April 2005 Archives
In 2001, when the "rolling blackouts" doused the traffic lights in my part of Los Angeles, I was amazed at the behavior of the drivers. East Coast motorists would have cut directly to Demolition Derby. But not those Californians. Even at the major intersections, they spontaneously slowed down and began to take turns. It was enough to restore my faith in human nature.
Of course, if those polite Golden Staters had been able to hear the cackling of the Houston hyenas who were messing with their power grid, they might have raised a posse and headed straight for South Texas. For the scavengers of Enron were not only ripping off the whole state, they were joking about how much fun it was to gouge the old, the sick, and the poor.
The main thing you need to know about "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," is that it is NOT a film by Michael Moore. It uses some of the same tricks, such as a soundtrack full of sardonic counterpoint (for example, a clip of President Reagan extolling "the magic of the market" is followed by footage of a natural gas facility, accompanied by the song, "That Old Black Magic"). But the tricks are in service to a solid indictment, not a half-whacked conspiracy theory.
Some have criticized "Enron" for being too admiring of Head Hyenas Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, Andy Fastow, and Lou Pai. And yes, it does drool a bit over their bad selves. Based on the eponymous book by Fortune writers Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, the film also relies heavily on the testimony of former Enron employees who (to judge by their plush surroundings) deserted the sinking ship with their Rocquefort intact. Of all the people interviewed, only one man speaks for the 20,000 employees whose cheese disappeared into the pockets of "the smartest guys in the room."
It is worth noting that while three of the Head Hyenas wait to have their wrists slapped by Blind Justice, the fourth, Lou Pai, turns out to be the smartest guy of all. After helping his subsidiary, Enron Energy Services, lose $18.8 billion and put 5,500 people out of work, Pai made off with $270 million. Then he divorced his wife, married his favorite stripper, and bought a 77,5000-acre chunk of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in southern Colorado.
To be sure, Pai later sold the property when it looked as though the locals were going to win a lawsuit over water and timber rights. But he did OK, I'm sure. You won't see him on BET any time soon, but the man is a "playa."
Unseemly though it is, the aforementioned drool is what makes "Enron" convincing. The whole country thought these guys were "smart." And the last I checked, the popular definition of the word has not changed. For too many Americans, "smart" still means, "Screw you, I'm driving my armored Hummer right through the intersection."
Finally, what everyone hasn't been waiting for: a character-driven XXX-rated art film. Reports Stephen Holden of the NY Times, this year's TriBeCa Film Festival will include two screenings of "9 Songs," a 70-minute indie about two nice people who while not in love regularly take time out of their busy schedules to make the funky monkey.
It's all perfectly normal, except for some kinky maneuvers at the end. And of course, that clever little camera showing us stuff that not even the lovers can see (because their eyes are located on their heads).
Years ago, observes Mr. Holden, the line for such a film would have stretched around the block. But today, why bother? It's so much easier to stay home and watch tumescent organs flail away on your computer.
The "9 Songs" gimmick is to combine porn explicitness with conventional narrative. But as Holden notes, this makes the viewer feel like a voyeur.
Now, a defender of "9 Songs" might say that's exactly the point: to discomfit us by connecting the action below the neck with the action above. And who would argue against such a connection? Real sex with a real person is presumably what most of us seek.
But usually this search does not entail spying on others. What's weird about this movie is that its starting place is not sex in the world but porn on the screen. The guests of the TriBeCa Film Festival will decide whether that is worth lining up for.
There are few cliches sturdier than the one about TV encouraging "passivity" and "mindlessness." Whether stated simply by a frustrated parent or elaborated upon by a communications theorist, this cliche basically boils down to the idea that it is more of a workout, cognitively speaking, to read print than to watch a screen.
An interesting challenge to this idea can be found in yesterday's New York Times Magazine, in which Steven Johnson argues that today's most popular and sophisticated TV shows have a much more complex and demanding structure than the leading shows of just a few years ago.
The truth of this will be driven home if you've ever watched "The Sopranos" or "The West Wing" with an octogenerian: the multiple plots, the references to previous episodes, the use of dialogue not as meaning but as "texture," the withholding of detail to tease the viewer - such devices only confuse people whose viewing experience was shaped by the regular pace and clear exposition of programs like "Gunsmoke" and "Perry Mason."
This stuff is fascinating, and I agree with Mr. Johnson that it refutes the cliche about "passivity." But I disagree with his conclusion that newfangled TV "makes us smarter." For one thing, as he notes, many of these devices come from soap opera, a genre known to be addictive but not especially educative.
For another, the skills involved - observing a large number of people, keeping track of their doings, basically getting the goods on them - are ancient and universal (another name for them is "gossip," or perhaps, "politics"). And while these skills are vital to success in any age, they do not add up to what is currently defined as "smart." In the higher reaches of the professions and the workplace generally, "smart" still refers to what is learned in school. And, like it or not, at home - when the TV is turned off.
In my last entry I judged "Downfall" to be a superior film on the strength of one character, Magda, the stern wife of Josef Goebbels. Of all the characters in the film, she is the one who conveys the difference between ordinary and extraordinary evil.
Where did I get this standard? From "The Wansee Conference," a 1984 German TV film broadcast on PBS in 1989. (It is not available on DVD but can be rented or bought on VHS.) Based on the research of a Prussian-born Israeli, Manfred Korytowski, this German-Austrian coproduction recreates in real time (85 minutes) the clandestine 1942 meeting that set in motion the last phase of the "final solution." The script is taken directly from the notes of that meeting, and there is no music or other add-ons. Just brilliant acting and direction.
Present at the Wansee Conference were the top brass of the Party and SS, assorted military men and bureaucrats, a note-taking stenographer (the lone woman), and Reinhard Heydrich, head of the security police and golden boy predicted to succeed Hitler. Like Magda, Heydrich (played by Dietrich Mattausch) is not an icy robot or a snarling wolf but something worse: an elegant, arrogant human being with a silver tongue and a winning sense of irony about the difficult task ahead.
For example, at one point Heydrich indicates on a map how the remnants of European Jewry are still "scattered all over like fly-specks." Just back from heading the "murder battalions" that killed more than a million Jews in occupied Soviet territory, Heydrich informs Rudolf Lange, the Gestapo chief for the Eastern Territories, that he will soon be receiving more "shipments from the Reich."
When Heydrich first arrived, Lange greeted him a heel-clicking report, "Estonia, Jew-free!" But now we see Lange's hands trembling at the news. "We didn't really plan on starting up again," he protests feebly. Richly amused, Heydrich orders cognac and starts to flirt with the stenographer.
Do not for a moment confuse this film with the HBO film "Conspiracy" (2001) starring Kenneth Branagh as Heydrich. "Conspiracy" is standard Nazi-movie fare, with a bunch of English actors looking severe and repressed, like a public school headmaster about to cane some boy's bottom.
"The Wansee Conference" is different. The actors speak German, for one thing. But more important, they remind us that the Holocaust was not designed by cartoon bad guys but by proud, intelligent human beings at the peak of their capacities - including the capacity for evil.
Can any movie capture the massive evil of the Third Reich, or has the whole business become a self-referential media cliche? Every time another earnest, gloomy film about World War II and/or the Shoah is released, a little voice in my head says, "Dollar for dollar, your Nazis are still your best entertainment bargain!"
But "Downfall" ("Der Untergang") provokes no such voice. For one thing, it is not a self-congratulatory American film but a self-lacerating German one. For another, it is not about the victims but about the victimizers. By focusing tightly on Adolf Hitler and his inner circle, hunkered down in the "Führerbunker" while the Red Army blasts its way into Berlin, this film depicts the Nazis not as Them but as Us.
Naturally, this disconcerts some people. For example, when "Downfall" premiered in Germany, it was sharply criticized in the highbrow weekly "Die Zeit" by the eminent director Wim Wenders. By portraying Hitler on a human scale, Wenders argued, the film effectively denies the global scale of his wickedness. The subsequent debate has been over whether it is acceptable to portray Adolf Hitler as human (which the fine Swiss actor Bruno Ganz definitely does). To that question the answer is easy: Yes. It is not only acceptable but necessary to portray Hitler as human. Had he been a demon, then humanity would be off the hook.
But the real question is one of scale. "Downfall" focuses on four sympathetic characters: Tarudl Junger, Hitler’s naive young secretary; Peter, a 13-year-old boy trying to be a war hero; Dr. Schenck, an army medic harrowed by the suffering of ordinary Berliners; and Albert Speer, high-toned architect to the Führer. To foreground the plight of these four is to background the horror being done in their name. If that were the sum total of "Downfall," then Wenders would be right.
But that is not the sum total of "Downfall." Along with these four characters, this film gives us one of the most convincing movie Nazis ever seen: not Hitler, Himmler, Göring, or Göbbels, but Magda, Göbbels’ wife, played stunningly by Corinna Harfouch, a renowned theater actress from the former East Germany.
More than any man in uniform, Magda is a true soldier of the Reich. Her rigidly correct manner, her impeccable dress, and above all, her attentiveness to her six rosy-cheeked Aryan children all suggest an iron-willed commitment to the lofty vision of National Socialism that will not flinch in the face of duty, no matter how unpleasant. And sure enough, when it comes time to kill her six children rather than allow them to grow up in a fallen world, Magda does so smoothly, efficiently, and (here is the nub) proudly.
Whether sick, crazy, or coldly sadistic, the besetting sin of movie Nazis is always violence. But this is inaccurate. The true sin, the defining trait, of the Nazi movement was not violence but pride. And in Magda we see that ultimate evil at work. Her love for her children is not overcome by anger, fear, or blood lust. It is overcome - easily - by twisted pride. Dante put the proud at the very bottom of Hell, far below the incontinent and violent. If you ever wondered why, "Downfall" will make it abundantly clear.
For a penetrating look at the success, as opposed to the pecadillos, of Micheal Eisner's tenure at Disney, check out Edward Jay Epstein's latest posting on Slate. The numbers are impressive, and so are the strategic decisions (viewed with 20/20 hindsight).
While on the subject of movies about Hollywood, it's worth revisiting one of the great ones: "The Player," directed by Robert Altman and based on the icy-hearted novel by Michael Tolkin.
The plot is simple: an egotistical, unimaginative producer (Tim Robbins) is terrified of losing his job to an even more egotistical, unimaginative producer (Peter Gallagher). Plus he keeps finding threatening postcards in his car, desk, pockets, and home. Someone is stalking him, and since his job consists of sneering at writers' pitches all day, he suspects a disappointed writer. After guessing which one, he tries to buy the guy off, then semi-accidentally murders him.
"The Player" riffs beautifully on the old themes of art and commerce and the ugly side of human nature as revealed in the sort of competition where the prizes don't go to the best but to the most cutthroat. Our producer comes out on top without being redeemed in any way. Indeed, the film cleverly manipulates our ingrained expectation of a happy ending.
It was not a Hollywood mogul but the novelist William Dean Howells who said, "What the American audience really wants is a tragedy with a happy ending." To their credit, screenwriter Tolkin, director Altman, and the many Hollywood luminaries involved in this film stay true to that ironic line.
Two caveats. First, the love interest played by Greta Scacchi is annoyingly opaque. I was ready for her to be the mastermind behind it all, not just one of the prizes. But that would have required a female to be smarter than all the males, NOT a Hollywood trope.
Second, "The Player" came out in 1992, long after the system was taken over by the blockbuster - or to use the term of art, "locomotive": huge, repeatable extravaganzas like "Star Wars," "Star Trek," "Terminator," "Indiana Jones," "Die Hard," "Batman," "Harry Potter," "The Fellowship of the Ring," "Toy Story," "Finding Nemo," "Shrek" ... the list keeps getting longer. In this context, "The Player" feels downright antique. If there is a good blockbuster parody out there, please tell me about it!
The literary critic Irving Howe was once asked whether the New York literary scene was self-absorbed and incestuous, and he replied, "It only looks that way from the outside." The same could certainly be said of the agglomeration of organizations and individuals who make up Hollywood. They live in a heavily fortified bubble that almost always distorts their view of the society in which the rest of us live.
That's why Hollywood's best social criticism tends to be directed at itself. As a longstanding fan of movies about the movie biz, I recently revisited "The Bad and the Beautiful," directed by Vincent Minelli and starring Lana Turner in what may be her finest role. It views a gifted but ruthless studio head (Kirk Douglas) through the eyes of three people he sucked in and blew out: an alcoholic, going-nowhere-fast actress (Turner); a talented but too diffident director (Barry Sullivan); and a frustrated college-Joe writer (Dick Powell).
Of course, if you prefer your classic studio heads to be the embodiment of philistine evil, then I recommend "The Big Knife," an overwrought study of a matinee idol (Jack Palance) caught between the integrity urged by his wife (Ida Lupino) and the servitude imposed by his boss (Rod Steiger). Steiger is only on the screen for one scene, in which he manipulates the hapless Palance to renew his contract for another seven years. But that one scene is worth the price of admission.