27 July 2009


Oliver Stone's Nixon is not much different from the Nixon portrayed in Secret Honor. Both portraits seem intended to be sympathetic, but sort of render Nixon as a helpless, solipsistic infant, obsessed with fame and his own self-mythology, and completely detached from the reality of America's politic landscape and the way that his own power works.

At the beginning of the second half of the movie, when Nixon's presidency is beginning to unravel, Nixon, played by Anthony Hopkins in a way that made me think I was watching a movie about Anthony Hopkins or Hannibal Lecter, makes a trip in the middle of the night to the Lincoln Memorial, to look at the imposing statue of one of his heroes.

In what I think is intended to be a poignant moment, Nixon sees that a group of hippie Vietnam protesters are camping out at the Lincoln Memorial for some reason and he approaches them as they watch him skeptically. After trying to banter with them about his college football days, a cute nineteen-year-old girl says "We're not here to talk about football." Nixon has a brief "duh" look and then turns on the sincerity. She challenges his power to stop the war and realizes that he can do nothing to stop the war, that it's the system, which he has lost, or never really had, control over. Then the secret service guys pull him away and he tells his main assistant guy that the girl knew something it had taken him five years in office to realize, that he has no real power.

This idea echoes the conspiracy theory presented in Secret Honor, but Stone takes it to another level. While the conspiracy theory of Secret Honor is not supposed to be necessarily fact, but a sort of distortion of Nixon's, Stone's theories stemming from 1991's JFK about J. Edgar Hoover and the CIA are presented again as history (granted there is a disclaimer at the beginning of the film saying it is a work of fiction, within the work of fiction the conspiracy theory is presented a reality). This scene is sort of a microcosm of Nixon's character as interpreted by Stone. He wants people to love him and he wants power, but in the end he has neither. He's desperate to win, whether it be the presidency or anything else, because he equates that with being loved, but he's willing to do anything to get there, which, in the end, is what brings his downfall.

Stone's Nixon worships Lincoln as a hero president, and wants to resemble him, but he's can't have that heroism because his success isn't based on a particular passion other than to gain power and to be elected. In Nixon's era--Nixon has been called the most documented president, can't remember who said that at the moment--the idea of power is supplanted by both his constituents, who no longer revere the icon of the presidency, and the behind the scenes guys, who manipulate Nixon for their own interests. Nixon's desire to be accepted by both systems prevents him from ever understanding or being accepted by either.

While the movie certainly made me think more about Nixon, it didn't introduce any more than those certain points that I talked about in my last Nixon post, those events that it seems most chronicles of Nixon's life (Checkers, his mother, the crying with Kissinger, his crappy football career, etc.) have gone back to and exploited again and again. It is extremely detailed and perhaps historically quite accurate, but Anthony Hopkins' Nixon isn't convincing to me. It's certainly not my favorite Nixon, though this might have more to do with Stone's direction. He is too obsessed with JFK and J. Edgar Hoover and the conspiracy theories of the time to pay appropriate attention to Nixon. What he wants, it seems, is for Nixon to fit into a particular world view, while giving some attention to Nixon's particular dilemma, the paradox of his outsider/insider status.

To be honest, I still prefer Frank Langella, in Frost/Nixon, perhaps because that particular movie is based more on a limited presentation of a particular historical moment, rather than gross speculation. Langella's Nixon is contained within a moment that was historically documented, with almost no editorializing and little speculation of Nixon's life beyond that television interview, which allows the subltety of Langella's performance to tell us more about the man than Stone's exhaustive exposition can.

The most thought provoking aspect of Stone's movie is probably the incredible amount of speculation presented, especially considering the vast amount of source material he had to work with (the Nixon tapes, duh). The most outrageous example is his portrait of J. Edgar Hoover as a fat cat queer running the scenes with no particular motivation besides racism and greed. Perhaps the general idea of that is true. It probably is actually. And maybe everything in the movie is true, but this is just absurd:

I guess he's just trying to entertain people and be edgy, but it just feels like silliness, and it's not edgy.

Oh, also, I've been reading some Freud essays about paranoia recently, which he attributes to latent homosexual urges (surprise!). I think it has more to with power/lack of power, which I'll talk about more in my next post, on The Assassination of Richard Nixon, which I watched in the bus back from Boston the other night, and I'll probably write about this week or next week or something. Anyway, Stone seems to agree with Freud, and maybe they're right. At least, Nixon is portrayed as having no sexual interest in women and just being generally uncomfortable around women, which is part of why he resent JFK and perhaps why he is super paranoid and obsessed with the idea that people don't take him seriously, he's being manipulated by higher forces, etc etc.

Oh, that part is interesting to, his rivalry with JFK. Basically, people loved JFK because he was cute and did it with women and knew how to talk to people and all that, and they hated Nixon because he looks kinda weird and has a pretty terrible personality. This allows Nixon to see himself as the underdog, and his whole "My father was the poorest lemon farmer in California," thing. He saw Kennedy as part of the establishment, nouveau riche and all that, though that doesn't make sense if Nixon was sort of aware that he was going to be assassinated, which the movie implies.

Oh, I'm obviously getting bored/rushing this post, but two more things:

1. Young Nixon looks like Dick Whitman:

Not really, but whatever.

2. David Hyde Pierce as a staffer:

And this biblical quote:

19 July 2009


New World Order is a documentary by Luke Meyer and Andrew Neel that was released in May. They also made a documentary about LARPing (not bragging or anything but I used to work with one of the guys responsible for inventing LARPing). The documentary is pretty good, it's basically just about the culture of conspiracy theorists. They follow a few different guys around, though it's mostly Alex Jones. Alex Jones is really annoying to me, as I've expressed before, because I find him agressively boring. It's just the same shit over and over again, same quotes, same "facts," same footage, same crazy rants. He's just getting a little too mainstream and has too much material for me to be interested in him anymore. It annoys me that he's become the face of conspiracy theorists. They follow a few more interesting dudes, but other than this one kid from Brooklyn, Luke Rudowski, they don't really develop them much. But they do a good job of keeping themselves out of the documentary. There's no bias and no editorializing, and I think it's a pretty faithful representation of the lives of conspiracy theorists, which are, to say the least, weird.

Anyway, I'm feeling lazy, so I'm just going to upload the images I took while watching the movie on my computer in the order that I saved them and comment on some of them.

Alex Jones yelling on his radio show. Some caller is trying to ask him a question, but can't a word through because Alex is obsessed with this creepy southern policemen impression he seems to be doing.

This quote is from the scene where Alex Jones and his film crew are in the hotel where the Bilderberg group is supposed to be meeting the next day and then a fire alarm goes off and he starts freaking out because he thinks the government is coming after them. He says that when they checked in the hotel guy told him that sometimes the fire alarms just go off, which he thinks was a warning or something. He also keeps yelling "I'm in command." It's pretty scary.

This is Geraldo flipping Alex Jones and other protesters the bird because they showed up to his outdoor filming and yelled "Down with the New World Order" or something through a bull horn.

Here's Bill Clinton. He's giving some speech and the kid from Brooklyn starts yelling about the New World Order and 9/11, and Clinton says something like, "This is one of those guys that thinks it was an inside job. It wasn't an inside job. It was nineteen men..."

Joe Biden. The Brooklyn Kid starts asking him tough questions at a press conference and be begins to argue with the kid before smiling and saying, "Get a life." I love Joe Biden.

Young Alex Jones. Not a bad looking guy.

The Brooklyn Kid getting kicked out of Clinton's press conference.

This is an old ass dude named Jack McLamb who started a like separate society or something, where a bunch of old Christian people live together and don't like the government. He also believes in having a militia and says things like, "If you have not bought ammunition, if you have not bought guns, buy them now."

Old couple that lives in John McLamb's thing. They sang a song about Jesus. One thing I learned is that a lot of conspiracy theorists are Jesus people too. But specifically the New World Order ones. I think they just don't like the government or something. Their basically reactionary conservatives. They're cute, but terrible.

This kid is really upset about the New World Order.


Give me liberty of give me death.

A lot of New World Order people also have southern accents. This guy is actually crying.

He was my favorite one. He was very sincere. I felt sympathy for him.

This douche bag in the Hawaiian shirt claims that he was working in the Pentagon when the plane hit on 9/11 and then makes fun of Seth Jackson, the southern guy that I like, while he was handing out literature in New Orleans. Hawaiian shirt guy comes off as a total dick while Jackson very sincerely tries to tell him about what he's doing, but then he seems sort of discouraged because this douche bag is so relentless.

Another Alex Jones quote.

Other non-image based hilights:

The Brooklyn Kid on Alex Jones: "He has sort of like a charisma, he has a very loud voice, and he's not afraid to say what's on his mind."

Irish New World Order film maker describing his obsession: "It's like an oyster with a piece of grit in it. It can't get rid of it and then it makes a pearl."

"We will bring the darkness into the light."

16 July 2009

The First Philip Roth Novel I Coudn't Finish*

I took a trip to San Francisco (and Santa Cruz) this past weekend, and was planning to finish Philip Roth's Out Gang on the trip, but I ended up just skimming through it. The book is a satire of Richard Nixon, and it reminded me of a New Yorker "Shouts and Murmurs" piece drawn out into a two hundred page novel. It is funny, and pretty clever, and even prescient, but also just damn boring. The first section speculates on Nixon's ideas about abortion, which was interesting given the recent revelation of his feeling that abortion was okay in some cases, like interracial children. The book goes on at length about a plan to murder Boy Scouts and his alleged assassination. It is definitely in keeping with Roth's whole "immaturity" thing, but not interesting enough to keep me reading, unfortunately.

While in San Fran I went to a cool bar called "Zeitgeist" and it reminded me of that movie. Something I realized I had never given much thought to is the title of the movie, Zeitgeist, and what relevance it actually has. "The spirit of the time" now seems to reflect the popularity of internet conspiracy films, as well as conspiracy theories becoming popular in mainstream media (well, at least in The Da Vinci Code), then anything that the movie is actually about. I mean, what is "the spirit of the times" when it comes to religion, 9/11 and the federal reserve (the three conspiracies the film present)? I can't come up with anything that makes sense.

*I've been halfway through Sabath's Theatre for about six months, and probably won't finish it, at least not soon, and also now that I think about it, I never finished Portnoy's Complaint, but I've been planning to reread it.

02 July 2009

Secret Honor

Secret Honor is a strange film to have been made by Robert Altman. It has the characteristic long shots and sweeping, zooming, lingering camera movements, and the frantic acting that seems as much improvised as from the script (though apparently Philip Baker Hall's performance is directly from the script), but it doesn't have twenty-four equally developed characters, a range of settings, or a complex plot constructed from related vignettes. It is one man in one room.

That Secret Honor is adapted from the play by David Freed (who also wrote Executive Action, which I wrote about like two days ago) and Arnold Stone is apparent from the beginning. The references to other dramatists, Beckett, Chekhov, Shakespeare, are obvious but sort of useful. Philip Baker Hall is amazing, as others have noted, and his Nixon is believable, though he appears too skinny for the role, which a not insignificant frailty, especially next to Frank Langella.

Get ready for a barrage of images, by the way

But Nixon's frailty is a big part of this film. The Nixon we see is years after the Watergate scandal, living in a stately home (his study at least is stately) apparently in New Jersey (not Cali?), driven mad with shame and disgrace, rehashing his time of power. What is strange about the film is that it takes place in one evening and we see Nixon degenerate from recording a fictional court defense for the Watergate trial that never took place to clutching his childhood bible, sweating and screaming for his mother, not to mention contemplating suicide. One has to wonder if this scene is replayed every night.

I find the image of a microphone standing alone very poetic

Nixon is shown as obsessed with recording equipment, which makes sense, obviously. He has a tape recorder, which he is comically inept at using, and four television monitors, at first showing different interiors of his home, but eventually all showing Nixon at his desk. He lapses between performance for the tape machine and camera and his manic, solipsistic, paranoid dialogue; control and loss of control.

There's a lot of Nixon in my life right now. I'm reading Our Gang, by Philip Roth, which is a satire so outlandish that I'm having trouble staying interested, so I'm not sure that it will appear on this blog. I also downloaded Oliver Stone's Nixon, with Anthony Hopkins as Nixon. I'm excited about that.

According to everyone, Nixon is this psychologically complex figure. Was he really just being manipulated by higher powers, a poor boy living the American dream, but caught up in corruption that was bigger than himself? Or was he awful and manipulative and blah blah. What's weird is that all of these portraits of Nixon take advantage of the same set of facts, which have little to do with the man himself, depending on how you think about psychology. He is the most thoroughly documented of the presidents of the 20th century, but all of the events that allow people to have psychological insights into his character are just events, little pieces of the man that are extrapolated into meaningful characterizations, the remarks about Bohemian Grove, the growly voice, the speech about Checkers, his poor upbringing. Each portrait is a different interpretation of the same collection of "facts," which, I guess, is all we have to go on.

As Nixon unravels we discover the meaning of the phrase "secret honor" and how it relates to the conspiracy theory vaguely alluded to throughout the film. This theory is a fictional twist on the actual Watergate conspiracy. It's a little far fetched, but a cool spin.

Basically, Nixon explains that he orchestrated Watergate himself in order to cover up the great conspiracy, which is vaguely something about the US government's involvement with selling heroin. Nixon realizes that even as president he is not in control, and that he will eventually take the blame for a mysterious group of elites (Bohemian Grove, which exists, and the Committee of 100, which does not to my knowledge) who are really running things. So he martyrs himself, but whether its for the sake of the American people, or to save his own skin is unclear. It's also unclear whether the viewer is supposed to believe that this is what really happened, in the historical sense, or if Nixon has been driven so mad by humiliation and shame that his obviously demented mind has concocted this fiction to console himself. It's conceivable that both are true.

Whether or not the issue is heroin, it's clear that, within the fictional world of the film, there was at least the existence of a group of people that controlled Nixon, possibly involving Henry Kissinger and other lesser known but powerful government and non-government leaders. One thing that all of the portraits of Nixon agree on is that he was somewhat the victim of forces that he couldn't control. He clearly felt sort of like a hick who forced his way into an elite club, but was never really accepted and never felt comfortable. His paranoia stems from the fact that he can't trust anyone, because he believes that they think he is lesser than them, sort of a buffoon, a president that only got there because he was able to be controlled. This is what makes his character so sympathetic. Although he was guilty of some pretty bad shit, he is ultimately a sympathetic character, one that most Americans (meaning those of us who are not millionaires, which is like 99%) can identify with.

While I believe that makers of the film to be genuine in their interest in Nixon's character, I find their end product exploitative and at times ridiculous. The problem is that this is not satire, it's intended to be a sympathetic but complex portrait of the man. There is no irony involved. But when we see Nixon frantically searching for the bible his mother read to him from as a child, and screaming on his knees about his mother, it gets to be too much. Maybe it just made me uncomfortable, but I just don't believe that this was how Nixon's life was lived out. It is fiction and therefore they can't be blamed for upping the drama, but it's the contrast of the earnestness of the piece, and the absurdity of it's content, that irks me.