“Weiner:” An Overlooked Gem

Courtesy Politico

By Jake Strickler, Editor-in-Chief

I’m trying to go light this week because I’ve been churning out all these multi-thousand-word screeds against Donald Trump that are, frankly, exhausting.  And paying too much attention to his actions is starting to make me feel like Martin Sheen at the beginning of Apocalypse Now: bloodied, in despair, caged, and, every time I crack the blinds and look through the window, I’m still in Saigon. These tirades are also probably futile because I give it about three months before he and his administration are talking plea bargains and reduced prison sentences. I’m a betting man, so if you’d like to lay some money on that you can find me by the pool. It’s that time of the year again!

This week, I have a confession to make. I hold a degree in Film History and Theory, and I could not care less about the Oscars. I just don’t have any interest. It’s always a surprise to me when the thing airs. I just don’t care. I like gangster movies from the ’40s, and until something with Jimmy Cagney gets nominated, I’m probably not going to pay much attention, which is an unlikely proposition since Cagney kicked the bucket before I was born.

The one thing I do pay attention to, though, always after the fact, is the documentary category. I’ve only seen one of the docs that was nominated this year, 13th, and feel like it clearly should have won. I’ll report back when I have eight free hours to watch the one about O.J. Simpson that took home the trophy, though.

orangesunshinemovie.com

orangesunshinemovie.com

I was bummed out, however, to see that one of the two best documentaries I saw last year, Weiner, didn’t make the cut. The other one was Orange Sunshine, about the Brotherhood of Eternal Love: a group of early 1960s SoCal surfers who formed a spiritual acid cult and became the largest distributors of LSD and Afghani hashish in America, earning them the wonderfully oxymoronic sobriquet of the “Hippie Mafia,” as well as, eventually, felony convictions

Tim Leary got busted driving out of their Laguna Beach compound with a roach in his ashtray and was sentenced to jail for the remainder of his natural life in 1970; the Brotherhood paid the Weathermen Underground $25,000 to break him out and ferret him away to live with Eldridge Cleaver in Algeria, which is a completely different story that deserves a documentary of its own. And Curtiss Maldoon wrote one of the best forgotten stoner songs of the early ‘70s about them. Anyways, watch it. It’s free on Amazon Prime. What always amazes me about watching documentaries about people who went in for this new-agey psychedelic cult stuff in the ‘60s and ‘70s and who didn’t murder anybody, The Source Family being another prime example, is how they’re all so clear-eyed and seem like they’re still about nineteen and have psychic powers. I dunno, maybe they were onto something.

Anyways, I’ve gotten off-track. The subject is Weiner, which was not nominated for an Academy Award despite it being one of the best documentaries about American politics I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen, like, all of them. Weiner follows serial sexter Anthony Weiner’s disastrous insurgent 2013 New York mayoral campaign against Bill de Blasio. Why was it disastrous? Well, because of his serial sexting, duh.

There is a tangential connection to Trump here, if you’ll allow me a moment to exorcise my demons for the week. A strong argument could be made that Weiner threw him the win when FBI Director James Comey announced about five minutes before election day that the Clinton email case was being reopened due to items discovered during an investigation into Weiner’s umpteenth sexting scandal, this time involving an underage recipient. The messages in question were sent from a computer that he shared with his wife Huma Abedin, Clinton’s right-hand woman. Thusly did the tragi-comedy of a guy named Weiner who couldn’t keep it in his pants turn into a disaster for American democracy.

Courtesy New York Post

Courtesy New York Post

But Weiner, the movie, isn’t that current. It picks up after Anthony Weiner is forced to resign his seat in Congress after accidentally tweeting a picture of…well, you probably know the story. I’m waiting with gritted teeth for President Trump to make a similar mistake. The comedy here is self-evident, as the title of the film, as well as Weiner himself, acknowledge. “Why do you think there’s so much attention on this?” asks filmmaker Josh Kriegman at one point. Weiner responds: “I’ve got a funny name. And, uh…they don’t do nuance…headline writers and editorial pages…they’re the opposite of nuance.” The headlines practically write themselves, although the New York Post took these headlines to creative extremes. My favorite, hands down, is “Obama Beats Weiner.” At one point in the movie a Post writer asks Weiner what his favorite was. He declines to answer. When the news breaks that he was using the online alias “Carlos Danger,” Stephen Colbert japes that he “assumes it was to avoid using a ridiculous name like Anthony Weiner.”

However, I said that this whole thing is a tragi-comedy, and where the comedy is ripe and low-hanging fruit, the tragedies involved are much more subtle and affecting. The first is the fact that Weiner was as an absolutely incredible politician. He’s remarkably passionate, articulate, manic, and aggressive (those last two are debatable as positive qualities, but think of what Obama could have accomplished if he got angry and, when he did, had a vein popping out of his neck threatening to burst and drench everybody in the splash zone).

He’s a populist in the true, non-racist, pre-2016 sense of the term: a man of the people, an advocate for the underdog. He rides a bicycle around New York and takes the subway and calls himself a “thousandaire with millionaire friends.” He talks to people on the street and listens to their concerns. He’s a charismatic ball of persuasive energy. At one campaign event, he receives an icy reception and, after briefly speaking about real issues, is immediately confronted by a voter who angrily asks him how he expects anybody to trust him after he lied about sending lewd photographs to a woman who is not his wife. By the time he’s through responding, he’s got the whole audience in his pocket. To borrow from a movie that I do care about, he coulda been a contender. He coulda been somebody.  Especially in light of the events of last fall, I can’t say that I have any respect for the man, but it’s a shame that he chose this particular activity as a hobby.

Weiner in attack mode. Courtesy YouTube.

Weiner in attack mode. Courtesy YouTube.

He’s equipped with what the Clash termed a “BS detector [politeness mine],” and he whips it around his head like a spiked club on a chain. The footage of him on the House floor fighting for the First Responders Bill is breathtaking. He has an uncanny ability to sniff out hypocrites and reduce them to dumbfounded pools of speechless protoplasmic goop (think William Hurt at the end of Altered States) that I’m, honestly, jealous of. He’s like Bobby Kennedy on his brother’s daily amphetamine regimen crossed with a pit-bull trained since birth to attack old, complacent politicians with more than one chin and a tendency to blow with the wind.  One can see what drew Huma Abedin (highly intelligent, poised, beautiful) to him (a blunt-force instrument bearing a strong resemblance to Pauly Shore on a two-week juice cleanse after a drug binge).

This brings us to our second, and more heartbreaking, tragedy: Huma Abedin. Whereas Weiner actively seeks the spotlight, she’s content to remain in the wings. It obviously pains her to be the subject of a documentary during such a trying time in her marriage and her life. She gets incredibly nervous speaking to a small crowd; I can only imagine how she felt having a video camera trained on her for months on end as her husband’s digital infidelities were splashed around the mediasphere. When the Post goes after her with a headline screaming “Señora Danger, What’s Wrong with You?” I feel bad for her. She didn’t do anything, except marry the wrong guy, who for all intents and purposes should have been the right guy. And when Hillary Clinton (who doesn’t make an appearance in the documentary) delivers an ultimatum that Abedin choose between her husband and her role in the 2016 Presidential campaign, I thought, “Well, now, that’s sensible.” And, in retrospect, had Clinton followed through with her threat, we might not have the wife of professional wrestling magnate Vince McMahon now holding political office.

Weiner and Abedin: a tense press conference. Courtesy Indiewire

Weiner and Abedin: a tense press conference. Courtesy Indiewire

If you have enough interest in the debacle to have read this far, then you know that Anthony Weiner did not, in fact, become Mayor of New York City in 2013. Rather, he plummeted from the top of the polls to dead last with 4.37% of the vote. The campaign disintegrates as more and more sewage backs up into it; Sydney Leathers on Hannity…the crash-and-burn interview with Lawrence O’Donnell (please, please watch that video) and on and on. Weiner, too, crumbles right along with the campaign. He grows increasingly unhinged and disheveled, muttering and talking to himself. His fuse is cut to the quick. When a man in a deli calls him a “scumbag” a couple of weeks before the election he shoots back, “Takes one to know one, jackass! [impoliteness Weiner’s]” But he never loses his self-awareness. He knows what he did, he admits that it was wrong, and he fights to hold it all together in spite of this.

A telling moment comes near the end of the film. The man behind the camera asks, bluntly, “Why have you let me film this?” Weiner gives a half-grin and the real-life equivalent of the shrug emoji. Without uttering a word, he tells us all we need to know. He’s a man who loves to be in front of a camera, whether it’s himself or somebody else taking the photo. Why else would he get into politics in the first place? A moment of out-loud introspection is worth quoting at length:

“Do my personal relationships suffer because of the superficial and transactional nature of my political relationships? Or is it the other way around? Do you go into politics because it’s…you’re not connecting on that level and…and did the technology that undid me allow me to be in touch with more people and have kind of more superficial relationships? You know…I don’t…I don’t…I don’t know. I mean, it gets back to the very premise, you know, that politicians probably are wired in some way that needs…needs attention. But I don’t…uh, you know…I’m not…I’m not blaming that, for sure, but I don’t…I think it is…it is hard to have uh…normal relationships.”

The Anthony Weiner saga has gone down in history as the first political sex scandal where there was no actual sexual contact involved. It’s a postmodern sex scandal; a simulacrum. As Weiner states in the film, what he did never felt real to him: it was “like playing a video game.” Baudrillard would have had a field day. It’s easy to distill broad societal implications from the whole sordid mess regarding how we communicate and share intimacy in the 21st Century, or about the nature of individuals who seek political office. But there could be a far simpler lesson to take away from Weinergate, and our Tweeter-in-Chief for that matter: maybe our politicians just shouldn’t have access to social media. I say let’s give it a shot.

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