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Dec 21, 2005

Plame Noir

Wilson Plame-Noir
(Click on Joe for slightly larger version.  Photo: David Burnett/Contact.)

As the year winds down and real news begins to quickly evaporate, this is when we are graced with commemorative MSM features dedicated to "People of the Year," "People Who Stood Out," "People Who Made a Difference," "People Who Are Gonna Be Huge" "People Who Long Dropped Out Of Sight And Finally Passed Away," People Who.... well, you get the idea.

(I think the holidays have put me in an irreverent mood.)

Over the next week and a half (with a few days off in there somewhere), I will be surveying some of the more visually compelling examples from these features.  (If you have nominees, certainly email me.)  Getting an early jump, a BnN reader, Henry, called out this photo from the latest TIME retrospective focusing on "People Who Mattered."

At this point, I really don't know what to make of the staginess of the Wilson/Plames. 

I do know I took some heat for my visual critique of the Vanity Fair "Spy Who Loved Me" double-parking job in front of the White House.


I just found it heavy handed.  Readers, however, felt completely otherwise.  Among the feedback, I heard:

1.  Joe looks like Johnny Cash.

2.  Joe and Valerie (the political Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers) stick it to Rove with some friendly PR.

3.  Glamour can kill.

4.  Not nearly as provocative as Gavin Newsome and wife Kimberly.

5.  If Joe and Valerie didn't get pilloried by the right for VF, it would have just been something else.

6.  So you alienate the NASCAR set -- so what.

7.  If, after going after Bush, the press is going to deconstruct your life in minute detail, might as well feed 'em this.

8. Only Republican wives look like they've been dressed in the 1960s resale store.

9.  If Valerie is 007, what an alpha male Joe must be to be married to her!

10. What are they supposed to do, wear sackcloth and ashes?

So, once again, the couple offers us a style shot.  But this time, I'm holding back.  I could have said I couldn't look at Sad Face Joe without thinking the dramatized injury  makes questionable the real injury.  I could have suggested that Valerie (from The Land Of Migraines And Lost Slippers) is primed for a stage career.  But no, I'm not going there.  It's just giving more aid and encouragement to the Michelle Malkins of the world.

I'm just going to leave you with the one line my reader, Henry, sent me.  He wrote:

40's or 50's film noir? Are those pajamas? Is her distress because of Rove or the twins?

(image 1: David Burnett/Contact.  December 18, 2005. People Who Mattered. image 2: Jonas Karlsson. Photo dated November 8, 2004.  Publication date: January 2004. Vanity Fair.)


Getchyer tickets right here, Ladies and Gents!

It's show time:

No one may leave the theater after the movie begins.

They are on the cover of a magazine and still important people WHO MATTER because they were still outing after Iraq and Spain.

More fashion, less outing.

Maybe the only way to reach American people nowadays is through entertainment references. No straight (booooring) reporting of torture, treason, or snooping... you have to sex it up, make it look like a movie people have seen.

It does look like she is wearing pajamas. Also the stairs make it look like she's going up to her bedroom, or maybe that she was in her bedroom but just snuck downstairs. His suit looks really good, even in black and white so it makes me wonder why is he so dressed up when she is in pajamas? But, of course, the picture is taken during the day time and the stairs lead to the foyer, not to her bedroom.

He looks way sad and she looks distressed. But they're not really standing together or looking in the same direction. So it's like, is he making her distressed and is she making him sad?

The photo doesn't make any sense at all. It's fun to look at because you can tell something interesting is happenning, but it's not clear what it's a picture of.

It's daytime, she's in pajamas, but should be at work. She's lost her job. Yet, she almost looks happy? [She may have been the spy but for this photo shoot he's the better actor?] He's clearly distressed.

Is the difference in mood, demeanor, attire, and gaze a metaphor for the deep(er) divisions in this country? Those divisions have been made all the deeper through the unintended consequences of his public critique of Bush administration policy: the Bush admin response, including her outing, the investigations, and the public reactions.

She's been carrying a heavy burden, now lifted. He's added mightily to his.


Its TIME magazine.

'Two Bad Actors Doing Time.'

The PJs look like an ammo belt, not bladder control. (just kidding).

It's strange - we usually get shots of people in the news taking out the trash or walking to their cars in underground garages. Or a head shot that looks like a driver's license. So here we have a real life spy and we get to see her in her jim-jammies. I dont get it. Maybe they are trying to sell a screenplay?

Looking at this moody photograph, I thought of the 1944 film Double Indemnity with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, where Stanwyck wore her share of vampy forties loungewear. But the Wilsons aren't the villains that Stanwyck and MacMurray were in the film. Instead it's the opposite--instead of planning the perfect crime, they are the victims of it. Double Indemnity is about the "perfect crime" that unravels when a stubborn, honest investigator (Edward G. Robinson) smells a rat and starts to investigate it.

The outing of Valerie Plame and the conspiracy to trash Joe Wilson was planned as carefully as Stanwyck's plot to kill her husband was in the film (with Karl Rove in Stanwyck's place as the cynical and calculating siren). Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is in the same spot as Robinson's dogged investigator. He has to find the truth through a web of lies.

I'm sorry, if this is how these people want to be seen publicly, they come across as some kind of wack jobs. The investigation into the Administration vendetta against them has been (and continues to be) a healthy exercise that reveals the criminality in high places -- but it is hard for me to feel any warmth or trust in people who apparently think of themselves as actors in a fantasy.

Why would people choose to make themselves appear as self-aggrandizing phonies?

Looks to me like what they likely wanted me to see...that someone did a whack job on their lives.

Daylight coming up, wife in PJ's with no job to go to. Joe or his wife unable to protect them from the haters. Wife has a headache/distress, and plenty of time to think about it (as she slowly moves her hair off her brow).

I think she looks good, like an older Gwen Steffani.

I like the photo because it has emotion, and sex appeal.

Many people talk about what so and so is doing to the country, imagine their conversation having lived it. Think of the passion people get up, and tears that people shed on the outskits of this issue as citizens, and imagine being in it.

Bush would not be seen crying like that, but he is less of a man for it. Perhaps his eyes may water as he falls into drink after his power is gone.

Great work over at the other site on the SCOTUS Xmas card:

Not to discount JanInSanFran's comment, but what I really find interesting is how the political audience -- sophisticated, as well as unsophisticated -- increasingly understands and distinguishes the difference between surface level infotainment and a "no joking" content level underneath.

Being completely honest, I probably wouldn't invest as much time, energy and attention to politics if it wasn't so entertaining. At the same time, to refer to the theatrics as "surface level' shouldn't trick anyone into thinking these presentations are either incidental or superficial. In fact, these better political images have the vitality they do is because they resonate with their own particular social, class, cultural and ideological implications and allegations.

Hmm, my initial reaction was "50's suburban couple" probably because of the black&white. But I did have to look a little closer to realize that she wasn't dressed like a housewife.

I think it's a great image. When Wilson gave his statement on Fitzmas Day, you could see the effect of the past two years on his face. He looked like someone who hadn't slept in months.
So while the narrative isn't coherent in the photo, I think the theme is the invasion of home life. Joe Wilson waiting on the couch for the knock at the door.

I hate this photo. I gasped when I saw it.

The glistening eye, the sad expression, it looks like defeat. And Valerie - I can understand the symbolism of being in the background (covert), but in her jammies, like she just woke up and found her husband staring blankly into space? I can hear her saying "You still awake, Joe? You need to get some rest..." It looks like a scene out of Death of a Salesman. I'm startled at the contrast with the Vanity Fair spread - that image projects the exact opposite impression; the jet-setting ambassador and his enigmatic wife. A dangerous life, but somehow, you know they'll always come out on top.

If it's all about projecting a sympathetic and attractive image, I wouldn't have gone with the the tragic, tearful noir pose. I've already imagined what kind of toll the whole affair has taken on your family life; I don't want to see James Bond's angst, not after I've fantasized about the Jaguar.

ahem said, "Joe Wilson waiting on the couch for the knock at the door."

That was close to my reaction, but my mind took it a bit further. They have just gotten that late night phone call, the one we all dread. The one that tells us someone we love has died.

The B&W photo feels like that of parents who have just received a call that their only son has died in a car accident. They are numb, they are in shock.

And in a way, that may be somewhat the case. They were involved in espionage. People may have died because of their exposure.

I have tried to imagine what my life would be like had I been an undercover agent in the CIA. I can't. But I suspect my life would have been secretive, lonely, distanced, again very lonely, and extremely stressful. My only real friend would be my spouse. Can any of you imagine living a life that is a lie, even if it's for the security of your country?

Janinsanfran wasn't using his/her imagination when he/she posted. And I'm not critisizing Jan or any others. I am only saying that the lifestyle of the Wilsons is way beyond anything we mere mortals will ever experience. The Wilsons ARE glamorous and most likely VERY charismatic, the qualities that make them very good spies.

Somehow, I think their sadness is not just for themselves, I think they are grieving for the death of our democracy. They would be the ones who would know.

A stunning photograph.....but I'm partial to B&W. There are also some excellent B&W images on the Time site (follow Bag's link). That said:

The film-noir connection is difficult to ignore because there is so much emotion hitting the edges of this photo. While we don't know how much of this is orchestrated by the photographer, let's assume it was one of a candid series. You can almost see the conflicting emotions on Wilson's face: anger and despair and sadness. While Plame's face is soft focus, the hand-to-head gesture is one of despair, especially with eyes cast down.

Your eye goes from the left side of his face to her, then up the stairs to the door, back to the sunlit wall behind Wilson, then back to his face. The early sunlight seems to be bouncing everywhere in a still-dark room; sneaking from behind a wall to hit her side and face and seems to be pushing her against the wall.

Incidentally, I don't think she's in PJ's; it looks more like a silk (?) pants set. Tip off is belt and cowl-type collar.

As for their staginess.......I'm not convinced it is. At least theirs. They were both more private than public figures. Ambassadors to countries other than England or France are rarely in the news and if they are they are just as quickly forgotten. Suddenly, they are BOTH front and center in one of the more intriguing scandals. Maybe they decided to go for broke and capitalize on it. Or maybe it's Wilson's way of reminding us all of the sacrificial lamb to Rove's political games. Or, just maybe, they figure being OUT-rageous all the time is a life insurance policy.......

the black and white photo is staged wrong. who ever staged the photo needs to watch tmc more often or go rent "touch of evil" to understand staging black and white photos. the second photo is another dud.the car takes up half the picture....dam is this the best these guys can do?

the black and white photo is staged wrong. who ever staged the photo needs to watch tmc more often or go rent "touch of evil" to understand staging black and white photos. the second photo is another dud.the car takes up half the picture....dam is this the best these guys can do?

the black and white photo is staged wrong. who ever staged the photo needs to watch tmc more often or go rent "touch of evil" to understand staging black and white photos. the second photo is another dud.the car takes up half the picture....dam is this the best these guys can do?

Alopex Lagopus said:

Maybe the only way to reach American people nowadays is through entertainment references. No straight (booooring) reporting of torture, treason, or snooping... you have to sex it up, make it look like a movie people have seen.

Absolutely: what audience would watch it otherwise? Too much reality spoils the marketing opportunities, and the story is much more fun with a little fiction mixed in. Take another look back at Double Indemnity:

The material for Double Indemnity was derived from 'hard-boiled' James M. Cain's 1943 melodramatic novella Three of a Kind that first appeared in 1935 in abridged, 8-part serial form in Liberty Magazine. It was adapted for the screen by director Billy Wilder and detective novelist Raymond Chandler...


The film's story was based on a real-life crime in March of 1927 perpetrated by married Queens, NY housewife Ruth (Brown) Snyder and her lover, a 32 year-old corset salesman Judd Gray. She persuaded her "Lover Boy" to kill her husband Albert, editor of Motor Boating magazine, after having her spouse take out a $48,000 insurance policy - with a double-indemnity clause. But their sloppy, conspiratorial murder was quickly detected and they were apprehended. Both were convicted and sentenced to death - and were electrocuted in January of 1928 at Sing Sing. An infamous tabloid picture, surreptitiously taken (with a camera strapped to his ankle) by news photographer Thomas Howard of Ruth's body as she was executed, was published on the front page of the New York Daily News. The Snyder-Gray case in the late 1920s prompted the release of Picture Snatcher (1933) — it starred James Cagney as the daring newspaper photographer who took the taboo picture of a woman dying in the electric chair. It was remade as Escape From Crime (1942).

Nowadays, we get a much clearer picture of reality:

  1. Two people caught up in a hotly-debated spy scandal, photographed retrospectively in TIME, a popular news magazine.
  2. They have also appeared in celebrity style in a popular lifestyle magazine, Vanity Fair.
  3. Their TIME photograph is done in a highly dramatic style made popular by a fictional 1944 film about two people caught up in a scandalous relationship.
  4. The film's screenplay was based upon a 1935 novella first published in Liberty, a popular lifestyle magazine.
  5. The novella was based upon an explosive 1927 scandal about two people, whose photographs—one secretly taken with a spy camera—appeared in newspapers across the country.
  6. Two more film dramas based on the rule-breaking photographer's exploits were spun off in 1933 and 1942.

Life imitating art imitating life replays itself, with subjects, photographers, celebrities, and pictures moving past us. The truth, as we want to see it, is constantly changing focus.

I have to say again that these two are almost English in their use of 'provocative irony'.

Superb image with huge hinterlands of meaning. Rove may be good in a bludgeon sort of way but in terms of iconic history these two are a rapier.

Film Noir indeed, and with the cultural references to continents other than the american, very powerful now the embroidery is starting to unravel.

It's just occurred to me, naive as I am. Considering their stunning use of iconic imagery to distinguish themselves from the current crop of Morlocks; could one of them possibly have had some involvement in 'intelligence' activities?

I can only speculate, because after all if that were so, it would be a secret yes?

As long as you're using the picture from Vanity Fair, why not a quote from that article?

At the time, Wilson was based in Stuttgart, serving as the political adviser to George Joulwan, the U.S. general in charge of the European command; Plame was based in Brussels. Meeting in Paris, London, and Brussels, they got very serious very quickly. On the third or fourth date, he says, they were in the middle of a “heavy make-out” session when she said she had something to tell him. She was very conflicted and very nervous, thinking of everything that had gone into getting her to that point, such as money and training.

She was, she explained, undercover in the C.I.A. “It did nothing to dampen my ardor,” he says. “My only question was: Is your name really Valerie?”

A clear portrait of just how "covert" Plame was and how desperately she guarded that information. Real covert agents generally don't even tell their spouses, Plame blabs to some guy she's had a couple of dates with.

I agree with the reference to Death of a Salesman.

VP is asleep. JW has come home late and is watching TV on the couch because he can't sleep. VP awakes and comes downstairs and asks him "Joe, its 3 o'clock; what are you doing up at this hour ?"

A portrait of unresolved tension.

Joe is coming across as rather Ray Milland-ish, while Valerie has something of a Fay Dunaway look about her. Sometimes a face is just a face, though. Joe is a handsome sort of bassett hound and unless he's smiling he's gonna look dramatically hangdog.

The staginess is quite over the top. It doesn't do the Wilsons any favors, particularly Valerie. Again, I am suspicious of Time's agenda here.

Chiaroscuro gives us a few more shadows to look into.

Oscar winner Ray Milland starred in The Lost Weekend (1945) with Jane Wyman, Ronald Reagan's first wife. Director Billy Wilder—who also did Double Indemnity—painted Lost Weekend in a similar visual style:

Audiences, critics and the studio (before its release) viewed the film's subject matter as sensational, controversial, daring, and starkly real. The drab, gritty black and white cinematography of the expressionistic film emphasized the menacing, warping, and harrowing power of alcohol, as some of the booze-soaked scenes were shot through or in the presence of numerous whiskey bottles and shot glasses. The main character, an alcoholic writer, loses his money, his freedom, and his sense of reality when confined in an alcoholic ward.

Fantasy vs. reality, as seen on screens of all sizes, is a lot like the old question, "What's the difference between erotica and pornography?"


The strength of this beautiful B&W lies in the capturing of a moment of intimacy framed by breathtaking details of shadow and light that enrich without distracting. He looks at the camera and his strength is that he is simply there and not going anywhere quietly. She, aware of the camera but is she in the photo or out of it, makes no pretense of any false affect. If someone hadn't decided to destroy their careers, who would have suspected her? One lesson is that rare photos reach to the heart of a story in an instant. Another lesson is that the face of integrity is often scarred.

I think the TIME photo of the Plame-Wilsons is really a portrait of Joe, more than a portrait of the two of them as a couple. Though Valerie is the more important of the two (it was her career that was trashed, after all, and the reason for the federal investigation), Joe's in focus and has much more weight compositionally (even his name comes before hers). Only WE give her the weight properly due her — the portrait doesn't.

So what's the portrait about? Joe looks sad and somewhat worried. Valerie's out of focus, indistinct. What is her identity now? Certainly the photographer has no idea. (And we can't even tell what the fuck she's wearing.) The portrait seems to ask: Will Joe be able to love her as herself? Or did he love her *because* she was a spy? The noir setting seems to be his fantasy. But what will the future hold for their relationship? But why does their marriage matter more than the whole issue of her outing? Thanks, TIME, for not only marginalizing Valerie Plame, but also for marginalizing the entire issue of deliberately revealing a covert's identity.

I think it's unfortunate that TIME chose not to show these two as equals, like Vanity Fair did, OR to make the portrait just about Valerie. (Is that such a radical idea?) But it is consistent with TIME's flagrant bias for showing men as The People Who Mattered in 2005. Not counting the cover winners or those who died this year, TIME honors 23 men and 5 women. Included in the male category are Darth Vader (and I counted Yoda as a boy — I don't actually know what Yoda's gender is, but I'm sure if I've guessed wrong, it will be corrected). According to TIME, no other woman on this PLANET was more important than these fictional characters. The photo of John Roberts includes his son, but crops out the female members of his family. Ray Nagin was picked (Why? Because he cried in public? Or because he's BLACK?), but not the governor of Louisiana, whatshername. Of the five women who were selected, Condi is one, although she's not shown in a photo by herself; she's with three men (of course). And then there's the lovely Geena Davis. I don't watch TV, so how did she "matter" exactly? That she has the Best Legs of 2005?

Footnote to my post above: To clarify, 23 is the total number of males who *appear* in all of the People Who Mattered photos, whether they themselves won or simply happened to be included in a given shot. Same goes for the 5 women.

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