by Mara Jebsen
Part I. To Have Your Cake and Eat It, Too
“Lets go see the dumbest movie we can find,” I said to a friend of mine, an actor. I’d had a personal disappointment. He was chivalrous and agreed to escort me. Then we were awkwardly alone in an enormous theatre in Times Square. For nearly two hours, we cringed through “Tower Heist”, in which a star-studded cast devotes their theatrical energies towards hiding their shame at the thuddingly unfunny nature of the lines. “The dumbest movie we can find?” I couldn't help it– in my head I began to think: “In movies, as perhaps in romance, you really ought to be careful what you wish for . . .”
The stars who drew us in (Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Alan Alda, Matthew Broderick, among others) come together to make a heist movie that, for the longest time, has no heist in it. The film spends a while giving glimpses of the inner workings of an upscale hotel and delivering a pastiche of little sketches meant to allow Ben Stiller’s character, a sort of manager-concierge, to establish his relationships with the hotel staff. The multiracial cast of employees reveal themselves to be goodhearted, mock-able, sometimes stupid folk. Once its established who the villain is—the rich and charming, brilliant and evil Alan Alda character—the heist begins. But the machinations of it are so disappointing that one immediately develops nostalgia for the part of the movie that had no heist in it.
Anthony Lane, in a New Yorker of a week or two ago, reviewed the film in the only ways it can be reviewed: by a) noting how it doesn’t quite hang together as a piece of entertainment, and b) pairing it with the new Gus Van Sant film, to read “Tower Heist” in terms of its accidental 'place' in history. Like all films, it is a cultural document, but in this case special because, as Lane points out, it is one of the first films to get caught up in the VOD debate.
But I had another reading of the film as 'cultural document”. My physical experience of movie-viewing was marked by occasional spasms, during which I involuntarily shrank my spine towards the movie-seat. I must have been offended. One of my students, who knows a lot more about film than I do, said, when I mentioned this to her: “Its a Ratner movie. This is the guy who did “Rush Hour”. What did you expect?”
I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t like to see Gabourey Sidibe all got up like a maid, delivering a terrible fake Jamaican accent. Or that the jokes around her would center on her sense of herself as a terrifying sexual being. Or that, in one scene, for no reason at all, she would have a slab of chocolate cake smeared on the side of her face. If I followed the plot at all, I think that that cake was supposed to have been doped in a blunt attempt to move the heist forward, so its unclear how the character could have eaten it without ill effect. For laughs, I guess, and for my purposes a very literal example of the filmmaker “having his cake, and eating it, too.”
What I mean is: she's mocked, but is sort of 'good guy” so I suppose that makes up for it. A similar “trade-off” thing happens with Eddie Murphy’s character. When Stiller needs a criminal mind to help him with his Robin-Hood heist, he can only think of the dude he passes in the morning on the street. That’s Eddie Murphy’s character, who regularly messes with him, calls women ‘bitches’ and periodically gets locked up. But when Stiller’s character bails him out, we learn, to our surprise, that they went to pre-school together?
All of this makes me wonder whether filmmakers and screenwriters consciously or unconsciously try to defend themselves from accusations that they’ve presented harmful racial stereotypes by inserting plot lines that 'counter' that racism. The childhood intimacy posited at the base of the relationship between Stiller and Murphy's characters sort of amounts to the “I can't be a racist if I have black friends” argument. But a quick look at the history of the American South might suggest that personal intimacy between races doesn’t give anyone the particularly clear view of the Other that might be a pre-requisite for funny racial jokes.
There are more obvious manifestation of the way the film attempts to “have cake and eat it, too”. ”Tower Heist”, it could be argued, also tries to capitalize on the strain of anti-capitalism that is becoming more apparent in our media and national life. (spoiler alert)
For example, the most dramatic moments are those when Stiller’s character takes revenge on the bad boss, accusing him at tedious length of greed and inhumanity. At the end of the film, a car made of gold gets split up and distributed back to the boss’ former employees like manna from heaven.
But again, I can hear my student’s voice in my ear: “But Mara, you wanted to see a dumb movie . . .”
So I’ll drop it. But I won’t drop the magically doubled cake idea. Its reminded me too forcibly of a concept Slajov Zizek presents in “Violence”—a concept about how we misunderstand capitalism, and one which he explains by offering the analogy of a chocolate laxative.
Part II: Six of One; Half Dozen of the Other
“Violence” was published in 2008 and when I first read it, it sort of blew my mind. Zizek devotes a good portion of his first chapter (in fact, a sub-chapter entitled “The Good Men of Porto-Davis”) to characterizing the values and principles of representatives of ‘liberal communism’. These are men like George Soros and Bill Gates. According to Zizek, they are the practitioners of the ‘good capitalism’, or at least that is what they believe. Of them, he writes: ”They do not just want to be machines for generating profit.” So they are good guys, especially in comparison with the Alan Alda-type boogeyman—the bad capitalist boss who is also ‘bad’ in his personal relations, going so far as to steal money from his employees.
However, Zizek thinks the ‘liberal communists’ are just like old fashioned businessmen like Andrew Carnegie. Of Carnegie, he writes:
A man of steel, he proved he had a heart of gold. In the same way, today’s liberal communists give away with one hand what they first took with the other. This brings to mind a chocolate laxative available in the U.S. It is publicized with the paradoxical injunction : “Do you have constipation? Eat more of this chocolate!” In other words, eat the very thing that causes constipation in order to be cured of it.
It may be important to note that Zizek’s book is part of Picador’s series: Big Ideas/small books. They market themselves as: “Provocative short books inviting us to rethink our biggest ideas”. “Violence” does make one think very hard, but it’s also a very small book. Because it rattles along at lightning-speed, it has to depend on a spangle of references, poems, analogies and the reader’s own research in order to be persuasive. Zizek’s point, that the ‘good capitalists actually create the disasters that they go on to try to alleviate, doesn’t come with a lot of data.
I’m not necessarily a ‘doubtful reader’ but questions still spring up in my mind, and they are quantitative in nature. Exactly how big are the disasters created by Gates-like capitalism? Can we actually trace these disasters of Badness back to particular businesses? And, in turn, how much Good emerges from the charity work that the benefactors perform?
One of Zizek’s main arguments though, which runs throughout the book, is that we regularly conflate personal and public ethics. The implication is that if “half of George Soros’ time is devoted to financial speculation, and the other half to humanitarian activities”, then Soros may believe that, he ethically ‘comes out ahead,’ while some of us imagine he ‘comes out even.’ But to Zizek . . . at least, if we follow his chocolate laxative analogy, those like Soros do more harm than good.
Part III. To Do More Harm than Good
Shane Battier and I, when we were 19, might have liked, in our crude, sophomoric way, to tackle the problem of measuring the immeasurable Good and Bad–with a chart. We did not know one another, but as sophomores took an introduction to public policy class together in 1997. We sat amidst our peers in an enormous, modern amphitheater at Duke University, pretending to be small gods (in his case, a rather tall, small god) or maybe just . . . governors? We wrote memos to President Clinton about wars, and tried to decide which towns would benefit from having sports stadiums brought in to stimulate economic growth. To do this, we drew up Cost/Benefit Analysis charts.
It was interesting to note that students were, when told that an undertaking might be dangerous, loathe to assign numerical values to human lives. Many of us were annoyed by the boxes marked “intangibles” or “unintended consequences.” They seemed to render the whole exercise null and void.
But given that memory, I was really tickled to learn from a fellow teacher, that in 2009, Battier was the subject of a New York Times article, the “No Stats At All Star.” The article argued that Battier himself was an intangible force. While his stats were totally unimpressive, he seemed to have a mysterious ability to make whatever teams he had become part of into winners. I sometimes wonder if Battier remembers those Cost/Benefits charts, and thinks about where he doesn’t fit into them.
IV. Mountains and Molehills
When I teach the film section of my essay class, I encourage students, if they choose films that are not particularly challenging, to regard the piece as a ‘cultural document.’ The premise here is that we learn less, for example, about ancient Egypt when we watch Liz Taylor playing Cleopatra, than we do about America in the '50's. Any film represents something about the time in which it is made.
So here I have to pose myself the question I’d ask my students. In 50 years, how might Americans read the costs and benefits, or the intention behind, and the impact of, a silly movie like “Tower Heist”? I’d say we’re in a moment of intense confusion about class, and that the all-star cast can be explained because someone must have sold the film as an update of “Trading Places” for an era when Occupy Wall Street is heavily in the news. The film wants to capitalize on the economic frustration of our citizenry, but isn’t artful enough to do that work, and along the way, isn’t funny. It also reinforces several stereotypes about criminality and blackness, black domestic servants, and about capitalists that are both personally and publically corrupt. In any case, that would be my analysis.
But finally, an admission: after two years of public policy classes, the things that would have gone into the box marked “intangible” began to call to me and I quit the program before I really had to deal with numbers in any hard way. I’d grown up a white girl in black West Africa, and then discovered myself at a Southern university where ideas about race were incredibly strange and confusing. To tackle that stuff, I focused on African and African-American studies (mostly history and literature) and fell in love with poetry. So it has been a long time since I’ve had such an urge to do ‘harder’ research; to find numbers and to pretend I can make the intangibles tangible. Maybe I can be forgiven for conflating the personal with the public for a second and say that when a poet starts to itch to see the numbers which will help her figure out the Good and the Bad (whether looking at films or at business practices) there is something particularly confusing going on in the zeitgeist. For example, I get a pang of worry that my cousin, whose opinion I respect although he is only twelve, loved every bit of “Tower Heist”. Then I wonder: am I making a mountain out of a molehill? Then, I wish I’d taken that stats class. Though I have no enormous faith in rulers, I want one– to measure the molehills and also the mountains.