Saturday, October 24, 2009

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 7

Another day, another 2 movies. That's what life is like when you're as awesome as I am.

The first film was WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS? I haven't read the provocatively titled book the film is loosely based on, but I understand the premise--the Republican party has convinced much of middle America to vote against its economic interests for culturally divisive reasons (again, I haven't read the book so if I'm off the mark I apologize). Directors Joe Winston and Laura Cohen follow along several Kansans (without much context it's hard to tell if they're typical) through the summer and fall of 2006 (the midterm elections play heavily). There are an assortment of political-religious types, a church that's had to move to an amusement park (now that's a weird story). There is a creepy amount about Dr. George Tiller (abortion doctor who was recently murdered, but was alive and active at the time of the film). And there are surprises, like the ex-Republican farmer who now claims to be a "populist without a party" and who learns about the history of populism in Kansas. It might surprise you (it certainly did me) that much of the New Deal rose from Midwest populism that flourished in Kansas. Going back further, there was a county in the 1910's where nearly every political office was held by socialists. So what changed? I don't know, and the movie wasn't interested in telling me. And that's a major problem. The filmmakers obviously are trying for a hands-off, let-the-audience-decide approach, but they back away so much that the film doesn't even have a point of view. When a film poses the question in it's title "What's the matter with these people?" it should at least make a case that something is the matter. Look, I believe there's something not-too-smart with a lot of these people. Particularly people who lost a lot of money on poor investments from church and chalked it up to "God's will." But if they lose the same money on a religious-inspired cause I believe in, it's called charity and it's a good thing. I'm pro-choice, but I don't begrudge anyone for being pro-life or voting pro-life if that's what they believe. I can chuckle at the implications of a mom being worried that college makes kids less religious, but if you believe your religion is right isn't it right to worry that your child might stop believing? You shouldn't belittle their beliefs, you should vigorously and intelligently debate their beliefs and beat them in the battle of ideas and at the ballot box. This movie's title makes a claim that there's something the matter with Kansas, and then so studiously avoids answering its own question that the only thing a viewer will conclude is the matter with Kansas I what already exists in his or her own mind. So of course the San Francisco audience ate it up.

Then I saw a short and a feature about the art and persistence of the deal. In SELL IT TO THE HEDGE FUNDS, director Haven Pell spends all the time on the phone calling up potential investors just to try to set up a meeting to pitch his software data-crunching solution. Pretty funny.

And in THE ENTREPRENEUR, director Jonathan Bricklin follows around one of the fastest-talking, gamblingest, most persistent businessmen I've ever seen-his dad Malcolm Bricklin. Malcolm has gained and lost a few fortunes (and a few wives) in his life. His main business is cars. He founded Subaru USA, and made his first fortune. Then he founded Bricklin motors, manufactured his own cars, and filed for his first bankruptcy. Later he came back making his name in the cheap-car market by bringing the Yugo to America (joke if you want, he was laughing all the way to the bank). Now, well past middle age, he's looking to economically priced cars again. But now he's looking to luxury--find the best designers and a cheap overseas manufacturer and bring luxury cars to America with a $30,000 price tag. He has a (ahem) unique style that basically amounts to talking and talking until the deal is made. He yells, he gets excited, he insults people, he embraces people, and somehow over and over at the 11th hour he gets the deal done. And he's found his deal this time. He will team up with Chery, a Chinese automaker to bring their cars to the market. After tense negotiations--deal looks certain, then it's off, then back on--he makes yet another miraculous last-minute deal. Only one catch--he has 12 months to make $200M investment in Chery or the deal is off. But he has a plan. His plan is to be the first auto manufacturer who has dealers investing directly in the company. He just need 100's of dealerships to buy in at $2 million each. So now it's more deal after deal after deal as he attempts to meet the deadline. The movie's like a freakin' business thriller, complete with a charismatic, eccentric hero. Of course, if you remember the hype over China entering the US automobile market, you know sort of how it ends. But it sure was thrilling along the way, and given Malcolm's persistence it probably isn't over yet.

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