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Jul
21
2023

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Dahlia Krutkovich (JC Fellow): While driving up to the Adirondacks late last night, a group of friends and I got to talking about Wesleyan University’s recent decision to end preferential admission for legacy applicants. One of my friends bitterly remarked that this was all but a PR move, considering what she sees as the real influence game in college admissions: private donations. In honor of this gripe—which I think overstates exactly how many people are donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to universities at any given time—I wanted to draw your attention to the eminently watchable but strikingly uncanny documentary Operation Varsity Blues, which I saw back in April 2021, when I spent the five days after receiving my Covid vaccine feverishly bingeing a series of straight-to-streaming documentaries about grifters.

The film follows the federal investigation into “college consultant” Rick Singer’s “side door” scheme. In Singer’s telling, applicants can get into American colleges via two possible routes: the front door (a deserving applicant takes their rightful place among the best and the brightest) or the back door (well-connected parents donate unseemly amounts of money to prestigious schools to assure their dauphin’s spot). Singer’s “side door” involved defrauding the College Board and a few select universities by doctoring the teenagers’ resumés, paying adults to take standardized tests in applicants’ place, and paying off coaches to reserve roster spots for “athletes” who had never seen the field. You might have read some of the coverage of the operation, which ensnared Felicity Huffman and her YouTube-famous daughter, among other minor figures in the world of California strivers.

It’s a fairly outrageous situation, made only more ridiculous by its treatment in the documentary. The bulk of the drama is composed of reenactments of conversations between Singer and his clients, drawn from recordings Singer himself delivered to the Feds as part of a negotiated deal. The wigs are confusingly bad (cuts between news footage of the real people who had these conversations and the actors who play them emphasize just how, well, visually off they are); the interstitial scenes of a nameless female FBI officer listening in on the conversations, typing and looking shocked, are hamfisted; and the activities the parents do while on the phone—to try to add some visual drama to what are ultimately fairly wooden conversations—are laughably poignant (one father gazes at his cliffside pool while talking about his generous gift to a water polo team). Awash in unreality, Operation Varsity Blues is perhaps less a documentary than a simulacrum of one—the doc succeeds in making you question not only the choices of its subjects, but also the judgment of everyone involved in the production decisions.

Cynthia Friedman (operations manager): In a recent New Yorker article—titled, in print, “Now You See It”—Kathryn Schulz reviews The Art Thief, the latest book by journalist Michael Finkel. The author is three-for-three in writing books that, as she puts it, “search for meaning—moral, aesthetic, ethical—in criminal acts.” In this recent work, Finkel writes about the unbelievable acts of Stéphane Breitwieser, who, between 1994 and 2001, stole about two million dollars’ worth of art, which he stored in his attic for his personal enjoyment. Details about his heists—including that he carried them out in broad daylight, during a museum’s open hours, and sometimes even schmoozed with the guards—are a thrilling read.

Yet I was equally riveted by Schulz’s dive into what defines a heist; what sets them apart from other forms of theft? The elements she outlines register as immediately true, though I doubt I would have been able to name them myself. First, the stolen object must be “spectacularly valuable”—no one, for example, would call shoplifting items from a convenience store a “heist.” Next, it must be stolen from “an institution of significant standing,” as she writes: “[...] they happen in banks, preferably on Wall Street, or museums, preferably The Met.” And crucially, the theft itself must be “borderline impossible,” often involving a team of rare individuals who, combined, have the exact skill set required for the job. While society may look down on theft in general, the so-called bad guys in the story of a heist are usually the characters we cheer on in its retelling (perhaps, in part, because such schemes are typically not for the money, and, while spectacular, are largely not violent).

Before reading Schulz’s review, I hadn’t given much thought to heists as a genre, but there is an episode of Rick and Morty, a cartoon that I quite embarrassingly love, about “the never-ending assembly of a meaningless crew.” In it, Rick—an alcoholic sci-fi inventor, and the purported “smartest man in the galaxy”—takes his grandson, Morty, to “HeistCon,” a convention filled with fans of what one aficionado calls the “heisting arts,” of which Rick is a loud critic. They must assemble a crew to get inside—“crew assemblies are the worst part!” Rick later cries—and the episode unravels from there as a very meta, and very clever, riff on the heist genre. It’s fun to read Schulz’s article and reflect on it with a more sophisticated lens. While your reference point may not be a “gleefully nihilistic” animated show with a reputation of aggressive fandom and a now widely disgraced co-creator, you will likely be able to reflect on other pieces of entertainment you’ve consumed, such as Ocean’s Eight, The Italian Job, Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle, or even, as Schulz argues, Man on Wire, the 2008 documentary of Philippe Petit’s stunt of illegally walking a tightrope between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in 1974.

Schulz’s article is a brilliant trifecta: a glimpse into Breitwieser’s astonishing exploits, a fascinating analysis of what makes a heist, and—which I don’t get into here, but rounds out the piece—an inquiry into how Finkel’s own subjectivity, like ours, is intertwined with the page-turner he produced.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Though my visual impairment prevents me from reading physical books, I sometimes torture myself by stopping into bookstores to see what’s out there before trying to find Kindle versions. Recently, while browsing the new releases table at Brooklyn’s Center for Fiction—which offers the world’s best chocolate chip cookies, as well as great books—I espied Robert Plunket’s My Search for Warren Harding. Novels with “Harding’” in the title are not legion, and my mental filing system informed me that this was probably a book I recall reading and loving in 1983. I checked the copyright; indeed, this was a reissued edition of the novel I remembered as wildly wonderful. Rereading it confirmed that my memory got it exactly right.

My Search for Warren Harding concerns an aspiring historian named Elliot Weiner. (He makes a point of informing us that despite what his name sometimes leads people to believe, he’s not Jewish.) Weiner is on the hunt for the love letters Warren Harding wrote to his mistress and, more importantly, the lover herself, whom he thinks he has located in Los Angeles. In one sense, it’s a novel about academia and the lengths to which scholars will go to get a scoop—in this case, confirmation that the 29th president had an illegitimate daughter, as his real-life mistress claimed. But Plunket’s book uses this premise as a platform for a brilliantly excoriating portrayal of human foibles and weakness. It closely resembles another great novel of the 1980s, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. Both books feature main characters who mistakenly believe themselves superior to those around them, all of whom are accurately portrayed as ridiculous creatures. They’re also both magnificent, biting satires of the cities in which they take place (Toole’s in New Orleans, Plunket’s in LA).

Weiner, originally from Pittsburgh but currently residing on the Upper West Side, exemplifies the condescension and smugness of New Yorkers toward La La Land and its residents. But his antipathy goes much further. My Search for Warren Harding is filled with his unpleasant reflections on anyone with a gender, race, sexual orientation, body type, or clothing style not his own. To a large extent Plunket can write this way because sentiments like these passed more easily back in 1983, but now as then the main character’s views tell us much of what we need to know about him. Unsparing in his stereotypes, Weiner damns himself far more than those he condemns.

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