The Big Short: A Culture Charmed by a Smiling Oligarchy

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Guy Zimmerman, in reviewing the new Wall Street film The Big Short, muses on the desperate conformity required in today’s entertainment in this new Gilded Age of oligarchy and disempowerment that has overtaken culture in the U.S.

Wall Street, The Big Short, film

Images of greed and stupidity are presented like Italian frescos in “The Big Short.” Yet, why did firms like Bear, Stearns & Co, Lehman Brothers, Wachovia, Countrywide and others originate sub-prime mortgages and sell securities based on this toxic waste? Unfortunately, the film leaves out discussion of equally important culprit behind the financial crisis, bad monetary policies from the Greenspan/Bernanke Federal Reserve and the prime mortgage loan monopoly by Big Bank Government Sponsored Enterprises.

3 Cards on a Box Top and the Politics of the Repellent

By Guy Zimmerman, Published in the Times Quotidian

This is Part 2 of Shame in the Gilded Age

At Boston Court in June of 2015, Steven Leigh Morris of the LA Weekly, along with his colleague Luis Reyes and theater artist Mark Seldis, suffered through a long afternoon of tech challenges in order to arrange, by satellite simulcast, the reading of new U.S. theater texts by actors in Poland, and the reading of new Polish texts by U.S. actors on the Pasadena stage. It was a while ago now and the technical aspects of the event dominate my memory, but I do recall being struck again and again by an interesting point of contrast between the Polish and the American actors. The gifted director Nancy Keystone, who staged one of the texts that day, captured that difference in a simple declarative statement: Polish actors do not ask to be liked.

She was referring to a quality permeating each moment of performance—on the simulcast that day the Poles allowed themselves to be sullen and obdurate, venal and, when necessary, utterly devoid of charisma. In equally subtle ways the U.S. actors always seemed to be devoting great expressive resources to the task of creating a positive impression, selling themselves, basically, in the marketplace of our attention. If dramatic representation were a trivial activity perhaps our demand for charm in our actors wouldn’t rate as an interesting limitation, but it turns out to reveal quite a lot about the desperate conformity that has accompanied the rise of the U.S. right, and the transformation of the New Deal into our new Gilded Age of oligarchy and disempowerment.

I was struck again by the likeability issue with the recent release of The Big Short, a film one can feel grateful for, perhaps admire, even while recognizing that its salutary impact on the viewing public is likely to be extremely limited. The fact that this indictment of the 2008 crash has been crafted by the auteur of Anchorman and Talladega Nights (Adam McKay) might seem to point towards the kind of populist accessibility that has made Saturday Night Live the dominant comedic and dramatic paradigm of the past four decades. That, however, is exactly the problem with the film, because the distinguishing characteristic of the SNL performer is precisely a capacity to remain likeable even while portraying the repellent.

Think of the iconic impersonations—Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford, Dan Aykroyd as Nixon, Dana Carey as Bill Clinton, even the formidable Tina Fey as Sarah Palin–by virtue of their inherent likeability, these performers have taught us how to love the politicians who are selling us out completely. These supposedly satirical portrayals of anti-democratic politicians allow us to overlook the larger and more systemic shifts endangering our actual lives. And so, when Steve Carell’s character Mark Baum states in The Big Short that “Fraud never ever works,” the assertion rings hollow—the history of U.S. society since Reagan, in fact, suggests not only that fraud is definitely the way to go, and that the deployment of charisma is one of its central mechanisms.

It may be that by its nature the mode of sketch comedy, dependent as it is on the quirks of the particular, helps to de-politicize our social world. McKay, in The Big Short, for example, suggests that the problem isn’t banking in general, or the rules of banking, but these particular bankers. Not oligarchy as an obnoxious political system, but this or that particular obnoxious oligarch. It is no coincidence that SNL rose to its position of dominance at exactly the same time as the neoliberal right. The inside joke, the knowing wink—sketch comedy evokes a world in which it really is possible to be a-political, a delusion we are encouraged to enjoy as we reconcile ourselves to powerlessness and resignation. Unable to provide any coherent vision of a viable alternative, the left has become trapped in a jester role, and now the figure of the jester returns in demonic form as Donald Trump, a sketch comedy tyrant for our age, a walking-talking Saturday Night Live parody of himself, whose appeal lies precisely in the tropes of likeability and common sense. We should not allow ourselves to laugh even for a moment.

******

As a teenager I learned about con games in Central Park. Near the band shell one day a small crowd had gathered to watch an older Latino gentleman lay ten spots down where he thought the thin blond man had dealt the red ace. I watching this guy lose three times running. Then, egged on by a black girl with corn rows, I laid my ten on the right card—immediately all four of these characters leaned in around the box top as the cards were switched and my money quickly pocketed. Turning to look at me in unison, this team gave me to understand that my best course of action, by far, was to simply walk away.

A similar moment arrived for the U.S. as a whole in 2008 when the banks began to fail and all the free market blather of the last four decades was revealed as the long con it had always been, our purchased leaders leaning in so that their Wall Street bosses could pocket the wealth of the U.S. middle class. Traumatized by forty years of class warfare from above, lied to and manipulated by a steady stream of Fox News-style indoctrination and disinformation, the bewildered middle class is increasingly characterized by symptoms of a familiar mass psychosis, a self-amplifying social collapse toward fascism, war and atrocity.

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“What are the odds that people will make smart decisions about money if they don’t need to make smart decisions–if they can get rich making dumb decisions? The incentives on Wall Street were all wrong; they’re still all wrong.” — Michael Lewis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine

It’s all a bit sad and pathetic, actually. In the Reagan years, neoliberal ideologues could posture as a kind of avant-garde force. The “creative destruction” of capitalism, according to these thinkers, was a Shiva-like, differential force only the select few were capable of safely tapping. Sounding like a radical French theorist, Reagan’s favorite author George Gilders could laud the ability of the visionary entrepreneur to create desire itself, supplying needs the rest of us didn’t even know we had. Far from a rational force, the capitalist was captivating, charismatic—as brimming with subversive, Dionysian energies as a rock-star, and to him we should all raise a candle in the frenzied amphitheater of global consumerism. Markets in this picture are originary and foundational, a product of nature more than culture. To surrender to this force becomes a life-affirming embrace of the differential energies of primordial nature—the cosmos can itself be viewed as a supply-side affair. Happily enough, in a world of this kind, there’s really no need for politics at all—the laws of supply and demand override those of representational democracy. History can safely “end.”

On closer inspection, the astute observer might note how the embrace of differential, Dionysian energies on the part of these right-wing thinkers always subsided at certain clearly-inscribed boundaries—and disappeared altogether at that especially hard-and-fast boundary—an insurmountable wall, really—that demarks what is known to specialists as private property. There all boundaries remain as fixed and permanent as the armor of a tank – what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours, forever, in perpetuity, on pain of death. After the big bailout of ’08 this supply-side posturing, and the even more lurid con-game of “trickle down economics,” began to seem indecent. The spectacle of bankers peddling fraudulent mortgages and then covering their inevitable losses from the tax-paying public while making off with $25 million bonuses underscored the anti-market core of the neoliberal fantasy.

Follow, if you can, the red card in this dizzying sequence: first we promulgate the myth of the originary market. Markets, in point of fact, have always been the creation of states, and their creation has always been a matter of politics through and through. But this lie—the lie of the originary market—is encased within a larger deception because, in actuality, those promoting the myth of the originary market actually represent anti-market forces—the forces of monopoly. By the time you figure it all out it is too late because the right has already used its financial leverage to sabotage crucial mechanisms of representative democracy. Confronting us is that boring old story of the rigged game: monopoly capitalism. Not adaptive, but rather maladaptive, no Darwinian principle redeems the social violence falling from on high like a dark rain. The self-anointed “winners” at the social pinnacle are distinguished not by any particular strength, but rather by cowardice and desperation, rigging the rules to create a system so devoid of fairness it delivers only the most hollow of victories.

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“The moment Salomon Brothers demonstrated the potential gains to be had from turning an investment bank into a public corporation and leveraging its balance sheet with exotic risks, the psychological foundations of Wall Street shifted, from trust to blind faith. No investment bank owned by its employees would have leveraged itself 35:1, or bought and held $50 billion in mezzanine Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs).” — Michael Lewis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine

What is an oligarch to do? Well, thankfully, we can always reach for the foreign threat…the clash of civilizations…not to mention the ultimate Trump card: the enemy within. Historically this kind of demagoguery, this demonization of the Other, has lead to horrific wars and social violence, but with the Left divided against itself in ways that make coherent action impossible, who’s to stop it? One of the strongest moments in The Big Short is when Ryan Gosling’s character, Vinnett, explains what will unfold—before long the criminality of the banks will be forgotten and the blame will be re-directed at immigrants and foreigners. At moments like these the film inspires gratitude towards director McKay, to towards Brad Pitt and his co-producers for their diligent, paint-by-numbers breakdown of who did what to whom, but the film remains oddly neutral in its politics. How do you honor the likeability quotient—the prohibition against portraying the unlikeable—while covering a story about this kind of criminality? Locate those few who “won” in the crisis and focus the narrative on that.

Still invisible in The Big Short are those who have set this immense fraud in motion. To see them up-close-and-personal another recent film, Foxcatcher (2014), in which Steve Carell shows what he can do when allowed to inhabit the repellent, serves as a compelling contrast.

******

Foxcatcher chronicles the murder in 1988 of Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz by the unhinged billionaire John du Pont, who deployed part of his immense fortune to dress up his homoerotic fantasy of being a coach of Olympic-level wrestlers. With unflinching courage, Carell plays du Pont as a truly repellent figure, an absolute loser in every category save that of being to-the-manor born. The politics are mostly in the background of the story, except for one sequence in which du Pont takes his new protégé Mark Schultz (Dave’s younger brother) to a convention of “patriots” in DC and the writer-director Bennett Miller treats us to the ghastly spectacle of this pathetic emblem of privilege delivering the standard right-wing crapola to thunderous applause.

The film deftly reminds us that in 1988 the ascent of the dismal Oligarchy of our new Gilded Age—the Kochs, the Adelsons and the Trumps—had begun in earnest. Unseen, un-represented in the popular imagination, the truly unlikeable was rising to a position of social and political dominance. Foxcatcher provides the most accurate depiction of the nature of oligarchy once all the PR is allowed to drain away—if The Big Short depicts the lie of neoliberalism, Foxcatcher depicts the bigger lie that wraps around it. And while The Big Short suggests we are the victims of unscrupulous men with the chutzpah to bend the rules, Foxcatcher, by allowing Carell to portray a repellent truth, makes you want to turn off the entertainment and do something about it.

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Foxcatcher, Steve Carell, Bennett Miller

Foxcatcher director Bennett Miller told Steve Carell to write down the worst thing he’d ever done, to find a moment so evil and/or embarrassing he would never tell his wife. He then made him put the piece of paper inside his pocket before shooting the movie’s most pivotal scene.

Foxcatcher was one of those interesting films that strike a chord, but that we want to forget as soon as possible. At Oscar time the film was nominated for Best Director but not Best Picture, an incongruence indicating an odd discomfort—the world of the film is a world requiring us to make some changes, and that feels like too big a burden. Also, what kind of change would that be? A good beginning would be to stop getting suckered into a superfluous condemnation of the market place as a soulless mechanism. We get nowhere tilting at that windmill—if, as noted above, markets are the creation of states and not pre-political nature, they are clearly only good or bad depending on how we set them up.

With that minor change the issue of monopoly power can be seen for what it is: an arrangement that is utterly indefensible on both moral and pragmatic grounds. And so, while a truly radical response might be to ask what it would mean to invite a differential imperative into the domain of property law (more on this later), all we would need to do in the short run to make some positive change would be to enforce the anti-trust laws still on the books. One might even find support for this path among the elite—without question the oligarchs on Wall Street and in corporate boardrooms across the land, like the German industrialists of the 1930’s, are having to take stock of the phenomenal success of the campaign they launched during the Nixon years (well, even earlier, actually) to reconfigure American culture—is the United States of Trump really the world they wanted with such conspiratorial fervor?

Guy Zimmerman is an award-winning writer, director and producer, serving as artistic director of Padua Playwrights since 2001. Under his direction this LA-based company has staged over twenty-eight productions of new plays. Zimmerman has edited a six-volume anthology series for Padua Press, distributed nationally by TCG. Previously, Zimmerman wrote for network television, including the shows Cracker, The Pretender and Wonderland. His articles and essays about film, theater, art, science and politics have been published in the LA Weekly, LA Theater Magazine, Backstage West, the LA Citizen, Cyrano’s Journal, Bedlam Magazine and, most recently, the arts and culture website Times Quotidian.

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