“That’s the history of many a big business: wars, conflicts, it’s all business. One murder makes a villain, millions a hero. Numbers sanctify, my good fellow.” –Charles Chaplin in Monsieur Verdoux
The same day that I watched Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, I also watched Monsieur Verdoux, a 1947 release in which Chaplin plays a serial wife-murderer as a synecdoche of ruthless, war-mongering capitalism. Although Monsieur Verdoux is that rare bird, a great film that isn’t a good movie, it speaks powerfully to our present age, one in which the military-industrial complex has one of their own, Dick Cheney, pulling strings, pushing pawns and doling out contracts behind the throne of George W. Bush. And, as Alex Gibney’s Enron reminds us, early and often, the energy industry has their man in the Oval Office.
As political scientist Kevin Phillips–who authored the uncanny The Emerging Republican Majority way back in 1969–says in the film, Enron’s connection to the Bush clan is “the single most important relationship between a president and a corporation in history.”
As a work of cinematic journalism, Enron is a fine primer on the scandal, managing to make the complex financial chicanery comprehensible while sketching vivid portraits of the criminals themselves. Basing his film on a book of the same title, Gibney starts with the ugly numbers: When Enron declared bankruptcy on Dec. 2, 2001, 20,000 employees were out of work and $2 billion in pension funds went up in smoke. But by then, the top officers had long since cashed in their stock options to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
By now, the main players are well-known: There’s Jeff Skilling, the arrogant and bullying CEO; Ken Lay, the too-genial-by-half founder and chairman; and Andrew Fastow, the slippery chief financial officer and fall guy. At the film’s end, Gibney shows us satisfying perp-walk shots of all three in handcuffs and tells us that Fastow is serving a 10-year sentence and will testify in next year’s trials of Lay and Skilling. But of course, this isn’t the end of the story.
While Enron is an excellent film and will stoke righteous liberal outrage, as it well should, I walked out of the theater feeling dispirited by the lack of effective rhetorical opposition to the values that encourage the Enrons and Halliburtons among us. Part of this reaction was due to a particularly chilling sequence, in which we overhear young Enron electricity traders chortling as they rape the California power grid. One buckaroo snarls, “Yeah, they can have power–at the right fucking price!” And they did it with unbelievable ease: We hear one trader simply calling up a power plant and telling them to shut down for a few hours. As Californians staggered along with intermittent power, Bush refused to intervene in the (black) magic of free markets. Meanwhile, then-Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, lost the support of his constituents while Arnold Schwarzenegger flew to Houston to meet with Ken Lay. When we see California’s new cyborg governor take office, the effect is not only frightening, but as surreal as a paranoid political thriller.
Everywhere in Enron, we see how the values of the criminals–from Lay and Skilling on down to the energy traders who created and stoked the California energy crisis–are entirely consistent with the values that are promoted every day of the week, in our movies and television shows and advertising. Skilling is bold, he’s a visionary, he’s edgy, he likes risk. (Underlining this point was Skilling’s penchant for taking his gang on x-treme motocross vacations.) But why should we be surprised? Television reality shows promote ruthless individualism, our ads celebrate credit-driven instant gratification, and everywhere our lives have become dependent on corporate interconnectivity. The songs on our iPods, the DVDs from Netflix, our cable and Internet access, our cell phones, the gas we put into our cars are all provided by a few huge companies. The money of millions flows ever-upward into the hands of top executives who reward themselves whether their firms make money or not.
What’s more, individual ruthlessness and risk-taking–so celebrated on television, from Survivor to Mountain Dew ads–are essential attributes for succeeding in the corporate world. Enron, with its policy of “rank and yank,” in which the least productive 15 percent of its revenue-generating workforce was terminated annually (while the survivors received exorbitant bonuses), was an extreme manifestation of edgy, acquisitive, dog-eat-dog gamesmanship. Is it any wonder that those who thrived in that environment–those who were sufficiently and psychopathically aggressive–were indeed criminals? (The Corporation, released last year, is an excellent feature-length development of this argument.)
Unfortunately, the Democratic party long ago abandoned its populist roots by allying itself with corporatism. And those few Democratic presidential aspirants who are thought to be heretics–such as Kucinich, Dean and even our Johnny Edwards–are chastised by everyone to the right of Paul Krugman as fringe lunatics and avatars of class warfare.
The fact is, as Enron amply demonstrates, class warfare is already being waged. The bombs have been raining down on us for decades. As Molly Ivins noted recently, a half-century ago, during the Eisenhower administration (which is enjoying an unlikely season of fashion, thanks to Ike’s widely circulated comments about Social Security, Texas oilmen and the military-industrial complex), corporations shouldered 60 percent of the federal tax burden. In 2003 that figure was down to 16 percent. Yes, taxes have been cut, but they haven’t been ours.
If liberals want to organize a resistance, they first have to create a language, an ethics and a physical structure of opposition. Although expressing skepticism about our capitalist religion is next to ungodliness in America today, it wasn’t always thus: In the era of Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, there were, in fact, millions of mobilized and angry Americans. There were Populists, Free Soilers, Know-Nothings, Anarchists, Wobblies and many more colorful and often-dangerous organizations. (Thomas Frank’s indispensable What’s the Matter with Kansas? discusses this lost era of popular radicalism. His title is taken from a right-wing screed from the 19th century in which the author bemoaned the leftist nuts running wild in the state.)
Once upon a time, it was entirely permissible and uncontroversial to beat up on corporate bad guys. Charles Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux, truth be told, was the naíve work of an out-of-touch artist more at home among the Left Bank leftists than in the roiling political currents of America. But even crusty John Ford–no commie–made Stagecoach, one of my all-time favorite movies. In this funny, sentimental and thrillingly populist Western, John Wayne’s outlaw and Claire Trevor’s prostitute (both chastely conceived, to be sure) ride off into the horizon after prevailing over evil thugs, social prejudice and Apaches. In one of the film’s early and entirely typical scenes, a corpulent banker (and empty patriot) barks, “What’s good for the banks is good for the country!” before making off with a strongbox full of cash.
Today, unfortunately, one of the most popular shows on television is The Apprentice, a monument to ego and megalomania that encourages people to figure out how to seize that power and grab that cash.
But who can blame people for responding to such appeals? There are precious few alternatives being offered by today’s token opposition party. In the late 19th century, by contrast, the beleaguered working classes had an eloquent champion, a Christian preacher from the heartland named William Jennings Bryan. He ran for the presidency and lost three times, it is true, but his legacy was a steadily levelling society that was finally enshrined as the New Deal. Now that the New Deal is under attack, perhaps we need someone to preach, once again, the gospel of human dignity in the face of the blasphemous sanctity of corporate profits.
It’s worth noting that there is another superb movie opening this weekend in the long shadow of Revenge of the Sith and the righteous anger of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. (In fact, you can get your Star Wars fix at Enron, where we discover that Andrew Fastow named two of his debt-burying dummy corporations Jedi and Chewco, and that the California pillaging scheme was called Death Star.)
So, trailing along in the wake of the titans of Enron and George Lucas is the French comedy-drama Look at Me, a fine film from Agnes Jaoui (The Taste of Others) in which she presents her own take on power relationships between human beings.
Look at Me is set in the world of French publishing, in which toadying and flattery can get you everywhere. Jean-Pierre Bacri (who is Mr. Agnes Jaoui) plays Étienne, a famous, arrogant and self-centered writer who lives with his young second wife, their toddler daughter and his teenaged daughter from his first marriage. It’s the older daughter, Lolita (Marilou Berry), who functions as the film’s fulcrum. Lolita is overweight (in Paris?!) and unhappily involved with handsome studs who exploit her to get near her father, but she’s not entirely likable or sympathetic, either: She’s perfectly willing to exploit her father’s fame to satisfy her own needs. The story gets complicated when Lolita draws her music teacher Sylvia and her husband, an obscure novelist, into her father’s orbit of sycophancy and favor-dealing.
Agnes Jaoui is a 20-year veteran of French show business, and with The Taste of Others and this film she emerges as a smart maker of the sort of literate and cosmopolitan comedies that Woody Allen can’t seem to make with any conviction. Like Allen, Jaoui acts in her films, and in Look at Me, she plays the music teacher Sylvia, quietly becoming the moral center of the film’s gallery of needy, egocentric and self-absorbed characters. With her film’s subtle effects, casual cruelty and delicate sympathies, Jaoui has produced a film more gripping than a whole summer’s worth of F/X and explosions.