The world in front of me is undergoing changes beyond my control. Straight ahead I can see the television, newly placed from recent reconfigurations. New lead-free paint covered the walls, including the small viewing breaches which had to be skillfully reopened. It was a minor inconvenience, but a stark reminder that the changes once lingering past the horizon were now coming into full view.
It didn’t take long for Gary to knock up Penelope once he really put his mind to it. It was relieving to see that a life of impotent wanting did not have a detrimental effect on sperm count. To his credit, Gary had begun to make the life changes he saw as necessary in his attempt to take on this new role. His ideas and mine differed slightly in that Gary was pouring out all the booze and I was raised to associate fatherhood with the smell of cheap potato vodka and unfiltered Camels.
After Gary and Penelope made the rounds to friends and family to deliver the joyous news of their brewing bundle of joy -- along with a list of gifts cobbled together like hostage demands -- they came home to the repeat of HBO’s Game Change freshly recorded on the DVR. The original airing of the movie was ignored in favor of a twelve hour “Storage Wars” marathon. I may not be a worldly man, but I’m pretty certain that the appraised values of the unearthed one-of-a-kind pre-World War II sex-snorkels and other assorted “finds” are vastly overinflated on that program.
Game Change gives us a Mad Scientist story in the tradition of James Whale’s Frankenstein. Just as ol’ Hank Frankenstein unleashed an abomination in his quest to conquer death in pursuit of new life, Steve Schmidt, played by Woody Harrelson, seeks to close the voting gap among women in key states. And like Frankenstein’s creation, Schmidt’s monstrosity is presented as an empty vessel infused with the cast-off parts of dead men, and brought to life with a power and purpose it doesn’t understand. When it steps in front of a crowd in the form of Sarah Palin, as played by Julianne Moore, warbling some homespun nonsense with the earnestness of a lobotomized theme park employee, you can almost hear “It’s Aliiiiive!” howling from the bowels of the Republican establishment.
Gary and Penelope had been active in political campaigning at the dawn of the 2008 election. They shared an admiration for Dennis Kucinich, believing his particular brand of crazy addressed their individual desires for free government weed and State of the Union addresses interrupted by acid flashbacks. They differed in their appraisal of Sarah Palin. Penelope saw her as a political cipher that was cynically injected into the campaign to impede the momentum of the Obama campaign, while Gary dedicated many a blog post to his joy at finally having a political candidate worthy of a watchable pornographic satire. This election led to one of their biggest break-ups. The wounds were fresh enough that I expected the depiction of events on screen to cause an uncomfortable tension between them.
Moore’s interpretation of Sarah Palin is more or less spot-on with most assessments of her from afar. Her potential ascension to the office of Vice President was based on her gender and her ability to sound compelling on a narrow spectrum of subjects of which she likely only memorized the talking points. Before the creature is even completed it has pulled the electrodes from its neck and has started knocking shit over in the lab, so Schmidt gets to work perfecting his creation by finding its strengths.
Palin’s inability to grasp basic trivia about the world forces Schmidt and the advisers to manipulate the campaign from behind the scenes. Their initial strategy is to limit access to the candidate until even Fox News starts raising questions. They shroud her shortcomings in secrecy and pass it off as building mystique, as if they’re unveiling the new iPhone. And like the iPhone, Palin is finally revealed with a flurry of excitement followed by a whole slew of glitches that might make the thing unusable.
It’s hit or miss with Palin at first. Then came the Katie Couric interview. This is where the creature chucked the girl in the river, drawing the wrath of the pitchfork-and-torch crowds. The film shows this scene in abbreviated details, emphasizing the cringe-worthiness in a way I didn’t find entirely unfair, but it definitely avoided any attempt to mitigate the damage done. Schmidt and team watch from the sidelines like Rocky’s trainer, telling the bum to get up off the mat and fight. You can easily find the actual interview and sweat right along with it.
The interview provided clarity to the country, exposing the cynical standards which guide those who seek power. In Game Change it is the pivotal moment when Sarah Palin went from an in over her head puppet to a political Johnny Knoxville whose willful recklessness is seen as a coveted talent. She stonewalls her advisors like a petulant child, all the while obsessing on how she’s viewed back home in Alaska where she knows she’s likely headed back to.
To his credit, John McCain, played by Ed Harris, addresses her with fatherly concern, even expressing a sense of guilt for the sacrifice she’s been asked to make in the furthering of his campaign. He’s portrayed in the film as a good man who is weary from making so many compromises, but too little blame is laid at his feet, in my opinion.
It is inevitable that the monster turns on its creator. Here, Palin is simply following her programming when she goes rogue. It’s a perception of some kind of exceptional moxie that results in her becoming the new face of the Republican party. The film ascribes no intentional maneuvering on Palin’s part to achieve this status. Like everything else, she merely recites the lines she’s given. The only internal drive comes from the leftovers of dead men’s ideas running on autopilot like primal urges.
It’s difficult to judge a film like Game Change in light of how recently the events depicted have occurred. The cleansing brush of time hasn’t cleared away the minutiae to make way for the truly consequential. I found the same difficulty with The Social Network. Point of view and beliefs interfere when you know where these events actually took place. My present vantage point is mixed with my memories of who I was then. On the pure skill and craft presented, there is high praise deserved for this film. But existentially, something in me cries out “too soon!”
Gary and Penelope both remembered where they were. The unfolding tragedy of their relationship became like the seasons, for so long that I took comfort in them through simple observation. I could pull back far enough to see the patterns in the chaos. I braced for a smug reminder that he had walked in on her and her hippy ex-boyfriend known only as “Gravy” making out at a bar on election night. It lead to one of their more epic break-ups and has been a stream of guilt Gary has waded in during many an argument.
As the movie ended, I was sure he was about to drop a verbal deuce that would torpedo their relationship. But there was a disruption in the pattern.
He just looked at her and told her he’d love her forever, and I was suddenly struck with the choking fear that nothing would ever make sense again.
She asked him “and ever?”
And he said “and Ever.”
In the morning, the sun breaks through so brightly that I can hardly keep my eyes open, and it reminds me that the world outside is still there. I take comfort in that as the inner world with which I had come to calibrate as my life becomes unrecognizable. I find myself staring into the light more and more every morning and wondering just how deep the walls in other homes are.
The world is full of crawl spaces and attics and dysfunction that flows in comforting waves. There's something thrilling about being in proximity of imminent collapse. But the challenge lies in patience. There's no sport in instigating the fall. If there's one lesson to be learned from Steve Schmidt and Dr. Frankenstein, it's that the world doesn’t need my meddling; things will get plenty fucked up on their own.
Image courtesy of the author