Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat May 02, 2020 7:41 pm 
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A documentary derived from Thomas Piketty's book

French economist Thomas Piketty is perhaps the most important spokesman today on economic inequality. This film is a kind of visual and talking head spinoff from his eponymous book, published in 2013, which is about 750 pages long, and is the work that made his name. He participated in this film adaptation with director Justin Pemberton and writer Matthew Metcalfe and is one of its recurrent talking heads.

Obviously this is different from Piketty's book. But has it value on its own? I'd bow to Ben Konigsberg of the New York Times, who has at least consulted the book, who suggests the movie is more like "a supplement" or "potential gateway," "rather than a distillation." But if you're not much of an economics head, this might stimulate some thought and refresh your knowledge, as it did for me. I also did learn some new things from it, as well as reviewing things I knew. But I can imagine other formats, without so many talking heads and so many film clips. Digital editing has become too easy. On the other hand I can sympathize with Owen Gleiberman, more enthusiastic in his Variety review, who finds a whole lot that is fascinating here in what's said.

There's a lot added in that may not be necessary, along with some very interesting new facts. But global warming, the growing nuclear threat, and the current global crisis in public health are equally essential problems not mentioned here.

The film is highly visual, cinematic. It's packed with footage from old and recent films to show us, say, what eighteenth-century rich people's worlds looked like, or what Jane Austen's world was like, what the poor looked like, and later what the twentieth and twenty-first centuries look like, which I didn't think I needed so much. Sometimes the images are unnecessary, and only distract from what is being said.

Even the speakers are occasionally attractive, such as female economic historian Kate Williams of the University of Reading), with blond hair and a red dress, and filmed dramatically, "unnervingly," Kenigsberg thinks, head-on and centered in the screen. Piketty himself, who at first is alone among the many talking heads to be speaking French here (a bit distracting, if hopefully not unnerving), is a pleasant fellow, with a soft face and a smile. Would that not come through in the book? Not so much, I'd guess (I haven't read it).

The definition of capital provided early on here is "wealth in the form of money or other assets owned by a person or organization." (There's another meaning that comes in unannounced later.) Piketty's constant theme and overriding concern in all his work is that such wealth is increasingly getting into the hands of too few people and being taken away from the middle class, thus threatening to return the social situation to the kind of gross, punishing inequality that existed in the West in the 17th and 18th centuries. And that's not good for democracy, boys and girls. What Piketty doesn't seem to acknowledge enough is how much this has already happened - but that's not a fault of this film, but of how he approaches this subject. He's an optimist.

Suresh Naidu is a pleasant-faced and good-humored-sounding young economic historian at Columbia University with lots of curly black hair. He explains to us that the industrial revolution enabled factory owners, with that form of capital, to go on perpetually expanding. He is the first, by the way, to use "capital" with a scintilla of Marxist meaning, not just as wealth but as moneyed interests, a dominant, exploitative class with growing power. Bryce Edwards brings in an Aussie voice. He's photographed off-center, with a scruffy grown-out buzz-cut, and is less attractive. He is the first to use the word "capitalism." Settlements in Australia, Canada, etc. took place dreaming of equality "at a time when capitalism was really taking hold."

Suresh Naidu explains how slaves were used to build capital in the new world, more useful than land because they could be moved around. This time real photographs of slaves are used instead of movies. But fictional and real images are constantly mixed here. For the role of military domination and colonialism in European wealth, dramatic moments from Geoff Murphy's 1983 big budget "Maori Western" Utu are freely used. (Not all the feature films are identified, unfortunately.)

Hearing things explained from an economic historian's point of view, I grasp how colonialism in the nineteenth century was in a way just another, larger-scale version of what farmers were doing with slaves, exploiting a subjugated population for their own profit, only on a larger scale. At moments Pemberton's linkup of image, graph, montage with words is spot-on, and becomes a mnemonic zinger. But it's hit-or-miss.

Slavery and colonialism are dropped and Kate Williams explains how fashion became a way to develop a mass market in England and similarly how in the nineteenth century Christmas became a bonanza in which some not very rich people went bankrupt to show off, as some men in the East may do today to make a splash with a wedding.

Sometimes faulty editing seems to lead to a distortion. To show the wealthy today spending big on art, the film shows a clip from a Sotheby's auction where Edvard Munch's "The Scream" seems to sell for $107 million, but it sold for nearly $120 mil. Faulty edit, I guess. That brings up a point: while we may hope that most of what the speakers are saying here is true, the use of the images is very rough and approximate.

What I've been describing is from the first twenty minutes or so of this film, which still has a lot to go, which consists largely of what Konigsberg calls "granular observations," thrown out, loosely relevant, linked by the chronology of the two world wars and the decades after the end of WWII including many, many film clips, even cutaways to Gordon Gekko and the Simpsons, which we don't need. As we know, the devastation of WWII was also the source of great new economic development and wealth for the middle class in America, what PIketty calls here "thirty or thirty-five glorious years." Then things went wrong in the seventies and eighties.

Piketty comes in at the end to say he's nonetheless optimistic.

But after this rush through so many facts, his solutions are disappointing. "We have not a technical challenge but a political and intellectual one," he says. "If we want a more harmonious and peaceful society, we must avoid inequality," he says. Well yeah, but we got that at the beginning. How do we do that? This film gives the problems, not the solutions.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century, 103 mins., debuted at Sydney July 2019, showing also in four other fests, including DOC NYC (so it was not very popular with international festivals). Its US release on digital and on-demand was Apr. 3, 2020. Metascore 74%.

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