Friday, May 18, 2018

everything has a reason: Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal, 1995-99

In his introduction to When Presidents Lie (2004), author Eric Alterman explains his inattention to Bill Clinton, whose lies should've been
"no one's business but that of the liar and his intimates. ... Clinton lied publicly ... only because he was being pursued by a fanatical group of politicians and ideologues who sought -- with the unlimited resources of the Independent Counsel's office -- to make his private life public, something that had happened to no previous president ... Clinton lied about his adulterous behavior to spare himself and his family further public humiliation."  
If the above is true, there's still something missing: after many years doing a pretty-good-job covering his adulterous affairs (little or no incriminating evidence such as photos, letters, etc.) why did Bill Clinton get stupid?  Why did he cheat not only in the White House but the Oval Office, making revelation radioactive?  Why with a woman too unworldly to be trusted with secrets?  There's no avoiding, it wasn't Monica Lewinsky's great beauty.  We can assume people, even presidents, have discreet sex in the White House (the following from the White House Historical Organization):

  • The White House has 132 rooms, including 16 family-guest rooms, 1 main kitchen, 1 diet kitchen, 1 family kitchen, and 35 bathrooms.
  • Floor area (total of 6 floors) approximately 55,000 square feet.

The site chastely omits bedrooms, but per this Quora thread, there are at least 11, depending on utilization.  A Business Insider list adds such features as the Workout Room, Family Theater (42-seat), Solarium and Private Study.  FYI: in 1997 the Clinton Administration set a record with 36 Christmas trees in the White House.

Less-touted: the Kennedy Administration employed "Fiddle and Faddle," two secretaries who serviced the president.  Granted, scrutiny has increased greatly since the early 1960s, but Bill Clinton knows to find the quiet corner of a sprawling mansion.  Like any president, he has a Secret Service detail sworn to protect him and his secrets.

So: do lust and hubris sufficiently explain Clinton fooling around, in the Oval Office.  With a starstruck 22 year-old.  Who'd attended Beverly Hills High School. Whose mother had written a "gossip biography" (per Wikipedia) on The Private Lives of the Three Tenors, dropping hints she'd had an affair with Placido Domingo.

Alterman is right: Ken Starr was out to get Bill Clinton on any pretext.  As I noted in a piece for Pop Matters, Clinton was an existential threat to the Republican Party, because he re-branded Reaganism as Democratic and hip.  None of which explains delivery of a sex scandal with a big-red-bow.

As in my last post, on the selection of Sarah Palin in 2008, I'll propose a "motivation theory."  First, a few disclaimers:  
  • Whether attributing the unconscious to Freudian denial or computer-like efficiency, the mental health profession acknowledges its role in decision-making.¹
  • Psychologists and psychiatrists have little incentive to address matters of national interest, leaving these open to any with the requisite interest and insight.  
  • The supposed dichotomy "conscious vs. unconscious" is at best a convenient reduction.  Intent is a slippery scale, notoriously hard to prove, and mysterious even to the actor.²   
  • To reject motivation theories mainly on grounds of absence of proof is a fallacy: the appeal to ignorance.  
  • A motivation theory is an unusual angle on familiar events; it may have been broached before.   
Our chronic resistance to the twilight of consciousness is reflected in our vocabulary and rhetoric.  The suggestion "New Orleans effectively cleansed itself of poor people by its lack of preparation for Katrina," will likely be challenged: "Are you saying it was conscious?"  Well, waiting on that knowledge delays the charge indefinitely.  Casual talk is more likely to concede reality, as in "accidentally-on-purpose."  

Another instance: O.J. Simpson and the Low-Speed Chase.  In 1991, when TV Guide asked for memorable TV-viewing moments, Simpson recalled true-crime, celebrity and altered perceptions: 
"The live coverage of the (1974) SLA/Watts shootout.  There had been much speculation about (Patty Hearst's) innocence and the political implications ... (but) the viewing audience came to the realization of the criminal acts of the SLA."  
In 1994, the media-savvy ex-running back inverted the SLA shootout, thus painting himself a victim of fate and the LAPD.  In the wake of Daryl Gates and Rodney King, Simpson effectually staged a long, sympathy-generating perp-walk.    

What if Bill Clinton had committed a crime(s) worse than a failed real estate deal or running around on his wife?  In any case, his administration was mired in scandal by 1995, investigated not only by the Independent Counsel but both houses of Congress.  In October, the Senate Whitewater committee issued 49 subpoenas.  In November, Clinton began his affair with Monica Lewinsky.  In January 1996, Hillary Clinton was the first wife of a sitting president to be subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury.  

President Clinton had no reasonable way of stopping Ken Starr, or he would've done so.  Consciously acknowledged or not, the Lewinsky scandal might have been least-of-evils: a distraction so spectacular as to stop Starr's investigation, for the same reason a gorged python stops eating.  The affair revealed, Bill Clinton was subjected to scorn and condemnation -- but also sympathy and forgiveness.  And as difficult as impeachment was, it had relatively little to do with shady loans, or with Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey.  

Bill Clinton, like O.J. Simpson, was acquitted.  He then completed his second term.  

1. In psychology known as Dual Process Theory.    
2. In February 2015, in his speech on race and law enforcement at Georgetown University, then-FBI Director James Comey noted "much research points to the widespread existence of unconscious bias," but also, "racial bias isn't epidemic in law enforcement any more than ... in academia or the arts."  

Saturday, April 14, 2018

everything has a reason: McCain picks Palin, 2008

** This post reviews Game Change, the 2012 made-for-HBO film **

Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin
Game Change is the fascinating, Emmy-darling account of Sarah Palin's role in the 2008 election.  Although not a flattering portrait of the then-governor of Alaska (played by Julianne Moore), it makes clear she was (also) victim to a careless campaign.  And she was 2-3 gaffes short of respectability.

Though based-on-fact (Nicolle Wallace called the film "true enough to make me squirm"), Game Change is also prophetic: even as Palin becomes a laughingstock her popularity soars among the base, leading to defensive egomania and the "going rogue" (reclaimed) pejorative.

As depicted here, John McCain grew to fear Palin, even as he inched away from the loose-screws showing up at GOP campaign events.  It could've been worse: with Palin hapless at debate prep, her desperate team noted her acting skills and wrote lines for her to memorize (it worked).

Game Change offers psychological nuggets.  Near the end of the first hour, campaign latecomer Wallace (Sarah Paulson) has this epiphany about the hurried vetting process: "You guys didn't grill her because you wanted it to work."  Of this failure, adviser Mark Salter (Jamey Sheridan) later says, "It haunts me."
Finally, the beaten candidate (Ed Harris) confides to strategist Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson as the film's protagonist) that his (McCain's) father and grandfather lost will-to-live after their respective service to country, thus "I can't quit."
So: Why Palin?  The usual explanations -- youth, gender, conservative credentials, her sons (one bound for Iraq, another with special needs), a lagging campaign needed disruption -- explain her being considered, not the inattention both to her insecurities and ignorance of world affairs.  If the campaign was out of time, well, why did a major-party campaign wait until out-of-time?

When behavior seems incomprehensible, we often resort to insults, but Senator John McCain and staff were neither stupid nor crazy.  Comprehending irrational behavior requires acknowledging the role of emotions -- the psyche -- with "conscious vs. unconscious" being largely a dichotomy of convenience.  Conversely, to reject unconscious motivations primarily for lack of proof is a fallacy, the appeal to ignorance.

There are enough dots in Game Change for an arrow pointing to McCain's choice, especially in light of subsequent history.  All concerned are amazed by the adulation greeting Barack Obama (Palin gropes for a metaphor: "I didn't know we were running against a Greek god").  At the end, when Schmidt seeks to block Palin's intended "concession speech" -- unprecedented for a V.P. candidate -- he forbids disrespect to the election of the first African-American president.

Inevitably, the Obama moment aggravated conservative-party anxieties in a browning America.  This anxiety naturally manifests in vice presidents (nominees), at once a ceremonial position and source of future presidents.  In 1968, Richard Nixon chose Spiro Agnew -- whose Greek Orthodox father made him diverse for the era -- overlooking corruption that forced Agnew to resign in disgrace a year before Nixon.  The need for young blood led to Dan Quayle's nomination in 1988, nearly as misguided as Palin's.  The 2000 GOP opted for denial, with mainstay Dick Cheney appointing himself George W. Bush's running mate.

As much as John McCain wanted to be president, he looked across barricades at an historic phenomenon.  We know Obama's election didn't fix America, but in 2008 it seemed possible.  On the contrary, a McCain victory would've been anticlimactic -- and widely attributed to racism.  (Note: McCain insisted on a clean campaign, to the point of barring use of Reverend Jeremiah Wright in campaign ads.)
The above considered, the McCain camp wanted to win, but with a condition (however unconscious): they wanted victory by act of God.  Thus, they let the spirit move them, ignoring protocol, to the obscure but deeply religious (and female) Sarah Palin.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Trooper Hook (1957) and Jungle Fever (1991)

** spoilers below, especially for Trooper Hook **

Some time ago I was in a store and flipped through 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, by David Gelernter.  His distinction between now and then (pre-1960?) stays with me: then, Americans respected authority, not just the power to punish but the words of those in authority.  And we looked forward with hope, rather than backward with regret.

Snipes and Sciorra defying friends, Hollywood, the IRS
Trooper Hook (1957) is a minor-key cavalry Western, from a story by Jack Schaefer (author of the novels Shane and Monte Walsh), and directed by Charles Marquis Warren, the Western specialist who drove Gunsmoke, Rawhide and The Virginian.  Joel McCrea plays a good man at a dirty job, defending the frontier against the Apache, who respectfully call him "Face of Stone."  McCrea's character has been hardened, too, by the Civil War.  The character's name (Clovis Hook) playfully evokes the devil.

In this journey-Western, Hook escorts Cora Sutliff (Barbara Stanwyck) to her husband, after her captivity as squaw of Apache chief Nanchez.  Hook defends Cora against bigotry, intensified by the presence of her mixed son.  The film is politically correct for the day; likable Earl Holliman plays a cowboy in love with a half-Latina.  Of course, the film assumes Cora wants to return to her husband (John Dehner).

Fred Sutliff is built into a villain for rejecting the would-be stepson, leading to deus ex machina, with both he and Nanchez falling to gunplay, leaving Hook to marry Cora.  Fred's feelings are actually understandable, given he's only just learned of the boy's existence.  By pretending otherwise, the movie winks at audiences: the parable of tolerance is half-sincere.  Despite such flaws, the film glows with the optimism and faith of postwar Americans.

We have reason to exaggerate our differences from those of mid-century.  Consider supporting character Charlie Travers (Edward Andrews): eager to protect newfound wealth, he goes to pieces as Nanchez and braves bear down on the party.  After failing to bribe Cora into trading the son for peace, Travers tries to defect, hurting his chances by promising Nanchez "all the whiskey you can drink" (the Indian shoots him).  Travers is comparable to many white people today, so eager to make their way accusing each other of racism.

Until recently, films of interracial romance tended to be like Trooper Hook, comfortably displaced into the past (The Searchers, Far From Heaven) or the future (Supernova, The Time Machine).  A noted exception: Spike Lee's Jungle Fever (1991).  Though tougher-minded than Trooper Hook, it's become vaguely innocent.

The film is set in a hyper-ethnic New York City: Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra play, respectively, characters from Harlem and Bensonhurst.  Compare 2018, where blended couples are relatively common -- not only in cosmopolitan cities -- even as we criminalize the phrase "jungle fever."  Humans need tribal identities and the contingent territory, but in an integrating society, words, fashion and other customs serve as territory, therefore disputed.

The simple morality of Trooper Hook is long replaced by turf battles and relativism.  Spike Lee plays a teacher, an implicit capitulation.  Lee's films defy the American assumption of a better future: in Do the Right Thing he wears the jersey of a team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, that ceased to exist the year Trooper Hook was released.

The 1950s weren't as sanitized as sometimes assumed, and Trooper Hook includes a modest version of Quint's shark monologue in Jaws.  Hook tells Cora about surviving for weeks in Andersonville prison, pretending to be a dog so a canine-loving (and mad) prisoner would share food.  The analogue in Jungle Fever isn't a recounting, it's the apocalyptic set piece at the so-called Taj Mahal.  Stevie Wonder is ironic soundtrack as we tour a rambling crack den, where the Snipes character looks for his addict brother (Samuel L. Jackson).  In Trooper Hook, hell is endured for a good cause, on the way to eventual reward; in Jungle Fever, the good cause is perpetually half-in-ruins, and hell a lifestyle, with plummeting returns.

in memory of Jon Bellis, LCSW (1952-2015), 
who lived with optimism and faith, and inspired the same. 

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Trigger Effect (1996) 2 of 4

** this post contains increasingly severe spoilers **

What if an extended blackout hit North America?  Would friendships survive?  Use of force?  What would you do?

The Trigger Effect is surprisingly glossy for its low profile (perhaps given a nip/tuck for Netflix play).  The surprise evaporates, knowing it was the directing debut of writer David Koepp, better known for (co-) writing the ginormous likes of Death Becomes HerJurassic Park and Mission: Impossible.
our lives need some excitement ...
Kyle MacLachlan and Elisabeth Shue are married with youngsters, as they juggle upper-middle annoyances: home renovations, a kid with an earache, a loud conversation behind them at the movies.  The latter, the dynamic opener, illustrates the boxed-in male: when the wife shushes, the stranger curses.  If hubby gets into it he risks the enjoyment/safety of bystanders; if he retreats (as here), he's a pussy.  Later he tries the wild side, stealing the kid's med (fleeing the world's most intimidating pharmacist), emboldening himself for armed standoffs.

Koepp's working relationship with Steven Spielberg makes sense: each is a master of craft without having much to say.  Flirting with both multi-strand and apocalypse, The Trigger Effect is like a formative, risk-averse Crash (2004) or The Walking Dead.  There's a vagueness to pre-9/11 political thrillers, but from the blunt-force 21st century, this movie seems coy and unfinished.
The script occasionally fails the plausibility test, all-important in high-concept.  Example: homeowner (MacLachlan) watches a prowler from cover, then turns his back.  Dialogue (unnecessarily) references the Indian Point power plant (outside NYC), underlining the sunny California locations, less than ideal for the indie-dramatic variant of Koepp's War of the Worlds.
Still, it's a mostly smart film, with characters recognizable amid anomaly.  Male friends buy a shotgun, but between ambivalence and a few drinks, it ends up at the bottom of the in-ground pool.  Shue's character increasingly flirts with Dermot Mulroney as the friend/carpenter; they kiss, only to mutually pull back.  Too bad the entire movie pulls back. 

The film is a '90s elaboration on the 1960 Twilight Zone "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street."  Thus there are black characters, namely the theater talkers, one of whom (Richard T. Jones) is fated for a more serious altercation with MacLachlan.  (Note: I cover this aspect while horrified by the ID politics of 2018, created partly by media criticism.)
The race factor remains unspoken.  It's a valid choice -- until aforesaid prowler is shot dead.  Like the neighborhood, the intruder is white; he's also slight, and known to be armed only with a knife.  The (white) neighbor shooting from a distance seems unlikely: now it's the movie avoiding race.    
Finally, I wished for resonant dialogue predicting future grid-interruptions.  Maybe Koepp leaves this implied, too, but the film ends up anticlimactic: there was a blackout, they survived with hurt feelings, sadder-but-wiser.  

Sunday, December 3, 2017

spike heels trump feet of clay

Watching 1970s TV for my series on Pop Matters, it felt vaguely like walking the site of a war crime.  As a film buff I'd heard the stories, perhaps most memorable was Christine Lahti's, of a proposition rebuffed when she was young and struggling.  The showbiz sleaze told her, "You'd better do something, you're not that pretty."

The misogyny of Hollywood leaves traces, if needing translation (the examples remembered offhand): Joan Crawford and Bette Davis were each subject of an accusatory book by an adult daughter.  Veronica Lake was America's object of desire in the mid-1940s; in the early '60s she worked as a cocktail waitress.  Rita Hayworth and Grace Kelly fled to marry Arab princes.  With Three's Company on top, Suzanne Somers wanted a raise: she was fired and blackballed.

In 1966, Grace Lee Whitney played Yeoman Janice Rand on Star Trek even as she spiraled into alcoholism and prostitution.  She later found religion, becoming a substance abuse counselor (Trekkies always treated her as regular cast, though she appeared in only a few episodes).  In her candid autobiography (The Longest Trek, 1998), Whitney elaborated on her early exit from the Enterprise, alleging a sexual assault by an executive.  She took that man's name to her grave, presumably to protect a franchise loved by millions.

The recent revelation that disappoints me is Quentin Tarantino, though his sins are (apparently) of omission.  I couldn't help thinking of Kill Bill, his least assured film: hypocrisy takes a toll.

Some say we're in a witch hunt -- they're right.  Without due process, there's a vigilante aspect, and there will be unintended consequences, and regret.  (We can only wonder what would've happened, had Hillary Clinton been elected president: hell has no fury like millions of women scorned.)

Some say The Sopranos (for example) trades in the noble outlaw, but we buy the myth because nobility is lacking in other quarters.  In the U.S., we punish the guilty with the acuity of a darts game before last call.  As the law quails before money and power, the capitalist badlands (sometimes) have room for frontier justice.  Hang 'em high.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) 3 of 4

** only minor spoilers **

The publication on Bright Lights Film Journal of my essay brought to mind this Jim Jarmusch indie.  In 1999, The Sopranos was briefly in the shadow of Analyze This, about a mobster (Robert DeNiro) in therapy.  Less noted was the overlap with Ghost Dog, which could almost be The Sopranos as seen by an African-American, if a self-taught samurai.  Here's more evidence of television's resistance to change: as HBO launched David Chase's novel-for-TV, the American New Wave was well into a second generation of (postmodern) gangster films: see also Miller's Crossing, Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, The Boondock Saints, Summer of Sam.

Forest Whitaker is ideally cast as a reflective loner living off-the-grid in a modern U.S. city: no amnesiac, he's a spiritually awake hit man.  He steals a car but prioritizes the sound system, pumping eclectic hip-hop.  He'll break his meditative isolation for other noncomformists: a man building a boat on a rooftop; an elderly man who's a poor choice for a mugger.  Perhaps most resonant: an encounter with white hunters who've killed a bear.  When the bearish Ghost Dog objects, the elder hunter says, "This isn't an ancient culture."  Ghost Dog: "Sometimes it is."

Even as conflict rises, Ghost Dog stresses its title character's mutual respect with the local mafiosi, for they too have a code.  Arguably, these Italians are too comic: they watch cartoons, are fatter and older than The Sopranos, even more clearly on-their-way-out.  But maybe that's why Ghost Dog is reading (the basis for) Rashomon: it's how he sees the Mafia.  Consistent with the slowed pulse of his oeuvre, Jarmusch counters the chop of culture-change with Ghost Dog's Zen calm.

Like any Jarmusch film, Ghost Dog has cinematic cool and a great soundtrack (by RZA), while being not-for-all-tastes.  If Analyze This was cute but disposable, Jarmusch tends to improve on second viewing, as we adjust to the intriguing protagonist aloof from Western society.  As a substitute, Ghost Dog liberally quotes his dog-eared copy of "The Book of the Samurai": he's relation to the seekers in The Tao of Steve, Amelie, and The Matrix.  And like Marlo on The Wire, he keeps pigeons, a chance to practice patience, even as he gently urges the birds home to roost.