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Democracy At Its Not-So-Finest in Gerrymandering

Jeff Reichert’s Gerrymandering complements Inside Job, the recent indictment of the U.S. financial system, in two key ways: In giving a close and measured reading of the country’s gonzo voting district zoning practices, Reichert confirms Charles Ferguson’s bleak conclusion that we have, for all intents and purposes, allowed a permanent, monarchic system of government to take hold. Gerrymandering, however, allows a sliver of life-sustaining light to sneak through in the form of a scrappy nonpartisan California campaign in support of redistricting legislation. For that reason, I recommend watching Gerrymandering second, lest you immediately begin planning your exile to Sweden. The California campaign lends a slender structure to a doc that roves country- and history-wide in its attempt to explain how dirty politics have perverted the ideal of representation by population. Case studies in Brooklyn, Texas, and New Orleans illustrate the art of contorting neighborhoods into districts determined by race, class, and partisanship, essentially rigging elections before the ballots are cast. It gets complicated: Re-districting in Chicago gave Obama a clear advantage in his Senate election, an inconvenient truth that Reichert leaves open to debate. A clearer example of gerrymandering’s mendacity is offered by Tom DeLay, who rides his black heart into yet another political documentary and fills, as ever, the role of the indisputable villain.

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Feel the Rage All Over Again With Financial Disaster Doc Inside Job

Inside Job, Charles Ferguson’s follow-up to his Iraq War gut-twister No End in Sight, is a documentary that inspires less shock and awe than sickening ire. The movie, which had its first local showing last week at the New York Film Festival, opens with the cautionary tale of little Iceland, an idyllic nation so stable that, as put by one local, it enjoyed “almost ‘end-of-history’ status.” But the beat goes on: Evil entered the garden with the deregulation, privatization, and multinational exploitation of the nation’s local banks. Sound familiar?

Ferguson is a less rabble-rousing filmmaker than Michael Moore, but 20 minutes into his lucid yet stupefying account of the 2008 global economic meltdown—around the time a stroll down memory lane recounts Ronald Reagan’s role in facilitating the Savings and Loan debacle of the mid ’80s—my vision was clouded by the steam wafting from my ears. Next up, the quotidian Clinton-era crimes of corporate money-laundering, book-cooking, and pol-bribing. This may have been business as usual, but the 1999 repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act re-stoked the coals of my indignation as savings banks were set free to merge with investment houses, and the wholesale merchandising of speculative derivatives opened the way for the full-scale casino-ization of the American economy.

Inside Job makes a familiar tale cogent. Bankers pumped up the housing market by offering subprime mortgages like free tastes of heroin, then bundling these dubious loans as investments to create an international Ponzi scheme—the debt sold to eager and/or naïve customers while they themselves were insured against loss with credit default swaps. Encouraging even more gambling, the federal SEC lifted leverage restrictions on the banks so that they could play with ever-more borrowed money; rating agencies colluded in the frenzy by certifying dubious investment bonds and thus creating the conditions for a massive sell-off. You may remember that the party ended with a bang two years ago last month, when the reality police appeared at the frat-house door. Venerable investment houses collapsed, intolerable pressure fell on the fissuring pillar that was insurance giant AIG, the temple tottered, and the capitalist system went into cardiac arrest.

Were individuals to blame or was it simply the unfettered system being itself? (As Marx wrote of credit, debt furtively crept in as “the humble assistant of accumulation” to become “a new and terrible weapon” in the redistribution of wealth.) Midway through Inside Job, Ferguson begins a search for accountability, polite but firm as he mixes it up, off-screen but on-mic, with unrepentant Big Board hustlers, confounded government regulators, and obfuscating academic pundits. Small solace to watch the rogues squirm: No one, Ferguson points out, has yet been prosecuted for fraud. Indeed, resuscitated at the public trough, the surviving banks are even more powerful. Their lobbyists clog the Capitol, and campaign contributions are bigger than ever.

The bingo hall may have closed, but the fix is in. Although Inside Job attempts to exit on a positive note, the movie is most despairingly proof of the existence of a permanent government. Bill Clinton’s slack-jawed grin as he poses beside thuggish Larry Summers is nearly as appalling as George W. Bush’s thin-lipped smirk in introducing delusional Hank Paulson. (The closest thing to a political hero is Eliot Spitzer, mirror image of a self-entitled Wall Street master of the universe.) Although Inside Job is rife with bullshit artists, the most contemptible are the tenured Ivy League professors such as Columbia’s Glenn Hubbard and Frederic Mishkin or Harvard’s John Campbell, who, eager for crumbs at the table, are little more than paid flacks for the corporate buccaneers.

There’s not much sense that the system can be voted out—not least because Barack Obama, shown campaigning on the crisis and elected in part to change the game, recruited his economic advisers from those who enabled the disaster. Despite the populist tendency to blame the gummint (although, curiously, not its lax regulation), the upcoming election is less likely to throw the rascals out than, abetted by the same band of billionaires, elect a new passel in.

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Surge This

Masterfully edited and cumulatively walloping, Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight turns the well-known details of our monstrously bungled Iraq war into an enraging, apocalyptic litany of fuckups. One may have already heard some or all of the appalling details that Ferguson collects—the well-connected American kid plucked straight out of Georgetown to oversee the Baghdad traffic plan, the $2 trillion price tag, the estimated 700,000 Iraqi civilian casualties—and still be driven to hysterics by the sheer volume of atrocity gathered here. Ferguson’s early title card—”It is a story in which many people tried to save a nation”—may be overly generous toward the doc’s talking-head roster of former U.S. military officials and other administrative casualties of war, but No End in Sight is certainly a film about failure, perhaps the ultimate film about failure. Or maybe a film about the ultimate failure?

As the movie’s more begrudging admirers will likely acknowledge, Ferguson is no Michael Moore. His background is as a scholar and a Brookings wonk, and No End in Sight—his first film, amazingly—is less a work of investigation (or activism) than history. There’s no psychology in the movie (e.g., Dubya has daddy issues), and neither are there conspiracy theories (e.g., the war is about further fueling Halliburton’s tank). On some level, it even endeavors to be a film without politics—and might be that if such a thing were possible.

Bracketed by a pair of press-conference quotes from Donald Rumsfeld—the first smugly declaring his pride in the “first war of the 21st century,” the second defensively claiming, “I don’t do quagmires”—the doc scarcely acknowledges the fraudulent justification and fundamental immorality of the Iraq invasion, though A Pretext for War author James Bamford does show up to say, “I don’t know what these [Bush administration officials] were smoking, but it must have been very good.” Focusing on the war itself, Ferguson is chiefly interested in compiling a filmed dossier of incompetence—not so much to argue that the war could’ve been won and won early, but to suggest that the magnitude of arrogant irresponsibility will carry aftershocks as far into the future as the mind can imagine. No end, indeed. The title seems to refer not to the interminable war, but to the irreversible stain on America’s reputation. Ferguson’s ultimate image of urban Iraq in flames, swarming with well-armed insurgents, is a picture of hell, and not one that’s only burning Over There.

Ferguson’s approach is at once relentless and, with the help of Campbell Scott’s flat narration, chillingly calm and composed. Titles of the doc’s handful of sections include “The Void,” “Things Fall Apart,” and “Chaos”—and, yes, those are distinct historical periods. In the film’s straightforward narrative, nonexistent or, at best, hasty planning before and during the start of the war leads to Iraqi lawlessness and looting, allowed if not encouraged by an administration acting nearly without military advice. Iraqi culture—indeed, the world’s record of early civilization—is essentially decimated. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz insist on maintaining troop levels at two or three times less than those recommended by Army generals. Mass civil disturbance ensues. American soldiers apprehend Iraqi “suspects” and deliver many to Abu Ghraib, where prisoners are tortured and otherwise abused. The Shiite militia rises to fill the power void. Paul Bremer is appointed head of the Coalition Provisional Authority and, consulting no one with military experience, swiftly aids the Iraqi insurgency by halting the formation of a sovereign government and instituting a de-Baathification policy that disenfranchises hordes of people. Then Bremer summarily disbands the Iraqi military, apparently under the assumption that a half-million unemployed and armed men will be content to watch the war from the sidelines.

Ferguson has assembled a wealth of on-the-ground footage from a variety of sources, using it mainly to annotate his interview material, although near the end of the film he includes a horrifying home video of private military contractors randomly picking off Iraqi civilian motorists with machine-gun fire, Elvis’s jaunty “Mystery Train” booming from the Americans’ car radio. Throughout the film are images of burning cars, stacks of torn bodies, bombed-out homes—the sort of pictures conspicuously missing from network news coverage.

Is the movie’s reporting biased? Not if you consider that anyone who’d testify to the “good intentions” or overall success of the campaign—Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Rumsfeld—naturally refused to comment. The evidence speaks for itself, and No End in Sight—addressed to those who’ll be swayed against the war by ineptitude more than immorality—is the rare American documentary that doesn’t appear to preach to the converted, or at least not only to the converted. For those of us who’ve opposed the war for years, the movie is at once intensely frightening and, it must be admitted, disturbingly reassuring. Everything you wanted to suspect about this administration’s warmongers but were afraid to fully believe? Here it is.