Volume 75, Number 40 | February 22 -28 2006

Talking Point

Feeling like a pheasant; Cheney’s rules of the game

By Jerry Tallmer

Villager photo by John Ranard
A member of Billionaires for Bush portraying Dick Cheney gave an impromptu Presidents’ Day press conference at the corner of Avenue A and E. Third St. 
Clickety-clickety-whisht-whisht. The beaters, thrashing away with rods, sticks and implements of varying lengths, advance relentlessly forward through the underbrush in a horizontal line, led by le garde-chasse, Schumacher the gamekeeper, in his severe chauffeur-like uniform. Whisht-whisht-clickety-clickety. The line marches ahead, lashing the underbrush, driving all life therein out into the open.

We see a rabbit. One little rabbit, a puzzled bunny. Clickety-clickety-whisht-whisht. The rabbit’s ears shoot up. Strange word, shoot. Has many meanings. The rabbit listens, thinks better of it, starts to run, not too fast at first, then faster. Then all out — racing, racing. Then Blam! The rabbit is blown topsy-turvy in its tracks before our eyes and lies quivering on the floor of these woods as the life shudders out of it.

We see the shooters in their blinds, with their shotguns. We see the sky above the treetops. We see a number of birds, startled into flight — pheasants, I suppose. Maybe quail. Who knows? Game birds. This is a game, this shooting of live fauna, this shooting party. It’s called a party, and we are, not in Texas, U.S.A., 2006, but on the grounds of La Coloniére, the spacious estate of Marquis Robert de la Chesnaye (actor Marcel Dalio) in 1939 France.

We see the shooters joking with one another, deferring to one another. This is your territory. No, my dear friend, it is yours. Blam! Blam! A bird falls from the sky like a stone. Blam! Another stone. Blam! No, that’s my bird. No, my dear sir, that is not your bird; that is my bird, as we previously agreed. Anybody could see that.

Are they going to shoot one another, these disputatious powerful shooters in their expensive, fashionable shooters’ garb? Not yet.

The dogs go after the fallen stones, a whole day’s bag of fallen stones, and Schumacher and his men go after the dogs, extracting the dead birds from the dogs’ mouths.

What I have been imperfectly trying to describe (from memory) is the soul-demolishing hunting scene out of perhaps the closest-to-perfect movie ever made, Jean Renoir’s “La Régle du Jeu” (“Rules of the Game”), a movie that if you see it 20 times you will learn a dozen new things the 21st time. It was made on the eve of the Second World War and the Nazi conquest of France, and everybody in France hated it then, until Francois Truffaut, after the war, let them know what a masterpiece they had on their hands.

A masterpiece that could interweave class structure, social structure, racial structure, racism, love, sex, adultery, snobbism, politics, old guard, new guard, blind ignorance, high sophistication, hero worship, slapstick and a butler named Corneille (like the 17th-century comedic playwright) being ordered: “Corneille, stop this farce!” — all in the light of Renoir’s keen awareness that, as ever in human history, we are, all of us, dancing on the edge of a volcano. Even Hitler, dancing in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.

The hunting scene in “Rules of the Game” — ripped off (badly) by more than one later film, notably Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” — can be taken as a metaphor for many things; war, for instance. I prefer to take it as a metaphor for just what it depicts: hunting.

And that metaphor is what has been abuzz in my head ever since a certain hunting accident on a certain recent Saturday afternoon on that ranch in South Texas, U.S.A. An accident during a pleasure shoot by a conclave of power brokers — notably one strong, cranky, very private, quick-on-the-trigger power broker.

Nobody — no human being — gets plugged by birdshot during the hunting scene of “Rules of the Game.” Not there, not then. That comes later, just before the end of the film, the shooting of one human being by another, through circumstance of mistaken identity. Schumacher the gamekeeper (Gaston Modot), in his marital rage, gets it wrong. The working class can be as blind as the ruling class (and vice versa). And the victim — well, the victim had the bad luck to be in the wrong place, the wrong juxtaposition, at the wrong time.

The unintended target in Texas was and is a hunter himself. Dear Mr. Harry M. Whittington, dear rabbit, I know just how you feel.

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