Sad News

I’ve just learned that one of my favorite bloggers, George Fasel of A Girl and a Gun, died on Wednesday. While I never met him, I always enjoyed George’s reflections on film, particularly his willingness to challenge the received wisdom about many contemporary films. Following Lance Mannion’s tribute to George’s final entry on a James Cagney film, I’ve decided to post, in its entirety, one of my favorite blog entries from A Girl and a Gun, in which George criticized the recent Enron doc, challenging me to reconsider a film I’d previously embraced uncritically:

The documentaries are starting to roll in, confirming many predictions that they are coming into their own as credible contenders for a larger slice of the ticket-buyer budget. In NYC now, we have Mad Hot Ballroom, for which I saw a trailer and immediately rang up a notional saving of seven dollars on a geeezer discount ticket (that much saccharine has to be bad for one); Born into Brothels, Stolen Childhoods, Shake Hands with the Devil, and Tell Them Who You Are are also around, none of them tempting me much. I am also excited to report that there is on its way a documentary on bowling, for crying out loud, and if that doesn’t stir you, then you’ll certain want to catch the one on wheelchair rugby (this is not a joke).

I did wander into a showing of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, a film which sports all the right prejudices–this was bad, it went to the top of the corporation, whose big guys robbed their employees and electricity consumers in the state of California, the Bush administration and family was at the very least “involved,” and so forth–and which I’m therefore feeling sorry I didn’t like more. To begin with, the filmmakers couldn’t leave well enough alone, telling the story through film clips and interviews; they had to throw in a lot of extraneous footage that is both intrusive and false. Example: Jeffrey Skilling liked to organize motorcycle trips through the outback with other senior guys, trips over rough country where broken bones and the like were common. There are a few stills from these childish undertakings, but we also get footage of professional cyclists doing huge loops in the air and other dangerous tricks. Patently not the Enronnies, who presumably weren’t up to such stunts; so why is the footage there? Example: when quoting from important internal documents or other written sources, the camera closes in on significant sentences or passages, and highlights them. But it’s immediately plain these are not the original documents, but copies made up for ease of photographing and viewing. The whole idea of employing such sources is to give an air of authenticity, which is undercut by these surrogates. Example: the suicide of Cliff Baxter, a senior Enron exec caught in a web of shame and guilt, is dramatically staged, which because we know it is a reenactment, and at that on the level of a cheesy History Channel documentary, subverts any power the simple story might have had.

The talking heads are also pretty flat and uninteresting. None is out-and-out terrible, but there is nobody we want to see again, nobody whose presence lights up the screen and helps tell his or her part of the story with the force of personality along with the substance. I think of Nathaniel Kahn’s mother in My Architect (2003), or (the now late) Frank Conroy in Stone Reader (2002), or Stanley Crouch in Ken Burns’s tv series Jazz, to name only some recent strong presences. We go from one bland account to another, and with the exception of a buccaneering type named (I think) Mike Muckleroy, there are very few human juices flowing.

Finally, we leap from one peak to another, one Enron reinvention and fraud and outrage to the next, preferably one where we can get some footage of Skilling being embarrassed before Congress, or Lay making a fool of himself in some public statement, or jumping from the California electricity crisis to the election of Arnold, with lots of footage of the latter. Context would have been much more helpful. Skilling keeps saying he’s not an accountant, so he couldn’t say what was going on, which is the same thing Bernie Ebbers said about World Com and not far from what Dennis the K was claiming about Tyco. How much more useful to have seen a pattern of corporate abuse, lies, and manipulation of which Enron was a part. There is a clip of W saying, by way of trying to minimize his connection to Ken Lay, that Enron gave a lot of money to a lot of people in Washington. That is true, but the film doesn’t follow up. How much more interesting to look not at squirming millionaire bilksters but at that wholly-owned corporate subsidiary called the United States Congress. Enron is two hours’ worth of missed opportunities and a film budget squandered on mediocrity instead of incisive reporting and therefore, in my book, memorable principally as a waste.

2 Comments »

  1. Chris Martin Said,

    August 21, 2005 @ 1:07 am

    I think that entry is interesting, although I disagree with most of it. One part I strongly take issue with is
    “the talking heads are also pretty flat and uninteresting.”
    When it comes to an issue like Enron, there aren’t many people who are experts on the history of the company’s rise and fall. So the filmmakers didn’t really have much of a choice in talking-head recruiting. Besides, choosing interviewees for their expertise seems more honest than choosing people for their charisma. In the end, you have to look for charisma too, but I respect filmmakers who don’t try too hard.
    Thanks for pointing me to an interesting blog though. I just read a number of his older posts.

  2. Chuck Said,

    August 21, 2005 @ 1:30 am

    I do think you’re right those interviews were necessary, especially given that it must have been difficult to find people who’d speak about Enron for a documentary. Mostly I liked that someone was willing to call some of these docs on their claims of authenticity, and the entry certainly challenged some of the things I value about docs, which is what I liked about it.

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