FILM STUDIES

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The Independent Culture
Sometimes the sweetest pastries go stale first. So Primary Colors, which was a sensation and a scandal as a book (and not only because Joe Klein couldn't make up his mind whether or not to take the credit for it) was touted as such an inside job we'd be laughing in our own armpits. Hadn't Tom Hanks declined the role of the film's president because he didn't want to jeopardise his "relationship" with William Jefferson Clinton?

Then events proved that having a relationship with that figment was about as easy and humiliating as trying to get hold of a greased pig at a country fair. The "scenario" of the movie was wiped off the screen and reappraised as irrelevant by Monicagate. The movie Primary Colors was steadily postponed in its British opening, as if time might give it a fresh chance. Nice try, but no cigar. So now the wretched thing appears, grabbing the last chance before Monica does her lamentable girl-talk confessional for the House Judiciary Committee.

You could say that the President of the United States is the finger that sends Tomahawk missiles to Khartoum, Madeleine Albright on her mission for airline miles, and lawyers into paroxysms of ecstatic legalese. More precisely, he does these things on television - the same place where he wags his finger and sucks the cocky grin off his face long enough for a full-frontal denial, and where he strolls thoughtfully across White House lawns to a helicopter and lets us sneak the rear view of his and Hillary's arms reaching up across their ample bottoms for "relationship". He's on television all the time, and for 40 years now the movies have known that they can't keep up with the slick, empty, daily glamour of "inside politics". It is a place where being on camera is enough.

Clinton is by far the most advanced example of this entropy; holding the cameras while emptying the viewers' heads, and draining ideas from the political process. If you want proof of that, just consider the four hours of his grand jury video testimony. This revealed not just a slippery pig, but an insolent weasel and so chronic a self-denier that, much of the time, he was arguing that he wasn't really there. (This is the secret of great television.) And would that he wasn't - for President Clinton now shames and endangers the world of which he is the loss leader. At the same time, his career has enshrined the necessity in the United States of a farce, a smile and a ghostly presence that will be our glue.

Give that jerk four clear hours on television, and he could still win any vote. That is the kind of campaigning he was made for. That's why, it is widely believed in Los Angeles, Clinton has a deal set up with DreamWorks (Spielberg, Katzenberg and Geffen) - to join them when his other tenure lapses - to be persuasive, legalistic, sucky-face and not quite there. After all, such things are beloved by movie people - and no one in Hollywood will have to jeopardise his relationship.

So Primary Colors is stranded. John Travolta does a fond gloss on Bill, but he never gets or comprehends the intricacy of the man's lying - his need for it - or the steady way in which Clinton plays to a mirror/screen in his own mind. Nor can the movie come close to the bland, strutting vulgarity of Monica, nor of the drab, horrific truth that they were in love.

There's another reason for regretting the waste of Primary Colors. For the movie is the reunion of Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Now, I don't mean to say that these two old friends and natural collaborators haven't been talking, or giving a useful assist to works in progress, but in the late Fifties and early Sixties, Nichols and May were a comic team, in cabaret, on records and on TV. They did wicked, improvisational dialogues together. They were like lovers in therapy.

Their rapport was so deep - like that of Billie Holiday and Lester Young - that it effortlessly uncovered our shared human disaster.

Well, they went their own ways. Nichols became one of our "top" directors on stage and screen - albeit without much character. May has knocked around as an actress, writer and director. She has had crushing failures - like Ishtar - and the strange glory of Mikey and Nicky. But for Primary Colors they were together again: she did the script and he directed.

But what Bill and Monica deserve, and what we need, is not the film, but Nichols and May together again, night after night, on live TV, doing the loony, blow-job small talk and ripping away the facade that veils the grotesque horror of a President so bored he could fall in love!

Of course, no one in TV dares that sort of thing now. It was called satire once, and the suits in charge of the medium know that the legend satire is both dangerous and a flop. So Bill Clinton has the medium to himself, playing his endless sex solo about not quite, technically, being there.

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