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Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

Bill & Hugo, Noam & Hitch

I seem to have got caught again in one of those perpetually-one-week-behind loops. Last week I posted my tribute to the late and great cinematographer Sven Nykvist, which should actually have been posted the week before. That means that this week I am posting a timely and topically commentary that would have been more timely and more topical if it had been posted last week. But I’m taking the long view. The way I look at it, when people read this page in the archive years from now, a week either way won’t matter that much.

And what about the promised diatribe on the topic of propaganda that I was meant to post last week and then this week? I won’t even pretend to promise it for next week or the week after that. I’m heading to Cork, and by the time I’m back from there, I’ll be lucky to remember my own name—let alone whatever bizarre thoughts were going through my mind in September.

So, what was it I should have been writing about last week? Well, the week before last there were two fascinating film references that found their way into the highest world political discourse.

One was from former U.S. president Bill Clinton. Like many public figures with a new book or a new movie (or, in this case, a global initiative to solve or ameliorate world poverty), for several days the man seemed to be everywhere. Clinton is in a unique position to draw money and talent to do humanitarian good, and he deserves credit for spending many of his post-presidential days on a project of this sort. So, it is kind of a shame that what many, of not most, people will remember of this recent media blitz will be his heated exchange with journalist Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday. While Clinton’s display of extremem pique and emotion in that interview was indeed riveting, I was more struck about something else during that week.

As I said, for several days it seemed as though Clinton was everywhere. I couldn’t turn on my radio or my television or download a podcast without hearing him being interviewed. And, within hours after the (pre-taped) Fox News interview was aired, I even saw him on Irish telly cavorting and partying with the golfers at County Kildare’s K Club, where the Ryder Club was held. The man was like Zelig! Now, I’ve listened to more than a few of these media blitzes in my time, and they usually tend to get boring because you hear the same soundbites over and over and over. But with Clinton, it was different. As I listened to him on National Public Radio and then on Meet the Press and then on Fox News Sunday (not to mention a few other places along the way that I can’t even remember), it dawned on me that Clinton was doing something very interesting. He was tailoring his comments to the audience of each of the various programs. For example, on NPR he sounded like an old unabashed lefty. When asked for his opinion on how to treat alleged terrorist detainees, he began by saying, “The president says that he’s just trying to get the rules clear about how far the CIA can go when they’re whacking these people around in these secret prisons.” By the time he got to Meet the Press, however, he was sounding more statesmanlike. Asked by Tim Russert about how America is perceived around the world, he said, “It’s generally assumed, I think, in Washington that the problem the American image has is that all the people disagree with President Bush and it’s basically about Iraq. I think it’s a little more complicated than that.”

When I heard he was going on Fox News, I expected him to be in full triangulation mode, using his legendary charm to make a fair attempt at winning over Fox’s presumably hostile audience. But, as we know, it didn’t turn out that way. Instead, he sounded awfully defensive when, very predictably, he was presented with a question about his administration’s anti-terrorism record. It was later spun that Clinton’s tantrum was planned, as a ploy to energize people who were most certainly not watching that particular interview (but would later see and hear the soundbites), the pro-Clinton Democratic base. If that was true (and it would be hard for anyone who actually saw the interview to think that Clinton was actually calculated in his pique), the result for Democrats was at best a wash, as the fallout from his appearance seems to have energized the conservative anti-Clinton base as much or more than the other side.

The film reference came when Clinton asserted that, once he authorized retaliation against Al Qaeda for the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, his critics cried, “Wag the dog!” This was a reference to the 1997 Barry Levinson movie, which depicted a president’s spin team’s efforts to distract the country from a presidential sex scandal by faking a war. The appearance of that film in that moment was surely one of the strangest coincidences in the history of politics and entertainment. Within a month after its release, the scandal involving Clinton and a White House intern hit the headlines. And, as it happened, over the next two years the administration engaged in three different military operations. Iraq was bombed while the House of Representatives debated articles of impeachment over Clinton’s untruthful statements to a federal grand jury. The retaliatory missile strikes at targets in Sudan and Afghanistan took place three days after Clinton acknowledged the affair in a televised address. And, finally, the bombing of Serbia began a few weeks after Clinton was acquitted by the Senate.

The irony is that the movie, which was obviously conceived and produced well before anyone had any inkling of the existence of Monica Lewinsky, was actually based loosely on a Larry Beinhart novel called American Hero, which was specifically about President George H. W. Bush and the first Gulf War! So it is a strange turn of events indeed that the film has become inextricably linked with Bill Clinton, apparently, in a perverse way, even in his own mind. In hindsight, it turns out that Clinton was really on the right track with all three military operations. Osama bin Laden was in Sudan (meeting with an emissary from Iraq, as it happens, although there is no evidence anything ever came of that contact). And the main problem with the Serbian campaign was that, if anything, the administration should have intervened sooner, since that might well have saved quite a few innocent lives. It is interesting (but ultimately pointless) to speculate whether more would have been done against Al Qaeda in the 1990s if 1) Clinton had kept his trousers zipped and/or 2) the Republicans hadn’t overplayed their hand with near-hysterical self-righteousness.

The other film reference came during what one wag (I think it was Jon Stewart) called “Crazy Day at the U.N.” Such was the performance of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez that the Holocaust-denying, nuclear-weapon-seeking leader of Iran came off as “the sensible one.” Chavez is no stranger to the world of film, being the subject of a much-lauded documentary that has gone by the titles The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and Chavez: Inside the Coup. In my review of it, I compared Chavez, who at that point faced a recall election, to former California governor Gray Davis. But, in hindsight, I was wrong. He has turned out more to be more of a South American Huey Long. My favorite quote about Chavez is what anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan said to Norah O’Donnell on MSNBC’s Hardball a while back. She told O’Donnell that she would rather have Chavez for a leader than George W. Bush. With no apparent sense of irony, she said, “You know President Chavez is not a dictator. He has been democratically elected to his office 8 times.” Well, I guess that proves it. Presumably, that tally doesn’t include his first bid for the office, which involved leading a military coup.

Anyway, most of the media coverage of Chavez’s U.N. speech focused on his calling Bush the devil. Now, having lived in South America, I know well that many people in the Latin American culture live and breathe metaphors, so I didn’t think it at all strange or surprising that Chavez would describe Bush this way. And I do not think it sounded nearly as offensive to Latin American ears as it apparently did to a lot of Anglo-Saxon ears. What did catch my attention, however, was finding out just how metaphoric Chavez’s world is. It turns out that, in his world, Noam Chomsky is dead and Alfred Hitchcock is alive.

After holding up a copy of Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: The Imperialist Strategy of the United States during his speech and recommending it as “an excellent book to help us understand what has been happening in the world throughout the 20th century, and what’s happening now, and the greatest threat looming over our planet,” Chavez went on to express regret at a press conference, as reported by The New York Times, for “not having met that icon of the American left, the linguist Noam Chomsky, before his death… [Chavez] urged Americans to read one of Mr. Chomsky’s books instead of watching Superman and Batman movies, which he said ‘make people stupid.'” [Oops!!]

That, of course, raises an obvious question. Has Chavez himself been watching Superman and Batman movies? And is that why he thinks Chomsky is dead? If so, it’s probably because he made the mistake of watching the ones made by Sidney J. Furie or Joel Schumacher. But Chavez’s most interesting film reference was actually in the U.N. speech itself. Asserted the Venezuela president, “I think we could call a psychiatrist to analyze yesterday’s statement made by the president of the United States. As the spokesman of imperialism, he came to share his nostrums, to try to preserve the current pattern of domination, exploitation and pillage of the peoples of the world.” He then added, “An Alfred Hitchcock movie could use it as a scenario. I would even propose a title: ‘The Devil’s Recipe.'”

I don’t know whether this man has ever actually watched a Superman or a Batman movie but, based on his Hitchcock movie idea, I am pretty sure he has never actually seen a Hitchcock movie. Chavez gets credit for originality as far as the title is concerned. Surprisingly, there has never been any actual film with the name The Devil’s Recipe (La receta del diablo, in Chavez’s original text). This is despite the fact that there are something like 30 films with titles that begin with The Devil’s [fill in the blank]. That includes a couple called The Devil’s Own and a couple more called The Devil’s Playground. Other entries include The Devil’s Bride, The Devil’s Brother, The Devil’s Daffodil, The Devil’s Party, The Devil’s Widow and Ken Russell’s just plain The Devils. Hitchcock himself never actually made a movie with the word “devil” in the title or the word “recipe” for that matter.

Hitchcock specialized in suspense thrillers, often with a film noir kind of vibe to them, like Rear Window and Vertigo, or the occasional outright shocker, like Psycho. He did sometimes do flicks imbued with international intrigue, like Topaz and Torn Curtain. But what would make Chavez think that this would make Hitchcock a suitable filmmaker to deal with U.S. foreign policy? Maybe it is the psychiatric angle, to which Chavez alluded. Maybe he is thinking of the 1945 film Spellbound, in which Ingrid Bergman played a psychiatrist trying to get inside the head of a murder suspect, played by Gregory Peck. Indeed, much of Hitchcock’s work is rife with psychological symbolism. Maybe Chavez had in mind a scenario where a shrink hypnotizes Bush and conjures up Salvador Dali-esque dream sequences, with giant melting watches raining down on oppressed peoples. Or maybe he’s thinking of a thriller, where W. turns out to have been down in the White House fruit cellar all the time, and Dick Cheney is impersonating him by wearing a wig? Or maybe Chavez sees American forces attacking the world the same way that birds, for no discernible reason, attacked people in Hitchcock’s famous 1963 flick.

No, it makes no sense. No matter how metaphorical your mind is. As for Chavez’s suggestion about reading Chomsky: I actually was required to read Chomsky for one of my classes at university. Not one of his political treatises, but a linguistics text book. I am here to tell you that it was one long, hard slog. It was like, well, something written by a man so boring that it would make the reader question whether the author was really alive. I would definitely rather watch a Superman or Batman movie (but one by Richard Lester or Christopher Nolan). And Chavez’s Hitchcock idea? That’s just for the birds.

-S.L., 5 October 2006


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