Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Founder: Ray Kroc’s self-hatred is an American mirror.

In our efforts to catch up with recent movies, we ordered The Founder through Netflix and watched it last night.  I had forgotten what it was about, and was intrigued when we popped it in the DVD player to find out more about the emergence of the McDonald’s empire.  What could me more all-American and apple pie-like than McDonald’s?  Even though McDonald’s has promoted a fast food culture that has had an insidious impact on our health, has contributed to a generation interested in drive through convenience for everything from banking to health care, and has had questionable hiring and employment practices, there was, in my mind, something solid and positive in my mind about McDonald’s and those golden arches – just as there is something wonderful and wholesome about Coca-Cola.  How can Coca-Cola be wonderful and wholesome?  In France the King always drank better wine than the ordinary people.  In the United States, we all drink the same thing – and it is lovely – an elixir; and we eat the same thing too; especially our current president who is rumored to dine on McDonald’s on a regular basis.

Despite the title, Ray Kroc did not start McDonald’s.  The opening scenes depict him, as played by Michael Keaton, roaming the Midwest trying to sell a milkshake mixer that will make six milkshakes simultaneously – telling every owner of every drive-in that if you increase supply demand will follow – and they all seem to be slamming the door in his face.  Now I have to say – every man on both sides of my family in the generations before me was a salesman of one sort or another.  I worked summers in college cold-calling manufacturers to set up appointments for my father to meet them to sell them machines that would improve the productivity of their factories.  The scene with Kroc at a phone booth with a stack of nickels making calls harked back to stories my father would tell of going into Manhattan with rolls of dimes and making cold calls from phone booths to try to get time to tell people about the latest wonder that would revolutionize their industry.

Kroc, like my father, sold a bunch of stuff before the milkshake machines – fold out beds to fit in the kitchen and other doo-dads that the members of his country club – and the men at the bank when he is trying to finance McDonald’s – laugh at him about.  He also, like my father, listened to (and later plagiarized) self-help materials which lauded persistence.  Michael Keaton has a certain every-man charisma – he is like Tom Hanks without the self-assurance – Keaton needs us to like him.  And we do.  Despite the fact that he is on the road all the time, despite the fact that he drinks too much, his first wife, played dolefully by Laura Dern, teams up with him to sell McDonald’s franchises – first to the guys at the Country Club, who don’t appreciate what they’ve been given, and then to the Jewish Bible salesman types – the guys trying to make a buck – who will work hard and hire people to work hard to make a product that other people will buy and enjoy.

But I am getting ahead of the story.  Kroc discovers McDonald’s when the McDonald brothers order six of the shake machines that make six shakes simultaneously.  He impulsively drives from the Midwest to San Bernardino California – taking route 66 – this is the time before interstates – to see what kind of set-up they have.  The two brothers – Dick, played by NickOfferman with the same charisma he brought to the role of Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation and John Carroll Lynch as Maurice – are the engineer (Dick) and the nice guy (Maurice) who have teamed to create an entirely new creation – a marvel of ingenuity and American Know-How that produces hamburgers as efficiently and effectively as Henry Ford produced Model-Ts.   Their restaurant is efficient – the hamburger is in the customer’s hands in 15 seconds – unlike the half hour wait for the wrong order that Ray routinely runs into at drive-ins – there is little overhead – they give no utensils or ceramic ware – people’s burgers are wrapped in paper, their fries and milkshakes are in paper cups - and there is no wait staff, people just walk up to the window and walk away to eat where they will.

This part of the movie is sweet.  These two brothers – very different people – clearly love each other, they love the restaurant they have created and the people who work in it, and they love the customers that they serve.  There is a warmth between all of them – including Kroc – that is quite delightful.  But the McDonalds are not primarily interested in profit – they are interested in something more ephemeral – something almost aesthetic – they are interested in pursuing perfection in the provision of convenient hamburger service.  And Dick is really quite driven by an obsessive passion to do this.  He also has a dream that this could be replicated from coast to coast and that people everywhere could eat a McDonald’s hamburger, but their first attempt to create franchises failed – both because people didn’t emulate the efficient home store – they lost control of the product – and because Maurice was too stressed out by trying to manage things at a distance.  Kroc’s maniacal interest in achievement and his recognition of the virtues of the system lead him to agree to the terms that the McDonald’s dictate without hesitation.  He is the guy who is going to realize Dick’s dream.

But this dream of Dick’s turns sour.  As Kroc takes it on and we are excited at his capacity to get it going – so is he.  Frustrated by the constraints of the McDonald brothers and convinced of his own brilliance, he begins to become shadier and shadier, outwitting the McDonalds and stealing the wife of one of his franchisees, the woman, Joan, who will later own the San Diego Padres.  And while we all know the ending of the story, what we don’t know is that achieving this ending – becoming the person that he has wanted to be – will rob Kroc of all that made him endearing and will emphasize all that concerned us in the beginning – our concern will turn to dismay and finally disgust.  When a clip rolls after the end of the movie about Ray Kroc talking about beauty of the name of McDonald’s – a name that we now know he has essentially stolen from the McDonalds brothers – we don’t see a charismatic man who has built an empire but a petty thief who is a small but very wealthy person.  How did this dream become such a nightmare?

The movie proposes that it is the name that is the key to this transition.  Ray Kroc.  Who wants to buy a burger at Kroc’s?  Kroc talks about his Slavic name as something that instills distaste, not desire, in others.  The persistence that he displays selling wares that others snicker at him for is partly driven by a powerful belief that this is work that befits him.  Life is supposed to be hard for a guy like him.  And he needs to persist in order to become successful.  One of the quotes attributed to him is that it is not a dog eat dog world but a rat eat rat world.  He is a rat, and so are the other people in it.  He can admire them – but not love them.  They have what he wants – but doesn’t deserve.  There is a very deep sense of self-loathing that drives him forward.  This is closely related to self-love – it is a kind of narcissism –meaning that it – like the self-love of narcissism - binds the person together – giving them a sense of themselves as having an integrity – a consistency – and a purpose – and this purpose makes him into a generative person.  But, while the McDonalds brothers generate love, he generates stuff.  And he figures out how to get more and more of it as if it will make up for or transform his loathing into love.  The tragedy – if there is a tragedy here – is that it does not.  Yes, he gets the girl.  Yes he gets the stuff and the accolades and he is king of the world, but he doesn’t become the person he would want to be – he becomes a more and more twisted version of the worst aspects of himself.

This film resonates on many levels, then, with our current political landscape (and is a staple of Hollywood - see Citizen Kane, for example).  We admire people like Ray Kroc and we want to emulate them.  The film notes that, on a daily basis, McDonald’s feeds one per cent of the world’s population.  This is an amazing statistic.  Who among us has not eaten at McDonald’s?  Who doesn’t secretly look forward to road trips with the kids who will be clamoring to stop at a McDonald’s, which we will reluctantly do and then relish in the taste that is so familiar?  When we are doing this, I think that we are connecting to two very different dreams – the dream of the McDonald brothers and that of Mr. Kroc.  We are hoping that this delightful stuff – this easily accessible, cheap and quick and, admit it, delicious stuff will prove to be nourishing and sustaining.  But is it?  Does it?  Has it been good for us to chase after quick and easy solutions rather than doing the hard work that is necessary to achieve something lasting?  Of course the irony is that Ray Kroc did, indeed, work very hard, as did my father and uncles and grandfathers.  None of them were as successful as he – and fortunately none of them failed as miserably as he did.  But we all seem, to some extent, to have been tarred by the brush that caught him.  We are a nation of immigrants – in the words of Hamilton – immigrants get the job done – but sometimes coming to grips with the darker parts of our immigrant – or familial or just plain human - legacy – costs us a great deal in order to achieve what we do.  We work to distance ourselves from whence we came - we try to become something new - and in the process we discover that we have only become more thoroughly ourselves.

Postscript:  A friend of mine read this post and commented that she casually knew Ray Kroc way back when he opened the first "franchise" McDonald's in Des Plaines and he was truly a nice guy.  She was concerned that the movie, which she has not seen, did violence to Kroc.  I was pleased to hear that she experienced him as a nice guy.  As portrayed by Keaton, Kroc genuinely seemed to be a nice guy - he reminded me of a favorite uncle who was, I believe, a genuinely nice guy.  The clips of the real Kroc at the end of the movie that are shown support the more problematic Kroc.  The question that arises - if the real person in the world made a transition like that depicted in the movie - is what extent that transition - or transformation - is caused by the wealth and power that he increasingly accrued - or whether his dogged pursuit and acquisition helped to expose something that was latently present in him, and I think to some extent in all of us, from the beginning.  


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