The Big Short Adam McKay ( USA 2015) Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt viewed Empire Cinema, Newcastle; 26 Jan 2016; ticket: £3.75
History written by the winners – as usual
So in the Big Short it is the geeks who inherit the earth, or at least a few billions of dollars of its return to value.
“ A few outsiders saw what was happening…” (part of the introductory voice over to the film) and these few outsiders are our protagonists, kind of re-caste old testament prophets who worship mammon rather than God.
The Big Short comes flaunting quotes from one of the founts of American folk wisdom Mark Twain. But the characteristic feature of Twain’s folk wisdom was his capacity to depreciate himself, and the Big Short shies away from this. Lacking either self awareness self depreciation or actual irony (relating to outcomes for the protagonists) the Big Short, on its own terms is an immoral rather than a moral film.
The movie is ostensibly a polemic against the US capitalism and world economic system that allowed (allows) avarice greed and criminal fraud to take over and drive the financial services and banking industries. But in the Big Short this aspec of Capitalism is mainly the background to a heroic all American story of the individual beating the odds, of the smart guy syndrome, of the little man who wins, breaks the bank. Of course the American dream, as depicted in movies such as Vidor’s the Crowd, is defined through the legend of the smart guy, the little man who beats the system and gets seriously rich. Whereas in Vidor’s story the viewer is put on immediate notice that the movie is to be critique of American capitalist ideology; in the Big Short, McKay puts the viewer on notice that the story will in fact endorse American ideology: not only is it possible for the little guy to win, but also to win period without a down-side to the process. To win at any cost, without cost.
That’s the Big Short story, beating the system. Basically the system is always corrupt, loaded against the little man, so we need carefully constructed myth to re-generate our faith in the system. McKay’s film is a sort of oxymoron, a contradiction within its own terms. It purports to be a critique of a capitalist system that is catastrophically corrupt, but in fact endorses the system by its narrative strategy of linkage of the small smart guys winning. And the American value system is about winning: ‘Human nature is the same everywhere; it deifies success, it has nothing but scorn for defeat.’ (Mark Twain)
The Big Short, is long on its use of capitalism as background scenery but short on the self awareness or cost (psychic, psychological) to the eventual winners. Equally corrupted as the institutions they bet against, the Big Short’s protagonists are not able to see their actual positions either within the developing bond situation of the script or within the myth of themselves that McKay’s film creates. The Big Short features a strong suit of explanatory quips spoken straight to camera by the players; but these ‘out of promary frame’ interpolations are used to utter one liners that display the knowing awareness by the speakers of the situation. These ‘out of frame ‘moments are not used to show awareness by the speakers that they are part of what is happening in the film. As they address camera, they are part of the process of their own mythologization. Out of frame material is restricted to the superficial subcutaneous layer of egotistic awareness. It doesn’t penetrate into deceit that comprises the body of the film: the bad faith of the protagonists.
One character, the short seller, Mark Baum, affects to carry both a level of personal tragedy (relating to the cost of capitalism) and conscience about the cataclysmic effect on ordinary people that the melt down of the bond market will cause. But there is a element in the scripting that taints his scruples with tokenism. The script never gives time enough to probe his understanding of the forces that caused his brother’s suicide. And his scruples are never sufficient to inhibit the drive to make a lotta money, the ultimate vindication of the culture which defines and controls the expectations of his team of hedge fund brokers.
MaKay’s script lacks a moral core, and likewise is hostage to style rather than substance. This makes it a highly marketable product cinematically, but its techniques of music video and comic demonstrations undermine any claims it might make to being a real attempt at examination of the 2007/8 financial melt down.
Paying attention: the use of music vid rapid imagery shift, giving audience micro shots of relevant contiguous period material drawn from wherever, reinforces the perception that we, they them, are all part of a culture that cannot pay attention to what is happening. The media are complicit in a process in which nothing can hold our attention for more than a few seconds. There is no reflection no analysis because we are imprisoned in an ever accelerating circuitry of stimulae which change and move on quicker than we can think. The Big Short seems to adapt this style without irony or awareness.
The comic expositions, the sequences explaining some technical aspects of the crisis were also woeful. The lady in the bath and the chef in the kitchen, sported a comic style apparently intent on a simplified elucidation of the problems ( a technique used before but I can’t remember where, perhaps it was in play about Enron debacle, or perhaps a book). But these demonstrations seemed to be film fodder, designed to entertain without explaining clearly what they were about: long on swear words, short on graspable meaning.
McKay’s the Big Short seemed to fit well with Oscar Wilde’s quip about hypocrisy: Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. The Big Short’s hypocrisy is also very satisfied with itself, even if at moments a little tortured. Adrin Neatrour firstname.lastname@example.org