Mr. Turner (2014)

Joseph Mallord William Turner was a loner, a brilliant watercolorist who took this method of painting to a new high. He was also an eccentric, reclusive man. His mother, the daughter of prosperous London butchers and shopkeepers, became mentally ill when he was still a child. For that reason, he was sent away to live with relatives at age 10. Later, she ended up being institutionalized several times and eventually died insane. After early schooling, the young Turner became a draftsman and later studied painting and drawing under Thomas Malton (1726-1801). Malton was a brilliant architectural draughtsman, and Turner got from him a lifetime passion for landscape and architectural painting. Continue reading “Mr. Turner (2014)”

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

Poster for Monsieur Verdoux (1947) – Wikimedia Commons

A few days ago I watched Charlie Chaplin’s clever and somehow sinister comedy Monsieur Verdoux (1947).[1. Available on Hulu.com as part of its Criterion Collection section.] As you may know, the movie is the story of Henri Verdoux — a.k.a. Varnay, a.k.a. Bonheur, a.k.a. Floray— a grayish bank teller who begins a career as “mass murderer” after being laid off from his job of thirty years.[1. Curiously, the story is based on actual events, the life of the “Bluebeard” murderer, Henri Landru.] Continue reading “Monsieur Verdoux (1947)”

Literature and the Coming Zombie Apocalypse

You may think that watching a movie about ravenous zombies engaged in a world war against humanity has nothing to do with literature.  British critic Frank Ermode would’ve disagreed though. In his masterfully written  [amazon ASIN=”0195136128″]The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction[/amazon] (1967), Ermode writes:

Men, like poets, rush ‘into the middest,’ in media res, when they are born; they also die in mediis rebus, and to make sense of their span they need fictive concords with origins and ends, such as give meaning to lives and to poems.”

This explains why, as Kermode remarks, “The End they imagine will reflect their irreducible intermediary preoccupations.”

When I look at Marc Foster’s flick World War Z (2013), I can’t help thinking about Kermode’s words. We live in this ‘global village’ in which each time we open our eyes we find ourselves rushing ‘into the middest’ of a million things, usually bad. It is like living in a permanent state of siege. Wars, genocides, famine, political unrest, fanaticism, bigotry, idiocy, and a long long list of interminable preoccupations. Kermode quotes (H.W.) Fowler saying that “if we were always quite serious in speaking of ‘the end of an epoch’ we should live in ceaseless transition.” Protracted ends are then a form of therapy, a way of overcoming our living in the midst of things, in the midst of Fowler’s “ceaseless transition.” In a way, having an end gives us closure, a mean for beating our limitation to see, to figure out the whole picture. So, Kermode observes[1. He’s talking about the Biblical book though, p. 8.],

[The Book of] ]Apocalypse depends on a concord of imaginatively recorded past and imaginatively predicted future, achieved on behalf of us, who remain ‘in the middest’.”

I think this is a very nice, poetic way to describe what World War Z means for us, as would any other work of fiction — like the Biblical Apocalypse — for that matter.

“Fantasy is precisely what reality can be confused with”

The dialectics of films

Reading Stanley Cavell’s [amazon ASIN=”0226097889″]Themes Out of School: Effects and Causes[/amazon] (1984), I came across with this sentence: “Fantasy is precisely what reality can be confused with” (p. 178). It’s actually a quote from another of his books, [amazon ASIN=”9780674961968″]The World Viewed[/amazon] (1979), that he brings to a discussion on ‘what becomes of things in films’.

According to my reading, Cavell’s question is this: what makes of a film something real despite being based on the unreal, on fantasy? The question concerns with what he calls the “ontology of films” — the matter of their being. Or the juxtaposition of the real and the unreal to the point in which we need to face the skeptic basic premise: that there is no way to distinguish one from the other. Films, therefore, seem to accomplish this epistemological function — to portrait this dialectical tension between the real and the unreal, between what we call reality and the fantasy films are built upon.

Films and tools

Cavell also quotes Heidegger’s phase: “worldhood of the world announcing itself.” Per Cavell’s reading, Heidegger’s phrase implies a “mode of sight or awareness.” He mentions Heidegger’s analysis of a tool (from Being and Time) to explain the way this awareness operates. Heidegger’s analysis of tools is actually about objects in general, to which he recognizes two complementary modes of existence: as ready-to-hand and as present-at-hand. Objects as ready-to-hand are objects independent from us (the hammer in use by our hand), and somehow opaque to our consciousness of them. However, objects as present-at-hand are those which are broken and therefore become consciousness — that is, when they become an idea or concept in our minds: an object of such and such shape, size, weight, made of, etc.

Back to the realm of films, for Cavell, a film is made of instances of objets trouvés — displaced objects (broken tools) as opposed to the ready-to-hand (and opaque) objects of reality. For instance, he offers an interpretation of Buster Keaton’s films in this way: Keaton’s comedy are like the presence-at-hand of tools which intrude in the world to announce its “worldhood.” His comedy and even his “extraordinary gaze” renders the filmhood of the film visible, since they are displaced instances of real life actions and gazes. However, I see a problem here. To me, Cavell’s reading of this “displacement” seems too close to the old idea of “defamiliarity” used by Russian formalists. I’m not so sure that we can come up with a way to define this “displacement” without appealing to the kind of value-judgments that Formalists had implicit in their analysis. I don’t know. Something I need to look into.

Films and desire

Another interesting point concerns ‘desire’. Even if we admit my previous point — the affinity with the formalists’ “defamiliarity” principle — one questions remains: why do we need this process? Why conscious awareness needs the breaking of the object and its juxtaposition with the ready-to-hand object? Beyond the fact of the dialectics of seeing there is the question of a need for such a dialectics. I suspect that Cavell stretches the idea a little bit. Anyway, he defines desires in terms of a basic principle: that to be human is to have the capacity to wish for a completer identity than the one we have, or that we wish for a world that goes beyond the one we share with others (reality), or that is even opposed to it (fantasy). Since all the time he refers to the logic of skepticism (i.e., “that knowledge is expected to fail in best cases [and that] this failure be discovered in ways open to any normal human being”), I’m afraid that here Cavell may be begging the question. Or, I might have just been over-reading him all along.

El egolario de Hitchcock: una nota sobre la apertura de Frenesí (1972)

La apertura de Frenesí

Es sabido que Hitchcock suele comenzar sus películas de una manera más bien convencional. Es verdad, hay películas que como La ventana indiscreta (1954) se inician con una toma algo elaborada: la cámara mirando una ventana panorámica cuyas persianas se van abriendo al mundo con extrema lentitud y tensa complicidad y que luego se zambulle en el interior de aquel microcosmo bajo el microscopio de Jeff Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart). O la calle desierta de La soga (1948), con la cámara espiando desde arriba por un buen rato que se hace eterno y luego haciendo un paneo rápido hasta posarse frente a la ventana cubierta tras cuyas cortinas se comete un crimen. Fuera de estas pocas extravagancias técnicas, algo muy del gusto del antiguo estudiante de ingeniería, los inicios de Hitchcock suelen servir para el propósito que todo comienzo debería tener: presentar los personajes principales, introducir el ambiente y contexto de las acciones, etc. etc. No así en Frenesí (1972).

Frenesí comienza con una toma aérea sobre el río Támesis. Hasta allí sería el típico stunt hitchcockiano: la cámara sobre un helicóptero que se mueve lentamente sobre el cauce fluvial en dirección al emblemático puente de Londres que, repentinamente, pareciera abrirse lentamente para dejar pasar al espectador. Luego, el bote que atraviesa el río lanzando una humarada negra cuya estela empaña el azul prístino del cielo, creando una excusa visual para la transición a la próxima escena donde aparece la primera víctima. Hasta allí todo pareciera ir bien. Bueno, todo menos la música.

Un cambio de planes

El compositor original de Frenesí iba a ser Henry Mancini (famoso por sus composiciones para películas como La pantera rosa, Desayuno en Tiffany’s y Victor Victoria). La primera opción de Mancini para la apertura era una pieza para órgano más bien barroca, a la que Hitch objetó por parecerle muy similar al trabajo de Bernard Herrmann. Este último era un compositor muy talentoso con quien Hitch colaborara por muchos años hasta que los estudios, ansiosos de poder vender la banda sonora por separado, lo convencieran de buscar un sustituto que escribiera música  más comercializable. Hitch despidió a Mancini y trajo a bordo al compositor Ron Goodwin quien fue el autor de la pieza orquestral, algo majestuosa, con que comienza la versión final de la película.

Si escuchamos la apertura de Mancini (disponible en línea), con su colorido y algo pesado andante, el efecto que produce es muy diferente al de la versión definitiva de Goodwin. Yo me atrevería a decir que la versión de Mancini sirve mejor al tono lúgubre y barroco de la película, su trama lenta y sus diálogos más bien opacos y desabridos. En cambio, la versión de Goodwin tiene cierto tono de grandilocuencia que no pareciera corresponderse con lo minúsculo de la historia (el mismo Hitch la llamó una vez un “pequeño filme”). Un tono que llega a su punto culminante cuando el puente de Londres pareciera abrirse, o más bien inclinarse en pleitesía, a los títulos gigantescos que anuncian el nombre del director, Alfred Hitchcock.

Y aquí es donde la apertura de Frenesí pareciera romper con lo convencional para servir a una forma de exhibicionismo que, si bien hitchcockiana, lo es de una forma totalmente nueva. No hay duda que en muchos de los filmes de Hitch hay mucho de voyerismo, de cierta perversidad lacaniana. El filósofo Slavoj Žižek ha hablado extensamente de esto. Lo que mueve a Hitch no es otra cosa que el deseo del otro, diría el esloveno. El pequeño objeto a, la mancha que atrae la mirada hambrienta del espectador porque destaca un vacío, una vacuidad que se sospecha llena de algo insospechado, morbosamente oculto a nuestros ojos. Esa economía del placer es lo que hace del cine el arte perverso por excelencia, insiste el Elvis Presley de los estudios culturales, el monstruo de Lubjana. Y nadie mejor que Hitch para explotarlo, para exprimirlo hasta extraer la última gota de semen espeso. Sin embargo, el tipo de perversidad evidente en la apertura de Frenesí es diferente. Para este caso, Hitch pareciera exprimirse a sí mismo.

Como las marchas sinfónicas de Händel, con sus cohetes y luces multicolores que anuncian la grandeza y majestad de la corona británica, la overtura de Goodwin no sólo introduce una película sino que anuncia a un soberano, a un monarca. Al acto de solemne pompa armónica se une la imagen del puente centenario que se abre para recibir al hijo pródigo, el artista malcomprendido a quien un crítico inglés décadas atrás llamara “poco serio” (según comentara François Truffaut al director en su famoso encuentro de 1962).

Pero sigo siendo el rey…

Aquí hay que hacer un paréntesis. Hitch regresó a Londres en 1971 luego de una ausencia de 20 años. Su última producción inglesa había sido la no muy exitosa Pánico en la escena (1950), con Marlene Dietrich y la para entonces esposa de Ronald Reagan, Jane Wyman. La opinión sobre su trabajo de muchos de sus contemporáneos no era muy positiva. Ya mencionamos el comentario de Truffaut, pero esa idea de “poco serio” no era algo aislado sino una opinión generalizada entre la inteligencia británica. Esa era la opinión de críticos como Lindsay Anderson, quien en un artículo en la revista Sequence de 1949, reconociera la destreza técnica del compatriota, aunque considerándolo más un “animador” (entertainer) que un director de cine. Todo esto cambiaría a partir de la década del 1950, cuando Claude Chabrol y Eric Rohmer, desde las páginas del legendario Cahiers du Cinéma, comenzarían el estudio cuidadoso de la filmografía hitchcockiana, y su difusión masiva, al tiempo que Hollywood le abría las puertas — y sus infinitas arcas — al director auto-exilado. Luego de la publicación del trabajo de [amazon ASIN=”1857100069″]Chabrol y Rohmer[/amazon] en 1957, la actitud de la crítica anglo-sajona cambió y de total indiferencia se pasó a la veneración y elevación del director otrora despreciado al panteón cinemático internacional, incluido el británico.

Este era el contexto en el que Hitch, el hijo pródigo, el director “poco serio” de los 40s, regresó a su tierra natal. Ese mismo año de 1971, mientras filmaba Frenesí, Hitch y su esposa serían recibidos con bombos y platillos en el mismísimo Covent Garden, donde el pueblo británico echaría la casa por la ventana para celebrar los cincuenta años de trabajo artístico de su ahora hijo predilecto. Hay que suponer que Hitch estaba my consciente de esta situación, y que entusiasmado y halagado por tantas alabanzas y homenajes, se dejó tentar por la idea de participar en el acto — la tentación de todo pervertido — y hacer de su film otra pieza de coleccionar para su egolario. Esta me parece es la mejor manera de interpretar esa apertura triunfal, ese saludo majestuoso que anuncia el regreso del rey del suspenso a su hogar y a sus orígenes.

Ficha técnica:

  • Título: Frenesí (original Frenzy)
  • Fecha de estreno: 21 junio 1972
  • Director: Alfred Hitchcock
  • Productor: Universal
  • Reparto: Jon Finch, Alec McCowen, Barry Foster, Billy Whitelaw, Anna Massey, Barbara Leigh-Hunt
  • Duración: 116 minutos
  • Versión DVD: Alfred’s Hitchcock’s Frenzy. The Alfred Hitchcock’s Collection. Universal City: Universal Studios, 2000

Para leer más:

  • “Frenzy”. www.anthonyshaffer.co.uk. 7 septiembre 2012.
  • Spoto, Donald. [amazon ASIN=”0385418132″]The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures[/amazon]. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976.
  • Truffaut, François. [amazon ASIN=”0671604295″]Hitchcock by Truffaut: The Definitive Study[/amazon]. London: Paladin, 1986.
  • White, Rob. [amazon ASIN=”1579583288″]British Film Institute Film Classics: The Best of International Cinema 1916-1981[/amazon]. London: Routledge, 2002.
  • Žižek, Slavoj. (ed.) [amazon ASIN=”1844676218″]Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan… But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock[/amazon]. London: Verso, 2002.
    • [amazon ASIN=”026274015X”]Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture[/amazon]. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992.

Watching Movies with My Son

Watching Frank Capra’s unforgettable Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) with my teenage son the other day reminded me of the incredible power of cinema to transcend all kinds of frontiers, especially time.

Of course, we all know how the story goes. The film is an idyllic tale of a modern day quixotic figure, Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart), who fights the corrupted political machine under the control of big money in America’s pre-WWII era. Jeff is a youth leader who is appointed senator by pure chance and goes to Washington full of patriotic fervor and phony ideas about how the government works, only to find out the “truth” of a depraved political class in which bribery and collusion are the most important currencies.

When Jeff’s idealistic plans for a National Youth Camp collide with those of his political and economic mentors — his State’s senior senator, Joe Paine (Claude Rains), and his main economic supporter, the very rich Mr. Taylor (Edward Arnold) — the smear machine starts up full throttle to crush the young senator and force him to exit in disgrace. However, contrary to all expectations and with the help of his faithful assistant, Jeff holds on and began a Marathon filibuster which would eventually force his opponent (Senator Paine) to concede in humiliation.

Although a clear example of patriotic propaganda, in an era in which many Americans were doubtful about their country’s involvement in the coming European conflict, the movie is also an example — ironic though —  of good propaganda, if such a thing is possible. Despite the obvious ideological excesses, there is an inspirational side of it that even an old skeptic like me must concede to. And I should add that my son liked it, despite its being B&W and its lacking of all the sensuality and blood-shedding that characterized modern films, which stands as a witness of the film’s everlasting import.

Casa de Mi Padre (2012)

It may seem crazy to put both Will Ferrell’s and Bertolt Brecht’s names on the same line. What in the world could an offbeat American comedian have in common with a deceased German playwright and satirist? The answer is Casa de Mi Padre, Ferrell’s attempt to crossover into the Spanish-language movie market.

Considered “absurdly daffy” by some critics, the movie is the kind of story that Brecht would have love to write and direct — should he be alive today, of course. It’s the story of Armando Alvarez (Memo Fierro, a.k.a Will Ferrell), the dumb son of a Mexican rancher (Pedro Almendáriz Jr) whose ancestral lands risk a takeover by a Mexican drug lord (Gael García Bernal). Forced by external circumstances — and the love of a complicated Mexican beauty (Genesis Rodríguez) —, Armando engaged in a battle with the boss of a powerful drug cartel and an ambitious and self-righteous American DEA agent (Nick Offerman). At the end, the Force wins and the Dark Side loses.

It’s probably an understatement to say that Casa de Mi Padre is a huge pastiche, with clear allusions to a variety of genres — from telenovelas to spaghetti Westerns and American pulp fiction. Nonetheless, being a pastiche is not its most remarkable quality. What is really remarkable about this movie is the way in which different diegetic levels intrude each other all the time. There is, for instance, this love-making scene in which Armando and Sonia appear touching and kissing each other until her naked body is replaced at the end with a mannequin. Also, when Armando and his friends get to town searching for his brother, we don’t see him driving his car but a small scale model of the town with toy cars moving around. At the end, the effect is very similar to Brecht’s famous Verfremdungseffekt or “alienation/distancing effect.” The movie doesn’t make any effort to fool its audiences. It wants them to know the truth right away from the beginning — in which Ferrell is shown carrying a dummy calf.

With this “distancing effect,” audiences are reminded all the time that what they are seeing isn’t real but a simulacra. And, most importantly, they are reminded of the fact that behind this simulacra a more interesting sub-text remains hidden. In this sense, Armando’s goofy epic isn’t really his but that of Mexico’s tragic war on drugs. Mexico’s epic is what the movie is all about. And that’s why I think Brecht would have loved the story very much.

In Time (2011)

Noah Berlatsky is totally right, In Time (2011) wants to be a critique of capitalism but instead it ends up being a “searing satire of America’s utter inability to critique capitalism.” However, what Berlatsky fails to recognize is that the film succeeds precisely by failing. Although it is a collection of anti-capitalist cliches, the film became a box-office success precisely because of that. Should the director had made a more cerebral “critique,” the film would have ended up being a complete flop.

In fact, the film works out precisely because it uses standard Hollywood codes, from “movie-star hot 25-year-old corpse[s]” to “standard-issue Hollywood villains” — such as bankers with “inevitably Jewish name[s].” In that sense, In Time is far from being intellectually pretentious or ideologically bullying. To be crudely honest, the film is full of oxymora. But isn’t it an oxymoron anyway the rationale behind the system it portrays? Aren’t all justifications of our laissez faire, you-are-by-your-own Darwinian capitalist system another example of a big collection of oxymora? By definition, an oxymoron is a “locution that produces an incongruous, seemingly self-contradictory effect.” And that’s precisely what happens with late capitalism’s neo-utilitarian discourse. So, if the film is plagued by oxymora, it is so because our system is also plagued by them: unfairness is fair, inequality is — in the long run — better than equality, and, the worst of them all, the surviving of the fittest is the only chance the unfit has of surviving. And here it is where Hollywood’s standard codes work beautifully. Their effectiveness consists precisely in their ability to render meaningful that which is at the core absolutely void of meaning. Or, should I say instead, to render meaningful what should in more enlightened circumstances be by itself meaningless?

However, the core of this lack of meaning is far from being unique to our current circumstances. What In Time portrays isn’t simply one of many possible futures but one particular past we pretty much thought gone and superseded. I’m talking about the 19th Century Victorian world.

Yes, truth be told, I think that In Time has a surprisingly Victorian savor. For instance, in a clearly Benthamian gesture, Timekeeper Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy) explains to naive Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) that his job is not to be concerned with “justice” but with that he “can measure… seconds, minutes, hours.” Leon, much as the Victorian Bethamites, is not interested in generalities (justice, equality, fairness) but in particulars — that is, things that can be translated into the language of science or, more precisely, the science of measuring time (and here we must remember Benjamin Franklin’s very important law of equivalence: Time is money). Similarly, when Will, after kidnapping Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), asked her father (Vincent Kartheiser) to pay a ransom of a thousand years for his daughter release, and to give the “time” (money) to a charity, the banker only reaction is to look down despairingly, since he’s well aware that the “time” he is about to give away won’t be for his daughter but for them — the poor. In a sense, if he does it he would be violating one of the system’s most important injunctions: do not help the unfit. Of course, Phillip Weis never pays his daughter’s ransom. Such an act would be a terrible blow to the functioning of the system, whose health depends not on creating limitless wealth but on efficiently managing scarcity but, most importantly, it would rock his own symbolic world.

Likewise, Will Salas, the hero, is also unsurprisingly Victorian. As many Victorian heroes, Salas is not much in the business of changing the system but of giving people “hope.” Thus, at the most critical moment in the film, when Phillip Weis reminds the fugitive couple that despite all their efforts to upset the system they would never achieve anything but that — upsetting the balance, maybe for a generation or two, but without ever achieving actual change — Will’s answer never challenges the basic assumption offered by Weis — that changing the system is beyond the realm of real possibilities, beyond reality itself. Instead, he offers a weak moral counterpoint: “no one should be inmortal if even one person has to die.”

In a sense, In Time‘s greatest weakness is similar to that of Charles Dickens’, the most Victorian of all Victorian writers. About him, George Orwell once said that he was never a reformer but a moral critic. His goal never was to change society but to change “human nature.” Similarly, Andrew Niccol’s dystopia has no pretension for reform. That is why the film fails to offer a strong counter-argument against one of Weis’ main arguments—that “everyone wants to live forever.” Isn’t this same argument one of the main premises of modern-day capitalist discourse —that everyone wants to be rich? This simplistic core of egotism is what feeds the logic of the whole system — a system that can never be changed precisely because of this its most fundamental core deeply embedded in humanity’s own nature. And since the only offering made by the film is Will’s weak moral counterpoint, Weis’ ultimate presage goes on unchallenged — that nothing will ever change. Or, does it?

Nonetheless, I insist that by failing the film succeeds. Although Berlatsky is right by pointing out America’s (film industry’s) lack of imagination to offer a real critique of late capitalism, the “searing satire” is effective for bringing forward the repressed desire that such a lack engenders. The films succeeded commercially because most viewers understood that deep inside each one of them there was this abysmal gap — a desire for change, never mind how much effort and violence the system invests to keep it repressed, unconscious. And bringing this to the surface is one thing the movie achieves, despite of, or, precisely, because of its using of Hollywood’s most Hollywoodesque conventions.

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.