The Celluloid Economy

The American Ruling Class
Directed by John Kirby
Bullfrog Films, 2007

The People Speak
Co-directed by Chris Moore, Anthony Arnove, and Howard Zinn

Voices of A People’s History of the United
States, 2010

What’s the Economy for, Anyway?
Directed by David Batker and John de Graaf
Bullfrog Films, 2010

Reviewed by Kathy M. Newman

Will the revolution be televised? Or will it simply be turned into a commercially successful radical documentary, of the sort distributed by companies like Bullfrog Films and the History Channel? Over the last ten years, scholars (such as Nick Couldry and James Curran, authors of Contesting Media Power) who study the relationship between media and dominant power structures have urged critics and audiences to consider the power of alternative media. We get a glimpse of that potential in three recent documentaries that take on some of the central questions about how economic power works in American society.

The question of whether or not America has a ruling class makes for a provocative “documentary musical,” The American Ruling Class. Lewis H. Lapham, just before giving up the reins of Harper’s Magazine in 2006, wrote the script as a latter-day fairy tale about two fictional graduates of Yale University who can’t decide if they “want to rule the world, or save it.”

The film is quirky—a kind of inverted reality show, in which the characters are fictional but the circumstances are real. As the opening disclaimer explains, “any resemblance to real life is entirely intentional.” One of the Yalies—Jack, from a wealthy family—accepts an offer to work for Goldman Sachs after graduation. The other Yale man—Mike, from a more modest background—works as a waiter and wants to be a writer. Mike is the character we are rooting for to save the world, and most of the film consists of Mike’s tour of the ruling class, from Wall Street to Hollywood to Mexico. Along the way, the two young men meet an astonishing number of actual members of the ruling class—including Bill Bradley; James A. Baker, III; Lawrence H. Summers; and Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr.—most of whom deny the existence of their own kind. Mike also meets some of the great progressive intellectuals and artists, including Barbara Ehrenreich, Kurt Vonnegut, and Robert Altman. At the end of the film, one of our country’s greatest living treasures, Pete Seeger, plays the banjo while walking Mike down the path to either his job interview at Goldman Sachs or something more noble—we’re not entirely sure. What we are sure of, however, is that Lewis Lapham has an impressive rolodex. To see James A. Baker, III placidly deny the existence of a ruling class is to see something rather extraordinary indeed.

The music, Pete Seeger’s included, is one of the most original elements of the film. There’s an infectious dirge performed throughout the film about the “great and mighty Wurlitzer” (a reference to propaganda efforts of the CIA, if you follow that sort of thing), and a musical tribute to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. The music adds a sophisticated and absurdist element to something that occasionally feels too naïve—like a college student’s senior thesis project—especially when the amateur actors playing the Yale men pontificate about the meaning of life. The question of whether or not those of us in the privileged middle and/ or upper middle classes should work from the “inside” or the “outside” of the system seems less compelling during our current Great Recession, in which having any sort of work at all is a lucky break.

One of the most surreal moments in the film occurs when Mike takes a tour of the People’s History of the United States with Howard Zinn. In this scene, Mike boards a streetcar to find that Zinn is his tour guide, and the world outside the streetcar becomes an animated version of Zinn’s landmark history. This bizarre interlude hints at the larger film project Zinn was working on when The American Ruling Class was being made. At the turn of the millennium, Zinn was approached by Fox to do a TV series based on his continually best-selling People’s History. The Fox series never materialized, but a film version of Zinn’s classic history finally came to fruition when Matt Damon—who had grown up next door to Zinn in Cambridge, Massachusetts—helped to produce a series of stage performances in which big name actors and musicians speak or sing the voices of the “people” in Zinn’s story.

The resulting effort, The People Speak, has a rock concert feel to it. As Howard Zinn ascends the stage, the crowd goes wild. He starts the show with a wry message to his fans: “Now that’s enough.” The film is jam-packed with stars who, I was surprised to learn, were Zinn groupies, including Jasmine Guy, Viggo Mortensen, Benjamin Bratt, Danny Glover, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, Eddie Vedder, and Marisa Tomei. The film is organized around a series of edited live readings of historical letters and speeches, intercut with photos, lithographs, document scans, and archival footage. Most of the actors play according to type, but not without some imaginative casting: Viggo Mortensen plays a bitter, poor, wounded Civil War veteran; Rosario Dawson reads the words of Sojourner Truth; John Legend sings an old slavery lament; and Eddie Vedder performs Bob Dylan’s 1960s-era “Masters of War.”

The film has an especially timely relevance in the wake of Zinn’s death in early 2010, and the subsequent summer release of his FBI file showing that the FBI started tracking him in 1949—just four years after his decorous service in World War II. Seeing Zinn himself—so lucid, and so hale—just a few years before his death is somehow comforting.

The film will do well in high school and college classrooms, but for most of us who are fans of progressive American history, The People Speak will not contain much that is new or surprising. At the same time, I was most moved by the voices of people I had never heard of, including a runaway slave who wrote to his former owner to tell her that he had every right to his own personhood, as well as to the horse he stole from her as he escaped. Just as Zinn hoped, the “nobodies” in this film often pack the greatest punch.

Interestingly, the film in this cluster that had no celebrities whatsoever is the one I found the most informative and, in the end, the most entertaining. Bullfrog Films’ What’s the Economy for, Anyway? was released in 2010 and—now more than ever, it seems—we need to think about the economy, not as a force of nature but as something made by (and hopefully for) people. The film’s creator and narrator, David Batker, is a balding goofball, and also an ecological economist. He and his co-creator John de Graaf made this film in order to explore Gifford Pinchot’s (Secretary of the Interior under Teddy Roosevelt) assertion that the job of the economy is to create “the greatest good for the greatest number over the longest run.” The film is divided into more than a dozen segments, including categories like “health,” “security,” and “happiness.”

Ordinarily, when presented with a raft of facts and figures, I can quickly become bleary-eyed. But Batker’s comparisons of the U.S. with other wealthy, Western nations—and sometimes the entire globe—were startling. Is the U.S. really the only Western country that doesn’t have a law guaranteeing paid vacation time? Yes. Is the U.S. really one of four nations in the world that has no federally mandated paid maternity leave? Yes. Are Americans more likely to be depressed and/or suicidal than Europeans? Yes.

The film presents facts like these with dopey, animated graphics and corny sound effects, like the slide whistle. But despite this, What’s the Economy for, Anyway? is the most visionary of these three films. It does not just critique, it also imagines solutions—solutions that are working for millions of people in other countries, such as lowering the number of hours per week that people work during times of unemployment in order to reduce job loss (as they do in Holland and Germany). The film gives me the sense that we could control our economic and ecological destinies to a degree we never imagined.

In terms of star power and production values, The People Speak is beautifully done. And for sheer creativity and gutsiness, I’ll take The American Ruling Class. But the film that best explains the mess we are in, and imagines a few ways out, is What’s the Economy for, Anyway? It is a deceptively simple question, and the film that asks it—as Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting said of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States—“will blow your socks off.”