Category Archives: Tribeca Film Festival
The Lost Leonardo directed by Andreas Koefoed and written by Duska Zagorac, Mark Monroe, Andreas Dalsgaard, Christian Kirk Muff and Andreas Koefoed. The film is a fascinating documentary that delves into the nail biting discovery of the painting Salvator Mundi (a portrait of Jesus) that was ill-used, in ragged condition and an obscurity for decades or centuries depending upon what you believe. It was sold for a mere $1,175 in 2005 by New Orleans auctioneers who didn’t really pay much attention to provenance or the possibility of its potential greatness. However, purchasers who hunt for sleepers (undiscovered renowned works) thought it might have value. They wanted it to be restored with the intention of reselling it. How lovely if it slipped under the radar of the New Orleans merchants who were not schooled in high Renaissance art. Finders keepers and all that!
Thus begins the journey of a painting that remains a mystery to this day and has been examined, pawed over and quibbled about by some of the most prestigious art galleries, museums and their curators in the world. Like a well-heeled detective, Andreas Koefoed cobbles together the video clips of individuals who pondered over, investigated and worked on the Salvator Mundi. He also interviews art critics, museum curators, experts, scholars, art historians, investigative journalists, the Founder of the FBI Art Crime Team and shady art dealer businessmen who profit off of billionaires who purchase such costly works privately or at auction. These wealthy could care less if the provenance is in question as long as the perception remains that it is authentic. They do this in order to bury their money in the painting purchase which hides a record of their wealth from the pernicious eyes of tax collectors.
The adventure Koefoed embarks on is thrilling, and he unspools the clues like a master mystery writer. The chase of whether this work is truly the “lost Leonardo” keeps one enthralled. However, there is no conclusive finality and uncertainty reigns with every word his subjects use to speak about the painting.
Perhaps conceived with hope initial buyers Alexander Parrish, sleeper hunter, and his friend Robert Simon (an old masters paintings expert) fantasized about what the Mundi was and who painted it. They acted on their conceptualizations, and to satisfy the curiosity of their wallets, they brought the Mundi to top art restorer Dianne Modestini who had partnered with a spot-on expert recently deceased, from whom she had learned. With his assistance, over the years, she had gained expertise and knowledge restoring fine paintings.
As Modestini worked on the Salvator Mundi, she nearly fainted examining the mouth of the figure in the painting. The Salvator Mundi‘s similarities around the right side of the upper lip resembled that of the Mona Lisa. The more she worked, the more she concluded that only one individual could paint in this way: Leonardo da Vinci. As time progressed, the Salvator Mundi in verbal shorthand is referred to by ironist art critics as the male Mona Lisa.
Only eight known paintings are globally attributed to the Renaissance master who was “forward thinking” by about 500 years; among his papers are drawings of space ships and underwater submersibles. He was a scientist, painter, mathematician, inventor and all-around genius. However, that this is a “da Vinci” turning up at auction, like a ghost from the backwaters around New Orleans, remains as implausible and incredulous to some global art experts as unicorns are to empiricists. And these scholars are prepared to deny the work’s authenticity as are those experts who are prepared to defend it to the death as a Leonardo. Belief and faith in the power of money trumps any concern about whether it is a fake that a highly skilled genius painter tossed off and was happy to get some money for.
The problem with any work of fine art, is to establish the provenance and period when it was painted based upon the artist’s technique, any underpainting, the chemicals used to mix the paint as well as the chemical composition of the pigments. Art restorer Dianne Modestini affirms on pain of death that the Salvator Mundi, which sold in 2017 for a record-setting $450 million, is the “lost Leonardo” based upon her understanding of the demonstrated technique and brush strokes.
On the other hand, art critic Jerry Salz who is knowledgeable about the corruption embracing high art sales, auction houses and art galleries who benefit from them is the receptacle of a vast skepticism about the Mundi. Saltz’s demonstrated wisdom is not to be underestimated. Indeed, the art industry has been taken over like other arts industries, for example theater, by the philistines. When money is concerned, auction houses and dealers allow the presence of fakes to take a backseat to money, power and the perception of authenticity, backed by lucid, clairvoyant analyses and explanations.
If you can get away with billionaires offering you hefty sums for works they believe to be authentic, but may not be, who is hurt? If the billionaires are squirreling away their treasures for the purpose of tax evasion in Freeports (tax free airport storage, above the law of all countries) no one will see these fakes anyway and the benefiting institution and billionaire are content. By the time they may have to sell them at a loss, most probably they’ve made twice as much in their corrupt enterprises in the interim. These rich guys are good for art; they are easier than the overhead of collecting subscriber donations and the hard work of charitable fund raising galas to run galleries and museums sometimes at a loss.
An additional factor to consider as to why the allure of wealthy anonymous buyers is so great for the art industry is that running public museums and private art galleries, one must pay exorbitant insurance costs and for security to prevent the little people from thieving works off the walls and reselling it to rich clients who can only display them privately. Better that the art dealers, auction houses and galleries contract with these billionaires who risk purchasing fakes which will most likely be kept in locked rooms in their mansions, Freeports, villas or one of their 15 million-dollar condos neatly situated in favored cities around the world.
The only ones concerned about fakes are the renowned public museums with a rich history of standing by their experts’ knowledge, respected institutions like the Louvre or The Metropolitan Museum of Art or the British Museum. They do not take kindly to displaying fakes or works that are questionable alongside their incredible proven treasures. And perhaps millionaires who don’t have the money to burn on fakes might be concerned. Other than that, billionaires have entered the art world and they are a sure thing for art dealers and auction houses.
In this amazingly instructive film about the upper classes and the corruption of geopolitical wealth, the filmmaker and writers launch off into three thematic threads emphasizing the concept at work which is the “game.” Sectioning off three segments to keep our understanding regular, he amasses a tremendous amount of research in video interviews, archived photos of works and voice overs. These are structured as the “Art Game,” the “Money Game” and the “World Game.”
It is in this discussion of how art is a game, we begin to understand the shadowy dark money world that fuels fakes and authentic pieces alike. Clearly, the filmmaker reveals that one doesn’t engage in this game naively or without experience and circumspection or you will be taken and regret it. How well can you play the game? How well can you game the auction houses and art dealers? How thoroughly can you game yourself?
If you (like the Russian oligarch who purchased the Salvator Mundi from a French Freeport owner are stuffing away your potential fake in Freeport storage units, then art is a safe, untraceable transaction far from Interpol or Vladimir Putin. As an investment it is unrecorded in any bank unless it’s the safely corrupt Cyprus Bank which deals with foreign transactions from corrupt leaders, and practices money laundering.
Such art has no significance to oligarchs, least of all the meaning of “the savior of the world” Salvator Mundi, which may be a joke to the oligarch or afterward MBS who purchased it anonymously as revealed by the FBI art crime bureau. If you truly care about seeing the Mona Lisa or a work of Rembrandt, then the corruption of viewing a fake is monstrous. The reason why the public purchases memberships in museums and donates millions is because they believe what they view is the “real deal.” The fiasco with the sales of the Salvator Mundi and its dubious authentication based on faith has exposed the art industry’s realm of “alternative realities” and the grand con possibilities. Is it or isn’t it a fake? Only the “little people” are self-righteously outraged if what they look at are fakes hanging in the walls of prestigious museums.
Auction houses and galleries and museums have bridged the reality gap into the alternate Donald Trump/Vlad Putin universe (my intimations, not the filmmakers though it is an important theme for our time). These dealers, auction houses and their buyers justify the authenticity or value of the works they sell because they can, especially if the industry trafficks in bullshit. The honest critic or expert is unwanted then, no matter their weight in gold. These themes Andreas Koefoed raises in this profound documentary which is a sweet siren’s warning. And it gives the average museum goer the fodder to ruminate and feel rage at how art has become an untrustworthy commodity, not a historical, cultural legacy.
But billionaires don’t mind the cache that goes with owning various works, for example, MBS who was anonymous until the great reveal by the FBI. Why would the murderer of WaPo reporter Jamal Kashoggi be interested in a painting that means “the savoir of the world?” The thought of his repentance at his villainous acts of killing family and the “traitorous” reporter is laughable.
On the other hand the notoriety of buying it because he could, was alluring. Owning the painting was a way to gain acceptance and prestige. This was so much so that he enticed the curators of the Louvre that he would loan the Salvator Mundi to them as representative of the “Lost Leonardo,” the male Mona Lisa with its provenance and authenticity in doubt. They were interested, until they heard his conditions. They must hang his purchase with the clouds of fakedom wafting off it—next to the Mona Lisa. The publicity alone would be tremendous. In 2011, the UK’s National Gallery displayed the male Mona Lisa with all its warts of uncertainty so that crowds could show up and imagine it was real. For the Louvre to hang the “Male Mona Lisa” next to the “Mona Lisa” would be a validation of it, sort of like riding the Mona Lisa‘s coattails into veracity, truth and art reality.
The Louvre refused. They were not willing to display a potential fake next to their acquisition whose provenance they were certain of. And MBS, annoyed that his offer was spurned, didn’t take them up on allowing them to display the Mundi in a separate room, explaining its restoration and questionable provenance. Of course the film does not go into the irony of a MBS with all his murders on his head, owning the portrait of Christ as the “savior of the world.” It doesn’t have to. The irony is stunning as is MBS’s arrogant longing.
With the exception of museums who display art so that the public can enjoy it, this whole industry is a philistine’s game (the money lenders and buyers who trade). They could care less if David Bowie (no offense meant to this fabulous artist whom I adore) smeared some of his dung on a canvas and signed it and sold it to the highest bidder. Such was the case with Pablo Picasso who became so disgusted with the “trade” aspect of art in the hands of philistines, he used to draw on napkins at restaurants and depending upon whether he liked the wait staff or not, signed the napkin and gave it to them. In some instances, he drew it, signed it and then destroyed it as they hungrily watched. For the artist commercialization of their work is loathsome and welcome, but only if they reap the rewards in their lifetimes, which usually does not happen. However, what can be done if the vultures pick their bones clean after they’re dead and gone? No wonder Banksy rigged the shredding of his “Girl With the Baloon” after the gavel hit in an auction that garnered a record price for his work.
The Lost Leonardo presents a vital perspective of the “art industrial complex” as it were. Who decides what is great art, even if it is potentially fake and not all the experts can agree on its authenticity? The fact that it’s MBS who purchased it for (after a circuitous route of sales from $1175, to $87 million, then $127 + million) $450 million does nothing to establish its credibility. And after the National Gallery exhibited it to great celebration as a da Vinci in 2011, they mired themselves in the smut of gaming when the FBI revealed that MBS purchased it for a price which means it’s now unsaleable and unpresentable if he persists in riding on the coattails of other Leonardo paintings which he could afford, but which should not be sold to him. This is especially so after it has been proven that he ordered Kashoggi to be brutally murdered, an M.O. of his despite his vapid denials.
However, like many billionaires who remain anonymous he worked through an agent. Would the auction house have sold this work to him if they knew he was purchasing it? They know how to play the game. And as a result, they have smeared themselves and the art world with BS which is what the Dutch filmmaker subtly infers in The Lost Leonardo.
This is a film to see, if not for a good look at the painting which is mostly a restoration and therefore, is more Dianne Modestini’s effort than da Vinci’s. It finished screening at Tribeca Film Festival. Look for this beautifully edited and scripted documentary streaming on various channels or perhaps at your favorite Indie theater after its release on 13 of August. Don’t miss this Sony Pictures Classic if you love art and are interested in learning more about the specious and scurrilous art traffickers which unfortunately find dueling interests with renowned museums who cannot afford works of art, after the traffickers bid the works to obscene heights.
What does it take for women to achieve parity with men economically and socially? For the International Women’s Soccer Team (4X World Cup winners) to reach equity with the men’s team which never won a gold cup since 1930? Thus far, parity remains elusive. As a result, US Women’s Soccer are litigating their employer the US Soccer Federation for equal pay. The thrilling documentary LFG in its World Premiere at Tribeca Film Festival explores their efforts.
Structurally, documentary filmmakers Andrea Nix Fine and Sean Fine intercut the women’s magnificent athletic feats with the drama of litigation. With unprecedented access to these world class women athletes, LFG showcases how the team survives the obstacles the US Soccer Federation puts before them. Acutely, filmmakers reveal the physical, emotional and psychic demands team members face. Also, filmmakers showcase the team’s courage and resiliency in risking their jobs to create long-lasting social change with the biggest fight for women’s rights since Title IX.
With timely determination, three months before the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the players filed their class-action, gender discrimination lawsuit. Interestingly, the class-action approach often takes years. And the women don’t have years. By the film’s conclusion the team hired a new litigator. As filmmakers chronicle events in real time, the action and suspense sweep up the viewer and elicit their support and empathy for the women..
Passionately, with expressive interviews and video footage, Andrea Nix Fine and Sean Fine, unspool a vital, must-see film. The directors follow the team throughout 2019 into 2020. Indeed, with charm and cogent arguments, key players raise awareness of the financial inequities between the men’s and women’s US Soccer teams. Disparities don’t only include financial remuneration. Players discuss differences in the way their employer poorly accommodates them (travel, hotels, medical resources) despite their successes and fan support. Because the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) paid members of the USWNT less than their male counterparts for the same work, they discriminated. And this pay disparity violates the Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
With facts and figures solidifying their arguments, filmmakers illustrate the symbolism and importance of the USWNT’s lawsuit. This is especially so in a time when misogyny, a conservative political tactic (“feminazis displace men”) holds sway as a right-wing, “cancel culture” message. Initially, the women asked for $67 million, while USSF asked for the suit to be dismissed.
Undergirding the team’s worthiness, the Fines emphasize that USWNT remains the most successful in all of international women’s soccer. They won four Women’s World Cup titles (1991, 1999, 2015, and 2019). Additionally, they won four Olympic gold medals (1996, 2004, 2008, and 2012). For the coup de gras, they took home eight CONCACAF Gold Cups.
Yet, the men’s teams reap the rewards and perks despite their dismal record and fans’ lack of interest.. FIFA awarded a total of $400 million in prize money for the participants of the 2018 Men’s World Cup in Russia, including $38 million to champion France. It awarded $30 million for the 24 nations at the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France, including $4 million for the USWNT after winning the tournament. FIFA President Gianni Infantino has proposed FIFA double the women’s prize money for the next competition in two year’s time. Still, the pay would be grossly under the amounts offered the men’s teams.
As filmmakers indicate, fans overwhelmingly support the women’s team’s lawsuit globally. To publicize both sides of the case, the Fines reveal how the US Soccer Federation’s flimsy arguments nevertheless cloud the issues of parity.
Ironically, USSF does this using gender to argue its side. For example, they claim that women, not as strong as men, lack men’s skills. Thus, women don’t put forth a man’s effort and shouldn’t have equal pay. According to the USSF women’s inferior bodies inherently establish inequality. Thus, women deserve less money.
Additionally, District Court Judge Klausner created a Catch-22, then ruled against the USWST. Because the women accepted the union negotiated pay structure, the judge argued they made more money than the men. Speciously, the argument suggests a damned if you do, damned if you don’t approach. In order to play, the women had to accept the USSF’s unequal pay structure. Unfairly, women could take it or leave it. Then the judge ruled that the women received more money then the men and dismissed the case.
However, the women made more money because they won more and received bonuses. Maliciously, the USSF argued that they paid the USWNT more per game than the USMNT. Meanwhile, to do that the USWST performed at a far superior level throughout the past few years. Ironically, the USSF arguments belied the “inferiority” of women’s bodies. Indeed, the women vastly outperformed their male counterparts to begin to achieve monetary equity. Importantly, the men’s team’s base pay exceeds the women’s base pay which tops around $50,000. Thus, the USSF arguments circumvented the truth of unequal pay and the District Court bought it. Why should women have to vastly outperform men working with repeated excellence for equal pay, while men just get by on gender privilege?
Substantively, the filmmakers’ interviews and clips of the women working out, doing a second job to afford bills and supplying commentary provide the grist for this wonderful film. Unsurprisingly, Megan Rapinoe, stands out as a natural leader. Indeed, she and her team, warriors to the last, step up to their wins with ferocity. Also, filmmakers reveal the frustration and depression that follows the court decision currently on appeal. Rapinoe on the field and off spearhea ds the bravery each woman manifests in this obstacle-filled situation. Additionally, teammates Kelley O’Hara, Becky Sauerbrunn, Samantha Mewis, Christen Press and Jessica McDonald prove why they win on and off the field.
In leading the fight for equal pay, these women represent women globally. And global fans back them. During the process the head of the USSF, Carlos Cordeiro, stepped down and Cindy Parlow Cone VP took his place. No matter, the team moves on, doing TV interviews and garnering even more support for their cause. Taking huge risks, they champion women’s demands for equal rights, equal pay, equal representation. In their celebration of these individual winners and our US International Women’s Soccer Team, filmmakers rally to the cry “LFG.” “Let’s F*cking Go.”
To see this frustrating, amazing and inspiring film, check into HBOMAX ON JUNE 24 where it is streaming.
If you are a fan of Jackie Collins’ florid and racy descriptions, plots and characters, and especially if you adore the third wave “feminist” character Lucky Santangelo, you must run, not walk to screen the documentary LADY BOSS: The Jackie Collins Story. The documentary which lovingly and cheekily chronicles the best-selling novelist which premiered at Tribeca Film Festival 2021 is set to premiere on CNN — Sunday, JUNE 27 at 9:00 PM ET and PT.
This is a must-see for many reasons, chief of which is director Laura Fairrie’s exhaustive research on Jackie Collins. The filmmaker reveals the woman behind her characters and examines her three marriages and how she was able to negotiate the changing view of women despite hawkish criticism at the end as the #METOO movement was forming its ethos. Of course the irony is that Jackie Collins exemplified with grace, power and vitality how women must “step up to the plate,” and take charge in a world of men.
Indeed, through a series of trials and errors that Collins reversed into boons, director Fairrie reveals the arc of her life story and solidifies that Collins was an overcomer who refused to take life in all its wheels and woes on the chin. It is an amazing history of sorrow, setback, triumph and reformation and at the end, courage and legacy. Fairrie shows great equipoise in her highlighting the competition with her sister Joan Collins who encouraged her to go to Hollywood and have a film career. She reveals Collins signed a $2 million-dollar-book deal, though in no way did she display the writing talent for description and story-telling that Jackie did. Acting on film and television was Joan’s medium. On the other hand Jackie’s talents were as an observer, a listener and wordsmith who converted life into art.
Using videos from personal archives starting when the Collins sisters were young up until her death of cancer in 2015, the sourced material is extensive and Fairrie cobbles it together switching different time periods. She organizes the documentary not chronologically but via themes that threaded through in Jackie Collins’ life. Thus, we follow videos of her troubled, brief, first marriage, to manic depressive drug addict Wallace Austin to her successful marriage to second husband Oscar Lerman and her third husband “larger than life-gigolo type character” in Frank Calcagnini.
This second marriage to the co-owner of the successful London celebrity nightclub Tramp lasted 23 years. It was Oscar whose supportive encouragement initiated Jackie’s writing career. With him she finished her first book, The World is Full of Married Men. Unlike Austin who was jealous, grasping and abusive, Oscar was a loving husband and father who adored Jackie. Because he was a success in his own right, he didn’t fear playing “second fiddle” to her growing celebrity as a best selling novelist.
Indeed, to burgeon her career, he agreed to move the family to Los Angeles when Collins decided to expand her empire and publicize her novels appearing on talk shows and soliciting media to improve US market share. The move brought the sisters together and Collins, who launched her own empire writing and marketing her work with aplomb was a maverick entrepreneur in the 1980s. Interestingly, she paved the way for another novelist empire builder from Scotland, J. K. Rowling.
Wisely, Fairrie includes video interviews from a host of family and friends that include clips of her daughters, Joan Collins, her friends (wives of celebrities) and Hollywood heavyweights at parties that Jackie went to (Michael Caine, etc.). In one segment, three friends share how they were Jackie Collins “best” friend. Another celebrity friend ironically indicates that Jackie was so saavy as to make everyone she spoke to feel important and loved.
She apparently also did this when she did book tours, signings and talks. There is a clip of Jackie taking the time to briefly chat with women fans creating long lines. However, her readers, who always came back for more, felt it was worth the wait to talk to the beautiful and talented novelist.
Jackie Collins’ life was difficult, especially with her third husband who was abusive. And it must have been heart-wrenching when she battled stage four cancer when no one knew or understand what she was going through, i.e. at times she had difficulty walking because she was in pain. However, her persona of “being Jackie Collins” moved her forward so that she triumphed with mind over matter determination. Much of the persona she created to discuss her novels helped her market herself and her works. Thus, she was able to rise to the top and have her novels serialized on television. Currently, her novels are contracted for films.
The smooth, lovely Jackie Collins persona arose especially when she was challenged for writing belittling characters who were not worthy of the fourth wave of feminism. She was measured, controlled and steely eyed in her responses, though the harsh critics attempted to bloody her. Sadly, they were intellectually inferior, missing the positive impact she had to empower women.
Though you may not be a fan of Collins’ racy, sexy, sometimes softly raw “hot and heavy” descriptions, her characters explore women’s sexuality and assertiveness as men’s was explored by Ian Fleming of James Bond fame. Her women are as bold and as assertive as men. She thrillingly portrays them so to demonstrate the intelligence and allure of inner strength and they eschew being men’s toys. The beauty of Collins’ work is that she elevated the esteem of women at a time when they needed to feel powerful sexually. She loosed women from the categories of “whore” and “slut” that women often used competitively against each other. She gave women permission to explore and revel in their own identity.
Collins’ descriptions openly presented sexual women who enjoyed the pleasure they found. For that reason her novels are a success. Though the current wave of feminism which is hyper-aware of men’s predation, having suffered through the menopause of late revelation (i.e. Placido Domingo’s forward behavior of forty years ago) her writing is skilled, arousing and delicious. It is also brilliant, maverick and underestimated by intellectually dense “trending” women’s groups. Collins’ novels raised the consciousness of women so that they examined their gender beyond men defining it for them. In that she is a vital chapter in how women historically see themselves as free, whole beings. Of course Collins’ characters are a danger to men who would oppress women so that they remain objects to be abused and manipulated.
Interspersed between Collins’ home life and relationships, Fairrie indicates how Collins’ writing also reflected who she was. Thus, in select parts in the documentary she has hosts read from Collins various novels. The result is ironic and humorous.
LADY BOSS: The Jackie Collins Story is an important retrospective on a women entrepreneur who broke the mold created by men to keep women unsettled and easily dominated. She did this in her home life and how she approached the obstacles life placed before her. She used the therapy of work to muscle quietly through when Oscar died of prostate cancer which he didn’t discuss or burden the family with. And though her third husband businessman Frank Calcagnini was jealous and abusive, once again her work embodied her strength to face his death from a brain tumor.
LADY BOSS: The Jackie Collins Story premieres on CNN June 27th at 9 PM. Look for it; you’ll be glad you did.
Ascension, Jessica Kingdon’s documentary feature explores the rise of capitalism in the communistic political system of China. Accepted in the feature documentary category at Tribeca Film Festival (which it won) Kingdon’s film defies linear documentary structure. The documentary is a uniquely impressionistic portrait of Chinese culture and society. Thus, Kingdon turns filmmaking chronology on its head by using Chinese delineations of class structure to organize her film.
Highly visual, Ascension slices into cross sections of China’s lower, middle and upper classes. With minimal use of dialogue or voice-over narration, she presents a vision of the new China. Pointedly, the observer follows each segment of economic society clearly categorized and stuck in it place. Importantly, we note the individuals caught in the strata like one-celled creatures made part of a gigantic, layered, interdependent whole.
Initially, Kingdon begins with freelance workers looking for jobs at a street sight where agents hawk menial jobs for low pay. From there she moves through the various locations revealing what these jobs entail. Essentially, the factory work, like all factory work on an assembly line remains mindless and robotic. Nevertheless, the jobs promise a better lifestyle in the city. Importantly, these workers manifest China’s evolution from an agrarian economy. And as we follow, we see our recent past, our industrial revolution, manufacturing, automation. Ironically, with outsourcing, China’s factories of immense scale have long overtaken ours. Subsequently, Kindgon reminds us that we have been engulfed by the stratification of Chinese economic development.
Deftly, Kingdon explores how the Chinese pursue their version of the American Dream, Chinese style. Through gradual visual revelation Kingdon identifies the various factory locations. Then she manifests how their manufacturing produces product for middle class consumers. Often these are products the lower classes cannot easily afford. As a result each class depends on the other as they redefine the meaning of success for their class.
Nevertheless, the Chinese culture’s economic divide categorized by labor, consumerism and wealth mirrors the worst of our economic history. As menial cogs in the wheel of production, workers struggle through long hours. Meanwhile, the middle class mercantiles promote consumerism. Indeed, considered successful, they enjoy the fruits of the lower classes’ labor. Likewise, the wealthy upper classes revel in leisure time and find indulgent ways to waste it as an affordable luxury.
Of course as with its counterpart of the American Dream in the U.S., the “Chinese Dream” can only be attained by a few. Sought after by all who climb the economic ladder who would integrate into society, the dream is magical thinking. And like all fairy tales, it dissolves and diminishes each day of boring labor, routine and relative poverty.
Shot in 51 locations across China, Kingdon’s work strikes at the heart of the issues China and the U.S. face today. How does an evolving nation remain strong economically yet keep the divisions of wealth equitably stable? Ultimately, in the pursuit of the fairy tale, even the wealthy find meaninglessness and purposelessness inescapable facts. That a historically philosophical culture panders to materialism, hedonism and global domination remains ironic. Indeed, at the film’s conclusion Kingdon suggests that the meretricious values of the U.S. infected Chinese culture in the negative. And her documentary warns of the cultural and spiritual dissolution that comes with embracing such values.
Ascension’s sound design, cinematography and editing become the mainstay to elucidate Kingdon’s visual expressions. The film premieres in Tribeca’s Documentary Competition on 12 June. Check out the Tribeca FF link HERE.
The inherent charm of Lennon (Sylvia Mix) the protagonist in Poser, in its World Premiere at Tribeca Film Festival 2021 is that she embodies what average talents reflect, the yearning to go past fandom, the need to be a part of something larger than herself; to be somebody, to belong. And if that means reporting on artists, to receive a smidgen of their glory, it is enough. On the other hand obsessions take root in stoking the need to crawl into the celebrity’s skin. This is especially so if one lacks the ability, confidence or ambition to work very hard to achieve what artists of all stripes have: talent and/or the work ethic to achieve the skill to stumble into talent and originality.
Such is the stuff that Poser is made of. Written by Noah Dixon and directed by Dixon and Ori Segev, Poser explores and provides a cross section of the soul of an individual who circles burgeoning artists. Oftentimes, like Lennon Gates (a coolly deep and therefore opaque Sylvia Mix) they are seekers and searchers who have not yet defined themselves but who yearn to ride the coattails of the celebrated and connected artist. And one way to achieve any connection with the talented is to report on them and therefore convince oneself of the illusion of being a part, yet remaining so apart, they never honestly connect because they are posing as celebrity, but are only a wannabe.
Emotionally a cypher, Lennon Gates, a dishwasher and hotel worker by day and music groupie by night, insinuates herself into the art and music scene in Columbus, Ohio. Persistent in first digitally recording via her phone then transferring the recordings to tapes, she collects experiences and teaches herself to interview for her own podcast in a DIY fashion. Her subjects are the musicians and artists who are beginning to “make their bones,” in the business.
As she meets these singers and bands who identify their own music with hysterical abandon as they take themselves seriously, Lennon does too. She keenly watches and provides an audience and the publicity, however, smallish it is. She, too, is “making her bones,” as a quasi reporter who is not quite a hanger on, though Dixon satirizes reporters who never are the talent, but who ride the coattails of celebrities so some of the glam rubs off.
Being in the right place at the right time after hanging on and around the Columbus, Ohio’s underground music scene, Lennon has a breakthrough. She endears herself to the charismatic, energetic and fun-loving Bobbi Kitten (the real Bobbi Kitten) and becomes a member of Kitten’s crew for partying and enjoying their youth and drugs. That Lennon perceives her relationship with the talented Kitten means she has arrived is reflected in a turning point which is symbolic and foreshadows the abrupt ending.
For company Gates keeps a goldfish. The irony is superb, for the “pet” requires nothing deeply emotional from her caretaker except a shake of food and clean water. Apparently, even those simple tasks are too onerous for Lennon. When we see her flush the goldfish down the toilet bowl to join the sewage of Columbus, this signals her transformation to come. She plays guitar and sings for Kitten who encourages her. Influenced by her relationship with Kitten and her posse, Lennon attempts to come into her own, except she has little to recommend herself. However, riding Kitten’s magnanimous, compelling and sterling coattails, Lennon believes her own delusion that she, too, can be a singer, performer and entertainer like Kitten.
Noah Dixon’s intriguing script and the spot-on cast, especially Kitten and the superb Mix and other performers who city natives will recognize provide a thrilling and compelling expose of the dangers of fandom, the need to be worshiped and admired, and the absolute consummation of music and art in the souls of entertainers, performers and wannabes of the burgeoning next generation that is happening. Segev’s and Dixon’s direction is anointed. The music from the Columbus “scene” to the ancillary moodiness and suspense riffs that overtake the warmth of the various groups also is spot-on and memorable.
From music to editing, to cinematography and acting, Poser delivers from beginning to ending. For a first time out, every “i” is dotted and every “t” crossed. Poser is one to see. It’s screening at Tribeca Film Festival until 23rd of June. Click HERE for details.
Sometimes, wisdom hides in simplicity. When His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu agreed to a sit down on camera, the delightful and profound Mission Joy–Finding Happiness in Troubled Times emerged. Screening in Tribeca Film Festival 2021 Online Premieres, the documentary offers a welcome perspectives from these icons of peace. Mission: Joy-Finding Happiness in Troubled Times remains an important film for our time.
Indeed, Mission: Joy-Finding Happiness in Troubled Times directed by Academy Award®-winner Louie Psihoyos reveals the humanity of these divines. First, the New York Times bestseller The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World inspired the film. Secondly, Psihoyos highlights the great friendship between these two mischievous spiritual brothers. Third, book coauthor Doug Abrams’ questions, provide the pathway to discovering their lightheartedness. Psihoyos emphasizes their process of staying the course while confronting human nature’s most egregious manifestations of wickedness.
As Psihoyos showcases the exchange between these two humble men of different faiths and backgrounds, we marvel at their relationship. Not only do they tease each other, they express affection, hold hands and share endearments as old friends. Ironically, they hail from entirely disparate backgrounds and life philosophies. Yet, their similarity remains in their advocacy for their people and encouragement to triumph over oppression.
For Tutu South Africa’s Apartheid oppressed and destroyed his people and culture. However, he and the ANC led massive protests to change world opinion and the government. Similarly, His Holiness the Dali Lama escaped his country of Tibet in the face of China’s aggression. Ironically, his escape elevated his global renown and respect.
Intriguingly, Buddhism meets Christianity in Mission: Joy. And Tutu’s adjures that the Dali Lama’s confrontation with China freed him to be an ambassador of peace to the world. If the Chinese foresaw how their war-like actions might increase the Dali Lama’s reach and influence, they surely would have acted differently. Thus, Tutu affirms that every action against us holds opportunities for strength and triumph. We have only to envision it. Once envisioned determination grows to bring it to pass.
Rounding out their stories, the filmmaker uses archival footage. And indeed the commentary from van Furth and the Dalai Lama’s translator Thupten Jinpa Langri, clarify the differences between these Noble Prize winners.
In order to provide video access, the men agreed to meet over 5 days at the Dalai Lama’s residence in Dharamsala. As a result, the never before seen footage reveals the treasured acumen of these elders. Surely, the fiery trials they faced refined them for peace and joy. In order to understand the breadth of what they faced, Psihoyos includes graphic renderings. Additionally, Tutu’s daughter Mpho Tutu van Furth fills in salient moments of her Dad’s backstory. Additionally, she likens their enthusiasm, delight and innocence in each other’s company to that of children. Significantly, their advanced age and keen minds reflect their inner contentment and satisfaction. In light of the troubles they endured, their joyful relationship, love and inner peace provide an example for us to mirror.
With respect and affection, these unlikely friends share their simple, infinite wisdom in Mission: Joy-Finding Happiness in Troubled Times. How easy their sage maxims flow off their tongues. Yet, how impossible for us to be generous, selfless, humble, forgiving. We need to hear such maxims again and again. For only with practice and mindfulness as these two men have accomplished can daily peace and joy be ours.
In its extraordinary perspective of these mavericks of goodness, Mission: Joy is a balm for soul wounds. Indeed, in its hope it reveals if these individuals can employ the wisdom of joy, so can we. It is only a matter of doing.
For more on the film and its screenings since Tribeca Film Festival 2021 has ended CLICK HERE.
I screened and reviewed Banksy Most Wanted as a Tribeca Film Festival offering, which appears on https://blogcritics.org/ and in a longer review: https://caroleditosti.com/2020/04/29/banksy-most-wanted-a-tribeca-film-festival-review/
I enjoyed the film which raised questions about the confluence of Banky’s art and Banksy’ anonymity. Would his art have the power it does if his identity is disclosed? The film, directed by Aurélia Rouvier and Seamus Haley delves into the Banksy myth and reality with a profound and in-depth portrait of a man who performs a great service to humanity which happens to be illegal. I had the opportunity after screening and writing the review to chat with directors via email about the film and how they arrived at their subject.
What inspired you to do a film about Banksy?
If you think of a Banksy piece, like the one he did in a bathroom during the lockdown for example. If the minute after you have seen it, you can imagine the man doing the stencil, because you know his face, his name, you know in which town the house is, you know that his wife and his 13-year-old son or daughter is probably behind the door.. it is immediately less fun.
When did both of you first learn about Banksy?
The “romantic” reality of the starving artist exploited by predatory promoters has been turned on its head by the graffiti artist, political activist and filmmaker Banksy. Over the past two decades Banksy has bested art dealers and beat them at their own game. In the process he has hyped up his own notoriety and sweetened his Robin-hood-like credibility by remaining anonymous to all. That is, all except the few sworn to secrecy who are privileged to be his inner circle.
Banksy Most Wanted, directed by Aurélia Rouvier and Seamus Haley, is a Tribeca Film Festival offering that I screened recently. I enjoy that Banksy thrives on anonymity, travels the world and uses buildings as his canvases. He paints and stencils ironic hieroglyphs, insuring they are accessible to the multitudes who appreciate his stark images and socially important messages. Cleverly, rakishly he tantalizes and exploits art dealers who would traffic his work like vultures.
In their straight-shooting documentary Rouvier and Healey visit a multitude of locations. Using a mixture of video news clips and their own cinematography, they investigate the Banksy ethos with depth and humor. First, they chronicle his origins in Bristol, UK. Next, they trace his evolution from the 1990s. For then he painted by hand. Subsequently, he decided upon spray painting. With it he could cover more mileage. Therefore, upping the ante by preparing stencils in his studio beforehand, he left off labor intensity. Most probably, stenciling offered the ease and speed to get in and out of locations without detection.
More recently, Banksy’s evolution extends to outrageous, live installations. Irreverently, he painted a live elephant in Los Angeles riling animal rights activits. For the sheer cheek of it, he unleashed 200 rats in a London gallery. And with a nod to her sainthood, he embellished a portrait of Mother Teresa with the words “moisturize everyday.”
Identifying his most famous works in Bristol, London, Paris and New York, Rouvier and Healey relate the impact of these Banksys on the surrounding community. In one instance a town litigated a dealer who took “their Banksy” which had great significance to them. They refused to allow him to steal the honor of Banksy selecting Port Talbot, Wales as a site for his art.
To establish ownership the dealer purchased a garage wall with the Banksy located in Port Talbot, Wales. Subsequently, he removed it with cranes to carve the images from the concrete to auction them off. As a result, the town sued him. During the litigation he discovered the art’s value to the community. Indeed, they believed Banksy had chosen their town to bless with his work.
Interestingly, the court found that the town’s freeholder rights as a community superseded the dealer’s free-holder rights. This was a Banksy triumph for the little people and a gut-wrenching blow to the stomachs and wallets of art dealers everywhere.
The filmmakers explore a few of Banksy’s satiric, temporary art installations. For example, they revisit the 2008 Porta-Potty Stonehenge. With self-demeaning brio, Banksy dubbed it “A Pile Of Crap.” Likewise, the 2015 Dismaland Bemusement Park offered a tortured happy rides with macabre convolution. Dismaland was a “sinister twist” on Disneylands everywhere. Banksy described it as “a family theme park unsuitable for children.”
Additionally, the directors highlight his adventurous pranks. One of these incurred self-shredding the print “Girl With Balloon” at a Sotheby auction right after the banging gavel closed the purchase.
Throughout, the filmmakers question the Banksy ethos. His stenciled works increasingly find their way into areas of economic repression and cultural upheaval. Some appear in the West Bank. These, include the restored Walled Off Hotel positioned across the street from the Israeli-Palestinian West Bank barrier. All of them raise questions. Indeed, Banksy fans and critics alike interpret them as an addendum to his political activism. And they label him a postulate critic of the dominant powers who would prevent others from securing a viable place at the table of life.
With his works having become ubiquitous, Banksy globally imprints his perspective to sound the underlying truths of our reality. And his searing and irreverent statements against imperialism, capitalism, earth destruction, climate change, consumerism, poverty, corporate fascism, racism empower the viewer.
However, all is not anti-establishment. Occasionally, he counterbalances these themes and subjects with images of love, innocence and endurance. For the documentarians focus on how he makes his guerilla art a velvet weapon to war against killing and uplift peace. Furthermore, they reveal how his dichotomous images heighten the culture’s oblivion to their being accessories to enslaving and harming Third World Countries. With singularity and precision the directors emphasize how he employs juxtaposition in his creations. And they do justice to Banksy’s indictment of the West’s contributions to crimes against humanity in its greedy value of money over people.
Throughout the visual explication of Banksy’s subject matter and themes, the filmmakers delve into his message to the art world. Another lucid indictment emerges. For Banksy, great artistry moves beyond boundaries and walls of brick and mortar. It remains exclusive of hyped-up, artificiality and “Tulip mania” trends.
For this reason he has left the art world spinning in circles. As they chop up walls to obtain his works in the hope of making a bundle, he intentionally dislocates their obsession. Most recently, to thwart the rapacity of dealers, owners of buildings have become Banksy fans. They refuse to sell. Instead, they plexiglass their Banksys to protect them. With an irony of their own, they reinforce Banksy’s overarching instruction to street people. Art exists everywhere
Over the years Banksy has garnered himself and a beleaguered art world a delicious, capitalistic profit. Reputedly his worth totals up to a rumored $50 million. So, for those who admire his anti-capitalistic, anti-consumer spirit, think again. Perhaps, this anonymous rogue doth protest too much. However, the vital question remains.
Who is Banksy? For me peaking behind the anonymity becomes a crucial high point of the film. With incisive interviews, the directors weave in and out to explore three possible identities. And these they unravel, playing with the uncertainty of facts and details of “reliable” narrators. Afterward, they suggest a fourth possible Banksy.
Clearly, the directors love their subject. And they have done their homework. They’ve presented the diorama that his anonymity has served a charitable purpose . Yet, they’ve proven Banksy also serves his own interests.
Thanks to his anonymity, others have been able to claim his work, either legally or emotionally. And his fans love adding to his aura by fantasizing about who is hiding behind the name. These investigations reveal a novel perspective of the artist, his salient/sardonic world view, his links with the music scene and his entrepreneurial acumen. They also expose the importance of identity to art and society and our need to triumph over invisibility.
Through the testimonies of those who know him and have worked with him, but also of those who exploit him, hunt him down and claim him, Banksy Most Wanted paints a profound portrait of “one” of the foremost artists of our time. It concludes with the vitality of the spirit that channels through the group of artists that effect Banksys. And that makes all the difference in the world.
Banksy during the pandemic.
Apparently, Banksy is staying indoors following the UKs sheltering in place lockdown orders. However his famed mural “The Girl With A Pierced Eardrum” has received a COVID-19 update which includes a blue surgical mask.
First appearing on the side of a building in Bristol’s Harbourside in 2014, this Banksy spoofs Vermeer’s “Girl With A Pearl Earring.” But the earring incorporates Banksy’s thoughtful wall selection, an outdoor security alarm. Banky’s “girl” sports not a “pearl,” but a ‘stretcher’ supplied by the security alarm.
Wild speculation deems Banksy broke the lockdown and sneaked out to spray paint his work to give a kick in the pants to those who will tour his graffiti most probably with masks and appropriate social distancing when Bristol “opens.” However, fans argue the COVID-19 mural can’t be by Banksy who usually reveals his works on his Instagram account.
For official COVID-19 works Banksy, on his account you will find rats running amuck and making themselves at home in his bathroom. It’s captioned: “My wife hates it when I work from home.” Banksy’s irreverence during this pandemic makes this Plague go down a bit easier. #Banksy
Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere Review: ‘It Takes a Lunatic,’ The Life and Times of Wynn Handman
Anyone who has been involved in the New York City theater world knows who the prodigiously awarded Wynn Handman is. He is a lunatic indeed, with a purpose and a passion. Wynn Handman’s love is for theatrical performance, teasing out character to achieve the pinnacle of believability that allows the actor to live “onstage.”
For decades Wynn Handman has been coaching actors to get in touch with the best part of themselves and release their God given talents. His appreciation for innovative theater is as legion as his humanity. It is expressed in the countless friendships he’s had over the years with writers, playwrights, musicians, directors and artists. Billy Lyons’ wonderful documentary is an incredible testament to a great man who continues to have an impact on all in his sphere of influence.
In its World Premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, It Takes a Lunatic, director Billy Lyons (actor, director, teacher, producer and assistant to Wynn Handman) displays the man behind the mask and reveals there is no mask or gloss to Wynn Handman. Wynn is who he is, an authentic, witty, “tell-it-like-is” acting teacher, and he is this with everyone, large and small, famous or infamous, actor or layperson. Why change now? Wynn is 97-years-young and is still teaching acting. He has nothing to lose by being himself, which he always has been, “a wild and crazy guy!”
Lyons’ poignant tribute to this brilliant genius and loving artist is a lesson in learning to be real, to get to the core of oneself unapologetically, to take risks, to embrace the unique, and defy the status quo. And above all through this retrospective on Wynn, we learn that in the theatrical world, one should go where angels fear to tread to manifest the rewards of creative inspiration. Wynn has approached his life this way and has achieved what only a fearless magician would dare to even think about. He initiated The American Place Theatre and with it directed and hosted unknown and established playwrights and known writers who adapted their work into plays. Wynn allowed innovation to flourish and opened opportunities to black (Ed Bullins, Michael Bradford, Ron Milner) and Chinese (Frank Chin) and female (Emily Mann, María Irene Fornés) playwrights and actors at a time when opportunities for them were slender and doors opened infrequently.
Lyons reveals how Wynn effected this, through his own life experiences during and after the war when New York was opening up like a flower and anything seemed possible. Wynn learned from some of the best; he ended up studying with and assisting Sandy Meiser at The Neighborhood Playhouse. There he made his chops and had the grist to launch out on his own creating his own acting classes and sessions which he has continued doing for decades.
Lyons captures this dynamo through film and video interviews and archived family photos that span his early life and cover all parts in between through his marriage, later family life and continuous career, from 1949 up until the present. Lyons captures his enthusiasm, his great good will, humor, generosity and his flexibility to understand the importance of helping to hone the talents of actors, directors and writers. Video and film clips include interviews or discussions with/about a veritable “Who’s Who” of actors, directors and playwrights who studied or worked with Wynn. A few interviewed in the film or seen in photos or film clips are Richard Gere, Joel Grey, John Leguizamo, Bill Irwin, Raul Julia, Sam Waterston, Frank Langella, Sam Shepherd, Eric Bogosian, Michael Douglas, Dustin Hoffman, Mira Sorvino, Susan Lucci, Woody King Jr, Faye Dunaway and many more.
Lyons includes historical clips from his acting and coaching classes as individuals discuss Wynn Handman’s approach toward his actors which was unlike many of the other acting teachers in the city who were austere and frightening. Every actor interviewed from Michael Douglas to Richard Gere tells anecdotes and experiences they had with Wynn, many humorous, all of them praiseworthy. He is the ideal acting teaching who dispels fear, encourages, comforts with his wise, calm demeanor. He knows just when to tell a joke or make one laugh. His suggestions and perceptions are superlative. From the introductory applause in the theater as Robert De Niro introduced Billy Lyons and the film, one could tell that Wynn’s hundreds of fans-many of them working actors and directors were present to support him. They gave him and Billy Lyons a standing ovation before and after the film.
The list of celebrities who studied with Wynn is impressive. Many of them have gone on to be award winners. Lyons includes fabulous black and white performance clips from some of the fascinating productions staged at The American Place Theatre and has various actors discuss their impact. Lyons delves into Wynn Handman’s close friendship with Sam Shepherd who he, in effect, put on the map by producing 8 of his plays at The American Place Theatre.
Wynn Handman conducted many series at The American Place Theatre. There was a Humorist’s series (i.e. Cavin Trillin, James Thurber, Jules Feiffer and others) A Woman’s Project Series, a Literature Series (various authors adapted their longer works into plays). Wynn encouraged the production of controversial, ground-breaking and thematically striking works.
In 1969 Wynn produced George Tabori’s The Cannibals a holocaust play which received a cool reception because the audience didn’t understand the piece as black comedy. Tabori’s play went on to be produced at the Schiller Theatre in Berlin where it received an incredible reception and outpouring of support because the Germans needed to deal with elements of the Holocaust and the play afforded them the opportunity. Tabori, a Hungarian Jew who swore he would never return to Berlin ended up moving there and becoming a vital force in German Theater. From the reception of this work, Tabori ended up writing additional plays and working in TV as opportunities opened up to him. Tabori became globally renowned and won various awards. Without Wynn Handman’s support for Tabori to present his plays, one wonders would this inspired story have ended the way it did? Lyons coverage of this segment in the history of NYC theater is monumental.
Additionally, in 1970, Wynn staged Tabori’s Pinkville starring Michael Douglas in a dynamic and highly praised performance. The play was an indictment of the US war in Vietnam. Pinkville was controversial and exceptional. It is another example of Wynn Handman’s courage in treading where theatrical producers feared to go. But in the film Handman emphasizes that The American Place Theatre was a non-profit theater, funded through subscriptions. So those who donated, paid their subscriptions because they wanted to see controversial, ground-breaking Off Broadway theater. The American Place Theatre was artistic theater in the best sense of the word and as one of the producers, Handman was free from worrying about the bottom line and commercialism that plagues NYC theater today.
The moderator of the Q & A that occurred after the screening was Jeremy Gerard who wrote the biography on Wynn Handman entitled Wynn, Place, Show. It is worth the read to review Wynn’s historical place in American theater and specifically his influence in shepherding so many sterling actors who are still working today.
The documentary superbly chronicles one man’s indelible impact on NYC theater and in particular revelatory drama. Lyons has created a gem of a film. It is a must-see for anyone pursuing a theater or entertainment career, and for those interested in how theater’s cultural impact can change lives. Look for It Takes a Lunatic online and check out their FB page.
American Factory by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert screened in its New York premiere at Tribeca Film Festival. The documentary is an alarming view of the foreign factory which may presage the downhill slide for American workers as the trend of foreign investment continues. Factories in China and Russia operate differently. And when such investment comes to the U.S., standards of accountability are not what Americans are used to. Foreign ownership dictates process and operation.
The film presents the anatomy of a GM plant closing December 2008 and its rise from the ashes in the form of a refurbished plant bought by Chinese investors. The idea to invest in the U.S. was to establish profitability. For Americans the hope was that the jobs created would bring greenery back to a state which was choking from the massive rust storms its closed industries had caused.
The devastation in industry as a result of the mortgage debacle and Second Great Depression under the Bush Administration was legion throughout the U.S. and globally. Thus, when news of the GM plant’s restoration by Chairman Cao came, there was cause for jubilation. After the dust of the launch settled, expectations shifted and the hard realities revealed themselves.
The filmmakers lay no blame and avoid a political stance. Any reference to politics is my own perspective. The filmmakers present all sides and attempt to be as objective as possible. Because of that attitude they had total access to the factory floor. Using the techniques of cinema verite and acute editing, we see interviews of workers expressing feelings and opinions. In light of the history of the American factory and unions which the film touches upon, what is now happening with foreign investment coming here and opening factories is not the boon politicians would make it out to be. Based upon what the filmmakers discovered and relate through their interviews and portraits of workers at home and on the factory floor, “the handwriting is on the wall.”
A Bit of History
When the Dayton, Ohio GM plant closed in 2008 filmmakers recorded what was a tragedy for blue collar workers. Dayton, the home of the Wright Brothers, had a prodigious history of industry and innovation. At one point it boasted the most patents per capita than any other city in the US. It was the second largest automotive manufacturing city after Detroit at a prosperous time before the Regan administration. Before the Regan years the wealthy were taxed proportionately with the other classes. The corporate tax rate was triple what it is now. The unions protected/advocated for workers and petitioned the government (OSHA) to safeguard their health and well being when there were violations. CEO salaries were not as exponentially wacked in comparison to their workers’ salaries. Workers faced low inflation: by comparison to today, there was little national debt. A single parent wage-earner was able to support a family of four and put kids through college in middle America and the South. Additionally, the medical industrial complex was not profit based.
None of this was socialism! The wealthy were taxed their proportionate fair share. It was good, old-fashioned American citizens paying to support one another’s prosperity, from the wealthy to the poor based on the graduated income tax. The extremes between rich and poor were not galactic. Banks were regulated repositories of citizen funds; they could not invest.
Ronald Regan and a conservative Republican administration exponentially increased corporate socialism otherwise known as corporate welfare. Everything changed in the nation’s economy and social/economic progress among the classes to benefit the wealthiest and slight the poor and middle class (upper middle, middle, lower middle). Republicans increasingly targeted programs for every-day Americans and pushed for more tax breaks for the wealthy. Unions were broken up. Globalism was used as the excuse, but in effect, the 60/40% power balance upended between unions and corporate higher ups to 80/20. Corporates took advantage. Greed blossomed, inequities grew. Corporations closed factories in the U.S. and went overseas, not happy to make a profit, but happier to make a mega profit to pay a hefty CEO salary and benefits to someone more interested in the bottom line than making product. Banking structure continued to change. Banks consolidated, made investments, funded derivatives, subprime mortgages and became “too big to fail.
Surreptitiously, Regan and others that followed had the laws changed to effect this, all to benefit corporates and the wealthy. There was continued downsizing, outsourcing, lower corporate tax rates, higher middle class tax rates, and lower taxes for the wealthy. Factories went overseas and Americans and farmers went bankrupt as the American Dream evaporated. With the mortgage debacle in 2008, it was the apotheosis of the death of the American Dream. Plant closures bankrupted and retrograded the lives of thousands of blue-collar workers in a chain reaction effect on other businesses.
After filmmakers covered the GM plant closing, they did an update of the area. Founder, chairman and CEO of Fuyao Glass Industry Group in a symbolic gesture acquired the old GM factory to establish an American headquarters of multinational Fuyao Glass. For the promise of hiring American workers and having it launched by American officials, he received enormous tax credits from the Ohio Tax Credit Authority. These breaks have increased under the Trump Tax Reform Act, which gives millions of dollars in tax welfare to corporations and billionaires, while making the other, poorer economic classes pay for it in a now swelling $23 trillion dollar deficit, something once considered anathema by conservative Republican tea partyists, now embraced and lauded by Mitch McConnell Republicans.
Documentarians filmed the plant launch and operations of Fuyao Glass which, to Chairman Cao’s consternation, was not immediately profitable as it would have been in China. It was losing money on top of the $500 million invested to open the plant.
Interestingly, Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert examine a cross-section of Chinese and American workers and managers to gauge the cultural differences, language barriers and work approaches. They interview Chairman Cao (a communist party leader hooked in high up to the party through his family). The Chinese workers, used to long hours and little pay are happy. American workers are upset.
The differences between the two cultures are staggering and problematic when the pressure of financial losses increases. Chinese workers, used to 10-14 hour days, find the 8 hour day unrealistic for profitability. US safety regulations established by OSHA are not understood and often ignored imperiling workers. For example Wong He, lead Furnace Engineer in OEM Tempering at Fuyao Glass America in an area where temperatures exceed 1200 F, a 20-plus-year employee of Fuyo, has burn marks all over his arms gotten in China. China’s safety regulations are not like ours. American workers file grievances, something that Chairman Cao doesn’t understand.
The Chinese and American workers try to become friends; there are humorous clips of Americans bringing Chinese workers for barbecue and for entertainment, showing them how to use guns for target practice. The Chinese workers who are away from their families and room together in tiny apartments are shocked that some Americans have to work two jobs (FGA pays $14.00 per hr.) to make ends meet. Clearly, American standards of living are not what Chinese hear about. Filmmakers interviews who lost homes, went bankrupt and live in one room in a relative’s house with few belongings. Thus, FGA seemed a dream come true. There are caveats.
In the past the former jobs at GM paid $28.00 an hour and the inflation rates and cost of living were lower. With their lower salary and higher costs, inflation and the shrinking purchasing power of the dollar, the FGA workers cannot afford to pay for their own education to retool or pay for their children’s college. Some are happy to have a job. But it is longer hours (they are not paid for training) with unsafe working conditions. The Chinese workers are younger and are used to long work hours under stressful conditions. Chinese workers come from a militaristic/communistic approach to company loyalty. They obey all commands without question, even if it means sacrificing their safety. Americans if have been used to a long tradition since unionization of asking “why?” Chairman Cao and the Chinese officials see this approach as disloyalty. They should just obey orders.
As the financial pressures increase, the Chinese attempt to show American company officials how FGA should be operated; they even pay for their visit to China to understand how plants are run. The hand of the Communist Party is all over the company in China; there are songs, banquets and entertainment to praise Fuyo Glass and the Chairman for his goodness. The sessions appear like brainwashing PR advertisements which inculcate the workers to be loyal, obedient employees for the good of the company/communist party. The visit to mainland China is an eye-opener.
Though American managers who visited China attempt to rein in their American workers when they return home, the historical, socio-cultural and economic disparities get in the way. Everything explodes when American workers at FGA attempt to unionize with the help of the U.A.W. Chairman Cao will not brook this assault on his company. He hires American lawyers and lobbyists to thwart unionization and mount an attack campaign against the union so workers will vote it down. The firm he hires, the Labor Relations Institute is paid over one-million for its assistance to provide everything that Chairman Cao and Chinese managers (Chairman Cao brings over new managers to tackle what the American managers can’t) need for the union vote to fail.
Filmmakers catch all of these interactions on camera and edit cogently so we understand the events with voice over explanations by workers. Surveillance of union representatives at FGA is taken. The right of the worker to voice complaint is discouraged; union reps who work at the plant are the equivalent of traitors. The vote fails; FGA has no union. There are promises made to lift the employee wages. Eventually, with no profitability, American management is fired; union reps are fired and anyone who gives “what for” or doesn’t work at the level required of their Chinese counterparts is put on notice. Retribution for asserting the right to speak out will occur, thus workers fear filing grievances with OSHA. At the end of the film’s shooting in December of 2017, a Fuyao employee was accidentally crushed to death. Additionally, to avoid conflicts in the future, the plant is being increasingly automated. Regardless, workers will be out of jobs, even if they prove loyalty.
Is there any way of knowing what injuries are occurring or what violations are happening in a corporation in the US, a foreign run company, which follows Chinese policies and practices? Only whistleblowers could reveal this; but they need their jobs and would be fired if the the identity of the whistleblower was revealed. The law of profitability is supreme, under a system of loyalty to the Chairman and the company which expects its workers to meet its own standards, not American standards.
Since the film the number of OSHA complaints against the company is down-exactly why is not known. The company has been profitable in 2018; but one of the stipulations for tax incentives of $15 million is that the company fulfill its promise to hire 800 employees, generate an annual payroll of $32.5 million and stay at their current facility for at least 18 years. Filmmakers also discovered that in March of 2018 a Fuyao employee was accidentally killed while working. Fifteen years ago in plants across the nation, to avoid citations, OSHA standards were being followed and the press would have publicly shamed the company.
Chairman Cao is spending $16 million to build a new processing center in South Carolina. It’s a new day. Foreign investment is here. It’s been a long time coming. Those in the “know” needed to prime the nation for such a situation with sub prime loans, so workers could go bankrupt, corporations could make more money overseas, the unions could be broken and those pesky regulations could be obviated. All of this happened and happens so that corporations pay little for a desperate, broken-down, poor, workforce, and foreign companies find the US an attractive place to invest, helped by politicians looking to make a little spare change for their states and themselves. But as automation takes over jobs, much of the need to oversee human production will be moot.
How do we handle the coming foreign factories that are populating our American landscape, offering jobs at what cost to Americans?
The situation has exponentially worsened under Trump. Workers are expendable and invisible; the rule of law and regulations are a thing of the past. No one is watching except Chairman Cao, and other foreign corporate chairmen and Trump. They are watching their bottom line at the expense of workers and the American people. But don’t believe what I’ve written here. See the film for yourself. Corporate socialism has everything to do with what is happening to the “American” Factory. Equitable economic, democratic practices and tax structure had everything to do with why the U.S. was thriving up until Regan. Only the .001% are increasing their wealth exponentially. The reset of the nation is treading water or drowning in rust. Automation will exacerbate these problems.
The film is truly a siren call to citizens in the South and in the Rust Belt who are debilitated and hurting economically, despite promises by Trump. Fox News reports which ADVERTISE for the next election, a “booming economy” (yes for billionaires and Wall Street) are great sources of brainwashing to convince Americans that the shrinking purchasing power of the dollar is not happening and their existing paycheck to paycheck is a good thing. Just don’t get sick. The film posits what is happening and I’ve suggested this is no coincidence if you look at the larger picture. The economy is global. Corporations are not bound by nation-states,’ laws. They are free; their CEOS make incredible salaries; workers can’t afford a night out on the town if they have children. And under Citizen’s United, corporations are people; they can donate any amount they like to their preferred political candidates to perpetuate corporate welfare.
An example of foreign investment that is happening as I write this concerns Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska who is bringing money and jobs to Mitch McConnell’s state of Kentucky after Trump lifted heavy sanctions applied by Obama. against Russia for the Crimean invasion. Oleg Deripaska,Putin’s close friend, is building an aluminium factory in Kentucky. Deripaska has a history of looting, money laundering, corruption, silencing whistleblowers (one woman who shot her mouth off that Deripaska knew about Russian meddling with the U.S. election has been jailed in Russia). Deripaska/Putin have covered up corruption that is the basis of his oligarchic empire which he is making global with the help of Trump and McConnell.
If Deripaska is given carte blanche treatment to “stimulate jobs,” for McConnell’s Kentucky, his company will not ipso facto be subject to former American factory standards, especially if Trump and Mitch McConnell (who has turned a blind eye to Russian meddling in the 2016 election, the Mueller Report’s findings of potential conspiracy and definite obstruction of justice) are in power. If the company pollutes and run roughshod over American workers? Only an aware public and vigilant government can stop any abuse by a company that is processing one of the most toxic substances on this planet, a poison connected to Alzheimer’s and other debilities.
Under Trump, the skies are the limit with foreign investment and foreign companies coming to the US to “create jobs.” There are no regulations worth keeping to improve the profitability of corporations. US tax payers will be subsidizing these corporations and individual states will be subsidizing tax breaks; certainly Mitch McConnell and the Kentucky state tax commission will be offering Oleg Deripaska tax breaks as a condition of hiring American workers. One wonders what else McConnell and others from Kentucky will be offering to “bring jobs” to one of the poorest states in the Union?
If we learn anything from American Factory, we will note that unless guarantees are made with workers, foreign investment will not improve American citizens’ plight and the economy in states that are hurting. Coupled with workers’ inability to easily retool and get an education (they cannot afford it because of bank strangleholds on student loans and interest rates) their options are so limited they are forced to work in such foreign industries for lower pay and questionable safety conditions. The vicious cycle will continue and the divide between rich and poor, the coastal cities and the red States will exponentially worsen. We must ask who does this foreign investment help?
This is a film worth seeing and thinking about. The point is to keep on learning. Ignorance is not a luxury we can afford.