Deadline ran the numbers, and with debates still to come tonight, on January 26, February 22, and March 1, 5, and 19, the television ratings for the Republican primary debates have continued to fall since December. Certainly, some of that is the result of candidates dropping out, as Deadline suggests. And as primaries pass, there are fewer voters who are using the debates to help inform their decisions, too. Certainly, it’s to the incumbent’s advantage to have the Republicans spending more time in environments where they’re not speaking from text and likely to get challenged in the run-up to the general election, which makes me somewhat amazed that so many debates got scheduled in the first place. But the ratings raise an interesting question. Would it affect the election more for bigger national audiences to see the most striking moments for whoever the eventual nominee is as they happen? Or if fewer people watch the debates, are those clips fresh and relevant when they’re recut for advertising for the national campaign?
If you still aren’t watching Raising Hope, Fox’s charming comedy about a working-class family raising Hope, the baby who represents the fourth generation in the same house, together, I’d encourage you to check out last week’s episode and reconsider. In that installment, Jimmy Chance, Hope’s young father, decides to try to go back and get his GED, prompting his parents, Burt and Virginia, to confront their fears about falling behind their son in education. While the way Jimmy finally gets his degree is very funny, the episode is really about teaching people who have never had much in the way of education that learning can be tremendously fun and rewarding. Watching Burt, for example, embrace Shakespeare after Jimmy’s coworker Frank tells him to try to picture the action as it unfolds rather than focusing on individual words is lovely: he ends up transfixed by the fight that opens Romeo and Juliet, and he and Frank fence through the supermarket in made-up weapons and armor. It helps that Garrett Dillahunt is wonderful at selling Burt: as he said at the Television Critics Association press tour, “I love playing the fools. I never understand actors who never want to appear weak. I think that’s where we learn so much about people. I enjoy falling down. I enjoy making mistakes. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t let too much get him down.” It’s Burt’s resilience that makes it particularly rewarding when he gets a win.
And Greg Garcia, the show’s creator, has set up an environment where even when the Chances are doing things that most television characters take for granted, like trying to learn basic math, science, and history, they’re never objects of contempt or ridicule. In a world of aspirational television, where schoolteachers like Jess on New Girl live in vast apartments and even goofy characters like Phil Dunphy on Modern Family are wildly successful, that makes the Chances different, and refreshing, even when it’s not easy to pull off. When we spoke at press tour, Garcia acknowledged that he’s been told that not being aspirational might turn viewers off.
“Those are the shows I like so that’s what I’m going to write. Some people are like, when we first started developing this show, they were like ‘Oh, well, I don’t know maybe the house is too dirty and maybe people don’t want to watch,’” he said. “And I was like ‘They’re not in the house, they’re in their house. They’re just watching.’…I like to go to the zoo and watch the lions. I don’t want to be in there with them…I certainly can’t say that’s not true because maybe it is. But I like the show that I write.”
That’s not an entirely comfortable sentiment. But to a certain extent, it’s what we do when we look upwards, too. We judge the Real Housewives in their plastic, manicured homes just as much as we’re amused and a little shocked when Burt and Virginia refuse to act like functional adults. But while we root for the ludicrously rich to fall, we’re cheering for the Chances to win.
I really wish we were advanced enough that the suffering women experience in the lead-up to, during, and after the sexual assaults they suffer we’re enough to move policy makers to instant action. Unfortunately we live in a society where even the thousands of rapes committed in the armed forces haven’t moved the Defense Department to swift, decisive, and effective action, and that inaction has persisted for decades.
And so there’s something strategic in The Invisible War‘s decision to make the case for the Pentagon’s shame in part by drawing out the impact of sexual assault not just on women but on their husbands, fathers, and sons in its examination. “I used to lie awake in bed wondering what I could do to get her out,” says Marine Ben Klay after his wife, Lt. Ariana Klay faced escalating harassment on her transfer to the elite Marine Corps unit based in Washington, DC. He broke down describing what it was like after she was raped, “when your wife doesn’t come home, to rummage through the house for the suicide, calling the police with one hand while trying to stop her killing herself with the other.”
Sgt. Maj. Jerry Sewell teared up remembering how he tried to reassure his daughter Hannah that she was still a virgin after she was raped in Naval training, telling her “they took something you didn’t give.” Rob McDonald, who met his wife Kori Cioca when she was transferred into his Coast aguardiente unit after being raped and having her jaw permanently damaged by her commanding officer, says, “Seeing how they treated her, I didn’t want to stay in.” Trina McDonald’s (no relation) stepsons look out for her when she gets anxious in public and talk wistfully of wishing they’d known her before anxiety came to rule her life.
The presence of these men, and advocates like lawyer Greg Rinchey, Former NCIS agent Stace Nelson, and retired Army CID special agent Russell Strand are a powerful testament that women aren’t alone when it comes to fighting deeply embedded rape cultures. And while the movie focuses on women who were attacked, it does spend time with Michael Matthews, who was raped when he was 19, and the filmmakers speak to other men who were assaulted. The movie is a strong argument that rape is not simply a women’s issue.
But I don’t want to give the impression that this argument is constructed at the expense of women’s voices and experiences, because it’s not. Women like Kori, Ariana, Hannah, and Trina incredibly brave and frank in telling their stories.
And their experiences exposé as a gutless lie the military’s claim to care about sexual assault. Dr. Kaye Whitley, who ran the Defense Department, talks about prevention in terms of female members of the armed services keeping themselves out of dangerous situations, but Kori reported the senior officer who attacked her multiple times before he raped her, went to pains to avoid being alone with him, and got raped anyway. Leon Panetra may tell Congress that the military needs a zero-tolerance approach to rape within the ranks, but when Hannah’s case was passed from investigator to investigator, then closed when she was falsely told her rape kit was lost, that attitude seems closer to indifference. And it’s impossible to believe Major General Mary Kay Hertog’s claims that command is all about justice and impartiality when Ariana was raped within the chain of command.
In their eagerness not to lose soldiers, sailors, and aviators to criminal charges, the American military is risking losing talented women and decent men. It seems like an awful trade.
The Queen of Versailles, one of the first two movies to sell at Sundance and one of the most controversial (David Siegel, the subject, is suing the festival and the filmmakers) has a difficult balancing act to pull off. As it traces the rise and fall of David, the founder of timeshare empire Westgate Resorts, and his wife Jackie, the movie has to simultaneously turn the couple into avatars of American financial recklessness, without leaving the audience so disgusted that they storm out of the theater. That it succeeds is impressive credit to director Lauren Greenfield, who has made one of the best, clearest movies about not just the housing crisis, but about American consumerism.
The hook for the movie and the source of the title is Jackie and David’s thwarted ambitions to build the largest house in America, modeled after Versailles and based on a sketch David drew on a private plane on the way to Las Vegas. The design is a monument to bad taste, as are the hilariously tacky portraits that litter the house they’re still living in, of Jackie as a Greek goddess and David as a Roman warrior.
But it’s also a testament to waste. Rather than using any room for multiple purposes, Jackie and David tacked ten kitchens onto their monstrosity so they can have a sushi bar as well as other specialized cooking spaces. The house has a wing for their children, a place Jackie plans to “visit” in one of the unintentionally callous things she regularly says about her brood. The basement is stacked with $5 million worth of Chinese marble, and Jackie has a warehouse full of decor she plans to use in it, from French furniture to giant replicas of Faberge eggs. Those piles of junk, and scenes of a garage full of unused bicycles for their children, or post-recession Jackie being coaxed into spending less for Christmas by her nannies and still walking out of Walmart with three sets of the game Operation (among other things) have blown past abundance or fulfillment straight to gorged. Nothing about the way the Siegels live their lives looks particularly desirable, from the house littered with dog shit to Jackie’s bed, plumped with seven layers of pillows.
While the Siegels live in luxury, The Queen of Versailles does an excellent job of linking the unrealistic way they’ve financed their lives with the way they run their business. Just as David mortgages all their properties to keep making money off them, Westgate targets people it perceives as cheap (most of them agree to take tours of the Vegas resort in exchange for show tickets) and talks them in to spending beyond their means on the assumption that money will stay inexpensive and the economy will keep going strong. The dependency goes in both directions: when the Siegels’ cash flow disappears, they’re in danger of bankrupting the Vegas resort, which they desperately need to stay operational so they can pay their remaining staff after massive layoffs. It turns out that at least some of the rich are no wiser than the rest of us.
The most shocking thing about the Siegels may be less the grandiosity of their ambitions and the scope of their acquisitiveness than their utter lack of sense of how the world works — or how it might see them, especially as they transition to a more reasonable standard of living. This isn’t just George H.W. Bush with the supermarket scanner. When Jackie and her children fly commercial for the first time, the children are perplexed about what other people are doing on their plane, and Jackie doesn’t understand that her rental car doesn’t come with a driver. When it comes to their staff, David gets grumpy when their first downscaled Christmas party doesn’t have staff to serve the food, and Jackie complains, “I really miss having a manager to do all this stuff for me.” When it looks like Versailles will fall through, Jackie tells one of the nannies brightly, “Marissa, look at the bright side. You might not have to clean this house.”
Perhaps most disturbing is what their unworldliness has done to their children. “I never would have had so many children if I couldn’t have a nanny,” Jackie says, just sentences before talking about how her kids are a bundle of joy. As their fortunes fall, Jackie tells the camera that “I told them they might actually have to go to college and make their own money.” And David confides that “I haven’t put anything aside” for his children or for his and Jackie’s retirement. Both David and Jackie may complain that the banks were cheap money pushers who got them hooked, but it’s shockingly careless not to have saved a thing, to believe that after their rise from modest backgrounds (Jackie as an IBM engineer and model, David from a family headed by gamblers) their fortunes were irreversible.
Some of the best parts of the movie involve not just Jackie and David’s delusions, but the more modest — but still thwarted — real estate hopes of everyone around them. Cliff, their chauffeur, turns out to have bought 19 houses as investments, only to lose not just his investments but his family home. “It happens pretty fast, but you know, you survive,” he says. “It’s hard to go back to renting…It humbles you a lot.” Tina, Jackie’s childhood neighbor and best friend, admits that she envies Jackie to a certain extent, but explains that “My dreams don’t even go that far.” Later, we find out Jackie’s sent her money to help her keep her decidedly modest house out of foreclosure. But even though Tina owes just $1,700, the money comes too late to save her. Virginia Nebab, one of the family’s nannies, owns land in her home country of the Philippines, where she hopes to return to build a house some day to fulfill her father’s dream of living in a concrete dwelling. He dies before she can return, leaving her reflecting that at least he was buried in a concrete tomb. Later, we see her living in the Siegel twins’ playhouse, telling the camera “This is my palace…I love this place and I’m so glad Jackie gave it to me.”
If we’ve come to a point where the poles of the American dream are the rotting hulk of an unfinished Florida monstrosity or a fold-away bed in a playhouse, we’re in bad trouble.
Almost every documentary I’ve seen at Sundance so far has ended with an explicit call to action, whether it’s a website to visit for more information or a petition to sign. Robert Redford kicked off the festival by talking about the intensely difficult times we’re in, and that urgency is embedded in both narratives and the drive to give audiences momentum that will carry them out of the theaters and into the streets. Precisely how to do that was the subject of a panel I attended on Sunday with some of the festival’s most pointedly political filmmakers and subjects. ProPublica managing editor Stephen Engelberg asked them how to do with movies what he does “at ProPublica [where] what we try to think about every day is how to do journalism that brings change,” saying, “it’s great to preach to the converted”–but that it’s not enough.
Raj Patel, the writer and food activist who is interviewed in food insecurity documentary Finding North, gave what I thought was one of the best answers. “In the U.S.,” he pointed out, “It has always been the movements’ dialogue on the ground with movies and books that make change happen. It’s hard to imagine a single movie emerging like a ray of light from the heavens and illuminating people’s consciousness” in the absence of an existing way to mobilize and engage. There are a lot of good reasons for documentaries to try to hook up with existing movements rather than trying to create them from scratch. Movements have ready-made characters and narratives, as well as a sense of authenticity. And rooting a movie in them means audiences can walk out of the theater with some place specific to go. Fahrenheit 9/11 may have made serious bank for a documentary, but it didn’t exactly come with an action plan.
And Dr. Steven Nissen, the cardiology chair at the Cleveland Clinic who is featured in the health care documentary Escape Fire, said he thought movies could do the activating work of making audiences angry.
“We have to shock the public to get change,” he said. In the fight for health care reform, “we allowed the opposition to organize in ways e didn’t organize. We didn’t create a movement…I hope [the movie] makes people angry…I have patients who have strokes because they can’t afford decent blood pressure medications. That ought to make decent people angry.”
And Kelly McMasters, author of the nuclear plant memoir Welcome to Shirley, reminded the audience that their experiences may be different that those of the people most affected by the issues portrayed in the movie. “Activism is a luxury,” she said. “When you’re thinking about where your next meal is coming from, you’re not listening to Democracy Now…it’s a luxury until it’s not…because it has damaged you or your child.”
One of the big dynamics in the debate over SOPA and PIPA is who’s getting money from whom. The entertainment industry’s currently spending a great deal more on lobbying than the tech community is; MPAA Chairman Chris Dodd has threatened to turn off Hollywood campaign contributions to Democrats if SOPA or a form of it doesn’t pass; and both Democrats and Republicans are attempting to position themselves for the future. What a big, and usefully clear, New York Times story about Apple’s decision to move much of its work overseas makes clear, though, is while the tech industry may eventually have more to offer in terms of lobbying cash and campaign contributions, it may not have much to offer Democrats in terms of creating critically important American manufacturing jobs. In a conversation between Steve Jobs and President Obama before the former’s death, the Times reported that this exchange took place about the Apple jobs that have moved overseas:
Why can’t that work come home? Mr. Obama asked.
Mr. Jobs’s reply was unambiguous. “Those jobs aren’t coming back,” he said, according to another dinner guest.
The president’s question touched upon a central conviction at Apple. It isn’t just that workers are cheaper abroad. Rather, Apple’s executives believe the vast scale of overseas factories as well as the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers have so outpaced their American counterparts that “Made in the U.S.A.” is no longer a viable option for most Apple products.
It’s absolutely true that there would have to be radical changes in the American economy to retrain workers, to move huge parts of the supply chain back to the United States, and perhaps most difficult, to get American workers to expect a vastly different standard of living or to get Apple executives to accept slower development times and more expensive production costs. I’d argue that American workers have already made substantial compromises on the former proposition. But I don’t foresee a future where companies are going to move toward the latter out of the goodness of their own hearts. There’s no question that companies have a right to maximize profits, and that if they don’t care how they’re perceived or about creating a sense of moral obligation to buy their products, they have every right to produce their products wherever and under whatever conditions they can get away with. But if they’re going to take that approach, I sort of wish they’d be as blunt about it as possible, so we don’t risk mistaking shiny toys for some sort of greater good.
This post contains spoilers for the January 22 episode of House of Lies.
To me, this episode exemplified what are becoming the clear best and worst of House of Lies. There’s the absolute ridiculousness of Marty and Jeannie’s visit to the Winters’ house, which is really just an excuse for the writers to stick phrases like “micro-phallus” and “that black dick” into the script. But there’s also the return of Greg Norbert, who is clearly going to be this season’s super-villain, setting up an arc that will explore how much you can focus purely on profit and selfishness and still stay in business. And as always, Marty’s home life continues to be wonderful.
Starting with that, I appreciate how the show juxtaposes Roscoe’s naturalness with Marty’s attempt to feign it. “What do you do if you like a girl, and you like a boy?” Roscoe asks his father, shortly after Marty awakens from a bad dream of his mother on the anniversary of her suicide. “I don’t know, Roscoe,” Marty stumbles, only to have his son blithely tell him, “I’m open to whatever.” That challenge between appreciating Roscoe’s openness to the world and protecting him from the people who will be resistant to it or fail to understand it is clearly an enormous one for Marty. But it’s also obvious that when Marty lets himself see the world as Roscoe does, say, in the moment when he relaxes and tells his son, “Yeah, man. Teach me how to Dougie,” that he can experience joy he can’t feel anywhere else. So much of Marty’s life is artifice that his home feels like more of an oasis than usual.
All of which makes it tense when it’s breached. Clearly, his life was going to be upended when Greg Norbert strolls into Galweather Stern to announce that after Marty’s team left, “We felt sad. No, not really. We had all this bailout money.” It turns out, he’s going to have MetroCapital buy Galweather Stern so they can have their own in-house consulting firm. “You will be ours,” he says cheerfully before warning Marty “I’m going to smash your head in. Then I’m going to personally fuck your bashed-in eye socket. Metaphorically.” Marty’s only response is to hit below the belt, and not metaphorically, asking, “how’s your beautiful wife? I heard she tastes like Pinkberry.” But as with much of Marty’s maneuvering, it’s a move that doesn’t account for the long game. Skip shows up at his house at the end of the episode to warn Marty that Greg’s animosity for him isn’t a joke, and to explain that he has no particular intention of sticking his neck out for a man who’s never bothered to forge a personal relationship with him and who leaves huge amounts of emotional damage in his wake. “Why the fuck would I do that?” he wants to know when Marty assumes Skip will protect him. “It’s a relationship business…Other people do what you do without leaving a swath of destruction behind them…I am the one left behind spending half my time making nice with people whose lives you’ve carved up and gutted.”
It’s enough to get Marty scared, but not enough to get him to stop. Just as he let Janelle see his blackness instead of him in Indiana, Marty does the same thing after going out with Clyde (clearly the devil sitting on Marty’s shoulder). When a rich club patron assumes Marty’s the valet, Marty lets him, only to drive off at breakneck speed in the man’s very nice car. It’s a wildly self-destructive move, and an unnerving one. The line between an aggressive playboy and businessman and a person who’s totally out of control appears to be all too fine.