The Story Behind Steve Bannon's Hilariously Terrible Movie About the Horrors of Climate Science
Bronx pizza guy Frank (Quinn Duffy) in The Steam Experiment
Stetson Kennedy took down the KKK after exposing its ludicrous and juvenile rituals and writings. The general public had been led to believe the Klan's multitudes were dangerous and powerful, wielding their burning crosses among a vast network of operatives. But Kennedy infiltrated their ridiculous meetings and called them what they were: a joke. The hate group was never able to recover its powerful public image. Well, until now, of course. Still, Kennedy gave us a handy cheat sheet to neuter hate groups in the court of public opinion by using their own inane antics against them and rightfully revealing them as punchlines.
Despite how hopeless things may seem right now, we’ve been given a great gift: Steve Bannon’s movies. Because — wow — these films are bad.
I’m not just talking about his cheesy propaganda documentaries. I’m referring specifically to the atrocious 2009 narrative film starring Val Kilmer, The Steam Experiment (aka The Chaos Experiment, because all the best movies have two titles …), which is so closely aligned with his flawed ideologies on climate change, scientists, women, the press and human nature, there is no doubt he's behind this gem. It’s also the perfect film to show your Trump-voting relatives. People on either end of the political spectrum would be hard-pressed to refute this movie's universal badness.
In 2008, Bannon’s home distribution media company, Genius Products, wanted to make its first feature film. Genius was focused on the home-video market, and if anyone needs reassurance that Bannon doesn’t have the mental capacity to crack one of those grand plans he talks about, always remember that he started a company to focus on DVDs amid Blockbuster's collapse and Netflix's and Apple’s streaming renaissance. Bannon’s not smart enough to mastermind things; he’s just been extraordinarily lucky.
Steam is directed by one of Bannon’s buddies, a Frenchman named Philippe Martinez (he’s white). Martinez has been sued the world over for fraud (and jailed for six months in France), and those who didn’t sue, such as the state of Florida, probably were too ashamed to admit they’d been taken. Bannon likely knew all about Martinez’s legal woes in Florida, because it was big news everywhere, especially in Sarasota, where both Bannon’s and Martinez’s film companies are based. Steam would be Martinez’s first film as director, and Bannon jumped right on board that sinking ship. Smart, huh?!
The script was originally set in New York, but Bannon wanted to take advantage of the new Michigan film tax incentives. So he moved the production to Grand Rapids, Michigan — my hometown. Grand Rapids is virtually owned by the new secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, and her family, along with the Van Andels, who together founded notorious "multilevel marketing" company Amway. (DeVos’ brother Erik Prince is also the founder of notorious mercenary outfit Blackwater.) If Grand Rapids were a Monopoly board, DeVos and Van Andel would have mysteriously lost the rules to the game, taken every square — including the jail — and turned the board into a Christian Reformed theocracy where even the Irish aren’t white enough. I’m happy to say that most of the locations used for this film are either owned or supported by DeVos/Van Andel; Bannon and the DeVos/Van Andel brand will forever be tied to a movie as hilariously bad and disastrous as their politics, and we should never let them forget it.
The premise for Steam is so succinctly captured in the DVD back copy, I’m reprinting it here:
“A disgraced and deranged scientist (Val Kilmer) traps six sexy strangers in a hotel steam bath and slowly turns up the heat. It’s all to prove that humanity will go crazy under the pressures of global warming. … However, it doesn’t take long for the fear and paranoia to boil over, leaving a bloody trail in its wake.”
What the copy doesn’t mention is that these “six sexy strangers” are supposedly lured to a steam room in the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel (owned by DeVos/Van Andel) under the pretense that this is a new kind of dating service, where people are apparently paired up in abandoned hotels? However, the second they see one another, they’ve got their metaphorical knives out — if you hate people, why the hell would you choose to go on this mass group date?
Every character in Steam talks as if they own a pizza parlor in the Bronx — OK, well, one character actually does own a pizza parlor in the Bronx. But for those who don’t know, Grand Rapidians have thick, Fargo-esque accents. It’s almost as though this film is a prime example of a Hollywood coastal elitist being completely out of touch with Middle America …
In the steam room, the footage is shot to look yellow and cloudy, like unhealthy pee. One woman, Jessie (Eve Mauro), rolls her eyes and says with utter disgust that, ugh, she guesses they should all introduce themselves … ugh. My favorite introduction comes courtesy of Margaret (Cordelia Reynolds), who snivels and hyperventilates with awkward pauses as she sputters out, “I like living the life of a neurotic … fucked-up … American romance writer … who fancies herself a poet,” before bursting into tears — some very Bannon-esque ideas of women here. All the while the Bronx pizza guy, Frank (Quinn Duffy), slithers around a tiled column in a zebra-print Speedo, his version of a mating dance, I guess. Let’s hope that’s not Bannon’s idea of men being sexy. When the intros are done, Jessie grunts, “I’m gonna enjoy a little steam,” and then rips off her top so she can strike a totally unnatural boobs-out pin-up pose, which the camera holds on for so long that I worried the actress had gotten a cramp in the process.
Meanwhile, scientist James Pettis (Kilmer) walks into the office of the Grand Rapids Press and demands to see its editor-in-chief, Walter Grubbs (Ricky Wayne). Pettis says he could have brought his “big scoop” to The New York Times, but both men agree that the NYT editor is a “butcher,” and Grubbs is a “man of integrity.” FYI: The Grand Rapids Press is the community-newspaper-that-could, with a total circulation of about 100,000, whose homepage recently featured a heartwarming story about local children staging a human Hungry Hungry Hippos event on a local ice rink. But sure, yeah, it would totally make sense this character Pettis would deliver the story to the GRP over the NYT.
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Pettis then recounts how he lured those six sexy strangers to a steam room for the purpose of proving some point he has about global warming: In three years Michigan will be under water, and humans will turn evil and destroy one another for resources. He says he’s turning the heat up to 130 degrees on these people to simulate what it will be like when the world ends, and he wants his name in “big print” for being the one to expose … something? I’m not sure. Anyway, both the editor and the detective (Armand Asante) laugh at him, like, yeah, sure, “global warming,” uh-huh, you’re crazy. Remember: The scientist is the crazy bad guy.
It’s about this time I want to highlight Bannon’s involvement in the Biosphere 2 project, a self-contained ecosystem built in Arizona in the early '90s, which was intended to test whether people could survive if it became necessary to build similar facilities in outer space. This is likely where he developed some of his anti-science stances. He was the money man hired to keep costs down and was at one point on board with climate change being a real thing in the ’90s, but a few female scientists soured him on the project — they accused him of sexually harassing and threatening them, and they had the gall to speak up about it. It’s difficult not to see the parallels between Biosphere 2 and Steam — both had equal numbers of men and women taking part in an unprecedented experiment where they’re contained in a quarantined space to see what happens. And if Bannon had ill feelings about the former, it certainly shows in the latter.
In the steam room, it takes about five minutes for these six sexy strangers to try to kill one another. Frank’s the first to lose his shit and strangle Jessie before Margaret stabs him in the back. The whole story plays out as though someone’s been studying the Stanford Prison Experiment like a Bible — gee, I wonder who it is that has such a dark view of humanity? I dunno, maybe the guy who called for a holy war in 2014 and said that Satan and Dick Cheney are his idea of real power? (A quick note: Only middle-class white men took part in Stanford’s experiment, and the one woman who got involved immediately put an end to it.)
Throughout the film, Martinez returns to a completely unconnected scene of Kilmer’s Pettis standing on the edge of the Spillman carousel in the Grand Rapids Public Museum. (This museum is kept afloat by DeVos/Van Andel money and features such educational exhibitions as a giant clam haphazardly placed in a fireplace with a tiny placard reading “Giant Clam.”) Kilmer’s face is sweaty in close-ups and pops in everywhere without reason; Martinez superimposes his visage into unrelated scenes, like he’s the floating stone head of Zardoz. One of the women will be sensually staring at nothing one moment, only for Kilmer’s head to appear in the frame to gaze at her the next. Toward the end of the film, there’s a five-minute slow-motion sequence in the steam, where one woman weeps and another kisses a corpse and then kills herself, while men look at one another. Five minutes. All of this is intercut with Kilmer on the carousel or Kilmer sitting at a table, thinking. If there were any rhyme or reason behind this editing, I’d say it was artsy. But the one thing I can say is that Bannon and co. are most definitely failed artists.
This film played in Grand Rapids and Lansing for a total of one whole week and would eat up so much of Michigan’s taxpayer money and be so bad that the state would then go on to completely nix filming incentives altogether. Bannon likes to think he modeled his style after Leni Reifenstahl and Michael Moore, but if Leni saw anything Bannon ever made, she would weep with laughter at his lack of skill. After two decades as a failure in Hollywood, Bannon moved into silly politics, and it’s important that we remember he is still that screw-up joke, a tiny man of horrendous ideas. Luckily, it’s impossible to watch this hunk of excrement without laughing at Bannon, and you can find it anywhere shitty DVDs are sold for the low, low cost of a single penny.
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