“Bernie Made Us Money Because, Well, Bernie Was Bernie!” PBS’s Frontline Takes On the Madoff Scam

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You can only watch a  cash register so many times on the evening news before you realize how difficult it is to cover a complex, systemic issue like economics.   Economic upheaval —  and the resulting unemployment, hunger, and human suffering —  is first visible (or invisible)  in very “unsexy” computer bytes and programming code that record everything from credit default swaps to out-and-out Madoff-style thievery.

The other day someone in one of my classes remarked that, at least in the depression, there were countless visuals of suffering and a group of extraordinary photographers to record them. Those early 20th century images remain eloquent testimony of the suffering wrought by speculators and other assorted financial crooks.

Today, though,   white-collar crime is more complex and more quiet.  It is a stealth enterprise in which one corrupt accountant  can press the send button on his or her computer,  and send hundreds of phony profit statements reporting non-existent  earnings to victims of the latest Ponzi scheme.

Well today it was all a little less baffling.

The PBS documentary series “Frontline” has produced an extraordinary 90 minute documentary that clearly explains how so many smart people lost so much money in Bernard Madoff’s  scheme. The mechanics of the theft are fascinating.

But even more fascinating is the depiction of how people, happy with more and more profits,  created a distorted picture of the world  for themselves in which it was impossible to see even Madoff’s most ludicrous and bizarre behavior as anything unusual.  Bernie was making them money , and it was oh so easy to imagine a world in which it all made sense. The documentary tells the stories of one shrewd person after another who, though capable of due diligence in every aspect of their lives,  made room for Bernie’s peculiar practices simply because the money was good. 

If Bernie the multibillion-dollar money manager happened to use one only one anonymous accountant  whose office was in a strip mall, there had to be a reason. And who knew the reason? Bernie. Because Bernie was, after all,  Bernie.

What an incredibly important lesson:   At just the right moment, not two weeks or two months later when with hindsight everything becomes clear, we are capable of convincing ourselves of ridiculously implausible realities simply because the money is good.

I can’t recommend this documentary strongly  enough. By the way, much of it is the reporting work of Frontline correspondent Martin Smith.

Check it out. You can watch it for free online.

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Chris Cooper. Narrator? Yup, And a Great One Too!

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My default position on narration in documentary film is almost always negative, especially when it is used as an amateurish substitute for skilled cinematic storytelling. But I don’t have a hard and fast rule, and sometimes a few strategically placed, eloquent words fit seamlessly into a narrative. For the most part, though, I am a fan of wordless ”narration” that tells a story with meticulous and rhythmic editing.

Of course, all bets are off in first-person documentaries. When these films are done well, (far too seldom) the narration is precisely the point. I think of the films of Alan Berliner, Doug Blank,  Ross McElwee, and Elizabeth Barret.

In  Elizabeth Barret’s Stranger with a Camera,  narration rises to the level of sublimely beautiful poetry.  Barret — one of my favorite filmmakers — uses her own voice and creates a truly haunting meditation on life, loss, memory, and the ethics of the visual image.  I confess that I deeply admired her film for almost two years before I noticed that much of the narration had been written by Fenton Johnson, an accomplished  Kentucky novelist.   I hope you can see this great film and hear Elizabeth speaking Johnson’s remarkable prose and what I am sure were many of her own words.

Tonight I had a surprise. I was watching an episode of PBS’s American Experience about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. I didn’t immediately recognize the voice of the narrator, but it was so understated and mournful that I knew I was not listening to your average voiceover artist.  It was almost a new genre,  something you might call historical oral theatre.

Then I realized that it was Chris Cooper, one of the finest actors working today. You may have seen him in Adaptation or Capote. Like any brilliant actor, he knows instinctively that less is almost always more.  But please listen to his narration if you have a chance. This was stunningly beautiful work and  showed how a great actor like Chris Cooper can turn  prose into poetry.

Finally, if you want to hear another remarkable example of the use of a narrative voice in film,  listen to Tommy Lee Jones speaking Cormac McCarthy’s poetic prose in Ethan and Joel Coen’s “No Country for Old Men.”

The list of Chris Cooper’s accomplishments, already long and packed with one masterful performance after another, has to include this little recognized use of his voice.  Check out Barak Goodman’s  The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

The Night in 1968 I Was Born: Public Broadcast Laboratory’s “Birth and Death”

My lifetime of interest in documentary film began sometime during the week of December 4, 1968.

I was 17 years old. The $12.5 million Ford Foundation experiment in public television and precursor to PBS, the Public Broadcast Laboratory, was starting its second and final season with a two hour cinema verite film by Arthur Barron and Gene Marner, “Birth and Death.” The concept was to follow the birth of a baby in the first hour and the death of a man in the second hour.

I have always felt like I was born that night. Neither childbirth nor death had yet become the openly discussed public events that they are now, and the film was a revelation.

Coming around the same time as “Salesman” by Albert and David Maysles, and a year before two incredible semesters at UCLA studying the history of documentary film with Professor Edgar Brokaw, it was the first time in my life that I saw the raw and emotionally jarring power of cinema verite documentary. Before that night I had no idea what was possible when a first-rate cinematographer, often working with a handheld camera, would use excruciatingly intimate close-ups and candid reaction shots to capture the inherent power of lived experience.

“Birth and Death”  (1968) is discussed and remembered far too seldom, and was very much an early, brief precursor to POV. The night of that broadcast began what became PBS’s proud history of showing the work of outstanding documentary filmmakers to national audiences. It was also the night on which, as a teenager typically oblivious to mortality, it first struck me at the deepest level that going to Viet Nam with the rest of my age cohort might mean that I would die.  And I remember thinking after seeing the Barron film: Dying means you stop breathing. Dying means darkness. Not good. Not good at all.

I thought of all those years tonight when I heard that Fred Wiseman’s film company, Zipporah, has gradually been releasing his extraordinary body of work on DVD. Wiseman, I only learned a year later in 1969 at UCLA, had — at the very same time as Barron’s “Birth and Death” — already begun his astounding body of verite work in 1967 with “Titicut Follies.”

I later saw most of that work, much of which was also broadcast on PBS. Check out the Zipporah site and catch up on some of the greatest verite film ever made. I have a personal favorite, “Near Death,” and I’m sure many of you have yours.

1967 – 1972.

An amazing time for cinema verite. An amazing time to be coming of age. And – for a 17 year old about to contend with the Viet Nam draft — an amazing time to realize that, sooner or later, for good or for bad, birth would eventually be followed by death.

No Escape from Grief: The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández

Yesterday, I saw a film of such shattering emotional impact that it forced me to face just how much I have been missing lately by focusing more on artistic form than visceral emotion. In fact, I found being torn apart and rendered incapable of rational analysis to be nothing short of liberating.

But there I go again with the self-serving language that obscures rather than reveals emotion. I wasn’t “rendered incapable of rational analysis.”

I was crying and I couldn’t stop. On a bus. With people staring at me.

The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández (July 8th, 10 PM, PBS) tells the story of an 18 year-old American citizen – a son, a brother, a student, a friend – who was killed in 1997 near the Mexican border in Redford, Texas by US Marines watching for drug smugglers. While the rules of engagement did not call for deadly force, filmmaker Kieran Fitzgerald painstakingly details the series of events that led a U.S. Marine to shoot and kill Esequiel as he tended his family’s goats with a .22 rifle. Esequiel thus became the first American killed by U.S. military forces on American soil since the 1970 Kent State shootings.

So many of us respond to tragedy by playing an instinctive mental game. Surely, we tell ourselves, a tragic story will have one detail about a victim, one simple fact which will allow us to delude ourselves into thinking that we have found a reason for the unreasonable. Perhaps the victim was someplace he or she shouldn’t have been. Perhaps, even years before, the victim did or said something that even now allows us to temper our grief. It’s stunning how quickly we all, even unconsciously, resort to victim-blaming.

Some times we even say (or just think, if we are smart enough not to give voice to our least humane instincts) that “he got what was coming.” We think those words can provide a psychic antidote to the deeper horror that comes from pain that won’t go away. But that is when we must face the fact that good people like Esequiel Hernández, through no fault of their own, can sometimes die painful and tragic deaths simply by finding themselves in the cross-fire of powerful and violent institutions.

Esequiel dies because of an absolutely pointless and symbolic deployment of Marines as border guards in the “War on Drugs,” a mission for which they are scandalously unprepared. Before you know it — with the maniacal anti-immigrant rantings of media provocateurs like Bill O’Reilly playing in the background – a young man lies dead.

As I watched The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández, I kept playing a mental game in a vain attempt to rid myself of pain: At least, I told myself, the evil of the killers will provide a different kind of relief. They can be hated and resented and serve as the vessels in which I will place my rage at a young life lost too soon.

But then “The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández” deals a second blow. Fitzgerald profiles the four Marines — although the one who actually fired the fatal shot chooses not to be interviewed — with such nuance and emotional depth that it becomes impossible to find the relief and resolution that would come from clearly evil killers.

They are human.

And then all I felt was despair, left with a difficult challenge we all face as we try to make sense of the world. Like it or not, we must accept that some tragedies are destined to remain open sores on our souls, forever unresolved, forever a source of grief.

In the end, though, “The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández” comes back to a young man and his grieving parents. He didn’t have to die, but he did, and even now — a day later — I can’t figure out a way to move from relentless grief to any thoughtful action. I can’t figure out where to direct my rage.

I can only cry for Esequiel. And his mother and father and brother.