Posts Tagged ‘film’


Special mention

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Only in Britain

Posted: 24 January 2014 in Uncategorized
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Benefits Street is Britain’s latest contribution to poverty porn.

Fortunately, there’s also a parody: Tory Benefits Street.

And a much better tradition of representing the contradictions of life on the “dole” on the big screen, including my favorite: Ken Loach’s Ladybird, Ladybird.


OK, the movie isn’t very good. (The Wolf of Wall Street is basically Goodfellas goes to Wall Street, with more cocaine and less violence, in which Scorcese focuses on the low-hanging fruit of penny-stock huckstering rather than on the real, much-more-powerful culprits behind the financial crisis.) But that doesn’t mean there aren’t wolves that need to be exposed: the academics who are bought and paid for by Wall Street.

Charles Ferguson, in the Inside Job, did a fine job shining light on some of the the better-known economists—R. Glenn Hubbard, Larry Summers, Frederic Mishkin, and so on—who have been willing to be paid to play in the debates surrounding financial deregulation.**

Around the same time, Reuters [pdf] conducted a study of academics who present themselves as disinterested experts at U.S. Congressional hearings but who have industry ties they don’t reveal. Thus, for example, roughly a third of the 82 academics who gave testimony to the Senate Banking Committee and the House Financial Services Committee between late 2008 and early 2010 (as lawmakers debated the biggest overhaul of financial regulation since the 1930s) did not reveal their financial affiliations in their testimony.

More recently, both The Nation and the New York Times have carried out similar studies—of academics who reap the rewards of defending one or another practice developed by Wall Street firms to manipulate financial markets for enormous gains.

As it turns out, it was Elizabeth Warner, the modern-day Leonard Horner, who sounded the alarm back in 2002 about the emerging market for scholarly data, “as journalists, lobbyists and legislators search for facts to pepper their public statements and better influence public opinion.” In her own area of bankruptcy law, she cites the example of the Credit Research Center located at Georgetown University that was taking money from the consumer credit industry to produce studies supporting the credit industry’s political positions. What happens is that the kind of studies issued by such centers acquire an academic legitimacy but the data they report are considered “proprietary,” belonging exclusively to the industry funders who decide what data are released and what data are held private.

Warren’s conclusion?

The market for data threatens the role that social science research can play in policymaking. When data become a commodity—purchased, packaged, and sold to a willing public under a university imprimatur by those who profit from its distribution—then empirical work becomes little more than cheap ad copy. When that happens, the value of every kind of research academics do declines sharply. Like it or not, our collective worth is on the line.

When that happens, all of us—inside and outside the academy—fall prey to the wolves of Wall Street.


*I reserve the right to change the title of this post, since I’m going to see David O. Russell’s American Hustle later today. If I do, I’ll disclose the fact that I knew Russell back when he was in college.

**Partly as a result of that negative exposure, the American Economics Association was forced to consider developing a code of conduct it has never had. Instead, it adopted a very limited disclosure policy [pdf], according to which the only rule is that “Every submitted article should state the sources of financial support for the particular research it describes.”

Follow-up. . .

As it turns out, I did go to see American Hustle, which is terrific—superior (in my humble opinion) to Scorcese’s film. Russell has managed to capture a nation of small-time con artists (not unlike the characters in such TV series as The Sopranos and The Wire), who both deserve our affection (in the earnest manner in which they reinvent themselves and try to “do the right thing”) and represent a distraction from the real culprits (the big-time con artists whose activities have actually put people out of work and driven them into poverty and have deprived them of much-needed social benefits, like food stamps and unemployment compensation).


Apparently, when Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life was released (and for a decade thereafter), it was suspected of being communist propaganda [ht: sm] Why?

According to the Informants [REDACTED] in this picture the screen credits again fail to reflect the Communist support given to the screen writer. According to [REDACTED] the writers Frances Goodrick and Albert Hackett were very close to known Communists and on one occasion in the recent past while these two writers were doing a picture for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Goodrick and Hackett practically lived with known Communists as Lester Cole, screen writer, and Earl Robinson, screen writer. Both of these individuals are identified in Section I of this memorandum as Communists.

With regard to the picture “It’s A Wonderful Life”, [REDACTED] stated in substance that the film represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as “scrooge-type” so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.

In addition, [REDACTED] stated that, in his opinion, this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters. [REDACTED] related that if he had made this picture portraying the banker, he wold have shown this individual to have been following the rules as laid down by the State Bank Examiners in connection with making loans. Further, [REDACTED] stated that the scene wouldn’t have “suffered at all” in portraying the banker as a man who was protecting funds put in his care by private individuals and adhering to the rules governing the loan of that money rather than portraying the part as it was shown. In summary, [REDACTED] stated that it was not necessary to make the banker such a mean character and “I would never have done it that way”.

The Hunger Games: The Official Illustrated Movie Companion

I haven’t read Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. I’ve just watched the two movies: The Hunger Games (2102) and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013).

My immediate reaction was, we’re not watching some post-apocalyptic view of the future. It’s a well-crafted allegory of what is happening here and now.

Apparently, Miles Kimball and I agree on that much. But we then go in very different directions. Whereas Kimball sees the Capitol as representing the “rich nations of the world” and the Districts as the “poor nations of the world,” I see something very different: a post-apocalyptic nation divided into haves and have-nots. Or, if you prefer, a Capitol representing the top 1 percent and the Districts everyone else.

And that seems to be how fans of the books/movies see it (as, for example, here)—not in terms of divisions between nations but as different segments within a single nation.


Now, it’s true, the residents of the different Districts are engaged in various pursuits—for example, Katniss Everdeen’s father was a coalminer, as are most people in District 12, while the residents of District 1 specialize in producing luxury items such as jewelry, and they are better off than the workers in other Districts. But the residents of all twelve Districts produce in order to enrich, and are forced to send fighters into the Hunger Games at the behest of, the conspicuously consuming residents of the Capitol and their Peacekeepers.

For me, that’s a pretty clear example of class-divided nation (referred to as Panem, in the books and films), in which most citizens survive on a meager ration of bread and are required to participate in circuses for the entertainment of the tiny minority at the top.

Until, of course, they rebel. . .

[ht: sm]

I’ll admit I haven’t read the books. And I did enjoy the first Hunger Games more than the second. Not to mention the fact that the filmmakers haven’t quite decided between representing class inequality (of conspicuous consumption at the top and working for a living at the bottom) or a relation of domination between the center of the empire (replete with a coliseum, chariots, and fascist insignia) and the periphery (12 districts, based on various occupations and industries). In either case, the goal of those at the top is to distract the masses from seeing what is actually going on.

But it was interesting watching Hunger Games: Catching Fire in a packed theater and listening to the audience (mostly groups of teenagers) erupt in cheers as the Capitol was being challenged, perhaps for the first time in 75 years, by the Districts.

Workers at a Ford assembly plant gather during an emergency meeting with the plant management in Genk

It just so happens I’m showing Michael Moore’s Roger & Me in class this week.*

Now we have the decision by Stephen Odell, chief executive of Ford of Europe, to close a plant in Genk, Belgium. The New York Times [ht: sm] decides to tell a story of courageous Ford against entrenched politicians and unions.

Ford is one of the few companies to brave the fierce resistance of politicians and Europe’s powerful unions as it tries to emulate the brutal downsizing that carmakers in the United States have done — and that subsequently helped make possible the rebound now under way in the American car market.

And the quote from Odell come have come straight from the mouth of GM’s Roger Smith:

“Ford did not take this decision lightly,” Stephen Odell, chief executive of Ford of Europe, said in a telephone interview Monday. “We understand that it affects people and their families.” But, he said, “we had to do it to positively influence the company going forward.”

But the rest of the story does, in fact, leak through at the end:

Yet for every factory that the industry might consider an albatross, there is a community that faces economic devastation if production shuts down. Nowhere is that more true than in Genk, at the eastern end of Belgium in the province of Limburg, the least prosperous region of the country’s Dutch-speaking north.

In Genk, a city of 65,000 people, many of them descendants of Italians, Turks or Moroccans who came decades ago to dig coal, an estimated 10,000 jobs will be lost at the end of next year when Ford closes the factory. That number includes not only Ford workers but also the businesses that depend on the plant, from big parts suppliers to the mom-and-pop shops.

Marianna Musolino, co-owner of a French fry restaurant in a neighborhood where many Ford workers live, said customers had begun scrimping on orders. “They didn’t take mayonnaise, which is rare, but it saved them 50 cents,” Ms. Musolino said. “Weird things like that.”

Another business already feeling the pain is Bewel, a nonprofit organization in the neighboring town of Diepenbeek that provides paid employment to mentally handicapped people. Until recently, Bewel operated a laundry that cleaned truckloads of protective clothing used by Ford.

But, realizing the work would soon dry up, Patrick Nelissen, managing director of Bewel, gave the Ford concession to a commercial laundry less dependent on Ford. That firm agreed to hire some of the handicapped workers.

Last week, Mr. Nelissen showed a visitor around a deserted building containing rows of idle commercial washers and driers. Stepping around a puddle, he wondered aloud how he was going to recover the 1 million euros, or $1.35 million, he had invested in machines shortly before Ford announced the shutdown. “Nobody needs this kind of machinery,” he said.

Mr. Nelissen said he understood Ford’s predicament. But the prevailing view in Genk is that Ford reneged on promises to build the next generation of Mondeos in the city. Residents knew there would be job cuts, but not a closing of the plant.

“A year ago they gave their word” that Genk would build the next Mondeo, said Wim Dries, the mayor. “Then they said, ‘The economy has changed. We have to close it.’ It was like a bomb going off.”

I wonder if a Belgian Michael Moore will be there to try to chase down Stephen and film the final car going off the line.


*If you haven’t seen it (and you should), it’s a documentary (his first and, in my view, still best) of Moore’s pursuit of General Motors CEO Roger Smith, to confront him about the devastating effects on Flint, Michigan caused by the series of decisions by GM to downsize production and close plants in that city. After the credits, the film displays the message, “This film cannot be shown within the city of Flint. All the movie theatres have closed.”

Les Blank RIP

Posted: 8 April 2013 in Uncategorized
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Les Blank, the acclaimed documentary filmmaker, died Sunday.

Roger Ebert

Werner Herzog (in this conversation with Milos Stehlik) refers to Roger Ebert—a popular icon of film criticism and a real film enthusiast, for Chicago and for the entire country—as “one of the last soldiers of cinema.”


According to Jonathan Kim,

what you will get, which I think a lot of people (including myself) need, is a general overview of how bad the hunger and nutrition problem is in America and why our system is so screwed up.

The film also raises questions that must be asked and answered. For instance, why does the U.S. government give more in subsidies to giant industrial farms that feed the processed food industry than it does to small farms that grow fruits and vegetables? Why does the richest country in the world allow so many of its citizens, particularly children, to go hungry? Why do we allow republicans to paint programs like food stamps and school meals as government handouts to the lazy when they’re actually an investment, since America’s future and economy will only succeed if we’re able to produce healthy, attentive kids who will become the educated workforce modern industries require?