When I'm a Moth: The character and destiny of Hillary Clinton
By Thomas M. Sipos
In 1969, after graduating college but before law school, Hillary Rodham spent part of her summer working in a fishery in Valdez, Alaska. Little is known about this biographical blip in her life. Most likely there is nothing interesting to know.
When I'm a Moth fills in the blanks about Hillary's Alaskan summer. Billing itself "an unbio pic" of Hillary Clinton, the film opens with the statement: "What follows is a work of fiction. So is the United States political situation. Any resemblance, in either fiction, to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental."
When I'm a Moth opens with Hillary (Addison Timlin) gutting fish. She looks out of place among her blue collar colleagues, works poorly, and is berated in Japanese by her supervisor. Feeling isolated, she strikes up an acquaintanceship with Ryohei (T.J. Kayama) and Mitsuru (Toshiji Takeshima), two Japanese fishermen she meets on her way to work. She later explains, "No one talks to anybody at the plant, so, I'm under-stimulated."
Zachary Cotler's incisive script does an excellent job portraying Hillary as she might have been at the cusp of adulthood, planning her future. Already calculating, yet still retaining some of the idealism and vulnerability of youth. Coolly impersonal, socially awkward, uncertain how to relate to people and thus always proper and polite.
After telling the two fishermen of her ambition to be a politician, she says, "I need to work on softening my personality, I think. It's expected. But in the meantime I can say whatever comes to mind. Especially with you two."
Mitsuru later complains that she uses language as a ko-wakizashi. Small sword.
"Small sword," Hillary looks downcast. "Well, forgive me then. I should practice not doing that."
Credit to Timlin for a nuanced performance. Her Hillary is sincerely apologetic, yet simultaneously struggling to learn how to please people for political gain. She talks incessantly about areas of her personality that need improvement if she is to succeed in politics. She worries that it's "unattractive" if she talks too much about herself, or appears impatient or ambitious.
During a drinking session with the two men, Hillary says, "You can't let people know you're ambitious. I suppose I'll have to pretend I'm not. For decades if I have to. All the while, I'll collect resources and people who are, you know, I've been researching into the lives of people who came out of nowhere. I'll do whatever's necessary."
"Do for what?" asks Mitsuru.
"For what? For my career. To liberate people. Create communal trust. That is the goal, after all."
"Will you, will you kill someone?" asks Ryohei.
"Not personally, but I'd give the order."
"Steal what? Money, no. Ideas, maybe. Take credit."
While Hillary pontificates, Mitsuru asks Ryohei in Japanese, "What is she blah-blah-blahing about?" And also in Japanese, "She's isn't going to sleep with either of us." Ignorant of human beings, Hillary assumes the men are drinking with her because they care about her ideas.
Yet Hillary does have a brief affair with Ryohei, during which he becomes her confessor. She bares her soul to him, at least to the extent she's able. She's introspective, but struggles to understand herself. She speaks freely because, she says, they don't know the same people and he lives far away.
This should clue in Ryohei that Hillary has no intention of staying. He is a pit stop on her life journey. Even so, Ryohei falls in love. He pleads for Hillary to exchange her political ambitions for a life as a fisherman's wife on his boat. She coolly dismisses him, as if his proposal were childish and silly.
I felt that Hillary was at a crossroad in her life. That she faced a choice of paths. She might have married Ryohei. Or she might have put off Yale Law School and instead applied to the Iowa Writer's Workshop. She seems intelligent, literate, opinionated, eager to change the world -- the makings of a successful author of artsy literary novels. Indeed, I sense her options were manifold.
Well, no. Cotler, and his Hillary, would disagree. Hillary says, "I'm on a predetermined path."
"Like a moth," says Ryohei.
Hillary agrees. Yes, just as a caterpillar is destined to be a moth, Hillary is destined to be a politician. And just as a moth is destined to fly into the light (it's in its nature), so Hillary will follow her destiny into the light. She even dreams of staring into a lamp.
When I'm a Moth has a theme: Character is destiny. Hillary Rodham was destined to become Hillary Clinton. She had no choices. No options.
Hillary says to Ryohei, "There probably is no such thing as freedom, really. I guess you have no other choice except to find my actions inexplicable. You know, Buddhists, Buddhists. Christians, Christians. They're impossible to understand. ... My ambition is as total as a monk's religion."
When I'm a Moth is a Greek tragedy. We watch a beautiful, young woman whose fatal flaw -- hubristic ambition -- propels her like a moth to the flame. She even plots her own destruction, knowing that she is destroying herself.
"I'm going to sacrifice my private self," she tells Ryohei. "It's horrible. I think it must be horrible to not have privacy. ... Or thoughts that aren't compromised. You know, innocent thoughts. Thoughts of a private individual as opposed to thoughts of a truly public person. You know, one who's crossed over. One who's become one with the many."
Even now, her private self is slipping away. She sounds like she is losing her soul, paying the price for her ambition. "I think I'm telling you my own innermost thoughts. Or at least what I want to say, before what I want ceases to be what I want, and becomes what the average man believes the average man wants to hear."
Ryohei replies, "Maybe already it is the future. Maybe you already don't have private thoughts."
That's no haphazard remark. When I'm a Moth is a beautiful, somber, lyrical film, set amid the rugged wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. And like Twin Peaks, it uses that region's majestic scenery to imbue its tale with a brooding mysticism.
Hillary writes to her parents, "The moment I stepped off the plane, I had something like a dizzy spell. So odd. Maybe how I imagined being on drugs, or a tiny seizure, but too small to be alarming. And the oddest thing was, I felt old. I don't mean twenty-one feels old. I mean, I felt seventy, like time somehow was broken or bent."
Thus she is alarmed when Ryohei suggests that it is already the future. Is it? If there is no freedom, and Hillary is on a predetermined path, then in a sense, her future has already happened. In stepping off the plane, did her current self overlap with her future self, in some quantum entanglement or time warp?
"It's just a strange feeling that I've had my first few days in Alaska," she tells Ryohei. "It's odd here. Feels like it could be 2020 or 1899."
Ryohei asks, "Why do you talk this way? ... So unhappy."
"Oh, I don't know. I don't talk this way. This isn't me at all. I'm in a strange mood."
Well, if it's not her, then who is she? Has young Hillary merged, for a few days, with her unhappy 2021 self? Embittered, angry, disappointed, recalling her youth and wondering if it was all worth it?
The film suggests that Hillary's future is set in stone. Character is destiny. Yet I also felt as if Hillary were being given a second chance. As with Ebenezer Scrooge, but less explicitly, she was afforded glimpses into a future that might yet be changed.
But by film's end she forecloses all options. She is on her predetermined path. She tells Ryohei that she is no longer confused, no longer in a strange mood. "I feel better. I figured out what was bothering me."
What that was, she doesn't say. It remains for us a mystery. As she said, she is inexplicable.
She stalks off, prim and proper, leaving Ryohei broken-hearted on the dock.
The end credits roll over the thunder of missiles and bombs. Earlier Hillary said, "Kissinger's a war criminal. It's unbelievable. I'd like to spit in his face. I'll crush him if I get the chance. Make sure he goes to prison." But the sound of a rocket barrage remind us that Hillary embraced the policies she once denounced. It's a powerful ending.
As with many films, When I'm a Moth's trailer is misleading. It hints the KKK and racist vigilantes play a prominent role in the film. But while they are briefly mentioned, they never appear.
For another film inspired by Hillary Clinton, see my review for Zipper.
Thomas M. Sipos writes satirical novels and film criticism. His website is CommunistVampires.com.