A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Big Short (Adam McKay, 2015)

I will never come closer to understanding Wall Street than I do after watching this film -- but that's about as close as I am to understanding particle physics. It's a remarkable portrayal of what the kind of manipulations that led to the crash of 2008 can do to people, and in this case to the people who helped bring it about. I have seen what that crash -- and the manipulations -- can do to ordinary folk: I live in a condo that's part of a series of small duplexes, each unit of which is only a little over a thousand square feet. A few years before the crash, the unit that adjoined mine was bought by a Mexican-American man who worked as a gardener at Stanford. It was, he explained, a starter home for him and his wife and five (!) daughters. It was soon evident that he was having trouble making the payments on the mortgage -- at one point, the family moved out and rented it to someone else for a while. Eventually, the bank foreclosed. I wondered at the time how he had managed to secure a mortgage in the first place. After the crash, I found out why -- a process that is at the heart of what takes place in The Big Short. There are no heroes or villains in this movie: Even the protagonists with whom we are asked to identify, such as Michael Burry (Christian Bale) and Mark Baum (Steve Carell), are out to milk a system they know is corrupt. And when they fail, they still manage to make a billion dollars, mostly by using other people's money. But the characters are so shrewdly drawn, first by Michael Lewis in his book and then by Adam McKay and Charles Randolph in their Oscar-winning screenplay, and so deftly acted that we can't help feeling for them. Some of them, like Burry and Baum and Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt in one of his best performances), seem to have a touch of Asperger's. Movies like Wall Street (Oliver Stone, 1987) and The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013) have given us portrayals of America's financial system as dominated by flamboyant greed-heads like Gordon Gekko and Jordan Belfort, but The Big Short shows us something even more disturbing: the moral corruption of exceptionally intelligent men whose lives could have been put to something more useful than playing with money as if it were a board game with no real consequences to other people.