Film Review and Essay by Steven F. Walker
In Jungian psychology it is believed that the reason a recurring dream keeps on coming back over and over again is that the dreamer has not yet succeeded in understanding the message that the dream contains. One might even extend this idea to claim that, in similar fashion, japa is the repetition of a mantra until that moment when its message is fully revealed to the spiritual aspirant, who fully realizes the spiritual truth—the message—that the mantra conveys, and then no longer needs to continue the repetition. But what to say about someone who sees a film over and over again? Is it that the film contains a hidden message? Or rather, has the person intuited that the film contains a message of great personal importance, even though the creators of the film (director, scriptwriters etc.) may not have even intended it?
Such was my case, I think, with Barry Levinson’s 1997 film Wag the Dog (starring Robert de Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Anne Heche), and the following interpretation, I must insist, is purely personal. I got obsessed with the film early last year, and saw it at least six times. This obsession went far beyond the desire to re-experience the pleasure of watching an entertaining film. Something in the film had clearly gotten under my skin. Once I discovered what that was—the “message” that the film contained for me—then my obsession came to an end, and I was able to write this review—“strong emotion recollected in tranquility,” so to speak.
Wag the Dog is a clever political satire about a president up for reelection who makes a very bad mistake, when he sexually molests a Firefly Girl in the Oval Office. With only days to go before the election, he calls on his henchman Conrad Brean (Robert de Niro) to work a miracle. We learn little about who the mysterious Conrad Brean is exactly; he seems to be a “fixer” who has served the president before in ways both legal and illegal, but always with complete discretion. It will be his job, working with the president’s assistant Winifred Ames (Anne Heche), to pull the president’s chestnuts from the fire before the scandal loses him the election.
Conrad does this by enlisting the help of Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), an aging Hollywood producer who is quite charming and playfully inventive, but also quite full of himself; he cherishes the grudge that, as a producer, he has never been given the proper credit for the work he has done (he votes for the Oscars, he whines, but has never been given an Oscar). Since you may be rushing out now to rent the DVD, I will try not to spoil things for you by giving away too many details of the plot; suffice it to say that the producer finds a way to “wag the dog,” i.e., to divert the public’s attention away from the presidential scandal and to direct it onto something else. That ‘something else’ is a war with Albania—or rather, of the appearance of a war with Albania that will exist in people’s minds only thanks to the naïve and careless media coverage, which will consistently fail to see through the illusion that Conrad gets Stanley to create. It is the type of pageantry that, as a producer with a long experience of “giving the public what they want,” Stanley knows how to do very well. He creates the appearance of a war and ultimately fools the public, giving them a reason to reelect the president, since he has now become in their eyes, for a few short days, a wartime president, around whom everyone must patriotically rally.
Of course, this is a brilliant coup for Stanley; as he says at one point, it is the best thing he has ever done, because it is so real. He has finally become a creative artist on a grand scale, who can actually create history—or at least what people will mistake for history. The war with Albania has never existed, of course, but Stanley’s creative magic is enough to get the president reelected. But just when all is going well for everyone Stanley makes a tragic mistake. He has always hankered after getting the credit he feels he deserves as a producer, in a system where credit goes mainly to directors and actors. Now he insists vociferously on getting credit for this his final achievement, in spite of the fact that Conrad Brean had warned him that he was “playing with his life” when he talked of betraying the complete secrecy of the operation, and telling the world just what he had done. The ending of the film thus comes as no surprise. Escorted back to his palatial Hollywood mansion by Conrad’s men, Stanley allegedly dies of a massive heart attack while sunning himself by his pool, as the media report the next day. We, of course, know what really happened.
So much for the film—now what of its message? Not its political message, which is clear enough. For me Wag the Dog was something like a recurring dream that took the form of a film. But what was its message for me? It is a message, by the way, for which I take full responsibility, since it existed much more in my unconscious mind than in the film itself.
The key for me lay in the fact that Conrad Brean and Stanley Motss are in a different relationship with the vast illusion that they help manufacture for the benefit of a beleaguered presidential campaign. Conrad is the president’s fixer (Winifred introduced him early in the film as “Mr. Fix-it”). He serves the president loyally and with great intelligence and dedication. Stanley, however, is a bit of a narcissistic egomaniac, who becomes increasingly obsessed with being given credit for what he has done, even if it means betraying the confidentiality of the secret operation. Both Stanley and Conrad operate in the realm of what I call “artistic Maya.” Not only are human beings subject to the delusion and confusion of Maya in the cosmic sense of the term; they also are capable of creating a kind of Maya of their own through artistic means. Every work of art aims to make itself believable as something real—not absolutely real, but almost real. In similar fashion the world, according to the Vedantic theory of Maya, is neither real nor unreal, but both at the same time; it is a “creation” and shares with human artistic creations this ambiguous status.
Let us take the famous Vedantic parable of the snake and the rope. A villager steps out at dusk and is suddenly frightened by what looks like a snake coiled on the path in front of him. But closer inspection reveals that it is just a coiled piece of rope—it only looked like a snake. This parable is taken as illustrating the distinction between “apparent reality” (pratibhasika satta) and “relative reality” (vyavaharika satta). Of course, in Advaita neither the snake nor the rope is completely real; only Brahman has “absolute reality” (paramarthika satta). [My thanks to Swami Tyagananda for these distinctions.] The snake, “apparently real,” is the result of a personal misperception; the rope, however, is a creation of Cosmic Maya—it is “relatively real.” This was the distinction that Samuel Johnson made famous in his colorful refutation of what he considered to be the weakness of the position of the idealist philosopher Berkeley’s denial of material reality to the objects of the world: “I refute it thus!” he said emphatically, kicking a rock with his foot to show how “real” such an object was. And he had a point: the snake may disappear, once we realize that it is the result of a personal misperception; but the rope does not, for it is as “relatively real” as the world itself, whose “relative reality” will only disappear in a state of samadhi, when only the absolute reality of Brahman is experienced.
Although Wag the Dog is not a mystical film, it still had a Vedantic message for me personally, which is what I finally saw in it—or projected onto it. The “war against Albania” that Stanley has “produced” looks real, (even though it is a totally manufactured media event) to everyone who does not look more closely. As such, it rivals with “reality” and “history” and Stanley is right to be proud of his “creation.” But here is the problem: his artistic creativity was exercised in the context of an ordered universe (America, the presidency, the government) that had employed him, just as it employed Conrad Brean, to do its bidding. Let us forget the heinously deceitful politics in the film and focus on the message, at least on the one this film finally communicated to me. Like Stanley, we all have the power to deal creatively with the world—to imagine something that does not exist in it at present and then to “create” it in some form or another. But we need to remember that what we have created is even more illusory than the world itself; whatever we create may live on after us, but it will eventually disappear, whereas the world—the cosmos—will go on forever in some form or another. It is as real as it gets— although not absolutely real, it is as solid as Dr. Johnsons’ rock; it is always there. We cannot think it away or ignore the powerful way it conditions us. For the most part, it controls us; we do not control it. Stanley forgets this inconvenient truth, and believes that through his creative genius as a producer he has become the master of the situation; but the situation really masters him. Conrad knows that he serves at the pleasure of the president; Stanley imagines that he is an independent operator. But he isn’t. His assassination at the end of the film proves it.
The world—cosmic Maya (relative reality)—is thus like the dog’s curly tail. You know the story, I am sure. A man got a genie to serve him and do all kinds of things for him. But when he no longer could think of anything for the genie to do, the creature turned on him and threatened to kill him if he couldn’t keep him busy. The man ran off to his teacher, who told him to find a little dog, to cut off its curly tail, and to order the genie to straighten it out. Well, you know the outcome. No matter how hard he tried, the genie could not straighten out the little dog’s curly tail, and finally begged to be released from the man’s service.
This then is the world: a dog’s curly tail, that even a genie (or a genius) cannot control or change. (“You can never change the world!” my teacher once shouted at me.) But Stanley forgets that his originality and artistic genius are actually at the service of a Cosmic Order (represented in the film by the government), and that, like it or not, it is best to serve this Cosmic Maya loyally and with intelligence and dedication. That is what Conrad Brean does; he never forgets his subordinate position. But Stanley forgets that the point in life is not to “get the credit,” but rather to serve the purposes of this world illusion as best one can—to put one’s shoulder to the wheel and to work constantly for the sake of maintaining the order of the world, as Krishna puts it in the Gita. Otherwise, if we try to imagine that we control the world, and that the world owes us “the credit”—well, like Stanley, we are “playing with our lives.”
STEVEN F. WALKER has been associated with Vedanta centers in Boston and New York for more than forty years. He teaches comparative literature at Rutgers University. Email: WALKERSTEVEN@HOTMAIL.COM
An excellent and original article. In addition to the shrewd analogy to Advaita that the film provides, there is another practical truth it has taken me 69 years to realize: never let yourself be distracted from the goal of life and its pursuit by the drivel that is mass media production. We only seem to find the real truth of any matter years or decades later, if ever. As my teacher said, “Pray, meditate, chant the name of the Lord!”, and do your duties, householder or monastic. That gives one more than enough to do.