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Pirates & Parrots
by Chris Dashiell 

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is a documentary about the Texas energy company that was hailed as the leading corporation of the 90s stock market boom, only to crash and burn in a spectacular display of arrogance and fraud in 2001. This is a complicated subject, and a difficult challenge for any filmmaker. Director Alex Gibney gets off to a very shaky start, beginning at the end of the saga, and hurling a lot of facts and anecdotes at the audience pell-mell before settling down into a chronological account of the company's history. I found myself struggling to get my bearings, and annoyed at Gibney's attempts at entertainment, including some gratuitous shots of nude strippers in a sequence detailing the seamy escapades of a mysterious Enron executive.

The picture finally steadies itself by focusing on the personalities of the main players, particularly founder and director Ken Lay (or "Kenny Boy," as his friend George W. Bush called him) and Jeffrey Skilling, the Harvard-bred CEO who thrived on risk-taking behavior. With a wealth of interviews, archival clips, and revealing accounts by former Enron execs, the film manages to explain the tangled web of financial skullduggery that propelled the company to the top of Wall Street. We learn of the so-called "mark-to-market accounting," in which the company was allowed to declare projected profits the day they signed a deal. The result: Enron's stock prices could soar on its profit statements even though they were actually losing money on the ground. And juggling its accounts among several dummy corporations, Enron could hide its debt from creditors and investors.

But the film explores more important issues than the criminality of one corporation. It shows conclusively that everyone in the financial world willingly participated in the deception, including the banks and brokerage firms, the regulatory agencies, and the press. One grotesque clip features Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan receiving the Enron Award for excellence.

The most fascinating, and infuriating, phase of the Enron debacle came when the company jumped into the deregulated California energy industry. We hear recordings of Enron traders conspiring with power plant operators to create blackouts in the state, drive up the price of electricity, and then cash in by wagering on the inflated stocks. The traders are heard laughing and making fun of California consumers even while the energy crisis takes lives and drives the state into near bankruptcy. The film argues, convincingly, that the successful effort to recall Governor Gray Davis was part of an Enron-aided strategy to keep California 's electric power deregulated.

This film exposes the underbelly of the corporate mindset, the greed and complete lack of morals on the part of an elite that plunders the country to enrich itself. While the Enron executives cashed in their stock options and deserted the ship with millions in assets, they continued to tell employees to invest in Enron stock. The collapse left 20,000 people out of their jobs, with no pension funds, their 401Ks gone, and nothing to show for years of hard work. With a Bush administration that favors continued deregulation, the movie makes clear that it could easily happen again. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is a chilling exposé of what's gone wrong with the American dream.

Anyone who still believes that animals don't have personalities and feelings is advised to see Judy Irving's The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill . Living in a run-down little cottage on the eponymous San Francisco street , a middle-aged hippie named Mark Bittner noticed an unusual phenomenon in his neighborhood: a flock of red-and-green parrots. This tropical bird is obviously not a native species (an amusing sequence presents interviews with various city residents recounting urban legends of how the parrots got to the Bay Area), so they were ignored by ornithologists. Bittner started feeding them, taking photos and home movies of them, and cataloging his observations. Before long, each bird had a name, and Bittner and the flock had established a special bond that the movie lovingly documents.

Along the way, common assumptions are challenged, such as the belief that someone like Bittner must be "eccentric." Certainly he's outside the "mainstream," but the film reveals him to be exceptionally intelligent and insightful. His gentle, patient attitude in relating to the birds helps us to see them the way he does: as subjects in themselves rather than mere objects of study. Each bird does have its own character -- a truth borne out by the wonderful footage, accompanied by Bittner's fascinating and often humorous voice-over. Among the many personalities, the most striking is Connor, a blue-headed parrot who somehow ended up with the flock after losing his mate. Connor never quite fits in with the rest of the flock, and he has a stubborn, reclusive temperament. But amazingly, he also comes to the rescue of weaker birds that are being picked on by the others.

This focus on the parrots as individuals is a moving experience -- it helps us to put our own subjectivity in a broader perspective within the continuum of life. In a later scene, Bittner's story of the last days of a dying parrot named Tupelo brings our estrangement from the life of animals, and our need to reconnect with them, into profound relief. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is a wonderful film, made with humility and compassion -- two virtues we could use a lot more of these days.

©2005 Chris Dashiell

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