Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Love and money - at the movies

Whatever their risky impulses, people generally value relative security in economic and emotional matters. Many, of course, revel in the chance and insecurity of speculative activity, financial and romantic. But, for most, there's usually a human limit to such gambles and flutters. Basically, we take primal comfort in being nurtured and loved.

The intricacies of love and money have been captured in a thousand make-believe movies. From Some Like It Hot to Slumdog Millionaire, our fascination for riches of the pocket and treasures of the heart provide the illusionary cushion to the dreamily fanciful or rarely realisable.

Some permit a little more critical inspection of the theme, such as Up In the Air, Hollywood's current take on the dual issues of mercenary economics and personal affairs. It's a tale of corporate and emotional detachment from human concerns, a feel-good-feel-bad mix on the clinical truths of life and love under the credit crunch.

Though conveyed in soft whimsical style - liberal Hollywood's sanitised nod to the recessionary detritus - George Clooney's professional bad-news dispenser helps depict the cruel execution of the company firing process, the multi-faceted trauma of employees facing rejection and losing their livelihoods, in some cases contemplating the final abyss. Like Clooney's multi-air-miled check-in case, people are regarded, and discarded, as "baggage", their worth stripped-down to basic requirements, their needs and complexities too cumbersome to carry and hold.

Threatening this clinical 'reality', Clooney's rigidly-controlled lifestyle is disrupted by the potentialities of love and lust, a mixture of hot passion and cold calculus serving to pose more human questions about what's really valuable in life.

Though ultimately a cosy escapist narrative, evading the true unsparing nature of the corporate machine, there's still something useful in the film's coy message that love and the need to be wanted are more important than lonely gratification and instant materialism.

There's nothing new here, of course. With box-office alertness, Hollywood has always been ready to tap into emotional disenchantment with capitalism's impersonal hand. For example, screen favourites like It's a Wonderful Life carry an enduring message of human fortitude, announcing that, even in the face of economic depression and despair, love and loyalty can conquer profit and greed.

Yet, beyond such celluloid homilies, the constant incursion of economic insecurity into our lives remains a sobering limitation to love and wellbeing. We may take a certain message of hope from screened poverty, but there's no romanticising the real take.

Being poor is not just a question of being part of an economic 'underclass'. (That term was always, to the mind of my old sociology lecturer, a misnomer in itself - as though being 'beneath' the lowest recognised class level - "working" - gave those struggling on token wages some kind of respectable economic status relative to those on just paltry benefits or worse.) It robs people of their right to emotional sustenance, including the space to develop one's loving couplings. Riches certainly don't always bring happiness - 'money can't buy me love' - but a little economic reassurance can go a long way in promoting stress-reduced relations.

Almost thirteen years on from the Blairite 'coming', social and economic division in Britain has never been more expansive. New Labour just gave Thatcherism the Tony-love-smile Mrs tough-love lacked. Nowadays, the only discernible difference walking the depressed streets of Glasgow's east end is the greater proliferation of cold, metal panopticon cameras, keeping a stern eye on the 'lowly' orders. Like the CCTV monitors in the much-acclaimed Red Road, maybe they're recording year-on-year footage of the bleak human decline, a loveless archive of those marked out for a life of appointed deprivation.

All of which, as Ian Bell observes, makes redundant the conventional language of "class":
"This is not an accident. The gap between rich and poor has not reached its widest point since the war thanks to some act of God. A supremely talented elite deserving its golden ticket has not arisen from nowhere. Money breeds money; poverty breeds poverty; and those with the power to amend this state of affairs like it that way. Given income distributions, life chances, and the unbreakable circuits of self-selecting privilege, we should cease to speak of class and start talking about caste.
"Each according to their station, each according to their caste. Disadvantage is perpetuated while the lie of opportunity for all is maintained. In reality, the sole rational ambition for those born poor is simply to escape poverty. A seat on the board is not on offer. Yet millions of the naive and gullible want to go on believing otherwise. You almost have to admire the gall of those who practise the deceit."
Michael Moore's Capitalism: a Love Story is a powerfully mischievous essay on that grand deceit, laying bare our, and particularly America's, 'romantic' attachment to a system that depends for its very survival on division rather than unity. Instead of a society built on common regard and mutual care, Moore shows how our own infatuation with capitalism keeps us locked into a lifelong 'relationship' of abusive dependency.

"Capitalism is evil", declares Moore, a conclusion echoed without qualification, or base class rhetoric, by his life-long priest friends in Moore's still-broken Flint hometown. It's a way of living, they and many others concur, totally at odds with any humanitarian principles of fairness, justice, compassion or love.

While the stealthy-wealthy of Goldman Sachs and Wall Street run the show on Capitol Hill and beyond - stealing countless, unrecoverable billions in the process - ordinary citizens live in perpetual fear of having their basic homes repossessed, of falling sick and of losing their burger joint jobs.

Moore tracks the chronic insecurity and ruthlessness that stalks America, from the airline pilot surviving on food stamps and another side-jobbing as a waitress, to the truly disgusting practice of major corporations like Wal Mart taking out secretive death insurance policies on their employees - referred to in the industry as "Dead Peasants" when they die and the corporations collect.

How have they managed to get away with all this, asks Moore? Where was the resistance to corporate-determined deregulation and community-breaking Reaganomics? Where, invoking FDR and his long-ignored Second Bill of Rights speech (1936), is the concern to enshrine that other set of constitutional liberties, basic economic security?

Delivered in Moore's quintessentially-grounded style, Capitalism is an acutely simple statement on the massive daily exercise in blanket propaganda that inhibits us from even noticing, never mind questioning, capitalism's irrational brutality. That's largely because we're taught, from birth, to aspire, compete and behave as zero-sum beings towards each other. Love has no meaningful place here.

Uncomfortably, Moore's film places a little too much respectful love - or, perhaps, lingering hope - in the Obama 'manifesto'. There's passing mention of corporate America's calculated bankrolling of the 'saviour' President, but the tougher question needs to be asked: where is our 'partnership' going here? Even Moore's 'critical love' can be a little too blind to select political darlings.

Yet, the film's essential message still comes clearly through: capitalism can't just be modified or tinkered with, it has to be "eliminated." Divorce, in other words, based on irreconcilable breakdown.

Fear hangs around all our lives: fear of being poor, of falling ill, of having to care for others, of losing those we love. Yet, it's our resilient capacity, in the face of economic and emotional adversity, to stay loving and caring that keeps us above that inhuman system. People are not commodities. Real love doesn't always depend on another's 'shelf-life' or market 'attraction'. We are not somehow predisposed to competition and acquisition at all costs.

Which may all still sound over-romantic. But, in the hopeful spirit of caring and sharing, here are some Time Tested Beauty Tips associated with Audrey Hepburn, an iconic actress who came from poverty to riches, yet never lost her capacity for compassion, kindness and loving thought:
For attractive lips, speak words of kindness.
For lovely eyes, seek out the good in people.
For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.
For beautiful hair, let a child run his/her fingers through it once a day.
For poise, walk with the knowledge that you never walk alone.
People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed and redeemed; never throw out anyone.
Remember, if you ever need a helping hand, you will find one at the end of each of your arms.
As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands; one for helping yourself and one for helping others.
Imagine an economic system built around those simple, loving principles.

During her later work for UNICEF, Hepburn said:
"I think perhaps with time, instead of there being a politicization of humanitarian aid, there will be a humanization of politics."
Nice thought. We're after the same rainbow's end ....

x John

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