Competing cries of “Hillary’s a fascist war-mongering shill, and also a woman, which is just kind of weird and gross in and of itself if you think about it” and “Bernie Bros are killing America and Sanders supporters are complicit unless they set up re-education camps for the dumbest among them” echo across the land, or at least the internet, dividing erstwhile comrades, disrupting polite Democratic meals, making light-hearted jokes increasingly difficult. It’s a dark electoral time in the land of the free and easily distracted.
And so it is at this point I’ve decided to go ahead and examine Bernie Sanders’ and Donald Trump’s respective film careers. What could go wrong?
For the record, I wanted to include Clinton and Ted Cruz, but there wasn’t enough material. Hillary has shown up repeatedly on SNL, a show which hasn’t been interesting in at least a decade, and of course on Broad City, but there’s just not much to say. She’s Hillary and appearing on television, which seems the extent of the joke. This has parallels to Trump’s film career, but it’s not particularly fascinating. Ted Cruz’s IMDB entries are a dark, depressing portal into the fever dreams of the right, and I just can’t fathom looking at his fucking face more than is required by this sorrowful age in which we find ourselves. I didn’t even consider John Kasich, which, in its wisdom, also seems to be the prevailing view of the electorate.
Sanders, however, appeared in a cameo in My X-Girlfriend’s Wedding Reception, a little-seen and instantly forgettable film most notable for said appearance, but which turns out to be rather instructive. And the Donald, of course, has had an illustrious cameo career, appearing in everything from “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and “The Nanny” to “Sex and the City” and everyone’s favorite exemplar of the Trump brand, Home Alone 2: Lost In New York, in which he gives half-hearted directions to a lost child and then just walks away. “The Apprentice”, of course, was a veritable cultural phenomenon and one which its star parlayed into the most depressing political launching pad of our time, despite its fundamental characteristic of being largely unwatchable and dispiriting.
To be clear, I do not mean to equate the two guys. But the fact that these cultural products exist is odd and interesting, and some nuggets of insight might be gleaned from their examination. Or so I would quixotically suggest. We’ll see, I suppose.
Let’s start with Bernie, swiping left, as it were. As his list of credits demonstrate, he hasn’t been too prominent in the world of entertainment, which itself makes his turn in My X-Girlfriend’s Wedding Reception notable, if a little bizarre. The film is a low-budget lark, directed by Martin Guigui, otherwise “best known” for his video short Rock Candy Funk Party: Groove Is King. (In other words, not particularly well-known.) A culture-clash comedy imbued with a very Vermont, very DIY aesthetic, it is – to be generous – not particularly accomplished. Yet there’s a warmth and sincerity underlying its terrible puns and tired stereotypes that actually elicits an occasional chuckle.
Former teen pop sensation Deborah (formerly Debbie) Gibson plays the lead, a Jewish bride who has just wedded her of-Italian-descent groom. In oversized, broad caricatures, the two families come together at the reception, and the expected, reductive hijinks ensue. Promises are broken, tensions are revealed, bridesmaids are banged. Sanders plays the Rabbi, saddled with the deeply unfortunate moniker “Rabbi Manny Shevitz,” a joke that would’ve been stale in a Zucker Brothers comedy 30 years ago and certainly didn’t somehow become hilarious in the ensuing decades. His opposite is inhabited by Dom DeLuise, who gets his own terrible name: “Father O’Rdeal.” Sigh. This is how things go in My X-Girlfriend’s Wedding Reception.
Sanders essentially does a riff on his persona, a persona few outside of Vermont were familiar with at the time of the film’s release, but which gains resonance now. He’s basically playing Larry David playing Bernie Sanders, which at the very least speaks to a kind of genial self-awareness and admirable lack of self-seriousness – both qualities he’s frequently accused of lacking these days. Rabbi Manny Shevitz’s speech to the congregated families begins and ends with well wishes to the happy couple, but takes a long detour in the middle, as he angrily recalls, a propos of nothing, how the Dodgers left Brooklyn. It’s not the greatest thing, but it’s kind of funny – a well-meaning stump speech from a Vermont Jew who momentarily gets lost in his own thoughts.
Not long ago, when news of this unlikely entry in the political cinematic pantheon spread across the internet like so much Kosher-for-Passover wine spilled as someone’s uncle reached for the haroset, The Times of Israel noted that it was a rare example of Sanders explicitly acknowledging his Judaism. I mean, “Rabbi Manny Shevitz” is not the sort of role a man trying to downplay his religion takes. Sanders’ Jewishness is a fundamental aspect of his persona and, one imagines, of his identity – not to mention the unspoken punchline of Larry David’s send-ups of the Senator. But it is also, curiously and more than a little disconcertingly, not something we hear much of now. I personally know people who are surprised to learn of it at all, somehow. “The First Female President” is a stock staple of Clinton lore; “The First Jewish President” is, well, not something people say very often, and definitely not something that animates the Sanders campaign message itself. You can draw your own conclusions about why that might be. (Spoiler: it’s anti-Semitism.)
I’m sure the campaign would argue instead that they are less interested in “identity politics” than in the broader economic message, the “revolution” they hope to foster. And that’s fair enough – no one is required to trumpet their theological or cultural allegiances on the campaign trail. But it’s interesting to note just how much this was not always the case. My X-Girlfriend’s Wedding Reception is a time capsule revealing a different, more light-hearted Bernie, and an unequivocably Jewish one. Even the basic joke of his monologue seems rooted in Catskills comedy – in a certain sense, it’s a cut-rate Marx Brothers bit, with flashes of Henny Youngman. The film also features a brief appearance from Jon Fishman – the drummer and namesake of cult favorite Phish, beloved by young, pot-smoking Jewish boys everywhere – dressed as a baby. I don’t know what that means, apart from “an image that now haunts my sleep,” but it bears mentioning.
And now we pivot to the decidedly darker space occupied by one Donald Trump. In cameo after cameo, the Donald cements his brand. What is that brand? He is – proudly, unapologetically – a rich man named Donald Trump.
There is rarely another joke – it is hard to imagine Trump playing “Rabbi Manny Shevitz” and good-naturedly telling long-winded stories about the baseball teams of his youth. No, Trump is Trump. When he walks through the door on “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air”, he literally announces, “I am Donald Trump.” Carlton, our goober-dancing California cousin, so far removed from the b-ball courts outside of the schools of West Philadelphia, repeats it, in disbelief and wonder: “You’re Donald Trump!” Then he faints in joy, an overwhelmed lover of all things capitalistic encountering his God in the flesh.
This is a theme that is repeated ad nauseum. There is no other joke. When Macaulay Culkin encounters Trump in the hotel lobby in Home Alone 2, we are simply meant to register, “Hey, look, that’s Donald Trump.” The candidate’s actual actions in the film are, if you consider them, rather shitty – he could’ve been credited as “man who does not try very hard to help child.” But of course, he is credited instead as “Donald Trump.” One wonders if there is a significant difference, but I’m not going to get all political, calm down!
What’s striking is how Trump deploys his own self-performance as brand-building, over and over. This is not what you would generally think of as acting. They are walk-on parts of a real, terrible person in fictional worlds. But for years, this in itself was perceived as endearing. It is as though he’s doing us a favor by showing up, and just being the wonderfully egocentric and fantastically wealthy person he is. Home Alone 2 never for a minute considers that it is anything but charming that Donald Trump walked through a room, which is almost literally the only thing he does. In Sex and the City, the Donald is desired at the dining table, but leaves scornfully when no table has been reserved. This, too, seems intended to be charming, despite the fact that anyone who behaved like this in real life would be perceived as a monumental dick. There is little evidence that this is not, in fact, how Donald Trump behaves in real life.
In short, Trump puts the capital in social capital – his cameos are uncanny reflections of his own demeanor. But, for whatever reason, this is constructed and intended to be received as a delightful spoof that requires no actual spoofing. It is not a vision of the thing but the thing itself. For some reason, we are meant to admire him, just for being him. (Spoiler: that reason is capitalism.)
These are, I should add, not particularly good cultural products. They are even, one might say, very bad. But both Trump’s referentially soulless cameos and Sanders’ Manny Shevitz schtick in a no-budget comedy that also features Debbie Gibson and members of Phish hint at aspects of what it means to engage with art on a public stage, and accidentally (perhaps) reveal qualities of the time in which we live and create and register the political connotations of allegedly non-political work.
A final note and disclaimer, because I would remiss if I didn’t point it out and my girlfriend would be mad at me. I may have been more generous to My X-Girlfriend’s Wedding Reception than others in part because Debbie Gibson was my first arena show. “Lost In Your Eyes” and “Electric Youth” played on repeat as I hung out in the basement of my parents’ house, cassettes I recall actually wearing out, sadly. I was so excited at the show I vomited in the parking lot, much like a Phish fan, I suppose, except with fewer narcotics in my system and many more melodies. In any case, I just thought it should be acknowledged. Don’t ever say I wasn’t upfront about my questionable allegiances.