As I posited earlier this week, the 1990’s were a time of unprecedented, subversively delivered progressive messages in children’s movies, and speaks to a real void in our discourse which also explains why a generation now in their 30s resonates so instinctually to be on the side of the class struggle and the corrupting influence of capitalism on the users of our financial instruments, than that of an oppressive status quo that makes this corruption an ineveitability. Blank Check is no exception.
The film is the story of Preston Waters, the millennial son of two yuppies, with two older Gen-X brothers following in the footsteps of their rags-to-riches entreprenuerial father; their household operates on a principle of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, however, Preston’s desire to be productive under this framework is trampled by the reality of his brothers stealing his savings to keep their business afloat, their father holding Preston to the same standards as the brothers, and to an idealized version of his own unbringing, in a much more favorable time to make and have money than the 1990’s. He instills in his children a desire to make money in an economy that doesn’t exist, while also failing to teach them ethics in running a business, which proves immaterial until Preston is able to meet these expectations through other means.
A parallel storyline is the release from prison of Carl Quigley, an S&L scammer, who stored (lol) $1 million for use upon his release to restart his life. He conspires to grow this amount with an old embezzling partner, the bank manager, Biderman.
He and Preston have a run-in after Quigley accidentally runs over Preston’s bike, and seeing the police in the distance, decides instead of give Preston a blank check to have his father fill out— Preston, of course, seeing an opportunity, cashes a check for $1 million dollars, and throughout the rest of the movie goes on to spend lavishly, only to attract the attention of the FBI, who arrests Quigley, who believing the money and property would be repatriated to him, cops to being Preston’s adult avatar, Mr. Macintosh (named for the voice synthesizer he uses to conduct business on his Apple computer).
The main narrative is one that basically boils down to, when given the means to acquire capital, both Preston and Quigley did not hesitate to steal it, and the obvious parallel is what this literal requirement to exist as a member of society out of the margins would be through being wealthy enough, but the problem, as we see from this secondary narrative is more telling about the emotional motivations this might instill for a more equitable, just society:
Preston’s father’s reaction to Macintosh’s seeming opulence, is that his values didn’t actually align with this at all; the capitalist monster he worships, it turns out, was not the kind of wealth being built in the 1990’s, and hadn’t for a long time. Preston was too successful, and seeing Preston be sucked into this world (unaware that Preston is Macintosh, with whom he never directly speaks) makes him realize this expectation was a toxic influence on his family.
This is a reflection of their generational views of what it means to be productive, successful, and what the role of capital actually plays in that mindset; Preston’s father, at one point, opens up to Macintosh (Preston sitting backwards in a desk chair) that he believes he’s now robbed Preston of a childhood, that he cares too much about money, the trappings of being a nouveau riche zealot to the world of financial stability as a boomer. Ultimately, after Quigley takes the fall for being Macintosh, Preston returns home to celebrate a modest birthday with his family, which now fully appreciates that the framework of an ethical meritocracy in their home’s aesthetic was a mythical one.
The problem with this? Preston’s father’s realization and apology are something that has failed to come in real life; Millennials face the rest of their lives without the possibility of stable work, healthcare, housing, or even a planet habitable to put a house on, let alone the ability to procreate in an increasingly unstable world, and none of it is their fault— they were literally children, or not yet born, when Boomers became the power structure and turned all introspection away in forging policy, breaking down communities, and turning a blind eye that all of this ease was only possible because of their parents and grandparents’ commitment to social justice creating an economy and civilization to destroy.
This film, it seems, has renewed relevance in a world where Preston, for example, would have grown up and theorhetically seen a movie like this, realizing the divergence of outcomes, that not only did hard work not amount to much, other than his management chain getting richer, but that he’s being gaslit about it by his employer, his family, by the alleged rules of our economies— in 2020, let’s say he works in an industry other than service already, he would likely already be furloughed, at the very least, and would be dipping his toes into the gig economy to get by, without the assurance of healthcare, etc. He’s being told it’s unsafe to go outside, but that going outside is the only way to keep the economy alive, and that his death might be an acceptable one. If he were disadvantaged in any other intersection, he might already have been counted among the most neglected, a statistic to a cause of the government built by his father’s generation.
Like in the film, the economy he’d be faced with today, would prioritize profit over people, as a measure of the effectiveness of a business, and one could argue that’s just a perceptive issue— this is just quantifying the success of a business, after all- but what make this the metric success is calculated by? Well, consider that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos will become a trillionaire through this while his employees suffer among the worst workplace conditions while criminally undercompensated and underinsured— it makes sense how Jeff Bezos made his money, but it’s neither just nor actually bearing any merit, but in the framework of those ideals, it’s “successful”.
But how can it not be when everything is rigged in the favor of those willing to be the most exploitative? In the real world, there’s no realization on the part of the influential grifter class that there are broader ethical considerations, there’s definitely no FBI actually prosecuting these abuses, but most importantly, there are millions of people being told this algorithm for success exists, when it very demonstrably not only does not exist, but is openly a malicious rhetorical vehicle to throw bodies at the problem of sustaining an economy for the consumerist base, propagandized to obliviation, to believe being a consumer is a core function that represents normalcy.
At some point in the film, Preston’s father begins to be suspicious of Macintosh, and his influence on Preston’s demeanor, but he’s enamored that Preston has told him that Macintosh is impressed by his prospectus— there’s a lesson in there; being doomed to ethical failure is a choice between, in this context, a class prerogative, and the health of one’s child. Preston’s response upon leaving his baffled family after this revelation, “later, toads” is a satire of the response to the choatic nature of how those below the line of exclusivity are left to make sense of a confusion they didn’t create.
I began writing this piece earlier this year, as part of an effort to speak about this on a series of 5 minute podcasts (for whom the audience was very different— I elected not to get into the contemporaneous, for 1994 or 2020, reality that these disparities were already objective realities, not merely fictional avatars from a children’s movie, for millions worldwide every second of every day), and the script was very different; it focused on the high level experience of being a millennial viewing this movie through a world that had been crumbling for their entire lives, however, with the context of a global pandemic, it turns out, being the “mask off” moment for all of our worst fears (unfairly, it turns out, called conspiratorial by older generations who have already secured their bags).
I don’t want that effort to have been for nothing, but if the immediacy of the need for change was neither clear in 1994, nor now when the implications of a deeply divided, and for many, an intersectionally oppressive, set of systems and institutions could not be more clear, I’d like to cite this more general version of what to take away from this film:
I bring up the generational markers for a reason: They dictate how each character perceives wealth and what success means.
The film conjures work like Balzac's Old Man Goriot-- the tale of deposed nobility who has a firm idea of what success is but in order to compete in a modern economy he is forced to be doomed ethically, and so is the case with Preston, in which he decides a Boomer mentality of wealth won't serve him as it serves his brothers.
At the beginning of the film his father, an investment banker, lavishes praise on his brothers for starting a business, Hand and Foot, while Preston who seems to have a preternatural understanding of finance and how to operate the technology of Hand and Foot—an Apple computer with which he creates a fictional millionaire avatar, Mister Macintosh- is dumped on for not working as hard as his brothers, while both being handicapped by their theft of his savings, or that he is often discouraged by his parents to exercise his ambition, while being made to feel like a burden for not having done so.
A theme through the film is that Preston must give more and more from the substance of his life and his childhood to pursue dreams of wealth and while is capital dwindles so increases his desperation, but externally he's become more successful in his fictional business, at least externally as the grift fools the adults, than his resentful father, and now subjugated brothers, to no avail in terms of his father's respect.
What makes this film notable for millenials is that the film's climax, a birthday party for Mister Macintosh, Preston's father admits to who he believes Macintosh to be that, upon reflection of the values instilled in his children, realized his Boomer lens on how wealth and access works in the 90's no longer serves him and he apologizes to Preston.
At the end of this dispatch, I mostly would, ideally, like to see readers to understand that this movie is intending to embody the frustration children of the time felt, whether or not they, themselves, related to Preston; a world with rules for success, but an instinct telling them that things simply did not work this way, and now well into adulthood, being expected to play by the same rules, while the reality of how horrific the motivations for the policymaking and gains for beneficiares like those in the healthcare and financial sectors of the 1990’s and 2000’s truly were, demonstrate an undeniable malice that an entire generation is being asked to choose to ignore, tolerate, or revolt against, but they are left with no vehicle with which to do any of the three.
The reason of this bogus doctrine of civility, respect, and subjugation while being maliciously acted against as a society is very telling of the machinations of the divide that is currently in play, generationally, between classes, even within ideological groups, we’re seeing this splintering, and it’s not even intentional, it’s just fallout from the pursuit of the lifestyle we find stable previous generations, seemingly everyone but our own.
What once just felt like accelerationism, now, just feels like callous disregard for the future of the planet and its inhabitants, and the time to do anything about it (and mean it) was 1994.
Well, we can always imagine what a recovery might’ve felt like…
Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending:
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