JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Films related to Too Big to Fail and The Big Short

"The only real choice at the next general election is between Conservative policies and soft socialist policies. And the only way to be sure of getting Conservative policies is to vote Conservative. To coin a phrase, 'There Is No Alternative.'"
—Margaret Thatcher, Daily Telegraph, April 1, 1997

Michael Moore’s Capitalism: a Love Story contain stories in the main movie and in the “extras” on the Blu-ray that challenge Margaret Thatcher’s famous TINA slogan by offering alternative solutions to the seemingly monolithic problems presented by global capitalism.

It’s a Wonderful Bank The Bank of North Dakota was founded in 1919 to save its farming community from serial gouging by predatory lenders. As if reenacting a scene from a Frank Capra movie, the bank declared a moratorium on debt during the Great Depression. Farmers were able to keep their homes and property and the bank was paid back in the 1940’s as the economy improved. More recently, financially capitalized with $4 billion, the bank was able to fund $500 million in state programs without taxing its citizens, and was virtually unaffected by the 2008 meltdown because they did not ‘invest’ in derivatives or buy subprime home loans.

“That’s Cooperation” sing the Sesame Street birds of a different feather Children learn early what adults forget quickly. An engineering company, and taxi service in Wisconsin, and a California bakery are three examples of worker cooperatives featured in Moore’s film. The workers in these democratically run companies are owners with equal shares in the companies. Salaries are dependent on job responsibilities but the pay ratios are more logical than to 200 to 300 times more CEOs currently make over their workers in many corporations. A factory worker at the Alvarado Street Bakery earns about $65,000 annually.

An Uber-difference –Unlike the app-driven Uber business model, the Union Cab drivers of Wisconsin own a share of the business and also have a say in how the company is run. Seniority pay increases incentivize drivers to hang around. “Twenty-one years in ”says one driver, “I’m making 50% commission. That’s unheard of in this industry.” Uber drivers may make up to 80% commission but are considered independent contractors who in addition to paying personal taxes, own 100% liability (fuel, depreciation, repairs, insurance) on their cars and have no support system, like the mechanics of Union Cab who are also owners. In addition, Uber drivers are also responsible for paying sales tax on their rides and can look forward to one day being replaced by robots. It’s no wonder that some think the multi-billion dollar company is a huge global scam that is paying drivers two dollars an hour in real terms.

While not exactly part of a political or economic philosophy, there have been a number of recent news stories about owners looking at income inequality and ways to share the wealth that their employees help to create.

Fermenting Generosity – Turkish immigrant, Hamdi Ulukay, the owner of Chobani Yogurt, gifted shares of the company to 2,000 full time employees. Chobani was
started in New York State in 2005 and is said to be valued in the billions of dollars. Employee payouts are based on seniority and range from $150,000 to over $1 million. The gift may also have had something to do with a dispute between Ulukay and TPG Capital, a private equity firm that provided a loan to Chobani.

Second Family – “I don’t think there’s anybody worthy to run this company but the people who built it,” said Bob Moore, who started an Oregon-based family run business in 1978 called Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods. Rejecting buyout offers, Moore used an Employee Stock Ownership Plan to transfer ownership of his company to its 209 employees, some of whom have been with him for thirty years.

The Price is Right – When Dan Price decided to raise the minimum wage for his 120 employees to $70,000 annually, he caused a storm of controversy within and beyond his Seattle-based credit card processing company, Gravity Payments. You can read the intricate economic domino effect the company policy had in this Inc. Magazine article.

Windows and Doors – When you can’t depend on the generosity of your boss, there’s always direct action. Around Christmas 2008 Republic Windows and Doors declared bankruptcy and, in violation of the WARN Act, told their employees that their health insurance was immediately terminated, and they would not receive the severance, sick, or vacation pay that they were due. After a six-day sit-down strike, the company’s creditor, Bank of America, having recently received $20 billion in TARP money, were embarrassed by bad press and a groundswell of community and national support into agreeing with all of the workers demands.

Films related to the Conclusion
A History of Fear and Loathing
“Communism is no longer a creeping threat to America. It is a racing doom that comes closer to our shore each day.” — Joseph McCarthy, June 2, 1950

Uncle Sam and the Bolesheviki (c., 1919) - The Ford Motor Company was the first major corporation to establish a film department. In addition to the production of a variety of civic-minded films with a charitable aim in mind, the film department also produced anti-union propaganda films like this 40-second animation made at the height of the first Red Scare. The animation is included in a collection of movies released by the National Film Preservation Foundation, called Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934.

Political Prisoner for President - In 1920, the last of Eugene Debs’ five bids for the president of the U.S. was run from a prison cell where the socialist candidate received about a million write-in votes. Debs served 20 months of a 10-year sentence for making a public speech in opposition to World War I. Charged with sedition in violation of the Espionage Act of 1917, his sentence began 5 months after the war ended.

Guilt by Association - In a scene from Modern Times (1936), Charlie Chaplin succinctly and humorously shows how the ‘marketplace of ideas’ can be a dangerous place to even window shop if the ideas expressed represent a threat to the status quo. Charlie tries to return the, presumably, red flag that has fallen off the back of a lumber truck just as a group of protesting workers turn a corner. With The Internationale playing on the soundtrack, Charlie, the innocent bystander, is taken for their leader and carted off to jail by the police.

Back in the USSR – Awkward and artificial, you can always sniff out blatant propaganda by its failure to even remotely hide its ulterior motive. Mission to Moscow (Curtiz, 1943) The North Star (Milestone, 1943), and Song of Russia (Benedek & Ratoff, 1944) are pro-Soviet films made in the U.S.A. when the U.S. was depending on “Uncle Joe” Stalin to defeat the Nazis. The first 30 minutes of The North Star - part musical, part war movie – is a particularly bizarre spectacle. Written by Lillian Hellman, the movie features an all-star cast of American actors speaking the way they imagine happy Russian peasants speak. Singing jubilant songs with music & lyrics written by Aaron Copland & Ira Gershwin, Three Penny Opera, it’s not. The idyllic musical presentation of a Ukraine village at the beginning of the movie is there to make the upcoming Nazi atrocities all the more horrific.

“Can you hear me now?” asked Ayn Rand [left], after moving closer to the microphones. The Soviet émigré, author and objectivist philosopher was called to testify as an expert witness on Soviet propaganda before the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). HUAC scrutinized the three films above for evidence of communist infiltration into Hollywood productions. Robert Taylor who played the male lead in Song of Russia, identified Howard Da Silva as someone who “always had something to say at the wrong time,” and suggested that he, Taylor, was coerced into making the movie. Later backing away from that assertion, he admitted that no one can “force you to make any picture.”

The Reds Under the Bed (the second Red Scare) – When World War II ended, so did the love fest with the Soviet Union and a new Cold War sub-genre was born that shared stylistic and thematic similarities with film noir. Movies like I Married a Communist [aka The Woman on Pier 13](Stevenson, 1949), I Was a Communist for the FBI (Douglas, 1951) and My Son John (McCarey, 1952) are as nasty as the pro-Soviet films are sugar sweet. Each of these films has an interesting backstory and was instrumental in creating a pervasive atmosphere of fear and mistrust on film sets, in movie theaters and eventually in much of mainstream America.

Communism as a MacGuffin – One instructive backstory involves the making of The Whip Hand (Menzies, 1951). Upon completion of the movie, Howard Hughes, the owner of RKO at the time and as virulent an anticommunist as he was an obsessive-compulsive germophobe, demanded that sections of the film be reshot to replace a story involving a Nazi conspiracy with that of a story involving a communist conspiracy. Both The Whip Hand and I Married a Communist, also made by Hughes, did poorly at the box office as did many of RKO’s movies under his supervision. Hughes eventually sold the company that he purchased in 1948 to General Tire and Rubber Company in 1955.

I Am Spartacus! -  In this famous, often satirized scene from Spartacus (Kubrick, 1960), Roman slaves all claim to be Spartacus thereby protecting the real Spartacus by refusing to identify him (name names). Based on a novel by the blacklisted writer Howard Fast, with a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, also blacklisted, the release of the film marked the unofficial end of McCarthyism but not the Cold War. Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, had been using a variety of pseudonyms and fronts since 1950. His actual name re-appeared in the credits of Spartacus and Exodus (Preminger) also released in 1960.

Conspiracy Theories – Sen. Joseph McCarthy [left] was famous for waving a piece of paper that claimed to contain the names of over 200 State Department employees that were known communists. By the early 1960s the wreckage wrought by McCarthyism was explored if not exploited in popular entertainment. A notably example being the Cold War thriller, The Manchurian Candidate (Frankenheimer, 1962) in which James Gregory [right] plays a U.S. Senator who also waves a paper claiming the same. In the movie however, the Gregory character is part of the conspiracy he is pretending to uncover.

Reunion – By the 1970s, Cold War thrillers morphed from paranoid fantasies into reflections on the personal trauma caused by McCarthyism. In Martin Ritt’s 1976 comedy-drama The Front, Woody Allen plays a restaurant cashier and bookie who ‘fronts’ a number of blacklisted writers for fame, fortune, love, and eventually on principle. The movie features the participation of many formerly blacklisted artists including director Ritt, actors Zero Mostel [right, sitting next to Allen], Herschel Bernardi, and Lloyd Gough, as well as the film’s writer, 96-year-old Brooklyn-born Walter Bernstein, writer of dozens of popular movies and TV shows.

“I’m a Communist,” says the Martin Scorsese character unapologetically. In Guilty by Suspicion (Winkler, 1991), Scorsese plays a 1950s director who is dodging a subpoena and has his bags packed and ready to leave the country never to return. Explaining “it’s not my country anymore,” his exit is suggestive of the flight Weimar Republic filmmakers took in 1933.

In retrospect, Scorsese’s role as a politically persecuted filmmaker in Guilty by Suspicion has an ironic twist to it ...

... given the flak he later received because of his support for director Elia Kazan, who named names when called before HUAC. Scorsese presented Kazan with a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award in 1999 to a clearly divided audience. He also co-wrote and co-directed a documentary about Kazan for PBS’s American Masters series.

In addition, Scorsese also received criticism for The Aviator (2008) that was perceived by some as a “mendacious film” that “glorifies the odious Howard Hughes.” But as I’ve suggested elsewhere, Scorsese is more interested in the interior life of the sinner then he is in the sins.

Moviola – The Scorsese character’s name in Guilty by Suspicion is Joe Lesser, but the image on the Moviola that he and the De Niro character watch is from the opening scene of the Joseph Losey movie The Boy with the Green Hair (1948). Howard Hughes asked Losey if he’d like to direct I Married a Communist. Losey declined. The Hughes offer turned out to be a litmus test that Losey failed. Between HUAC and Hughes, Losey, like Lesser, decided that leaving the country was his best option.

The Other – Written by (surprise!) two blacklisted writers and directed by Losey, Pat O’Brien and Dean Stockwell, the boy with the green hair, must grapple with the implications of being different.

Art and Life – Popular entertainment continues to mine the second Red Scare for its inherent drama as well as its ability to raise cautionary tales about groupthink that springs from fear and loathing, as in the films Good Night, and Good Luck (Clooney, 2005), and more recently Trumbo (Roach, 2015) staring Bryan Cranston [inset] as convict #85297.

The Other Other – Green hair, skin color, religion, gender, age - we’ll never run out of identifying those things, big and small, that define us by our differences. To paraphrase Joseph McCarthy, there will always be a creeping threat or a racing doom inching to our shores. And you can be sure that there will always be someone there to flex a muscle and remind us of the threat, with slogans and the promise of borders, walls and violence.