Frederick Wiseman the cinema verité master was at the IFC Center last week as part of a program in which directors choose a favorite old film and then talk about it with the assembled movie freaks and film school students afterward. He chose Duck Soup with the Marx Brothers, which was prescient although not in the way he meant—I found Groucho’s aggressive humor more snarky than amusing. Everyone gets mocked and humiliated or their hat set on fire, and I remember that being funny when I was 8.
But the Marx Brothers are alive and well and not just because Fredonia’s motives for declaring war are no more flimsy than our own. Wiseman [below] was also promoting his new film, Boxing Gym, which is getting the usual raves for his technique of delicately allowing a place’s magic to unfold. You’d think all this praiseful attention would stimulate some of the new filmmakers to imitate his approach to documentary instead of the Harpo-Chico-Groucho, baseball-bat style we usually get.
If Charles Ferguson’s attempted takedown of the finance industry, Inside Job, is any indication, succeeding generations have missed completely Wiseman’s principal lesson, that things can be shown instead of described if you have the patience and the wit to watch closely. Ferguson mostly manages to take down himself as he obtrudes again and again into the predictable interviews with finance shills and prosperous economists [like the Bush-vintage suit below] to tell his subjects that they’re assholes.
They, not surprisingly, take offense as they’re meant to, and since we’ve already decided that anyone with ‘banker’ in his job description is an evil creep, we get to watch them squirm in the kleig lights. Ferguson could have shortened the film by just taking out a pair of scissors and clipping the guys’ ties.
I don’t know what Ferguson thinks he is accomplishing by this provocation routine, which isn’t even zany and faux-serious like Michael Moore’s. Moore at least lets us have some fun for our $12 while Ferguson’s background lessons on mortgage finance are old news, primitive and not even graphically interesting. The result is 90 minutes of reassurance that we are virtuous and the world is run by venal rich people, including Obama’s top economic advisors.
Given the perilous state of our polity, these self-indulgent exercises are just not good enough. The times call for serious thinking and principled opposition, not tweaking noses for a few cheap laughs.