Author Archives: Dame Uta

Sorry, internet bros

As you may have noticed, my posting game has been anything but on point recently. I wish I had a nice excuse, but I’ve done nothing this month. But it was a good time doing nothing for the first time in maybe years. Anyway, I was gonna finally get around to my “Making a Murderer” post today, but it’s just not coming together in time. I will have it done by the 10th. In the meantime, enjoy this silent film version of Star Wars.

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Do Men Dream of Electric Women?: “My Sex Robot”

Because I am fast becoming a connoisseur of what some might call trashy tv, I recently watched what I’m going to call a documentary on Netflix entitled “My Sex Robot.” As one might expect, this relatively short movie explores the world of sex robots. Most of the robots that are discussed in this movie, both those that are in development and are hoped for, are meant to be robotic women. This makes it a bit difficult to be nonjudgmental of the individuals in the documentary, especially when one is a woman herself. I don’t think this reaction is specifically gendered, however, as my boyfriend, who was at my place when I declared that this is what would be on the tv while I was making dinner, also felt that the program was set up to let you judge the guys who are into sex robots. The documentary itself somewhat wanders between different people who are somehow involved in the sex robot subculture, either as hopeful consumers or as developers. Since the actual facts of the development of sex robots are fairly mundane, I will focus here mainly on my reactions to the documentary.

At least as far as is presented in the documentary, there are two main schools of sex robotics. The one that seems more prevalent is the one that focuses on creating a robot that can simulate not only a sexual partner, but an emotional one as well. I feel like this group is the stereotypical one that everyone thinks of when they think of guys who want sexbots. It’s also the group that’s the more uncomfortable for me and, I think, many people. In this group, you have men who say they want sexbots because “they can never break your heart” and that they’ll be an always-submissive partner. These wants are difficult for me to sympathize with, since at least some of them seem to be saying “I want a woman with no wants or needs outside of pleasing me.” I get that having a partner that basically doesn’t exist outside of their relationship with you isn’t a fantasy limited to sexbot enthusiasts, or to men, but making it a robot feels like taking it too far. Also, it elicits some of the same reaction I have to animatronic pets. Whenever I see animatronic pets on a tv show, I go to a place of sadness, and maybe even pity, because it isn’t real. I understand that these are probably great for some people, especially the elderly and very young who might not be equipped to take care of a real animal, but it just feels hollow. I might feel put-out that my cat isn’t particularly affectionate or cuddly, but I love him and I like that he has freewill. Ultimately, wanting someone without freewill is utterly foreign to me, and the fact that these almost always are made to look like females compounds my discomfort.

This route, however, is the most interesting on multiple fronts. It is scientifically interesting, or has the potential to be, as the desire for an emotional partner from a robot may lead to interesting applications of AI. Having a robot respond in a way that doesn’t feel, well, robotic will be an interesting challenge. This group of guys, as much as I may side-eye them, is also fascinating. While some want an artificially intelligent sex robot as a replacement for a female partner, others are in relationships or married. These men seemed to want a sexbot in addition to their partners, or at least that’s how it seemed to me. For at least one, sleeping with a robot seemed to be a fetish on the order of wanting to roleplay a specific scenario. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me. I feel like someone should do a more in-depth ethnographic study of this subculture.

The other main group of people working on sex robots is one I understand better. This group, at least those on the supply-side of this group, see the issue of sexbots as an engineering problem. The one developer that they focused on in this group was into robotics and then decided that he could make a lot of money if he could make a nice sex robot (and, yes, I realize I’m saying the person I get in this doc is the one who isn’t actually part of the subculture, but it is what it is). This guy’s main focus was making a robot that could move in a realistic manner, especially when it came to hip movements. He also developed both a male and female model, which soothes my discomfort with the sex/gender issues with the notion of sexbots. This group, I more or less get. I mean, I’m not going to go out and procure a sexbot, but these are basically really elaborate versions of other items that mimic certain parts of human anatomy.

In the end, the sex robot subculture is something to which I will always be an outside observer. I find the men interested in having sexbots in addition to wives and girlfriends to be quite interesting, and I would definitely learn more about them if given the chance. The ones who want sexbots to replace women will always make me a little judgy. And those who want to make elaborate toys, I can basically understand. I don’t know if I’d exactly recommend this documentary. It won’t really change your mind about anything. It is, however, a pretty short watch and entertaining background noise while you’re doing chores.

It’s Personal: Leah Remini’s “Scientology and the Aftermath”

Internet, I’ve been procrastinating. That’s, at least partially, my excuse for not posting earlier this month or on my actual assigned day. The other excuses are that Russian is difficult to learn when you decide to go from nearly 0 to reading proficiency in six weeks and I’m a very lazy person who doesn’t pay attention to the date. The reason I’ve been procrastinating is that I’ve been worried on how to handle this one. I’ve wanted to write about Leah Remini’s A&E series on Scientology, “Scientology and the Aftermath.” While I found it to be a very compelling series, I’m not sure if it is the best put-together documentary show. However, I feel a bit guilty being too critical of it, as it’s obviously an incredibly emotional topic for Remini and she’s very earnest in how she handles it and what she chooses to cover. But I’ve finally decided that I really do need to write this. As something of a compromise to myself, I explain my critiques first and save the praise for last. It may be the same, but it feels better to me.

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The Show as Documentary

In this series, which was originally meant to be an 8-part, 1 season series, but which is getting a second season, Leah Remini, a former Scientologist, seeks to expose the various unsavory activities of the Church. Along with her partner, Mike Rinder, Remini interviews a number of former Scientologists, who discuss various aspects of how the Church of Scientology operates and the ways it impacted their lives. Each episode is nominally centered around a topic, though these do blur together somewhat, as they’re really connected as a package of the way Scientology runs. For example, the episode on the impact of Scientology on family necessarily covers ground previously covered in how the Church treats those who leave it.

Overall, I don’t think the blurring together of some of the topics is necessarily a problem in and of itself—it’s often necessary because the real-life boundaries are unclear—but it does contribute something to what I think is the main weakness of the series: the amount of repetition. The two main components of the show are the interviews with former Scientologists and Remini’s musings on what they have said and what she has experienced. The latter part is always set in a bright white room. It’s very A&E. (There’s also a third component, as the two are frequently followed by people associated with Scientology. They have a number of strange run-ins that I find fascinating, but which doesn’t really play into this.) Sometimes this format works quite well, with a more free-flowing interview being summed up by Remini at the end. Other times, it just feels like she’s repeating what was already said. I think I noticed this most in the middle episodes. This may have been due to the fact that much of the information conveyed in those had necessarily been conveyed in earlier ones, but a lot of it felt like the interviewee saying something like “they made my children disconnect from me” and then the show cutting to Remini going, “they made her children disconnect from her.” While I understand the cuts were meant to repeat the information for emotional effect, I don’t feel like it worked particularly well. For me, I felt the emotional effect with the interviewee, so the repetition of the point felt a little emotionally hallow.

However, this may not have been entirely the fault of the show. It may have also been how A&E chose to do their little pre-commercial teasers. They’d often choose Remini saying something in the white room to be the preview of the next section. You’d then get the interview followed by the same scene that was played in the clip before the last commercial break. Because of this, I’m not 100% sure that this is a valid criticism of the series in and of itself, but it was an issue I found in the viewing experience.

The Show as Memoir

Though I can’t find a better word for it, I’m not sure it’s quite right to call the aspect of the show that I’m about to talk about a memoir. That makes it sound like a tell-all of Remini’s life and it’s not. Rather, is a discussion of many different people’s experiences, which often intersects with others’ stories. But it does have something of the emotional honesty of a memoir.

Moreover, this documentary is dripping with emotional honesty. You see former Scientologists opening up and revealing deeply personal things about their pasts, often the most painful parts of their lives. On the one hand, what they tell is valuable because it gives insight into a very secretive and litigious organization, but it’s so much more than that. They reveal real things that happened to real people. I think for a lot of us, Scientology is this wacky religion that believes in magic aliens and whatnot, but it’s more than that. It often works in very cult-like, manipulative ways and people’s lives have been destroyed. This is something that they do say in the show itself and I think it really hits at the heart of the series. Rather than looking at Scientology as a joke, it takes it seriously. And taking it seriously is really the only way to help those affected by it.

 

While this series may not be amazingly edited, it’s incredibly valuable for understanding the human impact of the Church of Scientology. It’s definitely worth a watch, especially in the next couple of weeks before season 2 begins on August 15th. I know I’ll be watching. And maybe doing another post on it. We’ll see.

Tripping 1902 Style: “A Trip to the Moon”

So, internet, at YouTube’s behest, I watched “A Trip to the Moon.” It’s another French one, which may explain a certain amount of the trippiness of this 12-minute film. Trippiness is apparently a long, proud tradition of the French.

This film, directed by Georges Melies, begins with a meeting a astronomers. They’re planning a trip to the moon while all dressed as the wizard from “Fantasia.” Seriously, I kinda thought they were meant to be wizards. Apparently, they all have names, but this is not ever made clear to the audience. Melies is quite well known for his use of special effects, which can be seen in the opening, as telescopes were replaced with stools for the sit-down part of their talks.

Anyway, they decide on a plan and that plan is to shoot themselves to the moon in a hollow bullet, which is fired through an inverted telescope-looking gun with the help of hot chicks in booty shorts. There are a few things of note in this scene. Firstly, it’s really interesting, since they’re kind of standing on a platform directly above these little houses. It doesn’t succeed in quite creating the proper dimensions for depth, which I believe is intentional. It gives the scene a nice, surreal edge from the get-go. Secondly, the astronomers are wearing vaguely anachronistic clothing. They have the capri pants/knee-high socks look that you associate with the 18th century. Lastly, the hot chicks in sleeveless tops and booty shorts do not shave their underarms. This shouldn’t be surprising, since modern shaving is the product of a slightly later time, but it still briefly blew my mind.

Once they land on the moon, whose face is an actual human face as they approach, the astronomers are met with a landscape of rocky mountains. They decide that what they need to do immediately upon reaching to moon is to go nigh-nigh. This scene is probably the most interesting in the film. They do some kind of time lapse effect while the men are meant to be sleeping. Apparently, the director of this is quite famous for his early use of things like this and it’s quite interesting to watch.

Our heroes then fall into some kind of jungle with giant mushrooms and meet the moon natives. These creatures apparently become clouds of smoke if you hit them real hard, so that’s what the astronomers do. They’re actually taken to and kill the king (queen? president? Who knows!) of these moon creatures. Apparently, this is meant to be a satire of imperialism. As someone who’s spend her life steeped in movies about vicious aliens, I definitely didn’t get this. This satirical theme is continued as they leave the moon (accomplished by one of the dudes jumping on a rope and pulling the bullet vessel off a cliff, which causes it to fall to Earth). One of the aliens grabs onto the vessel. Once they get to Earth, they beat him up and then have a parade. Again, watching it the first time with no prior knowledge, I didn’t pick up on this. But I can kind of see that.

While watching this film, I was simultaneously bemused and amused. I clearly didn’t properly get it, since I spent most of the time wondering how much of what was in it was considered plausible in 1902 (answer: not a lot) rather than looking for social commentary. This one was noticeably better than the horror film I reviewed a few months back. I think this shows not only the strides that film was making at the turn of the last century, but also what you can do when the director is an actual illusionist. Certain effects, like the telescopes becoming stools as I mentioned earlier, were a bit clunkier than those that were closer to traditional illusions, like people disappearing in smoke and whatnot.

I would definitely recommend this one. It has an actual plot and is just really trippy and interesting. Go watch it. It’ll be 12 minutes well-spent.

Archaeology Ruins Heroes: “Archaeology, History, and Custer’s Last Battle: The Little Big Horn Re-examined”

Sorry for the spacing on my last post, internet. Things were busy. Things are still a bit busy, so I will regale you with another tale of a documentary I was made to watch in class!

That documentary is Archaeology, History, and Custer’s Last Battle: The Little Big Horn Re-examined. As the title suggests, this documentary, based on a book by the same name, tells the tale of archaeologist Richard Fox and how he used a combination of survey and excavation to reconstruct Custer’s battle at Little Big Horn.For those not up with their random battles in the American frontier history, the national mythos surrounding Custer is one of tragic defeat. Custer and his men fought an onslaught of Indians bravely, keeping order and discipline even as they were killed off to the last man. What is generally not highlighted is the fact that Custer was part of a battalion sent to remove a large settlement of Cheyenne and Dakota and force them back onto a reservation. While that fact is something that this film shies away from, it is not the main focus. This short documentary film makes the case that, in fact, the battle was much more chaotic than the popular imagination believes it to be.

Fox and his team to this by studying the distribution patterns of government bullets and shell casings and Native bullets and casings. The bullets themselves allow them to construct the direction of the battle, while casings, which are dropped on the ground after the gun is fired, tell them where the different forces stood. And that’s not even the coolest part. The coolest part is that they can track individuals by studying minute differences in the marks the firing pins of specific, individual guns make. That may sound really boring, but being able to track a single person is archaeology is amazing.

I will admit, however, that I was momentarily appalled by Fox’s field methodology. Don’t get me wrong; he’s going the right thing. He and his team use metal detectors and, when they find something, they dig a small hold to see what it is. Again, this is how you do the study he wants to do. But I was trained to dig things deep underground.. The number one lesson you learn is to always dig in lots (or whatever your terminology calls them) that leave a roughly flat surface. Never dig a hole. But here it’s fine. They’re ultimately doing a survey of things buried slightly underground and they’re taking good measurements of them. But I still had that momentary, emotional reaction.

Fox’s reconstruction of the battle relies on certain assumptions about military order. During the late 19th century, apparently, men were taught to form a ‘skirmish line’ by standing a few yards apart from one another. However, if fear or panic set in, they will tend to bunch as a natural tendency of humans. If things are truly desperate, they will flee and not fight back or only fight opportunistically. It’s somewhat unclear if he’s getting this information from historical texts or ethnographic study, but it does seem to make a certain amount of sense.

With this, Fox makes the argument that Custer’s men were on the offensive for most of the battle, not the defensive as is commonly accepted. While it was believed that they did not go north of what is today known as Custer Hill, the distribution of their bullets and shells suggest that they were headed that direction, presumably to capture the group of women and children who had left the settlement. Once they were outnumbered and their chances of victory looked slim, they began bunching. Individuals seem to have mixed with other parts of the force, breaking what would have been the accepted protocol of battle. As bunching worsens, the ratio of government bullets and casings goes down, suggesting that Custer’s men largely ceased to fight. This is especially true in the final stage of the battle, in which the remnants of Custer’s men attempted to flee into a ravine, an event attested to by Native eyewitness accounts and corroborated by the soldiers who would eventually find the battle ground who reported a number of bodies there. Here, there is only evidence of small amounts of opportunistic fighting by government troops.

I found this documentary to be quite engaging intellectually. Emotionally, I was somewhat cool to it. It’s an emotional subject matter – the US government sent a bunch of men to force people to live on lands far smaller than they were originally promised; these men sought to capture the women and children to force the Native men to comply; over two hundred men were killed, some of them while fleeing – but I didn’t find it as mind-blowing as I think I was meant to. Don’t get me wrong, the tracking individuals by their firing pins was fantastic, but I feel like I was supposed to have an attachment to Custer that I just didn’t and don’t. I remember hearing the words ‘Custer’s last stand,’ but I feel like I never really knew what that was. Which seems really strange, since I’m from just a couple states away. (BTW, did you know that this took place in Montana? I totally thought it was in South Dakota or something. This is more embarrassing when your home state borders South Dakota.) I think I learned about the events around it – Sitting Bull was fairly prominent in my high school history class – but this event didn’t really come up. I feel like a childhood hero was supposed to be shattered in my mind, but I found myself going “well, that does seem more plausible.”

Overall, I’d recommend it. It’s a quick watch if you can track it down. Also, firing pin signatures.

Development versus Conservation: “Saving Mes Aynak”

Saving Mes Aynak is a documentary about, well, saving the archaeological site of Mes Aynak, a site 25 miles southeast of Kabul, before a Chinese company puts a copper mine right next to it. The film came out in 2014 and has since won 19 awards from various film festivals and organizations. It’s quite a beautiful documentary, with a lot of good shots of the landscape of Afghanistan. At the same time, I found it somewhat difficult to get into, for reasons I will explain.

Mes Aynak is an archaeological site most known for the plethora of Buddhist artifacts found within it. In the centuries prior to the rise of Islam, and during the earlier Islamic period, Afghanistan served as something of a conduit for Buddhism, connecting Buddhism’s land or origin, India, with China, where it would be quite popular. In fact, for many Chinese monks, Afghanistan was the destination for pilgrimages and a place to learn proper Buddhist practice. This documentary, however, does not so much focus on Mes Aynak in antiquity as on the state of the site in the early 2010’s. This is because of a lease that the China Metallurgical Group (MCC) was given to mine copper around Mes Aynak, putting the site in danger.

This sets the stage for a very fraught salvage excavation. Salvage excavations are fairly common when major construction or similar projects occur. For example, when the Atatürk Dam was constructed in southern Turkey, a group of archaeologists were working around the clock to excavate and preserve the Zeugma mosaics, a group of mosaics apparently dating to the Hellenistic period (if you’re ever in Gaziantep, I’d highly recommend checking out the Zeugma Museum. Maybe wait till the security situation is a bit better, though). Saving Mes Aynak largely follows the Afghan archaeologist Qadir Temori in his work with his team to help preserve the site. Along with Qadir’s team, is a French team (or maybe two French teams, I couldn’t sort it out), and one of my undergrad advisors who seems to show up to have conversations with people at some guy’s house and then leave when American civilians were asked to leave the country. On the other side, somewhat, are the Chinese miners, though they get less screen time than the others.

The real resonance of the documentary, for me at least, is the conflict between the two archaeological teams. They have shots of the Afghan team doing flawed, but earnest archaeology. Their methods are not ideal, largely due to the historic lack of good archaeological training for scholars in Afghanistan, but they are careful to not damage the artifacts and they take note of where major architecture was found. The French team, on the other hand, brings in a giant backhoe to excavate. When confronted by Qadir, they claim that the operator was told to stop if he hit any stone. For those not familiar with excavations, you aren’t going to feel anything you’re blasting through with a big-ass machine. I mean, maybe you could if you found a fortification wall or something, but probably not if you found a small stupa or something.

Throughout the movie, the Qadir is shown talking to various people in the surrounding area about how they feel about the mine and the archaeological sites. In general, people were not huge fans of a Chinese company extracting resources from the country and possibly threatening their villages. I found this part interesting not only because it showed the opinions of actual Afghans, but also, if I’m not mistaken, some of the individuals interviewed were speaking Dari or another Persian dialect, while others were speaking a Turkic one. I’m not entirely sure on this one, though.

I believe that this documentary is very important. It is important to make the international community informed of and invested in the archaeology of Afghanistan in order to protect it. Archaeologists in any situation only have so much power to protect cultural heritage, and this is especially true in countries where antiquities laws are not very firmly established or enforced. It also provides an informative look into the landscape of Afghanistan, which I think many people don’t really understand.

However, I didn’t find it particularly compelling as a whole. Again, it was great in many ways, but it doesn’t have that much emotional resonance. This is due to the lack of a narrative. In all fairness, this very true to life. Life has no narrative and there are no heroes and no villains. At the same time, narrative draws the viewer in and allows them to make sense of what’s happening. In this documentary, a lot of things are happening, but there isn’t really a firm narrative created.

Ultimately, I found this documentary to be both visually beautiful and important. While I had difficulty finding a place to take hold emotionally, this could be important in its own way. It presents all parties with minimal commenting and without creating obvious antagonists. I still think it’s worth a watch, if only to learn a bit about Afghanistan and its archaeology. The archaeologist drama is also kind of fun.

The Fine Line Between Smart and Heinous: “Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room”

Hello, internet. Welcome to the first post of my second topic: documentaries. I’m planning on doing both movies and miniseries; I’ve been planning out posts for “Making a Murderer” and Leah Remini’s Scientology series (though, the latter might be difficult, as it is getting at least one more season). But today I wanted to start out with the first documentary I remember actively liking (despite it having 0.5 stars on Netflix). I was made to watch Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room, a movie based on a book of a similar name, in some class back in what must have been high school based on its release date. I was weirdly into it, even though I didn’t really understand much of the business dealings behind it. Having never taken an econ class past the one required in high school, I can’t say that I entirely understand them now, but I feel like I got more from it than I did ten years ago. I’ll do my best to give an overview before getting into what was good and bad about this documentary.

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The Sordid Details

As on suspects from the title, this is a movie about Enron, the energy company from the 90’s. I realize that some people reading this may be too young to remember the company. Even I only remember its existence as a thing grown ups sometimes mentioned when i was a child. From my Wikipedia research, I found out that Enron derived from a parent company InterNorth, which began in the early days of the Great Depression, in 1930. This natural gas company would acquire another, called Houston Natural gas, a slightly older company. These two would merge and their new entity HNC/InterNorth Inc. before it was renamed “Enteron.” This name would later be shortened to Enron. “The Smartest Guys in the Room” doesn’t discuss this past and begins after Enron officially becomes in entity in 1985. More accurately, this documentary begins with a slightly narmy scene of the Enron buildings interspersed with various people in suits telling what they thought Enron’s fatal flaws were, with another voice whispering things like “he’s hiding something from the rest of us” and “what is he building in there?” This scene is followed by the suicide of a man named John “Cliff” Baxter, an Enron executive, before cutting to a scene of Jeff Skilling’s trial.

The narrative, however, begins with Enron’s first scandal in 1987. This incident, called the “Valhalla Scandal,” involved two traders in the oil sector of the company essentially gambling beyond their means in the oil trade and diverting some of the money to personal accounts. They destroyed records and kept two sets of books, one real and the other that showed what they wanted it to, in order to increase Enron’s profits. I’m slightly unclear as to how precisely this worked in this situation, but much of the oil market is based on speculation about oil prices and much of the market is a gamble (for those interested Planet Money has a short series on the oil market. They begin by buying oil). When this was discovered by the company, Kennith Lay, the then-CEO of Enron, did nothing to discourage this behavior. In fact, he encouraged the division to “please keep making [Enron] millions.” Eventually, this was shut down by one of Enron’s executives, who managed to get the real books and was able to keep the company afloat.

This sets the stage of the hiring of Jeff Skilling, who climb the ranks at Enron before becoming the COO in 1997 and moving to the position of CEO in early 2001. Skilling’s plan to grow the company hinged on the use of mark-to-market accounting. This form of accounting matches the value of a commodity to its real value in the market, rather than to its price on the books, which is meant to allow investors to have a better idea of how much a product is worth in real-time. In Enron’s case, this meant being able to declare the value of their own product, as Enron was creating the very markets it was meant to be marking to.  Under Skilling, the work environment at Enron turned particularly brutal. He instituted a ranking system by which employees were ranked on a scale of 1 (best) to 5 (worst), with each category containing roughly the same number of employees. Employees in the bottom 20% of the company were let go. That fact has very little bearing on the main scandals, but it’s a fact that upsets me, so you all have to know. There are a number of other executives that the documentary discusses, but I’m going to skip over them in the interest of not making this post too incredibly long and based on the fact that they don’t directly deal with the shadiest of Enron’s practices. Suffice it to say that, during the 90’s, Enron had a number of ventures, like the selling of broadband, that did not pan out, yet the company’s stock prices still increased each year and the head of one failed department walked away with millions. Andrew Fastow, the CFO, created a number of corporations for the sole purpose of trading with Enron in order to hide the fact that the company was in debt. Many of the biggest banks invested in these, essentially helping Enron to hide their losses.

Yet the worst of Enron’s dealings, and the most likely to have caught the attention of readers old enough to be aware of current events in pre-9/11 2001, were its policies in California.

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There was a great cartoon with a screw labelled “Enron” going through California, but I couldn’t find it.

I suspect that most Americans born before about 1993 have some vague recollection of the rolling blackouts that California suffered in 2000 and 2001. At the time, I assumed that the blackouts were caused by natural disasters. (I was ten. Blackouts happen in big storms. I made the obvious connection.) However, as is illustrated in great detail in this documentary and as adults at the time were probably aware, they were caused by the shifty dealings of energy companies. California had just deregulated energy. This enabled those who sold power to do a number of unethical things that were not technically illegal. Chief among these was the practice of creating artificial power shortages in order to drive up the price and profits for themselves. This documentary illustrates this point very vividly by playing tapes of Enron traders negotiating to get certain power grids turned off because they’d like the price to go up a little bit and cheering as wildfires destroy power lines and grids.

Eventually, it would become clear that Enron’s practices were unsustainable. On ex-vice president interview in this documentary depicts Skilling as an almost tragic figure, a CEO whose company is being taken over by the traders. Skilling would resign on August 14, 2001. This was at a time that Enron stock was falling and Lay, who had been chairman before returning to the position of CEO, attempted to assure everyone that the company would pull through.

The day after Skilling stepped down, Sherron Watkins, a vice president at Enron, attempted to become something of a whistle-blower by informing Lay of the issues with the company’s accounting. The documentary is a bit unclear about the exact order of events or if Watkins’ actions had much of an impact, as Lay used Enron’s own lawyers to declare their accounting fine, but the Securities and Exchange Commission would begin an investigation into Enron by late October 2001. This would lead to the collapse of the company and the trials of both Skilling and Lay. The documentary ends with employees describing how they were told at 9:00 one morning that Enron declared bankruptcy and that they had 20 minutes to get their things and leave the building before turning back to a couple former employees they’d had commenting sporadically throughout the movie saying that they didn’t question the company and its practices enough at the time. Before the credits go up, white writing on a black screen details how much the employees of Enron lost compared to what was made by their bosses. As the credits roll, they have what is possibly the creepiest song in the background. It reminds me a bit of “This is Halloween” from The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s entitled “God’s Away on Business.”

The Good and the Utterly Confusing

They say that cultural decades don’t split at the beginning of chronological decades. For example, what we see as the culture of the 1950’s is really something that happened between 1955 and 1965, with “the 60’s” being 1965-1975 and so on. I believe this movie is proof of that. Despite coming out in 2005, it’s so 90’s. Not the early 90’s big hair and grunge that belongs to the 1985-1995 cultural epoch, but the other 90’s. The getting really excited about the internet 90’s. The 90’s in which I had a box of semi-translucent floppy discs in six or seven different colors. This was definitely part of why I liked it. Even it’s opening creepy whispers narm was great. It also allowed me to start piecing together what was happening around me at that time. I remember hearing about Enron when I was in elementary school and then mentions of them just disappeared. I never really gave them a thought until whatever teacher it was that made us watch this movie said we were watching a documentary about how it collapsed. I think the figuring out what happened when I was too young to be paying attention was part of what appealed to me about this documentary.

On a less personal note, I think there are things that this documentary does right. It doesn’t drag at all and it does a decent job at mixing somewhat pulpy content with the deeply disturbing realities of how the powerful could play with the system. In this film at least, much of what appears to have brought Enron crumbling down was a group geeks-turned-dudebros doing whatever they wanted, screwing over people and, in one guy’s case, bringing strippers up into his office (yes, there are shots of a strip club in this documentary about white collar crime). The documentary itself is also broken into segments, with what looks like a title card appearing at various times. The titles of the segments often correspond to songs, which makes me think it was something for the movie, but they would make sense as chapters of the original book.

While this documentary seems quite sleek, it’s pretty hard to follow. Perhaps I was just not giving it my full attention when I watched it for this post, but I didn’t really get a sense of the timescale of these activities. Most of the dates in my summary came from Wikipedia. I think it would be really good if you already understood a lot of the background of Enron, but it isn’t the best introductory overview. You’d get a sense of a big company making a lot of dodgy choices in a short amount of time, but it doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining any background information. It also has a pretty large cast of characters. Like many documentaries, they intersperse talking-head type interviews with their footage. In these, they interview the woman who co-wrote the book (a journalist by the name of Bethany McLean), Watkins, a number of former employees, and, I believe, a number of accountants and lawyers not associated with Enron. It was difficult to keep each person straight, especially since they didn’t subtitle who they were each time they appeared.

This documentary is also a bit confusing, as it doesn’t have much of a narrative. I realize that part of that is due to real life not having an actual narrative, but I feel that documentaries have to impose some sort of order to make things clear to the viewer. A lot of people come in and out at random times. Most noticeably, there is John “Cliff” Baxter, whose suicide begins the movie, but who only features in a list of higher-ups of Enron. In this review, he was one of the boring execs who I glossed over. His story does show the high stakes of what happened, but I didn’t know who he was by the end of the movie and had to go back to figure out what was up with him. Similarly, Lou Pai, who was the head of a failed department who walked away with 100 million and who had strippers in his office, appears to be there just to show the level of corruption and disregard for anything resembling ethics or tact was at Enron, but doesn’t play much of a role in the downfall of Enron. His story is once again interesting, but I feel like it just sits as an anecdote, rather than functioning to move any sort of narrative forward.

Ultimately, I still really enjoyed this documentary. Even though some parts of it were quite confusing, it kind of has everything. It’s the story of a company infected with a hyper-masculine swagger that decides it can do what it wants and loses all sense of right and wrong, which ultimately results in it digging its own grave. It gives you the bizarre opportunity to live vicariously through corrupt executives and depraved traders and still stand in righteous indignation over their actions. This may be a sort of Harry Potter situation where the movie only really makes sense if you’ve read the book. Or at least the Wikipedia page.