Showing posts with label film. Show all posts
Showing posts with label film. Show all posts

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.


Header image: GQ.com





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Sunday, 5 March 2017

American Honey and the anti-love-story




I don't mean to come across like one of those lone-fisted, self-righteous, middle class timeline revolutionaries (I say middle class, I just bought a 400 euro car) shitposting about the rights of people with whom I never interact. I say I don't want to come across that way, but I definitely will. I used to be active, I'll just say that much. But when I watch movies like American Honey I'm drawn to recall what used for me to distinguish actual leftist material by people who meant it from Guardian op-eds by guys living in Kensington. The real stuff told you what to do at the end. The purpose wasn't to get you to share the piece so you appeared all torn up about a bar chart, it was to get you out on a street someplace holding a placard. American Honey almost, almost has that feel. But instead of telling you what to do, it shows, like great cinema ought.

It's revolutionary in the way it takes a pretty standard set of tropes, the all-American road movie, a cluster of sexy, outlaw youths, a banging soundtrack and loads of luscious landscape photography, and presents an inversion of everything a movie like this typically says. It's the story of a teenage girl, Star, who we're initially introduced to dumpster diving for food with two young children, returning to an abusive stepfather and negligent mother, living in a kind of squalor shocking to witness only because you simply never see America shown this way on screen. Not without it being glamourised somehow. She bumps into Jake, played by Shia Lebeouf, and a gang of lost-boys and girls careening around in a van and causing chaos at a local supermarket. Jake offers Star a job in Kansas and, bereft of any other options, she accepts, abandons her family and gets in the van.

What she finds she's joined is a nomadic matriarchy constructed along tribal lines. The game is everyone has to sell magazine subscriptions to stay in the van. They do this door to door, approaching people in car-parks, bus stations, truck stops and oil fields. Like all true salespeople they sell themselves more than the magazines and say anything and everything to make the sale. Jake, as the top-salesman, is tasked with showing Star the ropes and right away, the initial connection between them sparks into a passionate and alluringly forbidden affair. Forbidden because Jake seems to be the property of Crystal, the aforementioned matriarch, who organises the accommodation and transport and enforces all the rules the guys and girls in the van need to stick to in order to keep on the road. Like any tribe, seemingly pointless rituals are key to the identity and success of the project. When one guys drops his trousers as a joke, the tradition is all the other guys give chase and play-fight him into submission. When anybody happens to play 'We found love' by Rihanna, everyone has to drop everything and wild out like crazy on the spot, the two worst sellers have to fight it out at end of each month and all of this is conducted in a patois of military style callouts, slogans and inter-group slang designed to bond the unit.

The most important of these traditions, though, is no couples. Jake explains to Star after they've made love that they've got to hide it from the group. It seems like you can fuck, but you definitely cannot have a relationship. The movie then becomes about Jake and Star burying and fighting their burgeoning young love in a way the viewer anticipates will end with some kind of ferocious romantic tragedy. Blood and gunfire and retribution. But this isn't what happens. In fact it's the exact opposite.

None of these kids are on their phones. Star has to borrow one at one point to check in at home, but aside from that, this is a generation and class of kids detached from an kind of a screen. They watch TV at night in motels but digest the content the same way they use the constant hip hop being blared over the van radio while they freebase and pass around the vodka bottle as breakfast. They use it to bond. The content doesn't matter. They sing along to every song the way drunks do arm in arm while the staff in clubs are already mopping up. The music is to keep them together. It's not to sell them any notions of love or wealth or freedom or political ideals. They consume it within the tribe for explicitly tribal purposes. And they're not consumers. The clothes they wear are picked out by Crystal to help them sell better in whichever district they're headed next. The food they eat and where they stay is based on what they can scare up. The only identity they have is a group identity, based in the songs and the rituals.

Visually, the film recalls everything from Easy Rider to Badlands to Larry Clark movies, which is intoxicating enough, but conceptually the story is taking us somewhere else. Jake isn't fucking Crystal. Crystal, the only person with her own motel room, fucks two, three guys a night according to her whim. She won't allow monogamy. Star has found a lifestyle which has reverted back to pre-capitalist, maybe pre-feudal times. Nomadic, skill-based, property-less, sharing commune, only one where they never once make it a political thing, never once speechify on why or where it came from. It's also decidedly not a utopia. It's brutal. The fight scene between losers is cold. They point out how the group frequently abandons poor sellers on the side of the road, only because it can't afford to carry them.

The film presents all of these rituals and laws as something Star comes to accept easily, not out of being politicised or radicalised in any way, but because she's coming from nothing. She hasn't got a phone to check in on Facebook. She can't bingewatch box sets of MadMen on a 20 year old TV with 4 channels. Fashion and nutrition and exercise and partying and the concerns of a modern nineteen year old have never been on her radar. Marx never proposed revolution as morally correct, or even as a choice. He presented it as an inevitability. What Andrea Arnold does with American Honey is to present a revolution that's bloodless and simple and almost natural progression for an underclass of forgotten people. Here's where she makes it interesting. Romantic love.

People like Adorno for years posited an idea of romantic love as a red herring. Romantic love, for a revolutionary, is a distraction from what a person truly yearns for, which is community and to be part of the nurturing group. Monogamous, romantic love between two people was designed to focus on the self, divide property up and segment communities. Right from the start, traditional monogamous love is painted as corrupted and corrupting. Star's stepfather, her mother and the environment in which they exist is toxic and doomed. But Star inevitably sees her narrative with Jake as something paving the way for a glittering future together. He for his part gives her gifts and flies into a jealous rage at the idea she might have sold herself sexually. Both characters seem headed for the tragic-romantic end, but then something else happens. Crystal pulls rank. Jake is banished. When he returns, passions have cooled. This brings us to the final scene. The van full of youths stops by a lake to bed down for the night. They start up a campfire, begin dancing around it, like any ancient tribe would have, leaping over the flames for sport, and Jake secretly hands Star the gift of a small turtle. One of many gifts from him she immediately gives away. But this one she gives back to the water. Star looks for the longest time at the group she's adopted as her community. Then she walks into the lake herself, emerging moments later to shoot upward, lashing back her dreads like a rebirth, like a baptism to something all-new.  It's a scene many struggled with. I found it fascinating. She's relinquished her romantic aspirations. She's given away Jake's turtle. She's part of the tribe now. She's learned to love not herself, but the group. The film is about someone learning not to love.

As a married man, who, let's face it, very naturally loves his wife, this presents a really confrontational outlook. Everything else I can imagine buying into, the attitude to media, property and ritual is all fine but learning to get past the love of an individual I've already fallen in love with, is shocking to me. This is what good art does. It confronts you with yourself. This sounds like some fucking aphorism you might witness on BBC4 in front of a carefully lit Caravaggio, but cinema like this nourishes you and really, annoyingly maybe, gets you talking this way. Much to the dismay of probably everyone.

Naturally American Honey went overlooked at every awards ceremony and is currently running around 79% on Rotten Tomatoes, but I can't recommend the film highly enough.















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