Movie Reviews - 2010 postsThursday December 16, 2010
Review: “Please Give” (2010)
I met Nicole Holofcener briefly on the set of HBO’s “Six Feet Under” in 2004. I was visiting a friend there, a writer/story editor for the show, and she was directing an episode he had written, and after introductions I told her how much I liked her movie “Lovely & Amazing.” She quickly dismissed the compliment. Because most compliments are bullshit? Because inuring yourself to compliments is part of inuring yourself to criticism? I got the feeling she thought that no one had actually seen the movie. This was in the days before I seriously looked at box-office numbers and so I had that warped perspective that my milieu was the milieu. To me, “Lovely & Amazing” wasn’t a film with a limited release of 175 theaters around the U.S. It was a film that showed up in Seattle and never went away. Everyone talked about it.
It’s a shame we had this disconnect before I could compliment her on the film’s opening scene. Remember? Michelle Marks (Catherine Keener) is trying to sell her homemade trinkets to a trinket store and she runs into a former classmate, who seems cool and collected, and she asks what she’s been doing. “I’m a doctor,” the woman says. Michelle thinks the woman is joking and laughs. How could someone be a doctor already? “We’re 36,” the woman says. It’s a brutal scene with which I wholly identified. Peers become professionals, they become parents and adults, and you’re left behind trying to sell crappy gimcracks at some crappy gimcrack store. Life, somehow, has passed you by.
I never saw “Friends with Money,” Holofcener’s 2006 film about this same subject—the divide between friends with success/money and those without—possibly because the reviews were so-so. I wanted to see “Please Give” in the theaters this spring (widest release: 272 theaters) but time slipped away. Plus it looked, you know, a little precious: a slice-of-life about the vague wants and distractions of solipsistic New Yorkers. But lately it’s been landing on some top 10 lists so I decided to check it out.
It’s a little precious: a slice-of-life about the vague wants and distractions of solipsistic New Yorkers.
Kate and Alex (Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt) run a mid-century vintage furniture store for people with more money than sense: a table for $5,000, bookcases for $1,400 apiece. Kate acquires these pieces by visiting the homes and condos of the recently deceased and paying off relatives who don’t know the true value (or the true inflated value) of the furniture; who just want it all gone. It’s a ghoulish gig. There’s a sense of waiting for people to die in order to live. Kate and Alex are also waiting for their 91-year-old-neighbor, Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert), to die, so they can combine her condo with their own and make something bigger and better.
Alex is fine with all of this. He’s an unremarkable middle-aged man who listens to Howard Stern and never reads any more—even magazines—but Kate feels increasingly guilty. She feels she’s taking advantage of people. Her guilt manifests itself in giving money—$5 here, $20 there—to panhandlers. At one point she even gives a doggy bag to a black man on the street but he’s simply waiting for a table at a crowded restaurant. Apologies ensue. She exudes the need to be forgiven. Her attempts at volunteering for the less fortunate are equally inept. She pities them. An elderly woman is stooped from rheumatoid arthritis. “Is it painful?” she says. “It looks very painful.” She tries to help kids with learning disabilities but feels so sorry for them she begins to cry. “You have to leave now,” the director of the facility tells her. It’s the best part of the movie.
Their counterparts in the solicitude/stoicism dichotomy are Andra’s granddaughters: Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a passive mammogram technician, who cares too much about Grandma, and Mary (Amanda Peet), an overly tanned spa technician, who cares too little, and who begins an affair—surely one of the more unlikely affairs in movies—with dumpy ol’ Alex. He’s attracted to her, she’s bored. They bond over Howard Stern.
We get some good bits with Grandma—“You gained weight!” she tells Alex, bluntly, in the manner of the aged—but Holofcener also reminds us of the unbearable sadness of aging: losing your mobility, your sight, the world shrinking until your one solace are the idiot rhythms of “Entertainment Tonight.” George Clooney is an actor who has it all... This stuff is in the background of her place all the time, and there’s a kind of horror to it. That awful, chummy language about people we don’t know. When she dies, it’s one of the six sentences spoken at her funeral: “She liked watching ‘Entertainment Tonight.’”
In this manner, “Please Give” touches on important themes but then leaves them alone. It’s a slice of life that still manages to feel artificial. Plus there’s nothing driving the story. All of these New Yorkers are as passive as Seattleites. They all feel peripheral.
Let’s ask the dramatist’s question: What do the characters want? Kate and Alex want people to die, and for this Kate wants to be forgiven. Rebecca wants a boyfriend, and winds up with one, but overall she’s not quite there. Who is she? I have no clue. Mary thinks of herself as a straight talker, but her obsession with a clothing clerk turns out, in the final act, to be a pathetic version of stalking. Meanwhile, Kate and Alex’s 15-year-old daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele, in a fine performance), wants a $200 pair of jeans. She’s the most clearly defined character in the film.
Review: “Fair Game” (2010)
WARNING: The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of SPOILERS from Africa.
We like being lied to. That’s the problem.
We like the lies of Hollywood in particular. We like believing we are good, and others are bad, and we stare them down and shoot them down and ride off into the sunset. We like this narrative so much we’ve transferred it into the real world, which is complex and problematic, then we’re surprised when the narrative falls apart. Or do we simply ignore it when it falls apart? We move on to other narratives, other lies, and keep digging ourselves in deeper. It’s like our national debt but with lies. We tell one lie to make up for another to make up for another. Soon we’re steeped in it. We’re a sick country, a sick race. Are we tired of it yet? Do we want to know what’s true anymore?
“Fair Game” is a movie about a series of lies perpetrated by the Bush administration, sometimes on itself, and certainly on us, from 2002 to 2005. They were lies with massive consequences, lies that got us into war, lies that led to the deaths of tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, maybe someone you knew. Maybe someone close to you is now dead because of what the Bush administration wanted to believe. They reconfigured the globe because of what they wanted to believe. The one time they told the truth, it was a treasonous act. But they got away with that, too, because they lied their way out of it.
My god. Can we be incensed again? Is that still possible? Let’s run through it.
We got into a war because of lies.
When a man called us on one of those lies, we lied about him. We tried to ruin his life.
When that wasn’t enough, we told the truth about his wife. She was a CIA agent and we outed her. We cast her aside. She was a good soldier, and “Support the Troops” signs were everywhere back then, but her husband was pointing out the lies in the war narrative so she had to be sacrificed to make the Joe-Wilson-is-incompetent narrative work. She was, as Karl Rove later said, fair game. To Karl Rove, we're all fair game.
The movie should work. It should work the way that “All the President’s Men” works and “The Insider” works. Two people, attempting to uncover the truth, take on a vast, powerful entity intent on continuing the lie. It’s a classic underdog narrative, the kind Hollywood loves producing. And it’s true.
But it doesn’t quite work here, does it? “Fair Game” is a good movie, a necessary movie, a movie you want more people to watch. But Doug Liman doesn’t make it sing the way Alan J. Pakula made “All the President’s Men” sing and the way Michael Mann made “The Insider” sing. Why?
Is it because he shows us some of the inner workings of the Bush White House? Was that a mistake? Pakula never got us into the Nixon White House and Mann only showed us a snippet of a conversation between Brown & Williamson’s CEO and his lawyers—a snippet, it can be argued, that Jeff Wigand (Russell Crowe) could hear as he stormed out of the CEO’s office. Isn’t it better to keep the enemy at a distance? Shadowy? Unseen? Wasn’t that the lesson of “Jaws”?
Or is the problem that, of the two heroes in “Fair Game,” neither is a reporter? Both heroes in “President’s Men” were reporters: Watergate was a mystery and they were trying to uncover the truth. One of the heroes of “The Insider” was a reporter, and he was trying to get a former tobacco company vice-president, Wigand, and then his network, CBS, to reveal the truth. In “Fair Game,” we’re down to zero. The reporters in this movie don’t uncover the truth, they help cover it up. They have high-ranking government sources who feed them information, or disinformation, which they then spread. They provide obfuscation rather than clarity. They ambush the hero outside his house. “Isn’t it true...?” “What about the allegations that...?” They’re part of the problem.
No, the heroes in “Fair Game” are a career diplomat, Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), and his wife, an undercover CIA operative, Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts). For most of the movie, they’re working on different aspects of the post-9/11 world. She’s trying to find the bad guys in the Middle East and he’s sent to Niger to see if one Middle East ruler, Saddam Hussein, bought, or tried to buy, yellowcake uranium there. He concludes no, the administration concludes otherwise, and Pres. Bush, in his January 2003 State of the Union speech, says the 16 words that provide a justification for war:
The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
Initially Wilson concludes he’s referring to another country in Africa. He assumes they have other information. But after the war, in a New York Times Op-Ed, he comes out with what he knows.
It’s startling reading that Op-Ed, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” now, more than seven years later. Its language is so mild. It’s so straightforward. Wilson writes:
If my information was deemed inaccurate, I understand (though I would be very interested to know why). If, however, the information was ignored because it did not fit certain preconceptions about Iraq, then a legitimate argument can be made that we went to war under false pretenses. (It's worth remembering that in his March ''Meet the Press'' appearance, Mr. Cheney said that Saddam Hussein was ''trying once again to produce nuclear weapons.'') At a minimum, Congress, which authorized the use of military force at the president's behest, should want to know if the assertions about Iraq were warranted.
Wilson’s Op-Ed was published on Sunday, July 6, 2003. A day later the White House admitted its “WMD error.” A week after that, Robert Novak came out with his column, “Mission to Niger,” in which Joseph Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was outed as a CIA agent.
Despite the outing, Novak’s column is fairly tame, too. He even owns up to Wilson’s exemplary background:
His first public notice had come in 1991 after 15 years as a Foreign Service officer when, as U.S. charge in Baghdad, he risked his life to shelter in the embassy some 800 Americans from Saddam Hussein's wrath. My partner Rowland Evans reported from the Iraqi capital in our column that Wilson showed “the stuff of heroism.” The next year, President George H.W. Bush named him ambassador to Gabon, and President Bill Clinton put him in charge of African affairs at the National Security Council until his retirement in 1998.
But Novak is also sloppy. His second paragraph begins this way:
Wilson's report that an Iraqi purchase of uranium yellowcake from Niger was highly unlikely was regarded by the CIA as less than definitive...
By the CIA? Or by certain officials within the CIA? The question was never whether Wilson’s account was definitive or viewed as definitive; the question was, and remains, why the Bush administration believed Report B over Report A.
In the movie, Wilson’s Op-Ed leads to a discussion between Scooter Libby and Karl Rove, in which the former says, “We need to change the story,” and the latter says, ominously, “Who is Joe Wilson?” For the rest of the movie, they create their own Joe Wilson in the press. Misinformation is spread. The truth struggles to get out.
After Novak’s column is published, Plame scrambles to protect her operatives. “I have 819 teams in the field,” she says. “It’s over,” she’s told. Then she clams up. She plays the good soldier. There’s a scene where she and CIA director George Tenet (Bruce McGill) meet on a park bench facing the White House, and Tenet tells her: “Joe is out there on his own, Valerie.” I assumed this meant: help him. But it means, to both him and her, abandon him. Which she does.
For most of the final third of the movie, Plame and Wilson are at odds. She even moves back in with her folks. She abandons him as surely as Jeff Wigand’s wife abandoned Wigand. The difference is that Michael Mann shows how this affects Wigand; Liman shows how this affects Plame. In terms of drama, it’s all wrong. For the final third of the movie, Plame is the good soldier for the wrong side and the movie doesn’t own up to it. It takes 20 minutes of screentime, plus a no-nonsense speech by Sam Shepard, Mr. Right Stuff, as her father, for her to come to the dramatically obvious conclusion that she needs to join her husband in fighting the Bush White House. Then she testifies before Congress, and Joe Wilson talks to students about the necessity of participation in a democracy, and we get a bit of flag-waving at the end. The End.
Feel dissatisfied? You should. For the following reason most of all:
The work of Woodward and Bernstein led to the resignation of Pres. Richard Nixon.
The work of Wigand and Bergmann led to one of the most successful lawsuits in the history of this country, in which the tobacco companies agree to pay $246 billion to all 50 states.
The work of Wilson and Plame led to ... the prosecution of Scooter Libby. Who was pardoned.
We don’t get the ending we want. The truth gets out there and nothing happens. Because we, as a country, don’t want to know the truth. We want our comfortable lies. For “Fair Game” to work, it needed to own up to this. It needed to show us, perhaps during the end credits, all of the lies and bullshit since that fateful spring and summer: Abu Ghraib and Pat Tillman and fake White House correspondents and firing U.S. attorneys and “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie” and “Keep Gov’t Out of My Medicare” and “You lie!” and birthers and Obama = Hitler. And on and on. They got away with it all and they’re still getting away with it. Their lies used to emanate from the White House and now they're directed at the White House, and, if anything, the liars have gotten bolder.
Review: “L'arnacoeur” (“Heartbreaker”) (2010)
It’s a brilliant idea for a movie: Hire a handsome guy, French no less, to break up couples.
Immediately I thought of the unrequited lover who wants a chance, so he hires this French guy, let’s call him Alex (Romain Duris), to wedge himself in-between the girl and the dullard she’s currently dating, pry her away, then cast her adrift, where unrequited can go for it. Or maybe it’s a jilted lover who just wants a good, malicious laugh. Or maybe a girl wants to break up the couple so she can go for the guy. The possibilities seem endless. There’s always some disgruntled person on the periphery of a happy loving couple.
“L'arnacoeur” (“Heartbreaker”), a French romantic comedy by first-time director Pascal Chaumeil, quickly circumscribes the possibilities.
As the movie opens, a French couple is vacationing in the Middle East. He is, yes, a dullard who wants to stay by the hotel pool and watch a wet T-shirt contest, while she actually wants to see the country they’re visiting. To do so she hitches a ride with a rugged humanitarian (Alex), who is bringing medicine to orphans, and they connect, and fall in love, although he insists he can no longer be with anyone. But: “I’ve never felt so alive,” he tells her. “You deserve better,” he tells her. And back at the hotel she promptly dumps her jerk of a boyfriend and gets on with her life.
It’s all a pretty ruse. Later we see Alex getting paid by the brother of the girl, who couldn’t stand the boyfriend. Alex’s contract comes with a money-back guarantee and the brother asks how often he’s had to return the money. “Jamais,” Alex replies. Never. Then Alex walks through the airport in super-cool slow-motion with his team, Melanie (Julie Ferrier) and Marc (François Damiens), while in voiceover he tells us about the gig.
There are three categories of women in relationships, he says:
- Knowingly unhappy
- Unknowingly unhappy
He concentrates solely on no. 3. Drag. Plus he doesn’t sleep with the girls. Dragger. He simply makes them realize that other men, vaguely handsome men, desire them, allowing them to dispense with whatever lame-o they’re currently dating. It’s pretty clean stuff. Rather too clean. Not only do these principles circumscribe possibilities, they actually get in the way of a good story. So they’re abandoned five minutes later to allow us our lukewarm story.
Back in Paris, Alex and his team are contacted by a man named Van Der Becq (Jacques Frantz), whose daughter, Juliette (Vanessa Paradis), is about to marry a rich Brit named Jonathan Alcott (Andrew Lincoln). Can they break off the wedding? Ca depend. They concentrate solely on no. 3s, remember. So first they have to determine if Vanessa is truly happy in her relationship. And how do they do this? By seeing what kind of man Jonathan Alcott is. They determine her emotional state, in other words, through his personality. How enlightened.
Worse, they come off like muckraking journalists rather than true investigators. At one point, disguised as panhandlers outside a fancy restaurant, they see Jonathan, inside, asking for a doggy bag. Ah ha! They assume the pejorative (doggy bag = cheap), rather than the positive (doggy bag = thrifty), but, regardless, we see the punchline a mile off. Jonathan hands them, the poor panhandlers, his food. Doggy bag = charitable.
They take the gig anyway. Alex owes gamblers and needs the money. So much for the principles he told us five minutes earlier. Hey, he lied to us in slow-motion!
The wedding is to take place in Monaco, and, to get close to Juliette, Alex passes himself off as a bodyguard hired by her father. She resists and acts the brat, but he arranges to save her from a car thief in grand, nonchalant fashion, so she allows him to stick around. And everything falls into predictable patterns. She seems to fall for him. He seems to fall for her. But there’s the fiancé, who’s a nice guy, and the mob enforcer, who isn’t.
Comic relief is provided by Marc (who has a Rhys Ifans thing going), and Juliette’s crazy friend, Sophie (Héléna Noguerra). My favorite bit is when Sophie aggressively, sexually attacks Alex in his room and Marc is sent to create a diversion. He does. He knocks her out from behind.
Question: Why do we assume that people are attracted to each other through commonalities? They research Juliette and discover she likes the music of George Michael and the movie “Dirty Dancing” so they create situations where these commonalities can be introduced. Oh, you like Wham!, too? Oh, you like “Dirty Dancing,” too? Thus they bond. But do we simply want mirror images of our own tastes? Don’t looks and personality still predominate?
To its credit, the movie never makes Jonathan a villain. He’s always a nice guy, who always loves Juliette.
In fact, I began to root against Alex. Or maybe I just began to root against the traditional romantic comedy. No, don’t bring the two stars together just because they’re the two stars. No, don’t make the girl fall for the guy who’s spent the entire movie lying to her. Surely, I thought, the French won’t let me down the way that Hollywood does.
They didn’t. Alex’s team fails for the first time, and, in a callback to the open, we see Alex walking through the airport in slow-motion and telling us who he is and what he does. “We only break up couples, we never break hearts,” he says, before adding this poignant code: “My name is Alex Lippi and today I’ve broken my own heart.”
Nice end, I thought.
Except that’s not the end.
Because at the check-in desk he suddenly realizes his life is incomplete and runs back to Monaco, literally runs, a la Benjamin Braddock, to get to the wedding before it’s too late. Juliette, more Julia Roberts than Katherine Ross, doesn’t wait, either. She runs away at the altar on her own. Eventually they run into each other on a beautiful stretch of road overlooking the sea. They catch their breath. They talk. They kiss. It’s meant to be. The End.
Blech. What’ll it cost me to break this couple up?
Review: “Inside Job” (2010)
WARNING: SPOILERS...IF YOU'VE BEEN LIVING IN A HOLE FOR THE LAST THREE YEARS
I know little about business and economics but I knew a lot of the information in “Inside Job,” Charles Ferguson’s documentary about the global financial meltdown of ... 2008? Just two years ago? Wow.
Ferguson puts together all of the pieces familiar to me, then adds a couple I don’t know. He clarifies and reminds.
Oh yeah, there’s Pres. Reagan deregulating the S&Ls overnight in 1982, which Ward B. Coe III and I talked about during our Q&A for Maryland Super Lawyers magazine in 2009. Oh right, Brooksley Born, the head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, whose attempts to regulate derivatives during the Clinton years were shot down by Larry Summers , and who became the subject of that “Frontline” special I streamed off of Netflix earlier this year. Oh god, there’s Joe Cassano, the idiot head of A.I.G. F.P., and the bete noir in Michael Lewis’ Vanity Fair piece in July 2009. Oh lord, there’s Alan fucking Greenspan and Henry fucking Paulson and Phil fucking Gramm and Richard fucking Fuld and Larry fucking Summers. It’s old home week. They got the gang back together again.
Except they didn’t. None of the big, bad boys (Greenspan, Summers) agreed to sit for “Inside Job,” just as none of the big, bad boys (Bush, Cheney) agreed to sit for Ferguson’s previous documentary, “No End in Sight,” about our missteps in Iraq after March 2003.
What sticks out in that earlier doc, though, is the he said/he said between Col. Paul Hughes, who worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), and who seemed to have a sense of what Iraq was and what we should do there, and Walter B. Slocombe, the Senior Advisor for Security and Defense to the CPA, who arrived for a week in May, got his boots a little dusty, and helped make all the wrong decisions. Hughes seems insistent and exasperated, while Slocombe starts off almost jaunty; then, as he is questioned about (held accountable for) his actions and policies, his eyes retreat, his voice turns tinny, he reveals himself a hollow man. One wonders what lies he tells himself to make it through the day.
The Walt Slocombe of “Inside Job” is the aptly named Fred Mishkin, an American economist who was one of six members of the Board of Governors for the Federal Reserve from 2006 to 2008. Another talking head, Robert Gnaizda, general counsel for the Greenlining Institute (a non-profit working for the disenfranchised in local communities), was aware of the problems with subprime mortgages, with predatory lending practices, with defaults and foreclosures, and he had semiannual meetings with Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, to attempt to address these issues. But only in 2009 did Bernanke admit there were problems that needed addressing.
Of course Bernanke didn’t agree to be interviewed. He’s insulated and unaccountable. Ah, but there’s Mishkin, tanned beyond recognition, proudly admitting he was at the semiannual meetings between Gnaizda and Bernanke. He’s expecting softballs. Instead, Ferguson, off camera, states that Bernanke was warned and did nothing. Mishkin’s response? He collapses. He evaporates into nonsense:
Yeah. So, uh, again, I, I don't know the details, in terms of, of, uh, of, um – uh, in fact, I, I just don't – I, I – eh, eh, whatever information he provide, I'm not sure exactly, I, eh, uh – it's, it's actually, to be honest with you, I can't remember the, the, this kind of discussion.
One almost feels sorry for him, this little Don Segretti of the Global Financial Meltdown, until later in the doc, when Ferguson gets into the conflicts of interest between economics departments and industry: How industry often pays prominent academics to present viewpoints industry wants. Mishkin did this in 2006. He was paid $125,000 by the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce to coauthor a study of Iceland’s financial system and found it stable “with prudent regulation and supervision.” But “Inside Job” actually begins in Iceland, where we’re informed of the deregulation that occurred in Iceland’s banking industry in 2000, leading to insane loans, and, currently, a debt 10 times its GDP. Mishkin owns up to that. “It turns out that the prudential regulation and supervision was not strong in Iceland,” he says. So Ferguson asks the obvious follow-up: What led you to think that it was? Mishkin’s stuttering response? He seeks refuge in the passive voice and second-person point-of-view. He says all of the following:
- “You’re going with the information you have.”
- “The view was that Iceland had very good institutions.”
- “It was an advanced country.”
- “You talk to people.”
- “You have faith in the Central Bank.”
Suddenly you’re disgusted all over again. These are charlatans in prominent positions. They are hollow men. Mishkin was paid more than twice as much as I’ve ever made in an entire year to simply co-author a study...and he couldn’t be bothered with independent research. He said what they wanted him to say.
The little Don Segretti of the Global Financial Meltdown
But that’s not even the worst part of the incident. The worst part is when Ferguson asks him why the title of this study, “Financial Stability in Iceland,” has been changed, in Mishkin’s current CV, to “Financial Instability in Iceland.” As if he foresaw and warned against a crisis whose hand he held all the way to the precipice:
Well, I don't know, if, whatever it is, is, the, uh, the thing – if it's a typo, there's a typo.
But again: this is little Freddy Mishkin. In “All the President’s Men,” Deep Throat notices that Bob Woodward is focusing too much on the ratfucking activities of Donald Segretti, and reminds him of the deeper issue: “They cancelled Democratic campaign rallies. They investigated Democratic private lives. They planted spies, stole documents, and on and on. Now don’t tell me you think this is all the work of little Don Segretti?”
So while it’s fun to watch Mishkin hemming and hawing on camera, it’s less important than: How we got there, what happened, where we are now.
Rep. Barney Frank talks up the old borrower-lender dynamic—a dynamic that, even three years ago, I thought was still in place. A person borrowed, a bank lent, and the borrower paid back to the lender; and because it usually required decades to pay back, the lender was careful about who was doing the borrowing. That’s the way the world worked.
The world changed in the 1980s when brokers at Salomon Brothers, a Wall Street investment bank, created complex mortgage derivatives called collateral debt obligations, or CDOs. Per my limited understanding: The mortgages were sold from banks to investment banks, who cut them up, bundled slices with hundreds of slices from other mortgages—to spread and thus minimize the risk—and sold them to investors.
So now when you pay your mortgage, you pay, not the bank, but these investors. Of course, since banks sold the mortgages, banks could be less careful about who they loaned to; and since, with all of that bundling and slicing, risk was minimized, risk could be increased. As it was. Which is how you got subprime mortgages: loans being given to people who had no collateral and couldn’t afford the payments, and who would ultimately default. Their entry into the system drove up prices, and their exit from the system collapsed the prices. The exit almost collapsed the system.
We get some back-and-forth on who foresaw the crisis (Allan Sloan) and who didn’t (Alan Greenspan). We get a little on who began to bet against all of the subprime mortgage loans (Goldman Sachs, chiefly), and who didn’t (A.I.G., chiefly).
One of the most telling incidents, about which you could make a good HBO movie, occurred at the 2005 Jackson Hole Symposium, at which you had the usual suspects: Greenspan, Bernanke, Summers, Geithner, and where an IMF economist, Raghuram Ragan, delivering a paper, less on the nitty-gritty of subprime mortgages and CDOs, than on the larger topic of incentives and risk. Here’s narrator Matt Damon:
Rajan's paper focused on incentive structures that generated huge cash bonuses based on short-term profits, but which imposed no penalties for later losses. Rajan argued that these incentives encouraged bankers to take risks that might eventually destroy their own firms, or even the entire financial system.
Prof. Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard:
Rajan hit the nail on the head. What he particularly said was: “You guys have claimed you have found a way to make more profits with less risk. I say you've found a way to make more profits with more risk.”
The reaction to his paper? Larry Summers attacked. He accused Ragan of being a Luddite. “He wanted to make sure that we didn’t bring a whole new set of regulations to the financial sector at this point,” Ragan says.
“Inside Job” is divided into five parts—“How We Got Here”; “The Bubble”; “The Crisis”; “Accountability”; “Where We Are Now”—and should be required viewing for every man, woman and child in the United States. It won’t be, of course. So far it’s grossed $1.8 million, which works out to about 180,000 people. Out of a nation of 308 million. It's barely being seen.
I could've used more on the history of deregulation (the who and how) and on what reforms have been enacted since Sept. 2008 (if any). I also would’ve liked something on the way the crisis has been spun by the anti-regulation right. It’s doing the shit it always does: blaming the opposition for its own crimes. In this scenario, the crisis was caused by government, not the private sector. In this scenario, government is still the problem and the financial industry can regulate itself—give or take a multi-trillion-dollar bailout from the federal government. I wanted Ferguson to take these guys down. (Though he does have a nice back-and-forth with Glenn Hubbard, Chief Economic Advisor during the Bush Administration, current Dean of the Columbia University Business School, and a nasty piece of work.)
The poster for “Inside Job” shows a suited man crossing his fingers atop a pile of money. This is a key metaphor for me. I don’t know much about business and economics, but, to me, here’s what life feels like in a fairly well-off, post-industrial society.
Most of us struggle to find something we’re good at, and for which we can get paid, and, if we’re lucky, we do this thing for 40 to 50 years until we can hopefully retire with a bit of comfort. And while we’re doing this thing, we’re putting our money, bit by bit, into a room, which is where other people, bit by bit, are putting their money, too. So there’s a huge pile of money in this room. Now there’s another group of people who are attracted to this room for the pile of money. They see the pile of money and say, “That’s what I want to do.” They believe they can take that pile of money, our money, and turn it into a bigger pile of money, which will be mostly their money. But while they’re doing this magic act, they don’t want anyone to watch. Because we can trust them. Because they are self-regulating. Because what could possibly go wrong?
Review: “A Film Unfinished” (2010)
I had a moment of regret when this documentary started. “Why am I watching this?” I wondered. “What’s it going to tell me that I don’t already know? That conditions there were horrific? That evil is banal?”
Here’s the background. At the end of World War II, a 60-minute, silent documentary was found in the German archives on Jewish life in the Warsaw ghetto in the months before the ghetto was liquidated and its inhabitants shipped off to the extermination camps of Treblinka. For 45 years, the footage, among the only known footage of life in the Warsaw ghetto, was treated as fact, as documentary fact, until a fourth reel was found indicating that many of the scenes were staged by the Nazis.
“A Film Unfinished” is Yael Hersonski’s 90-minute documentary on that 60-minute propaganda film.
Thus the moment of regret. “How,” I thought, “can Hersonski make this silent film interesting?”
It’s no longer silent. She adds her own narration as well as readings from various diaries, including those of Adam Czerniaków, head of the Warsaw Judenrat (Jewish Council), and Heinz Auerswald, the Nazi commissioner of the ghetto. The victims, along with the perpetrators, have voices again.
Two. She appreciates the power of the human face. She shows us not only the haunting faces in the silent propaganda film but the haunted faces of Warsaw ghetto survivors, “witnesses” she calls them in the credits, whom she films watching the silent propaganda film for the first time. There are five of them: four women and one man. The man has a slight smile on his face at odds with the heaviness of his sigh. The women simply looked pained. “Oh God,” one says, “what if I see someone I know?” Another: “I keep thinking I might see my mother walking.” There’s this tension between wanting to see and not wanting to see, between recovering this past and burying it forever. Will seeing her mother make things better? Or will it make the pain unbearable?
Finally, there’s the mystery. In the opening narration, Hersonski says the Third Reich was “that empire that knew so well to document its own evil,” but one still wonders why they filmed this particular piece of propaganda. What purpose did it serve? The staged scenes tend to feature better-off Jews going about their day: a woman putting on lipstick in her vanity mirror, another woman buying goods at the butcher, couples dining out. The witnesses refute each of these instances. “Most had sold everything.” “They were waiting to die.” “You woke up to find a corpse every 100 meters.”
Czerniaków’s diary details what was being filmed that day, the subterfuge that went into the filming, and then we see the footage. This bris, that ball, this show. The Jews in the show’s audience were held there all day, without food, without bathroom breaks, and ordered to laugh for the cameras.
Initially one thinks the Nazis are doing the obvious: showcasing comfortable people to refute claims of horrible conditions. Except they also showcase the horrible conditions.
We see piles of garbage. People were too weak to go downstairs, one witness says, so they simply threw garbage out the window. “I was 10 years old at the time,” another witness says, “and I was the dominant figure in my family.” She escaped the ghetto several times a week, risking her life, to get food for her family.
We see emaciated people with shaved heads. We see children in rags. We see a corpse every 100 meters. The Nazis filmed it all.
The point of the filming was, in fact, this juxtaposition. Here’s take 1, take 2, take 3 of a well-off woman buying meat at the butcher while children in rags starve outside. Here’s take 1, take 2, take 3 of sated couples leaving a restaurant and ignoring the emaciated woman in rags begging for a handout.
Much of the footage was taken by Willy Wist, a German cameraman who testified during the war-crime tribunals in West Germany in the 1960s, and whose words, read by German actor Rüdiger Vogler, constitute less the banality of evil than the shrug of it. He didn’t know the ultimate purpose of the film; he just filmed it. He says, at one point, “I recall I had to film a mass grave,” and then we see that footage. A makeshift slide was created to deliver the corpses into the pit outside Warsaw. One lifeless, naked body after another slides down and lies crumpled at the bottom. It’s the final solution foreshadowed, and Wist filmed it all because it was his job to film it all. If this seems unforgivable it’s because it reminds us of us. We see a line, we thank the stars we’re on this side of it, and we continue to do what we do.
It may be obvious, as you read this, why the Nazis staged what they staged—the ultimate purpose of their silent propaganda film—but it wasn’t to me watching Hersonski’s doc until about three-quarters of the way in. Was it explained outright? Was it implied? I forget. Hersonski’s narration tends to be quiet and even, and she presents most of the material without editorial comment. In this restraint she shows her artistry. “You’ve got to hold something back for pressure,” Robert Frost once wrote, and she does, and that pressure builds, and eventually, either nudged by her or by some spark in my brain, it hit me, the answer, and I felt a fresh horror wash over me.
The juxtaposition between rich and poor Jews was justification. The Nazis were documenting a race of people so indifferent to the suffering of others that they didn’t deserve to live. They were documenting an excuse for extermination.
In that moment of horror, of revelation, one understands the true meaning of propaganda.
It is the powerful blaming the powerless for the crimes of the powerful. The Nazis herded 600,000 Jews into a single zone of Warsaw. They gave them no way to live. They let them starve. They let them die by the hundreds of thousands. Then they staged scenes of Jewish indifference to the suffering of others.
I sat down for “A Film Unfinished” almost regretting sitting down. What else could I learn about the Holocaust that I didn’t already know? But there’s always fresh horror. The redemption, if there is any, is that the Nazis created a document of lies, and, from this, Yael Hersonski created a document of truth. She restores voices, and faces, and meaning.
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