Margin Call (2011), or a Report on the Banality of Greed

So far, few movies have been as successful as J. C. Chandor’s Margin Call (2011) in portraying the events of the 2008 economic crisis. In fact, the movie achieves something only a few among the best films in history have ever been able to achieve, say, catching the Zeitgeist — the spirit of the time.

The film is about the events leading to the demise of an American investment bank during the financial crisis of 2007-2008. It’s modeled on the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the investment bank that filed for bankruptcy in late 2008 after big losses due to the subprime mortgage crisis. In summary, it tells the story of a group of executives who discover, with the help of junior analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), a flaw in the software the company uses to calculate risk. Due to this flaw, the company is now exposed to monumental losses should the value of its mortgage-based securities decreases, as it is believed most likely to happen. The discovery initiates a chain of events that mobilizes the upper echelon of the company, including its CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). In order to save their own financial interests, Tuld and his head of security Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) made the decision of selling off all the company’s toxic assets before the market realizes the truth about those same assets’ real value. A decision that is opposed by Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), the company’s head of sales, who understands that in doing so Tuld is threatening the future of the company — no one will ever trust the company once they have realized what is about to happen — as well as spreading the risk throughout the whole financial system. At the end, Rogers agrees to help Tuld, after the latter offers him a substantial compensation.

Despite the apparent simplicity of its plot, Margin Call is a brilliant exploration of the ethos of modern day capitalist society. The word ethos refers to the set of beliefs and values that guide the behavior of the different members of a community. This ethos configures our particular Zeitgeist — say, our particular cultural and moral climate. Two words summarize this ethos: money and, ultimately, greed.

It’s all about money… isn’t it?

At first sight, money seems to be at the chore of all Margin Call‘s characters. For them, money seems to be everything. It is the fundamental unit they use to measure up every aspect of their lives — from success, to happiness, loyalty, and so on. For instance, when Sam learned that his dog has cancer and is going to die, he complains about the thousand dollars a week he is spending to keep his pet alive. It is as if this amount truly represents the sincerity of his feelings towards his dog.

A similar thing happens with Tuld. He knows he cannot demand loyalty from his subalterns. I suspect he wouldn’t accept it anyway — at least not for free. Loyalty for him should be translated into money. So, he buys it. He pays Eric Dale (just a few hours after he’s been laid off from the same firm) to come back to the company and sit there for a few hours doing nothing, so to prevent the former employee from leaking what is about to happen. He pays him well, since that’s the only way he can guarantee Dale’s loyalty. The same happens with Head of Risk Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore). Tuld decides that she is the head that must roll after the storm — although she reminds him that she was the one who warned both him and his protegee (Jared Cohen) about the coming collapse. He pays her as well, to buy her silence, at least for one day. At the end, Tuld buys Sam also, despite the fact that the latter will do whatever he can to serve the firm’s best interest — and it seems likely he would do it for free. However, Tuld doesn’t understand about loyalty unless it’s expressed in terms of money. So, he gives Sam a generous check.

There is this sequence in which Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), Sam’s senior salesman, is outside watching New York city from the building’s roof. He is there along with Peter and Seth Bregman (Penn Bradgley), another junior analyst. One of the analysts asked Will about what is going on, about what he thinks will happen. He replies: “they don’t loose money, no matter if everybody else does.” With “they” he means Tuld, Cohen, and all the top executives. They never loose money, no matter if by doing so they take their own company down — as they actually ended up doing — or take the whole financial system down, as it will probably happen at the end. The survival of the fit, of the job-creators, is the only rule in place. Every one is on his/her own. No one cares about what could happen to anyone else but oneself. The job-creators must survive even if it is a the price of millions of other people’s jobs. That’s the logic of it all.

In the closing scene, Sam is on his ex-wife’s yard digging a hole to bury his dead dog. When she comes out and warns him that the police was on its way, all he can say is that he couldn’t think of any other place to bury their pet but its former home. His ex-wife sees him in all his misery and decides to go back inside, asking him to take care of himself. The movie closes with a sudden black screen. However, although we can’t see anything, we still are able to listen to the sound of the shovel scratching against the solid ground. We can’t help to think about the metaphor of this last scene — a hidden shovel digging the hole we all will soon be buried in. We are left wondering who or what the dog itself is a metaphor of.

The banality of greed

Hannah Arendt once described Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann — indicted and executed in Israel for crimes during the Holocaust — this way:

[He] was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothings would have been farther from his mind than to determine with Richard III “to prove a villain.” Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his own personal advancement, he had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. […] He was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness — something by no means identical with stupidity — that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminal of that period. And if this is “banal” and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from [him], that is still far from calling it commonplace. It surely cannot be so common that a man facing death, and, moreover, standing beneath the gallows, should be able to think of nothing but what he has heard at funerals all his life, and that these “lofty words” should completely becloud the reality – of his own death. That such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together which, perhaps, are inherent in man – that was, in fact, the lesson one could learn in Jerusalem. But it was a lesson, neither an explanation of the phenomenon nor a theory about it.

According to Žižek, violence may come in many forms. There is the subjective type of violence we see in assaults, torture, war, and all other physical violent acts. It is the type of violence Eichmann was indicted for. Also, there is objective violence. This last kind of violence may come in two different forms: a symbolic form and a systemic form. Symbolic violence is the type of violence embodied in “language and its different forms” — modern-day political campaigns are usually full of this kind of violence. Systemic violence is the “often catastrophic consequences of the functioning of our economic and political systems.” The Latin American Debt Crisis of the 1980s; the Great Depression, Stalin’s forced collectivization; all these are examples of systemic violence. The same applies to the events depicted in Chandor’s movie.

In the latter case, there were neither concentration camps nor gas chambers. The number of corpses were not as many as in Auschwitz, although the number of virtual casualties have been almost the same… so far. A parallel argument to the one Arendt made on Eichmann could be made of the people who participated in the 2007-2008 financial crisis. A similar depiction of the Nazi criminal could be given of those involved in this systemic act of violence. It was the same “remoteness from reality,” the same “thoughtlessness” that could “wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together.”

The scene on the roof is a clear evidence of how Eichmannian these characters are. Will Emerson hangs on the edge of the building, risking a long fall, only for the thrill of it. There is no motives, no thoughts, no sympathy towards the others (Peter and Seth) who witness the stunt in panic… only a sense of power, the power of control, of having the last word. Tuld, at the end, admits that the whole thing is not really about money… it is power. But it isn’t power either; it is the hunger for more, the same drive towards the void that led Will on the edge of the roof. Money is just a vehicle, a fetish used to reach for what really moves them: greed.

If Eichmann was guilty of one form of banality, the banality of evil, the Tulds of the world are guilty of another, the banality of greed. The biggest achievement of Margin Call resides in having made such banality visible that it seems almost a caricature. However, fantasy here is the real thing, and the alleged real is just a fantasy.

Solaris and heaven

Watching Solaris (2002), the version of Stanislaw Lem’s novel adapted and directed by Steven Soderbergh (there is a previous one by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky), I couldn’t help thinking about Christianity’s philosophically challenging notion of heaven.

Briefly, Solaris is a story about this spaceship which is orbiting an alien planet — named Solaris — in which very strange phenomena have been happening. Unable to come up with an explanation of what’s going on, a scientist on board, Dr. Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur), who is a friend of therapist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), asked the latter to come up to the ship and help him to figure things out. Kelvin, who is a psychologist who helps people deal with the lost of loved ones, agrees and is sent there alone. Once there, he discovers that really weird things are happening: people who doesn’t exist are appearing out of nowhere. Gibarian’s dead son, Snow’s alter ego and Kelvin’s dead wife (Rheya, played by Natascha McElhone) are among the apparent ghosts. At the end, the ghosts are actually replicas made out of the memories kept by the livings that Solaris — the planet — somehow is able to recreate anf bring back to life. One crew member — Dr. Gordon — figures out how to permanently annihilate the replicas, including Kelvin’s wife. However, the device used to achieve that consumes a lot of the spaceship’s energy supply, making the return to earth impossible. In the last sequence, Kelvin and Dr. Gordon prepares to return home by using one of the small vessels.However, Kelvin seems to change his mind and stays… or at least it seems so.

One of the last scenes shows Kelvin back at home or what seems a replica of his house back on earth. The scene itself replicates another of the movie’s first scenes. However, this time things behave little weird. He cuts his finger — just as he did in the first scene at the beginning — but his skin regenerates the same way Kelvin’s wife face regenerates after an attempted suicide back on the ship. At that moment, Rheya reappears and tells a shocked Kelvin that all their past misgivings have been forgiven, suggesting that from now on they will have the opportunity to start over and enjoy a new and eternal life together.

In many levels, Solaris poses us a lot of interesting questions. However, it is this last scene the one that poses me the question I want to talk about in this note. Rheya’s words are an interesting key — one that suggests a possible explanation about the planet’s real meaning. If we look at what this last scene offers Kelvin — the portrait of a new life together in which he and his wife will live forever without pain and guilt — we couldn’t help thinking about why this seems to be so familiar. It is familiar because what this scene offers us is nothing else but a representation of a heavenly paradise… of heaven. (By the way, what heaven actually offers us is a life without anxiety… and we should remember that, as Freud told usanxiety is the only real human emotion… all other human emotions are in their very essence faked.) If we look at the Judeo-Christian tradition, heaven is that metaphysical place in which life transcends itself, in which death is no more and in which there is no more suffering nor guilt (an anxiety-free zone). However, this Solarian heaven is not the regular Christian one, in which heavenly creatures are ontological independent of earthly ones. Instead, it’s closer to Swedenborg‘s, who thought of heaven as inhabited by ghostly replicas of past earthly beings.

Now, what really intrigues me about this Solarian heaven, as suggested by my reading of the movie, is the fact that this version of heaven is, essentially, an individual phenomenon. Kelvin seems to experience heaven not as a place in which he comes to be part of some sort of heavenly society or collective. Rather, his version of heaven is tailored-made to him. If we look at the whole story of his relationship with his wife, the few things we know about her — her depression and insecurities and so on and on — we may conclude that this “heaven” could never be hers. (In that case, why is she the one who must forgive and forget?) So, the movie poses me many interesting questions about the nature of heaven itself. Of the many possible versions of a perfect world people may have about heaven, which one is the universal (collective) one? Which one is the one that satisfies everybody’s fantasies about it? Is there a heaven or a multi-verse of heavens, each one suited for every single human being who have ever existed? What’s the relationship between the notion of heaven and our fantasizing about it? Can such a place exist in which everybody’s fantasies about it can be realized? Or, is it heaven that place in which we are allowed to enter only if we agree to leave behind our very human nature — our capacity to feel (anxiety) and fantasize (desire)?

I suspect that the real thing may actually be nightmarish. I base this suspicion on what we have learned from psychology: that fantasy realized is what we call nightmare. Maybe, as the old tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice teaches us, heaven and hell — at the basic phenomenological level— may not be that different after all. But that’s something we might talk about another day. First I need to read the original novel and take another look at Tarkovsky’s 1972 adaptation.

By the way, here is Lem itself talking about the original.

En busca de El pez que fuma

Conversando el otro día con un compatriota que preparaba un curso sobre cine latinoamericano en una universidad de los Estados Unidos, a la pregunta: ¿qué película venezolana incluyes?, su respuesta automática fue “ninguna”. Luego, por supuesto, siguió la sentencia de rigor: con excepción (quizá) de Araya (1959) y Oriana (1985), el resto de la cinematografía nacional es pura mierda (la hipérbole es mía).

Recordé está conversación recientemente mientras disfrutaba de El pez que fuma (1977), la inolvidable película de Román Chalbaud. Hacía muchos años que no la veía. Tenía apenas 9 años cuando se estrenó en 1977, así que estaba fuera de toda discusión que me dejaran entrar al cine a ver las tetas al natural de Haydeé Balza, o el despampanante cuerpo desnudo de la jovencísima Mimí Lazo. Sea como sea, no la pude ver sino muchos años después, en la TV, editada y super-censurada, y, ya en la universidad, en VHS, en el cineclub de la facultad de ingeniería, en todo su esplendor (el de la Balza y de la Lazo).

Está vez volví a ver la original, sin censuras, y no pude evitar sentir un orgullo profundo por nuestro cine nacional — y una lástima por los estudiantes de mi colega que no han tenido la oportunidad de disfrutar de esta joya del cine latinoamericano. Para mí, El pez sigue siendo la obra más importante de la cinematografía venezolana, muy por encima de todas las Orianas o Arayas del mundo. Y no es para negar la importancia de estas últimas, pero si hemos de hablar de un cine que represente el Weltanschauung nacional, la respuesta no está ni en el experimento postmoderno de Fina Torres ni en el formalista de Margot Benacerraf.

¿Qué mejor lugar que un prostíbulo de la Guaira para representar la cosmovisión de nuestro país? La historia no puede ser más familiar. Dos rivales que se enfrentan por el control de un territorio en disputa. El territorio es a la vez una mujer y un negocio. La mujer, la Garza (interpretado por la inolvidable Hilda Vera), es la matrona y dueña del local, fuente del poder y del orden masculino por el que se disputan el amante y su aspirante. La Garza es un motivo nacional, la devoradora de hombres que desde las páginas de Gallegos ha poblado siempre el imaginario literario venezolano. El negocio, por el otro lado, representa el orden institucional en torno al que se articula la vida del barrio, que funciona tanto como referencia normativa y moral (vemos a la Garza denunciando el abuso infantil y la maternidad irresponsable al inicio de la película) como material (es el mayor empleador y motor de la economía local). Mujer y territorio son objeto de uso y abuso, utilizables pero nunca poseídos totalmente (como la Garza insiste en recordarle al desleal Dimas).

Hay que estar ciegos para no ver la alusión obvia a la historia de un país que por centurias ha sido, como la Garza y su burdel, objeto de uso y abuso por guapetones provenientes de solares españoles o de mánores norteños. La garza es Venezuela; el burdel, la democracia… o viceversa. No extraña, pues, que Jairo (que además representa también al Otro lacaniano del imaginario venezolano, el inmigrante o hijo de inmigrantes colombianos — Jairo es un nombre muy común en la comunidad de inmigrantes de ese país hermano —, que acecha desde el subconsciente marginal) haya nacido en 1958, “con la democracia”, como dice, con cierta ironía, la Garza. El duelo de Jairo y Dimas simboliza también esa transición del caudillo eterno (i.e., Juan Vicente Gómez) al caudillo temporal, elegido con votos (o manotazos), que cada cinco años se disputaba al cuerpo de la nación, o su institucionalidad. Jairo y Dimas son arquetipos del político nacional, corrupto y corruptor, que ofrece cambios pero, como el gatopardo, sólo se asegura que todo cambie lo suficiente para que no haya cambio alguno.

Todo eso comprimido en una (tele)novela para la pantalla gigante, con elementos melodramáticos y retóricos que nos recuerdan la ópera, como ocurre con casi todo el cine de Chalbaud, o, quizá sea mejor decir: del binomio Chalbaud-Cabrujas. Por eso no tengo pena en admitirlo: El pez es el pináculo del cine venezolano. La mierda vino después.