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July 16, 2006

I ♥ $ / I Love Dollar, 1986

ilovedollar.gifFilmed in 1984-85 in an era of Reaganomics, a spiraling U.S. national debt, an unresolved energy crisis, a politically stabilizing Brazilian recession, and an unprecedented Asian high tech economic boom led by Hong Kong, Johan van der Keuken's I Love Dollar is an ingeniously conceived, cohesively organic, and provocative exposition into the circulation and financial mechanisms of money in modern civilization and its wide ranging social and geopolitical repercussions. Incisively opening to the sound of a jaunty, Tin Pan Alley-styled, synthesized piano melody (that recalls a more somber version of Abba's Money, Money, Money) juxtaposed against the curiously distorted image of a funhouse mirror-like reflection from the entrance of a commercial building, this introductory image of highly polished and transfixing, but visually deceptive urban financial institutions is immediately upended by the incongruous - and seemingly unrelated - shot of a bustling park (perhaps somewhere in South America) as a group of bystanders congregate around a dice-rolling betting table. A subsequent shot of a stock exchange trading room in Amsterdam provides the intrinsic correlation between the disparate images of recreation and work, poverty and privilege, as a commodities broker attempts to explain to a client on the telephone the increased risk and relative volatility of speculative investment associated with the commodities trading of precious metals.

Inasmuch as van der Keuken seeks to collapse the implicit class-based connotative shell game by redefining the underlying idea of stock investment as an act of gambling (a democratization that is subsequently represented by the high society sport of derby horse racing in then-British colony Hong Kong in which both thoroughbred owners and off-track betting agents represent the same potential for financial gain based on a calculated, yet essentially chance-based system), so too is the concept of investment recontextualized, not solely in terms of financial seeding and funneling of capital, but also in terms of personal commitment and dedication to communal projects. Switching locations to the (then) slums of Alphabet City on the Lower East Side of Manhattan (in a jarring contrast in economic conditions that is punctuated by a playfully sinister, otherworldly music that accompanies the shot of a pair of working class young men - the film's interview subjects and first hand witnesses to the urban blight - as they drive past the desolation and ruins of a seemingly alien urban landscape): first, a first-generation Puerto Rican immigrant and business student speaking from the kitchen of his hard-working mother's quaint neighborhood cafeteria as he explains his entrepreneurial goal to expand the reach of his mother's ethnic cooking into the more affluent clientele of Fifth Avenue by studying the mechanism of high finance while continuing to support the community by maintaining their original store as a reminder of their economic and social roots; then subsequently, a pair of working class homesteaders renovating a derelict, burned down building on Avenue C who express their frustrated attempts to petition City Hall to be issued a title grant to their homesteaded property and the constant fear of dispossession that inevitably accompanies the process of gentrification. Culminating with a radio-prompted, impromptu fundraising gathering in front of the cafeteria to raise money for paralyzed children in Puerto Rico, these marginalized communities subvert the notion of abstract consequences created by the short term goals of a manipulated, virtual money flow - a sentiment articulated by a Dutch commodities broker who acknowledges the international repercussions of the industry, but nevertheless, feels disconnected from its collateral effects (a figurative turning of a blind eye that is subsequently reinforced in the interstitial shot of a blind street vendor hawking pencils in the street) - by humanizing the face of personal investment and stakeholder in the building and nurturing of communities.

A subsequent pillow shot of the now iconic image of the World Trade Center (that punctuates a personable and motivated young woman's rendition of I'm Always Chasing Rainbows as a sardonic commentary on her demoralizing, catch-22 limbo to better herself: unable to get a job to further her education without work experience, and unable to get work experience without a job) also serves as an incisive symbol for the correlation between artificially created perturbations within the international stock markets of industrialized countries as a means of manipulating domestic growth and the imbalanced economies of developing nations. At the core of the hypothesis is an American analyst's examination of the concept of supply side economics that has become the framework for fiscally conservative governments - and in particular, Ronald Reagan's administration - that favors a less intrusive government in the stimulation of the economy, even as it seeks to implement tax cuts for businesses as a means of generating an eventual "trickle down" benefit to the local economy. Contrasted against the modern-day reality of a mammoth and unprecedented national debt caused by systematic deficit spending (that reached the trillion dollar milestone for the first time during the Reagan administration), the concept not only underlies the common practice of buying stocks on margin, but also encapsulates the inextricable disparity of underdeveloped countries in the arena of world trade (a miasmic, figurative deal with the devil that van der Keuken wryly alludes through the repeating images of revolving glass doors bearing the inopportune address of '666'), as export revenues are diverted towards interest payments to international debt holders and not re-invested into the national economy to foster sustained growth. Moreover, the idea of debt as a socially accepted, virtual generator of money is also presented as an ingrained aspect of American culture, enabled by a massive credit industry that generates income from the interminable payment of interest (while the amount of debt remains unchanged), and behaviorally reinforced by a dysfunctional government seeking to evade the responsibility for - and the catastrophic repercussions of - an inevitable national economic reckoning.

After establishing the interrelation between industrialized economies - and in particular, Western economies - and the stagnation of third world countries, van der Keuken then sets his sights towards Switzerland in order to examine the traditional (and at times, reprehensible) centrality of Swiss financial institutions in the conduct of international economic affairs. Correlating the Protestant Reformation (by way of John Calvin's theological work in Geneva) and the origins of capitalism through the converging ideal of a Puritan work ethic, the country's iconic reputation as the epicenter of international finance provides an archetypal framework for the very concept of virtually created wealth, illustrating the country's economic role as an archaic, but ingrained middleman gateway - in a complex financial network that resembles what van der Keuken describes as a "spider web" - for channeling (or perhaps, laundering) money to be reinvested into other parts of the world. It is interesting note that by invoking Calvin, van der Keuken also opens the door to the specter of colonialism though the settlement of Calvinist Boers in South Africa and, in the process, indirectly evokes its legacy of systematic exploitation of natural and human resources that has also contributed to the continued economic disparity of post-colonial, emerging nations in the world market. Concluding with a shot of a desolate outdoor farmer's market at sunset juxtaposed against the sound of an audio broadcast news of the European currency markets' collective decision to actively adjust the inflated value of the U.S. dollar against their respective currencies, with inaudible - and appropriately indeterminate - consequences for third world nations, the quotidian image of empty vendor stands in the process of disassembly serves as a metaphoric call to arms to dismantle the intrusive, artificially imposed financial structures created under the archaic illusion of a standardized, world trade free market economy that continues to foster a system of inequitable and disproportionate economic barriers, perpetuate marginalization, and engender inhumanity.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 16, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Johan van der Keuken


Great essay on this very complex film (economically and culturally)!

This documentary raises the standards of how cinema can be used to make a pertinent and elaborate journalistic document, with a selection of genuine subjects, no intervention of the filmmaker and an elaborate collision of images without a patronizing commentary. We can draw our own conclusion. You explain very well the metaphoric use of images in the montage.
Although a minimal understanding in world economy would have helped me to follow this network of implications.

An interesting double feature with Abderrahmane Sissako's Bamako : a hypothetical trial staged in the courtyard of a rural malian village against the World Bank. Arguing the legitimacy of the debts, the pernicious effects of the debt cancellation process, the bureaucratic corruption and the insanity of financial dependence.

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Jul 19, 2006 10:36 AM | Permalink

Thanks, Harry, fascinating comment about the Sissako film. There was a film at HRW called Black Gold that was also about a bit about the whole, messy, interrelated cycle of third world debt, world trade, and international aid. It's still essentially a mechanism of imperialism by more developed nations to maintain that relationship of dependency and subjugation.

Like you, I would have liked to have been more versed in world economy. The only vantage point that I could really feel comfortable contextualizing was the culture of NYC (and the US) in the 1980s because that was where I grew up, and in a lot of ways, that New York in the film is something that no longer exists. Alphabet City is actually not that far from Wall Street and the World Trade Center, but culturally, it couldn't be more diverse.

I would have liked to have seen the film expound more on how the Swiss financial institutions were able to insinuate themselves so deeply into the circulation of money internationally. It seems much deeper than just being able to open untraceable bank accounts.

Posted by: acquarello on Jul 19, 2006 1:48 PM | Permalink

Van der Keuken gives rather less than more situational information about his subjects. Only chapter titles, if I remember correctly. And I first thought the Puerto Rican segment was shot in an underdevelopped country, I only figured by after it was in NYC. The ambiguity was part of the filmmaker's intentions obviously, creating a stronger clash to those familiar with the places (and like you, could make comparisons with the off-screen environment). But it could be confusing for others.
I know his film isn't a touristic guide though.

I don't know about the Swiss culture of money... I grew up with this as a given cliché. They do tend to have a very
stable nation, politically and economically. A trusted safe required for long-term speculations. ;)

The Calvin reference was really interesting. Maybe true at some degree.

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Jul 19, 2006 3:36 PM | Permalink

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