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WASHINGTON, D.C. He was an only child until he was 10, and both his parents worked. But you could go to the movies for a dime, he remembers, and he went to a lot of them. "I saw every movie that came my way when I was a child," President Clinton said, "and they fired my imagination - they inspired me. I think it's interesting that I'm 53 years old, and my favorite movie is 'High Noon,' a movie I saw when I was 6."
It is one thing to describe yourself as a movie buff. It is another thing to belong to that small club whose members consider the movies a necessity of life. Clinton has often said the best perk in his job is the White House screening room. My guess is, if there wasn't one, he'd sneak out to the multiplex.
I had the opportunity to talk at length with the president about the movies, in an interview that will be broadcast this weekend on my TV show. I expected him to mention "High Noon" and "Casablanca," and he did - but what about his strongly held opinions on "Fight Club," "American Beauty" and "Three Kings"? Or his favorite recent film, "The Harmonists," about a German singing group during the rise of the Third Reich? It's a wonderful film, but would you expect the president to have heard of it? This is a man who could talk about the movies for a living.
He'll be 54 when he leaves office, and looking for work. There's speculation in Hollywood that he might succeed Jack Valenti as head of the Motion Picture Association of America. He sidestepped my question about that ("I don't know... I'd enjoy doing anything that allowed me to see every new movie that came along... but I've never given it any thought"). Still, his proposal for an overhauled movie and TV ratings system, given in last week's State of the Union address, indicates he may have given it some thought, and Clinton is sound on the key international issue facing the MPAA: charges that Hollywood is swamping overseas film markets. He echoes the Valenti line: "I don't think they should deprive their people of making the choice of coming to American movies."
Of the films he's seen recently, David O. Russell's "Three Kings" is a favorite, perhaps not least because it obliquely criticizes the Gulf War policies of President George Bush. It stars George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube in the story of three soldiers who take advantage of a cease-fire to try to steal a horde of stolen Kuwaiti gold.
"I loved it," Clinton said, "because it accomplished all these different things. It's a great cheap-thrills movie. Clooney's unbelievable - the screen loves him, and all the other guys are good. It's a tragedy as well as a comedy. And then they do all that high-tech stuff - showing you how bullet wounds affect the body."
He was referring to a special-effects scene in which the camera seems to follow a bullet right into a body.
"And they tell the very sad story that our country has to come to terms with - of how we falsely raised the hopes of Shiites in the south of Iraq. And what has been done to them since then. Draining those swamps, changing their lives after thousands of years. It's an atrocity what Saddam Hussein did to them."
The moviegoer turns into the politician halfway through that analysis. But of course "Three Kings" was that rarity, an action comedy with a political conscience.
Clinton also found David Fincher's "Fight Club," last fall's anti-consumerism movie with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, "quite good." The film began with an attack on prosperity, which its heroes found so empty that they founded secret clubs where they could seek meaning in their lives by beating one another up.
"Norton and Pitt played their roles really well," Clinton said. "And Helena Bonham-Carter was a very compelling figure in it." But it was "a little too nihilist" for him, he said. "It's simply not true that the material advances we've had are inherently bad or empty. They give you the power to define your life more. And I don't mean just for rich people, I mean people who have a decent middle-class life. It's not all there is to life, but it creates the possibility of fashioning a life that has integrity and meaning."
I wonder, I said, why suburbia is always such a punching bag in the movies? I mentioned "American Beauty," a front-runner for this year's Oscar nominations.
"I think in a funny way it's like 'Fight Club,' " he said. "It's like, there's got to be more to life than this. OK, so we've got this nice little neat suburban lifestyle and we're comfortable - and now what? It was also a disturbing movie, but I thought it was an amazing film. Kevin Spacey was amazing, Annette Bening was great, the kids were just great."
I asked him what movie had affected him deeply, either recently or in his whole lifetime.
"That's hard for me to say because I'm such an ardent moviegoer. I try to see everything. But . . . the story of the five German singers and the piano player."
"I loved that movie. It was profoundly moving to me. The idea that these three Jews and three Catholics in pre-Nazi Germany had this jazz group with this very tightly written harmony. That they model it off of an American group they hear, they become the rage of Europe, they come to the United States and they have to decide whether to stay together. The Nazis say they can't sing anymore, because they can't allow Jews and Catholics to sing together. God, it was a moving thing. The sort of earnestness and almost naive joy of what they did, as against the darkness of the systematic evil that ran up against them."
Our time was about up. As Clinton stood, he mentioned that "Life is Beautiful" is another of his recent favorites. Then he smiled, remembering an encounter with the irrepressible Roberto Benigni in Italy last year.
"He ran across the room and hurled himself into my arms," the president said.
"What does the Secret Service do?"
He grinned. "They didn't know what to do! What could they do? It was Benigni, you know?"
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