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!

SUMMER’S HERE…AND THE TIME IS RIGHT FOR TURNING MY BRAIN INTO A BLUNT OBJECT (Monthly Book Report: June, 2015)

Boy, the pulps are taking over. I may start eating broccoli again soon but, for now, it’s strictly cheeseburgers:

The Shot (Philip Kerr, 1999)

THESHOT

Kerr is probably best known for his Bernie Gunther series, of which I read the first three some years back. Here, as there, he doesn’t expend a lot of effort on style. I gather he strictly rises and falls on the quality of his ideas.

The idea here is a good one. A shadow version of the Kennedy Assassination that holds its tension nicely until it takes one turn too many at the very end (or maybe just finally takes a wrong turn). As such things go, it’s a bit better than Don DeLillo’s crit-friendly Libra, though not nearly as good as James Ellroy’s fever dream American Tabloid, which is almost certainly the best novel ever written by a pud-pulling fascist.

A Deadly Shade of Gold (John D. MacDonald, 1965)

DEADLYSHADEOFGOLD

Given the setup–an old friend is murdered over Aztec gold and McGee wants to help his woman find both the gold and the killer–I had hopes our hero would avoid the sex therapy.

He doesn’t, and, worse, his failure doesn’t ring true. But it’s a small complaint. This is the best and most ambitious of the series so far. It’s nearly twice the prescribed formula’s length and that length allows the formula to open up. Of course, we have the usual sharp socio-political insights, some of them even weighing in on the future, as first-rate pulp has to do in order to remain first rate. So we get McGee on the burgeoning Education Industry:

“It was a building to turn out the men who could house fabulous technicians with that contempt for every other field of human knowledge which only the truly ignorant can achieve. It was a place to train ants to invent insecticides.”

But here, that’s just the setup. The hero is swimming with the sharks soon enough and the real reward is a tangled-but-plausible plot that moves from Miami’s Cuban exile community to the high art antique world (where McGee, for once, actually trades sex for information, though he’s improbably decent enough to feel bad about it) to Mexico’s second tier resorts to a washed-out California paradise nobody in their right mind would ever want to live in, all without dropping a stitch. Somewhere in there, the ugly elements of our current predicament emerge, crouching, waiting to take form.

And, hey, because it’s John D. MacDonald, you can have fun, too. If that’s your thing.

Bright Orange for the Shroud (John D. MacDonald, 1965)

brightorange

The sub-plot is a fairly interesting twist. One of McGee’s sex-therapy successes, Chookie the dancer, provides similar therapy for a down-and-outer who comes limping back into their lives after he’s been taken for a ride by a gold-digger who turns out to be part of a larger, nastier shakedown. Not to give anything away, but Chookie and the down-and-outer end up getting married.

Not until they’ve outlasted one of MacDonald’s truly terrifying villains.

It was MacDonald who created the role Robert Mitchum defined in the original Cape Fear (a role that Mitchum strode through with the kind of easy menace such men actually possess in life and which thoroughly defeated Robert DeNiro when he gave it a go a generation later). He repeated a version of it in the kick-starter for the McGee series and it’s hard to believe he can take it any further than he does here with Boo Waxwell, who defines the middle-class fear of the hillbilly so well he jumps off the page and into the nervous system.

You want to know why people carry guns?

Because Travis McGee is a fine fantasy.

In my part of the world, Boo Waxwell’s always around somewhere.

Darker Than Amber (John D. MacDonald, 1966)

DARKERTHANAMBER1

This one’s notable mostly for the first serious involvement of Meyer (McGee’s Watson) in one of the cases. It works smoothly enough and there’s always the pleasure of the writer honing in on the faces-behind-the-faces who generate so much of the world’s misery (Meyer: “A corporate financial statement is the most nonspecific thing there is. If a man can’t read the lines between the lines between the lines, he might as well stuff his money into a hollow tree.”…there’s our long journey down the rat-hole in a nutshell).

But, after a promising beginning, the plot doesn’t amount to much. Putting McGee up against a bunch of second-raters isn’t likely to generate much tension. Granted, it’s always harder to sustain interest once a formula’s elements become too comfortably familiar, but I don’t think that’s the reason this was the first in the series that had me checking page numbers and looking at my watch.

Start finding out for sure, next month I guess.

Til then…

THE NATURAL (Bob Hoskins, R.I.P.)

He should have been easy to pigeon-hole. Short, round, close-cropped bullet head, general air of perpetual unease which more than occasionally oozed the menace a thousand other movie tough guys would spend every penny they had to acquire if, by chance, it was something you could buy.

That sums up the look–the presence if you will.

Then, without anything like formal training, and carrying a casually dismissive attitude towards the whole idea of “studying” to be an actor, he took that presence to an awful lot of places: Mob boss, down-at-heels private eye playing footsie with Jessica Rabbit, Iago, Nikita Khrushchev, Mussolini, Churchill, J. Edgar Hoover, Conradian anti-hero.

Whatever.

I mean, I haven’t even seen all of it myself–a failing I will certainly try to redress in the very near future–but, at some level, I almost don’t have to see it with my four eyes to see him with my mind’s eye. Just stick his name next to pretty much anything and I’m ready to take the journey with him. Now as ever. Now, maybe more than ever. Because whenever I do get around to catching up, I know he’ll have been up to the task.

Any task he set himself.

From what I have caught up with, some time or other, I can say that he was–just for starters–truly great in Mona Lisa and The Dunera Boys and Othello and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? And when Brian DePalma used his name (and a $20,000 retainer) as bait to hook Robert DeNiro (the director’s preference all along) for Al Capone in The Untouchables, he cashed the check, had a good laugh about it and never once let on that DePalma came a long way second by settling for an actor’s actor to play Big Al when he could have had a force of nature who was born for that sort of thing.

It’s possible, of course, that Hoskins didn’t even know himself what DePalma was throwing away–though it’s a whole lot more possible that he did.

Either way, it’s hard to imagine him ever letting on.

In that respect, he was a bit out of his element in the modern world, where taking such real and perceived slights personally is the fashionable sign of your high seriousness. Needing none of that, he instead projected purely old-fashioned charisma, not to mention genuine bon homie. As a result (and no matter how convincing a regular good guy he was away from his roles) he often seemed a little too big for even his best roles–as if Jimmy Cagney had been transported to modern Hollywood and found that, yes, it was indeed the movies that had gotten smaller.

Once, though, an entire movie got all the way up to the best of him.

What he and Helen Mirren achieved in The Long Good Friday took them on the rarest journey–to the partly exhilarating, partly frightening place where John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards and Vivien Leigh’s Blanche Dubois and Anne Bancroft’s Annie Sullivan reside. Long past the point of worrying about awards in other words. So it was fun and gratifying, while surfing for tributes, to discover a documentary on YouTube where various parties spoke at length about the work both actors put into improving their already strong roles. My guess is that they were just old enough to know such parts in such a movie might very well come along only once in a lifetime–even a lifetime as full of great and good work as each of theirs would turn out to be.

And Mirren eventually got her Oscar (for a very fine performance in The Queen), in much the same way (and for many of the same reasons) that John Wayne eventually got the one he deserved for The Searchers (for a very fine performance in True Grit).

Hoskins never got his.

And, wherever that unquenchable spirit currently resides, I’ll bet he’s having a good laugh about it.

Heck, the top gangster in London called him over to his table in a restaurant not long after the TLGF’s release and congratulated him.

“Good to see one of us make it,” the guy said, confidentially.

Hoskins always loved telling that story–the story about the London mobster who actually thought the guy who played Harold Shand so eerily close to the bone must surely have been a reformed gangster himself.

Hey, what’s an Oscar next to that?

Anyway, here’s the story of an entire relationship in three scenes and seven minutes (with bodies stacking up like cord wood around them the while)….capped off by history’s greatest smoking-in-bed scene (greatest because it’s all about the smoking…the bed is incidental)!