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The Secret Inner Lives of Bodybuilders, and other films

Stanley Kauffmann on Films

You’ve Been Trumped
How to Survive a Plague
Teddy Bear

FEW MEN ARE BORN with a name so declarative of tone and temper as Donald Trump. It is like one of those names in Victorian plays. More: he knows how to use it and how to present himself, as his polished career makes clear. Now a British filmmaker named Anthony Baxter gives us a vivid documentary called You’ve Been Trumped that treats him as a smooth, credible, inevitable historical force.

The subject is a conflict that began in 2006—when Trump began efforts to acquire large tracts of land near Aberdeen in Scotland in order to build a 450-room hotel and an extraordinary golf course—and is in some ways still ongoing. He knew there would be protests of spoliation from the residents, and he made all the proper moves—applications to the various boards and councils and so forth. The battle went on as Trump managed to progress, and his opponents hung in there.

Baxter is very sure to give screen time to the Scottish people who were deeply outraged at the same time that they knew money could result for some of them, and he also includes Trump’s awareness of their feelings yet his insistence on his benefits. In fact, the film has been directed like a study in characterizations: Trump and his people brimming with confidence yet cautious, the local people sometimes sentimental but firm, with a touch of desperation. As the years go on and various local political councils keep inquiring, inevitably the Trump side is staunch, and cracks have appeared in the Scottish front. He jets in from time to time in his private plane like fate rather cheerfully accomplishing its business, keeps himself up to date, and keeps us informed with reports on his progress. The residents and we gradually see some of the changes in the landscape.

The conflict is not over, although the golf course has recently opened, with Trump the first player. The hotel and some other buildings are still on hold. Anyway, what Baxter seems especially concerned with is the confrontation—between the way things are and the currents of change—as a constant in world history. Before and after Trump’s golf course, this confrontation twists its way through the ages. The frequency with which it occurs in literature and drama is astonishing to remember. A few of them: Forster’s Howards End, Shepard’s The Curse of the Starving Class, Shaw’s John Bull’s Other Island, Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Without making Trump a particular villain in the process, Baxter shows him as an instance in the eternal.

ANOTHER PROTEST film of a very different temper—not analytical as much as turbulent, frightened, furious. In the early 1980s, society was simmering along with its usual diet of vicissitudes until an incredibly sudden, destructive, terrifying disease struck: aids, of course. Few had ever seen anything as dreadful. To make it even worse, it struck principally at a segment of society that often was disdained by the rest of society—thus the disease could be construed by some as a judgment.

David France has made an absorbing film to document that moment of immense implosion, called How to Survive a Plague. Some rapid events are here somewhat distended for our amazement. There were naturally two principal charges. First the disease had to be identified, then treatment hadto be found—millions of lives were endangered. 

Of course, we need no catalogue of other grim diseases that had been and continued to be dangerous, but aids was very explosively a new potent plague. And it had an unusual social situation. Something like intelligent courageous panic understandably broke out. For most of the people affected, there was nothing immediate to do except protest—against any sloth in government or in science, the initial social prejudice, and the terrible threat.

France dramatizes the mass protest, featuring the outstanding crusade of act up. The protesters who marched on government buildings everywhere were trying to speed up attention to the plague, including budget shifts. They knew painfully enough that marching itself—or urging others to join the walk against aids—would not in itself help the scientists. But it was the protesters and their families who were in danger and they couldn’t just do nothing. 

The director moves wonderfully at showing, from the earliest days until now, how the story of one group of protesters created a general picture—intelligent and brave leaders, courageous support, and the maintenance of pressure. Though there is still a death a minute from aids, progress is constant. The protesters can know that they helped to bring it about.

France has woven his film out of video clips and interviews. Some of the former familiar presidents’ and senators’ reactions have been seen: most of the interviews are new. His film is a memorial, both to those who survived and to the others.

MOST FILMS HAVE themes, sometimes more than one. The Danish film called Teddy Bear does not take long to disclose its theme, or at least one of them. We see a couple dining in a restaurant. The woman is an expected blonde. The man is Kim Kold, a six-foot-seven, 308-pound, thirty-eight-year-old body builder playing a man named Dennis. No secret at once that at least part of the film’s theme is size, but he is quickly established as a quiet, gentle man. After dinner this behemoth goes home. He lives with his mother, and she confirms, in her querulous view of her son, that this picture will not be another Mack Sennett trick about an oaf. Mads Matthiesen, who directed the piece and wrote it with Martin Pieter Zandvliet, saw something of self-concern in Dennis, of shades and shadows created by his mere bulk and of various uses by others of the fact.

Dennis soon has dinner with his uncle who has just returned from Thailand. (Note: Denmark small, Thailand larger.) The uncle has brought with him a Thai wife—petite compared with Danish women. Soon Dennis contrives a trip to Thailand, to Pattaya, a hub of world sex trade. For his mother, Dennis has fixed an excuse, and his uncle has provided him with introductions. In Pattaya, Dennis’s size makes beginnings there easy. Through all this busy though not strikingly original section, huge Dennis, wrapped in a huge serpent tattoo, seems less a splendid giant than an inflated lad in Wonderland. He has two arranged encounters with small women, both of them tender. Though both encounters are incomplete, he seems enchanted.

At last Dennis makes arrangements with a woman to come to Denmark. He goes home first and rents an apartment—large. Then the second theme emerges. His mother is shocked at this sign of his leaving her, which seems to be her psychological debt because of the size that she gave him. Little Toi, his girlfriend, arrives. Troubles are faced.

The sex and filial troubles of 308-pound persons are not exactly common. But Matthiesen has evoked both the pathos and courage in these troubles, and, with the help of this reticent giant, explores them enticingly. All is helped by the gentle air of Dennis.  

Stanley Kauffmann reviews movies for The New Republic. This article appeared in the October 25, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Invadings.”