A Night at the Garden (Marshall Curry, 2017) seemed like a very timely release when it began circulating via social media in 2017. The film features a 1939 Nazi rally in New York’s Madison Square Garden, which highlights for contemporary audiences a forgotten and disturbing part of United States history—that of our own complicity and, in some cases, celebration of the rise of fascism in Europe prior to World War II.
The wordless opening scene depicts a sea of white faces lined up and moving in unison. In her piece, “Fascinating Fascism,” Susan Sontag describes such scenes as the aestheticization of political ideology and an expression of the “ecstatic feelings” of white supremacy and solidarity. However, this aesthetic ideal is abruptly disrupted a few minutes into the film and the fetishization of the authoritative patriarch is undermined. A protestor appears from off-screen disrupting the speech, and is immediately rushed by various uniformed members of the American Nazi party. They beat him viciously. The police run on stage and he is carried away. The protestor’s anguished face is captured close-up and in slow motion, and the music highlights this extended moment to further the aesthetic rupture. The audience jeers in an outpouring of collective sentiment, furthering their affective attachments to whiteness and imperialist capitalism.
The camera then turns to face the stage, and the viewer is confronted with the jarring imagery of Nazi emblems alongside an enormous figure of a mythic George Washington, accompanied by a woman’s voice singing the national anthem. The ironic juxtaposition of the lyrics “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” against the words, actions, and iconography in the rest of the film expresses what Jaimie Baron calls the “archive effect.” This refers to the emotional and cognitive effect generated by the juxtaposition of different moments in time created by found footage films. The viewer is left with a clear sense of “then” versus “now” while at the same time she cannot help but make comparisons across this temporal divide. Baron argues found footage films often take the structure of a “joke” by deliberately missing the intended point in order to make another point. Through manipulation of the footage (through editing, use of slow motion, and music) and through its juxtaposition with our present moment in American politics, one cannot help but re-read the footage in A Night at the Garden “against the grain” of the event’s original intent, both for its historical significance and for its resonance today.