Rightwing Film Geek

TIFF 10 Capsules — Day 5

CLIENT 9 (Alex Gibney, USA, 1)

Apologies for the length of what follows, but it takes a special kind of movie to make me like Eliot Spitzer more than its director. But daggum, this tendentious piece of absurd conspiratorialism, of intellectually sloppiness, of self-contradictory double standards and of ignorance of how law-enforcement and the press both work is a 90-minute swig of 190-proof mendacity watered down only by Spitzer’s own moral rectitude (I am not kidding, folks).

Let me just cite 10 examples of some of those substantives (I actually counted 26 “bullshit” moments when I combed through my viewing notes shortly after the film). The only reason this film is not a “0” is Spitzer’s own manfulness, the tremendously entertaining character of Cecil Juwal (the Emperor’s Club CEO), the voice of sanity from 80s chocolate-sauce lady Karen Finley (yes … I’m still not kidding) and the fact the film includes some of its own refutations, though that may just be its own sloppiness.

  1. Does Gibney really believe any cause and effect relationship between Spitzer’s fall and the 2008 Wall Street meltdown, in any terms more specific than Oliver Stonesque “Wall Street Greed.” If so, why had Spitzer not acted against the proximate fuse (the housing bubble and/or its bursting) in all his years as NY attoney general? And if not, then why the juxtaposition in the early line “a few months after his resignation, the big banks he had been policing brought the economy down”?
  2. Why does Gibney spend any time at all on GOP operative Roger Stone’s “Spitzer’s doing whores” memo when (1) Stone says he didn’t know what all else the FBI may have had and (2) FBI said it never received it. In other words — there is no evidence, bar insinuation. Let me repeat. There. Is. No. Evidence. Why did Gibney pursue all the naked conpiracy whispers when Spitzer himself says it doesn’t matter (“I brought myself down … and if my enemies were involved in unearthing some of it, so be it”)? Grownup politicians like Spitzer understand, even if adolescent artists like Gibney do not, that politics involves the other side fighting back.
  3. If we get apologists saying prostitution should be legal, it’s not that big a deal, it’s better that Spitzer went to a whore rather than break up his marriage if his manly needs weren’t being fulfilled, etc., why does Gibney lovingly detail, with beefcake pictures, Stone’s involvement in swinging (which unlike prostitution, actually IS consensual)? Is it only a sexual sin if Republicans do it?
  4. If “Troopergate” in Albany was an irrelevant distraction about the source of a leak rather than the leak’s substance (though what would that make of liberal wallow in the St. Valerie Plame furor), why does Gibney spend any time at all, much less 15 minutes or so, trying to figure out how the FBI’s interest in the Emperor’s Club started and then more time on how a Spitzer enemy knew about postal orders, the basis for the federal charges?
  5. Why is it relevant that the Mann Act, on immoral transportation across state lines, generally isn’t used against customers — if no criminal charges were ever brought against Spitzer? And doesn’t the fact that criminal charges only were brought against Emperor’s Club officials suggest that Spitzer was never the feds’ quarry, only a lobster that swam it way into a shrimp net?
  6. Even if an unprecedented use of the Mann Act did happen or was seriously contemplated, how does the caterwauling over that fact square with the applause given Spitzer for “innovative” uses of state law to “go after” Wall Street as part of a social crusade, i.e., an effort to make the law serve ideological ends?
  7. In what possible sense are Hank Greenberg and Ken Langone people “with unlimited resources,” as Gibney says, that Spitzer’s previous scalps were not?
  8. Why would it be surprising that the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York would tell state law-enforcement to back off on a matter of regulating interstate commerce based in New York (interstate commerce is one of the federal government’s enumerated powers, like immigration; at least Bush didn’t pre-emptively sue New York). Or that the same person holding the same office would play the lead in a criminal case involving a New-York based prostitution ring and (at least potentially) involving the governor of New York. The word is j-u-r-i-s-d-i-c-t-i-o-n.
  9. Why does Gibney let a talking head get away with the lie, as part of the “partisan conspiracymongering” section that “they” went after Spitzer because he was a Democrat while “they” didn’t go after Republican lawmakers. Gibney **even cites** the ur-refutation of this conspiracy nonsense — the DC Madam case, which he even says snared two Republicans (curiously only David Vitter is named, and my memory and the Wikipedia page both tell me he was the only elected official). And BTW … the DC Madam case was also federal and also focused on mail- and wire-related services, proving that federal investigations of escort services on these grounds is common and nonpartisan. And when Gibney darkly notes that no charges were brought against Vitter and that what followed the Pelfrey indictment was press reporting that outed him and created a political problem. Exactly. What. Happened. To. Spitzer. Is Gibney so glib, or slobbering critics so forgetful as not to remember that no charges were brought against Spitzer?
  10. Why are headlines of Goldman Sachs and banks’ post-bailout profitability an indictment of anything? If Gibney has something crooked, he should say so. If not, all he is doing is playing the ressentiment card. Do we or do we not want profitable banks? (I genuinely don’t believe most liberals seriously do operationally, though they will say they do abstractly.) One sure way not to get them is to make “profit headlines” shameful.

There is nothing to CLIENT 9 other than “Democrats are good and for everyone; Republicans are evil and for the greedy.” And what does it say about our film-making culture that a movie like this can get financed, can get made and be taken seriously by people who don’t drool?

TAMARA DREWE (Steven Frears, Britain, 8)

The first thing we see is a shirtless young farmhand, well-built but not “modern musclebound,” as he works the bucolic English countryside. Obviously, one of those British period pieces. Then he picks up a serving of plastic-bottled water. I snickered a bit. What? You mean, this is now? Or did they have bottled water in Hardy’s time. This is far from a comic highlight in this very funny film, but it’s emblematic of the strange space TAMARA DREWE occupies — fully in today’s world, but somehow … not really.

Let me fess up to something that my Twitter feed may have possibly misled on. I skimmed “Far from the Madding Crowd” more than 20 years ago as Thomas Hardy is not a favorite. Leaving the theater I “knew” I’d seen some kind of modernization of it (Frears practically tells us that much in the opening moments, which quotes the poem from which Hardy took his title), but I really didn’t know more than that. The themes were similar, there were common updated class elements, a rich heroine and a poor farmhand, and obviously a lot of town gossip. But the plot points I remembered from “Madding” (the timing of the livestock stampede, say) weren’t mapping onto TAMARA DREWE as cleanly as I had remembered those of “Emma” had done onto CLUELESS, a fact I just dismissed as a function of having read the Austen just a year before seeing its updating. Well, I now realize that this film is twice-removed from Hardy — an adaptation of a serial comic strip based on modernized versions of “Far from the Madding Crowd” characters — and bares very little resemblance to his story. Nevertheless, I still think the points I was making in my Twitter feed were accurate — that it was much more of a comedy than “Far from the Madding Crowd” and that it was a mistake for Frears to include diegetic references to Hardy and set the film among a literary set including a Hardy scholar. You’re thinking, “don’t they notice that these events are like a Hardy novel.”

But to TAMARA DREWE … this is a wonderfully zippy little film, fast-paced, spryly scored and you can easily imagine, even if you didn’t know, this being a 19th-century novel — the seasonal titles, the shift in romantic alignments, the misunderstandings based on communications (e-mail here, rather than diaries), and above all what defines Hardy’s country-life dramas — boredom leading to gossip and sex from some people having nothing better to do (“I know it’s boring around here, but for fuck’s sake,” one person exasperatedly says). The performances among the cast (none major stars, other than Gemma Arterton as the title character) are all finely balanced between absurdity and self-regard. Except for the two excellent teenage girls (particularly the more-extroverted Jessica Barden) who takes things over the top in their eager desire to bring to the small Dorset town the fantasy lives of the rich and famous that Madame Bovary learned about from novels they get from reading teen mags.

ANOTHER YEAR (Mike Leigh, Britain, 9)

Has Mike Leigh given up on the working class?

There’s always been a little of the “health scold” about some of Leigh’s films (the doctor and Rory near the end of ALL OR NOTHING, some asides at the barbecue in SECRETS AND LIES, the way the “helping professions” are always lionized). But this movie takes that to a new level, and may even conclude that the working classes may be irredeemably booze-cigarette- and badfood-sodden. It begins with Imelda Staunton, playing a dead ringer for Vera Drake, even though she herself needn’t and though this movie is set today, 60 years later. She just wants some pills for her insomnia and stoutly resists any form of intervention and “psychology” from one of ANOTHER DAY’s two central characters, a counselor played by Ruth Sheen. She says the only thing that could make things better would be “a different life” and leaves Sheen’s office without saying goodbye. She never appears again, and the movie ends (and this is not a spoiler) on a lengthy closeup of someone trapped in a different kind of misery.

In ANOTHER YEAR, the second consecutive British film I saw that takes place over one year and is segmented into four seasonal sequences, social mobility has happened. This is the first movie you’ll see in which sympathetic Mike Leigh characters are playing golf. Sheen is married to Jim Broadbent, a university graduate who works as an engineering geologist (“you dig holes in the ground,” he’s reminded), and the couple and their son are the only really happy people in the film. They also don’t allow smoking in the house and tend to a garden that grows their own vegetables. They are drawn in sharp contrast to two characters in particular — Lesley Manville as an alcoholic and Peter Wight as Broadbent’s boyhood friend from out of town, both of whom are really over the top (the characters, that is; not the actors, who are both perfect) in portraying a sort of nakedly sensualist British lumpen-proletarian, whose only pointedly-drawn interests are smoking and drinking and overeating (for him) or obsessing over weight (for her). Their son is also reasonably normal, drawing a contrast again with Broadbent’s brother, whose son has abandoned them and, it is implied, is living some sort of dissolute life. I initially thought ANOTHER YEAR had nothing more on its mind than “marriage is good, especially for the old.” There’s no cathartic (usually a quarrel) last scene in ANOTHER YEAR, instead just that lengthy closeup. Which leaves me convinced (and I have accordingly raised the grade) that Leigh is contrasting lifestyle particulars as well and may have soured on the working class’s stubborn embrace of “eat, drink and be miserable.”

Oh … and this is a Mike Leigh film, so the acting is sensationally good, and unlike often happens in Leigh, there is no bad, one-scene wtf? turn. (No, Mike, Manville is not telegraphing any more than drunks often unintentionally do, and a non-drunk non-proletarian role like Anthony Hopkins in REMAINS OF THE DAY is a ridiculous contrast.) My favorite was Karina Fernandez, not because of what she does exactly, but because of the contrast with the only role I’d seen her in previously — a hilarious character turn as the tango teacher in Leigh’s HAPPY GO-LUCKY, which led me to take her, especially given her name, to be a Spanish actress Leigh happened to find/like. Here, she’s playing someone more … ahem … happy go-lucky in a perfect London accent without a trace of the Spanish caricature. And a relatively sane and bright person.

September 16, 2010 Posted by | Alex Gibney, Mike Leigh, Stephen Frears, TIFF 2010 | 3 Comments

The dumbest guy in the room

GONZO (Alex Gibney, USA, 2008) — 6

Former work colleague Stacy and I went to see GONZO together last week, in part so he could review it for the American Spectator. I have long known that Stacy loves Hunter S. Thompson and had written several times for the newspaper on him, so I figured he’d get a kick about at least seeing GONZO.

But it made for an odd experience. Usually, when it comes to movies, I’m the Smartest Guy in the Room. Here, not so. Stacy knows far more about Thompson and his career than I do (most of what I know is filtered through the Doonesbury character Uncle Duke) and so he was uniquely equipped to write the kind of kick-ass review of GONZO that I never could.

The nub of Stacy’s complaint was that the film was too heavily focused on Thompson’s political involvement in “the Sixties,”¹ and thus skrimped heavily on large chunks of material, both from earlier and later.

Gibney … seems determined to force the square peg of Thompson idiosyncrasies into the round hole of contemporary liberal passions. It’s an awkward fit. At times, Gonzo seems more like a celebration of George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign than of Thompson’s journalism career. …

These political choices might be more easily forgiven if they did not result in Gonzo giving short shrift to other aspects of Thompson’s career.

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July 15, 2008 Posted by | Alex Gibney, Documentary, Stacy McCain | Leave a comment