That Film About Money

James SchamusI just found out about a film project, We the Economy. It is subtitled, “20 Short Films You Can’t Afford to Miss.” I learned about it indirectly via Tristero over at Digby’s Blog. The recommended films by James Schamus are very good. Sadly, that isn’t true for much of the other films.

I haven’t watched all of the series, but most of what I’ve watched has not impressed me in terms of substance. It’s not a surprise that the group got money to make its highly polished films. I would say they overall tilt decidedly rightward. What’s kind of sad is that in many cases, it isn’t clear that the artists making the films really understand. For example, the film on Debt and Deficits treats short term deficits as though there is a disagreement about them in a recession. That’s not true. There is only a disagreement about them when a Democrat is in the White House.

But of special concern is the Recessions episode. It is visually stunning, but is based upon John Steele Gordon’s ideas about recessions, which are largely that recessions are based upon supply shocks. He gives some minor lip service to the demand side of the equation, but that’s all. For example, he claims that recessions are all about bankers not loaning. Sometimes, certainly. What about right now? Oh, that’s right: we aren’t in a recession! It’s just that millions of people are out of work. I don’t know much of Gordon’s work, but he seems like one of these people — pretty much the standard in policy circles — who thinks all that matters is that the rich bankers are loaning to the rich corporations. What happens to the little people doesn’t matter.

On the other hand, there are some good films. Bob Balaban’s episode on Globalization is pretty good. It deals with the subject in about the only sensible way possible. Globalization isn’t going away. So we need to manage it so that it doesn’t cause so many problems and so much insecurity. It does manage to avoid saying something that is obvious: globalization may have created a lot of jobs overseas, but that didn’t cause the stagnation of wages here. Policy allowed all productivity growth for almost four decades to go just to the capitalists and not to workers.

By far, the best film is James Schamus’ episodes 6 and 7, which together constitute, “That Film About Money.” In one way, it isn’t really that informative on the issue of money — nothing more than you didn’t already learn from It’s a Wonderful Life. But it goes into the messed up way that the financial system is run — especially in the second episode. In fact, the second episode might make you very angry. And it includes some nice interviewed sections with Richard Wolff, who is both charming and brilliant, “If you understand that, you’ll understand why the banks have recovered, and nobody else has!”

This is my playlist combining the two films together. It is a total of 15 minutes long, so it is worth the time:

That sums up the last two decades, “I know what we’ll do: instead of paying you to buy what we produce, we’ll lend you the money!”

The problem with the series is that it is definitely made by and for the TED Talk crowd. It’s smart and well made. It takes pains to appear even handed, while tipping distinctly toward the viewpoint of the power elite. But inside that context, good things get done. And that was especially true of the film by James Schamus.

6 thoughts on “That Film About Money

  1. Well, Bob Balaban is a god. He co-wrote “Gosford Park” and was the best character in “Close Encounters.” Hence, Balaban=God, QED.

    I noticed that Morgan Spurlock is one of the executive producers of this series. He’s routinely derided now, largely (I think) because “Super-Size Me” was seen as a publicity stunt. Maybe it was. After that movie he helmed a show that was on TV for two years and got terrible ratings called “30 Days,” kind of a spin-off to “Super-Size”‘s gimmick of eating McDonald’s food for 30 days. In the show, people with vastly different political perspectives had to live with each other for 30 days and Spurlock’s crews filmed their experience. It was wonderful. It was the best “reality” show ever made. The goal was to show how people with political differences could learn to understand each other, and the end result always tended towards liberalism. (The show cheated a bit by selecting very open-minded participants, but that was the point; it stressed common humanity instead of pimping screaming matches.)

    Well, that show failed, and none of Spurlock’s subsequent movies have managed to shake his “publicity hound” status, so now he’s producing TED Talk-y stuff and having some good material in there. It’s better than failing at painting and becoming Hitler. I always had a soft spot for the guy and never quite understood why the left looked down on him quite so much. But then again the left devours documentary filmmakers for some reason. Moore and Gibney have fallen out of favor, too. I could argue specifics with each and maybe they’re egotists but I still find their work good and valuable. (The left just pretty much ignores Errol Morris; I thought his interview with Rusmfeld was stunning and every review I read slammed it for not being more “gotcha.” Morris challenges Rumsfeld and lets him hang himself. Do we really need everything spelled out for us?)

    Thanks for posting those Schamus bits. He’s great. He should do more of these.

    • The problem with Morgan Spurlock is that he really isn’t that interesting. Moore consistently comes up with interesting films. Spurlock either isn’t very creative or doesn’t try very hard, but I find most of his work boring. It isn’t bad, but it lacks any inspiration.

      Have people turned against Alex Gibney?! He’s consistently fantastic, which is the best kind of fantastic to be! Errol Morris is a legend. There is no pleasing some people. Oh, another filmmaker I really like is Kirby Dick, but he works much slower than other people.

      I didn’t watch The Unknown Known. It looked kind of interesting, but Rumsfeld’s face and voice make me want to punch the screen. I think Morris is right though: Rumsfeld needs no “Gotcha!” Just like Cheney, I’m sure Rumsfeld did what he thought was right given all the, well, known knowns and unknown knows and… In the end, I don’t think the whole neocon crowd will be vilified by history for their cynicism. They will be vilified by history for their incompetence.

      Since Gosford Park is in my vague list of “10 best films I’ve ever seen” (which may have slightly more than 10 films on it), I have to note that Balaban did not actually co-write the film. He and Altman were talking and they decided to make an old mansion mystery but told from the perspective of the servants. It’s a good idea, but Julian Fellowes really does deserve all the credit. It is infinitely better than certain television shows I could mention. ;-) But you are right: Balaban is a god. Did you know he played Linus in the original cast of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown?

      • Yes, Spurlock’s films aren’t amazing. That TV show was, though. It was decent to the core. Maybe because, to do a season’s worth of stories at once, Spurlock had to hire other people. His heart’s in the right place.

        Gibney was excoriated for his Assange/Manning film. I get why people have strong opinions on this. Gibney maybe erred by making his opinion clear. He felt that Manning was naive and Assange an opportunist, both debatable positions. It didn’t help that he couldn’t interview either; Manning was in military jail (much, much more restrictive, by military law, than regular jail) and Assange demanded payment for any interview, which Gibney refused. Gibney’s absolutely at his best as an interviewer; he puts subjects at ease. The stuff he gets in “Client 9” from Spitzer, from the Republican opposition, from the madam, is brilliant. Gibney is too prolific, though. The last one of his I really enjoyed was “Catching Hell,” about Steve Bartman, the Cubs fan who reached (like everybody else in the stands) for a foul ball. Poor Bartman.

        You might enjoy “The Unknown Known.” The title is perfect. Rumsfeld talks a lot about what that phrase means, and at one point, near the end, Morris catches him saying it’s precisely obfuscation. I thought it was an amazing film. It maybe befuddled critics, who tend to cling to their apoliticalism like Linus’s blanket, because the movie assumes you know who Rumsfeld is and what he’s done. Plan B, for example, where Rumsfeld and some others disputed a CIA study saying Soviet missiles couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, so they commissioned their own report saying the Russians Were Coming and Pimp That Defense Budget Now! That’s a huge moment in US (hell, world) history, it’s perfectly relevant to how Rusmfeld approached Iraq, Morris talks with Rusmfeld about it, but if you don’t know the backstory, you won’t learn it from the movie. Maybe Morris erred by assuming his audience knew too much, or he was so fascinated by Rumsfeld’s psychosis he didn’t think more editorial information was needed. Personally, I thought the movie was a masterpiece. There are visual metaphors that aren’t stressed which only become clear on repeat viewings (yeah, I’ve seen it three times!)

        Poor Moore’s in a tough spot. He had tremendous success with his movies up through “Sicko” (which I thought was his best, I cried my brains out at it) and then got labeled Liberal Do-Gooder Enemy #1. So where does he go from here? He always wanted to make films that appealed to mass audiences, and he succeeded (I saw “Sicko” with conservatives who didn’t know who Moore was, and they cried, too.) Now anything he does will be tagged by Fox and the Internet as “extremist liberal Michael Moore says” and that’s not what he’s in it for; he’s not a preach-to-the-choir guy. (He’s definitely a preacher, though!) Maybe he should scale back his hopes and go Ken Burns, do some quieter things for television. He’s an amazing filmmaker. You look at the skill and craftsmanship on “Roger & Me” versus the later movies and you realize this guy learned on the job, and learned fast.

        • I haven’t seen We Steal Secrets. I’m not especially interested in the subject. I’m always glad for leaks, I think the government is too secretive, and I hate the surveillance state. Just the same, I think there is far more outrage in the stuff the government does admit to.

          There are two issues about the whole “known knowns” thing. First, it is obvious. Everyone understands this, so other than the poetry, he wasn’t saying anything. Second, what made it horrible was the implication that the administration had information that no one else had. And it didn’t. And he knew that. I saw him many times say something along the lines of: those who were talking didn’t know, and those who knew weren’t talking. It was the same thing, “I’m not talking so you should trust me!”

          You’re right that he has gotten much better. In some ways I thought Roger and Me shot itself in the foot. And there is always a sense with his work that he isn’t quite sure if he wants to be a comedian or an activist. But he’s done a great job walking that line, like when he goes to Guantanamo Bay and says that they just want the medical care the government gives to the evildoers. And I thought Capitalism: a Love Story was great, but he was quite explicit in his exhaustion. And it’s been 5 years and no movie. (I will probably never fully get over watching Paul Wolfowitz licking his comb.)

          • I can’t say if you’d like “The Unknown Known.” You’re too idiosyncratic to predict! It’s deeply into Morris’s obsessions with the nature of what is truth and what are lies, and how people define their own stories. I will say that if you watched “The Fog Of War” (I fell asleep during it) “The Unknown Known” is far more compelling. McNamara went to great pains to explain how he was just one of many bright brilliant boys who did awful things; Rumsfeld is damn convinced that what he did was awesome, and he’s quite pleased to take credit for it. I almost sent over an email with a long review of the movie. I was blown away by it. But that’s me, others might not like it as much.

            How did “Standard Operating Procedure” fall beneath the radar? It interviewed the single most visible figure of American colonialism, Lyddie England, and made it precisely clear she was following orders and trying to fit in. Her face is a symbol for our missteps worldwide, and while she’s not entirely innocent (you could always go Manning and rebel, if you want to bear that cost) she was by no means the bad guy. That’s another great, important movie, and absolutely nobody has seen it.

  2. @JMF – The movie sounds interesting. I may check it out. As for the whole Abu Ghraib thing, what a joke. Morris was totally right.

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