Thu 10 May 2007
I recently had the chance to view Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Like many, I knew the basics of the Enron story, I could be a snide finger pointer at the business world like the average liberal-type, but somehow I thought the nitty-gritty details were beyond my comprehension: why bother? The film did a decent job at explaining why I should bother, why we should all bother.
Plus, there’s enough “how did they get that tape?” moments to keep you enthralled, footage of stuff that you can’t believe there’s footage of, like a video-greeting card that George W. Bush did on behalf of a Ken Lay as a gift for a friend. Things that defy explanation, like a taped self-parody Jeff Skilling did about the company’s bookkeeping policies, or recorded conversations between Enron floor-traders about how they were breaking the California electric grid on purpose.
On the other hand, there’s also some “why did they use that tape?” moments. Primarily, about 45 seconds worth of strip club footage—likely bought from a stock company—that boosted the documentary to an R-rating for no good reason.
The footage in question plays out during a discussion of Lou Pai, the lucky Enron executive who “got out first,” leaving the company and cashing in his stock at Enron’s peak in order to meet the terms of a divorce settlement. Talking heads in the film repeatedly refer to him as “mysterious,” as if he were some sort of shadowy figure that appeared out of nowhere and vanished just as quickly. They did everything short of calling him a ninja: wouldn’t want to be racist when you’re being racist, after all.
Indeed, much was made of Pai’s patronage of strip clubs (supposedly the cause of his divorce), the humorous trope of the lusty—yet safely tiny and effete—Asian guy being played for all its worth.
Enron folklore claims that Pai once explained that he splashed gasoline on himself before he went home so his wife couldn’t smell the perfume of his strippers: the punch line of the rumor had it that during one such explanation, one of his fellow Enron club-goers retorted “your wife probably thinks you’re fucking a gas station attendant,” causing Pai, in revenge, to ship him off to the far reaches of Canada. Of course, if he was hanging out with his lackeys at a strip club, shooting the shit with them, how mysterious could he really be?
The film does not make it clear whether the footage shown was of an actual club that Pai had visited or if it was just stock footage they had purchased. Alex Gibney, the director, does little elaboration during his commentary track: he seems utterly obsessed with trying to position himself as a music geek and sounds consistently tickled by the cleverness of his choices. He does remark on his selection of Philip Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach” and how he saw the interplay between it, the strip club, and Jeff Skilling’s belief in evolutionary biology. Then he pointed out that the breast implant was invented in Houston, as if that fact was the crowning piece of synergism in his argument.
For all the tsk-tsking the film does about “hubris,” it’s ironic that Alex Gibney’s own fascination with boobs disqualifies it from being played for many audiences. Not only does it become iffy for educational settings, but it almost has the tone of: this is for liberal people who go to far flung indy-film festivals; if you’re not hip enough to get past the boobs and just view them as wallpaper, you’re not cool enough to watch our movie.
Gibney knew he was safe from feminist criticism: a complaining feminist would have to admit that she thought the exploitation of women’s bodies superseded the importance of people knowing about why all kinds of middle-class people lost their pensions. The feminist critic who snubbed the film on account of Gibney’s strip clubs would look like a spoiled child, selfishly obsessed with her own “niche” issues.
On the other hand, it’s fairly safe to point out that anger at Enron is a non-partisan emotion. By taking the hipster pose regarding nudity, Gibney was purposefully alienating conservative viewers who could be best reached by the film, particularly with its footage of connections between Bush and the company’s top executives. Numerous critics have pointed that out, if only in the margins of websites.
One final note on Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room: much is seemingly made of the macho atmosphere at the company, not just the strip clubs, the Darwinian “survival of the fittest” mentality, and even the “extreme” adventure outings that employees took together, racing dirt bikes through bone grinding courses. Jeff Skilling had a phrase he spun about how he appreciated “men with spikes.”
What interests me—and I don’t say that lightly, I mean, I’m completely interested down to my last molecule right now—is how such gender treatments are so often used in media to give a pejorative view of something that people already have a pejorative view of. In other words, people hate Enron. If we show people that Enron was sexist, they will hate it more and feel safe and informed in their hatred for it.
However, even after seeing that bad things can be sexist and that sexist things can be bad, viewers still don’t have the power to see that sexism, itself, is bad.
I think “media people,” for lack of a better descriptor, are aware of that phenomenon. I think they exploit it. More on this from me in the future.
But really, how effective was the Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room from a feminist perspective if, immediately after viewing it, one self-avowed Leftist blogger wrote:
Jeff Skilling was right about one thing
As much as I despise Enron and injury they perpetrated (although employees could have saved their retirement through diversification!), Jeff Skilling was right about one thing. I also like men with spikes. No, this is not a gay metaphor. It means that men should be men. We should be extreme and we should pursue until we kill or are killed.
Ever see those older men at the mall whimpering around like a castrated dog while they wait for their wives to finish trying on clothes? Kill me if I ever lose that much direction.
The first comment on the post was from a conservative rival who called him a “pussy” for being against the war on Iraq. The blogger called him a “pussy” back.