Parody Twitter accounts — the good ones, anyway — are precise, impatient and always hungry for their next big joke. They blow through social media like a brushfire, burning until they’ve engulfed all of the air in the room, and then they flame out (the good ones, anyway). They are, in many ways, not unlike a certain nominee for President, himself a parody of a Republican candidate. But how can satire survive the age of Donald Trump, a time when everything is absurd and nothing is funny?
The answer, for the film world anyway, arrived in early September. The industry had congregated at the Toronto International Film Festival, as it always does during the week after Labor Day, but this year was different — this year, it felt as though everyone who had traveled there from the United States had been granted a furlough from the impossibly grim soap opera that was unfolding back home. TIFF is always an all-enveloping marathon, but never before had everyone seemed so relieved to be cut off from the mess beyond the Scotiabank multiplex. And that’s when @ArtHouseTrump showed up, a hilarious bridge between the self-imposed insularity of a film fest and the dogwhistled war cries that could still be heard from the other side of the border.
I remember the first time I saw him. I was sitting at the Sheraton hotel bar, nursing one of the many gin and tonics required to pound out a review of “American Pastoral,” when the tweet appeared on my feed.
Not surprised Fassbender wanted out of Steve Jobs! Danny Boyle is a hack with no sense of mise-en-scène! Total loser!
— Donald Trump (@ArtHouseTrump) September 10, 2016
I knew that voice — we all know that voice. But it was a shock to the system to see it speak our language, especially because the real Trump is so culturally illiterate (everyone knows that Newt Gingrich is the real cinephile of the Republican Party). And that was just the tip of the iceberg. @ArtHouseTrump was on a roll; within hours, he had earned hundreds of new fans, most of whom were somewhere in the vicinity of downtown Toronto.
As the account grew — sprawling over the garden walls of Film Twitter, sniping with the likes of Jessica Chastain, inspiring articles from major outlets and eventually maxing out at more than 10,000 followers — so did the mystery behind who was running it. Film Twitter is a small place, and everyone suspected that @ArtHouseTrump was someone they knew.
They were wrong.
On October 7, less than a month after the account had first exploded, the person behind the parody abruptly decided to throw in the towel.
Ugh, Donald Trump is not actually funny… I don’t even know what I am doing with this stupid account anymore… I feel bad. I’m sorry.
— Donald Trump (@ArtHouseTrump) October 8, 2016
Two days later, he revealed his identity.
— Donald Trump (@ArtHouseTrump) October 10, 2016
IndieWire, in the bold tradition of David Fahrenthold, knew that we had to get to the bottom of this profoundly important media happening. And so we did.
What follows is an email interview with David Johnston (the pseudonym he uses online — he requested we not use his actual surname in this piece), a native New Yorker who now serves in the Air Force out of Las Vegas. This is his story.
First off, the basics: What do you do, where do you live and were you for the war in Iraq? (jk).
I live in Las Vegas and I am in the Air Force. I know you were joking but I have been to Iraq and Afghanistan and my thoughts on that conflict are probably about as complicated as Hillary Clinton’s.
Most people took notice of the @ArtHouseTrump account in September, but you actually fired off a few initial tweets way back in March. Do you remember what prompted you to start this, why you lost interest, and why you picked things back up again?
I started this on a lark just to amuse my friend Adam. He is a huge Oscar buff, obsessed with watching literally every film ever nominated for an Academy Award, no matter how awful, obscure, or insignificant the nomination. He has little patience for people like Béla Tarr, so I thought he would enjoy the idea of Trump trashing a lot of those art house darlings.
I forgot about it pretty quickly. I’m not really into memes or parody accounts in general, so I can totally understand why someone would never have found the concept funny. It was my friend Adam again who reminded me about it several months later. That was around the time TIFF was starting. There were so many movies at TIFF I wanted to see (“Personal Shopper,” “Elle,” “Things to Come,” “Toni Erdmann,” all of Wavelengths, etc.) and it bummed me out to think it would realistically be several months before I would get the chance to watch them. So I started tweeting again as @ArtHouseTrump in earnest to sort of pretend I was there. And that’s when it randomly blew up.
Believe me, I know more about cinema than the film critics do!
— Donald Trump (@ArtHouseTrump) September 16, 2016
Did you ever imagine it would become such a thing?
No, absolutely not. It wasn’t really my intention. I made @ArtHouseTrump just to make literally one person laugh. I never thought 10,000 people would enjoy it (or hate follow it, who knows). I am not sure how it did take off, since it didn’t use hashtags or really interact with anyone. Frankly, I was surprised when it hit 100 followers.
You just launched a personal Twitter account after unmasking yourself as @ArtHouseTrump — did you initially join Twitter for ArtHouseTrump?
“Unmasking” sounds kind of dramatic. It wasn’t meant to be a big reveal or anything, just a way to transition back to how I used Twitter before. I had another Twitter account for the longest time but I hadn’t posted anything on it in years. It was basically just a way to follow people I thought were interesting. Since @ArtHouseTrump followed a lot of the same people I ended up just deleting my original account a month or so ago, so I had to start a whole new “real” account again.
Many people saying Hillary prefers Soderbergh’s Solaris! Bad judgment!
— Donald Trump (@ArtHouseTrump) October 5, 2016
How did you feel about the rash of spin-off (or ripoff) accounts that followed in your footsteps (@ArtHouseJillStein, etc.)? Were you behind any of them?
I didn’t think they were that funny or interesting. I felt a little guilty, to be honest, like I was responsible for launching another awful meme that everyone rolls their eyes at after a while. Although I guess I took a kind of Trumpian pleasure in knowing none of them ever cracked more than a handful of followers compared to me.
Trump’s personality was such a perfect fit with the hyper-argumentative film community. Were you trying to make any sort of commentary with the account? And if that wasn’t the initial goal, did you find yourself tapping in to something along those lines once the tweets began to take off?
Absolutely, yes. I am very happy you noticed that. I’m not a critic but I love movies and have watched a lot of them. So naturally I read a lot of film criticism and read discussions in forums, Twitter, etc. But as much as I love movies, a part of me really hates film culture.
I noticed early on in high school that there is definitely a very ugly and petty part of the film community, especially online. It seemed like a lot of people use their knowledge of movies as a starting point to belittle others and brag about how much smarter they are than everyone else. It became a kind of boring contest to see who had seen the most obscure films, who could word the most persuasive argument, who could nitpick every word of someone with a different opinion who might not be as articulate. A lot of arguments turn super condescending and weirdly personal. Not just from trolls, but from some legitimate film critics.
Trump is an arrogant bully, but there are arrogant bullies in every community. So I liked making fun of those pretentious know-it-alls too.
A Man Escaped the worst Bresson! Mouchette the best, great film, just tremendous! She never got captured!
— Donald Trump (@ArtHouseTrump) September 18, 2016
How did it feel when Jessica Chastain got in the mix? Were there other incredible interactions like that?
Jessica Chastain is brilliant and amazing. As exciting as it was to have her interact with @ArtHouseTrump it was weirdly depressing to think my only communication with her in life would be in the context of pretending to insult her, when I really think she is a genius. The funniest part of that whole exchange is that I didn’t even see “Interstellar.” I guess I was totally in character as Trump by lying like that.
I don’t think any other big stars interacted with the account, at least not that I noticed. There was no one noteworthy interaction, but I thought all the critics at TIFF following and retweeting me as the festival was going on was pretty incredible, especially when it came from critics I admire.
To be fair, you owe the American people for Interstellar! https://t.co/45fWc5XEZI
— Donald Trump (@ArtHouseTrump) October 6, 2016
Had you always intended to reveal your real identity at the end?
No. I only did because a few people I liked had asked. For a while my original plan was to keep it up until election day. I already had a final tweet in mind. After Trump (hopefully) lost on November 8, I planned on tweeting a link to Trump’s “Citizen Kane” review on YouTube with the comment: “Deplorable Donald about as good at analyzing movies as he is at winning elections! Total has been!” And that was going to be it.
But I quit early. And I am glad I did.
The account seemed especially well-versed in the NYC film scene, so much so that many people were saying that it must have been someone who lives here, or someone who was trying to make people think that he did. Was that intentional?
I made some LA specific jokes too, mocking the crowd at Cinefamily and the quality of the 35mm prints at New Beverly Cinema, so I wasn’t intentionally trying to trick people into thinking I lived in NYC. I grew up in the Hudson Valley, although I haven’t lived there in a long time. As a teenager I would frequently hop on the train to go to NYC to see whatever was playing at Film Forum or Anthology Film Archives or the Walter Reade Theater.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but after I moved away I would frequently schedule my trips home to visit friends and family around what was showing at those theaters. I also tried to take vacation time every year for NYFF, although I didn’t make it this year. I don’t go NYC as much as I used to since by now I’ve seen pretty much all the Brakhage films Anthology has in their rotation and Film Forum shows more and more movies on DCP these days, which is disappointing. But I’m sure I’ll take a trip back there soon.
Nicole Kidman started birtherism pic.twitter.com/4aCn8bZzD2
— Donald Trump (@ArtHouseTrump) September 26, 2016
What was it that made you feel like you had to stop? Was it the “Access Hollywood” tape?
I feel a bit like a Republican hypocrite for quitting in the wake of that scandal, since he has said so many equally horrifying things. Honestly, I had thought about quitting from the very beginning. Trump is a fundamentally loathsome person. It is important to mock and satirize powerful monsters, and more people should definitely keep it up, but I just personally didn’t want to do it anymore. I would always feel bad every time I pretended to insult someone, which is probably silly.
In some ways, it helped me at first to make him seem ridiculous and absurd, but I found myself getting more and more depressed that this destructive and evil man even exists and that so many people are planning to vote for him. The idea of carrying on @ArtHouseTrump until the election as I planned just seemed like a chore, so I figured pulling the plug in light of him being caught as an admitted sexual abuser would be as good a time as any to call it quits.
What was your favorite tweet?
Elitist Nathaniel Dorsky still won’t release his movies digitally! Thinks Middle Americans aren’t good enough for his films! Out of touch!
— Donald Trump (@ArtHouseTrump) September 15, 2016
Dorsky is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers, maybe my favorite living filmmaker, period, but I basically agree with that tweet. I understand that watching a film on 16mm projected at 18fps is a totally different experience than watching a DVD or BD. I’ve heard him elaborate about it at several Q&As. But purity, whether in movies or left wing politics, is so tiresome to me. I have no doubt there are countless people who don’t live in New York or California who would be enthralled by even the diminished experience of watching his movies digitally. But they will never know that feeling. And that kind of breaks my heart.
My favorite tweets overall were the ones that expressed my own sincere opinions, but in the Trump style. That was maybe like 30% of them? I liked the absurdity of that for a while. And I appreciated it when people would comment along the lines of, “Whoa, Trump is actually right about that.” I briefly considered continuing the account indefinitely along those lines, since it was neat to have an outlet for my thoughts in front of such a large audience. But I quickly gave up on that idea.
Personal message today from Nathaniel Dorsky asking if I was the Arthouse Trump. Last one out of Bizarro World, please turn out the lights.
— Michael Sicinski (@msicism) September 22, 2016
Who will you be voting for this November?
I am a diehard Hillary Clinton supporter. I love her so much. Voting for her will be one of the easiest decisions I ever make in my life. I will also be voting down ballot for all the Democratic candidates. And I will be out to vote enthusiastically for the Democratic Party again in the 2018 midterms. It bothers me to see how little attention is paid to House and Senate and local elections, especially in off years, and especially from younger leftists who wonder why progress isn’t happening fast enough.
I think if Hillary gets a solid Democratic Congress she could be one of our greatest presidents, alongside FDR, LBJ, and Barack Obama.
— Donald Trump (@ArtHouseTrump) October 10, 2016