Sunday, October 26, 2014

Accountants in the Movies: the Next Big Thing

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2005)

Today I come out of the closet and make to you this confession – I am not the man I seem to be. Well, I already have to correct myself, for I have no idea how these weekly columns make me seem. I’ve never received any marriage proposals from it, to cite just one possible benchmark. But anyway, the point is that the column doesn’t actually take me a week to write, and doesn’t finance the life to which I’ve become accustomed. Or even the life to which my dog has become accustomed. So I work in the securities industry. And as if that wasn’t already enough of a blow to my credibility, I’m an accountant – I have a CA. I hasten to add that my job doesn’t actually involve much accounting; I’ve evolved beyond that. But nevertheless, by my admitting this much, the damage is done. And I only ask that if you’re already thinking my modest credibility is gone, and that this is the end of the relationship, then remember it’s all for the homeless.

You Can Do Better

Some people in the office know I write these columns and they know about my interest in movies generally, so I regularly get asked for questions and opinions. I don’t really like it – the conversations usually pivot on pretty low-grade films, and I’d rather keep the two worlds separate anyway. A couple of years ago someone suggested it might be good to have an article in our in-house newsletter about movies that carry a message about accounting and securities oversight, and this was handed on to me. I had no enthusiasm for the task at all, and sent back a deliberately lame two-line email saying: “I guess there are some movies about financial shenanigans that could be stretched into a broader message of sorts. They include Trading Places, Rollover ...more generally things like Midnight Run and The Untouchables.”

I got a response saying: “Come on Jack - you're a fringe film critic --I know you can do better than this -- Wasn't Too Beautiful for You with Gerard Depardieu about insider trading -- or was that another French movie of about the same vintage about a man and his secretary?  How about Diary of a Young Stock Broker with that guy who always played stockbrokers as dweebs? How about Born Yesterday --corporate governance?  How about Face in the Crowd - ok it's really about the corrupt confluence of business and politics, but it's one of the best movies ever made.”

This was already way too much time than I wanted to spend on the subject, so I ignored it and fortunately it went away. But recently I wrote an extended article on Rollover (see the current issue of CineAction) and in the course of that was thinking a little more about cinema’s avoidance of financial matters. And then I received an issue of a magazine called The Bottom Line, an accounting journal. It’s pretty dry stuff even for accountants, but I guess they’re jazzing it up because it contained a supplement called The Accounting Life, with a cover promising (and I am not making this up): “Interior Design, Casual Clothing, Cool Gadgets, Accounting Stars, Health, Etiquette, Wine.” (Somehow they forgot the great sex). And inside I found nirvana – a two-page article on accountants in the cinema.

Spectrum of Human Experience

Mark Wolfe wrote it, and did a great job on it. He points out that whereas every second movie seems to prominently feature an attorney in one way or another, the accountant seems like a more shadowy presence (along with most of the other “normal” jobs that people have). But, he says, “I was surprised at the range of films that took advantage of characters portraying accountants…What I have found is that accountants roles represent the broad spectrum of human experience. They are mob bookkeepers, con-artists, insane schemers, devious murderers, crooks, mild-mannered lovers, shy intellectuals, average Joes – and excessive geeks.”

Man, that really is the broad spectrum of human experience. Sadly, the spectrum seems to become particularly packed at the more depressing end. Wolfe’s article singles out 24 movies, from which I offer the following extracts: “duplicitous accountant” (The Main Event), “bumbling adulterer and accountant” (Hannah and her Sisters), “scheming accountants” (Small Time Crooks), “nutty accountant” (The Producers), “inept accountant” (Rocky V), “perfidious accountant” (The Addams Family). Oh, and “accountant…who is left to frequent a strip club” (Exotica).

In a number of others, the accountant is barely a character in the film at all, but merely a tool or device. This covers the accountant in Gloria “who gets whacked at the beginning of the film,” the accountant in Confidence on whom Edward Burns pulls a fast one, thus pulling in the accountant’s boss Dustin Hoffman, and most poignantly, from The Road To Perdition, a “poor, timid soul…inadvertently killed by a stray bullet during a gunfight in a hotel room.”

That leaves ten or so in which the accountant is a notable player and in which his profession as an accountant is at least somewhat significant to the shaping of his character. I would say his or her, but the only female in the bunch is Jennifer Connelly in The Hot Spot (who knew? – this by the way substantially misrepresents the profession, which is fast moving toward equality). Among the highlights – Charles Martin Smith in The Untouchables, Ben Kingsley in Schindler’s List, Charles Grodin in Midnight Run and in Dave. And perhaps preeminently, Johnny Depp in Dead Man, the rare accountant whose calling leads him into somewhere resonant and mystical (Depp also played an accountant in Nick Of Time, thus establishing himself perhaps as the unacknowledged cinematic standard bearer for the profession).

True Essence of Accounting

For completeness, other movies cited are The Apartment (although at the risk of sounding elitist, the Jack Lemmon character was not so much a true accountant but an “accounting clerk”). Bowfinger, Ghostbusters, The Royal Tenenbaums, D.O.A., Heaven Can Wait. Which is not a bad list overall. And at least it yielded one Oscar winner (Michael Caine in Hannah).

But since I’ve now dragged myself out of the closet, I guess I can’t make myself sound any geekier if I admit that none of these get at the true essence of being an accountant, which (at least the way I like to think I do it) is much more creative, strategic and varied than those outside the profession realize. And none of them get at the role accountants play in maintaining our capital markets, in safeguarding our economic destinies. There are so many great untold accounting stories out there.

But I’m not going to be the one telling them...

Saturday, October 18, 2014

February movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2007)

The German film The Lives of Others, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, won the Best Foreign Film Oscar this year, and is a most worthy entry in Germany’s continuing dissection of its taxing past century. In 1984 East Germany (five years before the demise of the Wall and then the country) a stiff-necked Stasi (secret police) officer is given a surveillance assignment, to uncover the suspected subversive activities of a notable playwright and his girlfriend, an esteemed actress. The officer has little personal life or inspiration beyond occasionally hiring a whore, and he is strangely moved by the interaction of his two subjects. At the same time, he becomes attuned to the moral and ethical corruption of the system within which he’s spent his life, including the basically sordid motives behind the investigation. Eventually his spying starts to bear fruit, but instead of taking this back to his superiors, he fabricates bland reports. The complications that follow make for a fascinating narrative, loaded with significant moral and political weight.

The Lives of Others

The film depicts a ruling system that’s totally lost its ideological bearings, serving only to crush or warp everyone within it. At the start the playwright appears relatively content, subject to being allowed some minimum room for personal expression and some basic human tolerance; it’s only the excesses of the state, particularly in hounding a colleague of his to suicide, that radicalizes him. Likewise, the officer’s unquestioning loyalty starts to erode only when his superiors flaunt their pragmatism too blatantly. But the film is also I think about the power of art in a totalitarian state, for it’s clear that the officer – initially a strenuous Philistine – becomes infatuated with his subjects’ ability to connect, and comes to perceive his actions partly as his own aesthetic creation, played out with real lives and consequences instead of on a stage.

The Lives of Others is a film of drab grays, communicating the failure of the Socialist promise in every miserable frame. The trajectory of the officer, particularly as we follow the next ten years of his life in the film’s epilogue, has an almost Chaplin-like pathos to it at times. The film is too much an artistic creation to be completely convincing I think – there’s a considerable compression of events, and at times Henckel von Donnersmarck’s masterly control comes at the cost of a sense of spontaneity (although as I said, that’s part of the point). But these aren’t particularly significant caveats. Some people have said it’s the best film about surveillance since The Conversation, and although that may be true, I barely thought about that aspect of it at the time, perhaps because the bugging and snooping is so clearly a mere symptom of a society where all claim of meaningful self-determination has long been extinguished. As for the Oscar stakes, I think Pan’s Labyrinth would have been the better winner, for the greater breadth of its vision, but The Lives of Others is certainly one of the more deserving victors of the last twenty years.

Hannibal Rising

Hannibal Rising is the fourth film about the charismatically intellectual cannibal introduced in Manhunter and catapulted into legend by The Silence of the Lambs, this time going way back to his formative years in WW2 Lithuania. Hannibal is a nice little boy, living in the bosom of his family, and very protective of his little sister, which sets him up for psychological turmoil when he witnesses her being eaten by a bunch of scuzzy militia (led by my old schoolmate Rhys Ifans). Hannibal grows up in an orphanage, eventually hooking up with his aunt by marriage, played by Gong Li, weirdly out of place in such tacky material, but no less fascinating for that. He goes to medical school and then of course embarks on the quest to track the scumbags down one by one, along the way becoming more depraved at every turn.

As others have pointed out, there’s something very wrongheaded about trying to devise a quasi-respectable, psychologically motivated background for a character who so inherently epitomizes high-end pulp fiction, and the film’s painterly aspects just compound this nonsense. The movie’s biggest act of cannibalism is in taking director Peter Webber, so promising at the helm of Girl with a Pearl Earring, and corralling him into this; it’s well enough put together, and surprisingly (pointlessly) restrained at times, but never has zero potential of transcending extreme wretchedness. Hannibal is played by Gaspard Ulliel, who’s allowed to embarrass himself with shallow, grimacing work.

Factory Girl

Factory Girl is another visit to the (apparently) endlessly fascinating milieu of Andy Warhol and the Factory, this one focusing on Edie Sedgwick who was his golden girl for a few years before they drifted apart, precipitating her decline into drugs and premature death. Sienna Miller plays Edie, and she’s quite good on the downslide, but never conveys what made Edie seem quite so special in the first place. This is largely the fault of a vague, rushed narrative that lacks much period flavour, depth or continuity. Try to imagine how such a movie might look – the big close-ups of Edie talking to the camera (via her therapist), the highs of activity captured in snappy musical montages, the traumatic drugged-out scenes, the embarrassing public flame-outs, it’s all here, exactly as you’re visualizing it right now.

Guy Pearce plays Warhol, and he’s pretty good, but the film doesn’t seem interested in more than the same old Warhol mannerisms and affectations (maybe it’s because I saw the very good David Cronenberg-curated exhibition at the AGO last year that this all seemed particularly shallow and pointless). And then Hayden Christensen plays a version of Bob Dylan, which is just an utter waste of celluloid. As directed by George Hickenlooper, the film feels pretty pleased with itself, but I can’t think of one good reason to see it.

The Russian film The Italian belongs comfortably in the long tradition of films that depict childhood innocence and resourcefulness in strained or violent circumstances. The setting here is a miserable modern-day orphanage, from which the prize children are sold off to wealthy foreign couples; one boy is designated for Italy, but instead becomes preoccupied with finding his birth mother, and takes off on an unlikely quest. The film is a sobering depiction of a coarse, often violent environment, in many ways on the verge of breakdown, although the focus on the boy prevents it from getting too heavy. The happy ending is unconvincing but not grating in the circumstances, because the underlying point seems to be about the need to transcend these sad truths, and to do that within Russia’s own confines rather than through soul destroying transactions with the rest of the world.

Friday, October 10, 2014

My movie

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2004)

An obvious question came up again the other day: why wouldn’t my interest in cinema translate into a desire to make my own movies? Over the years I’ve sometimes thought of buying a camera; at least once I came this close to doing it. This was in the pre-DV days when one would have needed a projector, a constant supply of film, and God knows what else. As an aside, it’s rather beguiling how stories of shoestring filmmaking - for example Mario van Peebles’ recent Baadaaaaas – emphasize the simple challenge of obtaining enough film (the celluloid itself) to make the movie. Maybe I’m idealizing it, but it seems to me that such sensitivity for the scarcity of the basic raw material couldn’t help but inspire better work. That may be my ascetic side talking though.

Anyway, I’ve never taken the step, for a combination of reasons. Basically, I haven’t felt a compelling need to do it. There’s nothing inherently problematic about being happy as a committed spectator/commentator, unless you get neurotic about the “those who can’t do, teach” thing. There’s not much appeal to dabbling with home movies, and I don’t see myself hustling around raising money to make my breakthrough masterpiece, so what’s the point?

Mechanics of Filmmaking

An even greater problem might be the fear – it could even be a conviction – that I wouldn’t be any good at it. I completely believe whoever it was that said that making a bad film is just about the hardest thing you could ever imagine, and that making a good one is just a bit harder. I always feel a little guilty – truly I do – when I throw out lofty criticisms (say, like calling De-Lovely’s Irwin Winkler a “chronically inadequate director” the other week); that’s how easily Billy Wilder’s “Close but no cigar” line becomes something like “Close, so here’s a kick in the ass.” But as Michael Cimino said, somewhere in the middle of running up a record budget overage on Heaven’s Gate, if you don’t get it right what’s the point? Anyway, I’m not the most meticulous or patient of craftsmen, so there’s no particular reason to think I’d have any natural talent in this area.

Yet another problem – I actually think that if I had the mechanics of filmmaking too much in mind, even as an amateur, it would detract from my enjoyment of watching movies. This is how it works for me with writing fiction – because I also have occasional ambitions in that area, I have almost no desire to read anyone else’s (unless, oddly, it’s in French, where that problem doesn’t apply). I can envisage myself dwelling too much on how this or that wasn’t quite right. I do that now in the normal course of movie watching, but the observations come and go more loosely than they might if I kept analogizing to my own amateur efforts.

In this regard, I think of Martin Scorsese’s documentary on Italian cinema (I haven’t seen his Personal Journey through American Cinema), containing wonderful commentaries on ten or fifteen films in particular. I recently rewatched Luchino Visconti’s Senso – a film that occupied no particular place in my mind – in the light of Scorsese’s observations, and found it utterly transformed. Scorsese is also famous for incorporating references to a myriad of films into his own work, apparently without diluting his own sensibility – but then he’s Martin Scorsese. I’m not sure I could as easily switch between practitioner and connoisseur.

More on Before Sunset

Despite all that, I’m currently thinking more than I have for a while about taking the plunge. Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset, which I wrote about last week as a near-exemplar of a certain kind of cinematic purity, may have been a key contributor to this mindset. Linklater’s film is mostly just two people talking, but for much of the time it makes you wonder why you’d ever want anything else from a movie – and described in terms of the raw elements, it’s something that anyone could do. Of course, it’s also true that in terms of the raw elements, anyone could sit down and write a novel to rival Philip Roth.

But because Linklater’s film is so deceptively simple, it focuses you on the mechanics of the filmmaking process in a way that more ostensibly complex productions might not. At one point, we see Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy from the front, walking along, and a runner comes up behind them. Hawke glances over his shoulder as the runner approaches. Then there’s a cut so that the camera’s now behind them, and we see the runner come by and run off ahead. It seemed to me that the timing was a little off; that he took too long to appear in the second shot, given his apparent proximity in the first. I’m sure they considered it painstakingly, so it might just be me, and it was only a matter of milliseconds, but it took me outside the film for a while.

But this only served to make me reflect on how seldom that happens, and I actually appreciated the fact that the illusion, the immersion that pulls you dreamily along, had been temporarily suspended; all the better to weigh the miracle of it occurring at all. Watching Before Sunset, I thought on occasion of directors like Ozu and Bresson and Dreyer – directors who happily forego some of cinema’s flashier possibilities, because they realize that those possibilities are merely ones of cinema, not of life. Once my mind goes there, I can’t think of anything more thrilling than engaging with that process for myself. Just on the most basic level of organizing shots, of experimenting with montage and juxtapositions, it seems irresistible,

Short Films

Of course, I’d be better off starting off with short films, rather than trying to launch into a Pickpocket or Ordet. I’ve been watching a lot of short films this year on DVD – Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, and a collection of Roman Polanski’s early student works. I’ve written about the Brakhage films here before – they’re brilliant, but not the project I have in mind (they’re also, even more clearly than many other works, specifically products of film, not of digital technology). Deren’s allusive Meshes of the Afternoon suggests some directions, but maybe that territory’s been fully occupied already. Polanski’s films are astonishingly accomplished, already recognizable as his own. In all these cases, the works’ brevity facilitates an appreciation of their great craft. The possible directions are endless.

And then there’s the possibility of documentary, or of essay films like Chris Marker. The very fact that I can consider all these possibilities probably tells you a lot about where this is likely to go – unfocused dabbling, collapsing in inertia. But even more than the road to hell, the road to bad cinema is surely paved with good intentions.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Serious stories

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2009)
I didn’t like the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men even half as much as the consensus view. The Coens’ assurance showed in choice after choice no other director would make, but much of the film seemed to me either sleazy or affected. After which I wrote here: “I’ve been in this place with the Coens before. I’ve seen all the movies, but I’m not sure I’ve seen any of them more than once (maybe Fargo, but I don’t think the repeat investment paid off) and I’m straining to cite one truly interesting or provocative thing I ever learned from any of them. I guess maybe I learned a bit about how people talk in Minnesota, so that’s something.”

Burn after Reading

That’s what I wrote last time, and it’s true enough, but maybe I should be a little more temperate and underline the fact that I’ve seen all the movies; I’m sure that to have skipped any of them would have seemed like a dereliction of a cinemaniac’s duty. Their work has a creative zest that puts most other directors to shame, and given their productivity and variety, they surely know how lucky they are (even if they only grudgingly acknowledge it in Oscar acceptance speeches). But I always feel distanced from their films, as you might from someone who has the fullest social calendar around, but goes home to a bare and lonely apartment. Maybe I’m just getting older, but I find myself more appreciative of the hedgehog directors who really know what they know, even if that’s a smaller and much more repetitive knowledge, and even if you strain to vaguely evoke what it actually consists of (I find I especially appreciate them if they’re French). The Coens are the kings of the strutting foxes, masters at stealing chickens, but when are they at peace?

Anyway, their subsequent film, Burn after Reading, was inherently less ambitious than No Country for Old Men, but I actually liked it quite a bit more, as an increasingly intriguing statement on degraded human standards and self-worth, with Washington – perhaps the least clear-headed micro-society in the developed world (see also the recent In the Loop) – providing a coldly resonant setting. The Coens pepper it with subtleties you don’t expect from their lighter projects: for example, it’s frequently unclear whether a particular shot represents someone’s actual point of view, a subtlety that supports a broad theme of surveillance and chronic insecurity, wrapped up by the way the movie tells us rather than shows us how everything ends, and disclaims any knowledge of what lessons we should learn from it. By being both peppy and meaningful, the film only seemed to underline my doubts at its predecessor’s portentousness.

A Serious Man

Their new release, A Serious Man, is perhaps the year’s most divisive (leaving aside Transformers 2, where the divide existed between the critics on one side and the mass public on the other). Ella Taylor in The Village Voice says “the visual impact of all these warty, unappetizing Jews (even the movie's obligatory anti-Semite looks handsome by comparison) carries (the film) into the realm of the truly vicious...I worry…about what ancient anxieties lie behind the endorsement of a movie that dumps on Jews and Judaism with such ferocity.” Armond White in The New York Press, apparently in direct response, says any “critic’s suggestion that a film as lovingly, emotionally precise as A Serious Man typifies Jewish self-hatred is ridiculous.” He says the film “(embraces) ethnic superstition and (critiques) it simultaneously,” finding it “so sharp-witted that every irony makes life vivid rather than despairing.” Picking up on this, Jim Emerson on the Scanners website calls the film “a relentless inquiry into how we think we know what we think we know, and then asks where the knowing (or not knowing) gets us.”

It’s the tale of Gopnik, a mid-western suburban math professor in the late 60’s, Jewish (I guess you got that already), up for tenure, with perhaps no more than conventional anxieties. This rapidly unwinds – his wife leaves him for another man, his finances unravel, his professional ambitions become questionable, and even minor plagues (like the man at the mail-order record company, constantly calling to demand payment for a service   Gopnik didn’t order and doesn’t want) suggest some cosmic turn of fortune. The community’s elders offer little help: one rabbi offers platitudes; the second refuses to see meaning in anything, even his own proffered anecdote about a man with “Help me save me” engraved on the inside of his teeth; the third won’t see him; his lawyer just racks up the bills. The ending may be a confirmation of Gopnik’s fears, or a mockery of them, or may of course mean nothing at all. The latter seems most likely to me, in that the movie seems to mock – albeit not as unkindly as some might have perceived – the very notion of grand institutionalized meaning. Although its focus is on the Jewish community, it’s also a cousin to Mad Men and other examinations of misplaced post-war notions of progress and conformity.

Night Wind

The movie is full of incidental pleasures, not least of all from the acting, and yet when I came out of it, the word that came to my mind was “cartoonish”. Again, every scene’s busy plucking feathers. The previous day, as a random comparison, I’d watched Philippe Garrel’s Night Wind, a sparse drama with only around 1/20th the action of A Serious Man and about 1/10th of the dialogue, yet with a persistent sense of existential dread. At the end of it, my thoughts were racing; I felt I’d picked up something truly new and provocative and instructive. I don’t recall whether anyone in the film ever mentions God, but it’s as if the world only had a limited supply of human viability and too many walking shells, and everyone casts around trying to make it reconcile, through sex or drugs or intellectualism or immersion in one’s strenuously iconic despair. The student movement of 1968 – a key defining moment for Garrel – is a constant reference point, perhaps as the last best hope of a meaningful rebooting. It’s an aesthetic creation of course, but beautiful and profound in its desolation.

In large part it’s because Garrel’s lived and suffered and wouldn’t think of making a movie that didn’t draw on that. I suppose the Coens have suffered (the new movie might suggest they didn’t think much of their teenage milieu anyway), but you can’t really feel it even in their tougher-minded works. But then they don’t ever communicate much joy either. Sometimes they seem to know the workings of almost everything, but not the value of it.