The Kingmaker

Imelda Marcos at home


Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary is called The Kingmaker but it looks at first glance like nothing more than a film about a woman whose days in the sun are long behind her.

Greenfield you may remember as the director of The Queen of Versailles, a film about a trophy wife of a very rarefied sort. Imelda Marcos, subject of The Kingmaker, you might remember as another trophy wife, of Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos. She of 3,000 pairs of shoes.

Watching it I was reminded of Errol Morris’s 2013 documentary about Donald Rumsfeld, The Unknown Known, in which Morris managed to lay not a single glove on the old fox, who had absolutely no need to do the interview and seemed to be engaging with Morris in a spirit of catch-me-if-you-can.

Marcos, on the other hand, does have skin in the game. But Greenfield structures her film so as only to reveal gradually what’s afoot, and why she’s called it The Kingmaker.

First up, Imelda the beneficent. The once-exiled wife of the deposed Marcos now back in her home country and being feted wherever she goes. Handing out money to street children, ostentatiously visiting the embalmed body of her dead husband, housed mausoleum-style in a Lenin-alike glass case until the Philippines government agrees to his burial in the Heroes’ Cemetery.

Then Imelda the gracious, interviewed at home, worried in a touching way that her stomach is going to look big on camera, alluding in an aggrieved tone to the 3,000 pairs of shoes, adamant that the country was better off in the Marcos years – breathtakingly she talks of freedom, democracy and human rights –  and was never better than under the martial law that lasted for eight years, until the Marcoses were chased from the country by a genuine street revolution.

En route we learn of Imelda as her husband’s special envoy, meeting Mao and Nixon, Prince Charles and Hirohito, Gaddafi and Saddam. A great diplomat, a servant, the “mother of the country” in her own estimation.

Imelda at her dead husband's glass coffin
Imelda and the embalmed Ferdinand



And then we get to it – Imelda the dynast. We’re introduced to the next generation of Marcos hopefuls in the shape of Imelda’s son, Ferdinand Jr, who goes by the name of Bongbong and is standing for the vice-presidency in the 2016 election, the presidency having been ruled out on strategic grounds. Slowly slowly, Imelda seems to suggest, her eye fixed on the Malacañan Palace.

Up to here the film has looked like a walk down a rosy memory lane with a woman capable of self-delusion on a grand scale, a real-life Norma Desmond bemoaning the smallness of politics since she and Ferdinand took their final bow.

Before it changes into something completely different, there’s a little refresher course on the last days of the Marcos regime, the rise of the challenger Benigno Aquino, his assassination, the rise of his widow, Corey Aquino, and the subsequent presidential election which Ferdinand Marcos claimed to have won and which led to him and Imelda being chased out of the country in 1986.

There’s enough on the billions of embezzled dollars now hidden around the world, and the routine torture and killings under Marcos for the continuing support of the Marcos name – particularly in the shanty towns – to be mystifying. Or it would have been if we hadn’t seen worldwide the odd alliance of the dispossessed with “populist” leaders. “Perception is real and truth is not,” Imelda says, à propos something else, but answering in a soundbite how come corruption and the loss of the rule of law can command so much support – people love a show.

From here fast-forward to 2016, the election contest, hotly fought between Bongbong (whose heart seems only to be half in it) and Leni Robredo. Meanwhile, in the foreground politically but so far in the background of Greenfield’s film as to be invisible is the presidential election, which sees Rodrigo Duterte elected.

Without wishing to spoil the entire narrative push of the film, Duterte has been kept deliberately at the back for dramatic effect. There are last minute reveals of an eye-opening sort, which say all you need to know about the role of mega-money in 21st-century politics, reveals that force a new appraisal of this old woman whose mask of sublime serenity never slips. Greenfield has handed Marcos and her family a rope, hoping, as in The Queen of Versailles, that her subjects will hang themselves with it. In fact it looks like they might be using it to help them haul themselves ashore.





The Kingmaker – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


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© Steve Morrissey 2021






The Queen of Versailles

David and Jackie Siegel at home on the throne in The Queen of Versailles

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

5 June

 

John Maynard Keynes born, 1883

On this day in the 1883, the economist John Maynard Keynes was born, in Cambridge, to an economist father and a social reformer mother. A mathematics prodigy as a child, he won a scholarship to Eton College, then went to King’s College, Cambridge, where he studied mathematics on a scholarship, graduating in 1904. After a short career as a clerk in the India Office, Keynes resigned and returned to Cambridge, where he started studying economics. By 1909 he had published his first article on economics. By 1911 he was editor of The Economic Journal. By 1913 he had published his first book, Indian Currency and Finance. During the First World War he worked at the Treasury, where his work in the field of currency acquisition and manipulation got him noticed. He was the Treasury’s representative at the Versailles peace conference at the end of the First World War. Keynes believed that penalising Germany too heavily for the war would lead to further conflict and that an economically strong Germany would be good for all parties. His views were ignored. He wrote The Economic Consequences of Peace as a result, which predicted disaster in Europe as a result of the peace of Versailles. Throughout the 1920s he argued against a currency fixed to gold (and lost) and for the depreciation of the currency to boost jobs at home and make goods more affordable overseas (and lost). His Treatise on Money followed in the 1920s, which pointed out that money, prices and jobs are all interlinked – if people aren’t spending, jobs will suffer. In the 1930s he wrote The Means to Prosperity, which concluded that governments had taken the wrong approach to the 1929 Crash and should have spent their way out of recession, an argument so counter-intuitive politicians (who in the main manage economies as if they were household budgets, ignoring the wealth generating side of the equation) still cannot grasp it. In 1936 he published his most famous work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, on which his fame as an economist rests. It is the bible of interventionist economist. As the Second World War came to an end Keynes became inaugural chairman of the World Bank and helped establish the Bretton Woods system, which ensured financial stability in the post War world. He also helped negotiate the huge loans that the US made to the UK at the end of the War. He died in 1946, his ideas in the ascendant, though he himself was toying with a revision of them – an injection of the “hidden hand” of Adam Smith, the classical liberal economist whose ideas about the beneficial workings of a free market he’d spent his lifetime arguing against.

 

 

 

The Queen of Versailles (2012, dir: Lauren Greenfield)

David Siegel is 74 and owns the biggest timeshare company in the world. Together with Jaqueline Siegel, his 43-year-old trophy wife and former beauty queen, he’s building the “biggest home in America”. And Lauren Greenfield’s documentary is there to watch it happen – the sushi bar, the bowling alley, the sauna, the baseball field, yadda yadda. It’s a place inspired by a visit to Louis XIV’s palace in Versailles, on the outskirts of Paris. Well, that was the original plan. Until reality intervened.
Like Capturing the Friedmans before it, which started out making one documentary but ended up with something quite different, The Queen of Versailles is massively derailed by a large fly in the ointment, to mix messy metaphors. Viz: the economic collapse, as a result of which the Siegels go broke. Not broke broke, just broke in billionaire terms, obviously. But it does mean that Jaqueline has to start flying in a normal plane with normal people, that she has to hire her own Hertz rental car (and is taken aback by the absence of a driver). It’s somewhere round this point that Greenfield’s documentary gains traction, morphing from a point-and-gawp exposé of the very wealthy and not entirely tasteful, with “rich people say the cutest things” fascination, and turning into something which everyone who was stung by the economic downturn can relate to – albeit in a metaphorical manner. The staff are laid off, Jaqueline has her Hertz moment, and soon the devastation is beginning to pile up – the pet lizard dies, the tropical fish are belly up in their tank, there is dog shit on the carpets in the house because no one is cleaning up any more. The superhouse is in mothballs.
There’s nothing more depressing than watching an already poor family going through hard times. But watching rich people trying to tighten the belt, selling stuff, doing without luxuries, that’s less invasive, because it’s all relative and they’re not down to the last buck and anyway they invited the cameras in, no duress. But it’s the same basic process – the initial inability to understand the severity of the situation, followed by the taking of half-hearted measures, followed by lethargy, then panic laced with fantasy recovery scenarios. Spicing this is the Siegels themselves, outspoken in the way that people are when they don’t have to watch their tongues – David claims his possibly illegal machinations mean he was “personally responsible for the re-election of George Bush in 2000”. Lauren, for her part, is worried about being over 40 – “He told me that when I hit 40 he was going to trade me in for two 20-year-olds”. Against this we have the Filipino nanny who is sending money back to her child at home. The last time she saw him he was seven. He’s now 26. And there’s the limo driver, who also used to be a multi-millionaire, owned 19 properties, now has nothing and is driving cars. For David Siegel the whole thing has been a reality check – “we need to live within our means. Don’t spend money we don’t have.” In this sense Jaqueline – big silicone tits, bottle blonde, a touch of work done on the face – is the perfect stand in for all of us. Overpumped, over-caffeinated, in the dark, a slightly desperate smile and living on the hog.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The perfect 2008 recession documentary
  • The access
  • The pithy, outspoken Siegels
  • The real drama of watching things fall apart

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Queen of Versailles – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

28 January 2013-01-28

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Holy Motors (Artificial Eye, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

From Leos Carax, who only seems to manage one feature film a decade, a unique and remarkable French film that only starts to make sense towards the end, after Kylie Minogue has sung us a song. Like Pola X, his last (in 1999), it’s a highly gothic, amphetamine rave of a movie, a mad mix of situationist vignettes following Denis Lavant (who surely should get some award for sheer physicality) as he works his way through a series of disguises, one of which involves being dressed as a mad tramp and kidnapping a model from a photo shoot (played by Eva Mendes). To explain what the plot is about is to ruin it. Just watch it.

Holy Motors – at Amazon

The Queen of Versailles (Dogwoof, cert E, DVD)

What luck. When a documentary maker starts out making Documentary A, only to find that they’re sitting on top of a much bigger story. Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans (nice Jewish family turns out unexpectedly to be anything but) being a prime example. Something similar has happened to Lauren Greenfield. On the way to making a film about “the biggest house in America” – said building being a self-confident, unashamed avowal of success or a nouveau riche monstrosity, depending on your class loyalties – her subjects, timeshare magnate David Siegel and his blonde trophy wife Jaqueline run smack dang into the financial crisis that’s now enveloped us all. Greenfield keeps the camera rolling and, as private jets are swapped for trips on commercial airlines, and Jaqueline’s jaw hits the floor when the Hertz guy tells her the rental car doesn’t come with a driver, we’re fed a fresh portrait of these recessionary times that asks us to feel billionaire pain. Why this works is because it’s the whole financial mess the western world is in boiled down to one fascinating, frequently boggling story.

The Queen of Versailles – at Amazon

Looper (Entertainment One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Brick was high-school noir, now director Rian Johnson and actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt bring us future noir, a walk through Philip K Dick territory in which Gordon-Levitt plays a heartless hitman offing guys from the future. Until his own future self (played by a soulful Bruce Willis) arrives on the scene. Seen in some quarters as “the 21st century’s The Matrix” – wasn’t that Inception? – Looper efficiently does what sci-fi movies about the future do. It seemingly explores the paradoxes of time travel but mostly it just fucks with our heads. Initially cool, increasingly chaotic, ultimately slightly disappointing, this is nevertheless a worthwhile dystopian sci-fi. The 21st century’s Blade Runner. How’s that?

Looper – at Amazon

 

Ashes (Entertainment One, cert 15, DVD)

Ray Winstone as a hardman with Alzheimer’s – that’s the USP of this unusual gangster thriller also starring Jim Sturgess as Winstone’s son, who busts him out of the clinic and takes him on a road trip for one last hurrah. The whole thing plays like a cross between Rain Man (the trip) and Unforgiven (is Winstone going to recover his mojo and strap the guns back on?). But Ashes has a few twists up its sleeve that certainly got me leaning forwards. Sure, Alzheimer’s as a subject isn’t exactly going to revive the fortunes of Blockbuster but it does allow Winstone to stretch a bit and co-star Jim Sturgess, so out of place as Anne Hathaway’s beau in One Day, is right on the money here too.

Ashes – at Amazon

 

5 Broken Cameras (New Wave, cert E, DVD)

The cameras of the title belong to a Palestinian peasant whose land was cut in two by the Israeli security barrier. We get to see just how they got broken – a bullet is lodged in one, which gives you some idea. A nifty hook on which to hang a documentary and surprisingly the picture it paints of the Israeli army isn’t such a bad one. It’s the Jewish guys in hats and ringlets settling the Palestinian territory who don’t come out of this so well.

5 Broken Cameras – at Amazon

 

Paranorman (Universal, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

Not to be confused with Frankenweenie, though there’s definitely some Tim Burton in Paranorman somewhere, here’s an animated kiddie-flick in the new Aardman style (CGI pretending to be claymation) about a boy who can see dead people. It takes a hell of a time to get going but then manages a good 40 minutes of fast Roald Dahl-style ghostly fun before heading for the icky ending someone in a suit decreed. If you’re really young, you’ll probably like it.

Paranorman – at Amazon

 

Keep the Lights On (Peccadillo, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

A decade in the relationship of a New York gay couple – from frenzied early coupling, through crack pipes and promiscuity to… well let’s not ruin the ending. It’s a part-autobiography by writer/director Ira Sachs, and like his Forty Shades of Blue it’s got a distinctive tone of voice, is fresh, non-clichéd and very real. Apparently Sachs is doing a film about elderly gay guys next, starring Michael Gambon and Alfred Molina. Should be interesting.

Keep the Lights On – at Amazon

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013