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Brigsby Bear (2017)
An (instant) Lonely Island classic
One of Brigsby Bear's opening title cards reads "Lonely Island Classics", in the style of the "Sony Pictures Classics" logo familiar to art house-goers. For good reason. Like its producers from the Lonely Island and the rest of its team, Brigsby Bear will be an instant classic for the right reason: its bigheartedness.
A reward of being generous and brave is the opportunity to work with others who are, too. And so director Dave McCary, co-writer Kevin Costello, and creator-star Kyle Mooneylifelong friends and colleagueshave assembled a crack team of their SNL collaborators, Upright Citizens Brigade founder Matt Walsh, ex-spy Claire Danes, Jedi Knight Mark Hamill, and of course The Lonely Island: Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone. Brigsby Bear is an entree-sized portion of soul food for creatives, but it's still a comedy. To that end, bold-faced names like straight man Beck Bennett and fuddy-duddy Walsh generously play to type.
The film opens with the children's TV series Brigsby Bear. It features a Teddy Ruxpin- like bear, Brigsby, who travels the galaxy defending mankind while teaching dubious life lessons. James Pope (Mooney) is enthralled, but the show seems pitched at viewers 15 years his junior. We learn that James' passion for Brigsby isn't the only thing keeping him in his room. He lives with his parents in a desert bunker. Surfacing requires a gas mask. Like James' vast library of Brigsby VHS tapes, the family ritual of shaking hands before dinner seems an accommodation to an apocalypse.
Not so. The FBI arrive, informing James that he was kidnapped at birth. Brigsby Bear has been the secret work of his captors, for his eyes only. As James is reintegrated into his birth family and society, he proves guileless but remarkably well-adapted. Why? Brigsby. And so James takes on the real world the only way he knows how: by continuing the legacy of Brigsby as a filmmaker. Doubters become converts. We're reminded that childlike curiosity is a feature, not a bug. And both films find room in their hearts for even the villain (Hamill).
So what are the Lonely Island classics, and what kinship have they with Brigsby Bear? Start with Stork Patrol (https://youtu.be/rH9giCg3Nro) or O.C. parody The 'Bu (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ODz2rUXpKWw), and you'll see that awkwardness has always been central to the trio's charm. When they graduated to SNL, they doubled down, and the likes of Rihanna (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6_W_xLWtNa0) and Justin Timberlake (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JwCbbMgp3Lw) joined them to check their cool at the door. So it's no surprise to hear Brigsby Bear's creators mention The Lonely Island as revered big sibs. They are fellow travelers, and we're lucky to come along for the ride.
Water seeks its level, and the goodwill at the film's Sundance premiere spilled into the audience. IMDb founder Col Needham, a genuine movie lover happy to watch five a day, was often the first to laughgiving the rest of the audience permission to do the same. During a post-screening Q&A, McCary was asked about a scene where James is asked who's on his t-shirt. It's Brigsby. "It's Brigsby," he replies. The camera pans down, revealing on the shirt: "IT'S BRIGSBY." The joke had killed. True to the film's esprit de corps, McCary called out his cousin to stand and get credit for it.
And as for the Sony Pictures Classics spoof, Taccone seemed genuinely tickled by the size of the laugh it had garneredand was quick to give credit to Schaffer. Thankfully, SPC was quicker to the draw than their trademark lawyers. They'll be releasing Brigsby Bear this summer.
The Godfather (1972)
Antitrust in The Godfather
We often hear that what the Feds nail mafiosos on is tax evasion, rather than the substantive underlying illegal commerce. What if it was antitrust instead of tax?
Gangland is exactly where you'd expect to find anti-competitive behavior, working in the shadows to extract rents. After all, unfairly treated competitors can't complain to the authorities; their recourse is instead only to violence. What's more, those competitors are often themselves taken out of play by the government, whether through transparent corruption (e.g., the legislatively and executively sponsored "war on drugs") or through opaque corruption (e.g., bribery of corrupt cops by competing gangs). Thus, the very illegality of the products in which gangs traffic makes for government-granted monopolies that incentivize the illegal behavior.
As much trouble as these monopolies and oligopolies cause for incumbents, they're even more of a headache for insurgents. Hence, barriers to entry in mob-controlled industries are high. Indeed, in Coppola's 175-minute film, there's barely a suggestion that a new family could come to compete with the five, let alone that an organization other than a family could try to enter. (There is one suggestion than an existing deputy of one of the families could do a start-up.)
Relatedly, the specter of boycotting by the Corleone family is ever-present. The Godfather's office is the marketplace. Demand walks in, and the Godfather farms it out to approved suppliers of murder, maiming, extortion, etc. Hence the refrain from his lieutenants, "Who(m) should I give this job to?" As an antitrust defendant, Don Corleone would likely argue that this matching of buyers to sellers is a market-promoting service, see Chi. Bd. of Trade v. United States, 246 U.S. 231 (1918)like a market maker on a securities exchangewhile prosecutors would allege that, by unilaterally choosing the supplier for each transaction, he is impeding an open market rather than lubricating it. Prosecutors would background this argument with atmospherics of racial discrimination, cf. NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., 458 U.S. 886 (1982), by the Corleones qua employer; Mike says of the family attorney, "He's a good lawyer (but n)ot a Sicilian one."
Market-splitting is rampant in The Godfather. One family controls the Bronx, another Brooklyn, and so on. In a particularly apt bit of dialog, during the epic meeting of the five families, one head refers to the United States as being split into "territories." This meeting is the smoking gun of collusion amongst the five families. If they could survive evidentiary challenges, such gems as Don Corleone's "When did I ever refuse an accommodation?" would find prominent places in the prosecution's brief.
The tying in Coppola's film is blatant enough to make Yale, Hack v. Yale Corp., 237 F.3d 81 (2d Cir. 2000), or Microsoft, United States v. Microsoft Corp., 253 F.3d 34 (D.C. Cir. 2001) (per curiam), blush. And the ties that bind are first and foremost family ties. Hence the brilliant opening sequence of intercutting between shadowy interiors of business deals and sun-washed exteriors of the wedding, which lingers long enoughthe latter replete with multi-generational singing, dancing and tribute-payingto make us feel we're there, part of the family. The mistake of the father whose beseeching of Don Corleone opens the film was to miss this lesson. By not investing in respect for the family upfront, by forgetting that the contract with the Godfather is a deep basket of goods and services that one locks into for the long term, he insults the CEO. Only by signing up for the whole kit and caboodleincluding reciprocity of a sort and at a time to be named laterdoes he get into the club. Hence the plausibility of Mike's claim at the end of the film that he is imposing exilethe ultimate punishment by the market dominatoron his brother-in-law. Sonny's career as family head is doomed not just because he's a hothead but also because he forgets that ultimately it's all about family.
All these shenanigans are ways of restraining trade. And how better to restrain trade than decapitate the $600,000 horse of a Hollywood producer who won't hire your guy and leave the head in his bed, to whack a Las Vegas developer who won't sell you his hotel, or to execute your competitors point blank under the mantle of family ties? While making offers that one figuratively can't refuse is generally market-promoting, making offers than one literally "can't refuse" is market-restricting.
So, would going after mob commerce under the antitrust laws be an unprecedented prosecution of a monopoly that the government itself sponsored? Nope. The government unwittingly sponsors monopolists all the time, by imposing so much regulation that potential entrants don't bother. Thus the Godfather is referring to America's political organs when he says, "I believe in America. America's made my fortune." And he is speaking on behalf of countless regulatorily entrenched incumbentsfrom banks to taxis, Katrina Miriam Wyman, Problematic Private Property: The Case of New York Taxicab Medallions, 30 Yale J. on Reg. 125 (2013)too.
Good Bye Lenin! (2003)
Goodbye "Goodbye Lenin!"?: The Longevity of Criticism
On the occasion of the passing of America's greatest film critic and Hollywood's greatest cheerleader, Roger Ebert, I wanted to reflect on whether his writing will stand the test of time. We often ask whether a given film will hold up, but what about a given review?
My most recent screening had been of "Goodbye, Lenin!" (2004), Wolfgang Becker's historical- comical-tragical (as Polonius would have called it) story of a GDR loyalist whose son, once she emerges from a coma during which the Berlin Wall has fallen, doesn't dare break the news to her. Sure enough, Ebert had reviewed the German film. And so two extra layers of translation in which the message might be lost stacked with the one of interest to me: from the setting (1989) to the filming (2003), and from the filmmaker's audience (Germany) to Ebert's (the United States).
Perhaps for the latter reason, the review is not among Ebert's longest or strongest. His wit is at its most inspired and devastating when fulminating over a train-wreck like Sex and the City 2: "I don't know a whole lot about fashion, but I know something about taste . . . ." With Lenin!, on the other hand, he admits being on his heels: "it is no doubt filled with references and in-jokes we do not quite understand." (More: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/goodbye-lenin-2004)
But I think the most important thing that Ebert's review doesn't understand -- or, to be more fair, doesn't acknowledge -- is the thematic role of Christiane's (Kartis Sass) deception regarding her family's history and her relationship with the socialist party. Summing his criticism, Ebert writes: "What 'Goodbye, Lenin!' never quite deals with is the wrongheadedness of its heroine. . . . How many of us lie to our parents, pretending a world still exists that they believe in but we have long since moved away from?" But has Christiane's son Alex (Daniel Bruhl) really moved away? It seems rather credulous to believe that the extreme lengths he goes to to freeze his mom in historical stasis (even enlisting an ex-cosmonaut to create fake news broadcasts, as Ebert notes) are really for his mom's health (the doctor has admonished that she must have no surprises). Peering a bit beneath the surface, we surmise that all this play-acting is for Alex's own benefit, at least in part. Hence his concession that "the GDR I created for her increasingly became the one I dreamed of."
If so, then it's congruent that it turns out not to be the case that her love affair with the party is the result of his with some Western strumpet (as we were led to believe), but rather that her husband's flight was the result of the party's betrayal of him -- and, by extension, her. On that reading, her loyalty is not just "emotional compensation" for his desertion, as Ebert suggests, but rather an outright charade, thus making her son's cocooning of her from the Good News all the more tragic. Thus, Becker's central theme is less about the folly of patronizing our parents in their antiquation, and more about the folly of catering to anyone when we don't actually know what they want.
Even if I'm wrong, and Alex really is just trying to follow doctor's orders, the point still stands: he's trying to avoid giving her a negative shock, but it turns out that she might not take the news of the end of the GDR so negatively after all. Indeed, when he unspools to her his fabrication of the reunification -- replete with tales of West German refugees from capitalism flooding into their very neighborhood -- her concern seems less around the triumph of socialism and more around being helpful herself. (On that score, she's kindred spirits with Ebert, who drew strength and joy from his prolific writing for others' benefit, tweeted with abandon in spite of himself, and was known to scribble notes during screenings and rip them, page by page, from his notebook, to be gathered during the closing credits and assembled into his always- anticipated reviews.) One of her best punchlines -- "Coca Cola was a socialist invention?" -- sounds more in amazement than party pride.
But, returning to my project, does this alleged missing of the mark have anything to do with the 9 years since Ebert's review? I don't think so. Whether Becker's point is better captured by Ebert's read or mine, the intervening period neither adds to nor subtracts from the audience's ability to find it. By choosing to film (Becker) and write about (Ebert) such enduring cultural touchstones as Coca Cola and Burger King, the two maximize the likelihood that they'll remain recognizable for future audiences. And, more importantly, by anchoring even more firmly on timeless themes (family more than fast food; "taste" more than "fashion"), the two maximize the likelihood that they'll remain relevant for them.
Citizen Kane (1941)
At the peak of the debt bubble last decade, David Siegel, CEO and owner of the world's largest time share developer, leveraged his already leveraged fortune to build America's largest house. Dubbed un-ironically "Versailles," the 90,000 square-foot monstrosity started to take root in the Florida Everglades. When the bubble popped, so did Siegel's fortune and family, and the home, half-finished, went to foreclosure.
Remarkably, documentarian Lauren Greenfield captured the rise and fall of this modern day Xanadu--gaudy enough to make Donald Trump blush--in "Queen of Versailles" (2012), which took top directing honors at the Sundance Film Festival. The comparisons it begs to Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" (1941), itself an untouchable fortress, are inescapable. Like Charles Foster Kane (Welles), Siegel used the scalability of market capitalism to accumulate unwieldy millions and then sought to sequester it, and himself, in a monument down in that state that Civilized people consider barely worthy of citizenship. And so each of these two men was first among their equals--but not quite even equal himself.
We watch Kane and Siegel grow fat, hubristic, and surly while they lose their wealth, reputation and family. But Kane has been remembered for 72 years, whereas Siegel will soon be forgotten. Why did we care so much to decipher Kane's Rosebud while we couldn't care less about Siegel's? Is it that Kane's life's work was vindicating our core value of freedom of the press, whereas Siegel's was indulging our ego, groupthink, and materialism with the thought that we could and should own a second home?
To see that it isn't, return to the news room debate that follows the screening of an obit of Kane at the beginning of that film. The editors query: What matters more?: What he did or who he was? Our quest as citizen journalists--proxied by Jerry Thompson (William Alland), whose back is almost always to the camera--resolves that the answer is the latter. To write the definitive Kane obit, we need to know who this love interest Rosebud is, Thompson presumes. We discover Rosebud was no woman, but rather the symbol of the last moment of fun, family and autonomy in Kane's life.
Money wrecks all that, and Kane's last-ditch effort to wreck the wrecker by tearing his love nest to tatters is too little, too late. Greenfield's film, on the other hand, never gives us a sympathetic, pre-wealth Siegel whom we might root for, or at least be curious about. We know only what he did, rather than who he was, and so it is mostly with schadenfreude that we witness his implosion.
Queen of Versailles isn't the only current release inviting parallels to Welles' chef d'oeuvre. Carl Deal and Tia Lessin's "Citizen Koch" (forthcoming 2013) digs into the funding of the modern Republican Party by plutocrats, including the Koch brothers. The doc is set against the backdrop of the aptly captioned Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 559 U.S. 310 (2010), which held that citizens do not lose their First Amendment protections merely because they channel their voice through corporations. Indeed, was Kane's constitutionally-protected yellow journalism any nobler than the Hillary Clinton hit job cooked up by Citizens United?
What these films and this case share in common is the question of what we may and should do with accumulated wealth. Ironically, that's a question that newspaper moguls have to worry less and less about these days. Just visit Sam Simeon, whose 90,000 square feet Siegel was likely trying to best. William Randolph Hearst's real-life Xanadu, overlooking the Pacific from its perch on the bluffs just north of San Luis Obispo, stands as a monument to the value that could once be extracted by controlling mass media. Perhaps motivated by Welles' film, the Hearst Corporation secured a more sympathetic legacy for Hearst Castle than Kane did for Xanadu by donating it to the state of California to be used as a state park. We'll see whether the ongoing decline of print journalism will force the corporation (which also owns various non-print traditional and new media assets) to sell the grounds near the Castle that, according to a state park tour guide in 2010, it still owns.
The less newspaper publishers have to worry about what to do with wealth, the more we newspaper readers have to worry about where to get the news. Part of the answer will be finding it ourselves, as citizen journalists. Traditional media, from CNN (iReport) to the TriBeCa Film Festival (Vine competition categories), will try to channel and co-opt that trend, but they can't put this genie back in the bottle. And so technology, which globalized us in the 20th century, will re-localize us after all.
Soy Cuba (1964)
Who is the Camera in I Am Cuba?
Mikhail Kalatozov's "I Am Cuba" and its production were an exercise in identity. Soviet-made, the film aspires to personify the revolutionary Cuban. It is renowned for its cinematography, which the paucity of dialog leaves to carry a heavy burden. Indeed, the camera itself is a player in this morality play about capitalism and communism. For instance, the opening sequence is a luscious homage to Cuba's unmolested natural expanses and true-to-their-land people. Kalatozov's shots often feel like POVbut whose? Perhaps the most remarkable of these pseudo-POV shots is the one that opens the first vignette, set in a Batista-era pre-Castro rooftop pool party. This Essay takes that shot as a case study for how the cinematography of Kalatozov and his DP Sergei Urusevsky further the identity infomercial that is I Am Cuba.
The continuous three-minute-and-fourteen-second one-shot scene opens on an American-style brass band. The hand-held camera weaves among a coterie of barely dancing women whose main function appears to be looking attractive. Then its first magic: face-en-face the railing, it slides down a couple storiesstill outdoorsto the pool deck below. This is the first time we're sure that the shot is not POV, unless from the vantage of a levitating deity. Poolside, we meander throw more revelers sipping, sightseeing and sunbathing. We follow one into the water and magic trick #2beneath its surface for more flesh and frivolity. Everyone is white. The band plays on.
To assemble the puzzle of whose eye the camera stands for, start with the scenes bookending this one. Immediately before, we have the film's very first imagesthose natural expanses of ocean and earth where folk toil with their hands. They stand for integrity. Immediately after, we're serenaded by a black singing of crazy love. He might have integrity, too, as might the Cuban women in this jazz club, but for the obtuse, uncouth, nasal, illiterate, uncultured, loveless American businessmen ogling them. Soon, we're back on the singer and the hand- held camera is drunk with his love. Once the men get the objects of their shallow affections on the dance floor, the cinematography shakes with an increasingly vertiginous violenceimplying that Betty's pangs are of agony, not ecstasy. She's framed by the bamboo rods like an animal in a cage.
Thus the sandwich of which the show-off shot by the pool forms the meat is: (1) serene camera documenting an honest people; (2) voyeuristic camera snaking among lackadaisical partyers; (3) intoxicated camera witnessing corruption of culture. Its anthropomorphic feelfrom a technical perspective, the result of the hand-held style and medium- close rangeresults not from identification with the "I" in "I Am Cuba." Instead, the camera is a detective, dedicated to the truthful representation of this island nation in various phases. Sure, it can't help feeling moved by the inevitable emotions of what it captures, but fundamentally it is there as a journalist. For a film so propagandistic, using a documentary style was all the more important to maintain credibility.
So back to the Batista-era pool party. Our first hope is that the camera is POV, and we're invited to the party and to rock out with the band. Next up, those dancersdidn't a couple of them make eye contact? Perhaps Kalatozov is being sloppy with the fourth wall here, but more likely he's deliberately stringing us along with our POV theory a bit longer. In any event, that game is up once we float down to the pool, and the road for the audience forks. Either try to enjoy as a voyeur, or resent being excluded. And even if you choose the former path, it usually leads to the second. Kalatozov leaves us underwater, the band finally muted, in a quintessentially voyeuristic and excluded perch. All the while, no one talks to us. No one notices us. We don't exist.
Such a pejorative read of the first scene of the first vignette makes all the more sense when that scene is read in counterpoise to the last of the last vignette. That story's hero is trudging through mud and machine guns, fighting the good fight. The juxtaposition could not be starker: sun vs. smoke, music vs. mortars (and music, toobut of a military variety), privilege vs. purpose, frivolity vs. fearlessness, sky vs. soil. Kalatozov's point is that the glory lies in the latter and, as suggested in the final triumphant frames, that only by winning them the hard way can one enjoy the former.
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
The Geometry of Underclass Frontiersmanship in The Grapes of Wrath
John Ford's "Grapes of Wrath" captures the salt-of-the-earth Dust Bowl destitution of the Steinbeck novel from which it is adapted. The Joads' trek west is every bit as entrepreneurial as that of the emerging agricultural barons for whom they toil, albeit motivated by survival rather than riches. Position is everything, whether that means fighting to stay or conniving to leave. Ford's cinematography, dialog, and plot bring land to life as another character in the film, animated by the Joads' do-or-die movements across it.
From the opening shot, the terrain is something to be contended with. A high-angle exterior shot of our protagonist Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) walking down the road photographs ground more than half-way up the celluloid. (Perhaps the geometry of this shot influenced that of the crop-duster scene in Hitchcock's "North By Northwest"). Intersecting roads and telephone wires create a rectilinear lattice confining the shot's subject, telegraphing how confined Joad's choice-set will prove. (The store he walks into is called "Cross Roads.") More high horizons most memorably, a high-contrast night shot of the sheriffs' ominous headlights bearing down on the Joads' old housefurther the impression that the distance the Joads must traverse is a wall they must drive through.
If the wealthy typically speak of nouns they own and the healthy, of verbs they do, those tethered to the plane beneath their feet for bare subsistencethe Joadsspeak in prepositions. Their life is cartographic. When the Joads can occupy their land, they're "on it," and when they're evicted, they're ordered to "get off" and they're "throwed off." Now, their aim is not stillness, but control of position; seeing Tom, Grandpa exults, "They couldn't keep him in!" "You can't keep a Joad in jail!" The scene evolves into a comedic sketch in which just about everyone asks Tom if he "busted out." The family's watchword is "across": they have got to keep marching *across*, even if the grueling pace costs Grandma her life. Similarly, compass directionsthose siblings of prepositionsare ever on the tip of the tongue, furnishing, for instance, a pretense for the family's escape from the farm (they had gotten a job "up north").
Plot developments will confirm our sense that the earth has heftheft enough to kill (if their jalopy craps out in the desert, as the gas station attendant warns them), or enough to nourish (if its fruits will command five cents a bucket rather than two-and-a-half). Even minor plot details reinforce the primacy of terra firma: when burning family mementos before embarking, Ma Joad (Jane Darwell) spares a souvenir of the Louisiana Purchase. Now *that* was a deal on a plot of land.
As for Tom, he made it from prison to Oklahoma to California and now he's got too much momentum to cast anchor. Where to next? "I'll be everywhere," he tells us in his final monologue. "Wherever there's a cop beating up a guy, I'll be there." And for all his work in the dry dirt, he's finally transcended the terrestrial: "I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. . . . And when people are eating the stuff they raise, living in the houses they build, I'll be there, too."
How Music Supports the High/Low Symbolism of Metropolis's Marxist Message
Clocking in at 148 minutes, the restored print of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (Universum Film 1927) (available streaming on Netflix) is a marathon to watch. Otto Harzner's relentless orchestral strings keep the show on the road, but they also make it an exhausting two-and-one-half- hours of cinema. Besides making up for the lack of dialog, the score supports Lang's Marxist dichotomy between the rulers up top and the workers down below.
Work underground, like the soundtrack coloring it, just doesn't let up. Especially unrelenting is the music when these slaves are death-marched into the mouth of the industrial beast. Perhaps Lang's point is: never mind your hardship as the viewer-listener, just think of these poor souls! When capitalist uberlord Joh Fredersen's (Alfred Abel) newly enlightened son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) ventures down there to see his "brothers," deep drums and shrill strings carry a frenetic energy of an underclass whose sole cognizable goal is daily survival. Diagonals, triangles and oblique arrows translate this discordance visually. The workers toil like rhythmic puppets, moving with a stoic staccato that might be familiar to the modern viewer from the Blue Man Group.
Not everything in this hell is in a minor key. At worship, ethereal, melodious strings carry us up the Tower of Babel into the heavens, and in comes the full orchestra. But like the language of the faithful in that story (Genesis 11:1-9), this musical tongue is soon to be confused. "One man's hymns of praise became another man's curses," Lang teaches. Indeed, the first truly church-sounding music comes immediately after the intermezzo; it's no subtle irony that the accompanying visuals are skeletons of the seven deadly sins.
Up above, the flute and triangle provide sparks of genius and intrigue to the DPs' (Lang had three) photography of C.A. Rotwang (Rudolf Klein- Rogge), the inventor, at work in his Frankensteinian lab. While electricity fires on all cylinders, sweeping strings suggest a trance state. (These might recall, for the modern viewer, James Horner's triumph in A Beautiful Mind (Universal 2001).) But there's trouble in paradise, and soon after, arpeggios capture Freder's vertigo at seeing Maria (Brigitte Helm) in his father's office.
These two social classes are on a dialectical collision course that seems destined for war. So when Machine-Maria is about to speak in worker city, a drumroll and trumpets imply militancy. Harzner delivers more of the same when the proles storm the heart machine: this is an invasion. A biblical flood ensues, and survival provessurprise, surpriseto be all about climbing. Lang counter-cuts to the rotten euphoria up top, where a tinny triangle and effusively poppy strings underscore how out-of-tune the ruling class are. Minor chords battle major ones until the film culminates in a successful final mediation between labor and capital. Brokered by whom? The next generation, of course. They always find the new music.
There's an eerie resemblance between the modern musician and Joh Fredersen. With demigods like trio Swedish House Mafia, so-called "progressive house" music has continued its meteoric surge in 2013. North America's leading electronic music concert, the Ultra Music Festival, anticipates 330,000 attendees as compared to half that many last year. To whom do these acolytes pray? Not the simian guitar smashers of the 1990s or the aerobic pop icons of the 2000s. No, they prostrate themselves instead before the DJ. Serene, this new superstar perches before an array of buttons, any one of which can summon the work of others and project it, writ large, across the throng. That's the same sort of leverage Joh commanded, 86 years ago, sitting at his proto- computer console. And to similar effect: a mechanized, synchronized throbbing of the masses. Some call it slavery. But some, including the genre's minor-key precursor Nine Inch Nails, say there's "happiness in slavery."
Wall Street (1987)
Reflections from YLS Capitalism + Film Seminar
Perfect competition requires perfect information. But it also entails zero profit. And since profit is "better than sex," that's something that "Wall Street"'s (1987) Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) and his lap dog Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) just can't abide. So perfect information is their roadkill. Oliver Stone's Wall Street is one that, far from promoting efficient markets, hoards, corrupts or shreds every shred of data it can get its hands oneven birthday cards. Fox's struggles with information would prefigure Sheen's own struggle to define his public persona as his predilection for prostitutes and blow seeped out, a battle in which Sheen ultimately threw in the towel by consenting to a Comedy Central roast.
Information is coin of Stone's realm. When Fox asks a sales colleague to predict the market, he answers: "If I knew, I wouldn't be in this business." Indeed, he'd be in Gekko's. Fox quests to make that very leap hence the signage for a company called "Info Quest" than Stone unsubtly gives us a glimpse of. All secrets are in play. Even Gekko's birthdate is an unearthed informational stepping stone towards those portending double doors. And everyone is breathing from the respirator of the ticker tape.
Even Gekko. But sans inside information, Gekko's patience for Fox lasts only minutes (of story timeor seconds of screen time). "If you're not inside, you're outside," Gekko admonishes. Few are more despicable to him than the snake oil salesmen of "technical trading"men who pretend to possess information when they have only hunches. Gekko's appetite for *real* information is insatiable: his office boasts state-of-the-art monitors, a coterie of well-connected traders, and most importantly, a multi-story window on the world. Outside of the office, Gekko has a magic wand: that iconic cell phone connecting him back to his nerve centers. Lest we miss the point, Stone and co-writer Stanley Weiser leave us with such gems as "Information is everything"not everything can be as quotable as "Greed is good."
Stone isn't shy with his symbolism, either. As soon as Gekko conscripts Fox as his spy, the latter dons a pair of aviators, whether indoors or out. The shots of their opaque reflective coating recallas do many films' shots of such sunglassesthe assaultive but introjective gaze of the policeman who pulls over Marion in Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960). Similarly emboldened, Fox now slinks his way from private restaurants to private airports in pursuit of information to feed to his master. Along the way, those shady shades are mirrored by the mirroring facades of the skyscrapers honored by aerial establishing shots peppered throughout the film: murder *won't* out. The shots also echo a show-off shot squarely into the reflective window of Fox's swanky new UES pad while he dines over candlelight with his foxy interior designer lady friend, at the peak of his puissance. But like the apartment's fake exposed brick, there's no there there, and Fox is left to wonder out on his vertiginous deck, in a line that would come to be parodied and parroted by "Zoolander"'s (2001) Zoolander, "Who am I?"
Who he is, of course, is an insider trader. Info is Fox's ticket up, but it's also his ticket out. Or is it? Perhaps it's not too counter-textual to read his downfall as that of the man who knew *too little.* Too little about the SEC investigators on his heels, too little about how to make money honestly, too little about the laws of gravity.
Most of all, too little about his own family. Stone and Fox are both at their most didactic when the latter blares as his father Carl (Martin Sheen, Charlie's father), who has just walked out on Gekko's pension- gutting proposal, "What I see is a jealous old machinist who can't stand his son being more successful than him!" This is Stone's Marxist moralizing at its barest: the impudent son, who only speculates in capital, wrongly denigrating the wisdom of the father, who works with his hands. If "money never sleeps," then it is surely the strumpet in Carl's retort, "I don't go to sleep with no whore, and I don't wake up with no whore!"
Oh, how life imitates art. "Money," "whores," and failing to follow in his father's noble footsteps would cut Charlie Sheen down to size yet again, two decades later. In 2011, the law of gravityaided and abetted coke and boozebrought Sheen's stratospheric career and boyish jowls drooping back down to terra firma. When you can't argue with the data, your best bet is to argue with the interpretation. Sheen did so parsimoniously with a drumbeat of "#winning," a meme that would transcend its Twitter origins as a watchword for self-defined success. The schadenfreude came to a head in Comedy Central's "Roast of Charlie Sheen" (2011), where host Seth MacFarlane introduced the guest of honor as having only been "great in two things 25 years ago" (likely referring to "Wall Street" and "Platoon" (1986)). MacFarlane continued: "Carlos Estévez took his dad's name to gain credibility as an actor. I've seen your films, and you don't really act like a Sheen. But with your rap sheet and briefcases of coke, you're definitely acting like a Carlos."
Fox fils got a second chance to learn from the wisdom of his father. Let's hope the Sheen Jr. does, too.
Working Girl (1988)
Reflections from YLS Capitalism + Film Seminar
Your labor earns while you're awake; your capital, even while you're asleepin tension with the Protestant work ethic. Mike Nichols' Working Girl (1988) explores that tension through two interlocking earning- without-quite-working case studies: an industry, and a young woman.
Fox released Working Girl in the heyday of the 1980s buyout boom and associated Hollywood lionization of M&A, just a year after Oliver Stone's Wall Street. Investment bankers were Masters of the Universe, for they had cracked its code: earning capital-like income without capital. By steering CEOs' use of balance sheet cash to buy other companies and taking a percentage commission, advisors generated fee income that scaled with capital without having to carry the capital themselves, as in the underwriting business. And unlike their Harvard and MIT classmates toiling away in cubicles as engineers at IBM, these Wall Streeters did it all with snappy suits and cocktail party banter, or so the meme went. Capitalism without capital, work without work.
Enter B&T'er Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith). And how else? Through the madding crowd, via the Staten Island ferry, past the Statute of Liberty for, the dream of Manhattan is nothing if not a meritocracy to all- comers. Cast and caste as the new ingénue, Tess exudes the charming naiveté of imagining that success in investment banking rides on hard work (as opposed to ) and thus that it's gender-blind. Nichols wastes no time dispensing with this notion. When Tess, a secretary, tracks down her boss (Oliver Platt) in the men's room to run a short sale idea by him, we hear another man's voice: "There's no paper!" For a split second, we and Tess think he might be replying to the short sale idea in Wall Street jargon. But no, he's just looking to wipe his ass, and we feel Tess deflate.
Of course, even in a gender-blind meritocracy, toilet paper is the sort of paper one would ask for in a men's room, and if a woman comes in, she can hardly begrudge being the target of the request. So maybe that's it: if only Tess didn't think she had to break the rules to get ahead, she have a fair shake at career advancement, we speculate as she walks back to her desk. Not so: Tess's boss arranges a supposed job interview with a colleague, but he turns out to be a coke-addled molester (Kevin Spacey, disturbingly believable as usual, in a bit part). At least she manages to even the score, spraying his bottle of Dom all over him and his limo.
And here we encounter one of Nichols' core themes for expressing the thinness of the work of investment banking: it's just a smokescreen for recreational sex. Impotence, then, amounts to professional incompetence. Hence when Tess storms back to the office and gives her boss his comeuppance by programming the ticker tape to read that he's poorly endowed, his work there is done, and off he goes. Indeed, the most gender parity to be found in Nichols' Wall Street is that men are sex objects as much as women. The object of Tess's professional and (eventually) romantic aspirations, fellow i-banker Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford), is ogled by the women in his office when he changes shirts, and we ultimately suspect he intended to sleep his way to the top with his romance with Tess's new boss Katherine Parker (Sigourney Weaver, in a sharp turn as a woman who climbed early with no intention of helping others do the same). But he resists any temptation to take advantage of Tess's Valium- and tequila-induced stupor the night the two first meet ("I have a head for business and a bod for sin," she tells him in a line that surely made the trailer editor rewind his VCR), preserving his status as the light at the end of Tess's tunnel.
The rest of her striving is thick with thinness, too. A new suit and a lower voice (the latter which Trainer comes to borrow from her, in a nice touch by Ford and Nichols) and, voilà!, she's a senior investment banker. Who needs to sweat over spreadsheets for underlings when you can crash the CEO's daughter's wedding? Who needs a team when you can "fly solo"? Who needs numbers before you've gotten the client "excited about the concept"? Who needs to tell colleagues and lovers the truth when you've got a better narrative? Nichols leaves us to try and sort out whether it's M&A advisory that's flimsy or Tess, whether she corrupts the practice from its analytical moorings or perfects its fundamental vapidity.
None of the above, it turns out. Nichols' Hollywood ending vindicates the core values with which Tess embarked on careerism: resourcefulness, diligence, and most of all, creativity. From that foundation sprung her idea for a Trask radio acquisition, and from it now springs proof that the idea was hers all along. (Contrast Katherine's flat "Let's merge!" marital command to Jack.) And this is where the investment banking industry ultimately earns it keep: new perspectives on how to deploy capital at greatest marginal productivity. The bow that Nichols ties here is big enough to wrap up the interrelated theme of uneasiness at whether the softer sex is really working in the workplace: indeed they are, and the new perspectives brought by this previously excluded segment of the workforce offer the greatest marginal productivity to their firms. To make clear that that's about a lot more than following Page Six, Nichols closes on an earnest scene of Tess explaining to her new secretaryshe's a newly minted Trask executivehow she is ushering in her more respectful brand of leadership. Having shown that she can be trusted with other's capitalphysical and humanshe's moved from advisory into industry and been put in charge of some of her own.
Reflections from YLS Capitalism + Film Seminar
From writer-director-producer Mel Gibson's insanely bestial brain comes Apocalypto, set in the jungle as the neighboring Mayan kingdom crumbles. He opens the film with a ham-fisted quotation that great civilizations are destroyed from within, a caveat that would prove equally prophetic with regard to Gibson's own mind. Facially, the root of the collapse is an economic failurethe withering of Mayan agriculturebut the civilization's (and by extension, our protagonist's) vulnerability to such a shock rests in the imperfection of information characterizing the markets in which it traffics. Beset by an ignorance that must have felt native, so to speak, to Gibson himself, the film's subjects revert to the base layers of Maslow's hierarchy of needssustenance, safety and, of particular note, family. The deadliest offspring of ignorance is fear, and it is only by fearlessly reclaiming terra firma for himself and his lineage that our hero Jaguar Paw can prevail. Never one to go easy on his protagonists, however, Gibson leaves Jaguar Paw and who's left of his nemeses at the mercy of the New Industry and New God of the White Man, who first steps ashore in the film's final frames.
I. Imperfect Information
Imperfect information is devastating to the efficient allocation of resources in Apocalypto's primitive capitalism. The film opens with a successful boar hunt by a well-coordinated team of a half dozen forest people. As the organs (the prizes!) are doled out according to favor or virtuewe're not quite sure whichthe runt of the bunch is proffered the testicles and assured they will rid his impotence. But all they rid is his stomach, of its lunch. This gullible consumer and his virility take a one-two punch when a fellow hunter urges him to "apply generously" a poisonous plant to invigorate his nether-parts. The ensuing slapstick is hilariously embarrassing not only because it is groin humor but more so because it means laughter at ignoranceone of the harshest sorts. The ignorance and harshness continue, but not the laughter.
A brutal frog march away lies yet another imperfect market for body partshuman ones. The buyers? Who elsethe gods. The Mayans have been wrongheadedly sacrificing captives to the heavens in search of respite from their crop plague. Their latest offering is to be Jaguar Paw and his fellows, wrested from their village with all manner of Gibsonian sadism. In the nick of time, the nick of the blade is arrested by the apparent omen of a solar eclipse, and the market failure of this particular chopping block is cured as one ignorance defeats another.
II. Estate Law in the Jungle
With the value of goods (fleshly or otherwise) so ambiguous, family is coin of the realm. The indicia of fertilitywombs, breasts, penises, infants and mothersare revered and their brutalization or sale is cringed at. An occasional tangible asset such as a knife is momentously granted by one generation to the next, true, but the real endowment bestowed upon one's progeny is the forest itselfand knowledge of it. Apocalypto's Gibsonian turnthat moment when his abused protagonist takes a deep breath and finds the fortitude to unleash hell on his oppressorscomes when Jaguar Paw calls up the waterfall to his pursuers, announcing that he owns the forest, just like his father before him. We've heard this trope before, but it is now that the audience enjoys its first assurance that his forebears' bequest has been honored by the Mother Nature and that his inherited knowledge of Her will carry the day. And it does. From mud, to bees, to a poisonous frog, Jaguar Paw's preternatural intuitions for tapping the commons in a sustainable way (the frog hops off after he draws its poison, for example) win him a fate happier than that of the boar hunted in the film's first scene.
But not much happier. All the while, the Europeans have been divvying up labor, among shipbuilding, proselytizing, and (we assume) weapons crafting. The result is an armada making landfall on Jaguar Paw's beach, and making his epic struggle with his would-be executors seem a trifle. These new guests, we fear, may care even less for our hero's lifelet alone his scheme of real and personal property.