2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 57, fall 2016
Eating, sleeping and watching movies in the shadow of what they do:
the representation of capitalism in post 2008 popular films
by Michael Pepe
People interested in learning about the Financial Crisis of 2008 are more likely to read a book or view a documentary rather than watch a popular movie. In fact, most working people, myself included, watch movies like Margin Call, The Wolf of Wall Street, or The Big Short more because of the films’ stars, filmmakers, movie reviews, or advertising campaigns, rather than a burning desire to learn more about how economic systems work or fail to work. Nevertheless, topical social issues are part of what attracts viewers to a movie.
The 2008 crisis affected so many of us that, like the 1929 crisis, it could not be ignored as an anomaly, a “market correction,” blamed on a rogue entity like ENRON or Bernie Madoff, and then written about in periodic “below the fold” articles. In the wake of the crisis, a battle-worn public casts a suspicious eye on the financial markets after losing jobs and savings, drowning in underwater homes, and seeing their children burdened with exorbitant college debt only to have them chase after lackluster jobs that threaten to disappear at any moment. Regardless of individual viewers’ political leanings, all of this must surely affect us as we watch movies that dramatize or allude to the events involving the crisis and then try to make sense out of what fictional narratives are trying to convey about our post-Crisis political economy.
Selecting from a flood of international fiction and non-fiction films that reference the crisis directly or indirectly, I have limited this article to five “popular” movies that I feel each has something uniquely different to say about the current state of capitalism:
Cosmopolis, more art-house film than popular movie, offers a compelling allegory of the (self) destructive nature of capitalism. I then offer a brief discussion of Too Big to Fail and The Big Short as books and films. In a Visual Essay following this analysis, I address some of the complementary issues, movie genres, and documentaries on the subject that raise additional but related concerns. And so my approach is part narrative and part visual analysis.
By definition, popular movies offer an emotional journey rather than an intellectual pursuit. Needless to say, this is why you do not have to be an astrophysicist to understand Gravity (Curarón, 2013), a meth user or chemist to enjoy Breaking Bad (Gilligan, 2008-13), or an economist to appreciate Margin Call (Chandor, 2011).And so when popular films explore how economic policy fuels social stratification, they will likely be tethered to a personal human drama as experienced by the fabulously wealthy, the miserably downtrodden, that vast marvel known as the middle class, or a combination of the above.
Previous to the most recent economic crisis, filmic critiques of capitalism focused on mostly invisible corporate villains who were represented by their legal surrogates in David and Goliath revenge stories. In a 2000 article that references The Rainmaker (Coppola, 1997), A Civil Action (Zaillian, 1998), The Insider (Mann, 1999) and Erin Brockovich (Soderbergh, 2000), Philip Lopate argues that that cycle of anti-corporate films lacks a “nuanced presentation of corporate life” opting for “melodramatic caricature” instead. According to Lopate, the reason for this is that these “movies are [reluctant] to show the corporate world from the inside.” As a result:
“Anticorporate films are only seemingly subversive. In fact, they enshrine the capitalist principles of individualism and hard work. The old American ethos declared that if you worked hard you might become a millionaire; the new one says, if you pound the pavements and scan the computer records long enough, you might nail a millionaire.”
Recently, more popular films have been released that do in fact look at the corporate world from the inside, accurately or not. Seemingly the Financial Crisis of 2008 requires a look from the inside, as it does not involve the specificity of environmental destruction dramatized in the previous cycle. In other words, the financial crisis is not about an individual tort claim against a bad faith insurance company (The Rainmaker), or toxins that poison the local water supply because of the actions of a corporation (Erin Brockovich), nor does it involve the punishment of a single whistleblower, or the dubious relationship between the media and the industry it is reporting about (The Insider). Instead, the public has grudgingly come to understand something new as a result of the Crisis: Our economic problems are systemic and are rooted in a dangerously incestuous interdependence among rapacious financial institutions, complicit legislators, complacent governmental regulatory agencies, and a largely apathetic public victimized by predatory lenders and our own financial and political ignorance. A culture of greed has, intentionally or not, been fostered by our institutions for decades and fueled consumers’ self-destructive appetite for stuff.
In an early scene from Cosmopolis (Cronenberg, 2012), a twenty-something IT security analyst expresses a host of existential doubts and insecurities to his boss, a 28-year-old asset manager. From the confines of a stretched limo, he also conveys a self-reflexive sense of hubris: “People eat and sleep in the shadow of what we do.” Unlike the previous cycle of films that featured the plight of working and middle class people front and center, ‘the people’ are virtually absent from the current cycle. When working people make an appearance they are mute witnesses objectified as car park attendants, household servants, office cleaners, strippers, demonstrators, or as part of a faceless crowd, passive in the background to a narrative foreground animated by investment bankers, stockbrokers, fund managers, venture capitalist, and a host of financiers. The setting for all but one of the post 2008 cycle of films written about here is New York City, but it is not the city of neighborhoods where most residents eat, sleep and watch movies. Instead the cinematic representation of the city is more a symbol, a port of call for global capitalism, if not its locus.
Taken together, the films offer no unifying message about the state of post 2008 capitalism nor advise what to do about it. Instead, they dramatize iterations of greed that are psychological, philosophical and institutional in nature. While defining the contours of a pathology of greed, the films explore rough-and-tumble concepts close to the heart of many popular narratives: the Faustian bargain, patriarchy, economic manifest destiny, the Hobson choice, nihilism, and the horror, folly, and joy of living in the material world.
Arbitrage (Jarecki, 2012)
Arbitrage uses the conventions of a family melodrama to tell a story about a wealthy patriarch and the politics of class, gender and race. After hedge-fund billionaire Robert Miller’s (Richard Gere) surprise 60th birthday party, Miller makes excuses to his wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) and heads off to meet his young French mistress (Laetitia Casta). By the end of the first act, Robert has fallen asleep at the wheel of his mistress’ car and she is instantly killed. Robert leaves the scene of the accident and spends the rest of the movie dodging the police who are trying to prove that he’s guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Complicating matters, Robert is also trying to evade “fraudulent conveyance” charges after misappropriating $400 million of his clients’ money to invest in a copper mine that didn’t pay off.
In the process of circumventing his personal and professional legal problems, he manipulates and places in legal jeopardy various people including his daughter and business partner, Brooke (Brit Marling), and Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), the African American son of his recently deceased chauffeur of 20 years. The parallel stories show how Miller justifies betraying his daughter; it helps him with his fraudulent conveyance problem. Similarly, he exploits the son of his former driver to avoid the scandal of being charged with involuntary manslaughter. The movie’s interest derives from its plot.
Lionized for his success in the market during a TV interview, Robert rationalizes, justifies and apologizes for his aggressive behavior which he connects to what he learned from the experiences of his working class Depression/WWII era parents: Robert’s father welded steel for the navy; his mother worked for the V.A; they lived through the Depression, Pearl Harbor, and the Bomb; they didn’t “think bad things might happen, they knew bad things would happen.” His life-story implies that his family’s wealth came from their willingness to seek out and exploit bad things that are about to happen to other people. During the interview we also learn that Robert has made his fortune by betting on a housing crisis during a housing boom—by speculating and counting on the misfortune of others.
Jimmy, the surrogate son, lives in Harlem, has a prior conviction and is called upon to extricate Robert from the crash site because Robert’s biological son “would have fucked it up.” As a result, Jimmy is arrested and then released with the help of Robert’s lawyers. Jimmy naively asks Robert why he didn’t stay at the scene since the death was not intentional. Robert offers his self-promoting, paternal rationalization:
“I couldn’t. Because I have responsibilities. If I stayed there, a lot of people would have gotten hurt. I got business troubles you understand. People rely on me.”
When Jimmy is offered a $2-million dollar trust, he exhibits working class pride by taking offense to the idea that he’s being paid off not to snitch. “Do you think money is going to fix this?” says Jimmy. Robert replies, “What else is there?” By the end of the film Jimmy does take the money saying, “I’m going to do something good with it.” Shortly after this scene, Brooke confronts her father/partner with the complaint that because of his actions at the firm, she faces the possibility of losing her brokers license, jail time and a ruined reputation. Robert explodes, “You are not my partner! You work for me! Everybody works for me!” And later more calmly, “I’m the patriarch. That’s my role.” Robert tells Brooke he didn’t commit fraud; he made a bad bet. He describes the bad bet on the copper mine as “a license to print money for everybody. Forever! It is God.” Again Robert denies self-interest. He refers to himself as “the oracle” and implies that he was looking out for the interests of “everybody” and so he is entitled to take risks, even if it means operating “outside the charter” and lying about it. The parallel stories of manslaughter and fraud link his professional and personal behavior. In his view, everything that he does is for the sake of the family or his business relations.
Ellen had tacit knowledge of Robert’s French mistress and other dalliances, and has also become aware of his financial problems. Now that Robert has placed their daughter in legal jeopardy by making her complicit in the fraud, the matriarch in Ellen emerges (“You broke our little girl’s heart”) to challenge the authority of the patriarch. Robert is tossed a separation agreement in which all ownership and voting rights transfer out of Miller Capital into the charitable foundation that is to be administered by their daughter. Ellen will lie to the police about Robert’s whereabouts on the night of the incident as long as he signs the agreement. Angered, Robert complains that Ellen is trying to blackmail him. Ellen replies, “I think we call it negotiating,” something Robert has been doing in many ways throughout the movie.
The film ends as it began, with a celebration of billionaire Robert Miller, this time at a black tie charitable affair. Now the applause and commendations from the family are hollow—a show for the public. The family is destroyed but reaps the rewards from Robert’s fraudulent deal. Like Jimmy, Ellen and Brooke will no doubt, do something good with the money. Robert gets to keep the pretense of respectability, a good part of his money, and avoids legal trouble. Ultimately Robert Miller is depicted as a kind of bulletproof monster, able to deflect social and moral responsibilities and evade legal consequences. Even when the police try falsifying evidence, they can’t nail him. His power, wealth, and cunning, shield him from any meaningful penalty. As the tagline from the movie says: Power is the best alibi.
Because of the film’s focus on family melodrama, the actual practices of hedge-fund managers and arbitrageurs, and the impact they have on the public are implied in the narrative background and are easily obscured. Instead, the term arbitrage (risk-free opportunity to buy low and sell high) becomes an ironic if shadowy personal metaphor for the actual practice, and what the viewer is left with is a smartly sketched psychology of avaricious self-interest in the lone character of billionaire hedge-fund manager Robert Miller.
Margin Call (Chandor, 2011)
Margin Call presents a fictional version of the origins of the actual 2008 crisis. Absent manslaughter and tales of infidelity, the movie stays geographically and thematically closer to the corporate boardroom than does Arbitrage.
The film opens during a cyclical downsizing in which a grim-faced human resource staff invades the office of an unnamed, fictional investment bank. Eighty percent of its workforce is fired, while the remaining twenty percent watch on. While being escorted out of the building by security, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), Chief of Risk Management, gives a flash drive to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), a young co-worker whom he was mentoring, and tells him to be careful. Soon after, Peter discovers that the drive contains data showing how the firm’s actions will have a disastrous domino effect on the larger economy, and will leave the firm “holding the biggest bag of odorous excrement ever assembled in the history of capitalism,” as the CEO of the company says.
The remainder of the film examines how the executive staff will deal with the crisis in order to ensure their survival. In the process, the film plays out a deterministic world-view of capitalism in which its elite core is seduced into “golden handcuffs’ (sky-high salaries) at the beginning of their careers and protected at the end of their careers with “golden parachutes” (sky-high exit bonuses). The protocol guarantees a tribalistic survival of the system by ensuring that team players never get hurt. On the road from handcuffs to parachute, the characters are confronted with a gauntlet of workaday realities such as social Darwinism, the Hobson choice, the brain drain, conspicuous consumption, and the Faustian bargain.
Eric Dale is ushered into a room where two HR officers tell him it’s nothing personal and then present him with a Hobson’s choice: he has 24 hours to accept the severance package they are offering him or it will be revoked. The Hobson choice—a choice with only one palatable option—will reappear at several points in the story, underscoring the view that financial markets comprise a closed, deterministic system where choice is illusory.
To bolster morale on the floor after the mass exodus, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), the sales manager, coaxes applause from the surviving 20%. He proclaims that although the people that were let go were “good people...good at their jobs,” the remaining employees are better, and as surviving staff they now have a greater opportunity for success because the loss of their colleagues means less competition. Scenes like this repeat themselves and indicate that Social Darwinism is clearly one of the film’s major themes.
Upon discovering the significance of the flash drive’s data and unable to contact the persona non grata Eric, Peter calls coworkers Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) and Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) who are out drinking with the boys. Like all of the movies discussed here, Margin Call is decidedly white male-centric and features only one major female character. If Social Darwinism is a major theme, the Darwinian survival of the fittest is here measured by the age and income of the players. We learn that Seth is 23 years old and made nearly a quarter of a million dollars in the previous year; Will, in his thirties, made $2.5 million.Embracing a the-more-you-make-the-more-you-spend philosophy, Will complains/brags about how the price of living large weighs heavily on his disposable income and how the money is never enough to support sending money home to the folks, money for prostitutes, and the cost of owning an Aston Martin. The three men, loyal to Sam Rogers, are offended by the fact that he makes less money than the younger (age 43) Jared Cohen (Simon Baker). We also learn that the CEO, whose helicopter has yet to land on the building’s helipad, made $86 million in salary and bonuses the previous year.
The money and the excitement of how it is earned is these men’s raison d’être and it is also what alienates them from the rest of humanity. “Look at these people,” says Peter watching passersby go about their business on a city street, “Wandering around with absolutely no idea what’s about to happen.” Late in the film Will makes an obligatory speech to Seth about the impact the work they do has on the economy. The speech, more of a rant, was ignited by Seth’s expression of sympathy for how “real people” will be affected by the impending crisis and has a similar logic to the “you can’t handle the truth” tirade made by the Jack Nicholson character in A Few Good Men (Reiner, 1992). Here Will says:
“People want to live like this, in their cars and the big fucking houses they can’t even pay for—then you’re necessary. The only reason that they all get to continue living like kings is because we’ve got our fingers on the scales in their favor. I take my hand off, then the whole world gets really fucking fair really fucking quickly, and nobody actually wants that. They say they do, but they don’t. They want what we have to give them, but they also want to play innocent and pretend they have no idea where it came from and that’s more hypocrisy than I’m willing to swallow. So fuck normal people.”
Still unable to find Eric, Peter becomes the focal point at meetings with superiors who don’t know him and question him about his background. He tells them that he holds a doctorate in engineering with a specialty in propulsion from MIT. He says his “thesis was a study in the ways that friction ratios affect steering outcomes in aeronautical use under reduced gravity loads.” The language of engineering must sound as foreign and awkward to the executives at this meeting, as the language of finance—quants, derivatives, credit default swaps, tranches—sounds to the average film viewer. “So you’re a rocket scientist,” Jared simplifies. The terms rocket scientist and Chief of Risk Management are shorthand terms that suggest much while explaining very little. When he’s asked how he came to work at the firm, Peter explains more simply,
“It’s all just numbers really. Just changing what you’re adding up. And to speak freely, the money here is considerably more attractive.”
The brain drain, the siphoning of “human capital” away from innate desires, natural abilities, intellectual pursuits or social interests, is another major theme of Margin Call. Much later in the film when Eric Dale is finally located, he and Will have a conversation on the steps of Eric’s Brooklyn home. Here we learn that like Peter, Eric was an engineer. He recounts in great detail and with pride his experience of building a bridge in Ohio in 1986, and how that bridge has had a positive and long-term effect on people’s lives. In one of the concluding scenes, CEO Tuld reminds Sam that he is fortunate because he could have been digging ditches all these years instead of working for the firm, to which Sam replies, “At least there’d be some holes in the ground to show for it.” There is a sense that the work the firm performs is so abstract that it holds little personal value or satisfaction beyond the acquisition of wealth: wealth for wealth’s sake.
During a very tense 4 A.M. meeting with the executives, senior partners and the recently arrived John Tuld, a decision is made to unload billions of dollars of toxic mortgage-backed securities that the company holds. Sam argues that it’s wrong to sell something that has no value thereby killing the market and ending any trust that their clients might have in the company. Just as Robert Miller in Arbitrage corrected his daughter, telling her that he did not commit fraud but made a bad bet, Tuld makes a semantic correction: they are not selling junk to unsuspecting clients, they “are selling to willing buyers at the current fair market price, so that we may survive.” Tuld reminds Sam and the others that his motto has been, “Be first, be smarter, or cheat.” He insists he doesn’t cheat, but fails to see how this looks like cheating. He acknowledges that there are a lot of smart people in the room but knows that he’s in a game of musical chairs and the only way out of their dilemma is to be first. When the music stops he wants to make sure the firm has a place to sit at the table.
The illusion of choice, or a Hobson’s choice, is another primary theme in Margin Call. Acknowledging Sam’s reluctance to unload the company’s junk assets, Tuld asks, “If I made you, how would you do this?” Tuld can’t make Sam do anything, yet Sam eventually does exactly what Tuld requests. Tuld desperately needs Sam to motivate the sales force to sell the junk assets as fast as possible before the buyers realize that the invisible hand of the market has, to reference another children’s party game, tossed them a hot potato. After balking, Sam buckles and gives his sales force another pep talk accompanied by still another Hobson’s choice. He tells them that what they are about to do will effectively end their careers but then he gives them individual and group sales goals that could reward them with nearly $3 million dollars each for their day’s labor. In other words, they can quit or be fired and get nothing, or they can work, then quit or be fired, and possibly walk away with a fat paycheck.
When Eric was terminated he had to “choose’ between accepting the severance package or immediately losing his income and health care. When the firm realizes that Eric has information that could hurt them if it becomes public too soon, Eric can choose between being imprisoned in the office for a short time and keeping his severance package while getting paid, according to his calculation, $176,471 an hour, or refusing and possibly getting nothing. It’s in this waiting room where we also find the only major female character, Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), whom Tuld has selected over her male counterpart, Jared Cohen, to serve as the corporate scapegoat. She waits with Eric not knowing what her severance package will be.
Near the end of the “fire sale,” as the traders are unloading the toxic assets, the human resources staff returns to eliminate more positions. Sam storms out of his office and tells Tuld that he wants out. Trying to allay Sam’s self-doubt about what he’s just done, Tuld presents a brief history of capitalism saying, “It’s just money,” and then rattles off a list of about a dozen years as if they were the names of his children, which in a sense they are. The dates represent a timeline of economic crises starting with 1637 and ending in the present day. “It’s all just the same thing, over and over. We can’t help ourselves,” says Tuld, affirming his conviction that capitalism is manifest destiny: a closed, deterministic system. Tuld tells Sam that he needs to have him stay on for another two years. Sam entered the room determined to quit but leaves the room choosing to stay because, as he says, “I need the money.”
When Sam is first introduced at the beginning of the film, he’s crying; not because 80% of his staff was just fired but because his dog is dying and in spite of spending $1000 a day, there’s nothing he can do to save her life. In the very last sequence Sam is digging a hole in the lawn on a large property in front of the stately home where he no longer lives. His ex-wife (Mary McDonnell), a woman he no longer has a meaningful relationship with, watches. He buries his dog in a place that represents all that he has gained and then lost. Sam has made his Faustian deal. He’s gained the world and lost his soul, here ironically symbolized by the burial of his beloved dog.
Arbitrage and Margin Call are critical of certain business practices and personal behavior while being careful not to condemn or excuse the system they examine. Conflicts and contradictions drive the narrative but leave vague or at least up to viewer interpretation the links between practices detrimental to the public interest, criminal malfeasance, corporate policy, and legislative inaction. The films’ writers/directors are sons of parents that have or had careers in New York’s financial district; both movies reflect a familiarity with that world which seems as authentic as the questions and doubts raised in the plots. In the next film I discuss, Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese, 2013), a son of working-class parents who were employed in the garment district a few miles north of Wall Street created a vision of the financial markets that is vastly different than the previous two films in its source, tone, style and purpose.
The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese, 2013)
The story told in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, takes place before the 2008 Crisis. The script is based on a work of non-fiction, a memoir chronicling the life of Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker who ended his multi-million dollar career with a twenty-two month stay in a federal prison. The Wolf of Wall Street, The Aviator (2004), Goodfellas (1990), and Raging Bull (1980), to mention just a few of Scorsese’s movies based on the lives of actual people, are not neatly categorized as biopics. The filmmaker’s freewheeling “anything goes’ shooting and editing style, the counterintuitive narrative development of a strong spiritual subtext in films that feature characters who gleefully engage in violence and profanity, and the recurring theme of how certain socially constructed ideas of masculinity lead to gender polarization and social isolation, override the importance of other narrative details that usually make up a standard biographical sketch. For this reason, although Scorsese’s character-driven films have a narrative arc, their plot is often subservient to the construction and execution of the individual scenes that explore character behavior as a portal into the interior life. Also for this reason, the biographical accuracy of the plot is not of primary importance. The spirit not the letter of the law is what’s sought.
In The Wolf of Wall Street, the opening montage of self-described “degenerate” debauchery, which includes “dwarf-throwing” and profligate indulgences, is a warning to the audience that every effort will be made to offend us. We are ushered through a hedonistic false paradise where Belfort and his merry band of anti-heroes reject the constraints of conventional morality in favor of self-destructive nihilism. Scorsese charts the rise and fall of the stockbrokers with the same visceral energy and dark humor that he applied to the rise and fall of the mobsters in Goodfellas and Casino (1995).
The film has many images of the characters’ outlandishly excited facial expressions and bodily gestures. These encourage an association with the grotesque imagery found in the paintings of Bosch, Brueghel and other artists who have created orgiastic visions of sin and hell, often taking inspiration from Dante’s Inferno. In addition to considering the film’s representation of actual events, if Wolf is taken allegorically, the Belfort character can be seen as metaphorically escorting the viewer through the vestibule of hell on a tour of the seven deadly sins but without the guidance of a Virgil or Beatrice or the promise of salvation.
In an early sequence we find Jordan (Leonardo DiCaprio) newly arrived on Wall Street having lunch at an upscale restaurant with top stockbroker Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey). As yet uncorrupted, Jordan drinks water while Hanna has martinis and snorts coke with impunity. Hanna lays out his cynical view of Wall Street: Nobody knows if the stock market is going up or down so “fuck the clients” and “move the money from your client’s pocket into your pocket.” Capitalism is defined as a zero sum game by Hanna who has presented the receptive Jordan with a blueprint for success that depends on fraud and greed and springs from malice aforethought.
Shortly after obtaining his brokers license, Jordan loses his job in the wake of the crash of 1987. He finds another job selling penny stocks at the “Investor’s Center,” a ramshackle firm in Long Island. Leading by example, Jordan quickly impresses his colleagues with his natural ability to pitch a sow’s ear as if it were a silk purse. He sells worthless stock at a premium price to people who really can’t afford it: “Selling garbage to garbage men,” as he puts it. “The other guy’s looked at me as if I just discovered fire,” says Belfort, who is on his way to becoming a charismatic idol, a false god, revered and worshiped by loyal employees whose primary goal is to accumulate as much wealth as possible, regardless of the moral cost.
In the next sequence, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) approaches Jordan for the first time and they begin an alliance that will eventually lead to each other’s downfall. Even though Jordan has the finely tailored suit, makes $70,000 a month and drives the flashy sports car, it’s Donnie, employed at a children’s furniture store and wearing a ridiculous multi-colored patchwork shirt, who maintains the position of power throughout the sequence.
Synthesizing his experience at the establishment firm of L. F. Rothschild on Wall Street with the working class Investor’s Center, Jordan rents an abandoned gas station and starts a business with the lofty sounding name of Stratton Oakmont. Jordan refers to his new easily-corrupted, dope-dealing employees as a “crew,” and they are hired and treated as a crew is in a heist movie. The startup company eventually moves into a new office space located in the aptly named Village of Lake Success. After the publication of a negative article about Jordan and his company in Forbes magazine, droves of young man, disciples that come to be known as “Strattonites,” flock to his office begging for a chance to work for him.
The now successful firm employs hundreds of traders and brokers. Celebrating end-of-month gross sales totaling over $28 million, Jordan orchestrates a “weekly act of debauchery” that includes the performance of an underwear-clad marching band, tuxedoed waiters serving champagne, dozens of strippers, and a pantomime of orgiastic behavior by the employees who are showered by confetti that falls impossibly from ceiling panels while florescent tubes flicker like strobe lights. The conservative underwear of the marching band is contrasted with the pasties, teddies and g-strings worn by the strippers as the soundtrack transitions from John Phillip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever to Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack Lightning. The contradiction between a surrealistic idealization of American success (Sousa/marching band) and its harsher reality (strippers/Howlin’ Wolf) collide graphically and aurally.
Along with his white Ferrari, “humongous estate,” “two perfect kids,” yachts and many other luxurious belongings that we see during the opening montage, Naomi (Margot Robbie), Jordan’s second wife, is presented as another of Jordan’s prized possessions. As she’s being introduced, the former model and Miller Lite girl “strikes a pose” and is the first to break the fourth wall when she provocatively looks into the camera, either as if admiring her own reflection in a mirror or acknowledging the presence of the audience with a flirtatious gaze. The viewers are voyeurs not simply to the characters’ sexual exploits but as peeping toms peering into a world of pornographic wealth that can only be experienced vicariously through passive watching, like viewing an episode of the old Robin Leach TV series Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous: “champagne wishes and caviar dreams.”
Jordan is the next to break the fourth wall with his soliloquy about his use of recreational drugs during which his African American maid and chauffer open and close doors for him and presumably are there to clean up the glass goblet of orange juice that he tosses to the ground where it shatters. Naomi, the Strattonites, the maid and the chauffer are portrayed as objectified beings that have a specific and limited purpose.
At his office, Jordan begins to explain what an IPO is to the viewer when he stops himself and smugly declares to us,
“Look, I know you’re not following what I’m saying anyway, right? That’s okay. That doesn’t matter. The real question is this: was all this legal? Absolutely fucking not.”
Like the voice-over narration, the breaking of the fourth wall via Jordon’s acknowledgment of the camera/audience becomes a confessional in which with a nod and a wink he can strip away the veil of hypocrisy and rationalizations and explain the nature and purpose of his legal and moral transgressions. Hanna, Donnie and Naomi represent a fool’s paradise of malice, gluttony and lust. Jordan is tearing through the seven deadly sins on a hedonistic rampage for pleasure and material gratification, the cost of which is deferred, but inevitable spiritual anguish, another recurring theme in Scorsese’s work. By the end of the movie Jordan has lost his family, is estranged from his colleagues, most of whom he’s betrayed, and sent to prison. Upon his release he works as a motivational speaker engaging his novice audience in a basic “sell me this pen” exercise.
After much drama, Jordan’s end is rife with loneliness and despair. It’s like the end suffered by other Scorsese anti-heroes. Middleweight champion Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull ends up as an entertainer at a cheap nightclub; billionaire Howard Hughes in The Aviator is trapped in a bathroom with his own circular obsessive thoughts; Henry Hill in Goodfellas lives the life of a “nobody” after enrolling in the Witness Protection Program.
As everything unravels near the end of Goodfellas, you can hear one of the wise guys being led out by the police say something like: Why don’t you go to Wall Street and catch some real criminals? As everything unravels by the end of Wolf of Wall Street, there is little doubt left about how success in the financial market can be gamed. At the end of Casino, the De Niro character laments his lost “paradise on earth”: the casinos are demolished and the mob is evicted by corporate America that uses junk bonds to rebuild Vegas in the image of a Disney-type theme park. The public is now fleeced at the gambling tables with the imprimatur of respectability that entertainment divorced from blatant, violent, criminality provides. Jordan Belfort, Bernie Madoff, Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky and Raj Rajaratnam are part of a criminal class of white collar free lancers who get caught and are tried and imprisoned. In contrast, the established, “too big to fail” financial institutions, pillars of U.S. capital supported by legislators and regulators, loot, pillage and plunder, rarely challenged by the proverbial long arm of the law.
Killing Them Softly (Dominik, 2012)
The crime movie Killing Them Softly was widely criticized for the heavy-handed use of news clips and speeches about the financial meltdown that make diegetic and non-diegetic appearances in likely and unlikely places. Disjointed pieces of Obama speeches are inserted into the opening title sequence, news reports play on the radio as hit men drive around looking for their mark; breaking news from a cable station plays on a TV at an illegal gambling joint that is being robbed. A connection to depression era gangster films is suggested through the sardonic use of depression era songs. “Life is a Bowl of Cherries” plays on the soundtrack to underline the temporary success of a holdup man, and later “It’s only a Paper Moon,” plays when the delusion that he will get away with stealing from the mob ends with his execution.
References to the financial meltdown aside, the movie is a faithful adaption of the 1974 dialogue-driven George V. Higgins novel, Cogan’s Trade. Treading familiar territory, the film emphasizes the parallels between the social hierarchies of an organized criminal enterprise with those of a corporation. Like the previous cycle of anti-business films written about by Lopate, the top decision makers, referred to as “they” or “them,” are absent and are represented by a surrogate named Driver (Richard Jenkins). Referred to as “counselor” on at least one occasion, Driver behaves like a public relations officer who wishes to project a veneer of respectability onto an illegal operation that out of necessity involves beatings and murder. The fastidious Driver, always dressed in a business suit, has a secretary and asks a hit man not to smoke in his car. Concerned with the cost of doing business he tries to save money by negotiating for a lower cost of a hit and wants a hired assassin to fly coach.
Driver meets with Jackie Cogan (Brad Pit), who plays the role of middle management charged with overseeing the dirty work that will be necessary. Driver wants Jackie to “talk” to Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) about the holdup of a gambling operation Trattman runs. Jackie goads Driver into defining “talk,” which of course means “beating.” After Jackie makes the argument that it is more logical, efficient and humane to just kill Trattman, Driver explains that “they’re squeamish” about murder and have a “total corporate mentality.” As the Jack Nicholson and Paul Bethany characters’ speeches imply in A Few Good Men and Margin Call, there is a de facto mechanism of plausible deniability in place: The corporate executives need to put a distance between the official policy (held by Driver and those he represents) and the actual execution of a tacit policy (as performed by Jackie and those he hires).
Two young upstarts who are cast as lumpen street thugs performed the actual hold up. One’s a stoner (Scoot McNairy), the other a downright drug addict (Ben Mendelsohn). Every action that they take is a poorly planned scheme to get money that’s doomed to failure or just absurd. One is eventually arrested; the other murdered by Jackie who winds up carrying out all of the murders because he can’t seem to get good help. He tries hiring New York Mickey (James Gandolfini), a professional assassin, but Mickey is so thoroughly corrupted by a life of vice that he cannot be depended upon to do his job.
All of the meetings with Driver, in fact, take place in the car that he is driving except the last, which takes place in a bar. Jackie passes through a shower of ostensibly Fourth of July fireworks and enters the bar where candidate Obama is making a speech. Jackie is upset because he feels he was short-changed by $15,000 for the three murders he committed. Driver tells Jackie that “they” told him to tell Jackie that those were “recession prices.” Driver tries to explain that the business they are in is a “business of relationships” and aligns himself, bizarrely, with Obama’s optimistic message coming from the TV. Jackie’s not buying the message and connects it to Thomas Jefferson, whom he calls a “rich wine snob who was sick of paying taxes to the Brits.” He argues that Jefferson was a hypocrite who used “lovely words” about equality to arouse “the rabble” and then allowed the children he fathered with Sally Hemings to live in slavery; likewise, Jackie asserts, Obama is using words to create an illusion of community that does not actually exist. With the “yes we can” chant blaring from the TV, Jackie, and the movie, imply no we can’t. The movie ends with Jackie’s declaration:
“I’m living in America, and in America you’re on your own. America’s not a country; it’s just a business. Now fucking pay me.”
The cynical worldview presented in Killing Them Softly is a logical expression of the disengaged and disenfranchised, a natural reaction to dog-eat-dog inequity embedded in a have and have-not economy. The film accepts as a deterministic given, the every-person-for-themselves/might-makes-right philosophy of pessimism that is the child of this lumpen version of social Darwinism.
Cosmopolis (Cronenberg, 2012)
Cosmopolis is essentially a road trip movie in which Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), a 28-year-old asset manager on a mission to get a haircut, takes the viewer on a tour of Manhattan that pits New York, the center of global capitalism, against New York, the city of neighborhoods. Though the distance traveled is only a few miles, the journey is epic and cataclysmic.
The dialog, often described as stilted or stylized, is taken nearly verbatim from Bronx-born Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel. As a consequence, some criticized the film, a large percentage of which takes place within the confines of a stretched limo, as talky and claustrophobic. But Cronenberg turns the limousine into a 360-degree movie set that at various moments serves as a meeting room, doctor’s office, bedroom, or bathroom while assuming the ambiance of a space ship, game parlor, or tomb. Additionally, when the windows aren’t set to darkroom black, the limo functions as a screening room in which its occupants passively witness urban normality devolve into the chaos visible through the vehicle’s one-way glass panes.
Torval (Kevin Durand), Eric’s personal bodyguard, tries to dissuade the strangely distant, emotionally deadpan Eric against the trip to the family barbershop. With the U.S. president in town, Torval warns that they will “hit traffic that speaks in quarter inches.” More importantly, there is a lone assassin on the loose threatening to kill Eric. Eric doesn’t care; he wants a haircut. His vehicle becomes a traveling office in which he meets with, among others, his twenty-something IT security analyst (Jay Baruchel), a 22-year-old currency analyst (Philip Nozuka), and a 41-year-old woman (Juliette Binoche) who buys art for the young billionaire. During the course of these meetings there are numerous philosophical discussions about technology, security, the acquisition and meaning of wealth and art, and the nature of reality. We also learn that Eric is in danger of losing his entire fortune because of a bad bet he’s made against the yuan.
The densest philosophizing happens during Eric’s meeting with his “Chief of Theory” (Samantha Morton), during which anti-capitalist demonstrators try to overturn the lumbering vehicle as it crawls through midtown traffic. No matter the effort, the demonstrators can only superficially damage the armored and soundproof vehicle, which by now has clearly become a symbol of uncaring, unresponsive capitalism. The attempt to overturn the vehicle is experienced as an impudent and impotent rocking of the boat in which the occupants never feel threatened and are able to drink their Sobieski vodka without spilling a drop. During a lull in the philosophizing, the Chief of Theory turns to look out the window as if watching a TV screen and sees that one of the protestors is in flames. As if disappointed at having to watch a rerun, she complains that self-immolation is “not original,” that it’s an “appropriation” taken from Vietnamese monks. Looking beyond his advisor’s views on social theory to the actual practice of martyrdom he’s just witnessed, Eric, forty minutes into the movie, shows his first hint of humanity by sympathizing with the protestor. “Imagine the pain,” says Eric. “To say something. To make people think.”
His astonishing wealth has afforded him the safe haven of his limo, a cocoon that has enabled Eric to physically and emotionally disconnect from ordinary human society. His reaction to the immolation, the threat on his life, and his impending financial ruin ignites an identity crisis fueled by a self-destructive exploration of pain. Pain becomes a pathway that will allow him to reconnect with the world that exists outside the vehicle. After having sex in a hotel with Kendra (Patricia McKenzie), one of the security agents assigned to him, Eric commands her to shoot him with her stun gun. Near the end of the movie, desperate to feel something, even if it’s his own pain, he enigmatically announces to his assassin or perhaps himself, “Violence needs a burden, it needs a purpose.” Then Eric shoots himself through the hand. The further away from the financial district the vehicle gets, the more contact Eric has with people outside of his elite circle of contacts, the more he loses his sense of self, the more emotional he becomes, and the more he puts himself in danger.
DeLillo in his book and Cronenberg in his movie have taken the famous opening sentence of Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto and turned it on its head. Through the limousine window, during the height of the demonstration, where there should be an ad or stock market ticker, the electronic billboard announces instead: A SPECTER IS HAUNTING THE WORLD—THE SPECTER OF CAPITALISM. Furthermore, Cosmopolis turns the Marxist notion of workers’ alienation on its head by ruminating about the alienating effects of capitalism on capitalists with Eric Packer as its avatar. Eric’s hyper veneer of self-control masks the out-of-control spoiled boy who gets what he wants because he can afford it, no matter how self-indulgent or absurd. He plans on putting a Heliport on the roof, and a shooting range in the building he owns. He has purchased and flown a 1980’s Soviet-made supersonic bomber that use to carry nukes and cruise missiles. He wants to buy Rothko’s Chapel and store it in his apartment where he has two elevators to choose from depending on his mood: one elevator plays the music of Satie; the other, the music of a Sufi rapper named Brutha Fez (K’ Naan). As the façade of self-control slowly deteriorates, Eric is humanized by his representation as a young person whose privileged life has perverted his social/emotional development, and inhibited his transition to adulthood.
After the immolation incident, Brutha Fez’s record producer, Kosmo (Grouchy Boy), makes his way to the limo where he informs Eric that his rap star hero is dead. Buying into a media-created persona of the rap star, Eric assumes Fez was shot—a target of gang violence. Kosmo, sarcastically hoping that Eric isn’t “disappointed,” tells him that Brutha Fez died of natural causes after a lifetime of heart problems. Displaying the youthful exuberance of a fan of an iconoclastic musician, Eric has his second emotional response. Looking very much like a little boy in need of comfort, Eric tears up and falling on his knees, embraces the older man.
Eric’s lack of maturity makes him incapable of having a meaningful intimate relationship with women. In addition to the hotel tryst with Kendra, Eric has some form of fleeting, impersonal sexual experience with two of the three women who enter the limo. In a marriage of convenience, Eric was recently wedded to the equally privileged Elise Shifrin (Sarah Gadon), a poet. Her status as a poet, made possible in part by her financial independence (old money), puts her in opposition to Eric. Eric’s domain as an asset manager (new money) is material, practical and valued; Elise’s status as a poet is ethereal and valueless in that it is utterly divorced from any meaningful economy. During the first five minutes of the movie Eric is wearing sunglasses. He takes them off upon meeting with Elise, who notices the color of her husband’s eyes for the first time. She doesn’t really know him yet she is the only character, with the possible exception of his assassin, that sees Eric for who he is. He pursues her for sex. She declines and will not enter his limo. She meets with Eric outside his sphere of influence: in a taxi, eateries, a bookstore, and out on the street in the theater district.
Saying she can’t be “indifferent,” Elise calls him on his obvious sexual escapades. He denies everything and responds to her observations with weak alternate explanations and sexual vulgarities designed to crack her cool exterior or deflect attention away from his indiscretions, neither of which happens. Failing that, as if to excuse the behavior, Eric confesses that he is facing financial ruin and a credible death threat, telling Elise “it makes me feel free in a way I’ve never known.” Through his reckless behavior, Eric is freeing himself of his wealth, his sham marriage, and the security of the limousine and all that it represents. If Eric is the avatar of capitalism, his self-destructive behavior is analogous to the self-destructive nature of capitalism. While the story does not dismiss the role the demonstrators play in challenging the system, it strongly suggests that the system is collapsing under its own weight.
It’s nighttime when Eric arrives at his destination in a deserted, undetermined (Hell’s Kitchen in the novel), questionable neighborhood that has not yet been gentrified. Upon emerging from his motorized cocoon he is immediately assaulted by a pie assassin who is accompanied by an entourage of photographers and a videographer there to record the event, presumably for purposes of propaganda. Once again underscoring the attacks on capitalism by protestors as feeble, Torval quickly subdues the “pastry assassin,” dismissively calling the attack a “petty incursion” that’s “technically irrelevant.” He’s more concerned about the armed assassin that lies in wait.
Continuing on his path of self-destruction, Eric tricks Torval into handing over his high tech weapon and then uses it to kill him. Eric has murdered the man he hired to protect him and then walks into the neighborhood where both Anthony the barber (George Touliatos) and Benno Levin the assassin (Paul Giamatti) await. Once at the barbershop, Anthony and Eric reminisce. In the novel, Anthony recounts the overcrowded, humble living conditions experienced by Eric’s father, underscoring the family’s upwardly mobile trajectory. Eric’s mission for a haircut may start off symbolically representing the traditional financial meaning of haircut—to take a loss—but it also represents a return to a nostalgic idea of family that has disappeared from his life because of his wealth.
At their meeting in the cab, Elise explains that she learns about the world by “asking the drivers where they come from.” Knowledgeable and dispassionate, Eric replies, “They come from horror and despair.” After killing Torval, Ibrahim (Abdul Ayoola), Eric’s previously invisible chauffer becomes part of the story. Anthony and Ibrahim are both former cab drivers and share war stories. During the course of their conversation we learn that the African born Ibrahim, who is badly scarred around one eye, was the “Acting Secretary of External Affairs” in his “previous life.” There is a cut to a shot of Eric in the barber’s chair, eyes rapidly shifting as if he is trying to process what he’s just heard. Global capitalism has, in essence, taken Ibrahim from an important position in the government of his home country and placed him first in a New York City cab, and then in the stretched limo, chauffeuring a master of capitalism accomplished in investing in foreign currency. The primary grievance made by anti-globalization activists about the end results of economic neoliberalism becomes manifest in the drama that is unfolding in the decaying family barbershop: increased inequity leading to families being uprooted by poverty and violence.
Eric’s journey begins with the film’s opening shot of a row of identical white stretched limos and stone columns, an image that suggests wealth, power, uniformity and stability; it closes with imagery that suggests the opposite: poverty, powerlessness and chaos. An assassin, head covered in a stained, threadbare towel, interacts with his financially ruined target in a dilapidated and cluttered squatters’ tenement. When the limo pulls away from the curb in the financial district it is in pristine condition. By the end of the movie the vehicle is dented and filthy with anarchist graffiti. Like the limo that’s taken him to this final destination, Eric’s appearance has also degenerated. In a series of succeeding scenes, he loses first his sunglasses, then his tie, and then his jacket. By the end of the movie he’s an un-tucked shirt with remnants of pie matted to a half-finished haircut that’s as asymmetrical as his prostate that he frets about during the entire movie.
Before his encounter with Benno the assassin, a former employee, the expatriate chauffer and the global capitalist embrace. Ibrahim drives the limo into a garage in an industrial section of the city where it disappears, damaged but not destroyed.
In the long last sequence that takes place between Eric and Benno, we learn what unites them—they both have asymmetrical prostates and an almost erotic fondness for and understanding of foreign currency—and what divides them—Benno embraces asymmetry and claims Eric’s failure to do so led to his misunderstanding of the yuan and thus his downfall. The film ends with Benno pointing his weapon at the back of the head of the compliant Eric, tear streaming from his eye, then a cut to black. As in the scene with Kendra, we never find out if the trigger is pulled.
In DeLillo’s book, Kendra does in fact shoot Eric with the stun gun at full voltage and while we do not witness Benno pulling the trigger, in the last paragraph Benno is referred to as “his murderer” and Eric is left “waiting for the shot to sound.” And so the story, Eric’s life, and the fate capitalism, ends with an uncertain whimper and not with a definitive bang.
Too Big to Fail and The Big Short
As non-fiction books that were made into popular dramatized movies, Too Big to Fail and The Big Short make for a good comparison, especially in how they differ, and the differences are considerable.
In the eBook version of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s 2009 best seller Too Big to Fail, a search for the word “greed” brought up eleven instances of the words “greed” or “greedy,” two instances of the word “disagreed,” and ninety-four instances of the word “agreed” as in:
The use of the word “agreed” demonstrates how the bankers and regulators were permitted to “agree” on how to “resolve” the catastrophe they caused, effectively leaving the wolves in charge of the henhouse. The use of the word “greed,” in one case, was used to positively affirm the character of the former head of Lehman Brothers: “Fuld seems to have been driven less by greed than by an overpowering desire to preserve the firm he loved.” (p. 535) Most of the other instances of the word greed are attributable to book reviewers and journalists in the “praise for” opening pages, or whose work is cited in the footnotes and bibliography.
As arbitrary and out of context as the quotes may be, they define the character of the book, which by all accounts was meticulously researched and is an accurate representation of how the Crisis of 2008 unfolded and was handled. While there is value in learning about the family backgrounds and personal histories of the financiers that rule the economy—to find out how they think, speak and act—in the attempt to create a day-to-day “fly-on-the-wall” reality by using an objective reportorial voice, the larger significance behind those thoughts, words and deeds are lost in a fog of details. At least it was for me. More important, the objective statement of facts over even a flawed analysis of what transpired has allowed the author’s characters to control the nonfiction narrative—something that is even more apparent in the HBO movie (Hanson, 2011). The end effect is that, like beauty, the identification of fraud, collusion and corruption is in the eye of the beholder.
In other words, the laissez-faire recording of factual information contained in Sorkin’s book has allowed the very people that caused the crisis because of their advocacy, policies and behavior to walk away from the Crisis looking like the guys that saved the day. This may explain why in a review of the HBO movie, a New York Times critic took the line of blaming the victim by saying,
“Mr. Sorkin’s take on the story is the conventional one. That doesn’t make it wrong. Presidents back to Reagan overderegulated (sic) the financial industry. Borrowing became too easy, especially for houses (sic). People got in over their heads. When they couldn’t pay back their debts, they dragged the banks (and one insurance company, A.I.G.) down with them.”
Yes of course, the people dragged the banks and A.I.G. down causing the Financial Meltdown. Damn people! The priviledged’s condescending attitude toward and isolation from working people are pervasive throughout the book and are crystallized in the opening of Chapter 17 of Sorkin’s book where we find Tim Geithner “tired and stressed” on his morning jog at the southern tip of Manhattan “as he stared at the Statue of Liberty and the first of the morning’s commuter ferries from Staten Island” made their way to work. Suddenly we find ourselves in the italicized world of Geithner’s head:
“This is what it is all about—the people who rise at dawn to get in to their jobs, all of whom rely to some extent on the financial industry to help power the economy. Never mind the staggering numbers—nor the million-dollar bonuses of those that made bad bets. This is what saving the financial industry is really about, he reminded himself, protecting ordinary people with ordinary jobs.”
Geithner’s bizarre epiphany, a version of which is depicted in the movie, represents an apologist’s worldview of a system that has failed ordinary people with ordinary jobs while attempting to make the apologist look heroic. That same worldview is at work throughout the entire book and the movie.
In the introduction to The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (2010), Michael Lewis explains that he wrote Liar’s Poker, the 1989 book about his experiences as a bond salesman on Wall Street, as a cautionary tale to warn young people away from the lure of money in favor of pursuing “their passions or even their faint interests.” Expecting the reader to be appalled by an “unsustainable” system that required fraud, Lewis was surprised to find himself “knee-deep in letters from students… who wanted to know if I had any other secrets to share about Wall Street. They’d read my book as a how-to manual.” In writing The Big Short, Lewis tries to re-direct that misreading.
The Big Short, both book and movie (McKay 2015), represents the financial market as a beast without a brain or heart that is buttressed by a use of language designed to keep outsiders at a distance by making them feel “bored and stupid.” Financial discourse is obfuscating rather than illuminating, and it has the end goal of making sure that the banks are left alone to do exactly as they please. “It’s like two plus two equals fish!” says one of the film’s characters, exasperated by the rating agencies failure to downgrade the subprime bonds that allowed the value of the bundled mortgages to go up even as large numbers of people default on their loans.
The characters in The Big Short live and work in a twilight zone somewhere between the insiders presented in Too Big to Fail, and the outsiders, or the outlaws in The Wolf of Wall Street. They want the wealth and are willing to play the game, but they also “distrust the system” and are represented as being acutely adverse to avarice and fraud. Their motivation to profit in the marketplace is less dependent on exploiting the public and more concerned with thumbing their noses at the Wall Street establishment while remaining, in some measure, very much a part of that establishment. Sitting at the top of the economic food chain, investment banks treat the insurgent capitalists like freaks and weirdoes who don’t know their assets from their elbows. As such, the characters in The Big Short are like the children in Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, pointing their fingers at the Emperor and his sycophants, exposing their naked ambition, vanity, arrogance, and finally their avaricious stupidity.
Shot in the style of a reality TV show or mockumentary like The Office TV series, The Big Short features three parallel stories that follow three separate groups of money managers who will never meet each other but whose experiences converge at the same point of crisis and dubious success. Adam McKay, Saturday Night Live writer and writer/director of many Will Ferrell movies, took on the task of demystifying arcane verbiage and abstruse concepts with humor and through bold asides that don’t just break, but at times deconstruct the fourth wall. McKay’s movie deviates from the book by taking these dramatic liberties while remaining true to the source material and its historical context.
Regardless of the political or narrative mission of the various documentaries, fiction, or fictionalized films that explore the post 2008 political economy, one important aspect they all have in common is to make the tortuous, unnatural, hermetically sealed world of 21st century capitalism accessible for fear of losing audience interest. To do so they must dissect the institutions, the language, the law, and examine how those factors impact individuals in diverse social groups. And they must do so while entertaining a mass audience. The movies presented here do more than an adequate job of unpacking many of those factors in order to educate that sizable social group of uninitiated outsiders, often referred to as the 99%, who like myself have been largely ignorant of, or have had only a tenuous understanding of how the economy actually works. Yet, in spite of my recent education I still find myself thinking, “A synthetic collateralized debt obligation means what?”
Conclusion: the S word
I began my career as a New York City teacher amid a storm of controversy concerning three pages of a 443-page tolerance curriculum that referenced gay men and lesbians. In 2014 the NYC Department of Education introduced a clearly delineated and evolving four-page set of guidelines on how to support transgender students that was posted on their website with little, if any objection. As an admittedly pessimistic sixty-one-year-old, I never thought that so many social developments would be actualized so suddenly, in so rapid a succession, and during my lifetime. Decades of struggle by “single issue” grassroots movements have somehow coalesced into a strangely amorphous whole that appears to be moving more or less in the same direction.
The United States has had an African American president. Same-sex marriage is now legal throughout the United States. Even rank and file Republicans question their leaders’ failure to acknowledge the science of climate change, as well as their failure to allow passage of even modest gun control legislation in the wake of recurring mass slaughter. Medical and recreational use of marijuana is on the road to decriminalization and possible legalization, and racial profiling and excessive force by the police have become part of the “national conversation.” For the first time a woman was nominated as president of a major political party. While she was not elected, her rejection may have had less to do with her gender, than what she represented to a disaffected electorate. While these developments have caused reactionary backlash as indicated by the election of Trump, and spikes in violence, and oppression of all types still clearly exists, the secret’s out: there are no more taboos. Everything is up for discussion and possible acceptance, except for a consumer comparison of available political economies: the last media-imposed taboo.
The legacy of the Red Scare and Cold War paranoia that led to redbaiting and blacklisting, the self-interest freely exercised by a handful of media conglomerates that control 90% of our news and entertainment, and the corporate money that funds a restrictive two-party system that cannot possibly represent the full spectrum of ideological beliefs held by the populace—all these have cuffed the democratic process by guaranteeing uninterrupted gridlock and putting a halt to any meaningful discussion of a consumer’s guide to comparative economies. To entertain an alternative to capitalism or to even suggest its major re-engineering is to risk the possibility of being labeled as un-American, a naive idealistic utopian, an ivory tower academic, a dupe of some foreign ideology, or as just plain stupid.
Like most baby-boomers born in the United States, I was raised to believe that the telephone, motion picture camera, washing machine, Teflon, microchips, GPS technology, and solar panels are examples of innovations that are the result of the more positive aspects of capitalism: the willing exploitation of human ingenuity through creative entrepreneurialism, healthy competition, and the promise of personal reward. And while it’s also true that capitalism has wrought the Pet Rock and the Snuggie, weapons of mass destruction and the greenhouse effect, gross economic inequity and the conflation of technological progress with human progress, my life-long indoctrination compels me still to embrace the baby while attempting to lose the bath water. Lately however, it seems the baby has gone missing while the bath water has become thick with muck. That’s the implicit theme of the movies written about here. The films’ portrayal of capitalism is missing the all-important inventive product and any hint of ingenuity, fairness or personal reward beyond the self-interests of an elite class of capitalist megalomaniacs.
The Financial Crisis of 2008 has spawn a cycle of popular films that question the superiority of our current economic system while refusing to reject it or to offer an alternative. But to offer an alternative would be an awkward imposition on the popular movie, to forego the emotional journey in favor of an intellectual pursuit. A film that had a didactic third act would most likely be viewed suspiciously as propaganda by an audience that expects to be entertained, maybe informed, possibly inspired, but never lectured to, even by films that appear to have a message that is socially relevant. Taken together, Arbitrage, Margin Call, The Wolf of Wall Street, Killing Them Softly, Cosmopolis, The Big Short, and Too Big to Fail are part of an ongoing rumination about the current state of predatory capitalism in the wake of what has come to be called the Great Recession. The rumination leads each of these post 2008 films to end with an inferred question mark as opposed to an emphatic exclamation point.
In the introduction to his widely praised book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, French economist Thomas Piketty, while highly critical of a ruling class that has perpetuated inequality since the industrial revolution, is also critical of that class’s nemesis. He writes:
“I belong to a generation that turned eighteen in 1989, which was not only the bicentennial of the French Revolution but also the year when the Berlin Wall fell… I was vaccinated for life against the conventional but lazy rhetoric of anticapitalism, some of which simply ignored the historic failure of Communism and much of which turned its back on the intellectual means necessary to push beyond it. I have no interest in denouncing inequality or capitalism per se—especially since social inequalities are not in themselves a problem as long as they are justified.”
Instead Piketty says he is interested in contributing “to the debate about the best way to organize society and the most appropriate institutions and policies to achieve a just social order.” In other words, to no doubt oversimplify, Piketty is rejecting the capitalism/socialism polarity as a false dichotomy and appears to be on a quest for a new economic paradigm.
The popular support that the Bernie Sanders campaign enjoyed from the Millennials demographic is both a compliment and counterpoint to Piketty’s statement about the motivations of his generation. The Millennials, who now outnumber Baby Boomers in the United States, belong to a generation that not only came of age at the time of the 9/11 attacks but also witnessed the impact the Great Recession of 2008 had on their families, their own aspirations and their long term faith in capitalism as a tenable economic system. In other words, the Millennials enthusiastic support for the Sanders campaign suggests that they may be vaccinated for life against the conventional but lazy rhetoric of anti-socialism, some of which ignored the historic failure of capitalism in 2008.
The reaction to the evolving Sanders phenomenon on the part of the Democratic Party and various socialist groups has been instructive if predictable. After Sanders declared his candidacy in May 2015, Clinton supporter Sen. Claire McCaskill raised the specter of the hammer and sickle, while a writer from the Socialist Worker website lamented Sanders’ “decisive break” from his hero Eugene Debs “who advocated for working class independence from the two capitalist parties.”
Bernie’s talk of a “political revolution” and cautionary tales about the “billionaire class,” and his self-effacing acknowledgements about change happening “from the bottom up,” has resonated with a large audience, especially Millennials, who apparently are neither afraid of socialism nor married to it. Again, to no doubt oversimplify, Millennials appear to be rejecting the capitalism/socialism polarity as an either/or proposition. Whether this rejection leads to a new economic paradigm and what form that paradigm could possibly take is a whole other topic. In a sense, Sanders has tapped into the political process as an emotional journey without abandoning the need for the pragmatic, intellectual pursuit of knowledge stripped of a priori dogma. But mostly what the Bernie Sanders campaign has done is to connect people who were previously disconnected. Then again, so has Donald Trump.
The socially/politically disconnected populace is portrayed in a brief, understated sequence near the end of The Wolf of Wall Street, when FBI agent Denham (Kyle Chandler) is on the subway reading an account of the trial and sentencing of Jordan Belfort that he was instrumental in facilitating. He puts the tabloid down and looks at his fellow, passengers, many of whom are busy avoiding each other: one stands by the door waiting to exit, others are reading, sleeping, some converse, some stare into space—presumably thinking. The sequence ends with a shot of Denham, looking pensive, and like his cohorts, staring into space, thinking. It’s a sequence of shots that demands that the viewer either interpret or ignore. My interpretation is that Denham is wondering what his time and effort in bringing a white-collar criminal to justice has accomplished for himself and his fellow travelers who eat, sleep and commute in the shadow of what they do.