Steven Soderbergh’s aborted HBO series K Street (2003) is a singular masterpiece. That its greatness could have a lot to do with its unfinished state, which perhaps allows it to escape the mundane, or flawed, or impossible resolution that might have otherwise been in store for it—like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid facing down the Bolivian army, forever arrested, heroically, in mid burst…—is entirely possible. But it doesn’t matter much. As is, it will remain forever, tantalizingly in suspension—a source of disquieting charm and fascination.
Seamlessly weaving reality and fiction, it follows the busy and complicated (fictional) lives of notorious (real-life) Washington partisan operators turned high-end image consultants/lobbyists/power couple James Carville and Mary Matalin. Carville is a militant Democrat from Louisiana; he was one of the architects of Bill Clinton’s ascent to the Presidency and appears regularly on television as a political analyst. Matalin, a longtime senior Republican strategist, is close to the Bush clan.
The series affects a documentary style and was in fact apparently filmed and edited at a breakneck pace, “in real time” (each episode airing on the week after it was shot), during the 2003 presidential primaries. As in Soderbergh’s previous masterful political thriller, Traffic, the cast of K Street features many prominent beltway politicians, officials and professionals appearing as themselves—improvising and responding in character to the actors playing the lobbyists, lawyers, policemen, etc., who interact with them.
Richard Bergstrom, a reclusive billionaire hypochondriac (played by Elliott Gould), is the owner of the upstart Washington DC consulting firm Bergstrom Lowell. The partners fronting this firm are James Carville and Mary Matalin; they run the business with their associates Maggie Morris (Mary McCormack) and Tommy Flannegan (John Slattery). As the story unfolds, the audience is gradually led to suspect that Bergstrom is the prime mover behind an unclearly defined but definitely ominous plot that eventually leads to the firm’s demise and a dramatic investigation of all the partners by the FBI.
The series opens as we witness Francisco Dupré (Roger Guenveur Smith) finding his bearings in Washington. Dupré is a young-ish professional from the West Coast and is perhaps the son of an old friend or associate of Bergstrom’s: later, a flashback sequence shows him in New York, meeting with Bergstrom. It transpires that Bergstrom has dispatched Dupré to Washington to work at Bergstrom Lowell so he can serve as his confidential informant and operator within the company. At first, Dupré seems reticent about playing such a role, but then he relents and accepts to take it on.
Dupré is a vaguely disquieting presence: exaggeratedly soft-spoken, he is an imposing man physically. In the context of the firm’s expansion, Bergstrom bluntly imposes him as an associate on Carville and Matalin. A tall, broad-shouldered, light-skinned mulatto with a sharp dress sense—Dupré tends to stand out. His way of communicating in an intense whisper and his flat, enigmatic gaze gives the impression of someone perpetually exerting draconian self-control to constrict some surging inner violence.
Notwithstanding, he appears to be surprisingly well connected and displays very finely honed networking skills and a gift for ubiquity, which win over Matalin and to a lesser extent Carville. Morris and Flannegan remain suspicious and have Dupré investigated—but the investigator abruptly quits. Morris and Flannegan conclude that he was warned off by persons unknown…
The audience follows their tangent plot lines: Maggie Morris, apart from working hard as a lobbyist, pursues an unexpected and troubled lesbian relationship with Gail (Talia Balsam)—an engaging woman who works at the Kennedy Center and turns out to be very unstable; Tommy Flannegan, for his part, reveals himself to be a man deeply adrift, hiding uneasily under the superficial veneer of convention. Despite going to couple’s therapy with his wife, he is a habitual whore-chaser and even ends up sleeping with his father’s young new bride (Jennice Fuentes)—who then proceeds to commit suicide in their hotel room, which Flannegan abandons without reporting her death.
The real trouble begins when it turns out that one of the principal clients at Bergstrom Lowell, a mysterious entity called the Council for Mid-East Progress, might be a front for a Saudi terrorist organization. In the wake of 9/11 and of the Iraq war, and amidst the usual bouts of double-talk and political infighting in and around Capitol Hill, the activities of the Council seem to have awakened the suspicions of the US State Department and of the FBI—who, to the surprise and consternation of all concerned, proceed to formally investigate Bergstrom Lowell and its partners, thereby sinking the company. Matalin, Carville and the others are completely caught off guard. Apparently unaware of any wrongdoing, they can’t believe what’s happening to them: seriously suspected of links to a terrorist organization, they find their personal and professional lives completely disrupted, with all their assets frozen and grand-jury indictments pending.
In a flashback scene, Bergstrom, alone in his messy Brooklyn apartment, erases names from a board until the only name left is the “Council for Mid-East Progress”. The names are all variations on the same theme—so it appears that he has just chosen this specific name. It seems in fact that Bergstrom has created this entity himself, possibly as part of a nefarious and ultimately unclarified maneuver—of which Dupré was the implementer, but also somehow one of the victims. At the end of the last episode, the questions linger: is Bergstrom insane, as we are led to believe—perhaps following the death of his wife? Or is there some purpose to his apparent sabotage of his own firm? We suspect, following the interpretation of a bitter and disillusioned Dupré, that he might have set all this up simply for his own entertainment: for the pleasure of watching his puppets (employees, politicians, the FBI…) dance in the wind; for the excitement of witnessing the spin doctors being spun by darker forces then the ones they habitually wield…
Soderbergh’s Floating World
Thresholds: inside, outside… Variations in the light that bathes the everyday profusion of proximate shapes, objects, devices: photocopy machines, portable computers, cellular phones—hums, rings, dial tones. Darkly, through a Plexiglas pane: cars, buildings, offices… The contemporary workplace as an essentially empty space—a space, like the city itself, which remains empty despite the invasion of the individual solitudes attempting to occupy it. Enter the conservative suits, the lurid ties, the masks… Meetings must be attended, canceled or postponed; points must be ticked off, arguments made, positions clarified; much networking and planning and negotiating and bitching and betraying and implementing and lunching and gossiping and coffee drinking and car parking and crisis managing must take place. In a rainy limbo of shadows and HD color, the mundane takes on an eerie depth: business faces and business voices articulating business concerns, while dreaming perhaps of love or sex or self-destruction—of money, of quantities, of quidities… Names: people, places, organizations, agencies, brands, administrations. Names: our lone purchase on a world of warm and cold light fields, of shifting moods. Silences stretch. Clocks tick. Lenses bend space. The narrative flows as time is elliptically contracted—and then released.
In this cable TV room full of mirrors, looming ironically between reality and fiction, names also serve to establish verisimilitude. Places: restaurants, hotels, monuments, cities; recognizable real-life public figures—they all serve as ambiguous beacons, signaling the presence of a real world, which turns out however to be nothing more than a stage for successive layers of more or less elaborate illusions. In fact, the principal strategy of “realistic” art is to allow verisimilitude or perceived authenticity to act as a Trojan horse, conquering disbelief by guileful trickery. Given names allow something of the real world to bleed into the fictional intrigue, and inversely. This is particularly apt, because this series, in a self-reflexive twist, explores the lives of image consultants—jugglers of names and qualifiers, experienced manipulators of perception. In this sense, the audience does get a peek behind the scenes of political intrigue, but only at the expense of being itself artfully manipulated—compelled by rhetorical and esthetic means to feel empathy, to be interested, thrilled or appalled or entertained, and at some level, to believe… So in turn, the fictional world colors the literal world—not to mention the real exposure on national television provided to the politicians and professionals appearing on the show as themselves.
Soderbergh’s camera breathes. Wandering in and out of focus, it remains constantly loose, mobile: a voyeuristic fly on the wall, capturing subtle shades of emotion or framing complex situations with a spontaneous, elegant clarity. It is an intelligent presence witnessing the range of human emotions and questioning the mystery of the world’s vibrating immanence. This active gaze organizes space; it configures the different planes and perspectives; it sorts out the scale of things and the relative importance of the sky and of the people and of the buildings that it ultimately reduces to abstract structures, pictorial elements and visual themes… Behold the back of someone’s head or a shoulder or the tip of a shoe; behold the eyes, the mouths, the hands, the skin, the hair; behold the stone façades, the concrete masses, the hardwood desks, the silk shirts, the plastic cups, the metal plates; behold the myriad shadow textures. Extreme close-ups build proximity; they give a sense of the bodily humanity of the characters—or at least of the inspired, perfectly cast actors who are dressed up to play them. Wider, variegated vistas help us make sense of the physical and emotional context that they (and perhaps we ourselves?) are evolving in: a fleeting, floating, diffuse, irretrievably ambiguous reality.