Ah the banlieue, city of fluorescent lights in drab office buildings, mercury vapor lights in the courtyards of the projects, police flashlights shining on dark faces. I just watched Sciamma’s movie, and it led me to go back to Kassovitz’s, which I hadn’t seen since it came out — more than twenty years ago now! While Girlhood is pretty depressing (though not depressing enough; see below), I have to say that if we’re getting our news solely from these two movies, things seem to be a bit less dire in 2014 than they were in 1995.
There’s good reason not to trust that narrative, though; both of these films about the experiences of poor French of color from the projects by les honkies from film school. Be that as it may. If you categorically disapprove of privileged people writing disadvantaged characters, you’ll want to skip both these movies.
Sciamma creates a convincing world for a while, but then starts exoticizing and goes off the rails. She’s so enraptured by the beauty of these girls as they work their hustles and dance and party and catfight that she forgets to show us just how truly dangerous and dire their situations really are. A black teenager living on her own dealing drugs at street level is going to get hurt, and this movie’s fantasy that she’ll instead turn into some kind of inspired and empowered super hero is, in my view, irresponsible. But maybe I’m being too rough; check it out for yourself. And remember to watch Kassovitz’s movie, too, if you’ve never seen it. It’s like if Spike Lee was French. Sort of.
I don’t often read 400-page books on economic history, but this one had me thoroughly engaged the whole way. I don’t think it can really be summarized, and I won’t try. I underlined about a third of this book and I think my annotated copy itself will have to stand as my notes. I will write down one idea that has continued to rattle in my head since finishing the book.
Contrary to common belief, there’s nothing immoral about being in debt. Indeed, being in debt to someone is a way to maintain a human connection to them. If I loan my neighbor a couple eggs one week, and the next week she brings me some of the cookies she baked with them, and then I mow her lawn for her because she broke her ankle, and then she watches my cat while I’m away for the weekend, we are in a healthy pattern of recurring indebtedness to one another. Note that the inexactness of the “repayments” helps to keep the relationship going. If I loan my neighbor a couple eggs, and the next day she brings me back a couple eggs, I’ve been repaid exactly, but what else has happened? Our relationship is severed. Graeber provides examples of some cultures where it’s considered quite rude to pay a debt back exactly. In effect, you’re saying “I don’t want to have a relationship with you any more.” So people in this cultures will deliberately over- or under-repay debts, so as to keep the relationship going.
I’d never thought about debt that way before. Obviously my mortgage lender doesn’t think about it that way, either, right? Our mutual goal, on the contrary, would appear to be to get to the end of our relationship, by me paying back the money I owe on my house. But wait — is that really the bank’s goal as well as mine? If everyone paid all the banks back, all at once, everything they were owed, why would the banks continue to exist? The bank insists on being paid back, but it also never wants to be completely paid back. How does it survive that fundamental existential contradiction? This book, among many other things, is a long answer to that short question.
The indefatigable Alex Gibney is back with another solid documentary guaranteed to leave you staring into space with a horrified look on your face. He’s probably made another one in the time it took me to write that sentence. Like Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, two others of his I’ve admired, Park Avenue seems at once sober and manic. The research is clearly thorough and thoughtful, the ideas are presented clearly, the charts and graphs are cleanly designed and easily understood, but at the same time there’s this edge of hysterical incredulity running just under the surface the whole time, like the narrator’s forever on the brink of screaming “Can you effing believe this shit?!”
From the PBS web site for the film: “740 Park in Manhattan is currently home to the highest concentration of billionaires in the country. Across the river, less than five miles away, Park Avenue runs through the South Bronx, home to the poorest congressional district in the United States. In Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream,Gibney states that while income disparity has always existed in the U.S., it has accelerated sharply over the last 40 years. As of 2010, the 400 richest Americans controlled more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of the populace — 150 million people.”
Anyone who’s been paying attention already knows stuff like that, and that one is seven Americans receive food stamps, and so forth. But the film still manages to shock me again and again. The saddest part for me is seeing working-class and middle-class people duped by politicians into thinking that it’s the poor (and the unions), not the rich, that are responsible for their problems. The second-saddest part is seeing that even Democratic administrations seem powerless, in the face of multi-billion dollar lobbying efforts, to do anything about income disparity. You come away from this feeling like if you have a dime, it’s because the 1% have decided it’s somehow to their advantage for you to have it.