Michael Clayton

@suspendedreason: Reply or DM with (1) a movie that means a lot to you (2) a couple abstract-ish questions that have been on your mind. And I will watch the movie + write you a tarot-style analysis of what it has to say about your questions

@andrewvanhyfte: Michael Clayton (2007) / in my notes app: Is happiness about letting go of the past, and forgetting the future? Why am I only truly present when I’m on the dance floor? Screaming into the void, What do you fear more? The echo or the answer?


Here’s the kind of role George Clooney has played in his salt-and-pepper years: a top divorce attorney; a corporate downsizer; a con artist and gentleman thief; a Pennsylvania governor and Democratic presidential candidate. A charismatic suit with a less-than-impeccable moral record—someone who bends laws, or betrays his conscience; someone whose work puts him in a position at odds with society and its values. Like his hair, it’s never a simple black-and-white story; we often can’t help but like the guy; but there’s no confusing him for canis familiaris. He’s a wolf, whose pearly smile distracts from the size of his canines.

The other thing about Clooney’s roles: he’s always a doer. A man of action more than thought. There’s something about his practiced affect that conveys—oozes—no-bullshit efficiency and competence. The stress of the room is palpable, the stakes are ratcheting, his voice is elevated, adrenal, but never panicky. He explains calmly but forcefully what’s going to happen next—what you are going to do next. You’re gonna put down the pen, and you’re gonna walk out the glass door and down the hall to the restroom, and you’re gonna splash yourself with water in the sink, and look at yourself hard in the mirror, thinking about your kids and the wife you love at home waiting for you, and then, only then, will you walk back down the hall and sign the contract.

The competence of Clooney’s characters are fueled by ego, and fuel ego in turn—a positive feedback loop. He is driven to accomplishment in service of distinction—an aboveness, a self-separation from his fellow man. He is cocky, the best in the business and he knows he’s the best. He’s no-frills pragmatic enough to know that cash is the only thing real in this world, yet he can rattle off an impromptu monologue about the late period of Vermeer. He is a middle class wet-dream of a suit, the love child of USA Network’s Harvey Specter and Neil Caffrey.  Part of it is that he’s willing to do things others aren’t. What sorts of things? “Whatever it takes.” He’s the best in order to be the best, i.e. fetishistically: means transformed into ends. If he didn’t have this—if he were sitting on a sofa watching football with his brothers, or playing at the beach with his kids—well, you can’t picture him doing those things, he’d get too impatient. Leisure is not in his vocabulary. He’s become a stimulus addict, because maintaining flow in a state of bombardment is exactly the wartime addiction that gets him off. He’s a talker, because he understands talk is just one more way of getting things done, but this relationship to communication (to interaction, to representation, to “truth”) eats at him. He’s broken in some way, despite the impeccable surfaces, and this leaks out in bad behavior—not just immoral behavior, but behavior that undermines his own life-project, his primary goals. Something is missing, and he knows what it is, but the moves required to get there—that he has no idea. It’s not a microadjustment that’s demanded; it’s a complete structural reorganization of value.

In other words, America has mixed feelings about its white collar industries, about status and good looks and politics and smooth-talking. About the way intelligence is used and misused and ultimately wasted. About the way talent gets pointed, that both private and public sectors corrupt. We knew this already, but it’s good to establish grounding. So: Michael Clayton.


The first time we see Clayton he’s underground, more precisely, he’s playing poker in a literal underworld. Dust to dust, this moral life: From darkness he emerges; to darkness he returns. The underworld is a metaphor for the unconscious, the repressed, and Clayton’s gambling, coming down here. He could lose everything, or he could return with a jackpot. A man at the cards table tells a story—he knew Clayton once, in a former life. The man was fatter then, and didn’t have any hair. Gambling paid for his plugs. Clayton was opening a restaurant with a friend of his, then, wasn’t he. Something happened, the restaurant didn’t go over, we don’t get the dets. Clayton’s phone starts vibrating, a signal from the outside world—the world above—and a Chinese Chiron takes him up in an elevator ferry. 

Clayton is composed, as he drives through the New York night, but the environment around him keeps destabilizing. The car GPS flickers on and off; the Jeep ahead of him is making micro-swerves in its lane. Fog or smoke roll across the road. He’s headed to Westchester, visiting a wealthy client of the firm who’s fresh off a hit-and-run; the man swears he didn’t see the victim—it was foggy, the streetlights in his eyes, it was midnight, what was the man doing running across a street at midnight—and you get the sense a man could run in front of Clayton’s car any minute now, the black and white of the road.

Clayton’s rap sheet, the closets the film gets to biographical primer: NYPD father, high school til ‘77, then the Catholic St. John’s til 1980. Fordham Law graduate in ‘82, then an ADA til ‘86, working on a crime task force for four years before transferring to present firm: Kenner, Bach, & Ledeen. Notice that he’s a workaholic who graduates every one of his higher education programs early. Notice that he’s a fallen public servant, an ex-guardian of laws who uses his knowledge now to game them. Karen Crowder, head lawyer for KBL client U/North, is the one who requests the rap sheet read-off from her associate—Clayton’s been assigned to come clean up an emergency on a massive suit against U/North, which KBL has handled the last five years. What Karen (Swinton) wants from Clayton is status, credentials, something that signals KBL cares and is taking the incident seriously. After hearing the read-off, Crowder deduces Clayton must, after all these years, have made partner. He has not.

Back in Westchester, Clayton inspects the damage on the client’s car. The perp protests, oscillating between anger and outrage—“What they did, you see, they changed the grade there, widened the street… Now, when it rains, and there’s fog, and this new angle… and these, these sodium lamps, it’s blinding, just blinding. I’ve been saying this for years. How many times have we talked about that corner?” he asks his wife. Arrogance under siege. He’s looking to lay blame anywhere else, he’s processing a kind of grief but it only comes out as misdirection. He is, preemptively, avoiding being haunted by history. He does this by telling himself a story. True or false, who knows? Truth is a contested concept. He is lawyering against the sentence which will be passed down from his own conscience in the years to come.

Clayton gets another call, drives off in the dark of the early morning hours. Night is beginning to turn to day. The headlights cause a blinding lens flare in our field of view. The car rounds a corner, then another. The road winds ominously. The sky slowly lightens on the horizon. Clayton stops, rolls down his window. His breath, and the engine heat of his car, create billows of fog. 

There are three horses standing on the hillside, just like the horse from the novel Clayton’s son is reading, Realm & Conquest. We’ll learn about that soon—already have learned about it—this film begins at the end, then jumps back in time. The view from outside time, the view that transcends linearity.  The horses have bridles but no saddles. It is not about whether they “are” or “aren’t” free; this is a false dichotomy. It’s about how free, and free in what ways. It’s about whether you’re ridden, and how hard. It’s about the space you manage to open for yourself, the space in which to maneuver. Realm & Conquest: Do you get it? Empire-building. The kid describes a scene in the novel where all the refugees of the Empire and its wars come together, ex-soldiers from different factions, and they lose their faction identities, relate to each other as human beings. Communitas. This is what rave is. In the daily games of distinction and accomplishment we are pitted against each other. In the wars between the institutional empires we work for, and the egregoric ideologies we battle on behalf of, we are pitted against each other. It isn’t that the dance floor keeps all distinction, ideology, and property claims out. But something else happens, something more important.

So we’ve encountered two systems of metaphors, in addition to that of the underworld: The fog, like Doc Sportello’s smoky haze in Inherent Vice, which obscures the path, makes navigation hard, makes it hard to know what’s right in front of you. The GPS stuttering, freezing, glitching out, useless. The fog of war, the fog of everyday life. The darkened path, the blinding lights, the way the Broadway billboards blind. The glamor—a term originally meaning spellcraft—which bedazzles and bewitches. The spotlight shines on you, and your pupils pin, and the audience falls into darkness. And when you’re in love—“smoke gets in your eyes.” The characters are in some sense blinded to what’s happening around them. In part they blind themselves, part of that preemptive conscience work. They filter out inconvenient aspects of their surroundings even as they project themselves into the future and live in imagined possibles, walking each route in the garden of forking paths constructed by their minds. Arthur’s running numbers in his head, developing projects, strategizing ways to delay and stall prosecution. Clayton’s keeping several steps ahead, forecasting futures—the gambling addiction makes sense now—and scheming to pay off his restaurant debts. Tilda’s Karen Crowder rehearses endlessly in front of the mirror, preparing her attorney-speak, her public relations voice. “Labyrinth” is more appropriate than “garden”: the labyrinth haunts them, haunts their dreams. They search restlessly for a way out, but their pass leads them deeper to its center. 

We all feel the future. We are chronesthetic, we are time travelers. A simple trip to the supermarket is textured by memories of past meals, conversations with family members, the shopping list forgotten at home, racking the brain for the state of the freezer. And by projections forward: to future meals, imaginations of how a purchase might go over, and projections of checking accounts pre- and post-purchase. But this future-feeling is the source of all anxiety, of hopelessness, despair. Whatever suffering one presently experiences becomes magnified by the imagination of the suffering stretching forward, lasting forever. “All things must pass / All things must pass away.”

​​And then the second system of metaphors, of horse and bridle and early morning light. An alternate consciousness under the dawn of new possibility; an otherness which tempts with its other way of being; an answer instead of an echo. Animals have always stood for a kind of out-of-timeness, in the sense of lacking diachronous consciousness. Rousseau thought the difference between man and animal was that man was, in an existential sense, scared of death—whereas animals are purely reactive, acting in the moment on instinct. Whether or not this is true, it is part of the mythos, part of the archetypal fabric by which we understand our world. At the very least, it says something true about human beings, that we project this way. Man lives ahead of himself and never in his own time, always in anticipation. But pure being and presentness tempts us with the possibility of transcendence—a relief from chronesthesia, from scheming; an escape from the linear locking of time.

What is a bridle, exactly? A metal bar is placed inside the animal’s mouth, and a system of ropes allow the rider to tug and pull the horse’s head, changing its direction, changing the path it takes. We all have leashes, we all have bridles. Clayton’s is his pager, and his master is KBL. Perhaps also the debt accrued by his restaurant dreams. We all have many masters. We’ll hear more about that soon.

Here, now, at this moment we see Michael Clayton standing in the early morning light, entranced by horses. Not wild horses but domesticated horses, once enslaved, now, perhaps, “free.” There is an indescribable look on his face, and who knows what feelings of possibility or impossibility, longing and regret, that lawyerly face conceals, or fails to conceal, for a few seconds, before his car explodes in flames.


Clayton’s picking his kid up at his mom’s house. The kid’s stepdad is spooning baby food into his younger sibling’s mouth, exactly the sort of task you could never picture Clayton performing, which might be why his ex remarried. On the drive to school, the older kid, Henry, is trying to tell his dad about this book he’s been reading. (What is a book? A presentation of another way of being, another mode of consciousness, another world, another set of coordination equilibria.) “So no one’s even sure exactly where they are… because there’s no borders or landmarks or anything. And the town? It’s not even a town really. It’s just this camp where all these people have gathered to hide. All these deserters and guys that got cut off from their armies. All these people that are hiding in the woods, trying to stay alive. This is where they all came. There’s Thieves, Gray Mages, Unbidden Warriors… Dark Avians, Riverwynders and Sappers. And nobody has any alliances. You can’t even say who you are because, you don’t know… maybe the person you’re talking to… maybe they’re like your mortal enemy in the wars. So it’s just completely like everybody for themselves.”

But Clayton’s not really listening. He’s got his eyes on the road, watching the strip of asphalt future approaching the wheels. He’s checking his mirrors, noting what’s around and behind him. You can see the passing buildings and streetlamps reflected on the windshield, between the kid and the camera, but Henry isn’t looking out at them—he’s looking down at his book, and he’s looking sideways at his dad’s face with desperate blue eyes, somewhere between enthusiasm and longing, wanting for connection. “I’m serious, you should really read it.” “You got your bus pass?” Clayton asks, again preemptive and strategizing, for all his tactical consideration repeatedly missing the point. It’s not a microadjustment that’s demanded; it’s a complete structural reorganization of value. We fail each other constantly, which is part of life’s tragedy. We’re stingy with each other; we hoard those resources we cannot get enough of and cannot bear parting with. Some of us are short on money. Some of us are short in time.

Clayton’s at a restaurant, the restaurant he once owned with his brother. They’re auctioning off kitchen ware: the film’s script describes this scene as “sounds of the carcass being picked.” The carcass of a dream, long dead. But the loan shark, who seems soft-spoken and kind—maybe he’s a mediator, maybe it’s an act—says Clayton’s still going to come up short after the auction. How short, Clayton wants to know. Seventy-five, the mediator says. Clayton thought it would be less. But it’s really Clayton’s brother Timmy who should be paying, the man says. Where is he? If I knew, I could settle this with him direct. Clayton says he doesn’t know where his brother is—off somewhere upstate with four Michelin radios stolen from their sister’s garage, a coke-dealer waitress he knocked up. Clayton’s covering for his brother, and it’s beautiful, and it testifies to his character. To his fallen nature. And this conflict—between his own selfish professional and financial interests, on the one hand, and protecting the people he cares about, on the other? That conflict defines this whole movie, so listen carefully to what the mediator says next: “I had a wife was a drunk. Beautiful girl. Young girl. But live like that? Even if they do a program. I think she did once two years. It’s like you’re strapped to a bomb.” This isn’t just a coincidence, bomb as choice of image. The face of a good soldier, is how the script describes Clayton’s face. A soldier torn in his allegiance. Sometimes his cause is just, sometimes unjust, but soldier is never, really, free. The fight may cost him everything. Splash some water on your face, look yourself in the mirror before you sign the contract which will bind you to an eternity of duty. It’s not a microadjustment that’s demanded; it’s a complete structural reorganization of value

Clayton gets another call, another tug on the leash. Arthur, a friend at KBL, has stripped down naked in the middle of a deposition on the billion-dollar, six-year-long U/North case. Six years of “stalling and screaming and scheming” featuring five changes of venue and eighty-four thousand documents in discovery. Clayton flies to Milwaukee, speaks to Arthur as his lawyer now, in the jail cell where Arthur’s been confined for indecent exposure. Arthur’s like an angel speaking of miracles; he calls the case’s plaintiff, a young woman who he’s spent six years undermining and attacking, “God’s perfect little child.” There are Biblical references all over this film. Arthur’s surname is Edens. Arthur takes the bite from the apple, and is possessed by Knowledge of Evil. Suddenly he gains awareness; suddenly he gains conscience. His revelation is ecstatic; he speaks of “witness” and “testimony.” How does he describe the revelation?

I realized, Michael, at that moment, that I had emerged—as I have done nearly every day for the past twenty-eight years of my life—not through doors of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen—not through the portals of our huge and powerful law firm, but rather from the asshole of an organism whose sole function is to excrete the poison—the ammo—the defoliant—necessary for even larger and more dangerous organisms to destroy the miracle of humanity—and that I have been coated with this patina of shit for the better part of my life and that the stink and stain might in all likelihood take the rest of my days to undo—and do you know what I did next? I took a deep, cleansing breath. I set that notion aside. I tabled it. I said to myself, ‘As clear as this may be—as potent as this may feel—as true a thing as I believe I have witnessed here—I must wait. It must stand the test of time.’

Michael’s surname is Clayton: Molded like pottery. Book of Isaiah: “Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’?” The face of a good soldier. Book of Job: “Remember, I beseech thee, that thou hast made me as the clay; and wilt thou bring me into dust again?” Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. And when Arthur talks to Michael, here in the jail cell, he calls him Cleanser of the Hidden Sins, which is somewhere between Christ and a cover-up artist hitting beat cops with bribes. 

Arthur recounts the prelude to his conversion: “Marty tells me we’ve just hit thirty thousand billable hours; he wants to celebrate. An hour later, I’m in a whorehouse in Chelsea and two Lithuanian redheads are taking turns sucking my dick. I’m laying there, I’m trying not to come, I’m trying to make it last, right? So I start doing the math—thirty thousand hours—what is that?—twenty-four times thirty—seven-hundred twenty hours in a month—eight-thousand seven-hundred and sixty hours per year… Because it’s years—it’s lives—and the numbers are making me dizzy, and now, now I’m not just trying not to come, I’m trying not to think! But I can’t stop!” Which is to say: dissolution into the present is not an unmitigated, contextless good. In some sense, it is these characters’ very ingratiation with the present—with their local demands and immediate needs, caught up in the games they are playing and have committed to play—which prevents them gaining the awareness, gaining the thunderbolt of revelation that Arthur does. Never questioning the structural, macro underpinning and commitments underneath all their tactical adjustments and maneuvering. Bourdieu talks about illusio, a shared, collectively maintained mythology which members of an institution or organization maintain about the critical importance nay necessity of their work, about their irreplaceability in the ecosystem. Every war is “critical”; every threat is “existential” and “unprecedented.” Similarly, members of institutions whose work might trouble their conscience must, in some way, avoid gaining awareness, have a motivated ignorance field, and this field is maintained by uncritical activity, by doing over thinking, embodying over reflecting. It is precisely a timelessness—a lack of urgency, a sense of leisure, the luxury of it all—that might enable contemplation. To rise above the garden and wonder, not about left or right at the fork, but whether one’s aim is true and noble.

Arthur’s been having manic episodes. He cedes the mania, and the hallucinations, but calls them a “tax” on the insight that mania brings with it. “That’s just the package, the plate, like advertising on TV—it’s the freight, the weight, it’s the price of the show.” An interesting thing about mania is the way it changes our conative experience of time—the emotional valence attached to our future feeling. Everything feels important somehow, and the future is brightly lit, promising. Anything seems possible, which makes the manic person feel fundamentally free. There are no looming catastrophes, whose presence on the horizon-line constrain and limit current action. There is no feeling of anxiety or fear. The world is a comedy, not a tragedy; its fate is far from sealed.

But then, in classic lawyer mode, Clayton and Arthur swap convenient conceptualizations of the same thing. Arthur isn’t an accomplice in murder; he’s a legend. Kenner, Bach & Ledeen isn’t a “cancer,” it’s one of the largest, most respected law firms in the world. (Cancer: growth which looks like progress only from the vantage point of the expansionist cell.) “I am Shiva, God of Death!” Arthur cries. “Let’s get out of Milwaukee and we’ll talk about it,” Michael replies, gaze still fixed forward. Later on, when Clayton talks to Arthur’s legal team, he will again try to frame the situation in a way that normalizes it, that reduces panic, that presents a clear and impending solution. This is the entire movie, this is his entire job, this is what he does. He fixes things. And he fixes them with language. “It’s very simple. Arthur has a chemical imbalance. He’s supposed to be taking his medication and he’s fallen behind on that. He’ll be on the mend in two or three days.” One of the young attorneys listening will be later cast in Inherent Vice as Shasta Fay, ode to the mysterious. “Inherent vice in a maritime insurance policy is anything that you can’t avoid. Eggs break, chocolate melts, glass shatters…”

Now we get the U/North legal team, watching footage of Arthur, taking off his clothes in the deposition. Trying to get free of the stain, the patina. He says: “Anna, I love you, and I’m sitting here listening to you.” I love you, and I’m listening to you. I’m here, and I’m present, and I’m paying attention. And I’m not gerrymandering concepts to suit my goals. I’m not projecting my agenda onto the interaction. I’m not nitpicking your language adversarially, and reframing your experience in my own terms. I’m not trying my hardest not to believe you, not to understand. I’m not so busy I don’t have time. I’m here, and I love you, and I’m listening. Cut scene and the episode repeats itself: Henry’s on the phone with Arthur, who picked up the receiver when Michael was, ostensibly and per usual, absent. Henry’s telling Arthur a bedtime story out of Realm & Conquest. The plot is basically Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which itself is echoed by the plot of Michael Clayton. All these people seem crazy, going against everyone else’s logic, rejecting the conflict-based, imperial reality-schema that everyone around them pledges to. So of course Arthur asks for the book title. I need it, he says. What is it that kids have, and adults lose? 

The answer has no single name, but it can be gestured at—can be loosely illuminated, with a little charitable imagination, like a constellation from stars. One star, perhaps, is presence, a second, possibility. A third is freedom, a fourth the positive-sum outlook of an explore phase when contrasted with the fixed-sum vision of exploit.

Henry and Arthur talk—not past each other but to each other. An understanding, language used not to bludgeon but bridge. A highpoint for hope before our plot is plunged, again, back into darkness.

Henry: “A whole bunch of people having the same dream…” Arthur: “They’ve been summoned… Do they know they’re all having the same dream?” “No, they all think it’s just them, that maybe they’re going crazy or something. So they don’t want to admit it.” “But they’re not crazy, are they… It is happening isn’t it. Something larger than themselves.” A preference cascade initiated by seeing and speaking and really listening, by setting aside all the conflicts and projects and strategic positionings that usually prevent such an understanding. A ripple across a system of equilibria, upsetting the order of conflict, and knocking it into a new settling point. 

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