Monday, 19 June 2017

"The Founder" - National myth and the art of the deal.

Every day, the fast food restaurant McDonald's feeds 1% of the world's population. It started out a tiny burger joint in San Bernardino, California. The McDonald brothers, who had failed to break into Hollywood, failed to make it owning a cinema and failed at owning a drive in, decided to refine their product in one last-ditch attempt to break even. 

The Founder is the story of American Capitalism. Specifically, the two kinds of American Capitalism. That which was brought over from Northern Europe with the first settlers. And that which developed as the Twentieth Century progressed after the war. All told through a neat little story about flipping burgers. The German sociologist Max Weber wrote a book about the first kind. It was called 'The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism'. In it, Weber argues that Protestantism, and especially Calvinism, provided the foundation upon which Capitalism could properly thrive. The Calvinists believed very firmly in the existence of a heaven and hell. They also believed there were a finite number of seats laid out in heaven. A practicing Calvinist would never know, until he or she died, whether or not they'd lived a good enough life to be admitted through those pearly gates.

It was essential, then, for your 16th Century Northern European Calvinist to toil away thanklessly. To build his business steadily, contribute to his community and take a meagre portion so he could get by until he was called by his God. It was this dogged, conscientious business acumen, Weber argued, steeped in the mortal dread of the fiery afterlife that enabled Capitalism to prosper and small businesses to flourish. It's no coincidence that the Northern Europeans who settled the North of America in the 16th and 17th Centuries were by enlarge German and British Protestant stock. Scottish Protestant families like the McDonalds would have numbered greatly in those first ships over to the New World.

Benjamin Franklin laid out the ethos pretty concisely.

Remember, that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides. [...] Remember, that money is the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on. Five shillings turned is six, turned again is seven and threepence, and so on, till it becomes a hundred pounds. The more there is of it, the more it produces every turning, so that the profits rise quicker and quicker. He that kills a breeding feline taint, destroys all her offspring to the thousandth generation. He that murders a crown, destroys all that it might have produced, even scores of pounds.

There's a protracted scene in The Founder which is necessarily tiresome. It involves the McDonald brothers perfecting their revolutionary 'fast food' system. They chalk down some lines on a tennis court, denoting where the grill is, where the fryer sits and the serving stations, and then painstakingly test out how their new employees will function between those lines. They pause, wipe out and redraw all the lines again and again until the system is perfected. It's at this point you start wondering if you've bought into a two hour ad for McDonald's. But you haven't.

For Weber, this steadfast ethic lay in stark contrast to the Catholic outlook. For Catholics, it was possible to sin, to be lax, to slip from your duties, and spend time enjoying yourself. This was because all you had to do was confess to a priest and you'd be grated absolution. Your seat was once again guaranteed in heaven.  At an early point in the movie, we witness Ray Kroc, the titular 'founder' a failed milkshake machine salesman, alone in a motel room, drinking cheap whiskey and listening to an LP called “Power of the Positive” by a fictional author named Dr. Clarence Floyd Nelson. It's a fictional recording but a very clear reference to the work of Norman Vincent Peale. It's what was at the time called 'New Thought' but is currently more widely recognised as 'Visualisation' or The Secret. In the recording, "Nelson" recommends a ' a never-ceasing flow of energy' and maintains that individual persistence trumps any talent or genius. Belief, visualisation and an ethereal mysticism are all a person needs to get ahead. It certainly got Peale ahead. He presided over the wedding of Donald and Ivana Trump in 1977.

It gets Kroc even further. In stark opposition to the McDonald's failed attempts at building a franchise slowly and with cautious regard for standards, Kroc immediately buries himself in vast amounts of debt pursuing his lone fantasy of making it. The phrase 'American Dream' is bandied about a tad loosely here. Corners are cut. Powdered milkshake replaces the original milk-based product. Ray ditches the wife who's supported him into his fifties for a younger, blonder model. Ray then ditches the McDonald brothers. He owns the real estate. He owns the restaurants. Kroc winds up bullying up a deal with the brothers to claim legal rights to their name and their 'fast food' technique. Most of the second half of the film is a procession of ugly scenes where Kroc does the brothers over again and again, to the extent one winds up hospitalised. It then transpires neither brother ever received a cent of the royalties they were promised.

The film portrays Kroc as a man possessed. Heedlessly pursuing a dream at the expense of everyone he knows and gambling everything he has. And he makes it. Why, he's invited to lecture at an event with Ronald Regan, the president who used to get his speaking cues direct from the president of Goldman Sachs stood right beside him.  For John Lee Hancock, the careful, Protestant Capitalism of Northern Europe has been usurped by the quasi-mystical fantasies of the individual 'hero's journey'. Hancock leaves us with a portrait of a man of fire and belief who works hard and gets everything he wants. But the people he burned to get there and the price paid are what lingers as the credits roll. In a closing scene, Kroc explains to one of the brothers, what he bought wasn't their system. It was the name. McDonald. It sounds so genuine, he maintains. What's inferred is the history, the stock, the generations of labour.

What's interesting about The Founder is how easily it could have been told as a story of individual triumph against adversity. Against the nay-sayers. The small-thinkers. You could even potentially film the same script that very way. It bespeaks an American mainstream culture taking a hard look in the mirror. I haven't seen a film like this one released by a major studio since maybe the eighties.

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Tuesday, 22 September 2015

How to tell if you're in a Patricia Highsmith novel.

Patricia Highsmith

How to tell if you're in a Patricia Highsmith novel.

You happen upon someone from an especially wealthy background, much less deserving than you of such luxury. This happens weekly.

Your knowledge of classical culture, from delighting in Leider by Schubert to correct appraisals of 50s American expressionism is shared by your whole social circle.

All the 50s American expressionist paintings are fakes, painted by someone you murdered.
There are certain colours of sweater, hemlines, hats, cuff-links and turns of phrase that people deserve to be murdered for.

At some point you will visit a foreign city and sample its teas and customs with a certain air that these customs are where we have come from, and should never be fallen back upon, though you will have a phase of going native, if only for an afternoon, and if only with some impoverished local who you'll thoughtlessly hurl in the trash as soon as it all stales. 

Conventions in  afternoon alcoholism must be observed at all times. Gin and tonic as an aperitif follows the two beers for lunch and the afternoon Calvados with coffee. 

You might be gay, but it would be boring to actually say so. 

Italians, French, Spanish, British and American waiters all behave completely differently, but each one adheres strictly to their national pattern. The same is true of taxi drivers, receptionists, dogs and people drinking coffee, carefree on sun-drenched patios.

You have an enemy. You may not have had one since primary school and you're fully aware life is plenty tough enough already, but you have one nonetheless. At times it will feel like you have the upper hand, then the reverse will seem true. The whole chess match will invigorate you out of the non-homicidal stupor in which you've been languishing for months.

Identities are boring. Change yours at will by adopting phonetic accents of comic genius.

Wash often, but only as a metaphor.

A visit to your next door neighbour must be preceded by a sealed letter two weeks in advance, inquiring as to their general good health and knowledge of local gossip. This is to be followed up with an afternoon telephone call, between Calvados and gin, where you can verbally dance around your mutual loathing and the plots you're fostering against one another. An invitation will then swiftly arrive by card to dinner at theirs the following night.

Nothing beats socialising with people you hate, especially in the company of people who don't especially care either way. Lace every phrase with codified references to ways you can blackmail them. You struggle to decipher their codified references.

You never derive any pleasure from food. Tinned sardines on dry crackers would do it, and frequently does, served by your maid on the veranda overlooking the tennis court with champagne.

You believe pop music is for children and Jazz is where the line is drawn as far as tolerable musical decline from Monteverdi.

There is probably a wife or girlfriend somewhere  you really ought to be getting back to if only you could be bothered.

If you liked this, you might like my novel, Sour, telling an old Irish myth as a modern murder story:
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