"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club

The maturation of a story’s protagonist—as “growth” eventuated through the progression of the narrative—provides a source of dynamism that can keep a film from being static, or falling flat for lack of character development. At the same time, a good screenwriter is careful not to overdo it, lest a character’s internal transition occur too quickly in terms of the story to be believable. In Dallas Buyers Club, Ron Woodroof—played by Matthew McConaughey—“turns on a dime” in his attitude toward gays. The flip is hardly believable. The question is why.

When a physician informs Ron that he has AIDS—beyond being HIV positive—the rodeo enthusiast and electrician by trade reacts vehemently against the implication that he had contracted the disease from sex with another man. Even from that point, he refers to a gay man as Tinkerbell. The implication is that Ron is severely prejudiced against homosexuality, and his context being that of rodeos in Texas makes this interior state very believable.

Yet without giving the viewer a sense of sufficient story time having elapsed, Ron latterly chokes Tucker, one of his rodeo friends in a grocery store for refusing to shake hands with Ron’s business partner, the cross-dressing, AIDs infected Rayon, played by Jared Leto. Even for Ron to have lost his strong prejudice is hard to fathom, as he could have worked with, and even come to like Rayon without losing his distaste for homosexuality; for Ron to violently force Tucker to shake Rayon’s hand is apt to strike the viewer as sheer artifice on the part of the screenwriter and director. It is as though Ron were a Janus-like fictive caricature rather than a character based on an actual person.

Taken to an extreme, a character’s quick “about face” can leave the viewer wondering where the antagonist went. Indeed, the distinction between a protagonist and an antagonist can become confused, infecting even the structural integrity of the narrative itself. In the 2014 film Godzilla, Godzilla loses all his monster lore built up through preceding films to become—all of a sudden—the savoir of San Francisco. What had been a fight between Godzilla and two other dinosaurs is all of a sudden Godzilla protecting the city and its human inhabitants from the radiation-eating male and female animals invented in this film-version. The switch from antagonist to protagonist simply is not believable, and the story itself suffers as a consequence.

Fortunately, remedies exist. Using story-time rather than short-circuiting can be part of the mix. Lincoln says in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, “time is a great thickener of things.” A montage can give the viewer a sense not only of time passing, but of a character undergoing maturating learning as, for instance, from sustained suffering in the process. Signs of an interior change vital to the narrative can begin in the montage, or otherwise patently as the story resumes. Staggered thusly (like a recurring, subtle melody in the string section of an orchestra) and so only gradually anticipated by the viewer, when the change finally manifests full-blown as vital to the story, the realized “growth” or change is credible. This credibility can actually contribute to the suspension of disbelief that is so vital to the believability of the story and thus its constructed world and characters. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014


The allure of the technological advances in film-making is particularly pressing in the action genre. Three challenges come to mind—that of how to have the film stand as a metaphor for something that is both good and bad in “real life,” develop a relationship storyline amid the digital effects that enable such tremendous scale of action, and restrain the visual effects lest they manifest as a sort of visual diarrhea. Godzilla (2014) is illustrative of what can happen when a film-maker is not up to these challenges.

As a sci-fi film, Godzilla performs the requisite function of standing for something going on in society at a distance. The monsters who eat nuclear fuel deliver the message, albeit filtered through the science fiction, that nuclear power is dangerous. Interestingly, just as not all of the monsters in the film turn out to be bad, nuclear technology has its good point in holding promise in blowing up the bad monsters who ironically eat nuclear fuel. If nuclear technology, like fire, puts us in a sort of a double-bind, so too do the monsters in the film. Unfortunately, turning Godzilla into a “savior of the city” at the end and not simply a foe of the nuclear-eating monsters violates the Godzilla character inherited by the film. A similar problem is in the Twilight films, which violate vampire lore not only by having them out in daylight, but also by glittering like jewels in the sunlight. Stephanie Meyer wrote a romance, rather than a vampire story, and the film-maker tried to have it both ways—monsters who aren’t really monsters. So too, Godzilla ends up not as a monster and yet technically so, presumably to embrace as a symbol the ambiguity in our attitudes toward nuclear technology.

The film also falls short in melding its human story with all the digital glitter. The problem is in how the two very different scales (the digital technology extending the larger) are related. As the monsters get “up close and personal” with the human protagonist, such intimate contact between such vastly different scales is too contrived to be believed. The distortive effect includes much too much significance being attributed to the scientist’s grown son. In other words, the narrative is distorted by the film-maker’s attempt to extend the larger scale (possible with the digital toys) while still having the emotional heart-tugs from a “human interest story.” The attempt is clearly to make the son the hero who saves the city even as Godzilla is dubbed “savoir of the city,” but the narrative itself supports neither. The son did not have such a role, and Godzilla was merely fighting adversaries rather than trying to save the humans. In the end, narrative itself gets sacrificed on the altar of special-effects technology. Given the complexity in the human relation to nuclear technology, constructing a workable narrative would have been quite a feat anyway—the eye-candy just making the achievement of suitable substance all the more daunting.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Margin Call

An unnamed investment bank holding enough of its own subprime-mortgage-based securities on its books to more than erase the firm’s entire market value should those derivatives lose only 25% of their value. What to do? In Margin Call (2011), the CEO, played by Jeremy Irons, makes the call—the firm’s traders are to unload the entire asset class the next morning. Kevin Spacey’s character has two major objections—one normative and the other operational. The marginal place of ethics on Wall Street is well illustrated by how these objections pan out in the film.

Spacey plays Sam Rogers, the supervisor of a trading floor who had been with the firm for over thirty years. Operationally speaking, he warns John Tuld, the firm’s CEO, at 3 or 4 am that the fire sale would have to be done by early afternoon or the unloading strategy would not work. After a few hours of heavy unloading without any buying of the asset class from the counterparties (i.e., swaps), word on the street would pummel the remaining securities’ market value; claims of readjusting a firm’s overall risk only go so far in the face of such mass selling, and it would be only a matter of time before the market learns that the derivative securities are largely worthless.

Hence, Sam warns both his boss and the CEO that knowingly selling crap to the long-established counterparties of the firm’s soon-to-be unemployed traders would effectively trash the credibility of the firm and its traders on the Street, and be highly unethical to both the traders and their counterparties.

Apart from the film, Goldman Sachs knowingly sold its derivative securities to its counterparties even though the firm’s traders were referring to the instruments as “crap.” Whereas the fictional firm in the film lied to counterparties to unload the firm’s entire holdings of the asset, Goldman Sachs traders lied about the actual worthlessness of the bank’s mortgage securities in the regular course of business—the profit margins being too good to pass up. Unlike the fictional firm, Goldman bought insurance that essentially transferred the risk of the derivatives on the books to AIG and shorted derivatives sold by other banks. In selling derivatives it would buy later, Goldman was betting that the value of derivatives would decrease even as the bank’s traders knowingly sold the bank’s own securitized mortgages to even the bank’s best counterparties. Goldman’s executives were both smarter and more unethical than the characters in the film’s fictional bank.

In the film, the CEO has more of a basis in pointing to the firm’s survival because continuing to hold onto its derivatives that were in its “pipeline” risked being left standing when the music stops. Looking out onto a dark Manhattan at 3am from the bank’s high conference room, John says he does not hear any music in the near future, and it would not be long until other people in the bewindowed towers see the writing on the wall too. So the firm must sell all the crap it has as soon as possible, or in all likelihood the  firm would face bankruptcy and everyone in the room would be unemployed. Survival is a given that does not permit alternatives; moreover, the CEO depicts it as a sort of a moral principle countering all the resulting harm to others, rather than admitting that it is actually naked self-interest that is fueling the deceitful fire sale that he was about to unleash on the firm’s counterparties.

As if the firm were an end in itself, its survival is vital. The same holds at the individual level; expensive mortgages and other commitments such as alimony (e.g., to Sam’s ex-wife, who lives in a mansion) make it seem that continuing those mammoth executive compensation inflows counts as nothing less than survival. Ethics is easily cast by the wayside as though scruples were an interesting though irrelevant observation on the way to what must be done. It is as though there were absolutely no choice in the matter, just as there had been little perceived choice for Demi Moore’s risk-management character, Sarah Robertson, a year or two earlier when she passed on the red-flag warnings of Stanley Tucci’s character, Eric Dale, without due urgency. The lack of urgency, Sarah finally admits to him just after both had been fired, had seemed at the time to be necessary.

The lure of the large profit margins on the firm’s manufactured mortgage-based bonds had undoubtedly been behind the “necessity” not to blow the whistle. For when an oilman has a gusher spewing out black gold, only a fool risks what can be extracted for certain today for what one expects will still be available tomorrow. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Even with Eric’s dire warning in hand, Sarah could only have saved the firm from its own incompetence only if the executive committee had gone along.

“How could we have fucked it up so badly?” Sam asks the CEO at the end. “Don’t be a sour-puss,” replies the enabling top executive in denial; he had already procured Sarah’s head on a plate for the board, which is different than going after the incompetence that led to the self-inflicted disaster. Incredibly, the risk management executives still assumed a sort of entitlement to hold onto their jobs, as if having nearly brought the firm down was a sufficient reason to be fired, or resign. There is apparently no honor on Wall Street—no Japanese willing to fall on their swords (or even feel the natural sentiment of humiliation)—and no serious consideration given to the ethical dimension in its own right.

The CEO does not even try to hide his dismissiveness of Sam’s ethical point that selling stuff that only the seller knows will soon be worthless in the hands of the counterparties. So Sam tries to appeal to the firm’s own financial interest. “We won’t be able to sell anything again to our counterparties,” he warns. Tuld is unswayed, and probably with good merit. Apart from the film, Wall Street did not punish Goldman Sachs too much for having knowingly sold “crap” in what Lloyd Blankfein would tell a U.S. Senate committee was merely “market making.” In general, the lure of profits proves to be a good thickener of once-aggrieved slights from the past.

In the film, the CEO is utterly unconcerned about the tarnished reputations of the bank’s traders (many of whom will soon be without a job). However, it can be argued that approving the $1 million bonuses in the event of a successful unloading of the sordid excrement is not only oriented to providing sufficient incentive (i.e., in the firm’s financial interest), but also makes up for the traders’s loss of established trading relationships.

Even so, the CEO’s maxim treats self-interest itself as a esteemed, even ethical, principle. It is about one’s own survival and that of the firm; the strongest surviving both at the firm and individual level. Being the first out of a burning building is no vice, the CEO contends. In fact, being the first to spot the fire and get out is laudatory rather than blame-worthy. However, what of the utter incompetence that had gotten the firm into such an over-leveraged, risky position in which the established “VAR” numbers no longer held—the risk being now too great? Does the firm, not to mention its occupants, deserve to survive in the exclusive club known as Wall Street? Being the first out of a burning building could be nothing more than the basic animal instinct of flight, rather than intelligence.

Moreover, the bloated claim of survival necessity could simply be selfishness and greed with a complete disregard for the harm one is inflicting on others (e.g., colleagues in the firm as well as the counterparties). Yet in the face of the inexorable path of money, such normative concerns are mere diversions like store windows during the Christmas season. To a selfish kid bent on what he or she is going to get on Christmas morning, barely a glimpse goes to the ascetics, not to mention the ethical. Perhaps the overarching impression that the film presents is that of selfish children in such lofty positions not only on the Street, but societally as well.