#OccupyWallStreet Movies, Your Primer of Protest

Holy cow, look at all those people in the streets. You’d think it was the Great Depression!

Or the 1960s.

Maybe a mixture of both?

Some time ago, I offered readers a primer of films designed to illuminate the Tea Party phenomenon, so it’s only fitting to now bring about a new list that participants and observers of the Occupy Wall Street (Philadelphia, Oakland, take your pick of locations, they’re growing fast) movement can benefit from viewing or revisiting.

Whether you regard the OWS folks as vanguards of a new American revolution or as “urine-soaked deadbeats,” the movies of the past and present can always help us better understand the real world that exists outside the confines of the screen.

These gatherings are large and strong but they are also diffuse in purpose, which is a 99%-er’s way of saying they appear not to know exactly what they want in a broadly agreed-upon manner. That said, there are common themes that have emerged from the dissent. So, call their activities the protest of patriots or the chaos caused by crackpots—these are the films we should be looking at now:

Occupy Wall Street Movies, Your Primer of Protest  


Johnny Strabler of The Wild One, Jim Stark of Rebel Without a Cause, and Tyler Durden of Fight Club

Like the Tea Party, the OWS members claim no leaders—though it is not as difficult as either group likes to suggest for us to pinpoint the location of their general political sympathies—a strategic choice never terribly helpful when it comes to crystallizing a message. Given this shortcoming, we may suggest where to look for cinematic characters with whom they may be most likely to identify.

Is there any single piece of dialogue in movie history that sums up the present OWS situation, for better or worse, than the signature line from The Wild One? Biker Johnny Strabler (Marlon Brando) sums up the nature of his discontent with the brevity today’s protesters should envy:

Mildred: Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?

Johnny: Whadda you got?

And then there’s Jim Stark (James Dean) from Rebel Without a Cause (a title begging to be modified, if it hasn’t been already, for eye-grabbing effect atop a OWS news or editorial piece), a young man so used to getting in trouble that “acting out” becomes second nature, his raison d’être. Whereas Brando’s troubled youth was ready to go against anything and everything as part of a conscious design, Jim’s revolt seems to be murkier, and more importantly for our purposes here, less his own doing than the inheritance he receives by way of poor parenting (by father Jim Backus, anyway). One of the relevant lessons we might take from Rebel is that if you fail to properly pave the way for the next generation, you can expect some shocking consequences, especially if that failure is defined by poor judgments about the definition of masculinity.

That’s where Fight Club comes in. As tempting as it may have been to include it in the analysis of Tea Party-related fare, it is much more at home in a discussion about the emergence of OWS. The film isn’t just a sinister repudiation of both male fecklessness and overweening machismo, it’s a cautionary tale about the unpredictability of revolution. The film reminds us that great damage can be done to oneself and others by following the alluring energy of radicalism. Take up the causes of the Tyler Durdens of this world at your peril; believing in his idealized existence can give you a rush…but is it real? Is it relevant? Or, is it just self-destruction?


Wall Street and Treasure of the Sierra Madre

No wonder nobody bothered with the sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps: Who wants to see everyone’s favorite titan of bad business tell us what we already knew:

Someone reminded me I once said “Greed is good”. Now it seems it’s legal.

Gordon Gekko is misquoting himself, just like everyone else does, perhaps because the “play it again, Sam” version of his most famous statement slips off the tongue a little easier than the real thing: The point is ladies and gentlemen that greed, for lack of a better word, is good.

Wall Street is often labeled as the film that embodies the “excess” of the 1980s, but Occupy Wall Streeters may want to refer back to this movie for what they may not remember about it. First and foremost, the film was directed by Oliver Stone (Remember him? He’s one of those guys who does Movies That Make You Mad), which should give you an indication of where it falls on the left-right scale of political thought. Yes, it embodies the excesses of the 1980s, but it is critical of them—despite how much fun we have watching Michael Douglas leer.

And who could blame anybody for wanting to forget that, yes—in this movie, Charlie Sheen is the hero, and finally, the story’s moral crusader: He plays the young stockbroker sucked in by the luxuries obscene wealth brings (kind of like Laurence Fishburne is taken in by Jeff Goldblum in Deep Cover, but I digress. That movie is about breaking the law.), only to decide it’s better to do the right thing and go to prison with a clear conscience.

There’s OWS talk about Wall Streeters going to jail, but holding up Ma-Sheen as your avatar of upstanding behavior may not now be the “winning” strategy.

Here’s a less-quoted exchange from the film, between Sheen and Douglas:

Bud: How much is enough?
Gekko: It’s not a question of enough. It’s a zero sum game, somebody wins, somebody loses.

That’s an interesting philosophy coming from the man worshiped by those who make it a habit of arguing exactly the opposite—that manipulating the tax code to favor the wealthy rather than the middle class enables the free flow of market capitalism (where winners and losers are not chosen but rather sorted out by the impartial forces of economic Darwinism) and bakes a fluid if reliably-expanding pie, while the reverse constitutes unwarranted class warfare. Stone’s slick picture supposedly inspired many a young person to become a stockbroker; that’s a curious achievement—one wonders exactly what messages were taken from the film by those so moved. Possibly not the messages Stone had intended.


Now, if you really want to get behind around a film with an anti-capitalist message, look no further than the 1948 classic Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Don’t blame your messenger: There’s a tremendous article by Ethan Trex in the November-December 2011 issue of Mental Floss profiling the book’s author, B. Traven—an enigmatic man who regularly dug his socialist/anarchist sympathies into the underbellies of gripping adventure stories. You don’t have to look so very hard for this subtext in Treasure; as Trex points out, working hard and striking gold turns Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart), Curtin (Tim Holt), and Howard (Walter Huston) into “scared, greedy animals” whose sole focus becomes preserving their own wealth at the expense of everything else…even their partners’ lives.

It doesn’t take very long in the film before “pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps” becomes “every man for himself” and the violent destruction of their three-person enterprise. You can’t help but feel for Dobbs, though—as weak, fearful, and cruel as he becomes, he is the tragic leader of their doomed organization, and only human. Corporations are just people…right?


Norma Rae and Waiting for Superman

Want to tow the pro-union line? It’s still easy to root for Norma Rae Webster (Sally Field)…isn’t it? Norma isn’t fighting to form a public sector union (as in, police, firefighters, or teachers), which is the focus of much of our current conversation about unions—she is fighting instead to organize her textile factory colleagues to defeat the brutal working conditions that kill her father and threaten the health and prosperity of everyone around her.

To Norma’s employers, her activities are a menace to their bottom line, and because they believe they can get away with it, Norma’s bosses resort to bullying and intimidation. Focused on less is how Norma’s enemies also engage in the low-risk art of deception—preying upon Norma’s lack of education and better information to cloud her convictions about what is appropriate and what is not…not to mention what is legal and what is not. Director Martin Ritt’s acclaimed 1979 drama deserves renewed attention because the “like it or lump it” crowd tends to confuse freedom with impunity, whether we are talking about low-level industrial workers or teachers with tenure.

In contrast, if you want to see the film that made the teachers’ unions mad, look no further than the documentary Waiting for Superman, which makes an emotionally-charged case that the power of teachers’ unions can be damaging to the quality education of our children. The film was highly regarded by many (including President Obama), and then snubbed entirely come Academy Awards time. Few nonfiction films were as talked about that year—and even though the Documentary category is rife with examples of deserving films that are ignored, you don’t have to be a black-helicopter type to suspect, ever so slightly, that it may well have been that left-leaning Academy voters did not ultimately see the uplifting film they expected to see given the subject matter.

There is that matter of controversy over a staged scene, but the fakery that was exposed turns out to be less a matter of altering facts to suit an ideological purpose than inventing emotional filler to flesh out a narrative structure. People use this departure from vérité filmmaking as their crutch to dismiss the film, but don’t be fooled: It’s the film’s ideas that opponents wish to sideline.

A movie crusading for quality education that levels strong criticism in the direction of teachers’ unions? Quel scandale!


Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and 1984

There is no title better than that of Frank Capra’s 1939 classic acting as a descriptor for the current infatuation some voters have for booting out “career politicians” and replacing them with “regular folks”. Yessir, let’s get those citizen patriots in there to storm the government fortress and toss a heavy anchor off the ship of state. Recruiting Mister Smiths nationwide to sweep away the cynical and self-serving is a romantic notion; the difficulty I have in embracing the concept is that society is a little too complicated to trust to the care of dilettantes. When you boast of your love for the Constitution and express total ignorance of it, or extol your love of America while botching common matters of history, it’s my feeling you disqualify yourself.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington may be a great film, but this feverish advocacy for bringing in ideological purists who lack the necessary skills (yes, there are many) to serve as little more than ciphers through whom financial backers plan to funnel their preferred policies is alarming.

On the flip side of that coin, there is always Orwell to remind us of the dangers of the entrenched and all-too-powerful government. Is it a conspiracy that the very best filmed version of the novel, actually released in Nineteen Eighty-Four, keeps going out of print? This remarkably bleak picture starring John Hurt (as hero Winston Smith) and Richard Burton (as O’Brien, in his final screen performance) speaks to us as plainly and urgently today as it did then, which illustrates how well it properly echoes the book’s enduring worth.

OWS critics point to vocal anarchists scattered throughout the movement, characterizing them as the disciples of George Soros, who they see as a modern-day Emmanuel Goldstein…where Big Business is analogous to Big Brother. We’d expect this charge from their adversaries—if you accept the Tea Party movement as the principled opposition to OWS, it’s just payback after they were likewise accused of astroturfing their import—and they have proven themselves to be no stranger to doublethink. If you are rusty on your Newspeak, doublethink refers to the ability to hold two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously. Still fuzzy? Here’s an indisputable statement of classic doublethink:

Keep your government hands off my Medicare.

I’d add the recent, notable, and rather jaw-dropping abortion-related example of doublethink from a 2012 presidential candidate, but we’re all about Occupy Wall Street-related fare here, so it’s now past time we move on to jobs. Jobs, Jobs, Jobs. Where Are The Jobs?



The Jerk and Salesman

Sure, he was “born a poor, black child,” but Caucasian nebbish Navin R. Johnson (Steve Martin) overcomes his impoverished youth as the (obviously adopted) child of sharecroppers to live the American Dream. Navin becomes a rich man after casually inventing the Opti-Grab, the visibly absurd addition of a handle pasted to the bridge of one’s eyeglasses that quickly catches on and becomes a wildly popular whatchamahoozit the entire nation suddenly can’t live without.

The film’s happy ending would lead us to the conclusion that, with the help of a loving family (that is much wiser about making investments than he), yes you can get by on plenty of nuttin’ and still be a contented man. Of course, The Jerk may also be the story of an entrepreneur who rakes in piles of cash by convincing you to buy something you really don’t need…which cripples you. He gets away with it, albeit with a slimmer wallet (Thank you, consumer protections!), and lives happily ever after.

Either way you look at it, the jerk’s got a smile on his face.

Less happy about his lot in life is one of the men we meet peddling Bibles door-to-door in Salesman, Albert and David Maysles’ haunting 1969 documentary.

The film focuses on a four-man sales team working New England and Southeast Florida territories, and shows us how they can take an expensive, illustrated Catholic Bible and sell it to low-income folks with the same snappy patter a salesman would employ to hawk a vacuum cleaner or other sturdy and indispensable household appliance. (I discovered, to my surprise, that I actually own one of the “Papal Editions” they are selling in the film, having inherited one as part of my late grandfather’s library) The fellas work on commission, so they are highly motivated to close every sale. A-B-C. Always Be Closing. David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross) has seen this movie.

The Maysles’ clean, nonjudgmental style of “direct cinema” filmmaking keeps us next to the men like veritable flies on the wall, accompanying them on (often uncomfortable and unsuccessful) sales calls, as well as to meetings with one another where they trade war stories. Of special interest is Paul, the salesman nicknamed “The Badger”—the others are “The Rabbit,” “The Bull,” and “The Gipper”—who is forever bellyaching about his failures. You see, his bad figures are never his fault. Never. Never ever. Someone or something else is always to blame, and he is forever making sure his colleagues know it.

Quiet human tragedy sets in as you observe the glazes starting to pass over his coworkers’ eyes while he rants on; Paul’s the noisy bad apple in their midst. He will drag everyone down, given enough freedom to do so, and you can see the other men attempt first to console him, then try to help him, and finally, exasperated, ignore him. This, ultimately, is the movie both supporters and opponents of Occupy Wall Street can rally behind. It’s the film that brutally condemns the dehumanizing and fraudulent elements of American capitalism even as it places the blame for failure to achieve its blessings squarely on the individual.

The “free” individual.

Our curriculum is incomplete. #OccupyTheCommentsSection with your additions of great films to study.