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: Margin Call

17 03 2012

If anyone ever wanted to know about the problems facing rich white people, tell them to pop “Margin Call” into their DVD player.  When it’s not faintly allegorizing what “Inside Job” had the balls to hit dead on, it’s dealing with the pathetic plight of financial sector employees like 23-year-old Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) who is only bringing home $250,000 per year at an entry level position.  Clearly he can related to little orphan Annie when she sang that it’s a hard knock life for us.

Writer/director J.C. Chandor, in his first feature, narrates the film much like a play, letting the principal characters guide the story.  Aside from maybe one line from a security guard, you won’t hear the voice of the people who will be most affected by the actions in this movie.  There’s one scene in an elevator where Demi Moore’s Sarah Robertson and Simon Baker’s Jared Cohen gravely discuss the implications of their conduct, and in between them is a cleaning lady.  In one of the few great touches of the film and with an almost macabre sense of dark humor, Chandor makes sure that she is totally oblivious to the grave implications of what’s happening in the building she cleans.

“Margin Call” was the beneficiary of chance when the Occupy movement began right around its October 2011 release date, and there are several lines which I feel could have been ripped straight off their cardboard signs.  His portrayal of the investment bankers are shallow, simply becoming more evil and out-of-touch with the more money they make.  The sweeping generalizations of the film are about as ill-conceived as his “magic formula” that predicts the coming of the 2008 financial crisis; I’m wondering if even he knew what on earth it was.  There’s no attempt to explain what a CDO is, or even what on earth these traders do.  There’s great complexity to the system beyond his adaptation of “Baby’s First Guide to Capitalism,” believe it or not.

There are some decent acting moments that make “Margin Call” a watchable movie, and the script has just above the requisite amount of intrigue to keep your attention.  But with all these “one percenter”s just talking about how to spend their millions in convertibles, you wouldn’t think that the world economy was about to collapse.  I know that exists, but if you want to demonize rich people, why not just make a movie only about CEOs of investment banks in September 2008.  C





WTLFT: October 2011

28 09 2011

Can I get a collective “WHOOP WHOOP” for my return from the first month of college hiatus? [pause] If any of you all are still out there (doubtful), you can be louder!  So I’ll need you to comment (shameless plug for commenting).

While I’m on my winning streak of humor, I’ll funnel this goodwill into making you read my post about what to look forward to in October.  Reviews will be coming soon for “50/50,” “Drive,” and “Warrior” with hopes that I’ll find time to squeeze in “The Debt,” “Contagion,” and “Moneyball” somehow between classes, homework, and a social life of sorts.

October is my probably my favorite month of the year, not just for the selfish reason that it’s my month of birth.  It’s a great month to be outside; I’m especially excited this year that I will be out of Texas and in a place where I can experience fall and changing seasons.  It’s also a time of changing seasons at your movie theater, out with summer leftovers and slightly dumpy September fare and in with late-year commercial fare and some early awards plays.  Here’s what 2011 has to offer us in the month of October:

October 7

The best of the month may come in its first weekend with “The Ides of March,” a political thriller written, produced, and directed by George Clooney, who also puts in some time in front of the camera.  The real star is Ryan Gosling as a campaign manager torn between opposing sides of a presidential race.  The movie will surely have important and relevant implications for the way that the modern campaign is run and will no doubt be a major player in the Oscar race this year.  Even if it’s just an early check on your best of 2011 laundry list, this has to be a must-see for every cinephile.

Meanwhile, “Real Steel” … yeah, can’t say I have the highest of hopes for that.  “Transformers” already gave me plenty of clanging metal this year.

On the other side of the tracks, there’s Juno Temple in “Dirty Girl,” a story of sexual mores in 1987 Oklahoma.  It stars Juno Temple, who will have a role in “The Dark Knight Rises,” so it may be worthwhile to see just to say you knew who she was before her breakout (if indeed she does do that).

In case you haven’t had enough Jessica Chastain this year between “The Debt,” “The Help,” and “The Tree of Life,” she also appears in “Texas Killing Fields,” which – no offense to the talent involved – looks like one of those C-list movies you’d find on the “just added” section of Netflix streaming between “Tangled” and “The Expendables.”

This weekend also brings a strange extreme with “The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence,” which looks to overcome the sequel slump by presenting a story of life imitating art (if you want to call the gross-out horror film that shocked audiences last year art).  It’s a must for sadists and horror fanatics; others would do best to just stay home.

October 14

This Friday marks my birthday … and Hollywood celebrates by releasing two remakes and a Jack Black comedy.  Mental confetti just splattered the walls of my brain.

“Men of a Certain Age” gets a big-screen adaptation after cancellation – but directed by “The Devil Wears Prada” (I’m actually being serious here) – as two aging Frat Pack comedians and the guy who has hosted “Saturday Night Live” the second most times in history go on a trip to fight their ennui by taking a trip in “The Big Year.”  Wait, maybe this is a remake …

Meanwhile, ’80s nostalgia runs rampant as “Footloose” and “The Thing” both get updated.  Note to bloggers/columnists: the question “Why aren’t the originals sufficient?” has been asked and answered dozens of times before.

Off the mainstream, “Trespass” begs the question of whether or not the Academy can revoke Nicolas Cage’s Oscar.  But on a more positive note, one of my favorite modern directors, Pedro Almodóvar, is back with his latest film, “The Skin I Live In.”  It didn’t get the strongest reviews out of Cannes, but it looks haunting and beautiful.  Plus, I’ll see just about anything he makes.

October 21

I’m legally prohibited from sharing any thoughts on “Martha Marcy May Marlene” until it hits theaters in Houston – but for now, enjoy the trailer.  And if you are really that curious about the movie, listen to “Marcy’s Song,” a tune from John Hawkes that plays briefly at the end.

How many times can we remake “The Three Musketeers?”  I’m calling it now that in 2022, the kids from “Slumdog Millionaire” will star as Athos, Porthos, and whatever Jamal’s final guess was.  Last year’s October release “Secretariat” gets remade for 2011 as “The Mighty Macs,” this time featuring the woman ahead of her time as a college basketball coach.  “Paranormal Activity 3” gets slightly creative as it goes back to the origins of the horror from the original, but it’s still a sell-out.

On the indie circuit, “Margin Call” boasts a quasi-“Contagion” level of prestige but doesn’t seem to be generating much buzz.  I guess that post-“Inside Job” and “Too Big to Fail,” recession backstories may be old and tired.

October 28

One of my biggest pet peeves is hearing about amazing movies that play at Sundance in January and then having to wait to see them until the end of the year.  Hopefully my patience will be rewarded with “Like Crazy,” the movie that everyone emerged from the festival talking about.  Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin are two hot talents rising in the industry; hopefully this catches on with the mainstream and helps their careers skyrocket.

“In Time” could be an interesting mix of high-octane popcorn blockbuster and political allegory … or the trailer just gave off false notions.  I’ll have to hover over this one for a little while before deciding what my schedule for seeing it is.

The director of “2012” and “Independence Day” is making a movie with Oscar buzz?!  In what world do we live now?  Might as well check out “Anonymous” … apparently Rhys Ifan’s performance is startlingly good.

I wasn’t a big fan of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” but “The Rum Diary” just looks like Hunter S. Thompson light.  Even with Johnny Depp back, this doesn’t look like it can drum up a lot of enthusiasm.  Speaking of not drumming up a lot of enthusiasm, how about “Johnny English Reborn?”  Waiting 8 years between installments doesn’t do you a lot of good when the original didn’t do particularly well.

So, are you more excited that I’m back burning up the blogosphere or that October is coming soon?  Take the poll, leave a comment, do whatever – but make your voice heard!