FEATURE: Bad Apples Up On Top

20 01 2013

NOTE: This post was originally published on Dead Politics Society, a blog for my Political Sociology class in the spring of 2012, as my final paper.

“Let me tell you about the very rich,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “they are different from you and me.” If you look at eight movies that specifically tackle economic malaise following the 2008 recession, you would find that Fitzgerald rings true still today. They have Degas paintings in their office (The Company Men), expensive sports cars in their garage (Margin Call), and pools with a $100 bill painted on the bottom above their penthouse (Tower Heist).

Never mind that hundreds of feet below their offices and miles from their mansions, the unemployment rate swelled to 10% and 2.3 million Americans had their homes foreclosed. These films depict the fat cats of corporate America thriving off the misery of the middle-class, setting up two powerful frames for moviegoers to view the tough times. To borrow terms from Diana Kendall (2011), the upper crust is repeatedly portrayed through “bad apples framing” while the middle-class is seen through “victimization framing,” a clash which sets up audiences to view the post-recessional landscape as a class conflict.

Each of these films represents a frame that is episodic in nature since they are limited, unrelated narratives dealing with the financial crisis in some way; these reports attribute individual responsibility to large societal problems (Iyengar 1996). So rather than closely scrutinizing how capitalism itself might be responsible for middle-class woes, post-recessional cinema endorsed a theory of “bad apples capitalism.” This belief, rooted in the idea that a few people who refuse to play by the rules can ruin an entire system (Baum 2011), allows viewers to direct their anger at a person rather than an abstract concept (Kendall 2011).

Indeed, it is much easier to blame Gordon Gekko, the banker who refers to money as a “b*tch who never sleeps” (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), and John Tuld, the CEO who calls money “made up” (Margin Call) than to find the entire capitalistic system guilty for the current American misery. The “bad apples” emphasis allows the movies to rile cages and stir anger without inciting revolutionary sentiment. They villainize the products of corporate America without actually attacking corporate America. (Corporate profits make these movies happen, so “bad apples” is about as close as they can get to critiquing the system.)

To emphasize the corruption of the rich corporate moguls, the movies shower us with lavish descriptions of their lifestyles. They chat about their million-dollar paychecks while the financial system teeters on the verge of collapse (Margin Call), and we hear about their private islands in Belize (Tower Heist) as well as how they make 700 times the salary of the average worker in their company (The Company Men). And all of this has blinded them to the plight of their workers – they claim to work for their shareholders instead of their employees (The Company Men), rob hardworking staff of their pensions (Tower Heist), and claim that massive layoffs present an “opportunity” for those left at the company (Margin Call).

Meanwhile, the middle class, out of their sight and most definitely out of their minds, is shown as trying to preserve their virtues and lifestyles amidst the turmoil. They have to sell their car to get by (Larry Crowne), take on a bartending job at night to put food on the table (Win Win), and move back in with their parents out of necessity (The Company Men). Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air takes the most wrenching look at their economic woes, putting real downsized workers in front of the camera to reenact their firings and rehash their financial fears. Current cinema has, in other words, provided a fresh set of faces to fit the bill for the “new poor” archetype that first came to prominence during recessions in the 1980s (Gilens 1999).

(NOTE: Both of these clips show firing scenes with staged actors, but they echo the general sentiment of the truly unemployed.)

However, the middle class is normally defined by their values rather than income (Kendall 2011), and post-recessional cinema makes its depiction go further than just merely downward mobility: the crisis threatens to break the country’s moral backbone. The economy forces them to contemplate taking money unethically from the elderly (Win Win), relapse into alcoholism (Everything Must Go), and launches them into depression that ultimately proves suicidal for some (Up in the Air and The Company Men). In the extreme case of Tower Heist, a comedy that borders on farce, fired workers even hire a convicted felon to help them steal $20 million from a rich man who conned them. Sadly, Hollywood showed through this recession that the squeeze forced them to budge on their values.

Ultimately, a hopeful Hollywood ending comes for the middle-class that allows them to reconnect with their values and inherent goodness (Kinkle and Toscano 2011). Yet most films provide a pass to the people who caused the suffering as well. They make over a billion dollars off the crisis (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), walk out the door with a $90 million severance check (The Company Men), and giddily look forward to profiting from the meltdown (Margin Call). So why do they get off easy? Honesty.

In real life, these executives not only escaped punishment but also saw their fortunes grow. The filmmakers want us to be angry when the movie ends. So far, it has worked. Polls show that 60% of Americans supported cutting payroll taxes, and over half support raising taxes only on people who make more than $250,000 a year. If Obama ever gets the Buffet rule passed, he owes Hollywood a debt of gratitude.

For full bibliography, see the original post on Dead Politics Society.

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REVIEW: Larry Crowne

29 06 2011

The recessionary spirit has started to manifest itself in American cinema at full force, and thanks to “Larry Crowne,” it has entered mainstream romantic comedy.  While it’s less like “Up in the Air” and more like a double-length sitcom episode, the movie works as a reminder that dignity, integrity, and the will to work are three powerful weapons against the tough times facing our country.  This commentary mostly takes a backseat to the been there, done that genre tropes – but just the fact that it has subtext makes it deeper that just about every romantic comedy in the past decade.

Say what you will about the declining power of movie stars, but I don’t think this movie would have worked without its marquee names, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.  We’ve all seen the good-natured person melt the cold exterior of someone else, although “Larry Crowne” does invert it by making the man nice and the woman chilly.  The characters are one-dimensional; Hanks’ Larry being an embodiment of good while Roberts’ Mercedes Tainot representing a heart hardened by a bad marriage and the frustrating public education system.

Yet it’s watchable, even fun, because our heads process it as Erin Brockovich falling in love with Forrest Gump.  The romance isn’t good enough to be cared about if we were watching two no-name indie actors, and we accept it because we have a history with these two actors and we trust them.  We aren’t watching Larry Crowne; we are watching Josh Baskin, Andrew Beckett, Joe Fox, and Chuck Noland.  Similarly, we aren’t watching Mercedes Tainot; we are watching Vivian Ward, Julianne Potter, Maggie Carpenter, and Anna Scott.  Where the script lacks, the decades we have spent having these two actors entertain us compensates.  (So if you aren’t a fan of either of the actors, maybe it’s best to steer clear.)

When it’s not quietly extolling American virtues, “Larry Crowne” is light, breezy, and warm.  Its titular character meets an interesting cast of characters at the local community college, explores new hobbies and passions, and confronts the changes in his life with determination and willpower.  While I expect a little bit more from Nia Vardalos, the woman who had me in tears of laughter with “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” in the way of humor, the movie has a sort of pleasant wit to it.  Combined with the likability factor of Hanks and Roberts, the movie makes for a nice and decently satisfying watch.  B / 





WTLFT: July 2011

8 06 2011

Yeah, I shortened the name.  It’s a lot more palatable.  This post will tell you What To Look Forward To in the month of July.  We have transformers, captains, teen stars, teen wizards, sex friends, zoo friends, hellish bosses, honey bears, and smurfs – just to name a few.  Here they all are; you can make up your mind if any of these actually appeal to you.

July 1

Cheating- “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” actually comes out on June 29, and, if you want to get really technical, June 28 at 9:00 in IMAX 3D and RealD 3D.  So while you curse me for my horrific crimes against nature, humanity, and blogging, watch the trailer and decide for yourself whether or not you want to subject yourself to Shia LaBeouf and a lot of loud noises orchestrated by Michael Bay.

On the quieter side of things, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts plan to use their star power to fill seats at “Larry Crowne,” which looks like perfectly middle-of-the-road rom-com territory.  On the louder side of things again – and by louder, I mean girlish screams and constantly ringing cell phones – “Monte Carlo” gives young girls what they need during the summer.  A nice helping of Selena Gomez, Katie Cassidy, and Leighton Meester should have the tweeners saying “OMG!” until the next season of “Wizards of Waverly Place” hits the small screen. (There’s also a creepy thriller called “The Perfect Host” starring David Hyde Pierce, which I feel obliged to mention since it’s the only indie offering amidst these studio genre pics.)

July 8

Fingers crossed that “Horrible Bosses” will be funny!  I remember reading a piece on a blog for The Los Angeles Times well before the movie started production that praised it, so hopefully it stuck to the script.  If it’s a hit, I motion for Jennifer Aniston to stop doing horrible rom-com fare and stick to raunchy comedy; I chuckle every time I watch the trailer and hear her say, “Shabbat shalom; someone’s circumcised!”

As for “Zookeeper” … well, I hope the kids enjoy it.

I’ve definitely been going through a documentary phase ever since last year’s “Inside Job” rocked my world, and Michael Rappaport’s “Beats, Rhymes, & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest” could feed my obsession quite well.  It follows the titular hip-hop group (known as A Tribe Called Quest if you are as clueless as I was) from formation to fame.  Best case scenario it provides a fascinating expose of the craft of rapping much like “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” did for standup comedy last summer.  Worst case scenario I get to see some of my favorite artists talking about a group I’ve never heard of before.

Another interesting documentary (that I can only PRAY makes it to Houston sometime before I leave for college) is “Project Nim,” the story of a chimpanzee experiment.  I’ve always been interested in stories where lines and boundaries we once thought clear are exposed and shown to be more porous and relative than we thought, and this looks to deliver on a big scale.

July 15

Some tiny little series ends on screen.  It’s no big deal, it’s not like these movies define my youth.  It’s not like it’s a worldwide phenomenon.  But in all seriousness, I’m not going to cry.  “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2” – BRING IT ON!

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