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Trivial Pursuit

REVIEW ESSAY
The Pursuit
directed by John Papola
starring Arthur Brooks
Emergent Order Productions, 2019, 76 minutes

The radio is the source of many of my earliest and most intense memories. I can remember being five or six and riding around half-awake in my mother’s old Lincoln on some impossibly dark stretch of I-94 in the middle of the night while she played “Missing” by Everything But The Girl. Now I can never hear that song in a supermarket without feeling as if I am hovering invisibly over a black landscape as shafts of golden light stream forward in all direc­tions.

Many of these radio memories are less ethereal. One thing I will never get out of my head is the chorus of a power ballad that once advertised the International Grocery Association (IGA) chain: “hometown proud / american eyyyeee geee ayyy.” Another is a jingle for some kind of Clinton-era second-mortage scam outfit: “If you need a loan and own a home / Call First Finance / You could be sitting on a fortune.”

Television has left me with fewer lasting impressions. One excep­tion is something I swear I used to see on CNN once about every two minutes in 2007, the last time I lived in a house with cable TV. I’m not sure if the commercial was for one company—could it have been the Royal Bank of Scotland?—or if it was a whole genre, though I suspect the latter. Anyway, the commercial or commercials went like this: The sun rises over a cityscape. A female voice starts talking about how at Firm X, whose actual line of business the audi­ence knows nothing about, they are in the business of making con­nections. A Buddhist monk is talking on a cellphone; some sheep graze in the savannah; an airplane soars above the skyline of Singa­pore. The female voice continues over quiet but steadily rising strings, explaining that by bringing the world together—a guy in a suit gets out of a cab; children run in an Indian slum; there are Chinese lanterns, colored balloons, people celebrating; a shipping container is unloaded in the harbor of a city that looks like but probably is not Baltimore—we can create a better world.

I for one wish I knew more about the provenance of these ads, which I suspect will be of more use to future historians of our centu­ry than anything likely to be written by even the most astute observer. In any case I cannot be the only person in the United States who has fond memories of these commercials. I know this because Arthur Brooks, erstwhile president of the American Enter­prise Institute and now a professor at the Kennedy School of Government and senior fellow at Harvard Business School, has created a feature-length adaptation of them for posterity.

The Pursuit, which had a brief and somewhat limited theatrical run before debuting on fine streaming services everywhere, is not Brooks’s first foray into film. According to IMDB, he appeared as a bit character in the movies Generation Zero and Battle for America, both directed by Stephen K. Bannon. The Pursuit, however, is Brooks’s first star turn. Although advertised as a documentary ex­plaining “the secrets not only to material progress for the least fortunate but also greater happiness for all people,” it is probably safest to consider it an art film: a Buñuel-type exercise in neo-surrealism that was never meant to attract a wide audience. (Its director, John Papola, is probably best known for his series of YouTube videos in which he dresses up as Friedrich Hayek and raps.)

While Pursuit has a kind of formal narrative structure, we already catch glimpses of virtually everything that will happen in the film in the first minute and a half or so, and most of the story is told to us in a series of rapid montages. Characters appear and disappear seemingly at random; their names, if we ever learn them, are quickly for­gotten. The dialogue is cryptic and spoken in a variety of languages. The Pursuit is like Pink Floyd: The Wall, if—instead of an aging rock star dipping in and out of consciousness as he relives his past and experiences vivid hallucinations in which all of his indescribably weird right-wing political fantasies come true—an aging president of a Washington-based think tank did pretty much the same things. I would go so far as to suggest that they’re basically identical films, except that the music is different. More on that later.

The Happiest Days of Our Lives

It would not be possible in the space of even a lengthy review to do justice to either the scope or the style of Brooks and Papo­la’s cine­matic achievement. I can only share some of what I saw.

After a brief credit sequence we meet “Arthur,” which is what I will call the Brooks-esque character in the film.1 (I am going to assume we are not quite meant to identify him with the real-life Brooks, who cannot possibly be as stupid and sinister by turns as this guy. The desire to avoid this sort of confusion probably explains Roger Waters’s decision to hire Bob Geldof to play “Pink” in The Wall.) “What is your story?” Arthur asks us, before we cut to a crepuscular shot of the Washington Monument (located in “Wash­ington, D.C., United States,” as a title card helpfully reminds us). “I do research. I travel around the world.” Then we see our hero, a self-described “warrior for dignity and human potential,” shaking hands with (yes!) a Buddhist monk, walking in some kind of parade, eating a salad in a restaurant, sitting in his or somebody else’s living room, walking in an unidentified city, giving a TED talk, chatting with Barack Obama. “I get to meet with all different kinds of people. I’m trying to learn about all the best systems for helping people improve their lives.”

After that, in the space of about forty seconds, we encounter the following: a guy with a shovel, a kid in a trash heap somewhere in South Asia, a man with a purple hat using a potter’s wheel, a woman in a blue-and-orange sari carrying a dish, an Indian gentleman in a leather jacket, African American men wearing blue academic gowns and caps at what appears to be a graduation ceremony, a family of four at a playground, the Statue of Liberty (in black and white), two more African American men pushing garbage cans, a white couple in flannels walking around their lawn, a man who may or may not be the flannel man from half a second ago driving a tractor. (We will see all or most of these minor characters again but only in snippets that are roughly as long as the preceding montage.)

Then Arthur pops up again out of nowhere, screaming at us for some reason. “Two billion people have been pulled out of starvation‑level poverty!” He pauses briefly. “What did that?” Pause again. “That was my vision quest.” All of this comes before the film’s title appears in white over a stark black screen.

After the title card Arthur tells us about the time in 1983 when, having just left his university without a degree, he found himself “on tour in India with my brass quintet.” During a layover, he says, he was astonished that people in what was then one of the world’s poorest countries were, well, poor. “I had never seen anything like it.” Two separate narrators then recap the political and economic history of the Indian republic before we are treated to shots of starving children, St. Teresa of Calcutta, and Arthur petting some­body’s goat.

Suddenly, à la Gerald Scarfe’s psychedelic cartoons in The Wall, we are transported into some kind of computer-animated segment in which idealized images flash in front of us emblazoned with the names of the abstractions that they are supposed to represent: a shipping container (“globalization”); a street in, I think, China (“free trade”); some guys standing in a field that I am almost certain they do not own (“property rights”); a statue of Minerva (“the rule of law”); some hands hovering over circuit boards (“competition”).

This sequence did not work for me, I have to admit, and I was relieved when we returned to the streets of Dharavi. “Sir, buy a thing or two!” a man calls out. “See? An entrepreneur!” howls one of Arthur’s friends. We don’t see them buy anything. But we do learn about an interesting new metric for measuring what sociologists call “human flourishing”: “Forget per-capita GDP. We didn’t even have per-capita hope. And the markets have given us per-capita hope.” Not for the first or the last time we are then told that “two billion people around the world have lifted themselves out of pov­erty.” In case the point were not clear enough we see some little white lights hovering in a darkened sky, little poverty souls flying upward into the I-make-more-than-a-dollar-a-day empyrean, and thence, presumably, to infinity and beyond.

After that Arthur talks to us about New York City in the nine­teenth century and how things have changed for the better. If he is even remotely aware of how difficult it is for two married professionals with good salaries to find, much less to afford, housing in Manhattan today, he does not tell the viewer. But he does explain that “the backbone of the U.S. is people who believe progress is possible.” Then for a little while he talks to a drug smuggler who now has a contracting business before jetting off to Barcelona, where he visits his in-laws at their apartment. At dinner someone suggests that General Franco created a middle class that has now disappeared in Spain, a proposition to which Arthur seems uninterested in re­sponding. Instead he has some brief one-sided conversations with Spanish leftist protestors. “You’re not anti-capitalism,” he assures his somewhat baffled-looking audience. “You’re anti some idea of capitalism that exists in the ether.”

I’m not sure that I can find words to describe the sort of constipated head-shaking motion Arthur performs upon seeing “Death to America” graffiti in Barcelona. I didn’t really even have enough time to dwell on it because almost immediately we are transported to Copenhagen, where men and women are singing old Lutheran hymns together in a public library and having fake Viking battles in gymnasiums, among other activities that Arthur is quick to assure us are not “socialism.” He isn’t wrong.

Later, Arthur travels to Inez, Kentucky, where Lyndon Johnson announced his War on Poverty in 1964. Here he has a somewhat condescending exchange with an unemployed coal miner and his family before visiting a homeless shelter in New York. He mouths slogans like “All work is sanctified, all work creates value,” which is something that people who have never been dressed down by a shift manager for returning to the CVS Coupon Center two minutes late or been made the subject of an automated report by Amazon’s em­ployee surveillance system probably believe. “A Great Society,” Ar­thur tells us, “is one in which we can instantiate the greatness inside each person,” which I gather is code for paying them $10 an hour for twenty-nine hours a week with no benefits.

The Pursuit has two separate climaxes, one spiritual, the other aesthetic. The first comes when Arthur meets with someone who “wants to collaborate with people who think in all different ways”—i.e., the Dalai Lama. “He’s a warrior for human welfare; he’s a believer in the potential and dignity of every single person,” Arthur explains. “Free enterprise is about compassion and justice at its best. So therefore this is our stuff too.” Arthur demonstrates these com­mitments to the audience by petting a cow. Then he arrives at a temple. “We have to make friendship with capitalists,” His Holiness explains. “Everyone wants a happy life. No one wants suffering.”

The artistic high point of the film comes near the end, when Arthur finds himself alone with his wife in the hall of the Barcelona Orchestra, where he was once employed. As if by magic, a French horn materializes in his wife’s hands and Arthur plays happily in the sublime empty space. “I’m a really lucky person. I’m the luckiest guy I know actually. I’ve had the opportunity to live in different places, to know all kinds of people.” We believe him.

Is There Anybody Out There?

It’s hard to say what the long-term critical prospects for The Pursuit are. According to the movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, I am only the second critic to assess this film. (The first one, Megan Basham of World magazine, panned it, though she did speak highly of Arthur’s “impressive mind.”) I for one think it has a certain amount of ironic cult movie potential—a Reefer Madness for the jaded post-2007 debtor class to which I belong.

That’s when it hit me. What was I thinking by not even trying to synch up The Pursuit with The Wall? I grabbed the record and put it on just as the movie started on my laptop, which was muted. The effects were instantaneous and unmistakable. The menacing opening chord from David Gilmour’s distorted guitar hit just as we saw Arthur appear in his all-black get-up. Would you believe me if I were to solemnly swear that at the exact moment that Roger Waters screamed “where are all the sound effects?” Arthur was staring at me intently, throwing his hands in the air as if asking a question, and that the first song ended as the title card appeared? I spent the next hour or so wide-eyed and pale-mouthed as I heard “The sky may look blue” while an airplane flew above India; “tear-stained eyes” over a man’s weeping face; the demented food-withholding schoolmaster screaming while another man talked via subtitles about not having enough food to eat as a child; “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” beginning over a shot of the Berlin Wall; “Mother” coming on during the scene in which I remembered that Arthur had discussed his parents; and probably about three dozen more unbelievable coincidences. (No illicit substances were consumed in the making of this review.)

I’m not suggesting that you buy The Pursuit on Amazon Prime for repeat viewings like I did, much less that you dig out your copy of The Wall and drop the needle a few seconds after the opening credits start rolling in an attempt to recreate the mind-altering expe­rience I have just described. (I tried to do something similar with In the Court of the Crimson King and found that it was, if anything, even more fitting but too terrifying to go into here.) And I’m cer­tainly not suggesting that Brooks and his collaborators shot and edited the film deliberately with the intention of its synching up like this any more than the makers of The Wizard of Oz thought that they were making a film meant to be watched with a stoner LP that would not be issued for another thirty-four years playing in the background. But I do think, for a variety of reasons, that if you are going to watch it these are the conditions under which the film is best experienced.

Comfortably numb

I am not trying to play dumb here or deliberately ignore what the filmmakers were trying to achieve. If Brooks and his collaborators had intended to produce the more or less anodyne apologia for global capitalism that all the promotional and marketing material for this film would have you believe it is, they could have done so the same way that NPR does on the podcasts my wife listens to when she’s cleaning the bathroom and wants to remember what having a conversation with someone in Washington is like. I think Brooks and Papola chose to do otherwise because at some level they under­stand that only a hallucinatory Easy Rider–style assault on the view­er’s consciousness can ever hope to convey the reality of the political and social order whose foundations they are trying to shore up. This is, among other things, why the film is so much more successful than Brooks’s published writings, which are full of Adam Smith clichés that have about as much to do with capitalism in 2019 as Casablanca does with Lars von Trier or Louis Armstrong with Sun Ra. The ex-deadheading hippie character of Arthur is the perfect protagonist for this movie in the same way that John and Yoko doing one of their bed-ins was the perfect image for Apple’s old “Think Different” posters in the heady pre-iPod days when Steve Jobs was clawing his way to the top of the Forbes list by way of Joan Baez and Buddhism. Free enterprise went through the looking glass a long time ago.

Indeed, whether he knows it or not, Arthur Brooks’s entire career would never have been possible were it not for the bankruptcy of free market ideology. It is precisely because no one takes Milton Friedman’s arguments seriously anymore that the entire ef­fort had to be dressed in the garb of pseudo-academic “happiness studies” and the Dalai Lama enlisted as a pitchman. Of course, Brooks’s guru act and film school project will not convince anyone that unregulated capital flows “lifted people out of poverty” as opposed to, say, Chinese industrial policy, or that precarious service jobs constitute the essence of human dignity.

Yet to criticize Brooks on these terms is to ignore the obvious: the point all along was not to engage with serious issues of political economy but to satisfy the moral vanity of a few donors with a New Age prosperity gospel. And the fact that aging hedge fund managers can think of no better use for their wealth than subsidizing Arthur’s magical journey is itself a damning indictment of today’s global capitalism and the moral corruption it breeds.

That’s what my vision quest revealed to me anyway.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume III, Number 3 (Fall 2019): 191–98.


Note

1 I would like to take the opportunity to admit here that I have never once seen Brooks’s name in print without thinking of a homonymous minor character in Adam Sandler’s Big Daddy, a film I saw in the theater with my own father in 1999. Big Daddy has its own wiki, where I find the following under the “Characters, Villains” tab: “Arthur Brooks is Julian McGrath’s social worker. When he finds out that Sonny Koufax is posing as Kevin Gerrity to adopt Julian [sic].” The character is played by Zero Mostel’s son, Joshua.

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