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Fall 2006

Why Is This Man Smiling? A Cinematic Analysis

The Raymond Sapene Group for Political Intervention*

Here's Tom DeLay's mug shot. Clearly DeLay considered this a bad situation he had to make the best of, not a photo op. And he seems to have succeeded in avoiding the worst: No height chart behind; no convict numbers in front. As one friend said, it could be a high-school yearbook photo.

But that very erasure has a side effect that DeLay may not have thought about, which is to make me wonder who the smile is for. If he had been surrounded by the institutional symbols that are trotted out for less powerful accused felons - the lines, the number - the meaning of the image would be fixed: Tom DeLay is facing down a police photographer in Texas and sending us a message that he's got nothing to worry about, making a joke of the marks of criminality that his political enemies have tried to "frame" him with. Instead the marks of accusation are erased - which in itself raises questions: How did he avoid them? - and the image becomes indefinite, polysemic.

Who IS this guy smiling at, and what is he smiling about? Is this what I'd see if I were a lobbyist who had just pulled a wad of bills, or a ticket for a golf junket to Scotland? Is this the smile he uses on his constituents? On hookers? On the Lord? (And by the way, what's that pin he's wearing? And where'd he get that tie? Isn't that the tie I wore all through the 80s, which I finally threw out a few years ago?) Because the off-space is undefined, it is open to any imaginary investment I want to make.

Isn't that the weakness of right-wing mise-en-scene, the failure to understand the off-space? That's how they shot themselves in the heiny when they released that tape of Clinton being questioned about "Topic B," which was never supposed to be shown on TV. What people saw was a man being harassed by an unknown number of unidentified voices coming from offscreen - basically, the key shot of Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc : Joan being subjected to the tormenting questions of her jailers - and keeping his cool, which had the added effect of suggesting that he might in fact be the ideal guy to sit in that hotseat in the White House, no matter what he liked to do with his rodney when he was kicking back.

Isn't the off-space what the Right always denies? The off-space of crime is poverty, the off-space of poverty is exploitation, the off-space of exploitation is the class system; the off-space of white is black, the off-space of heterosexual is queer, the off-space of male is female. Has the Right been handicapped in the audiovisual domain by its need to systematically repress that invisible other side of the image, which every great filmmaker, whether it be Jean Renoir or Fritz Lang, John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks or Orson Welles, has known how to use to imprint the visible with the indelible mark of the invisible?

*The Raymond Sapene Group wishes to thank Bill Krohn and Brian Charles Dauth for their contributions to this text.