Queen of Versailles
Monday, September 17 2012
Paul (the guy who owns the large church on the Rondout) came over at around noon today and we ended up sitting around the table out on the east deck. I had to bring my laptop out there with me so I could see if any instant messages came in from my boss about the ongoing web development project. Paul never wants anything to eat or drink when he visits, so I ate the bowl of ramen I'd had in the microwave oven in front of him in a way that would normally be considered impolite.
It's still unclear whether or not Paul will be buying a large compound somewhere in western Massachussetts and moving there, though the Mid-Hudson region is a better place with him in it and I hope the deal ultimately falls through.
Evidently Paul is something of a lurker in my online life. I know he reads this website, but it turns out that he's well acquainted with my Facebook posts (though he never responds to them) and he even follows me on Twitter, though I've only made about six tweets in my life, none of which I remember making.
Later I went back to work and Gretchen and Paul took Eleanor for a walk in the woods. Paul is so paranoid about ticks and Lyme disease that he suited up first in a full-body Tyvek suit, which kind of reminded me of the time my mother rented a car and insisted on wearing a horse riding helmet and protective vest to guard against the possibility of the airbag spontaneously going off.
Paul and Gretchen had been planning to see a movie, originally Beasts of the Southern Wild, but then when Gretchen saw the trailer and realized it incorporated far too much goofy fantasy science fiction, she decided to see a documentary called The Queen of Versailles instead. I wanted to see it too after she described its premise: about a couple begins building the largest private house in America and then their plans go to hell when the economic collapse happens in 2008.
The The Queen of Versailles was playing at the Tinker Street Cinema in Woodstock, and for some reason Paul wanted us to meet him and Ingrid more than a half hour before the film would be shown. Paul and Ingrid would be coming with three other people: a friend of Ingrid's from the world of dental hygeine (and fellow Columbian), as well as that friend's adult daughter and that adult daughter's girlfriend.
We saw Paul's enormous truck when we arrived at the theatre, but Paul, Ingrid, and the others were nowhere to be seen. What would we be doing for a half hour? Meanwhile, someone in the strip of sheds back behind the theatre was loudly playing his drum kit to whatever song happened to be playing on WPDH, a local rock station, though with more pizazz than the original (the drummer was incorporating clever little double-bass fills of the sort one only hears in early Metallica).
I ordered a coffee from the theatre's refreshment concession, which meant that a fresh pot would have to be brewed. I expressed the hope that others would want some of that coffee, but the woman making the pot declared, "On a Monday night, probably not, but I'll have some." Later, though, after the coffee was made and I went to get myself a cup, an old geezer making too much small talk with the theatre employees said that he'd be having a cup of coffee too. If you can just turn a knob on your pacemaker, there's no reason you can't drink coffee any time of day!
By now Paul, Ingrid, and their substantial cohort had materialized, having gone for the kind of stroll I hate down Tinker Street. Then the movie began.
It started out as a window into the lives of a grotesquely materialist family living in Orlando. 75 year old real estate mogul David Siegel is living with Jackie, his 43 year old trophy wife and former Mrs. America (who knew there was a Mrs. America?), eight children, and some unknown number of white purebred dogs and reptiles. Their present house is a cluttered 20,000 square foot starter mansion but they are in the process of building a 90,000 square foot house, which will be the biggest single-family house in America. The new house will is modeled on Versailles, though through a Walt Disney prism (fittingly, the Disneyland fireworks will be visible from what will be the grand hall). It isn't just the gross materialism that grates; the real estate mogul boasts at one point that he is responsible for getting George W. Bush elected president, though he won't say how because it "might have been illegal." The Siegel's money comes from high-pressure sales of timeshares to marginal customers lured in with Disneyland tickets and other schwag. At some point in the film, I found myself wondering if this was all just going to be about the consumerist lives of horrible people, doubting whether Gretchen had been correct when she had said that things eventually go bad for the Siegels. But then suddenly, things went bad for the Siegels. When the news clip from September of 2008 was inserted,Gretchen and I started applauding. It came as such a relief that the Siegels were finally getting their due.
The decline and fall of the Siegels meant the laying off of household staff, which meant that the four overworked employees remaining could no longer keep up with the dog shit accumulating throughout the house and the feeding requirements of the fishes and reptiles, which start to die off. But still Jackie is going on multi-cart shopping sprees and buying new kids' bikes to add to the dozens already in the garage. Meanwhile David holes up in a cluttered room with a telephone and boxes of paperwork, trying somehow to raise millions of dollars so he doesn't lose a huge new timeshare condo in Las Vegas and his nascent Versailles project. The decline part of the film was perhaps a bit too long, though the whole experience was a delight even if all it really amounted to was sweet sweet schadenfreude.
After the film, the seven of us stood around out on the porch of the theatre discussing it. I kept coming back in my mind to the scene where Jackie is renting a car at a car rental place and she's so clueless about the world that she actually asks what the name of her driver will be. It hadn't occurred to her that cars rented from car rental places must be driven by the renter! Then there's this question: how had this documentary even been possible? It had started out as a typical banal reality-show-style portrait of a rich family doing rich people things, but then the collapse happened and the film crew stayed on. Why didn't Siegels pull the plug? I suppose they were optimistic that the collapse was all a temporary setback and they would eventually rally and emerge triumphant by the film's end. Because that's how movies are in America.
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