from investigations of any sort?) So, who is Trump in this reading? Not Captain Bligh, who is weak and easily overthrown. Maybe God, looking on his handiwork from on high and saying it is good. In any case, the latter interpretation seems to square better with Trump’s omnivorant megalomania.
Neither of these interpretations will do. Part of Trump’s success as a demagogue lies in his ability to say completely contradictory or totally ambiguous things in which his supporters hear whatever they want to hear. (Think of the Anaïs Nin quote.) Perhaps he meant both of these interpretations simultaneously. Perhaps neither. This isn’t an attempt to burnish the badly corroded argument that Trump is playing chess while his opponents are playing checkers, but an attempt to suggest that the man’s relationship to reason is so tenuous that to attempt to interpret him rationally may be to give him too much credit.
Trump doesn’t see Captain Bligh as the bad guy, doesn’t care that the mutiny against him was successful, and probably doesn’t understand the motivations for the mutiny.
And what next? Those of us who fantasize about a happy ending may recall the exchange between Bligh and Lieutenant Fletcher Christian just before Bligh is thrown off the Bounty. In the novel on which the various movies were based, Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall write, “When Mr. Bligh found that he must go, he begged Mr. Christian to desist, saying, ‘I’ll pawn my honour, I’ll give my bond, Mr. Christian, never to think of this if you’ll desist,’ and mentioned his wife and family, to which Mr. Christian replied, ‘No, Captain Bligh, if you had any honour, things would not have come to this; and if you had any regard for your wife and family, you should have thought on them before, and not behaved so much like a villain.’”
Eighteen people accompanied Captain Bligh. The small skiff could not have accommodated more. Of the 18, only 12 made it back to England. The 24 who remained on the Bounty fared worse: 2 died on Tahiti, 4 drowned on the journey back to England, 10 were court-martialed on arrival, and 3 of those 10 were hanged.
The eight mutineers who remained loyal to Christian ended up on Pitcairn Island––in the middle of nowhere—marooned and hunted by the British Admiralty. They fought, argued, and ultimately killed each other off. The horror of what happened after the mutiny easily eclipsed everything that came before. It took three more voyages to bring breadfruit from Tahiti to Jamaica—more years, more miles, more deaths. Was it worth it? Perhaps not. The Jamaican slaves hated the taste of breadfruit and refused to eat it. Ugh, ptooey.
Most commentators argued that Trump misunderstood the movie. I see it somewhat differently. He sees the movie the way he sees the world. The story of a supreme leader with a cult following surrounded by ungrateful subjects—an autocrat steering his ship through alien and hostile waters. He can do no wrong because he decides what is right and wrong. Quod erat demonstrandum.
Errol Morris, a filmmaker, is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL