Gekko as Hero? Hell NO!

Gekko isn't really the kind of noted nasty you love to embrace. Instead, he's everything that's bad in our current economic downturn. He's the target of a Michael Moore documentary, a running gag for Bill Maher's politically incorrect vivisection of the times.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin, Carey Mulligan, Frank Langella, Eli Wallach, Susan Sarandon
Rated: R
Studio: Fox
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-09-24 (General release)

When, exactly, did Gordon Gekko become a cinematic "hero". Not in the traditional sense, mind you. This is a man, after all, who screws over companies like bimbos at a bachelor party and then holds no compunction about crying conspiracy when he's eventually taken down by his own avarice. As a cautionary example, he's almost neither. Yet he's an '80s icon - again, another tenuous way of describing his out of the ordinary status - who argued that greed was "good" (for want of a better term) and used his slicked back Pat Reilly hairdo and expensive designers suits as a way of working in and around the various laws or personal and professional conduct. Even better (?), he almost got away with it.

Yet here we are, two decades later, turning him from movie myth to martyr, arguing for his redemption in two wholly implausible ways - financial and fatherhood - that seem antithetical to why people love the lug in the first place. Back when Reagan ruled his trickle down voodoo economics, he was a cutthroat archetype doing whatever it took to make a buck. He was a cruel corporate raider and he obviously was damn proud of it. In the unnecessary sequel to the Oliver Stone "classic", Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Gekko has since gone from 'playa' to prophet, predicting the doom and gloom scenarios that would come to undermine the world's financial security during the latter part of the '00s.

Disheveled, slightly unkempt, and keen to find a way to both simultaneously endear himself to his distant adult daughter child Winnie and get vengeance on the man - Bretton James - and the company that caused his downfall, he schleps along selling his prison-inked predictions while voicing a new maxim on the value of materialism. Now, greed is no longer good, he states, just a shoulder shrug legal business model. It's the way things have always been, except now the government has gotten in on the act, deregulating and redefining the laws so that banks and their betrothed multinationals can gamble and grind the wages of the working man into a fine addictive powder. In Wall Street, cocaine was king. In Money Never Sleeps, everybody is snorting the far more powerful substance - speculation.

This doesn't change the fact that Gekko - even with Michael Douglas' career defining performance both then and (not so much) now - is still unconscionably horrible. First time around, Bud Fox was victim of his seductive siren song. Now, it's an established bull market bad boy named Jacob Moore. Already raking in the major scratch at his depressed, dying firm (we see a bonus check for a cool $1.4 million as the movie begins), Gekko views the kid as a chance to get back into Winnie's life. You see, Jacob is the idealistic Internet entrepreneur's boyfriend and our ex-con is convinced that a little interpersonal insider trading will get him and his angry child back together.

So what does Gekko do, actually? What makes him so hideous? Well, without spoiling too much of the plot (though Google and Wikipedia will do that for you, quite nicely), he gets Jacob to join up with James, offers him information to take down said titan, weasels sideways back into Winnie's life (with lots of help from her star-gazing spouse to be) and then helps himself to some undeclared income left lying around. Taken one way - and perhaps the only way - Gekko destroys Winnie and Jacob's life so he can bankroll is comeback, and he allows them both to do his dirty work in trying to expose James as far more corrupt than he ever was.

Sounds like the stuff of legend, right? In the hands of another director, one without Stone's keen political savvy and narrative vision, Gekko would be nothing more than a formulaic villain, a moustache twirling menace in suspenders and a tailored Armani jacket. His backstabbing and disloyalty is matched only by his selfish need for personal satisfaction and he will literally step on and over anyone who gets in his way. Instead of going full bore into his unconscionably evil psyche, driving a dump truck up to and around his lamentable ethical landfill, Stone celebrates his cunning. It's weird thematically. On the one hand, we're supposed to loathe his methods. On the other, his 'madness' mimics everyone's version of the American Dream - or what they perceive as such.

Perhaps Gekko's lasting impact is tied to his ability to mass manufacture cash with undeniably fictional ease. He seems incapable of being broke. Even when he gets his measly $1.4K check for pressing license plates, he still lives in a luxury apartment with a stunning view (rented, of course). He walks in circles reserved for the socio-political elite and yet never seems to suffer from the stigma of being a convicted felon. Maybe it's the public nature of his criminality. White collar is the new CEO black, apparently. We hear throughout the update that Gekko fought for five years before finally hitting the big house, and since his case was presumably well publicized, his battle for the buck could be seen as something akin to stoic.

Indeed, it could be that Gekko symbolizes the strongest tenets of pure capitalism - profit at any cost. It's a brainwashed reality of life. From a young age, we are taught that money buys happiness (along with really excellent toys). We get piggy banks as presents while unfortunate relatives bribe us with disappointing savings bonds as tokens of future security. Dads want to teach us the value of a dollar and such arcane ideas as paper routes, summer jobs, and part-time employment mark our maturity with a patina of upcoming purpose. While all this would switch in the '80s, the sweat off one's brow being replaced by a Masters in Business Administration, the focus remains on the fiduciary. Gekko just cuts out those meddling middlemen - conscience, compassion, and culpability.

It's all the movies' fault, of course. The arch dramatics of the medium can make any malevolence - even one that feasts on census takers with a side dish of favas and a bottle of vino - seem acceptable. But Gekko isn't really the kind of noted nasty you love to embrace. Instead, he's everything that's bad in our current economic downturn. He's the target of a Michael Moore documentary, a running gag for Bill Maher's politically incorrect vivisection of the times. He's the anti-anti-hero, and no amount of "told ya so" prophesying will make us forget that fact. So he predicts the post-millennial meltdown. BFD. He helped cause it in the first place, remember?

Oddly enough, toward the end of Money Never Sleeps, it is Jacob who actually finds this supposedly unflappable champion's aching Achilles Heel. While it would be unfair to give everything away, let's just say it has to do with the celluloid balm known as 'biology' and the prospect of passing along his CNBC unsound wisdom to a related generation. While fortunes are lost and the really bad are vanquished (unlike, say, the simply sinful) Gekko gets to keep his hair, his wrinkled wry smile, his aura of invincibility and that luxury car to drive him to DOC meetings with his parole officer. As a complete contradiction in ethical terms, Gordon Gekko is no idol. His continued relevance reeks of a mindset destined to repeat his mistakes - and where's the value, entertainment or otherwise, in that?

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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