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Sunday, October 9, 2011

"That's Entertainment!": Washington, Hollywood, and "The Ides of March"

George Clooney’s The Ides of March is about Hollywood, just as much – if not more – as it is about insider politics. Clooney is cognizant of his public reputation as an activist Movie Star and filmmaker, and so understands that his film will be perceived as smug politicking from the Entertainment Industrial Complex, as many saw previous offerings like Good Night and Good Luck and Syriana. Those two films were released in 2005, and whatever their respective flaws, they were passionate, uncompromising, and yet heavily distributed warnings about the political climate of the 2K decade. But instead of being silenced, the Joseph McCarthys of the last ten years have grown in popularity, the divisiveness between Red and Blue states dug in deeper with irreconcilable differences. The waste of late capitalism as dramatized in Syriana similarly has become more of a problem, doomed to disastrously explode rather than be placated or solved.

The Ides of March joins The Adjustment Bureau and Moneyball as a reflection of Obama Era disenchantment, where the idealism of the new hip boss is, if an improvement on the old boss, not sufficient to make manifest “Hope.” It’s the Audacity of ‘Eh.’ Gridlock and effective narrative construction, at which the Right is master, makes progress milquetoast. Media and Politics are bridged worlds, one and the same, selling stories and myths but still more interested in maintaining an audience than demonstrable change. The Ides of March is an acknowledgment of the futility in both elections and Hollywood narratives. As a political movie, it offers nothing new, and is initially a little underwhelming. An ideal left-wing candidate, Governor Mike Morris (Clooney), is running in a fictional Democratic primary against an old-school tax-and-spend liberal, and in his tactical bid for power we see the machinery and wheels running beneath the ideas, and how campaign consultants, such as young Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), are consumed with compromised principles in the beast of political discourse, which has less to do with solutions than with winning. There are issues of loyalty, as Myers is torn between his mentor, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is running the Morris campaign, and the rival campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), who works to lure Myers to his side. There is the duplicitous hunger of the media, embodied by a New York Times reporter, Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei), who is chummy with Myers, but is really only motivated by getting a big scoop. Both political candidates are working for the endorsement of a sleazy senator (Jeffrey Wright), whose delegates are easily traded for a promised cabinet post. And finally, there is the contrivance of the alluring young woman, Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), a campaign intern who seduces – or is seduced by – more than one main character.

This sexual contrivance was of particular annoyance at first viewing. The seduction happens in intense close-ups between Molly and Stephen during an after-work drink, with the young woman looking like a hollow design for conflict, and the young man as a flawed douchebag more interested in careerism than affection. And then it moves into another dimension all too quickly, as a late night cell-phone mix-up discloses that Molly is having a liason with the heretofore perfect Gov. Morris. It becomes more drastic when, in the same scene, Molly implies that she’s pregnant and is going to have an abortion. Stephen is hurled into confusion. He put the man Morris on par with Morris’ ideology. But now, Stephen realizes that Morris is the caricature of deviance with which conservatives see liberals: a horny philanderer who screws his buddy’s daughter, and then kills an unborn baby.

Stephen steals campaign money for the abortion, but he’s distracted from Molly’s problems when Zara fires him for not telling him about a secret meeting with Duffy. “In politics, loyalty is the only currency that matters,” Zara says. Stephen plans a late game-change, where he’ll give Duffy information of the affair and abortion for a job, but again, trust is valued over skill. Stumbling back to his hotel, he finds that Molly’s committed suicide. He grabs her phone – which links her to Morris – and uses his information to preserve his job. The Constitution is not his religion. Self-Interest is.

That’s The Ides of March. Pardon the spoilers, but there you go. It’s an unusual narrative for a prestige film (perhaps showing its theatrical roots, adapted from the play Farragut North), and I’m not sure if it’s exactly what audiences or critics are expecting, as the film ends with what is the beginning of the story they were probably wanting to see. Whereas most stories are about the fulfillment of cathartic release and solution, The Ides of March is about the frustration of cover-ups, the gap in politics – and entertainment – between truth and manipulated narrative. There is no closure, just as our political world documented in 24-hour cable news cycles has no ending, just regurgitation. Molly, the hot intern, is just as quickly replaced by another sexually attractive 20-year-old who riles the men around her with latent lust as she brings them coffee. Indeed, we are right to be upset with Clooney for having Molly be nothing more than a contrivance. Politics are structured atop a heap of tools, with no end save for the perpetuation of a present that always promises hope for tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.

The woman as impelling agent of desire is a hallmark of Hollywood movies: the femme fatale, the romantic love interest, whatever it is, as long as it has legs, breasts, a comely smile, and is under the age of 30. A naïve and superficial viewing of The Ides of March would instantly – and so has – trigger a dismayed reaction of “pure contrivance.” But thinking about Molly’s function as a character reveals Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov's intentions. Stephen is distracted from sex with Molly by a Town Hall meeting on TV starring Morris who is, humorously enough, talking about gay marriage. Stephen's desire is not plugged into Molly, but politics, and more than that, the electronic delivery of the message – which is exactly what a film director deals with. For Molly, the scene where she confesses her pregnancy is deliberately calling attention to her contrivance status. She is malleable, going from Stephen’s lover, to Morris’, and then to pregnant, all in the space of a minute. That she is portrayed as a victim doesn’t necessarily make her one, another odd attribute of Molly’s place as a character and Clooney's direction. Everyone is framing a narrative, altering history, and constructing a message with a lie, something we see the morning after as he casts her as "the cleaning lady" to whomever he is talking to on phone, while she claims that he seduced her, even though an examination of earlier scenes indicates that she was the seducer, putting her number in his phone, proposing the after-work drink, and saying things like, "I've been trying to fuck you for a long time." The sick joke finds climax at her funeral. Her father eulogizes her, referring to how she “touched” so many people. Indeed, Molly did touch quite a few people. Her function has little to do with her talent, and everything to do with her comely smile in a close-up.

We too are sutured into the pathos, or pretend like we are, which is in accordance to the nature of politics. Clooney, no slouch in working with formally demanding directors like Steven Soderbergh, means to ask us if we’re falling for it. Do we believe the speeches? Does Clooney’s electronic message control us, like Stephen’s cell-phone blackmail manages to control Morris? At the beginning of the picture, Morris announces at a debate, “My religion and what I believe is called the Constitution.” He’s told that his form of rhetoric works for “student council president,” but not President of the United States – but he still won’t back off. We listen to him, and we’re as “goosebumpy” as Stephen, who admits, “I have drunk the Kool-Aid, and it’s delicious.” Morris earns more respect when he shakes his head after someone passes him a laptop. This man of the "real world" says, “Give me a hard copy. I hate those fucking things.” Later on he shows how down-to-earth he is when he responds to Myers’ belief that noble missions can’t end in a disaster (e.g. plane crash). "Roberto Clemente," Morris points out, Clemente being the baseball player who died on his way to bring earthquake relief to South America.

But at the end of the picture, Morris is in shadow, surrounded by the silver metallics of a cafeteria kitchen, blending into the grey world of tools for consumption around him. This dark moment works on us because Clooney’s perpetually nice-guy image is also now tainted in our moviegoer heads. Even when – and sometimes especially when – Clooney played criminals in the past, he’s always been sympathetic or likable. This is his darkest character, just as he is, conceptually, a nation's brightest hope.

So is Mike Morris just “singing Kumbaya,” as Zara cynically implies? Even as a sexually dominating horn-dog willing to cover up an intern’s death, there is no reason we should doubt that he would, like a Clinton or Obama, be more of a centrist than a fighting liberal. This is a pertinent question Clooney and Heslov are asking: is the ideal candidate worth it if their personal lives are morally questionable? Is the figurehead different from the man of flesh and blood? Morris himself states, “Society has to be better than individuals.” This dream candidate is all too human. But FDR, probably the greatest president of the 20th century, also had some questionable virtue; while George W. Bush, who may have been a very good man (such as portrayed by Oliver Stone in W.), was maybe the worst president of the last 100 years. The dark and sticky stuff of sex and abortion, which all politics seems to collapse toward, is personal. So it’s strange, as Myers tells Morris, that “you can bankrupt a nation, you can start unnecessary wars, but you don’t fuck the intern.” This is the irrational truth of political discourse. Public violations are far more acceptable than private ones. The political life is a willing sacrifice of its stated ideals, dignity and integrity, which it nevertheless continues to talk about. As he chides Myers, Duffy offers a desperate warning that seems to squeal from the vestige of his humanity: “Get out.” Duffy is mapping out a new world for the Democratic Party, where they must be “meaner, tougher, and more disciplined” – descending to the Machiavellian level of the Republicans. The dark message of Clooney’s “liberal message movie” is that if Democrats hope to win, they have to get rid of that annoying “humanity” thing.

Politicians are like artists who give their lives for the creation of imaginary narratives and images. The public feeds on it, but the artisans struggle for respite. In Julius Caesar, when Caesar is assassinated on the “ides of March” from which Clooney’s picture gets its title, he does not have a first-person reaction of confronting his mortality, but refers to himself in the third-person. “Caesar” the politician is an independent creation. Shakespeare was himself a very ironic artist, whose medium is so often the message, the theme of performance being central to his plays. Clooney marries this perennial truth of political drama to meta-movie observations. The Ides of March, with its credit titles in a distinct font recalling a rich 1970s-movie inheritance, begins with Myers reading from Morris’ scripted speech, the lights and sound being prepped in the auditorium where a subsequent debate will transpire. The buzz of a moderator’s desk is loudly generated, calling attention to the showmanship and technology used in staging the “message.” The Ides of March will end in a similar environment, with Myers sitting in a Hollywood production-style director’s or actor’s chair, putting in an ear-piece for sound, and looking directly at the camera – not a camera in the studio, but at us, at Clooney’s camera, the film surrounding and encompassing the fiction.

As Steven Ross documents in his recent book, Hollywood Left and Right, American movies have a rich history of political involvement. But though activist figures like Clooney, Warren Beatty, Barbara Streisand, and Matt Damon (those “elitists”) generate the most attention and so people see Hollywood as a liberal establishment, Ross shows how the Right really controls the narrative, in figures like Louis B. Mayer, incidents like the Blacklist, the political involvement of figures like Charlton Heston, and elections of Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sonny Bono. More than a cult of personality, it’s the style of an “American Narrative” that most explicitly proves the dominance of triumphalist, conservative values in Hollywood (and remember, “political correctness,” though used with more annoying sincerity by the Left, is used just as often in the service of the Right). The complicated sense of collective guilt, nuance, and empathy are not as successful as simplicity, good and evil, might makes right, an eye for an eye, and American righteousness. A Marxist Dialectic where the viewer actively is in dialogue with the picture, usually ends up annoying typical moviegoers who "just want to be entertained" and feel good (look at Meek’s Cutoff, The Tree of Life, Terri, and Drive – the four best films I’ve seen this year, all of which upsetting many mainstream -- and indie -- American moviegoers).

Do the Right Thing and Thelma and Louise did not necessarily mean progress for blacks and women in film and culture; and Brokeback Mountain didn’t open up the floodgates for acceptance of gays. As South Park pointed out in their satire of Clooney’s Oscar acceptance speech from 2006, derided as a large cloud of “Smug,” Hollywoodland is distinct from middle class America, and Clooney is here admitting to that. But he’s also showing how people simply refuse to understand celebrity, either Political or Televisual: the "Smug" is part of the performance, and we refuse to see through the fourth wall. We embrace the Lie, as we always have. If there is to be any sort of revolution or change, the public too must be snapped out of their entrancement and hypnosis of images. This may be the key theme of Clooney’s body of work. Beyond Good Night and Good Luck, about newsman Edward R. Murrow (an excellent David Straithern) going against Joseph McCarthy, Clooney’s first film was the undervalued Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, where Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) leads a double life as Gong Show entertainer and CIA assassin. Entertainment and policy’s underbelly are performed by the same characters. In both cases, the audience sits rapt, passive, and docile. Clooney must make a liberal movie where liberals are made to look their worst, and so exorcising himself of the “Smug Elitism,” which he knows does indeed exist in his profession. Clooney has persistently worked against his movie star status, disappointing his viewers in Solaris, Up in the Air, Michael Clayton, and The American, staying away from pat endings and clear distinctions of good and evil, demanding that they engage with the picture. Will a pissed-off audience result in change? People demanding their money back? A dialectical exchange of ideas? Clooney himself may be too jaded. But his refusal be absorbed by the tropes of his world (see what's happened to Johnny Depp, who can't turn down big paydays) indicates that those ideals of dignity and integrity still run, if not in him personally (can they, for celebrities in either Washington or Hollywood?), then at least in his work.

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