Tag Archives: Joan Didion

The Big Enchilada by Mitt Romney’s Chief Strategist Stuart Stevens

Part of an on-going attempt to illuminate the life and career of a political consultant, in this case, Stuart Stevens; other posts include “He Hates You”, a summary profile, a brief look at his China travel memoir, Night Train to Turkistan, a look at his travel memoir Malaria Dreams, an analysis of his novel Scorched Earth, an analysis of his book Feeding Frenzy, his interview with Charlie Rose promoting Feeding Frenzy, Stevens and Jon Hinson, an analysis of an episode of “Commander in Chief” which he co-wrote, and his defense of Newt Gingrich on “Charlie Rose”. Outside profiles and mentions, all excellent, are “Building a Better Mitt Romney-Bot” by Robert Draper, “An Unconventional Strategist Reshaping Romney” by Ashley Parker, “The Coming Tsunami of Slime” by Joe Hagan, and “Mitt Romney’s Dark Knight” by Jason Zengerle.

(This is a revision of an earlier overview of the book, the first attempt too shrill and venomous. Some writers must work very little to avoid descending into gracelessness, while I must work very hard to keep an adequate deftness. This draft contains a look at more material from The Big Enchilada, a look maintained with a cooler eye, where the previous overview had the tenor of a member of the Committee For Public Safety. Some may read this blog and think I am a radical, when I believe I am nothing of the kind. I do not believe that financial casinos, which produce nothing, barely provide the primary purpose of investment capital, should control so many of the political and economic levers of the country, and for that, I am a radical. I do not believe people should be starved into submission until they are forced to leave the country. That, at the present time, is a radical position. That women's biology should not be placed on the table every few years for a pile of cheap, rabid votes is my position: again, supposedly, a radical one. That marriage contracts should be indifferent to the gender of the parties: a radical one, now. The vast poverty of children, the labeling of such poverty as deserving, that this labeling is mostly by those who have known nothing but gilded lives: this revulsion to all this makes you radical. That science, reason, rationalism are not flimsy things to be taken up and dropped at one's convenience: these simple ideas make you Emma Goldman, now. This review is in large part non-ideological, first and foremost an attempt to glean information on how the process is seen by one of the process makers, a perspective very different from those on the other side of the curtain. Reading this man's books, has aroused a contempt in me for him, but it is contempt untied to ideology, a contempt I do not want or take pride in, a contempt that poisons me, a contempt for a man richly rewarded for treating something as a joyful challenging game, a game whose consequences this man does not feel at all, yet whose consequences the rest of us will pay for with every quality of our lives, and sometimes life itself. I do not want this contempt, but I will take it: that I feel such anger when the suffering of others is only granted opportunism and exploitation, this anger sometimes makes me feel more human than I've ever felt. The original analysis of this book is appended at the end of its successor.)

The Big Enchilada is the story of the 2000 Bush campaign for the presidency, up to election night and the contested re-count, told from the perspective of one of its key participants, Stuart Stevens, current media strategist for the Mitt Romney campaign, then media strategist for George W. Bush, the man primarily responsible for all attack ads, promotional material, convention planning, and debate prep. It is has the interest of all stories of this kind, whether it be John Gardner’s Grendel or Gregory Maguire’s Wicked of giving the villains’ perspective. Yet its primary interest is providing an angle unknown and ignored to us, a consultant’s view unmediated by any attempt to accommodate a common voter’s perspective. It is something like falling into a dog’s world where everything is determined by scent, where you might have assumed that the world was ruled by sight. More germanely, the difference between this book and a journalist’s account of an election is the distinction between the perspectives of a movie’s producer and its critics: those discussing the film will talk about its characters and plot, or lack thereof. The producer’s perspective will be what financing will be available, what stunt people and cars can be secured and which can be blown up, what buxom actress can take her top off and what will be the payment, etc. – all decisions where one might think in terms of immediate revenue impact. Plot and character can be built around these elements. It is similar in this book: those things that one thinks of crucial importance in an election, which are mentioned again and again – the issues – are not important at all.

I begin with what is the most stunning moment in the book for a naif such as myself: that the goal of this consultant is simply to elect the man to office, that promises will be made in an effort to achieve that goal, and the expectation is that those promises will be broken. This time it will be different, according to others on the campaign team, a point that Stevens considers “terribly unnecessary”:

candidates keep their promises part one underlin candidates keep their promises part two underlin

As I settled into the Bush world, I was astonished to realize that there was an assumption throughout the campaign that the policy would actually be used to govern once Bush was elected. This struck me as highly admirable and terribly unnecessary. For a while I tried to point out to Josh and his crew that once a candidate was elected nobody really expected that campaign policy proposals would be used to govern any more than promises made in a courtship were expected to be the guiding principles of a marriage when suddenly both partners are working and kids are running around the house.

Supporters of Mitt Romney can now take heed: one of the top men attempting to elect him as president fully expects him to break any and all of the election promises he makes, and he does not expect you to mind.

The book then, is an account, more of less of an advertising campaign, an advertisement for a man. This point is made explicit early on, when discussing ways to write a tax cut proposal as a pithy pitch for a TV ad. Given that this is a presidential candidate, I give bolds to the most striking parts:

convention speech underlined

[George W. Bush] read the final line of the script. “‘I believe we ought to cut tax rates to continue economic growth and prosperity.’ We should change this. It makes it sound like all I want to do is continue what Clinton has done. We can do better than that and we ought to say it. The whole idea of the tax plan will be to eliminate taxes for people at the bottom of the spectrum.”

In a thirty-second spot, you can comfortably get in seventy-five to eighty words, depending on the speaker’s natural cadence and accent. That’s it. There’s a terrible tyranny and a forced efficiency to trying to convey complicated ideas with so few words. It was both a discipline and an art, a form of poetry if executed properly. There’s a reason great copywriters make a gazillion dollars a year and end up in the Copywriters Hall of Fame – which actually exists and is not the punch line to a nasty joke about failed writers. So what if the spot is about mouthwash or deodorant, that’s not the point any more than, say, tennis is about hitting a little white ball over pieces of string or chess is about hitting little stick figures on a checkerboard. The demands of the process – arbitrary, difficult, without meaning – are what make it admirable, and, ultimately, if you get it right, rewarding.

That policy must be shaped in a way that it fits a thirty-second spot no doubt shapes policy; yet this a game of no consequence to the book’s writer. It is simply an abstract challenge, like Sudoku, of fitting the proper numbers in a pattern. That it remains an abstract challenge, an attempt to sell one product, a president, rather than another, like mouthwash or deodorant, is in part due to the writer himself; he is a very wealthy man. When you are that far up the tax bracket, you have the luxury of being indifferent to what policies are shaped in advertising or which promises are broken.

Here is the scene which outlines the coming campaign. It has nothing to do with any urgent or pressing issue, only what can be sold in an advertising campaign which can help to win the presidency.

bullet points part one underlined bullet points part two underlined

We’d been kicking ideas around for fifteen minutes when Karl [Rove] got to the point and simply asked “What are the basic goals we want these first ads to accomplish?” He then proceeded to outline the foundation of an entire campaign’s worth of spots. Mark wrote it down on a sheet of poster board hanging on an easel that we had set up to make it look like a real meeting. The goals read something like this:

  • Future not past. Focus more on what he will do than what he’s done in Texas.
  • Build Credentials. Bush = successful, big-state governor. Leader.
  • Win Education. Capture Bush passion. Make education a defining issue.
  • Win Taxes. Appeal to economic conservative base; use taxes to define compassionate conservative approach.
  • Rebuild military
  • Change the tone in Washington.
  • Social Security reform. Back up the Bush plan once announced.

I do not exaggerate the emphasis on advertising for shock value, it is made clear in the description of the process itself. Here is a group session with Jim Ferguson, former creative director of Young and Rubicam, at the time one of the top names in the advertising world, and Janet Kraus, a copywriter for Y & R, coming up with various ad pitches, no different than voiceovers for movie ads or sneakers, only much less hip and far more sentimental. The excerpt is lengthy to make obvious the similarities to any other ad campaign:

ad campaign part one ad campaign part two

Janet and Fergie both came up with scripts while we were in Kennebunkport. Janet had written three spots taken from her “now’s the time to do the hard things” theorem, one on education, one on Social Security and one that she called an “anthem” for the campaign.

“An anthem?” I asked her. “Really?”

We were having breakfast before the shoot at the terribly cute inn in Kennebunkport where we were staying. Janet was smoking and looking a lot more chic than anyone else in Kennebunkport.

“Yeah, you know. Anthem.” She shrugged. “Do you think I’m not supposed to smoke in here?” she asked.

I loved these guys. They knew how to package everything. We would have called it just another spot, but when you styled an ad as an “anthem,” it automatically sounded grander, more powerful.

“Don’t you call big theme spots anthems?” she asked.

“I will now,” I promised.

Janet’s scripts were neatly printed out; somewhere she had found a printer to hook up to her computer. She handed them to me.

GOVERNOR BUSH on Camera; TV 30;

“Hard Things – Education”

How come the hard things don’t get done?

Because they’re hard.

If we really want to make sure no child gets left behind in America, we need the courage to do some tough things.

We need to raise standards in our schools.

We need more accountability, more discipline.

And we need to stop promoting failing kids to the next grade because we’ve given up on them.

It’s easy to spend more.

Let’s start by expecting more.

GOVERNOR BUSH on Camera; TV 30;

“Not Afraid”

Social Security.

For too long, too many politicians have been afraid to touch it.

I’m not.

Because we need to strengthen it, right now.

We need to give people more choices in how they build their nest eggs.

I have a plan.

Protect the benefits of retirees and near-retirees.

You earned it. You get it. No change. Period.

And if you’re part of the next generation, you should have the choice to put some of your Social Security in a personal retirement account you control.

It’s time to make Social Security more secure.

GOVERNOR BUSH on Camera; TV 30;

“Moment in History”

There aren’t many moments in history when you have the chance to focus on the tough problems.

We’re in a moment like that now.

But to make schools better for all children – it takes fresh ideas.

To strengthen Social Security – it takes the courage to try something different.

It’s not always popular to say, “Our kids can’t read.”

“Social Security isn’t doing all it could.”

“We have a budget surplus and a deficit in values.”

But those are the right things to say.

And the right way to make America better for everyone is to be bold and decisive, to unite instead of divide.

Now is the time to do the hard things.

A few moments later Fergie handed us his place mat.

“Here’s mine,” he said. At the top, he’d scribbled “Something’s Missing.” It went like this:

Something’s missing in America.

Something’s just not quite right.

It’s hard to say exactly what. But Americans know it…deep down.

Our wallets are full but our hearts are empty.

It’s a time of peace but we’re not at peace.

Our national symbols are no longer symbols of pride.

It’s time we put the heart back into America.

Time to take accountability in our actions.

Time to make Social Security secure again.

Time to educate our children.

Time to be proud again.

Now’s the time to elect George W. Bush President of the United States.

I read it over. I loved it. “Is the governor talking?” I asked.

“Are you nuts? It’s an announcer, for Chrissake. Can I get sausage here?”

By the end of the terms of the man Stevens helped elect, then re-elect, the budget surplus was gone, the vile deceitful actions of a president and vice-president had put national symbols in disgrace, the military, through opportunistic and profligate use, had been shredded to pieces, and americans were buried in debt to fund tax cuts for Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney, and George W. Bush. Promises were a joke, promises were broken, more people felt misery than had felt it in decades, but: Stuart Stevens remained a happy, wealthy man. The life promised to others in advertising is always there for the lucky few in the topmost incomes.

The man at the center of this campaign, George W. Bush, has those qualities suitable for a low-rent pitchman. He is affable, jokey, twinkly eyed, warm hearted bullshit artist. That he lacks anything like vital life experience, a business position earned through merit rather than family association, or anything like in-depth knowledge of political policy or history is irrelevant. Those qualities may well be an impediment rather than an asset for an ad campaign, just as a brilliant actor may make a worse spokesman than a glib mediocrity. The quality that Bush can project, and felt by some, is friendly warmth, and this a powerful asset in an ad campaign.

I make a useful digression to George W.S. Trow’s Within The Context Of No-context, the striking note-form analysis of television in culture, still relevant in the campaign of twelve years ago, still relevant now.

The product as celebrity.

The most successful celebrities are products. Consider the real role in American life of Coca-Cola. Is any man as well loved as this soft drink is?

On the impact of television.

Two grids remained. The grid of two hundred million and the grid of intimacy. Everything else fell into disuse. There was a national life – a shimmer of national life – and intimate life. The distance between these two grids was very great. The distance was very frightening.

Because the distance between the grids was so great, there was less in the way of comfort. The middle distance had been a comfort. But the middle distance had fallen away. The grid of national life was very large now, but the space in which one man felt at home shrank. It shrank to intimacy.

So, there is this great loneliness because of television. The very antidote for this loneliness will be through products that will provide comfort, brief, fleeting comfort, that compels one to seek more products that give such warmth. A presidential candidate, therefore, should ideally be a product that conveys this comfort and warmth:

Things very distant came powerfully close, but just for a minute. It was a comfort. And useful to men who wished to enforce childish agreements, because the progress of the advertisement is toward the destruction of distance between the product and the person who might consume the product.

A product consumed by a man alone in a room exists in the grid of one, alone, and in the grid of two hundred million. To the man alone, it is a comfort. But just for a minute.

What is sought is this intimacy, intimacy with someone or something great. For this intimacy to have consequence, it cannot simply be warmth from anyone, but must be an individual with an aura of grandeur about them, a grandeur of fame. Daniel Boorstin, in The Image points to the utter inconsequentiality of most celebrities, that they are very much like others, unmarked by distinction or achievement, and George W. Bush can be said to belong to this group. He is markedly unsuccessful in just about every field, his only distinctions a prominent father and, just like Paris Hilton, vast wealth. These details, however, are enough to make him “prominent” and “important”. The sight of tears of a slum dweller or an overwhelmed stranger are an unwanted intimacy. The tears of a man “prominent” and “important”, though his prominence and importance has nothing to do with anything he’s done, are an intimacy sought, they are important tears for the same reason the tears of any Kardashian are more worthy of attention than yours:

george w bush in tears underlined

Mark [McKinnon] started out with some general questions about growing up in Midland. We weren’t sure how we would use this, but it was familiar terrain and a way to start a conversation. Bush loved Midland and you could see his eyes soften and his whole body relax when he talked about what it was like to grow up in a place with few trees and a ton of oil wells.

They moved on to the standard issues, tax cuts and then the military. When talking about how important it was for America to be respected around the world, his tone shifted and he looked off camera for a moment and for a beat I thought he might tear up. It surprised me. What was he thinking, feeling?

“You know,” he said, “everywhere I go in America, everywhere I’ve gone on this fantastic journey so far, people walk up to me with pictures of their children and say, ‘Governor, I want my child to look at the White House and be proud of what he or she sees.’”

Then he stopped and a hint of tears did come. The room was utterly silent, with only the faint hum of the 35-millimeter film running through the camera.

In the editing room a week later, we used what he said in a spot we called “Pictures.” It was always my favorite.

When I read that the public was told that George W. Bush was more “likable” than Al Gore, I am reminded of this note from No Context:

No one, now, minds a con man. But no one likes a con man who doesn’t know what we think we want.

That these images are false, in discordance with how these men may act, is an obvious possibility. That the images presented have nothing to do with actual policies necessary and helpful to people, the very thing that should be most crucial to voters, is obvious as well.

Here are two brief assessments by Stevens of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, assessments so utterly wrong, through blindness willful or not, as to be grimly, grimly funny. The first is a contrast between Bush and the democratic nominee Al Gore, stressing Bush’s calmer, more rational qualities:

lets bomb some country

The [Gore campaign] loved to make fun of Bush as a slacker, but in truth, I bet Gore’s hyperkinetic, meddlesome nature drove them nuts. Here was a guy who woke his staff up at 4 A.M. to insist they make the spot he just wrote on a nuclear arms treaty right now. This is quality that is amusing in poets but downright dangerous in a president. Hey guys, wake up, I’ve got a great idea! Let’s bomb some country!

Here is a passage on the impossibility of Dick Cheney being hated:

dick cheney part one dick cheney part two

They had two lines of attack – trying to paint Dick Cheney as a rabid right-winger and going after Bush’s Texas record.

The Cheney attacks, we were convinced, were a total waste. The notion that somehow they were going to turn the low-key amiable Dick Cheney into a hated figure was preposterous. It wasn’t going to work. The guy you saw on television on Meet the Press came across as eminently reasonable; plus, the press liked Cheney. They weren’t going to participate in some feeding frenzy to demonize him. The attacks were based on votes Cheney had cast years earlier as a congressman and as attacks go, they were awfully weak stuff. First, nobody outside of Wyoming even knew that Dick Cheney had been a congressman. To the extent he had a public profile, it was as defense secretary during the Gulf War. So, first the Dems had to educate people that he had been a congressman, then convince people he had done terrible things as a congressman, then try to establish why this mattered fifteen years later and, by the way, forget about the Dick Cheney you came to respect and admire during the Gulf War.

A final few notes from No Context, concerning game shows, but applicable to a presidential contest:

Art requires a context: the power of this moment, the moment of the events in the foreground, seen against the accumulation of other moments. The moment in the foreground adheres to the accumulation or rejects it briefly before joining it. How do the manipulators of television deal with this necessity?

By the use of ad-hoc contexts. Just for the moment. We’re here together, in a little house. It makes such good sense. But just a moment. We’re playing “Password”!

Game shows have come to admit that they refer only to themselves. (“For ten thousand dollars and a chance to join the one-hundred-thousand-dollar playoff, according to what you just said, what did you say?”)

A presidential campaign, is sometimes seen by many of its participants as an entirely self-contained game, and to view it as such does not mean you will be unsuccessful at this game. When the president says the simple sentence that the private sector is doing fine, it is considered a mistake that will count, “Obama’s political gaffe will be fodder in general election”. What connection does this small sentence have to do with the condition of the economy and the various blocked plans to do anything for relief? Nothing. Why must it count? Because Chris Cillizza says it will count. A similar event takes place with the point of the “war on women”, the various attempts to block abortion, contraception, and equal pay. Why was it over? Because Hilary Rosen declared a “war on moms”, so now women have nothing to worry about: “The “War on Women” Is Over”. But have things improved in any of these areas for women? No. The war on women is over because the referees say it is over. The war on women can also be redefined as almost exclusively about abortion, as Conor Friedersdorf does in “In Defense of Stay-at-Home Moms”. Is this mis-statement a gaffe? No, silly. The referees can say whatever they want. If you find this whole closed loop utterly meaningless, as Joan Didion did in “Insider Baseball”, then you might be told with rolled eyes, “You don’t get how game shows work.” A hopeful sign is that the game show format is rapidly losing its appeal.

The advertising for the campaign, it should be stressed again, is not used as an attempt to present the policy which the president is in favour of. The advertising exists in and of itself, to elect the president, with the policy incidental, and only to be made clear after the election. Here is a discussion of tax policy and budgets for a Bush ad. The budget impact of massive tax cuts goes unmentioned. What is crucial for an ad is that taxes being cut, social programs for the elderly, a key Republican constituency, be preserved, and national defense spending, always a red meat issue for conservatives, be kept intact. The rest, are just numbers to be settled later, after November. Whether it all adds up is unimportant for the ad.

whether it adds up underlined

“I believe that once top priorities have been funded, we should pass money back to the taxpayers,” he continued to read. “That’s what I’ve done in Texas. I signed the two largest tax cuts in Texas history.” He paused. “Lot of Texas in here.” He made some notes and tried it again. “I signed the two largest tax cuts in our state’s history.”

“Does it bother anybody that it sounds like that if it’s not Medicare, Social Security or defense, it won’t get funded?” I asked.

“I thought that was the point,” Mark said.

“What are you worried about?” Bush asked.

I shrugged. “That it makes you sound like that if you’re president you’ll pay for these three or four things but that’s it.”

“Republicans love this stuff, don’t they?” Mark said. “Isn’t that what they want?”

Bush laughed.

“Are people going to think that you won’t pay for roads or airports or-”

“Roads?” Bush teased. “You want roads in here?”

“No, I mean-”

“You want some roads, we can put some roads. ‘As your president, I promise to finish I-Thirty-five, so help me God.’”

“You know what i mean.”

“Don’t count on it.” Then Bush continued, “It’s an ad, not a budget. We can write the budget later.”

In “Making Mitt Romney: How to Fabricate a Conservative” by Ken Silverstein, there is a parenthetical aside on confetti services, highlighting the absurdity of the heightened importance for this frivolous effect, for what should essentially be a contest of different policy approaches1. These effects, such as the confetti, from the perspective of a consultant like Stevens are not inessential at all, but entirely the essence of the process. Here he is watching a McCain rally with a fellow consultant:

confetti underlined

“You know what bothers me the most about McCain?” I said to [Mark McKinnon, another Bush political consultant].

“I don’t want to hear this.”

“His confetti. This guy has the best confetti I’ve ever seen.”

We watched in silence for a while, brooding.

“That is great confetti,” Mark said.

The confetti was shooting out in great cannon loads, exploding at just the right arc, showering McCain and his wife in a blizzard of bright paper.

“If we had confetti like that this race would be over,” I said.

“This is a character test,” Mark said. “Anybody can win with great confetti. It takes a genius to win with so-so confetti.”

This could be taken as a joke. However, when we arrive at a central point of a campaign, the nominee’s speech, whose text is supposedly of primary importance as a guideline for the identity of the candidate and what his presidency might be like, its content goes entirely unmentioned. Only the effects surrounding the speech are spoken of, the words themselves of no importance. A lengthy excerpt, with the candidate entering a dark stage while his campaign film ends:

speech part one speech part two

I was so involved in the last frames of the film that I almost missed seeing Bush walk out onstage. It went perfectly – the crowd didn’t notice him until the film ended and the back lights came up, highlighting him, just as we had planned. The hall exploded.

In the theater, there’s a phrase directors use called “holding the moment.” It means knowing how to work with the audience’s attention, not hurrying it, playing off the crowd but not overplaying your hand. Not many untrained actors do it well, and often Bush seemed a touch embarrassed by the adulation of large crowds and either hurried through the moment or sort of hammed it up in some fashio, laughing and joking around.

But that night he held the moment. He looked happy but serious, without the boyish “aw shucks” quality that was part of his charm. If I had been a Gore guy, hoping that Bush would boot the speech, I would have given up any hope right then. He was going to give the best speech of his life – you could just smell it. Jim Ferguson and Janet Kraus were up in the lighting booth with me and Fergie leaned down and yelled over the applause, “He’s gonna goddamn slay ‘em.”

We had decided to keep the convention hall dark during Bush’s speech. The idea was to increase the drama of the moment and to make it difficult for the network cameras to focus on anything but the guy who was standing on the stage. Normally the convention hall remains well lit and it enables to cameras to roam at will, looking for the best reaction shot. Or what the networks think is the best reaction shot – it could be someone crying, but it could just as easily be someone looking bored or distracted. That was the problem with staging a convention – you couldn’t cast the damn thing. If we could have filled the hall with actors, I wouldn’t have been so worried. But real people, well, they were unpredictable and this was not a moment to leave anything to chance.

Bill Klages was the convention lighting designer, the winner of seven Emmys. I was standing next to him with a text of the speech, trying to cue him when to expect the crowd to react so that he could trigger a starburst light effect that would sweep the convention hall with flashing, staccato lights, which invariably made the crowd roar even louder. It’s the sort of thing they do at rock concerts all the time and was borderline inappropriate for this kind of speech, a bit like using a disco ball at church and spinning it during the really good parts of the sermon. But the speech was going to be an hour long and it was better to use every trick in the book to keep the level of excitement high than to run the risk of having reporters sense that the crowd’s interest had lagged.

We were five minutes into the speech when the networks started phoning, raising hell about the hall being too dark for their reaction shots.

“What do you think we should tell them?” Klages asked me, covering the phone with his hand.

“I think it looks great,” I said.

“So do I,” he nodded, then, into the phone, “We thought about it and we’ve decided you can go screw yourself. Okay?” He hung up the phone. “What’s our next cue?” he asked.

When the speech was over and the first balloon drop was coming down and the fireworks were starting to go off inside the hall – that was one of [long-time Republican National convention organizer] David Nash’s little tricks, using fireworks inside the hall, which had not pleased the Secret Service – Bush stepped back and the podium dropped down.

We see here a process conducted entirely in images, and in an augury of what would take place under the Bush presidency, the maintenance of an iron grip on these images. That the process consists only of images is not viewed by Stevens as a liability. He does not think the scrutiny of newspapers and reporters as a good thing, but a detriment to the electoral process. This point is made in his novel “Scorched Earth”2, as well as this memoir. The relevant sections are bolded.

organization rather than paid media part one organization rather than paid media part two

He [George W Bush] gave a speech to a lunch crowd of about four hundred people and afterward, I ran into Davis Yepsen, the Des Moines Register‘s lead political reporter. Every four years Yepsen becomes a familiar face on television, being generally recognized as the guy who knows more about the Iowa Caucuses than anyone else alive. Which might even be true.

“So what did you think?” I asked him outside the small auditorium.

Yepsen has that permanently rumpled look that reporters probably think makes them look like Dustin Hoffman playing Carl Bernstein in All the President’s Men.

“I just don’t know if Bush has the organization to win big.” Ahhh…I knew it would come down to this. Organization. Yepsen was obsessed with the notion that organization rather than paid media was the key to winning the Iowa Caucuses. This had become the conventional wisdom ever since Jimmy Carter put the Iowa Caucus on the map by outworking and outorganizing the field in 1976.

Essential to this view of the world was the idea that paid media – television an radio – would not carry a candidate to caucus victory. If anybody was ever able to rely more on media than organization and pull off an Iowa victory, it would go a long way toward reducing the value on an insider like David Yepsen. Then the Iowa Caucuses would become just like any other big statewide race, with the likely outcome determined by media buys and easily digestible polls. The voodoo of the caucus systems would be exposed as, well, voodoo.

The campaign which makes the most media buys, the wealthiest campaign is the one that should win. This is Stevens’ vision. Media is not intended to transmit one’s policies, but only to elect an individual, and actual policy positions may endanger the goal of electing the candidate. Again, we have election as a closed process, like a gameshow, nothing outside or after touching it:

media consultants and policy wonks

In most campaigns, there is a gulf between strategy/tactics/media and policy, with each side viewing the other as a necessary evil. Media guys like me tended to look on policy as that stuff you had to have a little of to be credible but too much was either distracting, consuming valuable time and resources without attracting votes or highly dangerous, exposing the candidate needlessly to positions that might alienate potential voters. Policy wonks see media consultants and campaign operatives as nasty and brutish tools regrettably required to get through that awkward stage of actually getting elected so that the world can embrace their brilliant ideas.

PERSONAL DETAILS

I end with two mysterious aspects of Stuart Stevens that reccur in his books. The first deals with his education. He is eighteen in 1972, and in 1978 starts work on his first congressional campaign, putting the length of his education at six years. Based on his writings, during these six years, he attended five schools: a college in the United States3, Oxford as an undergrad student4, Oxford as a graduate student5, two film schools6, including UCLA7. However, these are entirely his own statements: the only time UCLA is mentioned as a school is in an old profile, “Image Makers Hard at Work In the Selling of a Candidate”, in the New York Times, with Oxford unnamed, and Oxford never named in any book jacket of his five books. His Oxford education is not mentioned at all in The Big Enchilada. These details, rightly or wrongly, tend to cause my antennae to buzz that there may be something false in this account. I have already written here in this analysis of Stevens’ book Malaria Dreams that I think there is some basis that parts of it are manufactured.

The other recurrent detail is his wife. Stevens has been married to this woman for at least thirty years, meeting her in the New Orleans club Tipitina’s, and is with her in Switzerland during the early ’80s where he coaches rugby while she teaches8. Since then, he writes five books (Night Train To Turkmenistan, Malaria Dreams, Feeding Frenzy, Scorched Earth, and The Big Enchilada), none of which carry a dedication to a wife. In two of those books, Malaria Dreams and Feeding Frenzy he travels, respectively, through Africa and Europe with a beautiful, open-minded woman, his wife not even mentioned in Frenzy, his wife, always off-screen, racing to meet him at the end of Malaria. The Big Enchilada continues this tradition, with his wife accompanying him to Austin, Texas for the purposes of the campaign, but almost entirely unmentioned, except for her admiration for Karl Rove’s pens9. At the very end of the book, Stevens briefly seems to forget that he’s married10.

A relevant life for this last detail is Jon Hinson, a good friend of Stevens, on whose campaign Stevens does his first work as a political consultant. Jon Hinson led a fascinating and sometimes brave life, some of whose details are mentioned here. That this life may have provided a lesson to others, including Stevens, goes without saying. Those who read this and are able to make the obvious deductions, might ask: do you not feel vile bringing this up? And the answer is, yes, I do.

But I will ask in turn: why have we arrived at this point? Why do men like Jon Hinson need to live like hunted animals? Is it the policies of Stevens’ candidates or mine? Stevens’ attitude toward the electoral process is that it is total war, a case of fight, fight, fight, no stone unthrown, no arrow unflown. Then it should be expected that people who are fighting for their lives, not their political lives, but their lives, will fight back in turn, will fight back hard. Stuart Stevens may think the lives of those outside the process are worthless chaff, but we will make clear by how hard we fight for our lives that they have the same value of Stevens or any potentate he works for.

1 From the Harper’s piece:

Romney has employed a number of firms to stage his campaign events, among them Political Productions, which was paid $20,800 to help choreograph his announcement ceremony in February. The firm is headed by David Grossman, who has handled rallies for President Bush, produced and designed the 2001 inaugural parade, and helped prepare the Desert Storm victory celebration in Washington during the term of George H.W. Bush. (Political Productions is also, according to its website, “the leader in confetti services for the political production market,” and its team of professional confetti-releasers assures that a “synchronized event” will come off flawlessly “with all elements occurring on cue when and where you want. With only 20 to 30 seconds following each speech available for a headline photo opportunity or a video lead-in clip, why chance your production to anyone but the leader in political production?”)

2 From the novel Scorched Earth, a meeting between the protaganist consultant and a reporter, Robert Newsome:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“You know what it is about you reporters, Newsome?” Matt asked. Newsome was busy scrubbing furiously at his suit pants with a wet towel. “You’re fundamentally conflicted about this campaign stuff.”

“Conflicted?” Newsome muttered.

“You guys talk all the time about how you hate dull campaigns and spend God knows how much energy trying to get two candidates to bash each other’s brains out-”

“What other fun is there?”

“Exactly. And then if a campaign should finally catch fire and start exploding on you, all of a sudden you start to condescend and rip into us for lack of decorum. Decorum. Hah!” Matt laughed loudly. Heads turned. “On the one hand, you want democracy to be a great popular sport, everybody involved and cheering wildly. But as soon as it starts to happen, you’re horrified. It’s like you want everybody to come to the party but only if they dress just so. You complain about how nobody votes anymore. Big deal! Ninety percent of the people in Italy vote. You want a country like that? And all this BS about how television ads are ruining campaigns! You know why editorial writers don’t like television spots? Because they take power out of their hands! They want a few dinky debates, a polite campaign, and then for everybody to sit at home on Sunday waiting for the editorials to know which way to vote. Instead, some jerk like me can muck things up! You want twenty percent of the people to vote instead of fifty! Just take campaign commercials off the air. You’ll bore everybody to death!”

3 From “Thank God, This Will Only Get Worse” by Stuart Stevens.

I’d tried it once in college when an exceptionally gorgeous girl of a Nordic type suggested a trip up Pikes Peak in Colorado as something of a first date. (That sort of squeaky-clean approach was popular at that time and place, a phase I hope has passed for those still dating in Colorado.)

4 From Feeding Frenzy:

oxford

We were in a little restaurant on the side of a cliff in a town called Eze, wedged between Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and Monte Carlo. I was nineteen, I think, and on one of the many interminable vacations that Oxford likes to provide. She was a few years older, an American, but she had lived in France for a while, which seemed very impressive and somehow important. It was late March and not far away there were almost nude women lying on rocks they called a beach.

5 From “My Secret Life As A Muslim” by Stuart Stevens:

From my formative years as a grad student at Oxford, where there were many Muslims, there exist photographs of me attending a lecture entitled, “The History of Islam.” I was spotted many times riding my motorcycle in the vicinity of the Mosque on Bath Road. That I was visiting a girlfriend who lived nearby may only have been a clever deep cover deception. As proof of my success as a Muslim organizer, there are now four Mosques in Oxford, where there was only one when I was a student.

6 From The Big Enchilada:

film school part one film school part two

Then a friend called just as I was finishing film school. He was running for Congress in Mississippi against Senator John Stennis’s son and couldn’t afford to hire anybody to make ads for him. So he asked me to do it. I explained that I didn’t have the slightest idea how to make commercials and when he protested that I had just been to two of the fanciest film schools in the country, I tried to tell him that mostly what I did was watch old films and write little essays and listen to people like Vincente Minnelli tell us how it used to be. (Minelli wore a blazer the color of a canary yellow Post-it note. Perfect.)

7 From “Image Makers Hard at Work In the Selling of a Candidate”. Stevens has done writing and producing work for television; he is unmentioned among UCLA alumni of writers, producers, or documentary film-makers.

This free-form approach reflects the philosophy of the 40-year-old Mr. Stevens. Unlike most political consultants who rose from campaign ranks, he went to film school at the University of California at Los Angeles and has published fiction.

8 From “Thank God, This Will Only Get Worse” by Stuart Stevens.

It happened in my late 20s when I was living in Switzerland, where my wife was teaching. I coached the school’s rugby team, but it would be a charitable understatement to say that I had a lot of time on my hands. One of the faculty members had raced cross-country at Middlebury, and he convinced me to tag along to a nearby ski area for a training session.

9 These are the references to Stevens’ wife in Big Enchilada:

taste in pens and paper

With one of his elegant fountain pens – Karl had better taste in pens and paper than any man she knew, my wife maintained – Karl diagrammed the campaign structure.

A reference to a shared domiciles in a brief scene with Yvette, a campaign worker:

our house

I loved Yvette. She was funny and wicked smart and was always a calming presence, which is invaluable in a campaign world where it’s easy to believe that death and destruction lurk around every corner. She had stayed in our apartment in New York on a weekend trip to see the Yankees – she was a fanatical baseball fan – and stayed in our house in Austin to take care of our cats whenever we went out of town.

This is her, just out of reach, in Austin, on the night of the 2000 election after which the electoral result was held suspended for weeks.

my wife had taken it home

But when I walked out on Congress Street I realized I didn’t have my car after all, that my wife had taken it home around 1 A.M., a lifetime ago. I walked down Congress Street in the rain looking for a cab.

10 The forgetting of a wife takes place in the movement from “our” apartment to “my” apartment in New York City. A brief scene with Yvette, a helper on the campaign:

our house

I loved Yvette. She was funny and wicked smart and was always a calming presence, which is invaluable in a campaign world where it’s easy to believe that death and destruction lurk around every corner. She had stayed in our apartment in New York on a weekend trip to see the Yankees – she was a fanatical baseball fan – and stayed in our house in Austin to take care of our cats whenever we went out of town.

Here is Stevens leaving Austin. We are not told of his wife leaving before him. Again, my bold.

our place in austin

I left Austin right after the certification, thinking it was all over. The lease was up on our little limestone cottage and it seemed silly to move into a hotel. The truth was, I had come to hate the recount period, hated the way it made me feel like some kind of hanger-on. Karl was starting to focus on the first hundred days of the new administration, but that wasn’t what I did. I was a campaign guy and no matter what Bill Daley said, the campaign had ended on November 7, 2000.

Next page, now he’s back in New York. My bolded emphasis.

my apartment

The night it finally ended, Wednesday, December 13, I watched the speeches on television just like everybody else. I was back in my apartment in New York, ready to resume my life, but still held in some kind of suspended animation by this horrible, tedious process. But now, yes, it was over.

“Our” apartment is now “my” apartment.

(Small edits have been made to this post for aesthetics, grammar, and spelling since its original publication. On April 24th, 2013, I noticed that, through some error, some scanned images of Enchilada were blurry and not underlined; I replaced them with clearer, underlined scans.)

(What follows is the original post on this book.)

The Big Enchilada is an account of Stevens’ time in the campaign to elect George W. Bush in 2000, published in 2001, after the re-count, before the September 11 attacks. This entry is brief and unfinished.

OXFORD AND JON HINSON

When you read a Dashiell Hammett story, you wait in suspense over who’ll die first and when someone will have the first drink. In a book by Stuart Stevens, you’re held taut on whether he’ll mention going to Oxford and when. He writes of attending as an undergraduate in Feeding Frenzy, as a graduate in this Atlantic piece, and general attendance is mentioned in Malaria Dreams.

In The Big Enchilada, we get an overview of his post secondary education. Two of the best film schools, nothing else. He helps out a friend in a congressional race in 1978, when he is twenty five, no further education is cited. I bold what might be a significant sentence.

film school part one film school part two

Then a friend called just as I was finishing film school. He was running for Congress in Mississippi against Senator John Stennis’s son and couldn’t afford to hire anybody to make ads for him. So he asked me to do it. I explained that I didn’t have the slightest idea how to make commercials and when he protested that I had just been to two of the fanciest film schools in the country, I tried to tell him that mostly what I did was watch old films and write little essays and listen to people like Vincente Minnelli tell us how it used to be. (Minelli wore a blazer the color of a canary yellow Post-it note. Perfect.)

But my friend was insistent.

The congressman from Jackson, my hometown, was Thad Cochran and he was running for the Senate, opening up the seat my friend was trying to win.

It wasn’t as though I had a lot of offers after film school and I had to admit it did sound like fun. So I went back to Mississippi and somehow we stumbled our way to victory in what was seen as a major upset. Then I discovered other people would pay me money to make commercials for them.

So I became a media consultant.

Why not? It’s a profession of charlatans. You want to be a media consultant, just say you’re one.

Oxford is mentioned once, in discussing a location for a campaign ad:

oxford not ames iowa

The whole building felt more like Oxford than Ames, Iowa, with lots of high arches, flared valence lighting and windows with heavy ironwork dividing the panes.

You would think a building that looks like the school one attended in one’s youth might trigger a reminiscence, some anecdote of some kind, but there’s nothing. Gee, I wonder why.

So, if these mentions of Oxford attendance in two books and an article are deceptions, I wonder if this is to be the Romney campaign’s solution to the problem of student debt: that students should not spend money to attend schools, but simply state that they went to those schools anyway. To act like…what’s the word? Oh, yes: charlatans.

I do not stress this point out of any great devotion to an alma mater. Like Shakespeare, perhaps like Stevens, I’m a non-Oxfordian. I only wonder at what point the rules that apply to each one of us finally apply to the same chattering class which happily tosses these rules down on us. For if I were asked why Stevens thinks he can state that he went to Oxford when he did not, which, if it were the case, is a lie, and why he thinks he can write a memoir like Malaria Dreams with a timeline so scrambled that, outside other possible explanations, suggests a series of lies, I believe the answer is that he has enough contacts within this chattering class that any deep scrutiny can be avoided. While those of us outside this chattering class will have our smallest shortcomings punished with financial austerity, Stevens is given grace, because he knows people we do not.

In fact, I wonder if I might be able to find somewhere in Enchilada where we see Stevens in close, incestuous contact with someone who might render judgment, but also someone who praised the Paul Ryan austerity budget, an intertwining of the politico-media class that Stevens will describe as incestuous. Why, yes, I believe, my humble brain can find such a thing.

jacob weisberg

Jacob Weisberg, who writes for Slate magazine, was with me. He’d heard through the incestuous grapevine of journalists and political operatives that I was planning to sneak away for a few hours on election morning and asked if he could come along.

“I was on the Yale cross-country ski team,” Jacob told me, then added, “We were terrible, don’t be impressed.”

Driving up, Jacob started telling me about the first time he had met John McCain. “It was at Michael Lewis’s wedding,” he explained. “At my house.”

Jacob Weisberg is now chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate. Here he is praising the Ryan budget as “brave, radical, smart”. I think he’s a good writer and a good editor. If I feel revulsion at all this, it is not at him but at a distance which exists between those who struggle for the simplest things, and those who apart, seemingly hear only themselves talk. Those who would suffer most under the Ryan budget will not be on the Yale ski team, they will not be at the wedding of Michael Lewis, they will not get to ski with Weisberg and Stevens. They will never get to explain their mistakes, their difficulties, their lives. They are not like others, who have networks, have contacts, have ins.

I return to a point from the lengthy excerpt on Stevens’ education and his beginning in politics.

Then a friend called just as I was finishing film school. He was running for Congress in Mississippi against Senator John Stennis’s son and couldn’t afford to hire anybody to make ads for him. So he asked me to do it.

The congressman from Jackson, my hometown, was Thad Cochran and he was running for the Senate, opening up the seat my friend was trying to win.

It wasn’t as though I had a lot of offers after film school and I had to admit it did sound like fun. So I went back to Mississippi and somehow we stumbled our way to victory in what was seen as a major upset.

For whatever reason, Stevens leaves this friend unnamed. He names the man who first got him into politics, William Winter, a former segregationist who became a force for racial reconciliation in Mississippi, described by Stevens as the best governor the state had in thirty years, but this next man, the subject of his first campaign, goes unnamed, though he can easily be looked up. It’s Jon Hinson, some of whose brave, tragic life is described in this post. And for whatever reason, almost all the significant details of that life are omitted in his brief unnamed mention in Enchilada. It is a life that may have some especial significance on this day1.

That both characters, Winter and Hinson, are given brief emphasis back to back in this book, makes an overspeculative man like me speculate that perhaps two characters in Stevens’ novel, Scorched Earth, about Mississippi born political consultant Matt Bonney, are in fact based on these two. Powell Bonney, the political consultant’s father, a former segregationist who goes on to be an excellent governor, with Luke Bonney as the consultant’s brother, a man just like the consultant, his near twin in fact, whose first campaign was managed by Matt Bonney.

INCIDENTAL NOTES

Observations of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney from 2000 that fill me with grim laughter. Here is Stevens comparing the temperament of Al Gore unfavourably to that of Bush:

lets bomb some country

The Gore people loved to make fun of Bush as a slacker, but in truth, I bet Gores hyperkinetic, meddlesome nature drove them nuts. Here was a guy who woke his staff up at 4 A.M. to insist they make the spot he just wrote on a nuclear arms treaty right now. This is quality that is amusing in poets but downright dangerous in a president. Hey guys, wake up, I’ve got a great idea! Let’s bomb some country!

Well, it’s a good thing Bush got elected, and not some guy who decided to make a rash and utterly baseless decision to go to war with another country.

Here is Stevens ridiculing various attempts by democrats to defame the potential vice president. I bold the part I laughed hardest.

dick cheney part one dick cheney part two

They had two lines of attack – trying to paint Dick Cheney as a rabid right-winger and going after Bush’s Texas record.

The Cheney attacks, we were convinced, were a total waste. The notion that somehow they were going to turn the low-key amiable Dick Cheney into a hated figure was preposterous. It wasn’t going to work. The guy you saw on television on Meet the Press came across as eminently reasonable; plus, the press liked Cheney. They weren’t going to participate in some feeding frenzy to demonize him. The attacks were based on votes Cheney had cast years earlier as a congressman and as attacks go, they were awfully weak stuff. First, nobody outside of Wyoming even knew that Dick Cheney had been a congressman. To the extent he had a public profile, it was as defense secretary during the Gulf War. So, first the Dems had to educate people that he had been a congressman, then convince people he had done terrible things as a congressman, then try to establish why this mattered fifteen years later and, by the way, forget about the Dick Cheney you came to respect and admire during the Gulf War.

No doubt that will be Dick Cheney’s lasting impression, a low-key amiable man. Stuart Stevens, the oracle of Delphi.

In an otherwise funny passage on trying to book musical acts for a republican convention, Stevens trips up and unleashes a little malice, letting us know that he thinks Ireland is a country that can’t govern itself – this was said during the celtic tiger era, so he perhaps is talking about some deeper issue of independent rule, away from a mother nation.

ungovernable ireland

Nobody had actually asked Elton John (who probably hated Republicans more than he hated growing old) or U2 (who, despite the fact they come from a country that can’t govern itself, seemed to have quite a few opinions on how to perfect the world) whether they would love nothing more than to perform in front of a few thousand Republican yahoos in Philadelphia for free. These conference calls were like talking to people on hallucinogenic drugs, only they didn’t realize they were on drugs.

On the identity of the republican party at the time, and the limits of its appeal.

We had to face reality: The Democrats had been wildly successful in painting the Republican Party as a natural home for right-wing lunatics and nutballs of all stripes. And the party hadn’t helped itself with antics like shutting down the government or failing to denounce the wackos who were busy circulating pictures of Clinton behind the grassy knoll in Dallas. “Compassionate conservative” was the shorthand that would signal to the world that Bush was different. We wanted people to hear it and think that yes, Bush was a conservative, but he cared about education, cared about the poor and lower-middle class, cared about finding new solutions to vexing problems of inequality. There had been a lot of back and forth over who actually coined the term but there’s no question it was Rove and Bush who had latched onto it and wrapped the Bush candidacy around the concept. If it worked, compassionate conservatism would be the way to cut the Gordian knot that was holding back the Republican party. Like the Democrats in the 1980s, the Republican party’s growth was bounded by its extremes.

In regard to this attempt to transform the republican party from a haven for lunatics and nutballs of all stripes, I think it is apt to quote Stevens’ former boss, and say: “Mission Accomplished.”

A relevant excerpt on Republican candidates:

four slots

So driving back, I explained to Chuck what I called McInturff’s Law. It was named after one of the smartest pollsters in America, Bill McInturff, and it went like this: The Republican party has basically four slots for a candidate to fit into. There’s the Establishment slot, the Economic Conservative slot, the pro-life/Christian Conservative slot, and the Businessman/Outsider slot. To win the Republican nomination, you had to fit into at least three of those slots. Bush fit into all four. McCain? He really only fit one – the Businessman/Outsider slot. That limited his appeal such that he could never really get traction.

It seems that Mitt Romney fits only in one slot as well, that of Businessman/Outsider, with his two most formidable challengers, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, fitting into all three, hence the lack of enthusiasm for this nominee.

In Stevens’ view, the enthusiasm of supporters and their ability to organize is irrelevant. The great importance is ultimately media buys, and whoever has the most media buys, wins. An unspoken corollary is here also: it is the campaign with the most available money for media buys that will always win.

This perspective is given here, in a conversation with an Iowa journalist. I bold the significant parts:

organization rather than paid media part one organization rather than paid media part two

He [George W Bush] gave a speech to a lunch crowd of about four hundred people and afterward, I ran into Davis Yepsen, the Des Moines Register‘s lead political reporter. Every four years Yepsen becomes a familiar face on television, being generally recognized as the guy who knows more about the Iowa Caucuses than anyone else alive. Which might even be true.

“So what did you think?” I asked him outside the small auditorium.

Yepsen has that permanently rumpled look that reporters probably think makes them look like Dustin Hoffman playing Carl Bernstein in All the President’s Men.

“I just don’t know if Bush has the organization to win big.” Ahhh…I knew it would come down to this. Organization. Yepsen was obsessed with the notion that organization rather than paid media was the key to winning the Iowa Caucuses. This had become the conventional wisdom ever since Jimmy Carter put the Iowa Caucus on the map by outworking and outorganizing the field in 1976.

Essential to this view of the world was the idea that paid media – television an radio – would not carry a candidate to caucus victory. If anybody was ever able to rely more on media than organization and pull off an Iowa victory, it would go a long way toward reducing the value on an insider like David Yepsen. Then the Iowa Caucuses would become just like any other big statewide race, with the likely outcome determined by media buys and easily digestible polls. The voodoo of the caucus systems would be exposed as, well, voodoo.

This is entirely the same opinion given in Scorched Earth, Stevens’ novel about a senate race in Mississippi. A conversation between a political consultant, Matt Bonney, and a journalist, Robert Newsome:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“You know what it is about you reporters, Newsome?” Matt asked. Newsome was busy scrubbing furiously at his suit pants with a wet towel. “You’re fundamentally conflicted about this campaign stuff.”

“Conflicted?” Newsome muttered.

“You guys talk all the time about how you hate dull campaigns and spend God knows how much energy trying to get two candidates to bash each other’s brains out-”

“What other fun is there?”

“Exactly. And then if a campaign should finally catch fire and start exploding on you, all of a sudden you start to condescend and rip into us for lack of decorum. Decorum. Hah!” Matt laughed loudly. Heads turned. “On the one hand, you want democracy to be a great popular sport, everybody involved and cheering wildly. But as soon as it starts to happen, you’re horrified. It’s like you want everybody to come to the party but only if they dress just so. You complain about how nobody votes anymore. Big deal! Ninety percent of the people in Italy vote. You want a country like that? And all this BS about how television ads are ruining campaigns! You know why editorial writers don’t like television spots? Because they take power out of their hands! They want a few dinky debates, a polite campaign, and then for everybody to sit at home on Sunday waiting for the editorials to know which way to vote. Instead, some jerk like me can muck things up! You want twenty percent of the people to vote instead of fifty! Just take campaign commercials off the air. You’ll bore everybody to death!”

We see some of the flaws with this approach in the current race. The very well financed Romney campaign appears to be threatened by the very, very well organized Ron Paul supporters who have taken advantage of every edge in the caucus rule book to obtain a winners’ share of the delegates in Iowa and elsewhere, so they might hiss up as a poisonous asp in the elysium of the GOP convention.

That media buys are essential to a campaign dovetails with Stevens’ later observations on the distinctions between policy and media in the course of a campaign. Karl, of course is, well, you can guess who Karl is.

media consultants and policy wonks

In most campaigns, there is a gulf between strategy/tactics/media and policy, with each side viewing the other as a necessary evil. Media guys like me tended to look on policy as that stuff you had to have a little of to be credible but too much was either distracting, consuming valuable time and resources without attracting votes or highly dangerous, exposing the candidate needlessly to positions that might alienate potential voters. Policy wonks see media consultants and campaign operatives as nasty and brutish tools regrettably required to get through that awkward stage of actually getting elected so that the world can embrace their brilliant ideas.

In the Bush campaign world, Karl bridged the gap. He was actually interested in the details of policy, a trait which I might have found suspect if I didn’t know that he was also completely committed to the messy business of getting elected.

Since media is essential to a winning campaign, it would seem that policy would be secondary, if not inessential to a political race. The median that Karl Rove represents is not quite the one that Stevens intends here, a man expert in both worlds who shapes media expertly in presentation of policy, but something else: a man who shapes policy entirely for its presentation in visual media.

A critical look of Al Gore by Stevens, which is of great interest for the current campaign.

he will say anything to get elected

The key here was credibility. We weren’t going to win this race just by making the case that Al Gore was saying the wrong things and had the wrong plans. Sure, that was part of it, but we had to raise doubts so that when voters heard stuff from Gore they liked, they still would pause before accepting it. You could do it with large-scale failed promises, like his vow to fix health care in 1992, a debacle people still remembered, or with the little stuff that drove people nuts about Gore – the “I invented the Internet, I was the model for Love Story, I discovered the Love Canal” stuff.

He really will say anything to get elected.

As far as I can tell, Stevens thinks that a candidate who would say anything to get elected, and take credit for all manner of things they had nothing to do with, should not be elected. Someone, say, who takes credit for an auto bailout he was dead set against, someone who was for a path to citizenship, then changed his mind, someone who was independent during Reagan-Bush, until he decided two decades later that Reagan was one of his heroes, someone who didn’t own a gun until he owned a gun, someone who was for same sex marriage until he was against it, someone whose favorite book was Battlefield Earth until it was Huckleberry Finn, someone who was pro-choice until he was pro-life…well, we could be here all day. As far as I can tell, Stevens believes a person who constantly changes his position on every issue, who will say anything to be elected, should not, under any circumstances, be voted for. Advice taken, Mr. Stevens.

From what I’ve heard, the relationship between a consultant and their candidate is something like a marriage. If that’s the case, it must be great to have Mitt Romney as a client. It must be like sleeping with a different girl every night. That is, if you sleep with girls.

And what red-blooded male doesn’t? After all, marriage is between a man and a woman, right?

An interesting take on Al Gore during one of the debates.

the kind of kid you beat up

Gore was coming across as a petulant know-it-all, the kind of kid you draw straws with your buddies in high school for the right to beat up this week.

There’s a great benefit to a beatdown, beyond the pleasure of the beatdown itself, a pleasure, of course, exclusive to the perpetrator: you have the joy of knowing you’re not the victim. You belong, and the victim does not.

A last point on this book, on the subject of Stevens’ wife. In the books of some writers, their wives are sensually ever present, their smell and light in every page. The wife of Stevens is something like a benevolent god of another man’s faith, never seen, never described, entirely unknown, its markings few and obscure to the reader. In Feeding Frenzy, Stevens travels through Europe with a gorgeous former model and we’re never told he’s even married. Malaria Dreams has Stevens traveling alone through Africa with another beautiful woman while racing to meet his wife, forever unseen and unheard, in an Algerian city.

Stevens’ wife is in Enchilada the way the vast fortune of a slightly disreputable businessman in a Buenos Aires café is most certainly there: the money exists, but it is always out of reach, never to have a substantial withdrawal on that day.

This is the wife giving her approval of Karl Rove’s tastes:

taste in pens and paper

With one of his elegant fountain pens – Karl had better taste in pens and paper than any man she knew, my wife maintained – Karl diagrammed the campaign structure.

Here she is, indirectly, as a fellow tenant in domiciles of Austin and New York:

our house

I loved Yvette. She was funny and wicked smart and was always a calming presence, which is invaluable in a campaign world where it’s easy to believe that death and destruction lurk around every corner. She had stayed in our apartment in New York on a weekend trip to see the Yankees – she was a fanatical baseball fan – and stayed in our house in Austin to take care of our cats whenever we went out of town.

This is her, just out of reach, in Austin, on the night of the 2000 election after which the electoral result was held suspended for weeks.

my wife had taken it home

But when I walked out on Congress Street I realized I didn’t have my car after all, that my wife had taken it home around 1 A.M., a lifetime ago. I walked down Congress Street in the rain looking for a cab.

And those are all the signs by which you shall know her. There is a strange conclusion to all this. After this last quoted fragment, Stevens is in Austin, waiting through a few days as the post-election stasis of recounts and adjudication sets in. We are never told of Stevens’ wife leaving Austin. Long before the supreme court finally weighs in, allowing a glorious reign of peace and prosperity to unfurl, Stevens goes home, back to New York City.

I re-quote one fragment, with bolded emphasis before getting to this closing return.

I loved Yvette. She was funny and wicked smart and was always a calming presence, which is invaluable in a campaign world where it’s easy to believe that death and destruction lurk around every corner. She had stayed in our apartment in New York on a weekend trip to see the Yankees – she was a fanatical baseball fan – and stayed in our house in Austin to take care of our cats whenever we went out of town.

Here is Stevens leaving Austin. We are not told of his wife leaving before him. Again, my bold.

our place in austin

I left Austin right after the certification, thinking it was all over. The lease was up on our little limestone cottage and it seemed silly to move into a hotel. The truth was, I had come to hate the recount period, hated the way it made me feel like some kind of hanger-on. Karl was starting to focus on the first hundred days of the new administration, but that wasn’t what I did. I was a campaign guy and no matter what Bill Daley said, the campaign had ended on November 7, 2000.

Next page, now he’s back in New York. My bolded emphasis.

my apartment

The night it finally ended, Wednesday, December 13, I watched the speeches on television just like everybody else. I was back in my apartment in New York, ready to resume my life, but still held in some kind of suspended animation by this horrible, tedious process. But now, yes, it was over.

“Our” apartment is now “my” apartment. It would seem two lives would continue on in “our” place, but it appears there’s now only one life, “my” life in “my” apartment. It’s always helpful in the illusion of verisimilitude to make sure that a left-handed character on page 218 stays left-handed on page 298. When you’re in character, try and remember that your character is married, and don’t slip up.

I end on an obscure note, with a fragment from an earlier book of Stevens, Feeding Frenzy.

the conformist

She had the classic good looks I associated with Parisian women of twenty-five years ago, an image driven home by European cinema: Catherine Deneuve in Belle du Jour, Dominique Sanda in The Conformist.

The Conformist. Bernardo Bertolucci. Good movie. Interesting movie. Fitting movie.

1 This post was written on the day president Obama gave his public support for same-sex marriage.

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Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale: The Only Thing Missing Is The Woman Part Two

Part One Part Two

(SPOILERS for FEMME FATALE and BLOW OUT)

THE ETERNAL RETURN

The middle episode of Femme Fatale is commonly described as a “dream” though it is more complicated than that.

As a preface to discussing this, we may look first at the preceding scenes. The Femme Fatale moves through an airport hotel, whose images and characters will recur in the middle episode.

She passes Shiff and Stansfield Phillips, Watts’ lawyer; however, here they appear as business associates, perhaps even a couple, rather than in their position as assistant to Shiff.

Shiff and Stansfield at elevator

She ascends in the elevator, with the maid, carrying champagne. This maid and the champagne, of course, re-appear.

maid with champagne

champagne bucket

Finally, as she walks along the passage, she passes Watts. Two details. The first,

Watts with wedding ring

is that he is wearing a wedding ring. He is married. On the plane, he no longer is.

The second:

Femme Fatale turns around

Femme Fatale keeps walking

Femme Fatale turns around again

The Femme Fatale looks back, twice, at this man. I do not believe this is a look of attraction, but recognition. She has seen him somewhere before, but where?

As she passes to her room, she sees Lily’s parents:

Femme Fatale looks down

Looking down on Lily's parents

This shot is echoed later on, as Nicolas Bardo sees her walk above him along the corridor:

Bardo looks up at Lily

Shot of Bardo looking up

She arrives at the room for her passport, the same room where later she and Bardo meet:

Lily at room 214

Bardo at room 214

She is thrown from the passage, where we get a close-up of her eyes. They have no tears, but we dissolve to a room where rain passes down over the windows.

Eyes of Femme Fatale

rain flowing down

This is a pastoral refuge, filled with flowers of mourning and pictures of animals. Lily is named after a flower, and she wears flower covered dresses. It might be considered a place of traditional feminine poses, female fecundity, the house where Laure is re-born as Lily is surrounded with rain, like the water of the embryo.

Laure picks up one of Lily’s flower print dresses. She hates it. The dress is for the Good Daughter archetype, not her.

Femme Fatale looks at dress

Lily kills herself. Laure looks on, like a voyeur, like Nicolas later on – she is framed by the drapes, as Nicolas is framed by the door when he watches her dance.

Laure looks on at suicide

Bardo looks on at Femme Fatale's lap dance

The scene begins with water streaming down the windows. It is bookended with what looks like a tear on a plane engine. Like this story, it seems to spin endlessly.

close up of plane rotor

Laure boards the plane. She wears an outfit whose color blends in with the color of the surrounding plane; she does not wish to stand out, she wants to blend in.

Femme Fatale on plane

Throughout this episode, the sound of pouring water is always highlighted on the soundtrack. This episode was born in water, the rain about the house, and it will end in water with Laure’s drowning.

On the plane,

water poured on plane

In the cafe with Bardo,

water poured in cafe

At the police station:

water poured at police station

Sitting with Watts. The wedding ring is now gone.

Femme Fatale sitting with Watts on plane

Femme Fatale sitting with Watts on plane no ring now

So, we have the possibility that the people witnessed by Laure become re-animated in this dream, playing slightly different roles, with Shiff and Stansfield Phillips now working for Watts, Watts a single man, etc., the location of the hotel now being re-played in her dream.

There are two obstacles to this hypothesis. A small one is the re-appearance of Pierre, the security guard from the heist sequence in the bar. He, like Shiff and Phillips, has now been placed in a different role. However, based on what we’ve seen, the Femme Fatale never meets or sees Pierre. So, why does he re-appear in this dream?

Pierre at the bar

A more obvious point is Watts as a married man. When Laure first passes him in the hotel, he wears a wedding ring. On the plane, he no longer wears it. This would fit a dream where he is now re-imagined as a single man.

However, after Laure drowns and returns to the pastoral house, we have Laure say the following to Lily, trying to get her to continue living:

LAURE
But if you don’t end it here and you get your ass on that plane to America your future will be sitting right next to you. His name is Bruce and he’s a really good guy and he’s gonna look into your eyes and he’s gonna fall in love.

Watts, outside Laure’s dream, is still single in this future. And, of course, after he meets Lily they are married:

JOHNNY
You know who Bruce Hewitt Watts is?

BARDO
The new American ambassador?

JOHNNY
Bingo. He’s got this wife and three kids but no one seems to have a picture of them.

There is this other point that sticks out in the middle of the movie. Bardo tells Laure about his photo collages:

BARDO
But…there is a square here in Paris full of coffee shops, beautiful, and there is one in particular in a corner, you know, with these light reflections and I saw something that changed my life…

LAURE
It’s a great story, Nicolas.

BARDO
This is the best part!

LAURE
I know. I know. Maybe another time.

We are never told at this juncture what it is that changed Bardo’s life. There is nothing in Bardo’s collage from the middle sequence that shows it, it’s simply the square, almost entirely absent of people, with an overcast sky. We can, however, guess at what he might see that had such an extraordinary effect on him – the image of Laure, in front of the truck reflecting the light, that becomes the center of his collage, but, of course, only in the future.

So, there’s another possibility. That the movie is about the eternal return, the idea of characters and events playing out in infinite variations, the various events in time not one after the other, but actually alongside each other.

I make a quick crib of the idea of the eternal return from Borges’ essay, “Theory of Cycles”:

[The doctrine of cycles] (whose most recent inventor called it the doctrine of the Eternal Return) may be formulatd in the following manner:

The number of all the atoms that compose the world is immense but finite, and as such only capable of a finite (though also immense) number of permutations. In an infinite stretch of time, the number of possible permutations must be run through, and the universe has to repeat itself. Once again you will be born from a belly, once again your skeleton will grow, once again this same page will reach your identical hands, once again you will follow the course of all the hours of your life until that of your incredible death.

Such is the customary order of this argument, from its insipid preliminaries to its enormous and threatening outcome. It is commonly attributed to Nietzsche.

The most well-known variation of this might be Groundhog Day, though it is a variation where the person experiencing the Return is conscious of all past events, and finds the recurrence to be a prison. Here, the characters may only have a vague memory of other lives, a “deja vu”, just like the movie that Laure appears to star in, “Deja Vue”. When Laure turns back and looks at Watts, it is because of this remembrance of having been this man’s wife in another life. The compulsion that causes Bardo to take picture after picture of the square arises from something he remembers from the past, but which he experiences again at the end of the movie.

A clue to the way time exists for the characters in the movie is in the final collage, where the truck reflects the light while by Laure, yet the truck is also in the photo where it is involved in the accident, a few feet from Laure, and at another point, again a few feet distance, Laure receives her passport from Veronica, though this took place years before the other events. Another clue is in the child’s room, where we have a collage of her house, and below, a collage of her at various ages. The photos are of the child at various ages, side by side, just as the photos of her house, taken at various times, lie next to each other.

Collage photos in room of Laure's daughter

Collage photos in room of Laure's daughter

Collage photos in room of Laure's daughter

The characters in the movie are constantly trying to evaluate what will take place through the evidence visible to them. An attempt could be made to deduce the organization of the story of Femme Fatale, but it would fail, since the organization is left ambiguous enough that it remains at the level of the mystic, like the foresight talked about by the TV psychic at Lily’s house.

The archetypes here have been seen in movie after movie, involved in similar actions, voyeurism, theft, blackmail, betrayal, again and again. They have also been in this movie, again and again, variations on a theme, just like Ravel’s Bolero.

THE ONLY THING MISSING IS THE WOMAN

SERRA
What happened, Mr. Bardo was a car belonging to Ambassador Watts was found in your possession.

BARDO
I know, I know that…

SERRA
On the front seat was a gun, bullets, blouse and dress. The only thing missing is the woman.

The Femme Fatale first shows as a transparent, shadowy image projected on the TV screen. She is someone on whom others project an idea, what they wish to believe. Some fault Rebecca Romijn’s french accent as not credible for a french speaker; it should not be credible, because it is not her accent that causes someone like Watts to believe that she’s french, but her beauty.

On the plane, when she meets Watts she is pretending to be the Good Daughter. The Femme Fatale’s chief trait is deception; she plays a few other roles.

She is a princess, living in a castle.

ambassaor's residence

A woman in trouble (here, her reflection also falls on the movie poster of herself drowning).

poster for Deja Vue

The Marilyn Monroesque child-woman unaware of the power of her own sexuality.

Femme Fatale in her underwear

In the middle section, Bardo never connects with her as a woman. She is first an image to be captured, then a figure to be spied on, a tragic figure to be saved. He does not notice, or does not care, how little what he says is of interest to her. This inability to connect is not heroic, and might even be considered by the movie’s author as anti-heroic. This is shown in the most obvious way in the movie’s dress codes, which I believe are the traditional black and white to mark its heroes and villains.

Black Tie and Racine, for instance,

Black Tie and Racine

During the heist, Laure’s in black,

Laure at heist

When she returns to France and must persuade Bardo that she’s being driven to suicide by her husband’s beatings, she tries to disguise her nature, and dresses in white,

Femme Fatale in white

When it’s revealed that she’s behind the hostage plot, she goes back to black. Bardo, however, is not a hero. He might be a proxy for the audience, but for almost the entire movie, he dresses in black as well:

Femme Fatale and Bardo in black clothes

When Laure does her strip tease, both Napoleon and Bardo are voyeurs. First, Napoleon forces himself on Laure, then Bardo. Bardo has sex with equal contempt for Laure as Napoleon might have. Napoleon, however, serves as the scapegoat for this, first as voyeur (though Bardo looks on as well),

Bardo as voyeur

then for the assault,

Napoleon assaults the Femme Fatale

which allows Bardo to play the role of hero, though he then does the same thing Napoleon was about to:

Bardo assaults Femme Fatale

The only thing missing, underneath it all, is the woman. The men project onto her images they want to believe of her, yet the veil never falls of what’s beneath, though in this case it cannot fall – she is this archetype, and there cannot be anything underneath, only the illusion that there is something underneath, a mystery finally revealed to the right man.

The mystery may be simpler and more obvious; that this is a woman not attracted to men. Her sexual intimacy with Veronica seems very sincere, as intimate as anything she does with the men later. There is a quick shot of friendly intimacy between the two I never see in the movie between Laure and any man.

Laure and Veronica

The movie at the beginning is Double Indemnity with Barbara Stanwyck, an actress who always had a strongly hinted attraction to other women, without ever being fully out*. If we can speak of symbols linking characters, we have the hats of both Veronica and Laure bent in the very same way:

Femme Fatale with bent hat

Veronica with bent hat

That “bent” is sometimes slang for someone attracted to their own sex I leave out there, though make no definite conclusions.

From some of the last lines between the women:

LAURE
Not bad for a night’s work, huh?

VERONICA
You call that work?

Her dialogue with Bardo during the seduction scene is entirely unsubtle, without the possibility of attraction between a man and a woman, simple flattery of a man who is childish and she is not interested in any way,

BARDO
Are you flirting?

LAURE
Was I?

BARDO
I believe so, yeah.

LAURE
I didn’t mean to…

LAURE
It’s just that all your boyhood stories make you so damn lovable.

She passes off Watts to Lily without any regret. If he is such a good guy, you would think there would be at least the sense of sacrifice, that she is losing the possibility of a good man in her own life, but there is nothing of the kind.

That there are these cues of the Femme Fatale’s sexual orientation which are ignored, might be echoed in the scene in the bar at the bridge. It is a bar entirely filled with men, and only men, with the exception of Laure, with all the men dressed in leather.

Femme Fatale at leather bar

This, one would think, is almost a stereotypical gay bar. Yet despite the appearances, it is assumed that all the men want to have sex with this woman. This may be an unintended effect, but I don’t believe it is.

After falling from the bridge, the Femme Fatale is naked, though not the sensual nudity that a man might want, but almost a return to a pure state. She is outside her costume, in effect, outside her archetype. It is after this point that she helps Lily, and their lives diverge again.

Femme Fatale underwater

The movie ends now with the deaths of Racine and Black Tie, rather than Laure being drowned. A note on scapegoats from Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism is appropriate,

The fact that we are now in an ironic phase of literature largely accounts for the popularity of the detective story, the formula of how a man-hunter locates a pharmakos [scapegoat] and gets rid of him. The detective story begins in the Sherlock Holmes period as an intensification of low mimetic [realistic tradition], in the sharpening of attention to details that makes the dullest and most neglected trivia of daily living leap into mysterious and fateful significance. But as we move further away from this we move toward a ritual drama around a corpse in which a wavering finger of social condemnation passes over a group of “suspects” and finally settles on one. The sense of a victim chosen by lot is very strong, for the case against him is only plausibly manipulated. If it were really inevitable, we should have tragic irony, as in Crime and Punishment, where Raskolnikov’s crime is so interwoven with his character that there can be no question of any “whodunit” mystery. In the growing brutality of the crime story (a brutality protected by the convention of the form, as it is conventionally impossible that the man-hunter can be mistaken in believing that one of his suspects is a murderer), detection begins to merge with the thriller as one of the forms of melodrama. In melodrama two themes are important: the triumph of moral virtue over villainy, and the consequent idealizing of the moral views assumed to be held by the audience. In the melodrama of the brutal thriller we come as close as it is normally possible for art to come to the pure self-righteousness of the lynching mob.

I don’t think we can speak of Black Tie or Racine as bad in the way of Raskolnikov; Raskolnikov must choose to commit evil. The Femme Fatale, Black Tie, Racine are archetypes conceived to only perform evil.

Racine and Black Tie are skewered in public,

Black Tie and Racine dead

an elaborate, exhibitionist death which suggests sacrifice, just as throwing a woman to the waters suggests a sacrifice, a ritual sacrifice for sin. That these men are killed does not, I think, imply a more just or karmic moral order than if a double crossing woman who kills two men is in turn killed by her old crime partners – it would not be difficult to conceive of a movie ending that way, and there may well be movies that end such a way. That the characters who die are stand-ins for racial or gender types that the audience wishes to see hurt or humiliated, is an obvious point, but one that I won’t go into here.

The last question is whether, by movie’s end, Laure is still the Femme Fatale archetype. In terms of the color codes just mentioned, she now dresses in white. Bardo, for the first time in the movie, now dresses in white, rather than black,

Bardo in white on balcony

When seeing the accident, she places her hand to her mouth in shock, a gesture she never makes before, a gesture of an innocent rather than a hardened criminal. It is a gesture that Lily makes as well.

Lily hand over mouth

Femme Fatale hand over mouth

Laure wears white with some dirt on it – the slightly soiled virgin.

Femme Fatale and Bardo

A hint that this is just another pose is the bra that lies underneath the clothes – it’s black. Another might be the last shot, where Bardo remains in frame, a look of puzzlement, while she is already off-screen, the space next to Bardo empty except for the distant background. Bardo remains the patsy. The woman is missing again.

Bardo confused

The final dialogue:

BARDO
You look so familiar. Haven’t we met before somewhere?

THE FEMME FATALE
Only in my dreams.

Bardo’s line, however stale, is truly meant – he has seen her before, in the sequences he’s been in, again and again. Her line, I believe, is ironic. The images we have seen of her, are not her own dreams, but dreams of others where she plays an intended role. That she now be a redeemed innocent, though a gorgeous one, who can now fall in love with a man, is another role asked of her, not one she asks for. The movie ends with some melancholy piano that resolves itself into Ravel’s “Bolero”.


* An interview late in her life for the book Hollywood Lesbians by Boze Hadleigh gives some insight on this. The interview itself is fitting for this movie and this post, as it itself has the dramatic quality of a film noir.

[Boze Hadleigh]: Since you mention it…There’s a list – I did not compile it – that came out in 1981 in a paper called the Hollywood Star, of seventy bisexual Hollywood actresses.
[Barbara Stanwyck]: [Slowly.] I never saw it.
BH: If you wanted to see it, I have the half page with the headline, and the full page, from inside, with the list of seventy.
BS: You may show it to me. [I do, she unfolds the headline, then the full page list; the name on the top left is Barbara Stanwyck, but I don't dare congratulate her on her top billing. She studies the list, eyes opening wider a few times, then hands it back to me impassively.]
BH: This followed a list they’d published of bisexual actors. Did you see on the top right? It says, “Although many of the listed actresses prefer both men and women, it has no bearing on their talent as actresses.”
BS: [Pause.] It’s a star studded list, isn’t it?
BH: Not in alphabetical order…
BS: [Sharply.] I’d like you to give me the list. You don’t mind [reaches for it; I yield it up].

Part One Part Two

Femme Fatale script and images copyright Warner Bros; Blow Out images copyright MGM.

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“What We Talk About When We Talk About Joan Didion”

I originally wanted to write a reaction to Caitlin Flanagan’s piece on Didion, but I think I’m a little too free with my venom, even in those moments when I believe it righteous, perhaps those moments most of all. Such bile would add very little to the world, while this essay by Abby Mims instead gives a good sense of what one writer’s work meant to many. There is the sentimental belief that tragedy necessarily brings forth eloquence, when the first is an inherent part of this life, while the other is the result of very hard work applying one’s gifts. Ms. Mims has respectively, the misfortune and fortune of both.

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Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale: The Only Thing Missing Is The Woman Part One

Part One Part Two

(SPOILERS for FEMME FATALE and BLOW OUT)

A movie by Brian De Palma, released almost ten years ago, that intrigued me when I saw it, and which I’ve looked at a few times in the past week, to try and get a better fix on.

A good starting point, I think, is that there are no characters in the movie, in the “realistic” sense. The main characters in the movie are archetypes who have been summoned to play their parts for the edification of the audience. We might be able to imagine the off-screen life of Carlito Brigante or Carrie White; there is no off-screen life for the men and women here. They exist only as images, each their archetype, nothing more, defined by their emblems.

The names I employ for these archetypes are somewhat arbitrary; the Good Daughter could also be the Grieving Widow, the Hero could also be the Patsy, etc. However, they should all be recognizable to anyone who reads novels and watches movies. A more formal, more diligent study here might look at the history of character types. These should be suitable enough. I think it is unambiguous that all have only one or two defining traits in the course of the movie, and unambiguous about what those traits are.

The Femme Fatale – the icy blonde. Her emblem, a sexy dress.

Femme Fatale

The Good Daughter – a grieving widow. Her emblem, a flower print dress.

Lily in costume

The Slut – A woman who acts only through sexual motives, to be used and abused through sex. Her emblem, her nudity.

Veronica in snake bra

The Hero / Voyeur – an observer, the proxy for the audience, his emblems, a motorbike and a camera.

Bardo with camera

The Businessman – a modern-day King. He has money and power. Emblem: a business suit.

Watts

The Bodyguard – the King’s guard, his emblem, a car with tinted windows.

Shiff in car

The Thieves – the villains. Their sole interest is getting the money, nothing else. Their emblems: tuxedo, cap, leather jacket.

Black Tie and Racine

The Detective – an investigator who should be an ally of the hero, but is an obstacle to the hero’s quest, and may be in league with the powerful businessman. No visual emblem, but: everything he says is either an interrogative question or an accusation.

detective

The Clown – a ridiculous, weak, harmless figure who can be humiliated by others without fear of retribution. In this movie, he is the guard who’s the inside man in the Cannes robbery. Emblem: he’s rather fat.

security guard at heist

A key line in the movie, I believe, is this:

LAURE / LILY

You know why no good deed goes unpunished? Because this world is hell and you’re nothing but a fucking patsy.

They are in hell, they have no freedom of choice, they can only act out their roles as they are defined. Lily can only be the bad woman, Nicolas can only be the patsy. The only possible reference I can think of is Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, with the key difference that the actors can never break or talk outside of these roles. Taking the characters as archetypes helps explain one of the stranger moments in the movie; Black Tie, leaving prison in the very same costume he arrived in, to be picked up by Racine, also in the same outfit that he wore in the heist. It’s the same principle for why a cartoon character like Lisa Simpson always wears the same dress, or a film noir satire might feature a detective who always wore a trenchcoat.

The mid-section of the movie deals with a thriller archetype (the Femme Fatale) falling into another movie, a family tragedy, and being mistaken for another archetype (the Good Daughter), then moving back into her own movie under this guise.

The structure and characters have some similarities to another movie also written by De Palma, Blow Out, though we can speak of actual, often complex, characters there, and not simple archetypes.

There we have the hero / observer, Jack Terry (John Travolta),

Blow Out Femme Fatale

The tainted woman, Sally (Nancy Allen),

Blow Out Femme Fatale

Where Lily has former criminal associates, so Sally has a former criminal associate, Manny Karp (Dennis Franz):

Blow Out Femme Fatale

The security, the unhinged Burke (John Lithgow):

Blow Out Femme Fatale

The slut, an anonymous prostitute (Deborah Everton):

Blow Out Femme Fatale

The detective, Mackey (John Aquino):

Blow Out Femme Fatale

There is no king in Blow Out, only one that Jack imagines he is fighting against, who is the vast power behind the conspiracy; he is actually only fighting against the mediocrity Burke. In terms of structure, Blow Out plays with a male viewer’s expectations; the opening sequence is a parody of a movie that could be produced in the expectation of a male audience. A group of sorority women are observed by a serial killer. They are in various ways, tainted by sex, and will soon be killed by this lunatic, with the entire sequence shot through the eyes of the killer. Blow Out then cuts away from this movie to its main plot, which gives us many of the same elements, but not in the way the audience wants; there is, again, a serial killer, Burke, who kills a series of women tainted by sex, whose murders we see up close. A woman, Sally, who has gone to bed with men to blackmail them, is eventually killed by Burke. Where the murders in the pre-credit film might have given us thrills, these killings provide only despair.

Femme Fatale opens with a sequence that has been pointed out as unrealistic; it is utterly, self-consciously, unrealistic since it is conceived not from reality, but created entirely for the expectations of the (male) audience. A half-naked woman; glittering jewels; a daring theft; blood; a power blackout; night vision goggles; not least, sex between two beautiful women. The “Bolero” that plays is not only about the variations in this scene, between the various scenes in the movie, but that this heist is only an outrageous variation on others that have gone before it. The theft is ridiculous, but so are most movie thefts which are designed to have elements (a sexy girl, a helicopter, high tech equipment) for their visual and kinetic aspect. A movie has these elements not because most robberies have them, but for the same reason a circus has a dancing bear and a firebreather.

That those in the robbery are only limited archetypes, limited in their actions is emphasised by Black Tie’s opening line. They are directions for what will happen during the robbery. There are no names, only symbols (“Snake”, “Wetsuit”, “Torpedos” etc.) Their actions will lie not with their individual character in the scene, but entirely within the limits of these types. The Femme Fatale knows no one; the name she’s given here (“Laure Ash”) is a false one. The one she adopts later (“Lily”) is not hers either. She is a nameless archetype, the bad woman.

BLACK TIE

Listen up. At twenty two hundred, Wetsuit’s down the hole when the snake hits the carpet. Security lifts the key. I terminate the torpedoes. You charm the Snake into the stall. Bait and switch. At twenty two twenty, Wetsuit turns out the lights. Glasses on. I bag the snake. Key in the bag. Bag to the boat. No radio unless absolutely necessary. Code Red. Five minutes to blackout. Drop everything. Walk away. If the cops get you, tell them the truth. You know no one.

A second point: the opening image, is Laura as a dim shadowy veil over earlier incarnations of this movie`s archetypes, the Femme Fatale and Patsy of Double Indemnity.

Femme Fatale reflected in TV

So, these elements are there, yet they are not given play the way a man might want. The woman does not turn out to be good, but stays within her definition, is always bad. She has sex with the hero, but never gives herself over to him. There is even the possibility that the Femme Fatale does not just have sex with a woman for this crime, but is a full-blown lesbian, with no sexual interest in men.

THE OPENING

I will only make a few short notes on the very intricate jewel theft scene. It should be studied in-depth, shot by shot, on how it is organized, and I cannot do so at this time.

Black Tie is designed as an archetype to only be interested in stealing the jewels, and later, getting the money from them being fenced. He doesn’t exist outside of this intent. I think we see this, almost comically, in two moments during the theft.

In the opening preparation scene, the very beautiful Femme Fatale gets up off her bed, topless, yet he never breaks his concentration from his speech outlining the robbery; he does not even acknowledge her nakedness with a furtive look.

Femme Fatale and Black Tie

This happens again, during the robbery.

Femme Fatale Veronica in bathroom

Femme Fatale Veronica and Black Tie

The two women are having sex behind the glass. Most men might steal a glance; in the broad vocabulary of a heist scene, a criminal might be expected to give a nasty smile or laugh. Black Tie is entirely indifferent to it, does not even have to fight an impulse to look. His archetype’s only trait is getting the money. There is a tradition, of course, of male and female characters of different races not attracted to each other by deliberate design. This may be a subtle commentary on that as well.

Beginning in the theft sequence, we see an emphasis throughout the movie in controlling one’s image and observing what others do not. A key plot point is for Laure to obtain a false passport. Another key point is when her photograph is taken without her permission. Throughout, characters are at an advantage or disadvantage by what they know or don’t know, information obtained from great distance, oftentimes seen at great distance.

This starts with the heist. We do not see Laure’s face close up in the pre-theft scene. Our first look at her face is on the forged press card, giving a false identity, a photo of her, but not looking like her in any part of the movie. The camera then moves up, but her face is blocked by a camera, one like Bardo’s, which allows her to see at great distance.

Laure press card

Laure with camera

The sequence ends with the power going out. What happens next might be a good visual metaphor for much of the movie; the Femme Fatale walks about in the dark seeing perfectly, while other characters, and the moviegoers themselves, stumble about blind. This should not be taken that she is in control; she is ultimately a prisoner of her archetype.

Laure in thief costume

Night vision

Night vision

The final moment in the heist points up to the intentional ridiculous quality of it; the elaborate attempt to obtain a single key all just to unlock a simple door. Given the high-tech equipment available, it would seem an ordinary lockpick might be easier.

The opening bookend was of the shadowy Femme Fatale reflected on the TV, gradually becoming more visible. The closing bookend, and the beginning of the next part of the movie, is now her solid image in the cab, Paris reflected in the glass, passing the Eiffel, near where she’ll later drown.

Femme Fatale in car

THE AUTHOR, THE FEMME FATALE, THE AUDIENCE

There are some valid critiques of the idea that the all exclusive genius behind a movie is a director, responsible for each and every choice; I won’t argue with these, except to say that when watching a movie I often assign some individual identity as creator of the world. Even more so in a thriller where the audience is conscious of an inteventionist god, if you will, that alters and shifts perspective for the fullest effect of suspense, rather than, say, a “realistic” film where one is provided the illusion that we are seeing the unfiltered ordinary days in the life of a village, a relationship, etc.

This is a thriller, so the audience expects the author to withhold information for the effect of suspense. To keep the fact that Raskolnikov killed the pawnbroker a secret is pointless and would make Crime and Punishment hopeless confusing; to reveal the identity of the criminal in the opening paragraph of a Sherlock Holmes story, or hint too strongly at the identity, would destroy the point of the story.

A more succinct description is given by Joan Didion in her novel Democracy, when the writer herself steps in to give an explanation of her effects:

I know the conventions and how to observe them, how to fill in the canvas I have already stretched; know how to tell you what he said and she said know above all, since the heart of narrative is a certain calculated ellipsis, a tacit contract between writer and reader to surprise and be surprised, how not to tell you what you do not yet want to know.

Each character in Femme Fatale attempts to have an advantage over the other by obtaining more information on the others while concealing their own details. Racine, Shiff, and Bardo all use binoculars to see at great distance. Shiff conceals himself in a car with tinted windows. Bardo pretends to be a gay man, in order to put Laure at ease and enter her room. Racine and Black Tie pretend to be homeless to put Shiff at ease. Laure disguises herself in a wig, and later, pretends to be Lily.

When watching Femme Fatale one is aware that the author (one might substitute writer-director Brian De Palma’s name here) keeps information from us, but also provides a sense that we are gods of this world, knowing and seeing more than almost all the characters on screen, except, of course, for the Femme Fatale.

Again and again, we have a god’s eye view, looking down on the characters from a great distance.

Femme Fatale in bathroom overhead

Bardo overhead

Femme Fatale at Lily's overhead

Bardo in hotel overhead

Bardo with police overhead

Bardo arrested overhead

When Laure hides the gun, she knows where it is, but we do as well; when Nicolas enters the room, we have an idea where the gun will be hidden before he finds it.

Femme Fatale hides gun

Others cannot see into Shiff’s car, but we go inside it. We know of Laure’s background in the heist and the episode in the country, which neither Bardo nor Watts know about.

Early on, we’re given an illustration of the limited information the characters have, compared to our point of view, as well as how crucial it is for them to have access to hidden or inaccessible information.

Bardo takes a photo of Laure, which he can take at incredible distance because of his camera. Laure retreats to the church, where she is out of reach of Bardo’s camera, while still falling under the eye of Racine’s. We see her close-up. She opens the directions for where to get the new passport. We are given an intimate view of the paper; Racine sees this vital information from a great distance.

split screen Bardo and Racine

split screen Femme Fatale

split screen Femme Fatale and note

We then move to perspectives in the church. On the left, is Laure’s view, the undifferentiated crowd at a distance. For our benefit, we’re given a close view of Lily’s parents reacting to who they think is their daughter.

split screen church

Laure, frightened, leaves the church. Bardo stays focused on the photo of this ambiguous exchange, while outside and around him, the story continues.

split screen Bardo looks at photo

This perhaps foreshadows the mistake he makes later in the movie, that the entire story is contained in this photo, and no further details are needed. From the police interrogation:

BARDO
Mrs. Watts was trying to kill herself. I stopped her so she set me up for you guys, to get me out of her way.

SERRA
How did you come up with that?

BARDO
I read a lot of mysteries and I just figure out the endings half way…I put the clues together and I know what happened, sir.

It is after Lily wipes off the bruise and knocks the maid into a coma that we realize that the Femme Fatale knows far more than we do, whatever our sense of full knowledge. We are in the same position as Bardo after he takes the photo of Laure and Veronica at the church; there are details outside of what we see that alter everything.

This ties in with the almost totemic aspect in the movie of being photographed or recorded. There is, of course, the ancient superstition that a photograph captures the soul. Here, there’s always a great danger associated with any kind of visual or audio copy.

Bardo taking Laure’s picture,

Bardo split screen taking picture

Laure photographed before she is nearly killed,

Racine taking picture

The photo of Laure which endangers her. In this movie where characters hide who they are and what they know, while trying to see further than others, Bardo is only able to take the photo by passing himself off as a blind man:

Bardo as beggar taking picture

Femme Fatale surprised in car

Security head Shiff, his massive head dominating the screen relative to Bardo tells him all that he knows of the man and his power over him. Bardo, of course, has no idea where Shiff is, and can’t see him anyway because of the car’s tinted windows:

Shiff taking to Bardo

SHIFF

I don’t think you realize who you’re dealing with, Mr. Bardo. We know all about you, your overdrawn bank account your criminal record. I suggest you get that picture back and you bring it to me at the residence tomorrow morning at 11 a.m. Sharp.

Shiff is able to see via his binoculars that Bardo will be wearing a wire when talking to Watts. This cannot be allowed.

Bardo and recorder

SHIFF

Park Bardo in the office until I can get…Hold on a second.

(SHIFF sees BARDO through binoculars take out a recording device and insert a disc)

I don’t believe it. This paparazzi scum is wearing a wire. Make sure he doesn’t get past security.

Bardo’s threat at the end is that he has recorded Lily, and she kills him for it.

Bardo after recording Femme Fatale

There are always practical reasons in each instance for why people do not want to be recorded, but it is also a contrast with a movie where images are frequently false in their isolation, that these recorded images and sounds are invested with sacred truth. Another point: a character that is only an archetype is entirely revealed when their veil is down and their self recorded. There is no multitude of character, of which this is only one aspect; this is the only aspect.

A few further examples of the limited vision of the audience. At the beginning of the middle episode, we have a split screen where the left side stays with Bardo on his balcony, with the right side starting in near the same position as the left, then moving out through the sky, from the top to the bottom of the church, across the street, to the cafe. It’s an incredible space and freedom compared to the fixed position of Bardo. At the end of this, Bardo picks up his camera and photographs the women at the cafe, the very place the right side of the screen is at. Whatever our freedom, we run on the rails set by the author, and despite our incredible freedom, we have only been brought to the same point as Bardo, who seems to lack our freedom of movement. Our greater freedom as a viewer isn’t illusory, but the viewer remains very much the slave to the author’s vision.

split screen Bardo on balcony and church

split screen Bardo on balcony and church

split screen Bardo on balcony and church

split screen Bardo on balcony and church

Near the end of the movie, we again move beyond the tinted windows of Shiff’s car, to see what someone outside would not, Shiff held hostage by Black Tie and Racine. A fight breaks out, but we are unable to see the outcome as the author now pulls us outside the car. Where before the camera might move further and further up, a god’s eye view, now the camera moves further and further down till it is level with the car’s bumper – our power of observation is at the whim of this author.

gun pointed at Shiff

outside Shiff's car

A scene between Serra and Watts’ counsel, Stansfield Phillips re-states this idea. The detective simply wishes to “see” Ms. Watts. Phillips will not allow such a thing. The camera moves from a high privileged view, to a point where the spectator is at a worm’s eye view, looking up at these characters, when Phillips makes her pronouncement.

SERRA
I’d still like to talk to Mrs. Watts.

PHILLIPS
And what crime has she committed?

SERRA
No crime, I just want to see her.

PHILLIPS
Well, I’m sure we all want to see lots of people but fortunately in our country and in yours they are not compelled to see us. Good day, Inspector.

Stansfield from above

Stansfield from below

Another, more striking point is made through the collages assembled by Bardo. These are vast pictures of the space before his balcony, made up of individual photos taken of the area about him. They are on the one hand accurate, yet false. There are three collages seen during the course of the movie:

The first, when Bardo takes the picture of Laure meeting Veronica,

first view of collage

the second, during the middle episode after he has been double crossed by Laure,

second view of collage

the third, at the very end, after Black Tie and Racine are killed:

third view of collage

A quick detour; this collage is mirrored by collages in the room of Lily’s child,

collage in room of Lily's daughter

The collages are a diligent attempt to re-create the world outside. They are, of course, selective, showing only the vision Bardo has chosen. The first collage contains no people except the Veronica and Laure meeting; the second, does not even contain this picture. The third is most important of all, containing a radically different image, of sunlight bursting through, Laure reacting to the accident, the accident itself. We have seen how long it takes Bardo to take and print each picture, so it’s not possible for him to take the pictures and alter the collage before running down to help Laure. The landscape does not change based on what Bardo does and does not observe, but what the author decrees. In one moment, the visual collage has entirely changed; this may also account for the disappearance of Laure and Veronica in the second collage. She changes her identity, and her past itself completely disappears.

This idea of authorial intervention, very close to that idea of an interventionist god, converge in the final scene. Lily and Veronica are saved, not through their own actions, or Bardo’s, but sunlight moving in an intricate set of reflections to strike the eyes of the truck’s driver. The complicated route of the light reminds me of the complex engineering of the opening heist; the sun could well be the usual god symbol; it is, in effect, arbitrary, coming about only because of the mercy Laure shows earlier. The mercy shown by Laure, of course, is also from the author himself, the archetype willed to act one way rather than another. This may also be part of the relationship between author and the audience. The audience wants a happy ending, whatever the circumstances, and the author has given it to them.

DAVID HOCKNEY ON PHOTOGRAPHY

The collages are very much an homage to the work of David Hockney, who would construct an image through multiple small images, creating a cubist effect. An example would be “Pearblossom Hwy., 11 – 18th April 1986, #2″.

Pearblossom Hwy., 11

Hockney’s thoughts on photography and perspective, expressed eloquently in That’s The Way I See It, may be of some value in thinking about this movie. A small sample of relevance:

In the late seventies, when I didn’t do that many paintings, I worked a lot in the theatre. Now the theatre, or the kind of theatre I was working in, the opera, is Italian theatre, that is, it is deeply connected with perspective, it illusionistic theatre beyond a plane it is a box: there is a proscenium and that proscenium represents a plane, Beyond that plane is an illusion. In front of the plane is you, the audience, and, in a sense, there’s a separation between you and it. There is, of course, another kind of theatre, very well known in England: the Shakespearean theatre, which is quite different. The Shakespearean theatre is Cubist theatre in a way, in the sense that it is not an illusion behind a proscenium. The stage juts out into the audience and occupies the same space as the audience, so different people see completely different angles. Shakespeare did not need illusionistic settings. I think perhaps that’s why Shakespeare never fully works on television, because television, being a box, belongs to the Italian conception of theatre. Beyond the screen is an illusion and, of course, the box. These illusions involve perspective.

It took me a long time…to realize fully that, contrary to what some people may think, there is no actual distortion in Picasso. What he does may appear distorted only if you think one particular way of seeing, which is always from a distance and always in a kind of stopped, frozen time. The moment you realize what Picasso is doing, how he is using time as well – and that is why you could see round the back of the body as well as the front – once you begin to realize this, it becomes a very profound experience, because you begin to see that what he is doing is not a distortion, and lowly it then begins to look more and more real. In fact it is naturalism that begins to look less and less real. And that, of course, leads you into thinking about the nature of realism an what it is and what it isn’t. You become aware, perhaps more than ever before, that there are different forms of realism and that some are more real than others.

One reason, among others, why I think Picasso is so crucial is because he brings very much to the fore the question of versimilitude versus the remaking of appearance. And what led me into questioning the verisimilitude of naturalism was that it was not real enough. Because the problem is not that naturalism is too real, but that it just is not real enough.

We tend to think of the photograph as a perfect record of life. But in fact that photograph is the ultimate Renaissance picture. It is the mechanical formulation of the theories of perspective of the Renaissance, of the invention in fifteenth-century Italy of the vanishing point, which many people think was one of the most profound inventions of all time. Brunelleschi, looking through a hole at a street in Florence, makes a depiction of it from a fixed view-point. The Renaissance painters, of course, always suspected the rigid rules of perspective and bent them – as all good painters would.

Conventional art history takes the line that Cubism was a forerunner of abstraction by 1925. That was the year that saw the beginnings of Mondrian and much else…But that is where we run into a problem, because people then thought, ah yes, we have abstraction, what we call abstraction, which does not seem to look like the world, or it doesn’t matter whether it looks like the world or not; and then we have representation, where things do look like the world; and the ultimate representation is the photograph.

I, like everybody else, went along with that thinking. But now I am not sure at all about that. I think, in fact, the more you go on the more you realize there’s only abstraction. The photograph is a refined abstraction, a highly refined one, just as perspective is. In this sense, a Canaletto painting is a more abstract, and much less ‘real’, picture than an eighteenth-century Chinese scroll.

A BRIEF NOTE: THE FROZEN CLOCKS OF THE MIDDLE EPISODE

In the middle sequence, all clocks are frozen at 3:33 (a trinity of trinities, having both mystic and christian significance, which I won’t go into now). An overview,

bath clock

clock in poster

clock in car

clock in church

clock at station

clock at police station

clock at embassy

Part One Part Two

Femme Fatale script and images copyright Warner Bros; Blow Out images copyright MGM. “Pearblossom Hwy., 11 – 18th April 1986, #2″ copyright David Hockney.

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Quickness

From the chapter “Quickness”, in Italo Calvino’s excellent Six Memos For the Next Millenium.

The novella is a horse, a means of transport with its own pace, a trot or a gallop according to the distance and the ground it has to travel over; but the speed Boccaccio is talking about is a mental speed. The listed defects of the clumsy storyteller are above all offenses against rhythm, as well as being defects of style, because he does not use the expressions appropriate either to the characters or to the events. In other words, even correctness of style is a question of quick adjustment, of agility of both thought and expression.

The horse as an emblem of speed, even speed of the mind, runs through the whole history of literature, heralding the entire problematics of our own technological viewpoint. The age of speed, in transport as in information, opens with one of the finest essays in English literature, Thomas De Quincey’s “The English Mail-Coach.” In 1849 he already understood everything we now know about the motorized highway world, including death-dealing high-speed crashes.

In the section called “The Vision of Sudden Death,” De Quincey describes a night journey on the box of an express mail coach with a gigantic coachman who is fast asleep. The technical perfection of the vehicle, and the transformation of the driver into a blind inanimate object, puts the traveler at the mercy of the mechanical inexorability of a machine. In the clarity of perception brought on by a dose of laudanum, De Quincey becomes aware that the horses are running uncontrollably at thirteen miles an hour on the wrong side of the road. This means certain disaster, not for the swift, sturdy mail coach but for the first unfortunate carriage to come along that road in the opposite direction. In fact, at the end of the straight, tree-lined avenue, which looks like a “Gothic aisle,” he sees a “frail reedy gig” in which a young couple are approaching at one mile an hour. “Between them and eternity, to all human calculation, there is but a minute and a-half.” De Quincey gives a shout: “Mine had been the first step; the second was for the young man; the third was for God.” The account of these few seconds has not been bettered even in an age in which the experience of high speeds has become a basic fact of life.

De Quincey succeeds in conveying a sense of an extremely short period of time that nonetheless contains both the calculation of the technical inevitability of the crash and the imponderable— God’s part in the matter—in virtue of which the two vehicles do not collide.

An excerpt from “Pacific Distances”, in Joan Didion’s excellent After Henry.

A good part of any day in Los Angeles is spent driving, alone, through streets devoid of meaning to the driver, which is one reason the place exhilarates some people, and floods others with an amorphous unease. There is about hours spent in transit a seductive unconnectedness. Conventional information is missing. Context clues are missing.

Such tranced hours are, for many people who live in Los Angeles, the dead center of being there, but there is nothing in them to encourage the normal impulse toward “recognition”, or narrative connection.

There are, in the pages of the Los Angeles newspapers, no Crack Queens, no Coma Moms or Terror Tots. Events may be lurid, but are rarely personalized.

A Redondo Beach woman apologized to her 7-year-old daughter, then apparently tried to take both their lives by driving over a cliff in the Malibu area Tuesday morning, authourities said. The mother, identified by the county coroner’s office as Susan Sinclaie, 29, was killed, but the child survived without serious injury. “I’m sorry I have to do this,” the woman is quoted as telling the child just before she suddenly swerved off Malibu Canyon Road, about 2 1/2 miles north of Pacific Coast Highway.

When I first moved to Los Angeles from New York, in 1964, I found the absence of narrative a deprivation. At the end of ten years I realized (quite suddenly alone one morning in a car) that I had come to find narrative sentimental.

Again, Calvino:

If during a certain period of my career as a writer I was attracted by folktales and fairytales, this was not the result of loyalty to an ethnic tradition (seeing that my roots are planted in an entirely modern and cosmopolitan Italy), nor the result of nostalgia for things I read as a child (in my family, a child could read only educational books, particularly those with some scientific basis). It was rather because of my interest in style and structure, in the economy, rhythm, and hard logic with which they are told.

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