Monday, July 12, 2010

The Bottom Line

The concept of "failing upward" never ceases to amaze me. Whether due to their looks, money, personality, family and/or political connections, some people end up in positions of power whose responsibilities they are barely capable of fulfilling.

People who fail upward may be cursed with a checkered past (George W. Bush, Carly Fiorina), a wealth of bias (Liz Cheney, Glenn Beck), a history of bad decisions (Bill Kristol, Douglas Feith), an appalling lack of intellect (Steve Doocy, Sarah Palin), or simply have become their own worst enemy (Lindsay Lohan, Amy Winehouse).

Any way you look at it, these people have succeeded far beyond what their natural talents would have led anyone to expect. Unfortunately, their success has often been accompanied by decisions which negatively impact others.

While Americans love to celebrate their successes, many people are loathe to shine the spotlight on their own incompetence. Unable to recognize their own limitations, wallowing in denial about the ramifications of their incompetence, or desperately wanting to believe that they have become "too big to fail," self-knowledge is rarely one of their strong points.

Three features being screened at this year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival shine a light on how incompetence is aided and abetted by naivete, stubbornness, and bureaucracy. Each serves as a shining lesson of what could have been, what shouldn't have been, and what should never have been.

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Many new businesses fail within their first year of operation. Although the reasons for their failure can range from basic ineptitude to unexpected catastrophes, the four basic reasons for failure are:
  • Starting a business for the wrong reasons.
  • Lack of planning.
  • Insufficient capital.
  • Poor management.
BaaBaa The Sheep That Sets Out To Bring Love To The World follows a small Israeli startup that eventually implodes on all four counts. What sounded like a nice idea suffered from a lack of enthusiasm by its artistic director, insufficient money to make things happen, too many cooks making too many assumptions about the future and, most critically, the lack of a solid business plan.

Ironically, the publicity kit for the film tells a very different story from what one sees onscreen. In the idealized version, a naive young craftsman named Itamar creates a toy sheep from a piece of sponge and some nails.
"The movie follows the way of the sponge ball and its becoming a familiar brand. It’s an analogy for our world, a world where a tiny idea can reach almost every corner of the planet, and earn millions to its creator. A cynical joke about the human craving for warmth and affection from a .. sponge ball. A story about the lingering in us to belong to some group, to a flock (even if the flock is made of sponge and being grown on the Internet). Each sheep has a barcode that makes its buyer the owner of a being with a defined personality and acquires him a membership in an international virtual community.

His former commander becomes a silent investor and four months after that the sheep is already being produced in four factories in China. A year after that it becomes a best seller in Israel. Itamar’s 'sheep business' picks up speed, Itamar’s obsession with the sheep captivates everyone around him, his energies are unstoppable. Surprisingly, Itamar and the sheep get to every corner. BaaBaa is no longer just sponge sheep. Now she’s on pajamas, bed linens, T-shirts, and paperwork. The English television network, the BBC, creates a children’s animation series with the sheep as its star. Itamar sells sheep in Tokyo. The Japanese are going out of their minds. Mushi-mushi, the Japanese version of BaaBaa, is extremely successful.

BaaBaa’s success story seems completely unreal, hence the movie’s magic -- the creator, an anonymous guy lacking education and financial resources, the product -- a sponge lump lacking any sophistication and pretension, and a fortune teller that pushes Itamar to do the deed. The incredible happens before our eyes: the sheep and its maker become a part of a huge machine with the purpose of making money, partners of a capitalist world using men as a cheap labor. The sheep represents a universal image of naivete, and Itamar loses his during the movie, allowing us to look through his eyes upon our world, where cynical alienated reality and an unsatisfied desire for warmth and affection are intertwined together."

Itamar with his sheep

Unfortunately, that's not what the movie shows. At first, we see Itamar working on his sheep and trying to sell them at crafts fairs. However, like many artists, Itamar lacks business acumen. He's happiest when creating new sheep and seeing the joy his work brings to people.

What he doesn't enjoy is glad handing potential buyers at trade fairs, struggling to get additional capital, getting phone calls from the father who abandoned him, or sharing his thoughts over the phone with his Polish grandmother (who just wants him to come home from Hong Kong so she can stop worrying about him).

By the end of Gil Karni's documentary, all of the potential licensing deals have evaporated and the company Itamar founded with his friends and backers has been forced to liquidate. Only at the very last minute does Itamar regain the rights to his artistic concept from his inept business partners.

Curious to see if Itamar's sheep only existed in the film or if they were still available in retail outlets, I did a quick Google search. Although I was able to find a website for BaaBaaWorld (which allows BaaBaa sheep owners to register their sheep and communicate with Itamar), clicking on the link for his store led to an obviously expired website. One of the few other items to pop up during my Google search was this rather coy response to a young gay Asian man's personal ad:
"Hi guys, I am BaaBaa the Sheep looking for a sheep loving man. Your look is not important as long as you are a vegetarian."
I found Karni's documentary a wistful film that showed how what seemed like a great idea that could have easily become an international brand soon lost its momentum due to the basic challenges that continue to plague new businesses. Here's the trailer:

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Anyone looking to refute charges that Jews control all of the world's money need look no further than a new documentary by Regev Contes (who took a year off from his successful career directing TV commercials to help his father’s failing insurance agency). The Worst Company In The World might be funny if it were fictional, but the sad truth is that there are some Jews who just don't know how to run a business.
  • Regev's father, Carol, is a stubborn old coot who runs an insurance company out of his apartment in Tel Aviv.
  • Regev's uncle Latzi's role in the business is basically to take care of his brother, Carol.
  • Their friend Moshe's job description is to keep Carol laughing (despite Moshe's daily blunders and tendency to nap on the job).
Regev Contes (center) with his father, his uncle, and Moshe

When the firm's accountant tells Carol that his insurance company will probably go bankrupt within a year, the news doesn't sink in as it should. Denial being a major factor in how Carol deals with setbacks, he soon becomes more interested in the new cat his son has given him as a pet.

When Regev joins the firm and tries to generate new business that could give the company a renewed lease on life, he encounters a trio of old fools whose incompetence is staggering. Printing up business cards with important-sounding titles for these three losers doesn't help matters at all. Eventually, his father's insurance company is forced out of business and Regev goes back to his previous work shooting television commercials.

There are moments when one wonders if Carol, Latzi, and Moshe aren't direct descendents of the characters in Isaac Bashevis Singer's book, The Fools of Chelm And Their History, and Solomon Simon's two books: The Wise Men of Helm & Their Merry Tales and More Wise Men of Helm. Here's the trailer:

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If, like me, you have spent the past two years in allergy hell, you will feel a special connection to a Romanian drama produced and directed by Radu Gabrea. Gruber's Journey takes place in June of 1941 as Curzio Malaparte (Florin Piersic Jr.) is traveling from Bucharest to Jassi, a small town in northern Moldavia. In real life, Malaparte's novel about his wartime experiences, Kaputt, was made into a film (although condemned by the Roman Catholic Church).

Ever since leaving Greece, Malaparte has had trouble breathing. His eyes have kept watering, and he has been quite miserable. As he travels eastward, he shares a train compartment with two soldiers, Mircea (Andi Vasluianu) and a high-ranking German officer named Colonel Freitag (Udo Schenk). Both men are extremely sympathetic to Malaparte's allergy-induced illness. As he suffers, Malaparte clings to the referral he received from a doctor in Budapest who recommended that he seek out an allergist named Dr. Joseph Gruber (Marcel Iures) upon his arrival in Jassi.

One might not expect a powerful Holocaust story to revolve around a patient's referral to a good allergist. But one would be wrong. Gruber's Journey clearly depicts the double standard with which care is sought out for Malaparte's allergic condition as villagers wash the blood from the previous night's massacre from the courtyard walls of the town's police headquarters.

Malaparte suffers not only from allergies, but from being an unwilling pawn in the power games of petty bureaucrats who send him on a wild goose chase in search of Dr. Gruber. He slowly begins to realize that he may never find Gruber (a trip to a train station reveals several cattle cars filled with Jews who are dying from the heat -- a trip to a mass grave reveals that a 74-year-old Josef Gruber was among the bodies being covered with lime).

The next morning, as Malaparte is beginning to eat breakfast at his hotel, he is approached by Colonel Niculescu-Coca (Claudiu Bleont), the commander of the local Army garrison. On the previous day -- in the kind of temper tantrum reserved for low-level bureaucrats -- the Colonel had done everything he could to humiliate Malaparte and frustrate his search for Dr. Gruber. After having been severely chastised by his superiors, Niculescu-Coca has found the allergist, who was in his surgical suite. The Josef Gruber who was buried in a mass grave was apparently the doctor's father.

Although Malaparte finally gets treated for his allergies, his search for Gruber leads him to a painful awareness that Jassi's Jews have been rounded up and shipped off to concentration camps. According to the archives at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:
"Romania participated fully in the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Within days of the invasion, Romanian authorities staged a pogrom against the Jewish population in the city of Jassi, the regional capital of Moldavia. Romanian police officials shot hundreds of Jews in the courtyard of police headquarters. Hundreds more were killed on the streets or in their homes. In all, at least 4,000 Jews were murdered in Jassi during the pogrom. Thousands more were arrested, packed into freight cars, and deported by train to Calarasi and Podul Iloaei, towns located southwest of Jassi. Many of these deportees died en route from starvation or dehydration."
Poster art for Gruber's Journey

Gruber's Journey apparently holds the distinction of being the first Romanian fiction feature film to explore the Holocaust and the murder of the Romanian Jews. It is also one of the few Holocaust films in which you never see a Jew get killed. You may see Jewish blood being washed off the cobblestones, hear Jews dying inside a railroad car, and see their bodies being covered in a mass grave. But the only Jew you see in the movie is the soft-spoken allergist who finally treats Malaparte.

Gabrea's film is quite beautiful to watch, especially if you get a thrill out of vintage automobiles. Although subtitles flash by quite rapidly, audiences will have no trouble understanding how the Romanians are using every idiotic tool of bureaucracy to prevent Malaparte from finding Dr. Gruber.

Strong support comes from Alexandru Bindea as Guido Sartori (the head of the local Italian consulate), Razvan Vasilescu as Stavarache (head of the secret police), Ionut Grama as the chauffeur for the Italian consulate, and Sandu Mihai Gruia as Dr. Anghel, who initially treats Malaparte by giving him enough Valium to help him sleep through an air attack. Dinu Tanase's cinematography and the original score by Petru Margineanu help to shape the story. Here's the trailer: