Multi-Movie Weekend – Magnolia, Hard Eight, and Secret Honor

Thanks to a vicious head cold, I left work early on Friday and spent the next, say, 53 hours on my couch or on my bed, consuming a steady diet of chicken broth, television, Sudafed, and movies. The movies were especially enjoyable; I watched three, all connected in a way, and they gave me my first taste of Paul Thomas Anderson films.

Early this summer, I listened to Marc Maron’s WTF interview with Anderson, which was released in January of this year when he was promoting Inherent Vice. At the time I was intrigued by Inherent Vice (still haven’t seen it) and as far as Anderson’s works go, had only seen part of The Master. But the interview was fascinating. Anderson seemed cool, smart, and thoughtful, and was really open about his movies, his process and his inspirations.

My first Anderson movie of the weekend was Magnolia. I wish I could remember the first time I heard of Magnolia but I can’t; I’m guessing it was on Jason Robards’ Wikipedia page. I remember thinking, though, that I had never even heard of this movie, yet Ebert named it to his “Great Movies” list, and it featured tons of actors I love, and it was Robards’ last film. Those all felt like reasons to see it someday.

I can’t say I am putting it on my personal Top 10, but there was something about Magnolia I really appreciated. It was different from any movie I’ve ever seen, and it was a story told honestly. The characters – and in turn, the performances – are great. It’s interesting to watch with hindsight and know it was Robards’ final role. Honestly, I probably need to process it more before I make any serious judgments or interpretations, but I at least like knowing that I have finally seen this film.

One of the great performances in Magnolia is by Philip Baker Hall, and he inspired my next movie choice: Anderson’s first feature, Hard Eight. Hall stars in it. In his first scene in Magnolia, I wasn’t sure who he was, but his voice instantly caught me. He has a great voice; fitting for his character, who’s a TV game show host. I searched his name and remembered Anderson talking about him in the Maron podcast. He knew after seeing him in Secret Honor (spoiler alert: the third movie I watched this weekend) that he loved him as an actor and wanted to write something for him.

Like Magnolia, this one is all about the characters. Sydney, Hall’s character, is magnetic. You wonder about him, and root for him, and love listening to him talk. I think he’s especially great in scenes opposite Gwyneth Paltrow, who’s fantastic in this movie as a waitress at a casino Sydney frequents.

Hard Eight contained a whole bunch of elements I am prone to love – fabulous characters and performances, a plot that is about something but the movie’s not really about that, lights (the fact that I love cool use of lights in movies actually dawned on me during this film; like Michael Keaton walking into the liquor store in Birdman, and The Big Lebowski‘s bowling alley stars – in Hard Eight I loved the glimmer of slot machines), and music that fit perfectly. And, the dialogue – John C. Reilly especially had some lines that made his character clear to me. “I know three types of karate, ok? Jiu-jitsu, Akido, and regular karate.”

And the last movie, Secret Honor. It’s a Robert Altman movie from 1984, with Philip Baker Hall in a solo performance as Richard Nixon. I mean, come on! It’s the movie Anderson mentioned as one in which he saw Hall and knew he was for him. He had to make something for him, and he wrote the Sydney character in Hard Eight specifically with him in mind.

Secret Honor is Hall, as Nixon, walking around his study, drinking scotch, ranting about everything from JFK to Kissinger to his mother. It’s wacky. Hall gives an incredible performance, and not just because he carries a 90-minute one man show and keeps it interesting the whole time. From what I’ve read about Nixon, he gets the mannerisms down perfectly; one moment early on, he pours a glass of scotch, but starts walking off with the bottle instead of the glass, absentmindedly. That’s one small example, but it showed he knew the character.

Perhaps my favorite part of the film – or rather, the overarching reason I found it so fascinating – was a screen before the title, a disclaimer of sorts, explaining the film did not depict an actual scene from Nixon’s life, but was “a work of fiction, using as a fictional character a real person, President Richard M. Nixon – in an attempt to understand.” The film doesn’t spare Nixon, exactly, but it comes from a sympathetic place. Altman and the writers didn’t make anything up in an attempt to indict Nixon; they just wanted to understand him better, and this film and this performance seem an appropriate way to do so.

MagnoliaHard Eight, and Secret Honor – I recommend them all. And hope you watch them in good health.

A Weekend in DC

Despite living in New York City, a lot of my obsessions – namely the West Wing and the Watergate scandal – are Washington, DC-based. Before this weekend, I hadn’t seriously been to DC in five years, but I’d been mentally planning a trip ever since I finished the West Wing pilot. Kind of on a whim, my friend Brooke and I decided to go on Friday, and the trip was so fun. One of my favorite things about New York is how quickly you can get away from it to spend the weekend in other amazing cities.

I watched All the President’s Men on the bus ride down, partly because it’s the perfect preparation for a DC trip, but mostly because I never remember to update the media on my iPad and the movie has been sitting there for years. I hadn’t watched it all the way through in awhile and had forgotten that it’s perfect. What I had really forgotten is how fabulous Hal Holbrook is as Deep Throat. He is perfection in this scene.

Speaking of Watergate, I got to see the actual Watergate complex this weekend, which was cool but a little anticlimactic. Besides a “National Register of Historic Places” plaque, there is nothing commemorating that building’s place in American history. I know only a small moment of the scandal that took its name happened at the actual Watergate, but there could at least be a little sign honoring it as the birthplace of the suffix we now use for naming scandals in this country.

I promise this trip wasn’t a weird Watergate pilgrimage for me, but I did find one other fascinating item related to it in the American Presidents wing of the National Portrait Gallery. The hall is filled with portraits of all the presidents, but the most intriguing was this Norman Rockwell painting of Richard Nixon. Norman Rockwell! The man whose paintings generally depicted jolly, happy scenes of innocent American life painted the president who would seem to least embody that innocence.

bignixon

The painting was done in 1968, before Nixon’s presidency, but even then, Rockwell had to “intentionally flatter” his appearance because regular Nixon wouldn’t look so good in a Norman Rockwell painting. Rockwell did other paintings of Nixon during his political career, but I was fascinated to see one included among majestic paintings of American heroes. I’m fascinated that these paintings even exist, because with the benefit of hindsight I can’t imagine a starker contrast between the way the public perceives an artist and the way it perceives his subject. 

Watergate obsession aside, the Portrait Gallery was amazing. I loved examining all the presidential portraits, but those of FDR and Bill Clinton were my favorite. I could easily go back and spend an entire day looking at other wings of the gallery and exploring other Smithsonian museums. I’ll just have to make another trip – I could stand to watch All the President’s Men again, anyway.

Recently Read: “Watergate”

The book: Watergate, by Thomas Mallon (2012)

The reason I bought Watergate? I judged the book by its cover. Earlier this year, I was killing time in a Barnes and Noble and noticed it in a “New Paperbacks” section – the cover immediately caught my attention for its bareness, its simplicity, and for the fact that it was about Watergate, the scandal that has long held a strange fascination for me. After spending a couple months jostling amidst gum-covered quarters and cap-less pens in my purse, my copy is no longer in good shape, but just look how visually appealing this cover is:

watergate cover

Watergate is unlike any other book I’ve ever read. It is technically a historical novel, but not in the way I’d originally understood the term. It isn’t fictional events presented in the context of a true historical event; it is true events, presented as fiction. At times, I forgot I was even dealing with history. I became so engrossed in the characters and their lives as they played out in Thomas Mallon’s invented Watergate world that I forgot it wasn’t actually the world in which they happened.

My biggest complaint about Watergate is that it was too long. I’m not brimming with suggestions for what could be cut out, but for me, it dragged in parts of its 429 pages. Some sub-plots seemed designed to distract from Nixon’s inevitable resignation. I still enjoyed it, though, even if it was less for the story itself and more for the way it forced me to rethink the way I think about novels – is that meta enough for you?

I figured there was enough out there – enough imaginary characters, enough true stories that have gone untold – that an author would find it unnecessary to reinvent an already exhausted wheel. We already know how Richard Nixon’s story ends, so why bring it up again and twist things around? I’m not sure Watergate helped me answer that question, but I like that it forced me to ask it in the first place.

Despite my complaints about its length, it wasn’t just the novel’s structure that kept me engrossed. It was also how Mallon wrote. His descriptions of characters’ physical movements and inner thoughts allowed me to visualize every part of a scene.

Other assorted Watergate tidbits, from characters to themes and turns of phrase:

  • This book made me realize how much of my fascination with the scandal was tied to the journalism. Woodward, Bernstein, Bradlee & Co. were barely mentioned in this book – but they were my Watergate heroes, not Sam Ervin and Elliot Richardson! At first, I kept waiting for a juicy scene to take place in the Washington Post newsroom. Once I realized that would never happen, I learned to look at Watergate from another angle: The scandal was a product of Richard Nixon’s own ineptitude, not of Woodward and Bernstein’s heroics.
  • In Mallon’s Watergate world, the men are insecure fraidy cats who just so happen to be in power because they’re men; you get the sense it’s the women who could have really run the show, if only the pathetic men weren’t holding them back. Pat Nixon especially is very careful in her considerations and calculations during the scandal – and she never says it outright, but Mallon makes it pretty clear she’s smarter than her husband. Pat wound up being my favorite character. Her feelings seemed the most developed. She wasn’t a dynamic character in the context of this book, but she’s portrayed as being quite different from the smiling lady on Nixon’s arm she may have seemed during the 70s (I honestly don’t know much about how Pat Nixon was perceived during her tenure in the White House, but I got the feeling that Watergate made her out to be the rebel she was not in real life.) She’s smart, understands all facets of the issue, and…gasp! has a lover. (I know. It sounds soapy. But that sub-plot really works.)
  • Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, is a prominent figure in this story. I’m still not sure I totally connect the dots with Alice and the other characters (a review from Slate helped me understand Alice’s place, though, when it discussed the way this novel sheds light on those at the scandal’s periphery rather than on its major players), but her sharp tongue provided some of my favorite lines in the book. “It will be an intense pleasure to lie to the Washington Post,” she tells Nixon on the night of his resignation, offering to decry his use of a quote from her father that she suggested he use in the first place. “That’s one more thing you and I share.”

I made many more notes on phrases I particularly liked, minor themes I noticed and more, but I won’t dissect them all here. Overall, though I felt lost in the sea of characters and sub-plots at times, I’d definitely recommend the book to someone who has a degree of familiarity with the scandal and wants to look at it – and storytelling in general – through a new lens.

Related P.S.: Watergate was in the spotlight last week with CNN Films’ Our Nixon, a documentary composed of Super 8 movie footage H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin filmed during their time in the White House. Like Watergate the novel, it provides a new look into the Nixon White House and the Watergate scandal. The whole time I watched, I kept thinking of  the Newsweek blurb on Watergate’s front cover, describing how the book portrayed Nixon as “comical, pitiable, tragic.” That’s how these home movies make him look, too. The videos and their revelations about Nixon as a person and administrator are depressing and mystifying. I’m not sure if CNN plans on releasing or re-airing the program, but it’s worth a watch.