For the 43 members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 100, working at the Windows on the World restaurant, who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center
Alabanza. Praise the cook with a shaven head
and a tattoo on his shoulder that said Oye,
a blue-eyed Puerto Rican with people from Fajardo,
the harbor of pirates centuries ago.
Praise the lighthouse in Fajardo, candle
glimmering white to worship the dark saint of the sea.
Alabanza. Praise the cook's yellow Pirates cap
worn in the name of Roberto Clemente, his plane
that flamed into the ocean loaded with cans for Nicaragua,
for all the mouths chewing the ash of earthquakes.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen radio, dial clicked
even before the dial on the oven, so that music and Spanish
rose before bread. Praise the bread. Alabanza.
Praise Manhattan from a hundred and seven flights up,
like Atlantis glimpsed through the windows of an ancient aquarium.
Praise the great windows where immigrants from the kitchen
could squint and almost see their world, hear the chant of nations:
Ecuador, México, Republica Dominicana,
Haiti, Yemen, Ghana, Bangladesh.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen in the morning,
where the gas burned blue on every stove
and exhaust fans fired their diminutive propellers,
hands cracked eggs with quick thumbs
or sliced open cartons to build an altar of cans.
Alabanza. Praise the busboy's music, the chime-chime
of his dishes and silverware in the tub.
Alabanza. Praise the dish-dog, the dishwasher
who worked that morning because another dishwasher
could not stop coughing, or because he needed overtime
to pile the sacks of rice and beans for a family
floating away on some Caribbean island plagued by frogs.
Alabanza. Praise the waitress who heard the radio in the kitchen
and sang to herself about a man gone. Alabanza.
After the thunder wilder than thunder,
after the shudder deep in the glass of the great windows,
after the radio stopped singing like a tree full of terrified frogs,
after night burst the dam of day and flooded the kitchen,
for a time the stoves glowed in darkness like the lighthouse in Fajardo,
like a cook's soul. Soul I say, even if the dead cannot tell us
about the bristles of God's beard because God has no face,
soul I say, to name the smoke-beings flung in constellations
across the night sky of this city and cities to come.
Alabanza I say, even if God has no face.
Alabanza. When the war began, from Manhattan and Kabul
two constellations of smoke rose and drifted to each other,
mingling in icy air, and one said with an Afghan tongue:
Teach me to dance. We have no music here.
And the other said with a Spanish tongue:
I will teach you. Music is all we have.
Martín Espada's poem will appear in the Spring issue (#82) of
Hanging Loose magazine and in Alabanza: New and Selected
Poems 1982-2002 (Norton), forthcoming in April.
Editor's Note: One year after the attacks, Eric Foner assessed the impact of 9/11 on the way America tells the story of itself and readjusts its relationship with the world.
All history, the saying goes, is contemporary history. People
instinctively turn to the past to help understand the present. Events
draw our attention to previously neglected historical subjects. The
second wave of feminism gave birth to a flourishing subfield of women's
history. The Reagan Revolution spawned a cottage industry in the history
of US conservatism.
Many years will pass before we can fully assess how our thinking about
history has changed as a result of September 11. While historians ponder
this question, conservative ideologues have produced a spate of
polemical statements on how we should teach American history in light of
recent events. In a speech less than a month after the tragedy, Lynne
Cheney insisted that calls for more intensive study of the rest of the
world amounted to blaming America's "failure to understand Islam" for
the attack. A letter distributed by the American Council of Trustees and
Alumni, which she once chaired, chastised professors who fail to teach
the "truth" that civilization itself "is best exemplified in the West
and indeed in America."
In What's So Great About America, Dinesh D'Souza contends that
freedom and religious toleration are uniquely "Western" beliefs. The
publisher's ad for the book identifies those who hold alternative views
as "people who provide a rationale for terrorism." With funding from
conservative foundations and powerful political connections, such
commentators hope to reshape the teaching of American history.
Historians cannot predict the future, but the past they portray must be
one out of which the present can plausibly have grown. The
self-absorbed, super-celebratory history now being promoted will not
enable students to make sense of either their own society or our
increasingly interconnected world.
Historians cannot choose the ways history becomes part of our own
experience. September 11 has rudely placed certain issues at the
forefront of our consciousness. Let me mention three and their
implications for how we think about the American past: the upsurge of
patriotism, significant infringements on civil liberties and a sudden
awareness of considerable distrust abroad of American actions and
The generation of historians that came of age during the Vietnam War
witnessed firsthand how patriotic language and symbols, especially the
American flag, can be invoked in the service of manifestly unjust
causes. Partly as a result, they have tended to neglect the power of
these symbols as genuine expressions of a sense of common national
community. Patriotism, if studied at all, has been understood as an
"invention," rather than a habit of the heart.
Historians have had greater success lately at dividing up the American
past into discrete experiences delineated along lines of race,
ethnicity, gender and class than at exploring the common threads of
American nationality. But the immediate response to September 11 cut
across these boundaries. No one knows if the renewed sense of common
purpose and shared national identity that surfaced so vividly after
September 11 will prove temporary. But they require historians to devote
new attention to the roots of the symbols, values and experiences
Americans share as well as those that divide them.
All patriotic upsurges run the risk of degenerating into a coercive
drawing of boundaries between "loyal" Americans and those stigmatized as
aliens and traitors. This magazine has chronicled the numerous and
disturbing infringements on civil liberties that have followed September
11. Such legal protections as habeas corpus, trial by impartial jury,
the right to legal representation and equality before the law regardless
of race or national origin have been seriously curtailed.
Civil liberties have been severely abridged during previous moments of
crisis, from the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 to Japanese-American
internment in World War II. Historians generally view these past
episodes as shameful anomalies. But we are now living through another
such episode, and there is a remarkable absence of public outcry.
We need an American history that sees protections for civil liberties
not as a timeless feature of our "civilization" but as a recent and
fragile achievement resulting from many decades of historical struggle.
We should take a new look at obscure Supreme Court cases--Fong Yue
Ting (1893), the Insular Cases of the early twentieth century,
Korematsu during World War II--in which the Justices allowed the
government virtual carte blanche in dealing with aliens and in
suspending the rights of specific groups of citizens on grounds of
military necessity. Dissenting in Fong Yue Ting, which authorized
the deportation of Chinese immigrants without due process, Justice David
Brewer observed that, like today, the power was directed against a
people many Americans found "obnoxious." But, he warned, "who shall say
it will not be exercised tomorrow against other classes and other
September 11 will also undoubtedly lead historians to examine more
closely the history of the country's relationship with the larger world.
Public opinion polls revealed that few Americans have any knowledge of
other peoples' grievances against the United States. A study of our
history in its international context might help to explain why there is
widespread fear outside our borders that the war on terrorism is
motivated in part by the desire to impose a Pax Americana in a grossly
Back in the 1930s, historian Herbert Bolton warned that by treating the
American past in isolation, historians were helping to raise up a
"nation of chauvinists"--a danger worth remembering when considering the
drumbeat of calls for a celebratory and insular history divorced from
its global context. Of course, international paradigms can be every bit
as obfuscating as histories that are purely national. We must be careful
not to reproduce traditional American exceptionalism on a global scale.
September 11, for example, has inspired a spate of commentary influenced
by Samuel Huntington's mid-1990s book The Clash of Civilizations.
Huntington's paradigm reduces politics and culture to a single
characteristic--race, religion or geography--that remains forever
static, divorced from historical development or change through
interaction with other societies. It makes it impossible to discuss
divisions within these purported civilizations. The idea that the West
is the sole home of reason, liberty and tolerance ignores how recently
such values triumphed in the United States and also ignores the debates
over creationism, abortion rights and other issues that suggest that
commitment to them is hardly unanimous. The definition of "Western
civilization" is highly selective--it includes the Enlightenment but not
the Inquisition, liberalism but not the Holocaust, Charles Darwin but
not the Salem witch trials.
Nor can September 11 be explained by reference to timeless
characteristics or innate pathologies of "Islamic civilization." From
the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction to Oklahoma City in our own time,
our society has produced its own home-grown terrorists. Terrorism
springs from specific historical causes, not the innate qualities of one
or another civilization.
The study of history should transcend boundaries rather than reinforce
or reproduce them. In the wake of September 11, it is all the more
imperative that the history we teach be a candid appraisal of our own
society's strengths and weaknesses, not simply an exercise in
self-celebration--a conversation with the entire world, not a complacent
dialogue with ourselves.
The streets of lower Manhattan are deserted--also spotlessly clean and
glowing in the light of the golden hour--when the studio head takes the
movie director outside to tell him he's washed up. Those were great
dreams he had in New York in the old days, with Cassavetes, but they're
over. How it must wound the director to hear these words in Hollywood, on a mere back-lot
simulacrum of New York--and from his own ex-wife! How it must shame him
to hear the name of Cassavetes! Although the director claims to be the
last American auteur, who is being fired because he won't compromise,
we've seen some of the picture he was shooting, and it looks less like
Cassavetes than a feature-length ad for "Dysfunction" by Calvin Klein.
But Hollywood holds out hope even for a moviemaker who's so pretentious
that he spells his first name "Viktor." The director receives a genie in
a bottle--or, in this case, a wonderful computer program on a hard
drive. This gift puts into his hands a virtual actress, or synthespian,
who can be molded exactly as he wishes and secretly inserted into his
not-quite-finished movie. The computer program is known as Simulation
One; the virtual actress, as Simone. When the picture is released, it
will be Simone, not Viktor, who wins the public's unconditional
love--after which it's only a matter of time before he's struggling to
shove the genie back into its bottle.
"Our ability to manufacture fraud," muses the director, "now exceeds our
ability to detect it." These words will do to sum up a theme that has
emerged in the work of Andrew Niccol, who wrote and directed
Simone. He first made a name for himself as the screenwriter of
The Truman Show, in which Jim Carrey unwittingly resided on a TV
soundstage the size of an entire village. Niccol next wrote and directed
Gattaca, a futuristic fantasy about a world where you have to be
physically perfect, or else. Now comes Simone, a story about the
public's adoration for an actress who is too good to be true, and isn't.
"Simone has the voice of the young Lauren Bacall, the body of Sophia
Loren and the face of Audrey Hepburn crossed with an angel," raves one
critic about the new star. "Almost right," the director mutters.
You will observe that Simone is not a fraudulent contest winner, phony
political reformer or bogus war hero (to mention only three of the
impostors who populate Preston Sturges's movies, and so define the great
tradition of American screen comedy). Simone is a mirage of femininity,
projected by a man who can make her into just what he wants a woman to
be. Conversely, when Viktor turns against her, he can make Simone into
his image of everything he finds horrifying in a woman. Since the
director is simultaneously trying to win back his ex-wife (Catherine
Keener, in another of her hard-as-peanut-brittle roles), we can judge
how well his fantasies match reality.
It would be enough for me if Simone played out these ideas
consistently and well. But it does even more--because Viktor is
portrayed by Al Pacino. If you've seen him as the suffering detective in
Insomnia, you've had a recent reminder of how overbearing he can
be. Part of the pleasure of Simone is to see him give pretty much
the same baggy-eyed performance as Viktor, yet make the character come
out funny. Who better than Pacino to take on the role of a director,
railing against those self-regarding actors who think they're more
important than the movie? And who better to be transformed into a
porcelain-skinned blonde? Simone "acts" by mirroring her director's
gestures and speech--which means she's a Victoria's Secret version of
Pacino, right down to the hands spreading apart as if they were pulling
I confess there were moments when I merely chuckled at Simone, or
smiled, or checked my wristwatch (during the meandering third act).
There were also moments--two of them--when I laughed till I wept. I
think that's reason enough to recommend Simone for a holiday
weekend's viewing--that, and the delight of discovering there's still a
moviemaker in America who can toss up three ideas and keep them all in
American moviemakers (including those who, like Niccol, come from New
Zealand) get a hard time from Jean-Luc Godard in his most recent
feature, In Praise of Love (Éloge de l'amour). By
now, one particular sequence in that film has become notorious. A
certain Steven Spielberg wants to buy the life stories of an elderly
couple who were active in the French Resistance in World War II. The
couple's granddaughter bitterly denounces the project; but she is
silenced by Spielberg's negotiator, who comes not from DreamWorks but
the US State Department.
Although I don't want to overprotect Spielberg--he's probably capable of
defending himself--I admit I squirmed at this burlesque. But that was
just on first viewing. The second time through, having got my bearings
(which is no easy matter), I still disliked the too-facile choice of
target but could see it as something more than the product of old
Jean-Luc's crankiness. I now think it's part of a dense, thrumming
network of ideas, which concern resistance both with and without the
Resistance against what, you might ask. Godard shows you some possible
answers and lets you sound out a few others. Here are homeless people
sleeping in the rain, in the world's most beautiful city. (The larger
portion of In Praise of Love, filmed in black and white, brings
Godard back to Paris as a location, for the first time in many years.)
Here are silent, shuffling workers, cleaning railroad coaches late at
night; here is a grim, spray-painted underpass, in one of the workers'
suburbs. And here, too, is a report about the recent massacres in
Kosovo, in case you forgot that mass murder still happens at your
doorstep. Let us agree there is something in the world worth resisting,
and something within ourselves, too--call it slackness, indecision,
indifference, a failure to create ourselves as adults. Resistance is
necessary; and resistance is impossible, the voices on the soundtrack
say, without memory and universalism.
I would suggest that "Spielberg" is the name Godard gives to a false
universalism: the omnipresent culture of Hollywood, which unites people
by offering them all the same fantasies about movie stars. What might
constitute a genuine universalism? Godard's protagonist, a would-be
artist named Edgar (Bruno Putzulu), takes a stab at an answer when he
launches a project about love: its cycle of meeting, passion, rupture
and reunion; its different manifestations in youth, adulthood and old
age. An impossible project, for Edgar anyway. A perfect specimen of the
European mope--a descendant, you might say, of the screenwriter
character from Contempt--he's so weighted with historical memory
that he can't finish anything, let alone mount a resistance to
Spielbergism; so conscious of his cultural birthright that he can't love
the forceful Berthe (Cécile Camp) but can only pursue her and
then push her away.
This leaves Godard himself to love and remember and resist, in the best
way he knows how: by making something ravishing. In Praise of
Love is an achingly beautiful picture, both in its initial filmed
section and in the later portion that was shot on video, with vibrating,
Fauvist colors. (The video section seems to take us into Edgar's memory,
where he has just met Berthe, where an orange sea crashes onto chocolate
rocks.) Every image is incisive; every cut to a fresh shot, musically
timed; every musical fragment, eloquent; every spoken line, evocative of
some new picture.
Still, I can understand why some people resist the autumnal beauty of
In Praise of Love. Its sense of melancholy can become oppressive.
(There are four suicides in the story, not counting the death of Simone
Weil.) The protagonist is insufferable (and is meant to be so, I think);
and the proliferation of allusions can make you feel like the slowest
student in Professor Godard's seminar room. As has usually been the case
in his later films, the characters speak almost entirely in quotations,
while hanging around settings that are themselves in need of footnotes.
Were Godard still interested in actors, you would at least have a strong
performance to help carry you through the quiz; but he hasn't cast
anyone with a personality since he put Depardieu into Hélas
pour moi. To Godard, people are now just elements in the
sound-and-image mix. He's the sole actor.
And, of course, he is a brilliant actor. In Praise of Love may be
a kind of directorial soliloquy about loss and failure--including
cinema's failure to put up an adequate alternative to Hollywood--but
it's performed with such deftness and vigor that it can make the heart
Short Takes: In Satin Rouge, first-time feature director
Raja Amari gives us the tale of Lilia, a respectable widow in Tunis who
finds happiness through belly dancing. To get a hint of Amari's deadpan
methods, and of the magnificence of Hiam Abbass's performance as Lilia,
you need look no further than the opening shot. A 360-degree pan reveals
the details of a humble apartment, which is being briskly cleaned by a
handsome woman on the verge of middle age. Lilia dusts the mirror,
checks the surface to make sure it's clean and then belatedly notices
herself in the glass. As she does so, she begins to move to the music on
the radio. She unpins her hair, letting it flow over the shoulders of
her housedress; she dances; and then, just as simply as she'd begun, she
pins the hair up again and cleans her way out of the room. A woman
capable of such interludes might end up just about anywhere, to the
astonishment of both her daughter and the audience in the movie theater.
Lilia may well astonish you, too.
You may recall Liz Garbus as co-director of a fine documentary titled
The Farm: Angola, USA. She's back now with a new picture, The
Execution of Wanda Jean, which was made for HBO but will have a
well-deserved theatrical run, starting September 6 in New York. The
picture follows convicted murderer Wanda Jean Allen, her family, her
defense team and her victim's family over the final weeks of Wanda
Jean's life: from the preparations for her clemency hearing, to her
execution in January 2001, to her funeral. Garbus worked wonders in
winning the confidence of her subjects (as she also did in The
Farm); and to her great credit, she chose to follow a genuinely
thorny case. On the one hand, prejudice seems to have played a role in
Wanda Jean's getting the death penalty: She was an African-American
woman accused of having killed her lover, Gloria Leathers. On the other
hand, Wanda Jean had previously done time for manslaughter, and she shot
Gloria outside an Oklahoma City police station. Those of us who oppose
the death penalty need to be able to look at cases like this, take a
deep breath and then say, "Even so." The Execution of Wanda Jean
is a tough movie, and a valuable one.
It's only August, but I'll go out on a limb and congratulate the
Village Voice's Keith Harris for what I feel confident will stand
the test of time as the stupidest comment of the year. "Because his
vision of rock and roll is so grand, Springsteen requires a popular
consensus as surely as any invasion of Iraq. And as we've learned yet
again, nothing sparks phony consensus like national cataclysm. Maybe
that's why, for the past few days, a nagging thought has burrowed into
my brain that I wish was merely the snide aphorism I initially took it
for: If there hadn't been a September 11, Bruce Springsteen would have
had to invent one."
Like an Ann Coulter bestseller or a Rush Limbaugh radio rant, Harris's
review is idiotic but instructive. Aside from its self-evident (and
self-incriminating) silliness, what galls about the comment is its
willful forfeiture of the common cultural ground upon which Bruce
Springsteen plies his trade. Does 9/11 belong only to George Bush and
Donald Rumsfeld? Is American popular culture the exclusive preserve of
Spielberg, Bruckheimer and Britney?
While managing to keep both feet planted in the mainstream, Springsteen
has done more than any American artist to give voice to the American
"other" that pop culture would prefer to forget: the humiliated Vietnam
veteran, the fired factory worker, the hunted illegal immigrant, the
death-row inmate, the homeless person living beneath the bridge and
Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant, accidentally murdered by
forty-one shots from New York's finest. With his 1994 AIDS ballad
"Streets of Philadelphia," Springsteen became the first heterosexual
rock star ever to sing in the voice of a homosexual man, in a work
that--as Ann Powers, who was then writing brilliant music criticism in,
uh, the Village Voice, observed--succeeded in crossing "the
barriers of class, race, and gender."
Springsteen is vulnerable to criticism on any number of grounds,
artistic and commercial, but his willingness to offer solace in troubled
times strikes me as pretty low on that list. Springsteen was literally
stopped in his car after 9/11 by someone who cried out, "We need you."
Monmouth County, where he lives, lost 158 people in the towers. He
played a couple of local benefits. He read, repeatedly, about the
meaning of his work to his fans in the New York Times's
"Portraits of Grief." He called a few widows, shared their stories and
made a record. It's what he does. "I have a sense of what my service to
my audience is going to be," he explains. "It's the true nature of work
in the sense that you're filling a place. And that place comes with its
blessings and its responsibilities." So sue him.
It is a separate question as to whether one thinks the art that emanated
from this impulse is wholly successful. With regard to The
Rising, I can argue the point either way. But to take issue with the
very idea that art can be a balm to those in pain--or, as Springsteen
puts it, "music is medicine"--is cynicism itself. And to the degree that
this is at all representative of leftist attitudes, it speaks for an
impotent and self-defeating left: too smug and self-satisfied to engage
the culture of the common people, preferring instead to smirk on the
Granting both its sincerity and its (inconsistent) genius, The
Rising does nevertheless raise some complicated questions about art,
politics and commerce. One has to go back to 1984--to Springsteen's own
Born in the U.S.A.--to find a rock record that was marketed as
energetically to mainstream America. After decades of relative
reclusiveness, Springsteen is suddenly everywhere in the mass media:
taking over the Today show in Asbury Park, on David Letterman two
nights in a row, ditto Ted Koppel, on MTV, Saturday Night Live,
simultaneous covers of Time and Rolling Stone; long
interviews with the New York Times, the LA Times and
USA Today. I half expected him to duet with Elmo or Big Bird over
breakfast. It should surprise no one that the record entered the charts
at No. 1 in eleven countries.
The problem arises--just as it did with Born in the U.S.A.--when
the work's cultural signification overwhelms its artistic essence; what
Nietzsche, in Twilight of the Idols, termed "the thing itself."
The dilemma for anyone who seeks to use popular culture to communicate a
message at odds with its market-driven heart of darkness is: who's using
whom? Did Springsteen accidentally empower Reaganism back in the
mid-1980s as he simultaneously denounced it? Is he somehow cheapening
the individual tragedies of which he writes and sings by performing
these haunting melodies at the ungodly hour of 8:30 am in the happy-talk
context of a Today show beach party?
Matt Lauer asked Springsteen whether he feared being accused of
exploiting the tragedy of 9/11, and Springsteen told him to listen to
the music and make up his own mind. The same might be said of his
willingness to embrace (and exploit) America's mighty mass-marketing
The answer has to be a personal one. In Asbury Park, I did some random
interviewing of people who had traveled many hours, and waited on
overnight lines, in the hope of seeing Springsteen perform four songs in
the Convention Hall for the Today broadcast. I spoke to a
firefighter who had gone into the burning buildings, a 16-year-old girl
who was repaying her mom for waiting ten hours on line to get 'NSync
tickets, a woman with her 5-year-old son, who, back in '85, enlisted her
entire family in a weeklong wait for tickets. Nobody mentioned Matt or
Katie. Nobody mentioned the marketing campaign. Nobody even complained
about the all-night wait and the uncertainty that they would be allowed
inside the hall. They were there for Bruce because Bruce was there for
them. In the midst of what Springsteen accurately terms "a theater of
humiliation on TV and on the radio, a reflection of self-loathing," they
had created a community around something better. This was their
(Don't forget, while those Nation folks are on vacation,
How did it all start? What triggered the 1990s political corruption, its
inequality in wealth and its stock market bubble? This is the decade
that Kevin Phillips rails against in his historical epic of how the rich
get richer and the poor get further in debt.
Arguably it all started in Silicon Valley, with a little help from the
Department of Defense (which pioneered the epochal
breakthroughs--transistor and Internet--that sparked the electronics
revolution). Given the government's basic research, such private
companies as Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Apple, Intel and Cisco
generated creative, profitable products using new technologies. As the
intellectual property of these well-managed companies began to rise,
their stock prices began to rise, as did those of their suppliers,
buyers, competitors, financial consultants, management analysts, lawyers
and accountants. Even the stock prices of companies unrelated to high
tech began to soar.
The frenzy struck executive salaries. Top-notch high-tech managers made
a lot of money because their pay was tied to stock options. As their
company's stock price skyrocketed, so did their salaries. Soon other
corporate leaders--good, bad and indifferent--tied their own salaries to
the price of their company's stock. The financial markets regarded stock
options as a way to make managers more "efficient" using the litmus test
of stock-price performance. In practice, some managers cooked the books
and inflated stock prices by making risky short-term investments and
acquisitions. Long-term investments in new plant, equipment, research
and intellectual property, necessary for permanent jobs, became an
As Phillips shows, the greed of corporate America was such that in the
1960s, the pay of corporate CEOs was "only" about twenty-five times that
of hourly production workers. In the 1970s, the ratio was around thirty
to one. It rose from ninety-three times in 1988 to 419 times in 1999.
Between 1990 and 1998, the wages of ordinary workers barely kept pace
with inflation or grew at single-digit rates. Meanwhile, top executives
of America's biggest corporations enjoyed compensation increases of 481
percent! (Appalled by the eye-popping numbers on executive pay, Paul
Krugman referred to Wealth and Democracy in one of his columns in
the New York Times.)
With so much money sloshing around, contributions by business to
politicians increased. With more campaign funding, deregulation resumed
where Reagan left off, and upper-bracket tax rates mellowed. Phillips
shows that the effective federal tax rate (income and FICA, or Social
Security and Medicare) for the top 1 percent of families fell from 69
percent in 1970 to about 40 percent in 1993, with plenty of loopholes
remaining. Over the same period, the tax rate for the median family
increased from 16 percent to 25 percent. Between 1950 and 2000,
corporate taxes as a percentage of total tax receipts fell from 27
percent to 10 percent while FICA (mostly paid by the middle class)
jumped from 7 percent to 31 percent.
Regulation was critically lax in the accounting industry's scandals, as
we now know. Phillips's book predates news of this disgrace, but he
anticipates most of what happened. Deal by deal, the Big Five all began
to relax established auditing norms; otherwise they would have lost big
customers to one another. When chairman Arthur Levitt Jr. of the
Securities and Exchange Commission proposed to investigate, the Big Five
went to Washington. The SEC was called off the job; the Clinton
Administration caved in. As for the telecommunications sector, now
bleeding billions from overcapacity, its relations with the government
were similar to those of the railroads in the robber-baron age. In the
late nineteenth century, railroad tycoons were given free access to land
worth millions of dollars; in the 1990s, the telecommunications industry
was given publicly owned electromagnetic spectrum worth billions of
dollars. Phillips shows that, among the top thirty billionaires reported
by Forbes for 2001, eight were in high-tech electronics,
including software, and eight were in media.
So, starting with Silicon Valley, one can tell a story about the 1990s
that may be flat-footed but that at least moves from cause to effect in
a linear fashion. This, however, is not the story that Kevin Phillips
chooses to tell. Or maybe it is, but his writing style is so roving,
rambling and roundabout that it is difficult to find a coherent story
anywhere, although the parts are sure to be found somewhere, and are
often juicy. He aims a shotgun rather than a rifle at the fin de
siècle's cast of cruddy characters.
Phillips doesn't start in Silicon Valley because, at heart, he is an
antitechnologist. For Phillips, technology merely makes mischief. "From
early textile machinery to the Internet," he writes, the early stages of
major innovations have generated rising social and economic inequality
almost as a matter of course." (But how about the millions of jobs
created in textiles and the Internet at a slightly later stage?)
Elsewhere he states: "We can likewise doubt that technology has
outweighed representative government, effective markets, and
English-speaking freedoms in achieving the economic leadership of
Britain and then the United States." Really? Phillips's dismissal of
technology as a major factor in the economic hegemony of first England
and then the United States is strange because he shows contempt for the
alternative explanation--an obsessive love of market forces and
laissez-faire. Technology is bad in Phillips's view simply because it
breeds speculation. There are no heroes.
Notwithstanding Phillips's chaotic style and his neglect of the real
economic forces that govern wealth accumulation and distribution (such
as technology), he does a big service for his readers by providing them
with bytes of information on wealth inequality and democracy's warts.
Phillips, historically a card-carrying Republican, regards his
reformist, liberal politics as nothing strange. It follows in the
footsteps of great past Republican reformers like Lincoln and Theodore
Roosevelt. Phillips considers Franklin D. Roosevelt one of the team
because--his affiliation to the Democratic Party notwithstanding--he was
rich but a reformer of radical scope (responding, one might add, not
necessarily to his conscience but to social unrest). For most
Republicans, Phillips has nothing kind to say. "The Democrats," he
writes, "were the more important incubators of the Internet mania, but
the underpinning economic spirit was the market-deifying,
tax-cutting, and assets-aggrandizing conservatism given its head in the
eighties. This part of the framework was more Republican."
The Republican pedigree lets Phillips get away with murder. He rants and
raves in a way that someone on the left would be skewered for. The
result, however, is welcome. It is satisfying to read an analysis of the
US economy from the standpoint of greed and conservative morality.
The history lessons Phillips administers range from Aristotle to the
Gilded Age of the 1920s, which he contrasts with Gilded Age II of the
1990s. He examines Holland's tulip mania and its economic decline as a
world power, comparing its fall with that of Britain and possibly the
United States. In one table, culled from the Wall Street Journal,
he lists the wealthiest people of the past 1,000 years, starting with
Al-Mansur (938-1002), the Moorish regent of Cordoba, who got rich through plunder,
moving to Kublai Khan, ruler of China (1215-94), who got rich from
inheritance and confiscation, and ending with Bill Gates (1955-), the US
software executive, who got rich on stock ownership in Microsoft.
Other facts and figures are no less interesting, and some of Phillips's
charts are ingenious. To show the "giantizing" of wealth enjoyed by the
richest person in the realm, Phillips compares the largest fortune at
the time to that of the median family or household. In 1790, the ratio
of the richest man's wealth, Elias Derby, to the median was 4,000 to 1.
By 1868, the ratio of Cornelius Vanderbilt's wealth (in railroads) to
the median was 80,000 to 1. For John D. Rockefeller in 1912, the ratio
was 1,250,000 to 1 (in 1940, it fell to 850,000 to 1). In 1962, the
ratio for Jean Paul Getty was 138,000 to 1. For Sam Walton in 1992, it
was 185,000 to 1. For Bill Gates in 1999, it was the blockbuster,
1,416,000 to 1! Presumably, the ratio increased over time as the United
States moved from an agrarian economy to one based on modern
transportation (railroads), natural resource exploitation (copper, oil)
and then manufacturing, where new product innovations could flourish.
Compared with other wealthy countries, inequality in the United States
is extreme. In the 1990s, the income ratio in Japan of the top fifth of
households to the bottom fifth was only 4.3 to 1. (A similar ratio
exists in Korea and Taiwan, which, like Japan, had a land reform after
World War II.) European social democracies tended to have ratios of 6 or
7 to 1 (5.8 in Germany). The US ratio was 11 to 1 or higher, depending
on the source. Presumably this reflected the United States' cowboy
capitalism, its rich raw materials, its pioneering technologies and its
corporations' ability to mass-produce for a vast domestic market.
Wealth (which Phillips never defines) is essentially the difference
between inflows and outflows of income, which is savings in the case of
households and profits in the case of firms. Once wealth is attained,
its holder has to figure out what to do with it. Thus, the financial
services industry usually expands as wealth expands. In the 1990s the
finance, insurance and real estate sector (FIRE) overtook manufacturing
in US national income, "enabled by a dozen federal rescues and
preferences, begun in the eighties and consummated in the nineties." The
thirty richest individuals in 2001 also included eight in finance,
investments and real estate--including Warren Buffett, George Soros and
Ross Perot. As finance grows, Phillips argues, the likelihood of a
technobubble grows exponentially.
What does it all mean, the rising inequality and "financialization" of
Business as usual, insofar as Gilded Age II is merely a catch-up with
Gilded Age I. Between 1922 and 1997, the share of total wealth of the
top 1 percent of households spiked in 1929 at 44.2 percent, tumbled to
33.3 percent in 1933, reached a nadir of 19.9 percent in 1976 (as
profits plunged with the energy crisis) and hit 40.1 percent in 1997
(the estimates are from Edward Wolff). As the stock market boomed in
1997-2000, the wealth of the richest rose further, but atomized with the
crash of 2000, into the present. Wealth inequality appears to be wired
into the American system.
Relative increases in the wealth of the rich, moreover, are often
compatible with increases in real wages and productivity. The average
family's real income increased 30 percent between 1960 and 1968 as the
ranks of millionaires swelled. Then came the era of stagflation.
According to the Council of Economic Advisers, average hourly earnings,
adjusted for consumer prices, fell by 0.5 percent a year from 1978 to
1995. They then rose at a piddling 2 percent a year from 1995 to 2000,
in tandem with rising productivity and the "irrational exuberance" of
the stock market. Thus, wealth inequality does not preclude modest
increases in income for other social classes.
Yet, inequality matters, depending on the use to which wealth is put.
And that in turn depends on the economic and social profile of the
accumulating classes. Kevin Phillips, however, is not keen on "class
analysis." "'Class warfare'...is a false description," he writes, "a
perverse conservative borrowing from Karl Marx," because the United
States has had rich reformers and poor Republicans.
Still, one doesn't have to emulate Karl Marx in the Grundrisse to
emphasize that the new American class of rich is different from the
railroad barons or the oil money of old. For one, it is extremely well
educated. Between 1975 and 1998, the mean annual earnings of US workers
with less than four years of high school fell steadily. Those of high
school graduates stagnated. Those of college graduates rose slightly.
Those of people with advanced degrees soared, particularly after 1990,
when the demand for economists, lawyers, accountants and MBAs heated up
(as noted by Edward Wolff).
Investments of the new superrich, therefore, are likely to gravitate
toward new technologies in manufacturing and services, and fancy
finance. With high educational attainments, the new elite may be
expected to command a lot of money and social legitimacy, which the old
tycoons never quite managed. A mere college education is no longer a
guarantee of upward mobility, as Washington policy-makers still believe.
For most ordinary people without a college degree or fancy MBA, the new
rich have created a tougher world. Horatio Alger now goes to graduate
The second defining characteristic of the new rich is their
internationalism. They hire, produce and market globally, and have
mobilized bipartisan political support for operating overseas.
That all started with strong competition from Japan in the 1980s.
Technologically behind the United States, Japan had more government
interventions to help business grow (as did Korea, Taiwan, China, India,
etc.). The United States regarded this as unfair, and shoved a "level
playing field" down everyone's throat--backward and advanced countries
have to be equal with open markets, free of government's foul play.
The financial services sector, with large-scale economies, benefited
enormously from Washington's dismantling of developing countries'
barriers to foreign banking and regulations of inflows and outflows of
"hot," destabilizing money. Deregulation was soon followed by the Asian
financial crisis of 1997. The Treasury still publishes a book each year
documenting on a country-by-country basis the remaining obstacles abroad
to American financial institutions. The pharmaceuticals industry
benefited from the extension of patent enforcement to developing
countries notwithstanding their need for cheap medicines. The software
industry pressed for protection of intellectual property.
Strangely, Phillips hardly talks about globalization at all. But from
stray sentences we can assume he doesn't like it, especially its effect
on domestic jobs. Yet lobbying in Washington for protection of jobs that
can be provided more efficiently in lower-wage countries is little
different in principle from lobbying for tax breaks and deregulation for
the rich. They are both a form of political corruption.
Phillips ends his 470-page book with a tepid recommendation, given the
preceding fire and brimstone. It is to end the "democratic deficit,"
which puts power in the hands of unelected organizations--the judiciary,
the Federal Reserve and the WTO. But Washington has a large say in the
WTO, controls the World Bank and has a loud voice in the International
Monetary Fund. For American business, that deficit is small.
Is, therefore, American foreign economic policy likely to give the new
class of rich the global stability it desperately requires? No, if Kevin
Phillips is right and inequality does matter. Internationally, economic
inequality among countries has grown like Topsy. As industrialization
spread unevenly, the ratio in per capita income of the richest to the
poorest regions of the world rose from about 3 to 1 in 1820, to 5 to 1
in 1870, to 9 to 1 in 1913, to 15 to 1 in 1950. Then, as East Asia grew,
the ratio fell in 1972 to 13 to 1, but rose steeply to 19 to 1 in 1998,
the age of hardball globalism (data are from Angus Maddison, The
World Economy). Global distribution of income and wealth is becoming
as important to the American rich as domestic distribution, and both are
Phillips doesn't consider any of this, but that's fine. He makes a real
contribution by showing how American politics works, what really goes on
behind the fortunes.
Yech! What a scene!
Mary McCarthy would have turned 90 on June 21, a fact that is itself astonishing to those who remember her flagrant youth, when her sharp style made her the most feared and forthright writer in New York.
I am writing this review in the midst of a Chicago heat wave, almost
exactly seven years after the heat disaster that killed nearly 800
people in the city. The Chicago Tribune's multicolored weather
page adorns the forecast with a special "excessive heat watch"
symbol--an exclamation point lodged in a red circle--newscasters
earnestly tell us to stay inside and take it easy, and veteran black
radio deejay Herb Kent, the Kool Gent, chats on-air about liquor and
caffeinated drinks being dehydrating and the need to drink lots of "good
I remember the 1995 disaster well, but for me personally it was a period
of intensive work on my last book, cooped up indoors 24/7, with roaring
air-conditioning, punctuated by horrified reading of the
Tribune's coverage of rolling city power outages and the growing
spectacle of hundreds of heat-related deaths, with the bodies piling up
and overwhelming the city morgue's capacity. Suspicious of the
Tribune because of its long history of rightist and racist
slants, I scrutinized the stories to see if the city was, as usual,
shortchanging its black South and West sides on services, but couldn't
figure anything out. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg, a young Chicago
native, was out of the country during the disaster, but has since then
more than made up for lost time. His Heat Wave is a trenchant,
multilayered and well-written social autopsy of the disaster.
Since finishing Heat Wave, I've been obsessively asking friends,
neighbors, students and colleagues if they were in town in July 1995,
and if so, what they remember. Most of my middle-class interlocutors
were as insulated as I was, in cooled rooms, and only vaguely remember
the period because of media coverage. But many younger people, who were
then living on student or first-job budgets, told tales of extreme
misery and multiple palliative strategies--double bills at
air-conditioned theaters, plunging into Lake Michigan every possible
nonworking hour, bunking with better-off friends and relatives, long
drives in cars with AC and, of course, all the old tricks with cold
water, towels and fans. One conservative young woman described her
sudden comprehension, lying sweaty and wretched in her sweltering apartment, listening to neighbors' AC compressors turning on, of the ressentiment and violence of some inner-city dwellers.
In fact, Klinenberg explains, aside from some vigilante actions against
city workers sent to reseal the 3,000 open fire hydrants liberated by
kids, poor Chicagoans were far too enervated by the hot, wet blanket
enveloping the city to commit mayhem. The real criminals of the heat
crisis, Klinenberg makes clear, were the federal, state and local
officials who, in the words of Robert Scates, the bitter black
thirty-year veteran emergency medical services director, committed
"murder by public policy."
But first we need to come to terms with the epidemiological realities of
heat crises. Extreme heat, Klinenberg explains, tends not to be taken as
seriously as other weather and human disasters--hurricanes, floods,
earthquakes, blizzards, plane crashes. But "more people die in heat
waves than in all other extreme events combined," and the '95
crisis has "no equal in the record of US heat disasters." Because the
body's defenses "can take only about forty-eight hours of uninterrupted
exposure to such heat before they break down," Klinenberg observes, area
ambulance services and emergency rooms were soon overwhelmed, and at the
height of the catastrophe, half of Chicago's hospitals went on bypass
status--turned all new patients away. Most Chicagoans saw the grisly
televised scenes of emergency workers falling prostrate with heatstroke,
of police cars backed up clear around the block, waiting to deliver
cadavers to nine forty-eight-foot refrigerated trucks donated by a local
meatpacking firm when the morgue ran entirely out of body-storage space,
and heard and read about the record-breaking murderousness of the
disaster. But Klinenberg notes that only months after the catastrophe,
Chicagoans reacted to his queries with "detachment and disavowal." Not
only did they, and the press whose interpretations they were reflecting,
wish to relegate the disaster to a nonhappening but many, following
Mayor Richard Daley's lead, asserted that the death figures weren't
"really real," that "the massive mortality figures...had somehow been
fabricated, or that the deaths were simply not related to the heat."
Klinenberg took on the task of explicating what's "really real" with
extraordinary energy. He burrowed into public health and press
documents, did street-level fieldwork and police ride-alongs in poor
neighborhoods, interviewed every possible city, state and private agency
official, and many low-level service workers, and thoroughly engaged
local journalists on their hour-by-hour decision-making on the framing
and coverage of the breaking story. In domain after domain, across
institutions, he smashes home his key finding: "The geography of
vulnerability during the heat wave was hauntingly similar to the
everyday ecology of inequality." Heat disasters in general resonate less
with the general public because, unlike other sorts of disasters, they
leave property untouched and mostly affect the poor, the frail, the
nonwhite--whoever can't afford air-conditioning! The Chicago dead were
indeed largely the isolated, elderly and disproportionately black poor,
and the city rapidly turned its back on them.
But the everyday ecology of inequality is not a timeless phenomenon, and
Chicago is not Everycity. By the mid-1990s, the US economy had recovered
from the Reagan-Bush recession, the market was booming, urban street
crime was dropping and American media were hyping an urban renaissance.
Mayor Daley capitalized on these national trends with an ambitious
program of urban beautification and a massive public relations campaign,
suburbanites moved back downtown and tourism revived dramatically.
(Klinenberg doesn't mention the role of the 1990s spike in international
migration to Chicago, which brought much-needed quality and variety to
local restaurant fare, added exotic cuteness to tourist attractions and
provided a vast underpaid labor force for booming restaurants, hotels
and offices.) During the heat wave, the Daley administration was
particularly engaged in "gloss[ing] its image in preparation for the
Democratic National Convention of 1996"--felt as a crucial task, given
the debacle of the 1968 DNC event, when Daley's father was mayor, with
its globally reproduced images of Chicago's finest beating the shit out
of middle-class white kids and not a few journalists and Democratic
politicians. So it comes as little surprise that Daley viewed the heat
wave deaths primarily as "a potential public relations disaster," and
Chicago-watchers will not be too surprised to read that the city
administration both actively hindered appropriate relief efforts and put
most of its energy into an attempt to "spin its way out of the crisis."
God is in the details, though, and Klinenberg painstakingly lays out for
us both the structural and more proximate policies that led to the
disastrous Chicago mortality figures of July 1995. Most crucial is the
rise of neoliberalism, which Klinenberg rather oddly denominates
"reinvented government" and "the entrepreneurial state," in a narrow
sociological tradition, rather than connecting to abundant available
radical analyses of the phenomenon worldwide. No matter, he names the
key shifts: the state's growing divestment of social service
responsibilities; the outsourcing and simultaneous downsizing of the
remaining functions; the overarching capitalist managerial model of
lean, mean efficiency; and the new model of citizens as "active
consumers" of public goods, and too damned bad if they lack the
knowledge, capacity or energy to do so.
In the case of the heat wave, the crucial noxious brew involved
neoliberal policies with regard to low-cost housing, consumer energy use
and social service personnel. Since Reagan, the federal government has
been cutting back support for low-cost housing, and the public housing
crisis in Chicago was so acute that local activists were unwilling to
draw attention to the many code violations in single room occupancy
(SRO) hotel units--more than 18,000 rooms had been lost already--for
fear that they would "only embolden the political officials and real
estate developers who would prefer to convert the units into market-rate
family housing." As a result, many frail elderly people literally cooked
to death in illegal multiply subdivided "cattle sheds for human beings."
As well, the traditional down-on-its-luck SRO population had been
swollen since the 1970s with the mentally ill dumped onto urban housing
markets with the closure of government-operated asylums. Fragile
community connections were severed as SRO residents, afraid of the
"crazy folk," retreated from common spaces into their tiny rooms, making
it ever more likely that those sinking with heatstroke would fail to be
discovered until it was too late. In public housing, the Chicago Housing
Authority provided no air-conditioning even in common rooms, and in a
perverse interpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the CHA
dumped youthful drug addicts, without rehab services, into
well-established senior housing all over the city. Crime in the projects
predictably skyrocketed, the collective caretaking bonds the residents
had built atrophied as the elderly retreated in terror into their
individual units; many lives were lost as a result.
Air-conditioning may be part of the overarching environmental crisis,
but it is a godsend in extreme heat, and for better or worse,
working-class and better-off Americans have organized their lives around
it in all parts of the country affected by high summer temperatures.
Inability to afford winter heating, much less summer air-conditioning,
is part of what Klinenberg labels the "everyday energy crisis" of the
poor. A 50 percent cutback in the federal low-income energy-assistance
program, combined with soaring utility rates, pinched the city of
Chicago so badly that it still closes down aid each year at the
beginning of the cold season, and provides no AC subsidies at all. The
poor elderly with whom Klinenberg visited were so fearful of excessive
energy bills that they even avoided using electric lights during the
day. In an extraordinary illustration of neoliberal cruelty, as the heat
wave deaths were still being counted, the US Senate initiated a vote to
end the energy program but settled on skimming off a mere hundred
million dollars. In the same session, Congress vastly expanded federal
support to insurance companies and homeowners who suffer property damage
due to disasters. The final fillip is the new "market model" utility
policy that punishes delinquent customers, even the desperately ill, by
cutting off not only electricity but water. Klinenberg notes
sardonically that this policy is simply not parallel to the money-making
efficiency of the car boot: "Water, unlike a car, is a resource that
people need to survive."
Chicago's specific demographic and spatial history greatly magnified the
final domain--social services--of murder by public policy. Klinenberg
demonstrates that the city, much to my surprise, has significantly
higher percentages than the American average both of single residents in
general and of elderly living alone. Of course, as he notes, living
alone and being without resources are two distinct states. But Chicago
lost 1 million people between 1950 and 1990, and for the elderly poor,
"aging in place" in neighborhoods devastated first by capital and then
by massive population flight--and then colonized by kids working in the
only industry left, drugs--is a recipe for dangerous isolation. Add
state cutbacks and outsourcing, and you have private agencies on
insanely low budgets sending outrageously overworked service providers
out to elderly poor clients no more than once a year--and even then, in
fear of the druggies, confining their visits to the early mornings.
North Lawndale is one such "bombed out" neighborhood, and Klinenberg's
star turn is a rigorous ethnographic and historical comparison of that
Southwest Side area with the contiguous Little Village. Both
neighborhoods were founded by Southeastern European immigrants and then
tipped minority in the postwar years, and both have similar poverty
levels and percentages of poor elderly--but North Lawndale had ten times
more heat wave deaths, proportionately, than its southern neighbor.
Scholars, politicians, social service people and even residents
themselves offered up "racial" explanations, as North Lawndale is black
while Little Village is Mexican: Latinos are used to hot weather, they
have close intergenerational families, they form tight communities, etc.
Klinenberg demolishes all these folk theories with hard facts and
careful logic (and not a little sarcasm--black Chicagoans with roots in
the Delta don't have close families and aren't used to hot weather?) and
forces us to consider variations in urban spatial ecology and their
consequences for city-dwellers' daily lives. After all, three Chicago
neighborhoods with the lowest per capita heat-wave death rates were
majority-black--but not "bombed out."
The key difference is human density. Little Village is both an
entrepôt for the vast Latino migration to Chicago and a safe haven
for Latinos gentrified out of other neighborhoods. As one resident said
of the neighborhood, "there is no such thing as an empty lot." High
populations maintain abundant local business, which in turn guarantees
lively street life and thus a safe and interesting public environment in
which the elderly can shop, exercise--and cool down in air-conditioned
stores during a heat wave. Even the "aging in place" whites left over
from Little Village's earlier incarnation fared well in the crisis.
Certainly Little Villagers have strong community bonds, especially
through the Catholic Church, but North Lawndale residents are organized
to a fare-thee-well too. Their church groups and block clubs, though,
simply cannot make up for abandoned buildings, empty lots and few
Klinenberg deals diligently but less successfully with three other
domains key to his story. He nails the Daley administration's
culpability in an hour-by-hour account of the unfolding disaster and
discusses the highly publicized failed snow removal that doomed the
1970s Bilandic administration, but he neglects to mention
African-American Harold Washington's brief but significant interim
mayoralty of the 1980s. Washington, after all, gained both national fame
and notoriety for trying to equalize city resources across rich and poor
neighborhoods, and that profoundly race-inflected inequality is the
fulcrum of Heat Wave's criticism of current city government. Some
of Klinenberg's heroes of the crisis, public health activist Quentin
Young and Sid Bild of Metro Seniors in Action, are actually white
veterans of the old Washington coalition. And we never really hear about
the Daley/developer deals that have stripped the city of affordable
housing, which are well documented in radical scholarship and
journalism. Similarly, Klinenberg does wonders with the sordid story of
the firefighter/paramedic feud--one reason for the city's belated response to the crisis--but doesn't really clue us in that racism is at the root of that
one too. Finally, he gives us terrific reporter's-eye insight into the
bureaucratic realities that determined the false coverage of the
breaking crisis at the Chicago Tribune, but never informs us of
the Trib's history of rightist ownership, the structures above
the heads of the city editors.
Klinenberg documents the local media's chastened post-'95
hyperresponsibility to advise the public on individual tactics to
mitigate heat danger, and lists the specific ongoing political
structures that will inevitably lead to more murder by public policy.
But he never quite adds these elements up to their sum total--the heat
disaster as an altogether predictable product of neoliberal capitalist
shift. Heat Wave connects the dots to tell us an important new
muckraking story but doesn't fully recognize the radical urban and
national political economy narrative already on the page.
Like life itself, good movies sometimes change the subject on you in
midparagraph. You think you're watching the story of an elderly man in
mourning, buoying himself up against grief and then realize he's started
to worry about younger women, who have such a distressing preference for
younger men. Or you settle down to enjoy a satire about the movie business, only to figure out that most of its characters, though peculiar to Los Angeles,
have little or nothing to do with filmmaking.
As you probably know by now, the not-quite-Hollywood story emerges in
Full Frontal, written by Coleman Hough and directed by Steven
Soderbergh. The elderly man's predicament is the subject of I'm Going
Home, written and directed by Manoel de Oliveira. It's not just the
coincidence of an August release that prompts me to put these films
together. Although one is a high-art meditation by a nonagenarian
Portuguese master, the other a sketchlike quickie by a pop-drenched
American, both films express a fascination with playacting: its evasions
and distortions, as well as its unforeseeable matchups with reality.
Despite the difference in provenance, the two pictures also tell us
something about the working conditions of today's more interesting
More on that later. Right now, I want to rush Michel Piccoli onto the
scene, so I can tell you how he first appears in I'm Going Home:
doddering at death's threshold and having the time of his life at it.
I'm Going Home casts Piccoli as Gilbert, a celebrated French
actor, who in the opening sequence is onstage in a production of
Ionesco's Exit the King--a role that calls for him to stumble
about in a cloak that looks like some kid's security blanket, thrown
over a grayish pair of thermal underwear. The figure he cuts is ancient,
palsied, pathetic; but when he turns his back to the audience to deliver
the play's final tirade, Gilbert chews and sucks and spits out his
words, roars and rasps and bellows and croons with the self-confidence
of a great actor working at full power. Without needing to show his
face, without even moving, Gilbert dominates his world.
Controlling it is another matter. While this opening sequence plays
out--Oliveira has the nerve to prolong it for an astonishing fifteen
minutes--three agents of mortality come calling for Gilbert. "I can't
hear you. Your words scare me," he protests from the stage, when the
dark messengers peep into the theater. At that, they withdraw; but they
don't retreat. Taking up positions in the wings, they wait to pronounce
their doom, while Gilbert, as king, seems to hold them off with a whine:
"I never had time." But once the applause sounds, he can no longer evade
the news; and so these fates in their business suits tell him that his
family has died in a car accident--wife, daughter and son-in-law, all at
once. Despite the close attention the camera has been paying to Gilbert,
we don't see him receive this blow. Oliveira discreetly allows the
information to reach him when he's out of the frame. Then Gilbert
clatters down a staircase and is gone.
The sight of his back disappearing through the stage door may remind us:
We haven't seen Gilbert until now, only his version of the king. It
takes another minute until we get our first look at the man himself, out
of costume and makeup; and the close-up reveals what we'd expect:
someone with the head of a glum Humpty-Dumpty. As the next sequence
starts, Gilbert is discovered staring at nothing, with a slight frown.
Yet almost at once, with only a small shift in camera setup, he is
utterly transformed: We now see he's posed behind the window of a cafe,
where he smiles and chats when the waiter comes by.
Under the weight of loss, it seems, Gilbert means to keep up his
urbanity. The next section of I'm Going Home shows how he does
it. He strolls the Paris streets, buys handsome new shoes, signs his
autograph for excited young women, plays Prospero in The Tempest
(where he ignores the smile of a fellow cast member, another young
woman). Doesn't he need companionship, his manager wants to know.
Gilbert rejects the question, perhaps more angrily than is needed. He
has his grandson, he says. He's content.
This is hubris, of course; and Gilbert will pay for it by accepting a
part in a film version of Joyce's Ulysses--a French-American
co-production that is impeccably high-minded and already foundering. In
a staggering refusal to act his age, he signs on for the role of Buck
Mulligan. In English. With three days till shooting starts. At first,
Oliveira spares us the sight of the result, just as he turned the camera
elsewhere when the terrible news was announced. Gilbert is owed that
much kindness. But the audience is owed the truth; so then we see
Gilbert struggle with ribald young Buck, only to have grief settle on
him finally like the cloak of a tattered king, ancient, palsied and
This is the second time in recent years that Oliveira has used theater
people as his characters for a story about age and loss. He did it
before in Journey to the Beginning of the World, with Marcello
Mastroianni as his surrogate; but that picture was sweeter, more rustic
and elegiac. Although I'm Going Home has some sugar of its own,
spun out of its deliberately touristic views of Paris, it comes much
closer to heartbreak. This is, at last, a movie about the impossibility
of imagining your way out of old age. It's a theme that Piccoli acts
with great beauty and sorrow; one that Oliveira directs with the
exquisite sureness a filmmaker may attain in the eighth decade of his
Distributed by Milestone Film and Video, I'm Going Home is
beginning a US theatrical run at Film Forum in New York.
The people in Full Frontal live in Los Angeles, and so their idea
of irredeemable old age is 40. The plot's conceit is that a producer who
is facing that awful birthday has invited all the other characters to
his party. Some are currently shooting a movie for him; others are
hangers-on, who nevertheless have contributed something of their lives
to his production. Carl (David Hyde Pierce), a wretched employee of
Los Angeles magazine, banged out the movie's screenplay in his
spare time. Carl's energetically aggrieved wife, Lee (Catherine Keener),
is meanwhile banging the movie's male lead.
The story of Lee and Carl is told as if it were a documentary, shot on
digital video with voiceover narration. These scenes generally look a
bit crummier than they might have. When Soderbergh shoots a tryst in a
hotel room, first making the lovers' bodies into a pulsing kaleidoscope,
then snapping the image into focus with a brutally unadorned close-up of
Keener, you see how magical he can be with video. Most of the time,
though, he doesn't want magic. The "real people" in Full Frontal
tend to look decomposed, even ghostly, in the buzzing light; whereas the
"movie characters" (played by Julia Roberts and Blair Underwood) inhabit
a schlock-cinema world that's as persuasive as it is preposterous, since
it's shot in sparklingly clear 35-millimeter.
It's good fun to watch how reality warps as it crosses into movie--to
see, for example, how Blair Underwood first embodies everything that
threatens Carl, then turns into his heroic fantasy double. But this is
only the first layer of playacting in Full Frontal. Lee, who
works as a corporate personnel officer, uses her exit interviews as a
form of psychodrama (one in which somebody gets fired, but no one is
cured). Her sister Linda (Mary McCormack) goes around town under an
assumed name (she's a masseuse) and makes online dates using a chat-room
identity. The producer, it turns out, is about to stage a real-life
imposture; and everybody has a more than casual interest in porn.
Considering how many fabulations abound in Full Frontal, you will
perhaps forgive Soderbergh for not savaging the lies of the movie
business, as some critics have assumed he should have done. He seems to
feel that the urge to satirize Hollywood is itself in need of
satirizing; and so he has one of his characters liken a movie mogul to
Hitler, not just in passing but onstage, in a theater production, so you
can judge whether such comparisons might be, shall we say, overstated.
This subplot of Full Frontal yields the film's funniest moments
(Nicky Katt's improvisatory turn as the Bel-Air Führer
outproduces The Producers); but it also underscores a point. The
real producer in Full Frontal (David Duchovny) is almost a blank.
So, too, are the movie-star characters, who may be the least interesting
figures in the picture.
The thick, complicated people in Full Frontal are office workers
and a veterinarian and Lee and Carl, who perhaps read too much of
themselves into the pretty void of the movies. Lee might be the ultimate
Catherine Keener role; what other actress could turn an inflatable globe
into the tool of a dominatrix, and really enjoy it, and simultaneously
be alarmed by her own craziness? Pierce, meanwhile, takes the role of
Carl as a gift, savoring every one of the man's screwups and continually
finding the decency that underlies them. Pierce is playing someone who
is derided for drinking his beer out of a glass. When he later removes a
frosted mug from the refrigerator and considers whether to use it,
Pierce makes that decision into just enough of a victory to save his
For some of Soderbergh's moralizing critics, though, this is not enough.
They complain that the director of Ocean's Eleven is being
pretentious by working fast and cheap. Perhaps these same critics have
not yet forgiven Roberto Rossellini for defiling his art with Ingrid
Bergman--or is it Bergman they can't forgive, for having left Hollywood
for Rossellini? I'm perpetually amazed at the way some people really
want big-money movies to be trashy (perhaps so they can be safely
sneered at), while imagining that small-budget filmmakers have a duty to
remain pure, and inconsequential. In the actual film world, though,
Oliveira casts John Malkovich in I'm Going Home, and Soderbergh
adopts a few Dogme 95 rules (just the ones he likes) to make Full
Frontal. That doesn't mean that Oliveira is a sellout or Soderbergh
a poseur. It just means that film culture continues to exist on the
art-house level, where a certain internationalism flourishes. That's a
good thing for filmmakers who choose to keep their eyes and minds open,
and it's a good thing for us moviegoers.
Otherwise, we'd all have to go home.
Short Takes: Merchant of uplift M. Night Shyamalan gives us his
latest message from Beyond in Signs, the story of a
self-defrocked Pennsylvania minister and his strangely geometric crops.
It seems that God has killed the minister's wife, then dispatched to
Earth a plague of carnivorous extraterrestrials, who trample the fields
and make screen doors creak; but all is well in the end, since these
events move the minister to reaffirm his faith. Untold millions carried
off so that one can be saved? I'd say God's methods are
inefficient--which might be why Mel Gibson has to waste all his deadpan
humor on an ultimately lifeless starring role. In its story and methods
no less than its setting, Signs is nothing but corn.
Blood Work documents the latest stage in Clint Eastwood's aging,
in which he collapses while chasing the bad guy and undergoes
heart-transplant surgery, yet still remains Clint enough to smooch with
the raven-haired babe. The story in which he accomplishes these feats
follows classic whodunit rules, which means that the murderer must be in
plain view throughout. Unfortunately, the screenplay, by Brian
Helgeland, supplies only one possible suspect. Even people who move
their lips while reading will figure out the solution before Clint gets
to it; which is strange, because he doesn't seem to have wasted much
time directing the picture. The actors knock around loose in the frame,
line readings fall into silence and the mind drifts back to In the
Line of Fire, when Clint was feeling his age but hadn't yet checked
into intensive care.
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