DOG….WAGGED (Segue of the Day: 7/3/17)

Wag the Dog (1997)
D. Barry Levinson

and…

Progressives Destroyed Normalcy and Now They’re Shocked Trump Isn’t Normal (David Marcus, The Federalist, January 18, 2017)

[Wag the Dog is a brilliant, disturbing, watershed film which never fails to reduce me to helpless giggling like the Marx Brothers did when I was twenty, even as I hear the Wolf growling in my ear–something about if you see me running you know my life  is at stake. David Marcus’ brief essay is pulled-punch pablum, but it’s the first semi-coherent affirmation of points I made all last year that I’ve seen appear anywhere near the mainstream. I’m linking it because its platitudes were knowable, even obvious, twenty years ago. Until everybody done went and forgot. Read it by all means, but don’t worry, Trump’s still not the Devil you don’t believe in. He’s not even the first sign that Devil you don’t believe in has turned ’round (for that, see Wag the Dog below). He’s just the latest sign that it’s the Devil who has his hand around your throat and he doesn’t care whether you believe in him or not.]

For twenty years now, two kinds of people have existed in America (and perhaps much of the rest of the world). There are those who have seen Wag the Dog and kept it continuously in mind and those who haven’t.

The latter seem to be continuously surprised. There is always some bar or other–cultural, social, economic, political, even military (as in “surely we can’t lose this one”)–which they are shocked and saddened to learn has been once more lowered.

They’re always certain, it seems, that the last time was the last time.

The film’s director, Barry Levinson (one of America’s best for a generation when this was released, a nonentity since), refers to the film as “cynical” in his DVD commentary, which is, among other things, an interesting exercise in ass-covering.

He’s joined on the commentary track by the film’s star, Dustin Hoffman (who, like his co-stars Robert DeNiro and Anne Heche, was never better, and, like Levinson, a nonentity since), who insists “this was never about Bill Clinton.”

Because, well, his good friend Barry would never do such a thing.

Which is bull hockey and Hollywood-speak for “I’d like to keep working.”

The entire world knew it was about Clinton–and what a hapless, helpless tool he was–the minute it was released. It was about that, even if Bill Clinton never crossed anyone’s mind from first conference to final wrap. That’s how art works. sometimes, even in Hollywood.

All concerned saved their careers (such as they’ve been) by distancing themselves from this reality soon and loudly, then rinsing and repeating as necessary.  Self-denial is a privilege of the self-deluded and Levinson and crew started practicing a version of what they had so acutely pilloried–wiping the blood off the knife–as soon as what was left of decency permitted.

Too bad. Because either the film is on the money–in perfect concert with the observable reality it dismembers with a surgeon’s skill–or it’s nothing.

I just watched it again last night.

Believe me, it’s not nothing.

The quality that struck with extra force this time around (the pantsing of fake news and Heche’s pixie face, whether in deep background or loving closeup, contorting into every possible nuance of sycophancy, including self-contempt, still registering mind you) was the completeness with which Levinson and his principal screenwriter, David Mamet, limned the real crisis point, which is the separation of the movers and shakers from anything and everything except the art of moving and shaking.

The back rooms and underground bunkers in Wag the Dog are so far back and so deep under that their inhabitants are cut off from any reality except their own desperate desire to maintain their status in the only world that matters: theirs.

They’ll do literally anything–just don’t banish them to the sunlight. Their only angst–which can be pitied or sneered at according to taste–is the thought of failing, punching the dread ticket out, which is why Hoffman’s signature line “This is nothing!” keeps getting funnier when it should be getting tired.

After all, what happens to people like this when they lose their agency?

It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Better to laugh…harder.

The narrative trick that keeps bringing me back, though, is that somebody–Levinson? Mamet? Hoffman? The God of Hosts?–gave an unexpected poignancy to Hoffman’s Stanley Motss (the “t” is silent!), forever worried about the one thing the inhabitants of the secret world (which, out here in the real world a generation later, everybody has taken to calling “the deep state”) cannot worry about, which is proper credit. (In this way, he’s predictive of James Comey, a man who couldn’t draw sympathy from his mother.)

And the effect is all the more powerful for being called down by a character you would hate if you met him in real life and your religion didn’t require you to seek the good in him.

The beauty of Hoffman’s performance is that his character has somehow retained the innocence Heche’s Winifred Ames, who starts out thinking she’s going to learn the little bit she doesn’t already know, spends the movie losing with astonished gusto, and De Niro’s Conrad Brean lost a thousand years ago.

Wag the Dog moves like music. You could probably watch it twenty times in a row and still hear new things in it, like picking up a bass line that moves a bridge after you’e heard a favorite record a hundred times. I don’t know if it’s the best movie made in the last twenty-five years but it’s the best movie made about the last twenty-five years. Or the next twenty-five.

After that, it’ won’t matter, and whether Trump fails to survive the summer or cruises to a 2020 landslide won’t either.

The boat has sailed.

Goodbye us!

The only fault this movie has is they didn’t know which tune to close with. But, hey, that’s what I’m here for…

Happy 4th of July!

MY FAVORITE “ANYTIME” MOVIES….BY DECADE (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Some time in the distant past when I used to listen to sports talk radio (and boy is that time getting to be distant), I heard a segment where a bunch of junior noncoms in the Dead Brain Cell Count Brigade opined about movies they could literally sit down and watch anytime.

The DBCCB being what it is, Die Hard came up a lot.

Nothing against Die Hard, which I like, but I always thought I could do better ….so, being, as they say, snobby but not runny snobby:

The Thirties:

Carefree (1939, D. Mark Sandrich)

As many have noted, more a screwball comedy than a musical. As not enough have noted, a first class screwball comedy. And while it may not be a musical, strictly speaking, it does have Ginger doing “The Yam,” my favorite five minutes of film. My second favorite five minutes is Ginger, hypnotized, running loose with a shotgun, muttering “Shoot him down like a dirty dog!” while Luella Gear explains to Jack Carson that  “It’s probably one of the silly rules.”

The Forties:

Colorado Territory (1949, D. Raoul Walsh)

Walsh’s superior remake of his own High Sierra, the movie that made Humphrey Bogart a star. It’s easier to have sympathy for a western outlaw than a modern sociopath (even if the sociopath has had the rough edges smoothed away for the box office). Joel McCrea’s at his very best as a man looking for a second chance in the same wrong place he lost the first one, and VIrginia Mayo makes for one fetching half-breed. Plus it’s a heist flick, always a plus in my book.

The Fifties:

Rear Window (1954, D. Alfred Hitchcock)

Top drawer Hitchcock of course. It’s not so much remembered now, but this sat in the vaults for decades before being restored and re-released to theaters in the eighties. I took my mom to see it and, every time Grace Kelly came on the screen she would murmur, “Isn’t she so-o-o-o-o-o beautiful!” I could hardly disagree, but I thought I would go back a week or two later and watch it by myself, just to see what it was like without the sound effects. Met a girl from work in the lobby and, since we were both there by ourselves, it would have been rude not to sit together. First time Grace Kelly came on the screen: “Isn’t she so-o-o–o-o beautiful!” Interestingly enough, we spent the time before the movie mostly talking about a girl in our office who actually was the only woman I’ve ever known who was as beautiful as Grace Kelly in Rear Window, and had just quit to move back to Orlando. I found out a year or so later that she had wanted to date me, in part because I was the kind of guy who took his mother to the movies….Oh, wait. You thought I was gonna talk about the movie? Come on. You know about the movie. Hitchcock’s serious side and his comic side, perfectly married. That’s the movie.

The Sixties:

El Dorado (1967, D. Howard Hawks)

This is probably my all-time “anytime” movie. It’s a not-that-loose remake of Hawks’ Rio Bravo, which everybody, including me, knows is “superior.” But there’s nothing in Rio Bravo I’d trade for the hour in the middle when John Wayne and Robert Mitchum are just a couple of roughnecks trying to keep law and order in a cowtown while Wayne keeps seizing up from the effects of a bullet in his back and Mitchum–with so little polish on him you can smell the whiskey, if not the vomit–is trying to dry out in time to dodge the next bullet. And if that’s not entertaining enough, I can always sit and ponder the mysteries of a universe where Michele Carey could smoke that many holes in the screen and fail to become a star.

The Seventies:

The Rockford Files: Season Four, Episode 8, “Irving the Explainer” (1977, D. James Coburn)

Not a movie. Okay, but there’s enough plot for three movies and it never gets resolved or leaves you wishing it would. People ask me what my favorite television series is and I say The Rockford Files. People ask me what my second favorite television series is and I say “I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.”  Pick to click:  “Let me get this straight: You have a client who has the same name as Herman Goering’s house?”

The Eighties:

Midnight Run (1988, D. Martin Brest)

Way funnier than Die Hard, and the action sequences are no sillier. I’m not sold on Robert De Niro’s serious mode. (The whole Brando school leaves me…bemused.) But there’s never been a better comic actor. Not even Cary Grant. Matched here by the entire cast, including Charles Grodin, who I can usually take only in the smallest doses.

The Nineties:

Wag the Dog (1997, D. Barry Levinson)

Preston Sturges for the Age of the Security State and a road movie to boot. We forget. That’s the only explanation for a world where this movie exists and you still have people running around crediting the CIA–or, better yet, “the intelligence community”–as a reliable source. Comic genius from Dustin Hoffman, the aforementioned Mr. De Niro and Anne Heche, as the Girl Friday from both Heaven (oh, the efficiency) and Hell (she doesn’t care the job or the master, she just wants to serve someone and, buddy, you better be it).

The Current Millenia:

I know we are in the second decade of the new millennia, but it hasn’t been the sort of millennia that produces a lot of things worth revisiting. Forget two, I’m surprised there’s one.

Knight and Day (2010 D. James Mangold)

That’s the whole movie right there. Two people who are amazed by each other. One’s a superspy and the other likes to work on cars. Guess which is which? This is almost enough to make me forgive James Mangold for his wretched remake of 3:10 to Yuma. Almost.

PAST AS NOT SO OBVIOUS PRELUDE (Noir, Noir, Noir: Second Feature)

All the President’s Men (1976)
Director: Alan Pakula

allpresidentcover2I’m not sure how many people have viewed the straightforward screen adaptation of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s account of how they broke open the Watergate scandal that felled Richard Nixon as noir (as opposed noir-ish, which can be stretched to include almost anything that isn’t an MGM musical). From that contemporary Czech poster above, I’d say the commies, at least, had a notion.

But if noir is defined by a film’s relationship to, as Edmund Wilson might have put it, the specifically American Jitters, then All the President’s Men isn’t just noir but near-definitive. If it happens to also be quite faithful to history, as no one has ever credibly denied, then it’s all the more remarkable.

It’s worth remembering that noir at its best is never invested in civilization. Most of the black-and-white killer-dillers from the classic period (Double Indemnity, The Big Heat, The Asphalt Jungle) are fundamentally pre-civilizational, man stripped bare, deprived of any but the basest aspirations (lust, greed, survival, revenge). That’s why the ones that worked at all worked extremely well, and also why even the very best of them tended to sell out at the end. They didn’t always, or often, end happily, but they nearly always ended romantically. How else to cut the darkness?

On that score, All the President’s Men has a seemingly insurmountable problem. The romance seems built in. Heroic journalists trying to bring down the king yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.

But, given the source and the times that produced both the history and the movie, no amount of star power or studio gloss could keep it from being ultra-realistic, too. Somebody realized that and doubled down. Almost no film from the ultra-realistic seventies feels as much like a period documentary as this one, and that’s despite the presence of heavy duty stars and top flight character actors, the kind with personas attached, popping up throughout.

You could argue (I wouldn’t), that Dustin Hoffman or Robert Redford or Jason Robards have been better elsewhere, but, despite the near-ubiquitous presence of their real-life counterparts (Bernstein, Woodward and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, respectively) in our lives for four decades running (even Bradlee’s death only slowed him down a little), the actors still seem more like those men than they’ve ever seemed liked themselves. I see Carl Bernstein on CNN, bloviating on yet another topic he clearly can’t be bothered to know anything about, and all I think is “Too bad he’s not really Dustin Hoffman.” I see Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men and all I think is “too bad he not really Carl Bernstein.”

And that’s the easy one…the one who probably didn’t work for the CIA.

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None of which makes ATPM either great or noir. It wasn’t really meant to be great, I don’t think, except maybe in the way earlier classy commercial properties like The Ten Commandments or My Fair Lady were. Great in the grand old Hollywood style of radiating a certain stiff-necked significance, a film the whole family should see.

And I certainly don’t think it was meant to be noir.

But put a bunch of talented people together with an indelible moment and you never know what might happen.

For one thing, it might actually work on the “significance'”level, as ATPM did and does.

But then it might also, over time, leap the trace.

As ATPM certainly is doing now, in this turbulent month when, on a hunch, I left Medium Cool and A Face in the Crowd to the liberal twitter crowd and pulled this off the shelf instead.

Dutifully or not, ATPM gives us a worm’s eye view of the process of catching rats in high places. Consciously or not, its obvious message is that the only people really qualified to do the job are other rats.

You don’t need to buy Ben Bradlee as a lifelong CIA asset–or someone who would have snuffed the story of the century in the cradle if it had been likely to bring down somebody he liked–to get that from the movie.

And that’s what makes it great.

And that’s what makes it noir.

Maybe just because the heroes involved were more transparent than they knew, even in the moment (forget the long aftermath), it’s possible to be grateful for what Woodward/Redford, Bernstein/Hoffman and Bradlee/Robards did without liking them even a little bit. Against all odds, the movie resists heroism. It just sets you down in soulless “news rooms,” shadowy parking garages, wet city streets, sunlit suburbs, some “ratfucker’s”  apartment….and then lets you work out the moral logistics for yourself.

Sure, Woodward/Redfern occasionally shows a touch of remorse or honesty or self-reflection–or at least seems to. But, real or faked, it never lasts. You can never be sure that these things, too, aren’t calculated as a price well worth what was then merely a potential payoff.

Brave? Prescient? Pure Fluke?

Who knows?

But as we enter our post-civilizational phase, where no secret is so dark it could ever possibly bring anybody down (what Donald Trump really meant when he said he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and it wouldn’t make any difference)–a phase that surely began when the half of the “establishment” that had driven Nixon from office for the one truly unpardonable sin of attacking them, decided early retirement was punishment enough–it feels odd to watch a film that captured that moment a little too perfectly. It comes uncomfortably close to proving noir‘s unspoken pre- and post-civilizational premise: The darkness is all there is.

Ever.

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(NOTE: As I  pretty much always do, I watched All the President’s Men in tandem with Dick, Andrew Fleming’s 1999 duck-and-cover satire of same. I was reminded, yet again, that even the most brilliant satire runs up against limits. I was also reminded, yet again, that those limits can be transcended if you manage to weave “You’re So Vain” into a realistic depiction (beautifully played by an up-until-that-very-moment-gloriously-over-the-top Dan Hedaya) of Nixon departing the White House while Betsy and Arlene cut up some American flags which they intend to put to very good use. I’ll probably have more to say about Dick, which also happens to be one of the two or three greatest movies about the seventies, a decade that arguably could only be understood satirically, some other time, but for those interested, this lovely reminiscence is highly recommended, not least because it reveals how disastrously close “You’re So Vain” came to being….something else!)

IT JUST TAKES ONE…(Mike Nichols, Jimmy Ruffin, R.I.P.)

They both did plenty of fine work (in Nichols’ case, much of it with his partner Elaine May).

They each had a moment of singular genius in them.

And, as Orson Welles said–it just takes one.

So, then,  now–and a thousand years from now, if the world’s still worth living in–here’s to singular moments: