“Requiem for the American Dream” - Peter Hutchison, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott (2015)

Requiem for the American Dream (2015) is a documentary film offering a summary of Noam Chomsky’s current thoughts on what he sees as the dysfunctional American sociopolitical landscape.  Chomsky, of course, is a preeminent American intellectual, famous for both (a) his revolutionary contributions to the academic field of linguistics and (b) his lifelong avocation as political activist and social critic.  Indeed Chomsky’s linguistics work, already attracting attention in the late 1950s, completely recast the field in accordance with his ideas.  Although these ideas have since come under criticism [1], he is probably still the most famous figure in this field in the last century.  However, Chomsky’s fame for the wider American public rests on his relentless activities as a social critic from a leftist liberal perspective.  It is on this plane of Chomsky’s thinking that Requiem for the American Dream is focused.  This film, which was co-directed, co-produced, and co-scripted by Peter Hutchison, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott, represents a summary compilation of Chomsky’s overall views on these matters.  And since Chomsky is now ninety-years-old, this may well be, as the filmmakers suggest, Chomsky’s final long-form testimony on American social issues.  In further observance of the solemnity of these perhaps final thoughts, they have also been published by Chomsky and the same filmmakers in 2017 in book form, entitled Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power, and with much of the written text repeating verbatim Chomsky’s spoken words from the film [2,3].

When watching this film, it struck me that Chomsky and the filmmakers have been rather clever  in assembling a lot of disparate thoughts of Chomsky into a coherent structure.  The result is a relatively straightforward disquisition based on Chomsky’s “10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power”.  Chomsky’s basic idea is that the wealthy, self-interested elite in the United States have carefully conspired to undermine the basic, originally idealistic, principles of American society so that they can further concentrate wealth and power into the hands of the few.  Underlying this is the image of a malicious cycle of wealth bribing its way into more power, which leads to corrupt legislation that further enriches the wealthy. 

The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power that Chomsky lectures us on are as follows:
1.  Reduce Democracy
The basic goal of the wealthy elite here is to reduce democratic control over the economy and put it in the hands of a few “responsible” people.  Chomsky outlines examples of how this has been done over the years.

2.  Shape Ideology
There has always been concern among the elite about an “excess of democracy”.  So elitist leaders from both the Left and the Right have tried to influence our prevailing ideologies to correct this so-called flaw.  Chomsky specifically criticizes the Trilateral Commission as an organization with an elitist, anti-democratic agenda.

3.  Redesign the Economy
The movement to shift the economy from manufacturing (by off-shoring it) to financialization  has entailed a shift in perspective from long-term interests to short-term profits.  This Chomsky also sees as the outcome of a conspiracy.  In particular he cites economist and former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan’s, celebration of increasing job insecurity in the US.  Overall, redesign of the economy meant increasing deregulation and this led to more economic crashes.

4.  Shift the Burden
By reducing the progressive income tax, there was a dramatic increase in inequality.  This led to a shift in the burden of funding the government from the “plutonomy” to the “precariat “.

5.  Attack Solidarity
The goal here has been to attack social cohesion and instead extol self-interest [3].  Instruments along these lines have been both the increased  privatization of the public commons and the undermining of social security and public-funded education.

6.  Run the Regulators
There has been a huge increase in wealth-funded lobbying that has interfered with the proper public regulation of the economy [4].  Now it seems that with every economic bubble/crash, there is a bailout that redistributes wealth to the rich and increases inequality.  Big business has come to expect and count on crash bailouts from the government.

7.  Engineer Elections
Chomsky feels that the concentration of wealth inevitably leads to the concentration of political power.  He is particularly critical of the 2010 US Supreme Court decision “Citizens United”, which, by declaring that corporations have the same rights as individual citizens, gave them enormous power to influence and manipulate elections.

8.  Keep the Rabble in Line
In order to undermine social cohesion, the elites have long attacked organized labor.  Now only  7% of private-sector jobs are unionized.

9.  Manufacture Consent
There has long been a drive to get people to over-consume via false advertising.  The advertising media lie to the people in order to get them to waste their money.  Now these same techniques are being used to get an uninformed electorate to make irrational choices.  Given the economic decline of print media and the increased concentration of network media, the only people with the resources to run information media for the public are the wealthy elite, who are willing to run these media at a loss in order to achieve their political aims [5].  Again, the concentration of wealth leads to a decline in democratic openness.        

10.  Marginalize the Population
Of course, the goal of the elite is to keep major decision-making from the hands of the people.  One means to this end is to keep the public mired in unfocussed anger and outside of the main decision-making processes.

All along the way of this discourse,  Chomsky speaks in calm, measured terms.  It is clear that he has thought things over very carefully.  However, sometimes he makes, for me, surprising observations.  For example, he points out that Richard Nixon was the last “New Deal” American President [3]:
“In Nixon’s administration, you get the consumer safety legislation (CPSC), safety and health regulations in the workplace (OSHA) and the EPA — the Environmental Protection Agency. Business didn’t like it, of course — they didn’t like the higher taxes, didn’t like the regulation.”
Another interesting observation of Chomsky’s was his claim that freedom of speech is not in the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights.  However, First Amendment of the US Bill of Rights reads
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
And this, to me, contradicts Chomsky’s claim.  Nevertheless, Chomsky’s thoughts on freedom of speech are well developed [6], and he does positively celebrate the fact that, thanks to seminal Supreme Court decisions mostly in the 1960s, no other country’s citizens enjoy the freedom-of-speech protections that American citizens do.

But the overall vision that Chomsky puts forward is certainly bleak.  In particular he doesn’t offer a positive program or set of principles that we should all fight for.  In this connection, I would suggest that his advocacy could be fruitfully supplemented by consideration of the four core principles that I believe underlie successful rational humanist societies and which I call RMDL [7].  The four essential RMDL principles, which must operate in concert, are:
  • Human Rights.  These include freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom to watch and listen, freedom from torture, etc.
     
  • Open Markets.  There needs to be regulated markets that allow for the open exchange of goods and services across society.  This includes necessarily ensuring there is sufficient wealth equity across society so that there can be widespread, fair exchange.
     
  • Democracy.  Some form of democracy involving universally inclusive enfranchisement needs to be in place.
     
  • Rule of Law.  There needs to be a written set of laws that are made known to everyone and that can be changed or adjusted by the actions of a democratically-elected government.
With RMDL in mind, we all need to set about positively rectifying and saving the American Dream [8].
½

Notes:
  1. “Universal Grammar, Criticisms”, Wikipedia, (7 August 2018). 
  2. “Requiem for the American Dream (book)”, Wikipedia, (9 October 2018).   
  3. Mark Lilla, “Two Roads for the New French Right”, The New York Review of Books, (20 December 2018).  
  4. Noam Chomsky, “In His New Book, Noam Chomsky Takes a Look at Income Inequality”, Moyers, (11 May 2017).  
  5. Erik Wemple, “The Weekly Standard is gone”, The Washington Post, (14 December 2018).   
  6. Noam Chomsky, “Crimes Again / Freedom of Speech”, Arts & Opinion, Vol. 10, No. 3, (2011).  
  7. See my discussions of RMDL, which can be accessed by clicking on the tag  “RMDL” under the “LABELS” section of this site.   
  8. David Swanson, “Noam Chomsky Wants You to Wake Up From the American Dream”, Alternet, (27 February 2016).   

Jared P. Scott

Films of Jared P. Scott:

Kelly Nyks

Films of Kelly Nyks:

Peter Hutchison

Films of Peter Hutchison:

“Rear Window” - Alfred Hitchcock (1954)

Alfred Hitchcock was not only the “Master of Suspense”, he was also, more generally, a master of cinematic landscapes and storytelling.  He famously could tell a spell-binding story with the action or camera confined to a single room, as he demonstrated with Lifeboat (1944), Rope (1948), Dial M for Murder” (1954), and Rear Window (1954).  Probably the finest of these four films is Rear Window, which Hitchcock, himself, considered to be his “most cinematic” work [1].  The film, whose story is based on Cornell Woolrich's 1942 short story "It Had to Be Murder", received four Oscar nominations (Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Sound), and it is now considered to be a classic [2].  It was ranked 53rd on the British Film Institute’s 2012 Critic’s Poll [3] concerning the all-time greatest films and 48th on the BFI’s 2012 Director’s Poll [4] concerning the all-time greatest films.

In Rear Window, the camera is confined to the Greenwich Village apartment of a laid-up photojournalist, L.B. "Jeff" Jefferies (played by James Stewart), who, himself, is confined to his quarters by a broken leg he suffered several weeks earlier.  Bored by his immobility, Jeff has nothing to do all day but gaze out of his room’s rear window, which looks out over the back ends of other apartment buildings surrounding a back courtyard.  There is a summer heat wave going on, and since apartment buildings didn’t have air conditioners in those days, most apartment dwellers have their windows and blinds open.  And so Jeff can look out and peer into these peoples’ activities and imagine what their lives are like. 

In the process of Jeff’s relentless surveilling, he appears to uncover a violent murder that one of his back-viewed neighbors seems to have committed, and Jeff’s remote-perspective detective work constitutes the core of this Hitchcock thriller.  But actually, as Claude Chabrol astutely pointed out in an early Cahiers du Cinema review [5], there are three significant and interrelated (because of their common connection to voyeurism) thematic planes to this film:
  • The Thriller – uncovering and dealing with the apparent murder
     
  • The Romantic Relationship.  Jeff has a beautiful girlfriend, Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly), but his preference of vicarious observation over intimacy, blocks the further development of their relationship.
     
  • The Narrative Construction of Our Social Worlds.  We all fabricate our understandings of the people with whom we interact based on imagined narratives that we construct.  And our point-of-view in these matters is often quite restricted.  To what extent do these constructed mini-narratives constitute objective reality?
The film begins with a shot from Jeff’s apartment’s rear window that pans around the backs of the various apartments and then pans back into Jeff’s apartment to show Jeff asleep in his wheelchair.  So we can see that the camera’s perspective is not exclusively just Jeff’s point-of-view, but is instead that of the narrative’s “silent witness”, who is like Jeff’s sympathetic companion.  In short order we learn about Jeff’‘s condition and meet the only two people who come to visit him – Stella (played by six-time Oscar nominee Thelma Ritter), who is a garrulous insurance-company-funded nurse, and Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), who is a wealthy-set high fashion model and is Jeff’s adoring girlfriend. 

Jeff (and we with him) spends his time watching his rear-window-viewed neighbors, with whom he is unacquainted and imagining what they are like.  There are several of them, all separately located, who attract his attention and to some of whom he gives his own monikers:
  • “Miss Torso", a showoff dancer,
  • "Miss Lonelyhearts", a single and lonely middle-aged woman who stages pretend private dinners in response to her loneliness,
  • a middle-aged bachelor and sometimes struggling composer-pianist,
  • a newly married couple,
  • a childless couple who dote on their little dog,
  • a sculptress,
  • a traveling jewelry salesman with a nagging, bedridden wife.
Stella criticizes Jeff for being a Peeping Tom, and she also scolds him for not having the determination to marry and settle down with Lisa.  But Jeff defends himself and says that his free lifestyle as an itinerant photojournalist is unsuited to a settled life with Lisa.  Despite Lisa’s undeniable glamor, he insists he is looking for a woman with whom he can share his adventures and who can be his companion on the road. 

Late one evening at 2am, Jeff is awakened from his snoozing by the sound of broken glass and a woman’s scream.  Jeff looks out his window and sees the jewelry salesman, who we will soon learn is named Lars Thorwald (played by Raymond Burr), leaving his apartment and carrying a suitcase.  Thorwald returns a half-hour later and soon departs again with his suitcase.  All told, Thorwald that night makes three trips out somewhere with his suitcase. 

This is all very suspicious for Jeff, and the next day he begins spying on Thorwald’s window using his binoculars and his telephoto camera lens, with which he observes (a) Thorwald packing up his butcher’s knife and handsaw in newspaper and (b) that Thorwald’s wife is now nowhere to be seen.  Jeff now constructs in his mind truly sinister mini-narratives for Thorwald – that the man has killed his wife and cut up her body into pieces.  He expresses his suspicions to Lisa, but she scolds him for letting his imagination get the best of him and for being a Peeping Tom.  Later, though, when they observe Thorwald packing up a trunk, Lisa starts to get suspicious, too. 

Worried that Thorwald will soon depart the scene and disappear, Jeff contacts his old military service buddy, Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey), who is now a New York City police detective, and  he tells him to go after Thorwald.  But Doyle dismisses Jeff’s evidence as too circumstantial to warrant serious suspicions about Thorwald.

Meanwhile Jeff observes Thorwald shooing away the childless couple’s little dog from digging in the courtyard’s flowerbed, and he suspects something incriminating is buried there.  Soon the dog is discovered dead in the courtyard with a broken neck, and Jeff naturally assumes Thorwald is the culprit.  The little dog in this tale could here be considered to be a Hitchcockian MacGuffin – a recurring iconic object that focuses the viewer’s attention and perhaps symbolizes a matter of importance.  In this case, it is never revealed what may have really been buried in that flowerbed, and critics and viewers have been left ever since to speculate what might have been there. 

With more suspicious evidence about Thorwald piling up – this time showing Thorwald packing up his wife’s jewelry – both Lisa and Stella come around to supporting Jeff’s suspicions, and they offer him their feminine-intuition-oriented help.  With Jeff’s assistance in distracting Thorwald by getting him to leave his apartment for a fictitious meetup with a mysterious accuser, Lisa and Stella then go out to dig up the flowerbed where the dog had been digging.  When they find nothing there, though, Lisa then boldly climbs the outside fire escape ladder and acrobatically enters Thorwald’s 2nd-floor apartment through an open window in order to search for further incriminating evidence that will validate Jeff’s proposed narrative about Thorwald.  Seeing Lisa’s resourcefulness and intrepidity in the face of danger, Jeff can’t help but recognize that Lisa is in fact the true life co-adventurer that he has always been looking for.  But will this realization have come too late?  With Thorwald now knowing that he is being spied upon by a neighbor and with the prospect of him returning to his apartment at any moment, we are now in pure thriller mode, as Jeff watches anxiously and helplessly from his window.  The voyeur is about to become entangled in real, life-threatening events.

As things transpire, Thorwald does return to confront and attack Lisa.  The police arrive in the  nick of time to save her from any further mayhem, but she is arrested for vandalizing Thorwald’s apartment.  This leaves Thorwald free to come after Jeff, who is alone and helpless in his apartment.  And this sets up the nail-biting denouement, which you will have to see for yourself.


Viewers who watch this classic film today are sure to reflect on issues raised here that have developed into critical concerns that now threaten our way of life:
  • Voyeurism – today with the omnipresence of Internet-connected social media, many young people are lapsing into voyeuristic passivity, wallowing vicariously in their self-constructed mini-narratives of others and missing out on authentic face-to-face interactions and engagement.
     
  • Surveillance – the prospect of our being subjected to ubiquitous and continuous surveillance is no longer a futuristic nightmare; it is now about to happen to all of us [6].  This means that our own personal narratives involving our authentic selves engaging with significant others – the complexity and delicacy of which usually require a limited scope (i.e. some privacy) – would become severely, if not fatally, restricted.
In Rear Window these issues were presented in an intriguing and insightful manner that was far ahead of its time.

I might add in passing a comment about Grace Kelly.  Hitchcock was famous for presenting beautiful blondes, not as instances of passionate femininity, but as almost frozen statues of feminine perfection, and these included Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint, Grace Kelly, and Tippi Hedren.  Of these, I would say Grace Kelly was, at the same time, the most womanly and the most beautiful.  And her performance here in Rear Window was probably her best.


Notes:    
  1. J. Hoberman, “Out of Sight”, The Village Voice, (18 January 2000).    
  2. Roger Ebert, “Rear Window”, Great Movie, RogerEbert.com, (20 February 2000).   
  3. “Critics’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).      
  4. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).     
  5. Claude Chabrol, “Les Choses Sérieuses (Rear Window)”, Cahiers du Cinéma,vol. 8, issue 46, (1 April 1955).  
  6. Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Spiegel & Grau, (2018).