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All contents © 2009
by Mark Jenkins,
unless otherwise noted.

Original design by Smallpark


OCT. 31, 2009

Capital (It Fails Us Now)

American Casino is smarter than Capitalism: A Love Story, but neither documentary follows the money far enough.

By Mark Jenkins

Also recently opened in D.C., a film I reviewed for NPR: ANTICHRIST.

LAST YEAR'S PARTIAL COLLAPSE of the Wall Street rackets was so monumental that even the notoriously ineffective American left should have been able to use it effect some reform. But "change" president Barack Obama merely re-upped members of the same team that made the mess, while Michael Moore's mostly clueless Capitalism: A Love Story uses the meltdown principally as an excuse to revisit his now hopelessly obsolete debut, Roger and Me. Writer-director Leslie Cockburn's American Casino is a much better film than Moore's, but suffers from a widespread documentary ailment: too much anecdote, not enough analysis.

The film's thesis is not startling. Well before the 2008 crash, it was clear that the U.S. mortgage industry had become untethered from reality. Only the people who were enjoying huge paydays, and the feckless regulators who let them, seemed unaware of what was happening. The movie's central revelation, that the country's "investment" banks were gambling rather than actually investing, is old news. That's been clear since the 1980s, the era of S&L collapses, leveraged buyouts, and other byproducts of Ronald Reagan's "voodoo economics."

American Casino — co-written by Andrew Cockburn, the director's husband — quickly introduces one of the architects of the disaster: former Texas senator (and John McCain economic adviser) Phil Gramm, who announces that the U.S. in 2008 is "a nation of whiners," suffering nothing more than substantial than "a mental recession." Gramm went underground soon after that brilliantly mistimed remark, and when he vanishes from American Casino, national economic policy isn't far behind. Bring on the anecdotes.

Much of the movie is set in Baltimore, where a series of striving middle-class African-Americans — including a high school teacher who teaches his students about "social justice" — testify to the pain of foreclosure and eviction. This emphasis on screwed-over Baltimore is apt, since lower-income minorities were targeted by predatory mortgage companies. Many of these victims have been demonized for taking out "liar loans," but in most cases it was the mortgage agents who did the lying.

The Cockburns find fresher material in the exurban orbit of San Francisco/Oakland, where they survey a Stockton tract development whose once-overpriced wannabe-mansions are almost all in foreclosure. Then it's down to exurban L.A., where untended backyards harbor rats and snakes, empty houses become meth labs and marijuana "grow homes," and abandoned pools swim with mosquito larvae. Another gift from Countrywide, Washington Mutual, and Wells Fargo: West Nile virus.

Capitalism: A Love Story covers some of this same material, albeit in a more flamboyant, more self-serving way. Michael Moore doesn't seem to really understand subprime mortgages, BBB tranches, credit default swaps, and the like — I mean, he seems to understand them even less than those of us who pay some attention to financial news — but seems to believe that they were somehow caused by the fact that GM doesn't make cars in Flint, Mich. anymore.

Capitalism focuses more directly than American Casino on the financial-political nexus, but not with any particular insight or honesty. Moore pretends that Reagan turned away from Jimmy Carter's policies, when often he continued them. ("Deregulation" began under Carter, and was enthusiastically advanced by Bill Clinton, another Southern Republicrat.) Weirdly, Moore's trashing of New York Fed Chairman Timothy Geithner never gets to the moment when Obama, one of the director's good guys, appoints Geithner as Treasury secretary. But then Moore is the kind of oversimplifier who thinks it's a big deal to get a couple of Catholic priests to call capitalism "evil" — and that postwar Japan got "economic rights" denied to Americans. (In fact, the long rule of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party makes the American Republicrat regime look liberal and democratic by comparison.)

While Moore wants "economic rights" like those of the more leftie Western European nations, the Cockburns don't offer any prescription. American Casino does have a point of view, which it discloses with a final array of statistics — $42,000 per taxpayer to bankroll the bailout of financial "experts"; over a million people lost their homes in 2009, and seven million more face eviction — and some clunky rap and funk songs about poverty and foreclosure. (At least Capitalism got Iggy Pop's anti-business rewrite of "Louie Louie," although Gang of Four's "Capital (It Fails Us Now)" would have been better.) Where Moore demands nicer capitalism — he likes coops and collectives, and who doesn't? — the Cockburns hint that they'd like better regulation.

That would help, of course. Establishing truly independent ratings agencies and requiring investment companies to actually hold a significant chunk of the deals they peddle might limit fraud, if not end it. But the documentary that needs to be made would go beyond regulations, "C.D.O.s squared," and sad old Alan Greenspan's admission that his adolescent faith in free markets had a "flaw." It would address why so many American crises — from foreclosures to global warming — involve housing.

The answer is not anybody's notion of a free market, but massive (if often indirect) subsidies to the housing industry. Criticizing the income-tax deduction for mortgage interest is like spitting out a mouthful of mom's apple pie, but that supposed boon has massively distorted the U.S. economy. Underwriting the "American dream" of home-ownership has encouraged sprawl and pollution, inflated the cost of housing, and destroyed farms and forests. (No true free-market economy would have produced the ludicrous Stockton corn-field subdivision that American Casino finds almost entirely repossessed.) And yet presidents and congressmen keep supporting this writeoff, much as they vote to keep propping up another business that's created more destruction than value: Moore's beloved American auto industry.

And, of course, subsidized businesses attract grifters. There's a reason why financing suburban subdivisions is as corrupt a trade as building major weapons systems: because both are awash in other people's money. They're hustles, so it shouldn't surprise that they're full of hustlers. The Cockburns may think they've discovered the American casino, but they've only located one room in a structure that reaches from sea to subsidized sea.

AMERICAN CASINO — 2009, 89 min; at American Film Institute Silver Theater.

CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY — 2009, 127 min; at Landmark E Street and Bethesda Row.