Rules of (Civic) Engagement
In peace-loving Waitsfield, Eugene Jarecki has the "Big Picture" and a new book on war
Eugene Jarecki has a thing for Frank Capra. Specifically, the Waitsfield filmmaker likes to imagine himself as Mr. Smith from Capra’s 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which an unassuming scout leader fights political corruption. Jarecki says he likes how Capra’s everyday Americans “exert an unexpected measure of resistance to the usual oppressive runnings of the system.”
It’s not that Jarecki, 39, is an everyday sort of fellow. After graduating from Princeton in the early 1990s, he made a 2006 documentary, Why We Fight, that won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. He has also produced commercials and Hollywood features and worked as a media consultant for Jesse Jackson. His brother, Andrew Jarecki, directed Capturing the Friedmans, an award-winning 2003 documentary about a troubled Long Island family.
Jarecki “emigrated” from Manhattan to Vermont after 9/11. But he still keeps an office in SoHo, travels regularly to L.A. and London, and lectures about his films at universities across the U.S. A few weeks ago, he appeared on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” to discuss his print debut, The American Way of War: Guided Missiles, Misguided Men, and a Republic in Peril. The nonfiction treatise on American militarism supplements Jarecki’s 2006 film. A reviewer at The Nation once dubbed him “The Unquiet American.”
But even if he’s not your average Mr. Smith, Jarecki’s fascination with Frank Capra makes sense in other ways. Like Capra, he learned life lessons from his family’s immigrant history, and he channels angst about American life into films about the resiliency, and tragic shortcomings, of everyday folk.
And, once again like Capra’s characters, Jarecki is trying to make a difference in his community. Neighbors say the Big Picture Theater & Café in Waitsfield, which Jarecki co-founded in 2006, is an important civic space for residents of the Mad River Valley. Indeed, Jarecki notes, the Big Picture expresses his “desire to support social betterment.”
Jarecki thinks the United States could use a makeover, but he isn’t a polemicist. While critical of American militarism, he professes deep respect for Dwight D. Eisenhower; while eagerly anticipating the departure of George W. Bush, he won’t say whether he voted for Barack Obama.
Jarecki’s iconoclastic persona informs Why We Fight, a film about the military-industrial complex that features interviews with academics, politicians and citizens from across the political spectrum. Over the years, the filmmaker’s bipartisan disposition has helped him win respect from uniformed types at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he now lectures part time. It comes as no surprise, then, that Jarecki’s literary debut, The American Way of War, takes a nuanced look at the American story.
The book’s central thesis is that the “American Way” has been usurped by a new paradigm in which the executive branch holds too much power. As a result, Jarecki argues, Congress can’t restrain trigger-happy presidents. In addition, he says, presidents themselves are hamstrung by an annual defense budget he estimates is now nearly a trillion dollars.
Don’t assume The American Way of War — its subtitle comes from a Martin Luther King Jr. speech — is just another bitter condemnation of the Bush administration. While Jarecki does slam the unpopular lame-duck president, he extends his critique to lionized ones such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, who imprisoned Japanese Americans and supported early research on the atomic bomb. Jarecki insists Bush and FDR are complicit in the country’s gradual shift toward what the constitutional founders called “self-perpetuating militarism.”
Some lefty critics argue that Jarecki’s style isn’t critical enough of the establishment, but he doesn’t care. In his mind, Jarecki says, he is like a lawyer channeling heated emotions into measured, historically based inquiry. His conclusions may not satisfy everyone, he adds, but they are more likely to inspire bipartisan debate about the problems we face as a society.
Some readers may think Jarecki takes his time making his points in The American Way of War. Like his film Why We Fight, the book may force pacifists to reconsider their politics. But unlike the film, which reaches a dramatic climax thanks to Jarecki’s expert editing, Way of War reads a bit like a social studies textbook.
Of course, the writer is the first to admit that studying American history is only the first step toward “boots on the ground” civic action. As he told Jon Stewart recently, he hopes The American Way of War will inspire a sense of common civic engagement that withered during the Bush years. “I’m on a real mission,” he explained to the Comedy Central host. “The worse thing that’s happened is, we’ve become disengaged . . .”
A few Saturday afternoons after his appearance on “The Daily Show,” Jarecki is reading a book at the Big Picture Theater & Café, his renovated movie house in Waitsfield. Paper lanterns hang from the curvy awning, and a guy in a Santa costume waves to cars on Route 100 from the unpaved parking lot.
Inside, as the filmmaker meets a reporter at a window table, servers sell locally made mini-donuts at the bar. By the entrance, an elderly man reads a newspaper while someone hammers “Heart and Soul” on a piano. Down a corridor, in the Big Picture’s high-ceilinged, couch-strewn screening room, kids are ogling contenders in a holiday gingerbread contest.
Jarecki’s face lights up momentarily. “Look at all the people coming in,” he says after glancing at the doorway. “We’ve got 70 gingerbread houses in there on display!”
Jarecki and his “longtime partner-in-crime,” Claudia Becker, founded the Big Picture as a venue for activism and community building. He likens the place to the Bailey Building & Loan Association in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, a 1946 film where residents of fictional Bedford Falls save the bank’s owner from ruin on Christmas Eve.
The Big Picture, Jarecki half-jokes, “is a hotbed of really idealistic, caring people who have an obsession with losing money and driving ourselves into bankruptcy for the right cause. The hope was that the community, like the people of Bedford Falls, would show up and do their part.”
At least two influential community members are grateful for Jarecki’s efforts. George Schenck, founder of nearby American Flatbread, says he appreciates how the Big Picture puts people above profit. Moreover, it’s a “place of good assembly,” Schenck says, for both informal community gatherings and activist happenings such as the MountainTop Human Rights Film Festival, which Becker founded in 2004, and where Jarecki launched Why We Fight.
“It is the kind of big, warm, dry space that is fairly rare in the small towns of Vermont,” adds Schenck. “Understanding that we have a broad role to play in our communities, rather than as ‘providers’ of pizza or film, is important, and that’s exactly what Eugene and Claudia saw.”
Robin McDermott, founder of the Mad River Valley Localvore Project, calls the Big Picture a “community hub” that unites residents of Waitsfield, Warren, Fayston and Moretown. McDermott says she appreciates how Jarecki makes time to schmooze with neighbors despite his busy travel schedule. “What’s totally cool is you go into the BigPicture, and there’s Eugene scooping ice cream!”
At his window table, Jarecki says moving to the Green Mountains was the second-best decision he ever made, after having kids. (He doesn’t discuss his family, or local politics, on the record.) Vermont is the most intellectually stimulating state in the union, he notes, and despite recent trends toward gentrification, it’s still on the cultural “fringe.”
If Jarecki is so proud of Vermont, why doesn’t he mention it in TV interviews or include info about the Big Picture in his author bio? When asked, Jarecki says that, while he’s all about localism, he’d hate to sound as if he were patronizing audiences in Middle America with his Vermont views. “What is imperfect here would be utopian in other states.”
In the meantime, Jarecki says he hopes our state will continue to model the populist spirit the country so desperately needs. He isn’t naive about such obstacles as the two-party system, a crumbling economy and what he calls the “corporate-political complex.” Furthermore, he warns, “It is as wrongheaded to think that Bush destroyed this country in the last eight years as it is to think that Barack Obama can save it in the next eight years.”
Still, like Frank Capra, Jarecki tends to see the human potential in dire circumstances. He was practically born with that instinct: His mother’s family fled Russian pogroms in the late 19th century, and his father escaped Nazi Germany in 1939. Both parents were active in labor and human rights causes while running a psychiatric clinic at Yale University during the 1960s. (According to the D.C.-based Futures Industry Association, his father, Henry G. Jarecki, held a “position of great prominence” in the 1970s and early ’80s at the world’s largest gold and silver trading company. Henry, who lives in a wealthy New York City suburb, is affiliated with a New York investment bank and, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, has donated money to the Vermont Democratic Party.)
“We were taught that our lives would only make sense if they were lives dedicated to social justice and serving others with the lessons we had learned from our own suffering,” recalls Jarecki.
Becker, a slim blond woman, stops by to tell her partner she’s heading home. Jarecki promises to be along shortly, but after she leaves, he can’t stop talking politics and social justice. As his book tour for The American Way of War winds down, he explains, he’s focusing on two separate projects, one about Ronald Reagan and the other about the American drug war.
After discussing the former president, the prison system and the economy, Jarecki pauses to watch a soft, pink sun drop behind the Appalachian Gap. He looks eager but strung out, like a rock musician at the end of a tour.
Then he walks behind the bar and pours milk into a blender. “If none of us is going to make a living in this society, which is collapsing,” he says, “at least let’s go down with warmth towards each other, poetry about being alive, a banana milkshake and some maple donuts.”