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« Re-programming note: The First Virtual I Hate Robert Altman Film Festival resumes | Main | Joanie, could you possibly set the bar any lower? »


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Anybody here yet?


Speaking of someone being aware of their audience, this Nixon is playing to a packed his head.


And he's bombing. And he's aware of himself bombing.


Friend of mine loves this Nixon. He says Philip Baker Hall brilliantly captures something essential to the historical Nixon's nature, the giddiness induced by his paranoia.


Of course Nixon knew that people were always watching him. And, as we know, he believed that the people watching him were watching him with a hostility that made them see the worst at all times. But my friend says that Nixon enjoyed that hostility because it confirmed something he suspected about himself.


Nixon enjoyed being despised because he was familiar with it. It was what he grew up with. It was a part of the way his mother showed her love for him.


And in Hall's Nixon we can see Nixon looking for his mother's approval by courting her judgment, by practically begging her to show her contempt for him.


Very Freudian.


But I think we're also seeing a portrait of Nixon as a failed actor.


All politicians have to be actors. Most aren't any good. Doesn't stop them though. Of the ones who are good, very few have the ability to step outside themself and watch their own performance and judge it objectively. I think Nixon had that ability but his objective judgment was that as good an actor as he was he was not good enough.


Nixon knew when his performance was failing with his audience and he knew why. He knew he was too obviously faking it. He wasn't buying what he was selling, why should anyone else?


In Secret Honor I think Altman and Hall have given us a Nixon overcome by flop sweat. He's performing and he can sense the performance is going badly but he has only two choices, to continue with the show as written or get off the stage.

Chris G.

For all this talk of watching, it's striking how hard it often is to see Nixon throughout this movie. For much of the movie's running time, we see Nixon as a fuzzy image on his security camera, or with him turned away from the camera, or in one memorable shot facing a window as he recreates one of his speeches. There's one toward the end of the film in which he sits down behind the bank of TV screens in such a way that we can only see his legs and the top of his head. Other scenes linger on objects while Nixon continues his monologue in the background, or in voiceover. The staging captures much of what's so maddening about Nixon -- for all of the watching, for all of the years he spent on the public stage, who was this guy?

And in the context of the movie Nixon, rather than the real Nixon, what are we to make of his conspiracy theory of being offered a third term and basically staging Watergate for the country's good? Think about how staggering that is -- the idea that this man, this disgrace, faked it all for pure motives. Are we supposed to believe it, even within the realm of the movie? Are there other works of fiction that try to offer Nixon some measure of redemption? Offhand, all I can think of is, maybe, the Watchmen movie, whose Nixon is significantly different from the Nixon of the graphic novel.


Hmm. This is getting sad. I feel like Nixon. I'm playing to an audience of ghosts inside my own head. I think I'll call it a night and leave it to Roberto to clean up. Feel free to carry on without me.

Chris G.

The flop sweat is a good way to think about it. Consider where Nixon is -- he's utterly alone, talking to portraits and an aide who may or may not even exist. He has no more audience but himself (literally, in one scene where he's addressing his own reflection in a window) -- he's lost not just the presidency but even the post-presidency that most presidents who make it out alive enjoy.

Chris G.

The horrible thing that happened to Nixon is the horrible things that he did.


Hey Chris! Glad you could make it.


Re: Faking Watergate. That's his script and he's sticking to it no matter what. It's his only hope for getting through the night.


I like your observation about how often Altman makes it impossible for us to see Nixon. And it's interesting that the shot in which Hall looks most like Nixon is the one of him peeking through the door at the beginning. I even thought for a second that it wasn't Hall but a wax dummy of Nixon. Nixon is most like himself then when he's hiding and spying.


It's also interesting that there is no reason for Nixon to wait outside the door and peek in. It's totally staged moment. In fact, it's a moment that belongs to the stage---in that shot Nixon is like an actor waiting in the wings for his cue to enter.


Secret Honor is one of my favorite Altman films, so much so that it inspired a play I wrote about Bush.

Chris G.

There's another great shot when Nixon is sitting down at his piano -- for a second he looks like a "Kliroy Was Here" graffito.

On staging: We first see Nixon getting into costume as he hangs up his suit coat and puts on his dressing gown/smoking jacket. And at the very end of the monologue he takes that off and is finally down to his shirtsleeves -- if we continue the performance metaphor, his final few minutes are a sort of an encore to the main show.

Phil Nugent

Donald Freed, the co-author of the play, also wrote one about Bush: Patient #1.

It's an interesting question as to whether we're meant to believe Nixon's self-exculpatory conspiracy theory. I happen to think that the playwrights meant it be taken dead seriously but that Altman thought it was a crock and directed Hall to play it as the ravings of a drunk down to his last desperate arguments. (Freed is an associate of Mark Lane and not only worked with him on the script of Executive Action, a movie that purports to show how JFK was the victim of a right-wing plot, but signed on to defend Jim Jones as the innocent target of a CIA conspiracy.)

Assuming I'm right, I think the warring intentions of the collaborators gives the movie an extra layer of dramatic tension. I don't think Altman meant to give Nixon any kind of redemption, but they did mean to make him sympathetic in a pitiable kind of way, which is a backhanded sort of way to treat a man who so badly wanted to be seen as powerfully in control. On that level, it works a lot better than Oliver Stone's Nixon, which painted Nixon as being at the mercy of powerful forces--what Stone called "the Beast"--that forced him to give in to the dark side against what may have been his true wishes. (I think that in an odd way, Altman's take on Nixon is more respectful, in the way of someone who wants to believe that his arch enemy is worthy of him. Stone's Nixon was a squishy weakling with no way to control the shape of his life; at least, by spinning ridiculous lies to the very end, Altman's Nixon goes down fighting and spitting.) One possible antecedent of this movie's Nixon might be the one in Robert Coover's novel The Public Burning, which also teeters between a human character and a political cartoon come to life.

I love that set, with the video monitors and the pictures of Kissinger and other figures and the handsome furnishings that seem like an attempt to assert that their owner has transcended his natural tackiness--the lair of an uptight ogre with class issues. It's as if all the history associated with Nixon had been compressed into a tight space for him to pace in and shadow box with his ghosts.

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