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Issue #1690      June 24, 2015

Film Review

The Emperor’s New Clothes

Since the global financial crisis of 2008 there has been increasing scrutiny of the capitalist mode of production and its negative effects on society. There have been many books, television shows – including Russell Brand’s own You Tube news series, The Trews – songs, plays and movies, most notably Michael Moore’s, Capitalism – A love Story (2010), whose approach New Clothes director Michael Winterbottom, (Welcome to Sarajevo 1997, The Road to Guantánamo 2002, Wonderland 1999 and Jude 1996) follows very closely.

However, Russell Brand, an English comedy actor (Get him to the Greek 2010, Arthur 2011 and St Trinians 2007) turned political activist is not as patient as Michael Moore with the antagonists of this film which are mostly the greedy bankers of the English financial system and their political collaborators, the Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister David Cameron.

While some critics would dismiss Russell Brand as an opportunist and someone who will not want to shake the system too hard that he benefits so well from, these critics are playing the man instead of the message. It is the message that is simple to understand, unequivocal and unrelenting from the beginning of the film to the end: “Inequality is getting greater, the rich are getting richer and everyone else is struggling. Is that fair?” he asks a group of primary school children in the Essex town of Grays where Brand grew up. They play out a series of scenes demonstrating the huge gaps in income inequality in England.

Brand continues his tour de force of the GFC with an examination of how the bankers made hundreds of billions of dollars in the lead-up to the crash of 2008 and how the taxpayers gave them billions to pay off their debts. This put many ordinary people into debt which gave Tory leader David Cameron in the lead up top the 2015 election, (which he won) a grotesque licence to spin a yarn about everyone being in this together. There would be closures, cutbacks, and other belt tightening measures, which included having a Value Added Tax at 20% (the English version of the GST of which ours is 10%) while the rich can put their money in offshore tax havens such as the Cayman Islands.

Brand names the rich bankers and financiers throughout the film and turns up at their mansions and in the lobbies of their banks and trawling the streets of London with a loudhailer and billboard advising them to stay away from these rich people as they are crafty.

While none of the rich bankers who caused the crash and milked the government for assistance after the GFC saw the inside of a cell, more than 1,700 poor and working class people were rounded up in August 2011 following rioting and looting in England due to social unrest. Many of these people were jailed for the crimes of theft of food and simple household items for which riot squad would turn up at their homes in numbers, with television cameras in tow to, smash down their doors and arrest them.

So great are the differences in income levels of people in England that in a typical bank in London it would take 300 years for the lowest paid worker to earn what their bosses earn in a year.

Emperor’s New Clothes may seem like all doom and gloom and cause viewers, as one Australian critic lamented, “To keep the depression hotline on speed dial.!”

But as Brand remarks early in the movie, “Every crisis is an opportunity for change – to change the system and to change direction.”

To see how the capitalist system tries to dupe ordinary people he wheels out one of its greatest apologists for particularly harsh and well deserved scrutiny – Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who in her ascension to 10 Downing Street had the gall to quote from St Francis of Assisi.

Brand provides other archival footage of her attempts to break the union movement in England during the 1980s who she referred to as, “The enemy within.” There is also her telling quote to try to break the collective resolve of the working class and mould them into compliant uncritical slaves: “There is no such thing as society, there are only individuals.”

He shows how collective solutions work by taking his message to the streets and includes throughout the movie ultimately successful attempts by a group of public housing tenants to stop their flats being sold to private enterprise. This would have squeezed them all out at the ridiculously high rents that were then going to be charged.

The movie does not only follow the travails of the English working class but also goes to the other side of the Atlantic to follow up a fairer system of public housing in New York City and also to a slum part of a city in South Africa with two busloads of people wearing the masks of the 80 richest people in the world.

One cannot let pass the outstanding work of director Winterbottom who has used clever cinematographic techniques to draw the viewer to the screen and keep their attention there. This includes the use of close ups of the movie’s subjects, seamless editing, good continuity and excellent choice of soundtrack including Casetteboy’s “Cameron’s Conference Rap” parody, the clip which has been included in the film.

By the end of the movie Brand is in full flight calling for taxation reform including a 90% tax rate for the richest 1% which he mockingly includes himself amongst and therefore, “We don’t have to rush that one through.” Critics of Brand also point to his apparent back-flip on voting in the 2015 UK general elections. To those people he replied, “Ultimately what I feel is that by not removing the Tories through an unwillingness to participate in the ‘masquerade of democracy’, I was implicitly expecting the most vulnerable people in society to pay the price on my behalf while I pondered alternatives in luxury.” More a backhander than a back flip.

What we choose to do with the film’s message is up to us individually and collectively.

While Russell Brand does not advocate socialism as a collective solution, there are references to Marx in the movie and the movie speaks the truth about (the unequal) power relations in our society and how to pursue social and political change.

Miss it at your peril!

Next article – From slavery to self-reliance

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