NEW BOOKS: Wag the Dog: A Study on Film and Reality in the Digital Age by Eleftheria Thanouli
Wag the Dog : A Study on Film and Reality is a book that explores the evolving relation between cinema and reality through the close study of Barry Levinson’s film Wag the Dog (New Line Cinema, 1997). Eleftheria Thanouli maintains a dual focus throughout this monograph; she analyzes Wag the Dog as a case study and also the cinema/reality interplay that is reflected in and reflects upon the film.
According to Thanouli, Wag the Dog allows us to reconsider the ways in which art imitates life and vice-versa. The film tells the story of an American president who stages a fake war against a distant foreign country to keep public attention away from his sexual life. Released in the theatres a few weeks before the outbreak of the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the press, the film accidentally reduced the distance between reality and fiction. The real life occurrences, namely President Clinton’s sexual affair with a White House intern and his subsequent attacks against foreign distant targets, seemed outright inspired by the movie plot, causing the film to become a popular entry in the political and cultural dictionary worldwide.
In order to explain the complex interactions of the particular film with the wider political and cultural context, the book deploys a broad range of theoretical perspectives, ranging from narrative analysis to audience reception, so that the overarching theme – film and reality – becomes sifted through diverse methods and conceptual schemas. The general argument of this study is that Wag the Dog could be regarded as a limit case in contemporary American cinema for the ways in which it confronts us with a standard set of difficulties that emerge every time we seek to define the boundaries between cinema and reality and we strive to understand how people, either as artists or viewers, are expected to handle them. The racking focus from the micro to the macro level is meant to serve them both at equal measure; on the one hand, it aims to discover the particularities of the movie and its exceptional path in American culture, while at the same time it jumps at the opportunity to revisit, reconsider and, possibly, revise some of the long-standing assumptions about the cinematic medium and its relation to the real world.
The book is organized in four chapters, each dedicated to a distinct theoretical approach.
Chapter 1 concentrates on narrative analysis and examines the ways in which narrative is considered to relate to external reality. Deploying Etienne Souriau’s “structure of the filmic universe” and Edward Branigan’s “levels of narration,” Thanouli discusses the textual strategies, the institutional parameters and the audience expectations that determine the distinction between fiction and nonfiction films and their respective connection to reality. Wag the Dog and Barry Levinson are analyzed with respect to the concept of narrative agency, while the shifting conditions of viewing of the film, before and after the Lewinsky scandal, are discussed in order to illustrate the process of assigning reference in fiction and nonfiction filmmaking.
Chapter 2 addresses the problem of the digital and the ensuing concern regarding the ontological relation of cinema and reality in contemporary times. Taking cue from Wag the Dog’s use of digital tools to film a fake war scene and analyzing the recurring situations where the status of reality is challenged, Thanouli looks into the technical, ontological and semiological aspects of the debate about the passage from analogue to digital images.
In chapter 3 the focus shifts to Wag the Dog’s extra-textual life. Thanouli points out the ways in which Wag the Dog entered the news programmes and everyday discourse as soon as Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky became known, affecting the framing and the interpretation of the political events.
Furthermore, the chapter 4 returns to some concepts from chapter 1, such as realism, verisimilitude and agency to examine them with respect to the generic category of the political film and the representation of US politics in Hollywood. Finally, in her conclusion Thanouli explains how the theoretical tools and concepts she employed throughout her study become interrelated, forming a concrete and consistent framework for approaching the relation between cinema and reality and evaluating how this relation changes over time.