REFLECTIONS FROM A LOOKING GLASS
by Ares Demertzis (June 2007)
At the White House.
In the Oval Office.
It amazes me how many anecdotes one accumulates just by the effortless act of being, all that’s required is longevity, I suppose. Friends consider me a raconteur, remarking insistently that I should write the myriad reminiscences I have entertained them with over the years; this is an incipient attempt to fulfill that request. Perhaps at a future social gathering I won’t have to utter a single word, I can just pass out the stories on paper.
I don’t keep a diary. And notwithstanding I am a professional photographer, I have never taken a snapshot. For me these exercises in the preservation of the present for posterity are meaningless. I keep everything up here. In my head. I imagine over the years, just as more memories are accumulated, a substantial amount are also forgotten, but in the final analysis it’s all irrelevant; in some not too distant future everything will be erased permanently.
I can still remember the day I visited my mother and the nurse exclaimed: “Look whose here, your son has come to visit!” My mother looked up at me from her wheel chair through unrecognizing, cloudy eyes. “But how can he be my son, if I’ve never had a husband?”
I found comfort in remembering: “And this, too, shall pass away.”
I guess the year is 1980, Jimmy Carter is running for re-election and I’m working on his media campaign. It’s the year that I am at my mercenary best; a successful soldier in that handsomely remunerated army of image manipulators.
It’s nine or ten o’clock in the evening. I’m sitting in the Oval Office, in a chair by that fireplace made famous by countless television news clips, reading a book while waiting for the film crew to finish setting up the shot. They are busy working around the President’s magnificently carved desk; the only other people in the room, standing around vigilantly, are a couple of silent plainclothes Secret Service agents. When the technicians are finished, I will film the objects displayed on that desk: pens, pencils, glasses, documents… The subliminal message of the finished commercial is calculated to reinforce the idea of the incumbent’s ceaseless labor.
This is to be another of those political “concept” spots designed by Eli Bleich, such as the acclaimed, deceptively innocent slow zoom night shot to a lighted window, calculated to give the impression that candidate (fill the blank) is still hard at work when the rest of us have the benefit of a nights slumber. For the potential voter, an image is irrefutable visual proof positive; after all, just like the eleven o’clock news, they saw with their own eyes that (fill the blank) was burning the midnight oil. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it is, in its essence, nothing more than an illusion. I worked a short stint for CBS News during
Given that the objective in the business is to make the show look remarkably natural, truthfully candid beyond any doubt, it is imperative to minimize projecting an obvious media presence to the viewer, notwithstanding that by introducing a camera into any setting, you change the circumstances, the undisturbed original state of affairs. The situation is confounded even more with bright movie lights, supported on tall, ungainly stands, their electric cables snaking haphazardly across the floor.
Make matters worse, if you need to record sound, by shoving a long pole with a microphone hanging off the end into the face of the participant, or use a discreet lavalier microphone hidden inside the shirt of the accomplice to be filmed. In the case of a female, the mike is concealed within her blouse, adjusting the cable past her brassiere, through the waistband (making sure it slides down on the outside of her underwear), and out at the hem of her skirt. All this performed by the sound man; a stranger she was introduced to within the last ten minutes.
In some situations, the budget additionally provides for make up. A cosmetic specialist will apply rouge to cheeks, swab faces with pancake, and delineate the lips of the women, and also, I might add, the discomfited men.
Camera, Lights, Sound, Makeup. A host of technicians seize the surroundings; a swarm of specialists, abandoning their pricey offices, also descend on the location. The moment has arrived for the exploitation of these hapless individuals who, in all likelihood, have never seen a film produced, much less participated actively in its creation.
When the camera is ready to roll, the production manager or the assistant director (the number of bodies depending on economic considerations), or perhaps even the director himself incongruously advises the amateur actors: “Pretend we aren’t here. We don’t exist. Please don’t look at the camera.”
Pretend. Yes, that’s the precise word. Just as when we were children, we will create a fictional veracity that projects a made up, make believe world, a charade, a farce; to be assimilated by those whose reality is essentially understood through moving images.
Allow me to decide how dramatic the lighting should or shouldn’t be, what lens to use, whether the shot will be a high angle or a low angle, static or moving, and I have made significant decisions that will affect your emotional response to what you think you have seen (I learned this in film school). Permit me to make the images appear to be furtively captured by a hidden camera, or purposely hold the camera unsteadily in order to create the impression that the scene was filmed by an amateur. Subsequently, let the editor decide the calculated, deliberate sequence of events that will effectively tell the story as I want it told. Next, have the writer compose appropriate copy, choosing the precise, politically correct words. And finally, have a narrator read that multi-approved text with predetermined innuendo. Now watch the film. You are a witness to what I want you to see, and frequently it can have very little relationship to whatever it was that actually occurred. You are unsuspectingly being influenced by my agenda.
Let’s take as an example the news offered by all those rather handsome faces that you invite via television into your home to look at each and every one of you individually and unflinchingly directly in the eye; today’s scandals reflected as images on that electronic mirror. Multitudes of news technicians have produced more shows than can be broadcast. It is the puppeteers behind the scenes who will decide what stories will be reported. For each of these narratives, there has normally been taped over an hour of material for every story. The editors, supervised by producers and the attractive anchors (depending on their contracts), will reduce the hour long visuals of the selected news to approximately twenty seconds. From one hour, to twenty seconds. Think about that. Think about the options available to these skilled media experts in selecting what information to make public, and how to present this information to the community. And no one can say it was invented; why, the images are right there in the original for all to see!
David Lerner is the sound man, he’s laughing out loud because he just got off the phone to the local pizzeria, and they didn’t want to believe his order is for delivery to the Oval Office. Patrick Riley is the assistant cameraman, and he’s assembling the camera. Patrick Shelenberger is the gaffer, and he’s setting up the lights. I mention them because these individuals are more than “crew,” they are friends with whom many unforgettable experiences have been shared. Lerner, Riley, Shelenberger and I have, over the years, spent days and weeks together (Lerner and I, sometimes months), all over the
One of the reasons it’s so difficult to break into the film business is that everyone tends to consistently hire the same people; it’s imperative to be certain you can rely without reservation on the others tested professionalism. This is a business unforgiving of error, which precludes taking the risk of hiring someone new. Additionally, a bond of friendship invariably develops over time, making it even more unusual to work with an unfamiliar person. Actually, I imagine that’s the principal reason I’m here. I was hired for this job by Eli Bleich, the creative director for the Carter re-election campaign, who is an intimate friend and colleague. I have always appreciated his confidence; he has always valued my ability.
“Ah, Ares, you have so much talent you can be anything you want to be in the film business. You just don’t give a shit!” He’s referring to why I’m not directing feature films.
“No, Eli. It’s not that I don’t give a shit. I just refuse to pay the price.”
Is that true, or just a convenient pretext? We’ll never know, will we.
From the direction of the President’s desk emanates a shrill, female howl. I look up from my book to see a young woman harshly berating the crew. The Secret Service agents look on indifferently.
“Don’t you dare touch anything on the President’s desk! Do you understand me? You can’t touch anything on the President’s desk!”
It’s obvious to me that this irate young bitch is engaging in what Andy Warhol succinctly summed up as (to paraphrase), “fifteen minutes of importance” (he used the word “fame”). What goes through my mind is that it must take a great deal of insecurity bizarrely fused with inexplicable arrogance to assume such a despicable attitude of authority over vulnerable others on those occasions when circumstance provides the opportunity. On average, during her night shift, how many people is she able to rebuke in an empty Oval Office? Probably none. Her actions don’t provoke my anger, only repugnance for her loathsome temperament.
Like the Secret Service, however, I also do nothing, except go back to my place on the page I was reading. First of all, the crew are all big boys, they don’t need my support. Secondly, I prefer to pick my skirmishes and the moment in which to engage them. It is obvious to me that she and I will shortly have a severe, albeit interesting confrontation; the question is deciding when and how I take her on. I actually find myself looking forward to the conflict.
“Set’s ready anytime you are, Boss.”
Shelenberger. He knows I don’t like to flaunt my status, so he always teases me by emphasizing it. At one of my companies, the manager had hired a uniformed security service for the outer gate; for months none of the guards knew who I was, and would let me in only after getting authorization from the receptionist.
“Tell the front desk Ares is at the gate.”
On the day I arrived and was escorted to the front door with ceremony, I knew my ruse had been exposed.
Riley and I have always called one another “Googoots,” a playful Italian expression referring to someone with limited intelligence.
I close my book and walk over to the setup, which includes a dolly, the tracks running parallel to the front of the President’s desk. A jib arm hangs the camera above the desk because I want to do a lateral move as the camera slowly zooms through the objects, imitating a snorkel effect (no budget is available to rent a genuine snorkel rig). I look through the eyepiece of the camera, my right hand on the steel arm supporting the head, my left rearranging the items on the desk.
“Excuse me, sir.” It’s a gentle voice whispering very politely in my ear. “The President’s secretary said nothing on the desk can be touched.”
“Excuse me, sir.” It’s a gentle voice whispering very politely in my ear. “The President’s secretary said nothing on the desk can be touched.”
One of the Secret Service guys. I’m fond of Secret Service personnel because they are so impressively courteous and discreet. Can you imagine the anecdotes they have accumulated over the years about sitting Presidents, their wives, and the injudicious liaisons? Think double M; think Marilyn, think Monica.
Nope. No scandalous books will be forthcoming from the Secret Service like those published in
Still looking through the eyepiece, I respond with an unconcerned voice: “Fuck her.”
There is a lingering silence, after which the same low, husky voice asks, “Excuse me?”
This time I look up from the camera and stare with a neutral expression directly into his face, reiterating with disinterest: “I said, fuck her.”
“Oh.” And the Secret Service agent walks tactfully away. Obviously he also chooses his battles, and this isn’t one which he feels obligated to assume. I go back to looking through the eyepiece and rearranging the objects on the desk.
“I saw that! I saw what you did! I told you, you can’t touch anything on the President’s desk!”
It’s the snappish little bitch. She is screaming at me. She’s on the other side of the camera, having entered from the door to the left of the desk that leads to other offices, including a small kitchen and, I might add, to the President’s bathroom. I include this apparently irrelevant scatological detail only because this particular space was the object of much titillating gossip during Slick Willie’s tenure. Given that rooms in the White House are named after historical personages, and borrowing from British slang, I understand that this bathroom is now genially referred to as the Loo-winsky.
I reach out and quickly grab, one by one, the individual items on the desk, knocking them about, smashing each down with energy on the solid wooden surface. “You mean I can’t move this, and this, and this, on the desk? Is that what you’re telling me?”
A very audible gasp discharges from her fragile, open mouth, promptly replaced by a wide eyed and incredulous silence. It’s like a scene from a movie, I tell myself. Actually, I’m delighted. I almost roar with gleeful amusement and anticipation.
She regains her composure, however, and being so filled with rage, the words choke breathlessly out of her mouth in a suffocating, faltering sequence. “I’m…going to…take everything from …the President’s…desk and put them…in another office!”
Hearing this statement, I understand why this poor little thing is working the night shift. Obviously she is naïve to the ways of political affairs. It was stupid of her to make that remark. In the power corridors of governments everywhere, one does not confront someone who has demonstrated the coarse, rude, and improper resoluteness I have just exhibited with my little petulant performance. Unless they happen to be mentally unbalanced, those someones obviously hold a royal flush to your pair of deuces; so the most astute action, the better part of valor, is to discreetly fade away. But she didn’t do that. Oh, well, not much future for her in this city.
I walk around the dolly and approach her unhurriedly, with short, deliberate steps. Drawing very close, invading her space, I almost touch her body with my presence. She is shorter than I, so I lower my face into hers, our noses almost touching. This is an effective intimidation technique that has consistently worked in my favor, and I don’t expect it to be unsuccessful on this occasion.
I murmur with a soft, scarcely audible voice, barely a hoarse whisper; my breath touching her mouth. “Let me see if I understand you precisely. I don’t want there to be any misunderstanding. Are you telling me that you will deliberately remove all of the objects on the President’s desk, and in so doing impede my completing the assignment the President himself asked me to perform? Is that what you are saying?”
The silence is palpable, prolonged and absolute. I assume the small number of synapses in her little brain are firing slowly and intermittently, resembling that fatal arrhythmia just prior to cardiac arrest; that is if those few synapses are active at all. What troubles me is that she is outwardly giving the appearance of thinking. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said “the President himself,” aside from being redundant, it would have been wiser to just say “the President,” notwithstanding that everyone here must know that a President doesn’t bother with minor details of this nature. I wonder if she is beginning to suspect I’m bluffing. If she is capable of rational, coherent thought, there may be a problem.
I watch myself and the snappish little bitch from outside my body. It has been a curious and unexplainable phenomenon throughout my life; this being able to simultaneously watch and appraise my performance from a distance.
“Ares! What are you doing here? No one told me you were going to be using my office.”
I turn around to face the voice at my back, coming from the Rose Garden entrance into the Oval Office. It’s Jimmy. He’s dressed in belt less jeans and a white T Shirt. Barefoot. Under his right arm is a stack of papers.
“Good evening, Mr. President,” I respond, and then proceed, in my habitually tactless manner, to push the envelope. “Well I can imagine how difficult it must be for you to govern the country, when you don’t even know what’s going on in your own office.”
My immediate thought on hearing myself make that unnecessary remark is that I should be mortified for addressing the President of the United States of America in such a familiar and provocative fashion. But it’s a habitual behavioral flaw of mine, a persistent, incorrigible tactic, a little personal joke if you will, that I always employ on those in positions of authority. I am assiduously respectful of all who work for me, individuals I consider at a disadvantage intellectually or economically with my position of the moment; but I have never been able to resist the temptation of challenging and irritating those whom I imagine could possibly regard themselves as my superiors. They have available only two options: partake of the humor, or terminate my employment. To my immense relief and continuing economic advantage, to date no one has opted for the second option.
Jimmy laughs. Jimmy is a nice man. “I was going to work on a speech I have to deliver tomorrow. I’ll just go and use another office. Good night.”
“Good night, Mr. President.”
I wasn’t born in the United States, so it will be problematic for someone to accuse me of chauvinism for making the following comment (criticism will ensue, although the braying won’t reach cacophonic proportions as I am an obscure unknown of no particular importance): I have always maintained that Americans are an exceptional people, and Jimmy this evening demonstrated the veracity of my premise. Among other reasons, Americans are incomparable to solemn, formal societies because, for the most part, irregardless of their station, Americans diligently preserve a sense of humor. I’m not referring to the ability to tell jokes and laugh at them; every culture does that. I’m referring to a sense of humor that encompasses the ability to laugh at oneself, and also to express amusement at a cutting, and at times impertinent observation that is contained in a witty, albeit risqué remark.
I turn to look at the snappish bitch. Without a word, she twirls swiftly around, resembling a music box ballerina, (all that’s lacking is the melody) and walks rapidly out of the Oval Office through the same door from which she entered. It unkindly occurs to me that she may now be in need of the facilities in the Loo-winsky. Well, she may have a future in this town after all; something unlikely for me, acknowledging as I do that I’m an incorrigible iconoclast.
“It’s a wrap!”
Later that night, the filming completed, I take out a Cohiba hand rolled cigar from
A camera clicks; the flash discharges. Someone took a snapshot of me smoking a Cuban cigar with my feet up on the President’s desk in the Oval Office. Was it you, Riley? If my memory isn’t failing me, of the four of us you were the one always snapping pictures.
By the way, since at the time I wasn’t interested in a copy, any chance that you perhaps still have this photograph?
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