The Casual Villainy of Feel-Good Neoliberal Bullshit

A few nights ago, a very kind friend took me to a private screening of a film about homelessness, under the presumed theory that my own homeless experience from four years before might be of help to the filmmaker. This filmmaker, who I should point out was an extremely tall and quietly affable man (affable, at least, to anyone who he detected was very much like himself!), believed, like many myopic neoliberals, that he was doing the right thing with his film. But he wasn’t. He was, in fact, contributing dangerously and cruelly to a repulsive dehumanizing myth that has become as seductive as catnip to most of the American population.

The film played. The affluent crowd that gathered in the basement of this tony Manhattan restaurant cheered as some talking head boasted about delivering forty pairs of socks to the homeless. The socks, said this starry-eyed subject, were a way to give the homeless an identity. But I knew damn well that what these people really needed, as I once so desperately begged for, was food, a shelter that wasn’t committed to daily debasement and that actually did something to protect residents from random stabbings, and a stable job that permitted someone who had nothing to save enough resources for first and last month’s rent. This preposterous subject also bragged on film about taking homeless people to a comedy show to cheer them up. Never mind that this is a risible impossibility, considering that shelters impose a draconian curfew each night, usually sometime between 9 PM and 10 PM, that you must hit. If you don’t make this curfew, for which you must factor in a lengthy line in which security guards pat you down and tear through what little you have, you will lose your bed and have all your possessions, meager as they are, thrown into a huge plastic bag and tossed into the street. (This happened to me. And I was forced to haul a very heavy bag with fragile lining, half of what I had damaged and dingy, on a subway, where I could feel the eyes of every commuter looking the other direction.)

I watched as a shoeshine man on-screen bought into the lazy, drug-addled homeless stereotype who never seeks out work (oh, but they do, even when they have a substance abuse problem!). It was a trope no different from the way Reagan had used Linda Taylor, an incredibly rare and unlikely figure hardly representative of homelessness, to establish his staunch conservatism and needlessly demonize the welfare system in 1976. And I was shaking with indignation as the filmmaker, who appeared himself as the film’s first talking head in a bona-fide act of artistic narcissism, bragged about how he had talked to a homeless person, believing her sad face to be an act. He refused to acknowledge her real pain and true fear as he painted himself as a champion of the underprivileged. I looked to my right and I witnessed the filmmaker himself sitting in his chair, responding to his repugnant untruths and counterfactual bromides by bobbing his head up and down to every cinematic cadence he had manufactured.

The film I saw, or at least what I mostly saw (because I bolted after about thirty minutes of this: I was so enraged after one “well-meaning” audience member laughed at a homeless stereotype and chuckled over the film’s bootstraps bullshit, which presented poverty as a “choice,” an emphasis that greatly overshadowed, oh say, examining the details of a rigged system or humanizing the people who are often locked into a nigh inescapable abyss and who are rendered invisible simply because they lost their jobs at a bad time or suffered any number of setbacks that could happen to anyone (hell, it happened to me!), and because this was a “celebration” for the filmmaker and I knew that if I stuck around, I would have gone out of my way to fight fiercely with ruthlessly truthful invective and I am really trying to live a more peaceful life and let things go more — but goddammit you see puffed up privilege like this and it’s not easy!), angered me beyond belief. It was a superficial glimpse of what at least half a million people in this nation go through (and this number is rising): an absolute lie that refused to address vile welfare-to-work realities, the shameful bureaucracy of standing in line for a day arguing to some underpaid heartless stooge why you should get a mere $150 each month to eat (and under Trump, these already svelte and insufficient benefits are in danger of being cut further), the violent and depressing culture within homeless shelters that causes so many to give up and that causes smart people (and let me assure you that there are many smart people who are homeless) to throw in the towel when they shouldn’t have to.

As many have argued (including Thomas Frank, whom I interviewed about this significant problem here), the Democratic Party has completely divorced itself from advocating for working people and those who need our help. The Democrats haven’t seriously championed for universal aid since Mario Cuomo’s inspiring keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. When principled progressives stand against this milquetoast centrism, they are — as this incredible episode of This American Life recently revealed — urged to push the reasons why they are running into the middle if they want access to funds that will help them win elections. And when candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez actually stand for something and beat out long-time incumbents in a primary, they are, as the disheartening replies to this tweet reveal, declared “a piece of work” and “arrogant” by middle-of-the-road cowards who have never known a day without a hot meal and who refuse to address deeply pernicious realities that people actually live. These weak-kneed and priggish pilgarlics still drop dollars with their colicky hands into the room rental till for their Why Isn’t Hillary President? support groups. They are more interested in wrapping themselves in warm comforting blankets rather than surrendering their bedding to someone sleeping on the streets. They are so enamored and ensnared by this ugly and unsound marriage between capitalism and humanism that they adamantly refuse to listen to the very people they’ve pledged to cure. They ignore any fresh new voice who has the steel to launch a political campaign based on the truth. Their shaky tenure is out of sync with the robust reform we need right now to address our national ills.

I now believe neoliberalism to be just as much of an evil cancer as Trumpism. It needs to be fought hard. Because any ideology that prioritizes supremacy (and neoliberals can be a smug and oh so certain bunch) is a call to dehumanize others.

So how did the film screening conclude? Well, I apologized to my friend, told her that I couldn’t take the film anymore and that I knew this was triggering deep rage in me because it denied and invalidated the horrors that I personally experienced and that I had somehow found the resilience and strength to overcome. I took my leave, tipped the bartender far more than these moneyed types did, and saw that the filmmaker was watching me. What? A man fleeing his unquestionable genius? Why yes, you imperious insensitive clueless dope! So I went up to him and said, “My name is Ed Champion. I was homeless four years ago and your film is a terrible lie. You should be ashamed of yourself.” True to form, he went back to cheering on his own film, paying me no heed whatsoever.

The Bat Segundo Show: Esther Rots & Dan Geesin

Esther Rots and Dan Geesin appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #278.

Esther Rots is the writer, director, editor, and producer of is most recently the director of Can Go Through Skin. Dan Geesin is the sound designer and music composer of the film. The film is presently playing at the New Directors/New Films series, which is running between March 25 and April 5 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Eschewing intuitive sensibilities.

Guests: Esther Rots and Dan Geesin

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

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Correspondent: This leads me to wonder then how the house was located. Did you, in fact, try to find a house that had the stinkiest possible odor? Or something that was possibly in disuse? And the rat. How did you wrangle the rat in the course of the shower scene? It could not have been easy to do. Since it is vermin, you know.

Rots: It’s a shame this is radio. I’m poking out my thumb now and it’s got white lines all over it. That was directing the rat.

Correspondent: Really?

Rots: He nibbled the middle bit of my thumb. It was hanging there for quite some time and biting away.

Correspondent: Wow.

Rots: That was me directing a rat. I’m not good. (laughs)

Correspondent: Did you have to see a doctor? Get shots?

Rots: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was too chewed up.

Geesin: Tetanus jab.

Rots: No, rats are not directable. They just do their own way. But that might be a natural talent as well.

Correspondent: They say that kids and animals are the toughest to direct.

Rots: Yeah.

Correspondent: But you would say that a rat is even tougher.

Rots: Yeah. And boats. Boats are also a cliche.

BSS #278: Esther Rots & Dan Geesin (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Chazz Palminteri & Robert Celestino

Chazz Palminteri and Robert Celestino both appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #259.

Chazz Palminteri is the star of Yonkers Joe. Robert Celestino is the writer and director of Yonkers Joe. The film opens in theaters on January 9, 2009.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Fleeing the scene to avoid “coming together” with the imposing Mr. Palminteri.

Guests: Chazz Palminteri and Robert Celestino

Subjects Discussed: Robert Mitchum’s theory of the actor merging into the landscape, cinematic tempo, research for Yonkers Joe, eye contact, the script as the authoritative text, script embellishments from actors, overpreparation, performance in relation to camera placement, “artistic differences” with directors, the thespic advantages of wardrobe, playing an entire scene with a newspaper under your arm, the national revival of A Bronx Tour, the future of theater in an economic crisis, wasted talent, whether the casino heist genre now requires an unusual secondary plot, balancing intuitive insights about human behavior and cinematic reality, the inability for most people to observe mechanics in action, the distinctions between con men and mechanics, how Celestino was able to film in casinos, advancing the narrative while sacrificing believability, concocting the big score, the qualities of casino dice, the eleventh-hour casting of Christine Lahti, keeping symbols in the background, symmetrical semiotics, layering visual elements, and establishing the tell signs among the actors.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

chazz-4Correspondent: Going back to the issue of preparation, perhaps you can talk about it in light of this particular movie. I’m curious if there is such a thing as overpreparation for you. For a performance like this, for a performance elsewhere. Where if you plan something too much, then you’re going to lose the spontaneity, you’re going to lose the naturalness of human behavior, and the like.

Palminteri: Right.

Correspondent: Has this been a scenario with you? Have you had to…?

Palminteri: That never happened to me. Because I don’t overplan things. I plan it. I know where I’m going. I have a road map. Okay, and then I’m able to change that roadmap if I have to. You have to. Because you meet with the director, and you meet with the other actors. And all of a sudden, you get on the set and it’s not like you thought what it was going to be. It changes. For some reason, an actor does something else and it doesn’t match what you felt what you should do. Alright, now we got to talk about this now. Is this going to work? Maybe it works better or maybe it works worse. So if you think that your way might still be better, that’s when you have to talk with the director, and say, “Well, I’m feeling this way.” And that’s why sometimes people leave movies. There are artistic differences. It doesn’t work. I usually try and make it work. I hope I can.

Correspondent: Are there such situations in which you’ve felt hamstrung by a particular director’s decision? Or do you simply work within those particular confines?

Palminteri: I’ve always been able to work with directors who respect my opinion. And no director wants an actor to be uncomfortable.

Correspondent: Sure.

Palminteri: “To be uncomfortable.” I mean, once you say those words to a director, “I’m just not feeling comfortable here,” then he’s willing to listen to anything you’ve got to say. I mean, one thing, I’m a director. You know, I’m directing movies. If an actor’s telling me he’s uncomfortable, I’ve got to make him comfortable. No matter what.

* * *

Celestino: I don’t know of too many filmmakers who get to shoot in casinos. Because casinos are not in the business of making movies. They’re in the business of making money. So we were very fortunate, as some of our investors were casino owners. So not only did we get to shoot in the casinos, but we got to shoot it during the day. And they would rope off a section to us. And they really opened up everything to us. There’s five people who work in a casino, who are allowed into the surveillance rooms. So we were allowed to go into the surveillance rooms just to look around. We didn’t actually shoot in there. We built that set. But we did match it identical to what we’d seen. And also, they’re not ever going to bring a suspected mechanic up into the surveillance room. So what they do have is an outer room, where they would show somebody something in case there was a question. Like they did in Yonkers Joe. But the surveillance room was actually in another room where Yonkers Joe got to take a peek at.

Correspondent: Some suspension here to move the plot. Again, this goes back to the other question about how much you stray from reality. In this case, certainly, you had to in service of the narrative. But perhaps when you were writing the script, were there questions that you were asking? “Well, okay, I need to move the narrative along. So there’s a tradeoff here.” I mean, what criteria was here? Okay, I have to advance the narrative. But there’s this tradeoff in believability. Was this an issue when you were writing the script?

Celestino: Well, that’s always a balancing act. Ironically, in this script and movie, it really didn’t come about that much. Pretty much, everything that happens in the movie pretty much can happen. You know, the thing at the end and all that. That all can really happen. In fact, when the security people — the surveillance people — were reading the script, they said that when this movie comes out, casinos will probably start putting blacklight gel in their dice. And that was where I had to reinvent a bit. Because loaded dice are very easy to see. That’s why they make the dice clear. So you can see the loads in them. But if you have something in them where you don’t have to look at the dice, like blacklight gel, then there’s no reason to even look.

BSS #259: Chazz Palminteri and Robert Celestino (Download MP3)

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