A Sentimental Education


All the President’s Men
, Warner Bros., 1976

by Masha Tupitsyn

For a long time it was all about the camera. The truths it presented and the truths it covered up. We knew the camera lied, but we also believed it told the truth. Now we know it only does the former, only we don’t care anymore. As a kid, I had a crush on the Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein because I saw All The President’s Men on TV and thought he was Dustin Hoffman. I believed what I was seeing. Later I saw Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, a film about her unhappy marriage to post-Watergate Bernstein, and changed my mind about him, which wasn’t hard to do since Jack Nicholson, a man and actor I hate, plays Bernstein in the film. Heartburn was Bernstein at home and out of the office, while in All The President’s Men there is no private Bernstein. Or, there is only public, which also functions as private. It is a woman — Ephron — who has to change the meaning of public and private when it comes to a man’s life, reminding us that the two are in fact not one and the same.

In All The President’s Men the only couple we see is Woodward and Bernstein; Redford and Hoffman. Hoffman claims that Redford suggested they memorize each other’s lines for the film so that they could interrupt each other and finish each other’s sentences whenever they wanted to. This is what people in love are like, they thought. In Alain Badiou’s In Praise of Love, he states that love is a “truth procedure, that is, an experience whereby a certain kind of truth is constructed. This truth is quite simply the truth about Two: the truth that derives from difference as such…all love suggests a new experience of truth about what it is to be two and not one.” If love, along with what constitutes public and private — the way one hides and contains the other — is also a truth procedure, it is not too far-fetched to say that even a political thriller like All The President’s Men is a love story, if two people band (two)gether not only to uncover, but to re-construct the truth that is being concealed. In the process of determining which is which, a process that is always political, the lie and the truth, the public and the private, form a dialectical Two.

Does the camera unveil a truth or does it create one that isn’t there without it? When Mike Nichols called Hoffman to do a screen test for The Graduate, it was famously a disaster. The camera liked what no one could see or appreciate in person, not even the director. No one had seen Hoffman, a 29 year-old theater actor, on camera yet, and neither had Nichols. In fact, no one saw the indefinable “it” until they looked at what they were seeing in front of them on camera.

Kramer vs. Kramer
, Columbia Pictures, 1979

In his book, Scenes From A Revolution: The Birth of The New Hollywood, Mark Harris recounts Nichols’ recollection of Hoffman’s screen test for The Graduate:

There was no Eureka!’ says Nichols. That is, until they printed the screen test and watched Hoffman on film. ‘He had that thrilling thing that I’d only seen in Elizabeth Taylor,’ says the director. ‘That secret, where they do something while you’re shooting, and you think it’s okay, and then you see it on screen and it’s five times better than when you shot it. That’s what a great movie actor does. They don’t know how they do it, and I don’t know how they do it, but the difference is unimaginable, shocking. This feeling that they have such a connection with the camera that they can do what they want because they own the audience.

Actors matter on camera in a way they don’t in real life, and in a world where what the camera sees matters more than anything, this counts for everything. It’s not what you really feel, or what you really see. It’s how you feel about what isn’t really there in front of you. We want a barrier between our objects of desire and ourselves. We want a screen. In his reading of Freud and Lacan on melancholia, Zizek states that with “melancholia it is not that you lose the object; you have the object but you lose the desire for the object: you lose the object cause of desire. Everything is here, but you no longer desire it. This is the enigma of modernity.”[1]

Yet when it comes to representation, something like the reverse is at work: you create an object cause of desire for something or someone you would not have it for were it not for the mediation and presence of the screen, which creates a desire that is not only not there, but which is also both the object of desire and the object cause of desire. It is not a coincidence that the rise of commodity culture has led to a decrease in tangible and lasting desire — you desire everyone without actually desiring anyone. Or that we are living in an age where the majority of people are medicated, overanxious melancholics who anticipate (expect) loss before it even happens. Speaking about W.G. Sebald, the Holocaust, and post-war Germany psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips, describes melancholia in the documentary Patience, After Sebald this way:

It’s as though these people, people who feel this, are people who feel some inexplicable sense of loss. And they’re people who try and locate this in history, as in, why am I feeling so fundamentally at a loss, and so unattached? And it’s as though the history gives you some sort of story about this. The feeling is somehow that there’s been some catastrophe that can’t be located, and that one is living in the aftermath of that catastrophe.

In the media matrix of commodity culture, desire is everywhere and nowhere at all. You have it because you don’t have it. Everyone fits and no one fits. Desire and object causes of desire roam for signals: attaching and detaching, consuming and discarding with ever increasing speed.

Days before Hoffman’s Graduate screen test, and nearly ten years before All The President’s Men, Redford, who actually looked like the Benjamin Braddock in Charles Webb’s book — blonde, 6 feet tall, blue-eyed, a WASP — was turned down for the part of The Graduate, which went to Hoffman, much to everyone’s disbelief, including Hoffman’s, who is short, dark-haired and Jewish. In the movement from presentational to representational, profilmic to filmic, blonde to brunette (a switch I doubt would have happened if the lead were female), the camera “saw” what no one else could see, even redefining the requirements for seeing.

Given that we are a culture that sees what we are shown, it is puzzling that actors are routinely asked to modify their appearance for the camera. To make themselves look “better” for it because we know that the camera makes many actors look and seem better than they are — more charismatic, attractive, more interesting — more desirable. It was seeing Hoffman on camera that made Buck Henry, co-writer of The Graduate screenplay exclaim, “What that, in one fell swoop, we lost all the blonds we were thinking about” for Benjamin Braddock. People obsess about conforming to the camera without considering the ways in which the camera conforms to the person in front of it. We are so concerned with what the camera records (shows us), we forget that the camera produces a discourse of vision (makes us see). Making us see what we otherwise would not see. Making us like what we would otherwise not like. Want who we would not otherwise want. Making us look. Making us watch. Making us stare. Making us pay close attention. The camera is interested in details as opposed to the whole picture. It is the details that count on camera and that the camera picks up on. You don’t have to be tall on camera, as many male screen idols have proven, because the camera and the proportions it creates will give you all the stature you need.

The camera is like the girl that gives you a chance when no one else will, and men — not women — always talk about this when they explain why they become actors and musicians. To be with — “to get” — women they would never otherwise get. Women never say they become actresses to get men. Is it because women are always already seen, as John Berger and others have pointed out, so when it comes to fame, they want to universalize — validate — that ubiquitous gaze; moving from a paradigm of private-to-public, the way men shift from a paradigm of public-to-private with fame. Is it because women want to make use of what is personal for them — to make it matter? To give the personal they’ve been confined and restricted to real currency and value.

Felix Guattari wrote that language must be written down otherwise it is nothing. And what good, everyone wonders today, is what happens behind closed doors if no one else can see it? What good is what someone tells a woman in private, in confidence, if we must all be on our way to language and public appraisal, if we are a culture of appearances? The private has always mattered to me more than the public, and privacy — what I withhold; or more precisely, the dialectic between showing and not showing; saying and not saying — is part of everything I write. But this is not the world we live in. What you see is not as important as what everyone sees. Less is not more. I think this is why we are living in such a narcissistic age: everyone is fighting to get their private self to matter to everyone. And while there is still shame and dishonor in exposing the private, especially for women, in the social media world of the 21st Century, the real disgrace is in being irrelevant.

Traditionally, white men have been able to get away with being and staying private in a way that women cannot because a man’s private is always and inherently public. A woman’s private, which has also been her unseen and undocumented history, often goes up in smoke. This is the reason so many women are ghettoized not only as being too private (and thus pathological) to be public, but as only being able to write from the inside-out instead of the outside-in. Even now this is the case with much of what is considered transgressive women’s writing. As if women don’t deserve to keep anything inside. And as if the only solution women have to the historical predicament of being invisible and marginalized is to expose everything indiscriminately.

After all, as many women writers and feminist scholars have pointed out, a white man’s “I” is universal, therefore it can and has stood for both being alone and being with. Being in and of itself and being for. Being together and being apart. I wonder if Redford would have suggested the same technique of memorizing his and his co-star’s lines if his co-star had been a woman. Would the love — the solidarity — between the two men have been too obvious? When it comes to women, men love to “joke” (Slavoj Žižek, the great Joker of philosophy par excellence, has revived this particular misogynistic “joke,” along with women are “Evil,” as he put it to my female classmates repeatedly last summer at The European Graduate School) about how unknowable, unreadable and inscrutable women are. “What do women want?” they plead in exasperation. But what is especially knowable or readable about men except that we want to know them and have been given the male sex to universally identify with and invest in? No one actually wants the Pandora’s Box answer to the question of what women want, and for the most part reject the answers women have given (some of these answers internalize sexism, so having an answer is not as simple as it sounds). Just as we need the mediation of the screen in order to see and desire the actor, as Hoffman’s Graduate screen test demonstrates, we rely on the stamp and myth of inscrutability as a descriptor for women in order to keep from knowing them. For, not knowing and not wanting to know while pretending to, allows us to continue discounting.

In the chapter, “From The Multiple to the Two” from Luce Irigaray’s Way of Love, Irigaray writes about a masculine and feminine difference in relation to speaking (both literal and phenomenological speech) that can be applied to the motivation for the acting subject:

Of course, speaking to many or speaking to only one person does not presuppose the same relation to speech. In the first case, it must convey a meaning in some way closed, in which the speaking subject converses above all with their own self and with speech. No doubt this kind of meaning is the one that the masculine subject has always privileged. The feminine subject, on the other hand, takes an interest in the relation between two, in communication between people. This subject is thus confronted with a new task as regards the unfolding speech.

In the “shared script” of Redford and Hoffman, Woodward and Bernstein, these men not only shared the same language symbolically, they shared it literally. That is a kind of cultural and emotional inside-ness (trust, Two) that only men have been allowed to have with each other when it comes to public and private.



About the Author:

Masha Tupitsyn is a writer, cultural critic, and multi-media artist. She is the author of Love Dog (Penny-Ante Editions, 2013), LACONIA: 1,200 Tweets on Film (ZerO Books, 2011), Beauty Talk & Monsters, a collection of film-based stories (Semiotext(e) Press, 2007), and co-editor of the anthology Life As We Show It: Writing on Film (City Lights, 2009). Her fiction and criticism has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies Women in Clothes (Penguin, 2014), The Force of What’s Possible (Nightboat Books, 2014), The American Tetralogy (Blackjack Editions, 2013), Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology (2012), The Encyclopedia Project Volume 2 (F-K) (2010) and Volume 3 (L-Z) (2014), and Wreckage of Reason: XXperimental Women Writers Writing in the 21st Century (Spuyten Duyvil, 2008), with additional works published by The White Review, The New Inquiry, Fence, Bookforum, The Rumpus, Boing Boing, Indiewire’s Press Play, Animal Shelter, the Shepparton Art Museum, and Ryberg Curated Video.