Satirical documentary takes a serious look at America's class structure
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Tuesday, April 26th marked the premier of The American Ruling Class at the TriBeCa Film Festival and Jane Rosenthal, a cofounder of the Festival (along with her husband Craig Hatkoff and Robert de Niro), was prepared to let us in on a little secret…almost. “Of the 250 films in this festival…” she began, “I know we’re not supposed to have favorites, but I have to say,” judicious pause, “I love this movie.” The wink was audible.
Her enthusiasm echoed the buzz in the audience as John Kirby, the film’s director, leapt up to inject a dose of reality, entreating the assembled, “Lower your expectations. We completed the film…early this morning.” This, of course, is one of the reasons why many people flock to film festivals, not only to be the first to see the new films, but to be a part of their process.
Kirby went on to explain that this project had been five years in the making. It was initiated by Harper’s magazine editor Lewis Lapham, and after the script had seen many incarnations, finally resulted in an elastic interpretation of the documentary film format, a “dramatic-documentary-musical.”
It’s not surprising that the film takes an ironic approach to a serious subject. Mr. Lapham, one of America’s greatest living satirists-whose book 30 Satires (among others) puts him in the august company of Mark Twain and HL Mencken—is the film’s driving force, both offscreen (he penned the screenplay) and on.
So he poses the question: Is there a class system at work in our Great American Democracy?
Is there a class system in our Great American Democracy?
It seems downright unAmerican to suggest otherwise — which is why the status quo is so secure. It’s a relief to see a film examine the underbelly of the oligarchy and expose the rock hard abs it actually has. At this point a monarchy almost seems more honest — at least then the power structure is out in the open.
Lapham serves as both angel and devil on the metaphorical shoulders of his two young protégés (non-actors Caton Burwell and Paul Cantagallo), as he navigates them through the illusions and realities of life after Yale. And although Sean Connery shouldn’t worry that his film territory is about to be invaded just yet, the tanned, silver-haired Mr. Lapham does bring a dash of the debonair to the proceedings as he leads his wards through the pitfalls and perks of the power elite. He also acknowledges that there can be blips in the status quo. “If you're smart enough,” he tells his acolyte, “the Ruling Class will invite you in.”
The film is not without its stars, albeit from the worlds of journalism, literature, filmmaking, and even sports. Robert Altman and Bill Bradley offer words of wisdom. Kurt Vonnegut announces, “of course there’s a ruling class, and it’s based on money… you can buy a jet plane…or you can buy a president”. Walter Cronkite notes, “the ruling class is the rich…and those people are so able to manipulate our democracy that they really control the democracy”. Pete Seeger pops up intermittently in the role of wandering minstrel.
"You can buy a jet plane…or you can buy a president.” Walter Cronkite notes
The film’s supporting cast boasts cameo appearances from the behind-the-scenes movers and shakers of government and industry. Notables with numbers, such as James Baker III, Hodding Carter III, William Howard Taft IV, William T. Coleman, Jr., and Joseph S. Nye, Jr., offer their venerable advice. You can almost hear Katharine Hepburn’s well-starched Connecticut bray intoning lines from The Philadelphia Story, “what have classes to do with it? …upper and lower my eye. I’ll take the lower, thanks”. (Of course, she ends up (re)marrying C.K. Dexter Haven, doesn’t she.)
Hollywood heavyweight Mike Medavoy “poses” as a fatuous tinsel town producer to help Lapham teach young Mike a lesson.
An audible hum could be heard in the audience when Lapham ushered his protégé into an IHOP to meet a waitress, who was actually journalist Barbara Ehrenreich during research for her book Nickel & Dimed.
They stop by the New York Times to meet its chairman and publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., who addresses the fine line tread between journalism and the bottom line. This may have been the impetus (we’re laying odds) for the ongoing series the Times has been running since May 15th entitled Class Matters.
By story’s end, the graduates are faced with a career choice: will they try to save the world, or rule it? But the question chills, suggesting that the options are in opposition.
The film’s after-party further extended the film’s ironies. Held on the trading floor of the New York Mercantile Exchange, attendees feasted on catered food in the trading pits as quotes for crack spreads flickered overhead. Another pit was festooned with a large American flag made of balloons (filled, perhaps, with hot air?), a slick and sardonic juxtaposition to the Exchange’s vestigial flag hanging from the rafters across the room. One partygoer was overheard prognosticating on the film’s success — “this is going to be the Fahrenheit 9/11 of 2005”. In fact, at the Mercantile Exchange, they refer to the mode of trading as the open outcry system. How appropriate.