by John Hess
Cut, no. 34, March, 1989, p. 48
Johan Van der Keuken's recent film, I LOVE MONEY (written as I + a graphic of a heart + $, imitating the style of recent bumper stickers), is a long travelogue/ discourse on the subject of money. In each of a number of major financial centers (e.g., Amsterdam, Geneva, Hong Kong), Van Der Keuken, using a very personal visual style "visits" both money men (always males who are involved in financial markets and speculation) and poor people struggling to get by. In each city he takes us to the high tech or baronial headquarters of the money men and the impoverished haunts of the poor. He contrasts the smug assurance and stability of the money men to the travails and insecurity of the poor.
The film is based on this straight-forward contrast between rich and poor. At this level it is surely a powerful and important contribution to thinking about the world capitalism has created. That the poor are almost always third world people, often living as immigrants in the metropolitan countries, adds another dimension and evokes a constant theme in Van der Keuken's work (the unequal relationship between the first and third worlds). And, of course, many conventional left and even liberal documentary films are based on this obvious contrast between rich and poor. They often use narration or interview material to explain why this difference exists, how the poor feel about their position, what people are doing to change their own or their class's poverty, and so forth.
And here is where Van der Keuken's work differs from all other films I know of that treat this issue of rich and poor. To begin with the contrast is only partly a contrast. Everyone seems equally possessed by illusions about money and its abstract powers. The rich can't imagine why or how things might be different — and neither can the poor. Both the winners and the losers in the money game want only to play better and increase their chances for success. To this extent, at least, Van der Keuken's juxtapostions are static, oppositions without any dialectical relationship, immune from change.
The filmmaker adds a second contrast. Interwoven into these "visits," these interviews, are numerous enigmatic and quite beautiful images of urban and natural scenes — trees, snow seen through a window, parks, water flowing out of a pipe — showing his photographer's eye. These shots seem designed to counter the frantic money market segments and the busy interactions with the poor. These images add moments of tranquility and a feeling of permanence. They seem to offer the hope of life beyond money, so to speak, a more natural life based on a simple relationship with nature. I find these images interesting and thought provoking. It seems he wants to point out that nature is tangible and permanent while money is intangible and corrupting of the spirit — as much for the poor as the rich. Let's look more closely at the film's images to see how Van der Keuken elaborates these contrasts.
I LOVE MONEY opens with an image which stands as a complex metaphor for the whole film. In the shot, that is repeated later during the Hong Kong section, we see through the distorting effects of some sort of curved window glass. We see three things through this glass, three separate planes of the downtown shopping district of any large capitalist city — signs, windows, entrances. In the middle ground, and most prominent, we see compressed, yellow vehicles coming towards us from both sides, turning abruptly at the point of greatest distortion in the middle, and then going away from us. In the foreground we see elongated silhouettes of people passing in both directions. Though we see these three planes quite clearly, their actual relationship might be quite different than I have described. My description is based on the assumption that we are looking through a glass display window across a sidewalk congested with pedestrians, then across a street with mostly yellow cars (taxis?) to the shops on the far side of the street. It's possible we are actually looking at a toy display and various reflections in the window. What we are actually looking at is far less important, however, than the connotations of the image, connotations heightened by the distortions.
The first signified of this complex sign is urbanity/ modernity. As this shot reappears in the Hong Kong section, I assume it belongs there. In any case, we are seeing the shopping district of a major capitalist city. The film's locations are Amsterdam, New York, Hong Kong, and Geneva. As in many of his films, Van der Keuken is concerned about the relationship between the advanced capitalist countries, on the one hand, and the underdeveloped third world, on the other. In his many interviews with money men in this film, he frequently asks about the third world debt and the effect these debts have on countries struggling to develop. The film juxtaposes the white male money men (even in Hong Kong) with poor families working in these cities. As money knows few boundaries, so also does labor. We meet a Puerto Rican family in Nev York and a Portugese family in Geneva. To Van Der Keuken these people's difficult struggle to makes ends meet somehow relates to the giddy financial speculation of the money men. This relationship is the essence of modernity to the filmmaker.
The second signified is traffic/ commerce/ exchange. These cities are among the major financial markets in the capitalist world. And the subject of the film is money. In each city we visit money/ commodity/ stock markets and watch the frantic buying and selling. Van der Keuken plays off more ordinary forms of money exchange against these high-powered markets. We see men gambling at card tables set up in a park, neighborhood street markets and small businesses. In Spanish Harlem a black youth studies at a computer in the family apartment behind their Puerto Rican eatery. He wants to learn business so he can expand the small family business down to the financial district of New York. At both ends of the economy, money plays a central role. At neither end does anyone seem to really understand it very well. For example, when asked about the problem of third world debt, the money men blame it on others or claim nonchalantly that it can be handled. In some ways the film is about false consciousness. The dominant ideology is that of the dominant class — and that seems to be it. The only contradicting power is the artist's eye and hand.
The third signified is distortion. Money, like the glass in the image, distorts life. And Van der Keuken uses film technique to distort what he sees. Most obviously, throughout the film he constantly reframes his images with slight but distinct movements of the camera and apparently wanders away from his subject. While a banker talks about money, Van der Keuken examines the drapery behind the man, continually refraining as if searching for the perfect shot to show the material. It's as if the filmmaker, too, were looking for something real and material to offset the man's metaphysical talk about money as the life blood of the economy. Where in this abstract world of money can one find some stability? Where is the proper perspective? In the home of the Puerto Rican family, he also reframes constantly. Here too he finds nothing to hang on to. Inside the mother works hard to feed her customers, while the son dreams of his future business success. Outside we see the urban devastation and drug busts. Money, its lure and one's need for what it will buy seem to overwhelm rationality.
A final signified is fetishism (giving enormous power to and even worshiping our own creations). Money is the ultimate fetishized form. We attribute to it enormous powers which are only a result of our labor. In the all his conversations with money men they speak of money as something that has a life of its own. To them it is seen as a very exciting game, not unlike football or baseball, with winners and losers. To them the speculation is a drug they can't live without. They confess to greed without shame, even seeing it as a positive force that keeps the economy going.
Yet it remains unclear to me what we might learn from all this. What does Van der Keuken want us to do with his investigation of money? I don't see how he helps to defetishize money for us. The only center of rationality is the filmmaker's eye, which is important and encouraging. He validates the possibility of another view. And yet the view seems also elitist to me in that no one else is included. He seems to despair of others seeing what he sees.
I admire his ability to seek out and find in the ordinary stunning images, which seem somehow to redeem the senselessness he finds in capitalist society. Yet, these images imply, necessitate even, a distance that prohibits a dialectical interaction with capitalism in a way that would explain and demystify it. Van der Keuken ultimately finds no counterweight but his aesthetic sensibility. Though powerful indeed, it is inadequate for the task he assigns it.