Double Exposure: Notes on “Weiner”

Double Exposure: Notes on “Weiner” April 13, 2018

This is a documentary about Anthony Weiner’s 2013 campaign for mayor of New York City. At the start of the film–whose makers included a former aide–Weiner has already resigned in disgrace from Congress after a sexting scandal. But he’s back and hungry for his second chance. Spoiler alert, he extremely does not become mayor, because it turns out he was still sending girls raunchy photos of himself after he said he’d stopped. After the movie’s release he pled guilty to transferring obscene material to a minor; he’s currently in a medical/mental-health prison.

# Weiner is technically excellent. There are great cuts, usually to the subject’s disadvantage but rarely without some nuance or ambivalence. The movie opens with Weiner, shamed and uncomfortable, one-on-one admitting to the camera, “I guess the punchline is right about me. I did the things. But I did a lot of other things too.” Then we cut to Weiner on the House floor lambasting Republicans for blocking health care funds for 9/11 responders, and he’s loving it, he’s yelling, “This is a shame! A shame!” And nobody needs to say anything really, so the director doesn’t. But this moment, I think, is key to the person portrayed by the movie–a person buoyed by righteous anger and about to be destroyed by it.

A lot of people have remarked on how insistently the film keeps Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s deputy chief of staff and Weiner’s wife (though they have since separated), in the frame. Even at the very beginning she’s got this dreading, lips-turned-downward expression. She, or the version of her crafted by these shots and cuts, is bracing herself for the campaign. Then it starts to go well, believe it or not, it starts to look like other people also see her husband as something more than a schmuck, and we see her laughing and smiling. And then things get very bad and she cuts him no quarter, she’s damaged and baffled and she lets it show.

This is pretty obviously a documentary about what it’s like to craft a “nonfictional” public self: a documentary about what it’s like to let somebody make a documentary about you. There’s a bit where Weiner rants about what it means to be a fly on the wall, which is perfect grim comedy, and there’s a quick tragic bit when the director asks Abedin how she’s doing and she says, “It’s like living a nightmare.” And then creates for him a dazzling, lacerating smile, and walks away.

I know you know it is a mask, she says, and I know you know what’s under the mask. But you can’t ever know what’s underneath that. It’s self-exposure as self-protection, it’s vulnerability as a power move, it’s performing intimacy to maintain distance, it is glory in humiliation, if anything like this ever happens to me I can only hope I will be as ferociously camp.

# But because I’m me, I started out sort of miserably identifying instead with Weiner because I’m (…I hope) pretty aware of various scummy and hurtful things I’ve done, and the thought of those things becoming a 24/7 news cycle spectator sport is horrific.

And apparently that makes me his constituency! One of the amazing things about Weiner is that the guy, maybe without realizing this would happen, became a kind of icon of other people’s secret shames and disgraces, and once he started sticking up for himself (sorry) he was transitively sticking up for them. There’s a great scene where Weiner is at an AARP forum, and another candidate tries to score points off him by talking about “American values.” And the old folks boo him! They turn on him, they see the self-righteousness and they feel it directed against them. In this way Weiner’s campaign sometimes successfully weaponized meta-Pharisaism, which is sort of breathtaking. There’s a lot of self-righteous condemnation of self-righteousness in this movie–and here I am self-righteously condemning that. It’s almost as if sin is an ever-tightening barbed-wire circle from which we can’t cut ourselves free!

No, so then, having lost on the FAMILY VALUES front, the AARP-forum guy pivots, bitterly castigating the crowd for siding with “a glib narcissist.” That’s an interpretation of Weiner’s life that the film takes seriously–as does Weiner himself in a brief discourse so articulate it might even seem… glib. There’s a disturbing scene, mentioned in many reviews, where Weiner is watching himself on TV. He’s rapt and smiling. Abedin in the background is appalled. But even once she’s conveyed that he acted poorly in this clip, and she wants none of it, he can’t keep from watching, and he can’t keep from showing his satisfaction.

The film throws out a few obvious answers as to “what’s wrong with you?”: Maybe it’s sex addiction (language Weiner is spectacularly uncomfortable with–all these normal people always say celebrities call themselves sex addicts because it’s the easy way out, and I don’t think they have any idea what it’s like to actually say that about yourself). Maybe all politicians have an unhealthy craving for attention. But what struck me was how much of Weiner’s positive self-image is about righteous anger. That’s what he’s watching in that creepy TV-absorption scene, he’s watching himself yell and “fight back” and battle for dominance, full of certainty. He is extremely, at that moment, high on his own supply.

It has got to be incredibly hard to admit a loss of self-control, especially such a personal, pathetic one (he never even meets these girls!), when your whole shtik is being the guy who exposes and condemns others’ venality. Even his scandal offered–at first–a chance to expose the judgmentalism of others.

It failed because if you become an avatar of the possibility of personal transformation people will burn your ass alive if you didn’t really change. If people project their own desire for a triumphant redemption story onto you, you cannot expect their mercy when you turn that story into another sad tale of self-deception and relapse.

# The righteous anger was part of what people wanted in Weiner the candidate, Weiner the rising star. They wanted a guy who “demolishes, destroys” the opposition, all those clickbait verbs. Maybe that’s a narcotic for more people than the guy who’s pushing it?

# On that note, check out how seamlessly the language of “not cowering,” “not in a defensive crouch” shifts from being about Democratic political anger to being about Weiner’s response to his sex scandal.

# Their poor shaved cat. They have one of those longhaired cats you have to periodically shave so it won’t be just a giant ball of filthy matted fur. Their poor shaved cat is the film’s build-your-own-metaphor.

# Ways in which Anthony Weiner is like Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump simultaneously: He has 64 policies on his website and exactly zero people care. They do in fact prefer someone who “will gladly accept the mantle of anger” to someone who has a bunch of technocratic policies for managing our lives better. (Oh, there’s an awful Trump cameo in this, because of course there is.)


# I am tempted to name Stephen Colbert, America’s Favorite Catholic, as the villain of this film. Out of all the transparent glee at getting to taunt and humiliate Weiner on camera, his is the smarmiest. But really the villain is the New York Post, for everything, but especially their Abedin “what’s wrong with you?” cover.

# One thing I’ll say about The World of Politics: This married couple seems really alone. Isolated in a world where everybody is a client or a patron, a potential asset.

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