And now, a pair of movies treating on a single theme – the lack of personal security to accompany the economic implosion of 2008 – though they treat on it in wildly different ways.
Michael Covel’s first film, Broke: The American Dream, is a documentary about how we got here, why we’re not moving anywhere very fast, and what sorts of things you – yes, you! – should be doing to safeguard your future in a global economy that has revealed itself once and for all as being primarily disinterested in the economic well-being of individual people.
The film cleaves into two parts, and they’re not really the same film, nor do they aim at the same goal, but each of them individually serves its purpose admirably. The first half of the movie is concerned with the economy as such – the shady lending practices, coupled with shocking governmental irresponsibility and widespread personal foolishness, that created an unsustainable housing speculation bubble in the first half of the ’00s. Very little of this information will be, strictly speaking, “new” to anyone who has been paying close attention, but it seems fairly clear that this isn’t Covel’s intended audience: Broke is nothing if it’s not a primer on basic economic behavioral theory, pitched to viewers who might not know all that much about banking legislation, or the behavior of currency in a free market, but who do know that they’ll be fighting their own children for a job handing out carts at Wal-Mart.
And the film certainly does a good job quickly summarising the many foolish actions that were the proximate cause of this crash, in a no-nonsense, straightforward way that is resolutely pragmatic and completely apolitical. This is, I think, the best approach for Covel to take; he doesn’t want to scare people or raise a rebellion, but to communicate quickly and clearly, “take responsibility for your part in this system and do whatever you can to fix things on your end – because damn, those banks sure aren’t going to make life easier for you.”
The second half of the film largely abandons the initial inquiries into the structural rot that brought us to this point, and emphasises the ways that average Americans can get back on their feet, which in Covel’s view is largely a matter of playing the stock market in an intelligent, emotion-free way. The transition between these two phases of the film makes it somewhat invisible that there’s a change happening at all: Covel rightly brings out scorn for the ad-driven media vultures that hype bull markets and offer terrible buying advice that encourages senseless, uneducated stock speculation. Jim Cramer, in this film’s eyes, is one of the chief architect of our present woes; hard to disagree with the sentiment, anyway.
Now, Covel is a stock guy – he’s written two books on the stock market, and he clearly wants other people, poor people, the little guys at the bottom of the ladder, to gain the same savvy that successful traders have, and thus trade with intelligence and confidence, instead of blindly following media market reporting like sheep. So it’s not inexplicable that his prescription to fix the current economy would be so largely founded on stock-based solutions. At the same time, it’s a bit weird and disappointing to see a film that begins with a vast study of the systemic problems affecting our economy as a society end up as a well-produced and exceedingly smart infomercial for the individual investor. Not that being an individual investor is a bad thing, necessarily, nor is the stock market a demon beast that can never make anyone wealthy ever again. But the merciless narrowing of scope down from the cultural to the personal leaves the film feeling a bit too modest and unambitious.
Excepting that – and not jumping into political considerations at all, though if I were going to do so, I’d grouse about Covel’s attachment to the structures of American capitalism and wonder just what exactly it would take to show these people that the free market isn’t the be-all and end-all – Broke is a well-mounted work, clearly shot on a decent budget with numerous entertaining cutaways to old educational films explaining how credit and the market works, and therefore showing that our current problems have their roots in decades-old patterns of thought; and Covel’s access to whip-smart economists and traders from around the world gives the film an added layer of intellectual sincerity. If there’s one significant flaw in the movie, it’s the curious amount of energy spent criticising the federal government for legislating against online poker while encouraging the spread of state lotteries; I certainly agree with Covel’s moral position here, but I really don’t see what the function of this material is to the whole, unless he’s actually trying to argue that poker-playing is a viable way to shore up one’s retirement accounts.
Jason Baustin’s short “Change Is Coming” only about the economic meltdown by implication: John, who has lost his fiancée and his job, is put on alert that he’s about to lose his apartment, too, and this pushes him into a soul-searching quest, hoping to find out what (if anything) all this suffering and loss is meant to mean. As he moves from one classical source of fulfilment or enlightenment to another (religion, drugs, sex), he becomes increasingly agitated and violent at the idea that “everything has a reason”. We might assume that everything does have a reason, but if that reason is unclear or make no damn sense, that’s not much of a comfort.
“Change Is Coming” wears its smale-scale production on its sleeve, mostly in the none-too-realistic looking sets and the couple of stilted performances, but it has its heart in the right place, and the fairy tale tone of our protagonist’s journey serves to make the somewhat unrealistic dialogue seem much awkward – this is a journy of the soul, after all, and heavy-handed conversations about fate and meaning are part of that process. And despite its cheapness, Baustin has a good eye for the camera, using close-ups on Myers’s face that reveal a discomfort bordering on anguish that serves the film’s themes better than all the dialouge in the world could. That the filmmaker would see fit to attack such large themes as the new loss of meaning in a world where we’ve all lost so much, with so few resources, speaks highly of his bravery; that the resultant film manages at times to be genuinely effective and moving, thanks to the main actor and the way his director frames him, is something special indeed.