Documentary Round-Up – January 2021

The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley (2019)
Written & Directed by Alex Gibney

The first time I heard Elizabeth Holmes speak, I knew there was something unconventional about her. My introduction to Holmes happened after her biomedical company Theranos fell apart the truth of her groundbreaking inventions was brought to light. Even then, it wasn’t until watching this documentary that I observed the full autopsy of what Theranos did and how it essentially cuckolded the investor culture of Silicon Valley & its cohorts.

Holmes came on the scene as an upstart touting technology that would remove the need for invasive blood testing. She claimed that her scientists were developing a device called an Edison. With a unique fingertip pinprick device, blood would be loaded into the machine. Holmes claimed they were working toward the goal of this single machine running hundreds of tests for various illnesses. The documentary shows that just beneath the surface was a corporation scrambling to cover up the false bill of sale it had been offering. What’s even worse is that they teamed with Walgreens wellness centers in a test market. People seeking answers for maladies were putting their lives in the hands of Theranos.

If you’ve seen an Alex Gibney documentary before, and there are a ton of them, this follows the same basic formula. It’s not bad at all, and very clear to the point about his topic. That doesn’t mean it’s terrible; you just aren’t going to be thrown any surprises in the presentation. I definitely think this story is yet another that highlights how broken America’s free-market corporate system is, especially the tech sector that is cult-like and is often centered around personalities rather than products. Holmes is a fascinating figure because of how eccentric she presents herself. Underneath it all, she’s really mimicking Steve Jobs and other tech “legends” who have been dangerously mythologized.

American Factory (2019)
Directed by Julia Reichert & Steven Bognar

We move from the technology realm into the industrial. It’s no secret that the MidWest/Great Lakes manufacturing industry has been devastated since NAFTA’s damning influence started. Dayton, Ohio, has been one of those places struck with economic hardship and jobs drying up. This Academy Award-winning doc is a cinema verite style look at one assembly line’s acquisition by Fuyao Glass, a Chinese business. The filmmakers were given unfettered access to the executives and employees and deliver a pretty sobering and dread-filled look at the direction our globalized economy is going.

Fuyao hires many employees who worked at the facility when it was owned by GM and make automobiles. Because this is a different line of manufacturing, American employees are teamed up with Chinese workers brought in by Fuyao management. There’s very little culture class, and the workers seem to get along. The problem comes in the clash between American safety standards and practices and the desire of Fuyao to just turn a profit, no matter the cost to the worker. 

Some supervisors & managers are given a trip to Fuyao’s corporate headquarters in Fuqing to be “inspired.” They and the audience see very regimented employees that get a couple of days off a month while working twelve-hour shifts. Other workers pick up shards of glass for recycling without protective goggles or the proper gloves. Back in Ohio, we find that the injury reports are piling up. Employees complain about being pushed to work at a pace that is causing them harm. Many of the American workers are older and have to move at a more manageable pace. There’s is also a desire to rebuild the union that existed when GM ran the plant. As someone who believes unions are essential to ensure workers’ rights under our current capitalist system, this is a really infuriating film. The lengths Fuyao goes to crush the establishment of a union shows how dangerous the future of manufacturing and labor will be unless something dramatically changes in the world.

Pretend It’s a City (2021)
Directed by Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese engages in a second team-up with Fran Lebowitz, the noted author and social commentator. If you aren’t familiar with Lebowitz, think of her as a more erudite lesbian Larry David. She has strong opinions and preferences, and her way of expressing these views has made her enjoyable to just listen to. This is presented as a multi-episode Netflix docuseries with each entry focusing on a particular topic. Technology, changes to New York, reading, and more make up Lebowitz’s talking points. Scorsese enjoys her immensely as he is laughing and cackling off the screen.

We get quite a bit of autobiographical background that helps explain how Lebowitz was formed as a person and an intellectual. She is a New Jersey native who entrenched herself in the New York City of the 1970s, where she watched the city decay due to governmental & corporate neglect. There is a good chunk of time spent on the gentrification of this city she so identifies with, talking about the gaudy theme park nature of Times Square and the way the very shape of the metropolis has been altered by outside interests. There is a delightful episode about sports and Lebowitz’s total dislike of physical activity. She has an exchange with Spike Lee debating whether an athlete can be considered an artist. 

My central point of contention with Lebowitz is her cliche stance on technology and generations comfortable in that milieu. She trots out a lot of the tired talking points that undercut her intelligence. Instead of just saying she prefers the analog, she tries to articulate how tech is harmful. Yes, there can be detrimental effects, but I would argue cigarettes, of which Lebowitz is a habitual user, are probably worse for her. In these moments, she comes to sound like a disgruntled Boomer, and it’s not a good look. 

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