Tim Robbins’s answer to Bullyboy ‘Biff’ Trump: We’ll take our modified DeLoreans right back to the progressive future we deserve!

P. Stuart Robinson (b. 1958) is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, Tromsø by.


Karlovy Vary 2018: Central Europe’s major international film festival at Karlovy Vary (KVIFF), in the Czech Republic, is the unlikely venue for a striking gesture of liberal defiance. Tim Robbins used the opportunity of receiving the President’s Award for his ‘contribution to world cinema’ to issue a rousing metaphorical call to arms for artists everywhere. We must find a way, as he put it, to ‘get “back to the future”’ and escape the small-minded bigotry of that counterfeit ‘Golden Age’ – the 1950s.

Today’s Central Europe has hardly been the first port of call for anyone looking for signs of a recovery of the progressive spirit, let alone a new ‘Prague Spring’, yet sometimes good news can spring from the unlikeliest of places. It wasn’t so long ago KVIFF was hosting Mel Gibson as its guest of honour. Such choices are seldom deliberately political but they are political none the less, and ‘politics by default’ is in any case the chief mechanism of any hegemonic power.

Back then, in 2016, Mel Gibson’s political views seemed like a slightly embarrassing oddity, the cinematic analogue of pop music’s Morrissey, the buffoon we’d prefer to charitably dismiss as harmless. Now our Gibsons and Morrisseys are much harder to treat as harmless. In retrospect, their bigotry takes on a distinctly ominous quality, a kind of portent of ill winds in store or, more accurately, a gathering global hurricane of bunker-mentality fear and loathing.

I’ve seen a few KVIFF openings before, where, as soon as the obligatory dolly-birds have finished performing ‘their’ thematised patriarchal rituals of compliance, the obligatory big star, lured here to receive the President’s Award, takes centre stage. Let’s face it: The speeches on these occasions are seldom the most edifying. At worst, they resemble – in all likelihood for good reason – the drunken ramblings of the neighbourhood wino.

This year it was Tim Robbins’s turn, however, and his speech actually defied all expectations. Articulate, intelligent and genuinely inspiring, it pretty much broke the mould. In a prepared but heartfelt address, he managed to cut through that sickly sweet crème brulée crust of superficiality, which is the governing ethos of all such self-conscious spectacles.

In a surprisingly cerebral move, Mr. Robbins employed nothing less than a movie metaphor. He suggested we have collectively fallen foul of the mishap in Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future, from 1985, and been transported back to the 1950s. We should not think of this decade as it is typically proselytised in American pop culture, as all Mom and Dad and apple pie. Its most distinguishing features were rather narrow-minded provinciality, and distrust of outsiders to the point of paranoia and bigotry. This was the time, after all, of the McCarthy witch-hunts launched against suspected ‘un-American’ communists, of routine racial discrimination, and violent intimidation of small countries like Korea.

There’s nothing overtly political about Back to the Future, as Robbins conceded, but the figure of the school bully, Biff Tannen, tormenting the protagonist Marty McFly’s father, and anyone else who shows the least indication of being ‘different,’ can be considered a symbol for the dispiriting spirit of the age. The American president, and some of his right-wing counterparts across the Atlantic, resemble Biff, in all his ignorance, violence and cowardice.

It was a rousing speech, very American, of course, invoking a national spirit, which once actively embraced the world’s ‘huddled masses’, but it was also a speech for times of global crisis. It combined two powerful ideas. One is speaking truth to power and what that entails, namely standing up to bullies and standing up for their victims, the desperate souls packed together on dangerous sea-vessels, clinging to freight containers in the Channel Tunnel, or simply wandering into the wrong, self-consciously white, neighbourhood. The other idea is the enduring spirit of progress and emancipation, that great Enlightenment dream that we can make a better future for ourselves and for everyone.

I loved Tim Robbins’s speech, but I confess I have a problem with the resort to the myth of progress – and I know I’m not the only one. Indeed, the easy liberal complaisance about the way onward (ever onward) has a lot to answer for. It lies at the root, among other things, of the right-wing populist backlash itself. The idea of progress is steeped in the logic of capitalism, with its cancerous attachment to permanent growth and the purported continual generation of everything good, from technological gadgetry to political emancipation.

The time has come to unmask the false promise of this broken economic system. The bullying of putative outsiders is detestable but it’s by no means the only problem. Plenty of ‘insiders’ are themselves among the downtrodden, in the yoke and at the service of the privileged elite – to use the language of social resistance – the 1%. Capitalism has delivered gross inequality, devastating poverty and ecological catastrophe on a global scale. Don’t paper over those cracks, Tim, and hanker back to hegemonic myths of prosperity and progress for all. Still, we need to act and move as one, and, however sceptical we may be of myths of progress, forward is absolutely the way to go. So count me in, not least for another fine film festival at Karlovy Vary, where dissident voices are still to be heard.

Vitaly Mansky is here with a remarkable examination of Putin’s accession to power, in the form of Putin’s Witnesses (2018). The multi-talented Tim Robbins’s own impressive back catalogue is much in evidence too, of course, and today (Wednesday) he will even be live in concert with his very own rock and roll band.

There is also a fabulous retrospective on the lately departed Czech genius, Milos Forman. The opening film, in particular, Loves of a Blonde, is a little jewel from 1965, a beguiling, unprepossessing story of a group of young people. It catalogues, with humour and sensitivity, their everyday triumphs and defeats. This very early work of Forman’s wouldn’t have looked out of place among the great British kitchen sink dramas of the same era, like Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, from 1960, or Ken Loach’s Kes, from 1969.

You’re probably not here at the festival as you read this, I do realise. Have you seen a Tim Robbins movie recently? Probably not. His President’s Award notwithstanding, the Hollywood limelight has somehow shifted elsewhere. Be aware that speaking one’s mind comes at a cost, as does any resistance to the dominant order, for a Tim Robbins as much as a Milos Forman. Robbins nevertheless continues to resist, and apparently has no regrets. Nor should we, should we choose to join him.

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