Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Cockburns' AMERICAN CASINO: how & why the banking/mortgage bubble burst

The how and why of the meltdown come first in Leslie and Alexander Cock-
burn's new documen-
tary AMERICAN CASINO. These are followed by the human cost, as the couple tracks just a few of the Baltimore residents who lost their homes in what the city of Baltimore -- which is now suing Wells Fargo Bank -- calls illegally preying upon its black community. This is

nasty, dirty stuff, and it may bring to mind some of the nasty, dirty stuff we saw going on in Alex Gibney's ENRON documentary of 2004.

The Cockburns first remind us that on December 15, 2000, the fuse that finally detonated the banking/mortgage crisis was actually lighted. On that day, former Senator Phil Gramm, then Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, introduced a 262-page bill (as a rider to the 11,000-page Appropriations Bill) which excluded from regulation -- both Federal and State -- "the financial instruments most at the heart of our present meltdown," and which effectively, the filmmakers posit, enabled our financial markets to turn into a kind of very big gambling casino. They remain so today.

The Cockburns cover other enablers, as well: the ratings agencies such as S&P and mortgage bonds salesmen the likes of David Attisani, who, while blaming the meltdown on greed, refuses to take one iota of responsibility for selling -- for 12 years! -- the mortgage bonds that underpinned the bubble/meltdown on Wall Street, and in the process outlasting three of the four banks he worked for during that time. We also hear from the savvy financial reporter Mark Pittman and from Michael Greenberger, a director at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission during the Clinton years, who witnessed the banks fighting off all efforts at regulating their trillion-dollar derivatives business.

When we arrive at the human face of the loss at hand, things get more per-
sonal -- and painful -- but perhaps not quite as eye-
opening or informative. (Consider the differences between this documentary and Trouble the Water -- which also covers a national problem personally, from the inside out, but does so in a manner more real and refreshing -- perhaps because the camera and microphone are in the hands of street people rather than "documentarians.") One of these foreclosures is of the home owned by Denzel Mitchell, shown above, a Baltimore high school teacher who teaches, ironically enough, a course on American Justice. Another home is owned by therapist Patricia McNair, shown below. Regarding these and other mortgages, the infor-
mation we hear from professionals such as John Relman, civil rights attorney, and Cara Stretch, who counsels homeowners threatened with foreclosure, devastates any claims that the homeowners were given a fair deal or should be held responsible for the lies told and omissions made by their banks and brokers. Let's hope that Baltimore vanquishes Wells Fargo -- and that our current President grows a set of balls big enough to at least attempt to force real regulation on Wall Street and the financial sector.

The movie ends with a look at the oncoming plague of mosquitoes and rats breeding in, respectively, the abandoned swimming pools and garbage dumps (like the one shown below) that many of these foreclosed-on homes have become. Narrative filmmakers are probably already composing a sci-fi scenario around this little nugget, and audiences will no doubt flock to the finished film in the kind of hordes that stay far away from movies made in the documentary form. Well, reality sucks, don't it?

American Casino, distributed via Argot Pictures, begins its New York City run (after already opening in Chicago, San Francisco and Milwaukee) this Wednesday, September 2, at Film Forum; during its run there will be several Q&A's with the filmmakers. You can find other playdates, cities and theaters here. There's a DVD release is in the offing, as well.

All photos are from the film itself, except that of the Cockburns:
photo by Gary Gershoff, © and courtesy of

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