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.

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