The title of a work of art can most certainly never encompass the entire depth nor breadth of the creation. But it still gives us a direction to move in, so we can find the depths and breadths for ourselves. What the creators of this rather grand political satire chose to call their creation is where I would like to begin when talking about it.
Wag The Dog – As is explained at the very beginning of the movie, is reverted pun of the phrase Wag The Tail. It is declared that when a dog wags its tail it is because the dog is smarter than the tail. But when the tail wags the dog, we have a problem. Simply because the tail is not smarter than the dog.
This peculiarly true metaphor stays with us throughout the journey of the two men and a woman, out to rescue the endangered re-election campaign of their President by any and every means possible. We are continuously trying to decipher who or what is the Dog and what is the tail.
Literally speaking we do see a dog in the story. It is a dog that comes chasing the coffin during a military funeral, wagging its tail at the contents of the national flag enrobed coffin box. The dog is put there in the scene for good aesthetics by one of the three musketeers we met at the beginning.
It is the artist that puts the dog there. He is the creator, or as he likes to call it, the producer, of the fiction that terminates in the national military funeral and a dog. It is the funeral of a hero, a war hero, a national war hero, who has returned dead from a war that never happened. Except in the fiction made by this artist, that is sold to the entire nation on national television.
But why a dog, one may ask. For the simple reason that dogs are the receivers of probably the most irrational human love. Their watery innocent eyes and wagging tails can mesmerize an entire nation into a collective Aw moment. Even if the tail is being wagged at a cheap meat piece hidden somewhere out of the camera’s sight.
It is this collective Aw moment or more specifically, the collective sentiment, that is used in the name of human interest to tell a completely fictional tale. So that emotions continue to cloud logic, at an unbelievable scale through out the country. Much as the artist uses sympathy to keep his readers hooked to the story.
But all this still speaks only of the significance of the Dog and we are still left with discovering what is the Dog precisely, and what is its Tail.
It is not until the artist dies at the end of the movie, is the elusive meaning behind the Dog and its Tail becomes clearer. Why does the artist die? How does he die? Despite saving the re-election campaign of the national President, keeping him in power by creating the best work of art of his life?
The artist is an honest man who knows his cinema theatrics all too well. He is a movie producer and knows what it takes to create a story that sells. Nothing is too difficult for him, no antagonist is too smart for him. No situation is too overwhelming for him.
All this for the simple reason that he is an honest artist. He dedicates himself to creating the story all too sincerely. He does not care if the entire nation weeps over the funeral of a man who raped a nun, just because in his story he needs to sell the man as a war hero. He does not care if the story is being used to hypnotize an entire nation into selecting a President who has been charged of sexual misconduct with a teenager.
His art has given him the power to be able to make these impossible scenarios a reality. There is no doubt that he is an excellent producer of works of art. And he still ends up dead in his hotel room pool, unrecognized for the greatest work of his life. While the entire political ecosphere continues to walk the path his art revealed, long after his death. It is the path of deceit and delusion. But it is nevertheless the path of an artist. And so it is quite powerful.
The artist is smarter than the politician and all his men combined. He is much more strong willed than the rest of them in the face of adversities. He stands by his principles even before the most powerful man on Earth. He is a true hero. Except he is not acting like one.
The artist is acting subservient to those in power and he is doing so willingly. The simple desire for recognition of his art blinds him to serve people of such low moral and intellectual congruity. And when he asks for his recognition is quietly done away with. He killed or probably secluded to death by those in power.
The artist is the flag bearer because of his courage and will to fight out difficulties. He is the leader and visionary. He is supposed to guide those of weaker morals and strength of mind. But he ends up serving them as a special kind of slave, an intellectual slave, who has sold all of his creative integrity to a political cause. What is sadder is that he does it in exchange of just credit for his work, and he is most certainly denied the very thing, the only thing, that he asks for.
And it is not very difficult to understand that men and women of such low moral and intellectual bandwidth could never have given an artist his due recognition. It is beyond their capacities to do so. And it was foolhardy of this artist to ever imagine such a possibility. He befooled himself into thinking about what a story it would all make in the end, if he was able to sell a fictional tale to an entire nation, test his storytelling abilities in real time.
It is this artistic ambition that makes him subservient, a slave, a moral and intellectual slave. His art may have been par excellence but the motives were at great fault. Which does make him a dog that is being wagged by the tail. The one less smart, less courageous, less visionary is finally controlling the more smart, more courageous and more visionary.
This work of art, Wag The Dog, comes at a time where its significance is all the more immediate. There are loads to learn from this satire that takes a laugh at not just the ones fooling the world but also the ones being fooled. It critiques the ones placing the Dog at the center of a national Aw moment and also the people participating in it. It clamps down quite sophisticatedly at the artists who use fiction to tell a horrendous lie and the readers who buy the lie.
But it also teaches us a very simple way to fight such rains of fictional tales told for ulterior motives. Which is to carry an umbrella. To shut out the rain so we do not get wet. Turn down the volume of the TV when it stops making sense to us. Get the choir to shut the melody of a lie when we know it is going nowhere. In a particular scene at the very beginning of the movie, the volume of the TV is decreased to mute for a full 5 seconds. It is the creators of the story trying to tell us that we need to shut out the entry points of this faux pas passing as fiction that tingles at our sympathetic nerves so we can save ourselves from being fooled. So we do not help the Tails in Wagging the Dogs.
Cast – Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Anne Heche, Dennis Leary, Kirsten Dunst
Thursday is the Movie Day