I remember what 2007-2009 looked and felt like for me. I had just transferred from a public university to a private one in 2006 for a better education, and by 2007, my parents’ business was heavily on the decline. By 2008, they were facing bankruptcy and by 2009, the house they bought in October 1999 was under foreclosure.
When the financial crisis actually hit, I was a junior in college facing an economy that offered no prospects for me. Bush was still President but Obama was campaigning and eventually won.
When I saw the trailer for THE BIG SHORT, I was most intrigued by the fact that a comedic director (Adam McCay) was making a film about finance. I was also drawn by the interesting medley of actors: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and pleasant surprise actress appearances by Melissa Leo and Marisa Tomei. Leo and Tomei’s screen times were very little compared to the rest of the male casts’ in this sausage fest film. Furthermore, I found it really strange that the movie’s protagonists were also part of the giant problem. Rather than being whistleblowers, they benefited off of the detriment of the crisis which hurt families of lower income the most.
There were maybe three distinct moments where actors show a sense of conflicting morale but just because they appear to struggle with their morals onscreen, does that image overpower the fact that they’ve profited a huge sum from the crisis?
The film has at least two allusions to Scorsese’s THE WOLF OF WALL STREET: 1) Gosling’s narration breaking the fourth wall 2) Margot Robbie’s cameo (she’s sitting naked in a tub drinking champagne, btw… just another dimensionless actress whose function is to literally appeal to the male gaze, as though this film is solely for the male audience…)
What worked in WOLF… is that the protagonist simply has no moral crisis or dilemma when it comes to the money game. He doesn’t care at all that he’s exploiting the working class and he doesn’t change at the end of the movie, either.
What THE BIG SHORT does, however, is to attempt humanization where no humanity can be taken from. The men who were part of this real estate bubble–the ones who contributed to it then took from the blood bath after it burst–are still bastards no matter how much the film tried to appeal to me as a human film.
Just because Gosling’s character admits onscreen that he never claimed to have been the good guy doesn’t make these characters any less villainous in my viewing. In fact it pisses me off even more that a movie with a $28 million budget was dedicated to humanizing thieves and trying to convince the ticket buying public that these guys are on our side.
The film does attempt to demystify financial talk for the viewers. Does it do it successfully? For the most part, no. But it seems to applaud itself for doing such a great job. It’s almost patronizing in this way. It’s filled with pop icons to dumb down the educational experience for the sheep colony audience.
With that said, what was most remarkable about this movie was the editing. It keeps the viewer engaged and does bring insight into the lives of working, bill paying people who were affected by the crisis. On that same note, it tries very hard to distinguish the bad finance guys from the good finance guys. This is a directing problem and in that regard, I view the movie as hypocritical on its foundation.
I’m not interested in hearing about who saw what coming and made what. Did they fight for the working people’s cause? Nope.
That’s the point of the movie. The fact that the film masquerades as a morally just story that is a voice of the people is appalling to me.
At the very least, the film does alert the viewer and say that the problem has returned and puts the onus on the audience to seek out change. Again, I take this push for moral values with a grain of salt. How can working, bill-paying, ticket buying viewers impact the financial system? It’s too tremendous of a question.
Had this excellent cast and budget been put into the story of those who did pioneer a strategy that has shown success in affecting the financial system then the audience would have tools to begin something at the very least. But what this film seems to do is simply say, this happened and this will continue to happen. It doesn’t offer any real solution. Instead it makes us laugh it off. Because it’s a comedy, right?
Linda Williams’ “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess” discusses excess in equation with the “gross” and the “perverse,” much like Foucault describes the sex-police’s view of any sexual immorality that does not fulfill reproduction as excessive and therefore perverse. I like Williams’ description of what makes genres such as the melodrama, porn and horror excessive through their added visual and aural effects for the screen.
I’ve often wondered why I avoided genre films that cause an intense bodily experience through added effects–excess effects–and it’s because, much like Mary Ann Doane’s description–I feel like my senses are being “raped” or manipulated by these kinds of films. I hate walking out of a theater with all my senses worked up, which is why I prefer films without a lot of music to “hijack” my emotions, or excessive effects that make me think about driving a fast car all day. Maybe it’s the dishonesty that offends me–walking out feeling like my body has been tricked, or like waking up after a blackout. This is kind of why I found Lucy so unpleasant. Watching something with so many effects early in the morning was overwhelming. It reminds me of the time I went to a matinee screening of Wolf of Wall Street and feeling kind of assaulted for the rest of the day. It also reminds me of the time in college when a roommate was watching The Messenger, so I had to leave the room because I absolutely hated what was going on.
The experience is similar to how Laura Marks describes the synthetic smell of jasmine in “Thinking Multisensory Culture,” and how this deprives one of accessing the real. I like staying present in my being even when watching a film. It’s a more comfortable state for me. The kinds of films that do that for me are often really slow ones, and I like being able to turn my neck in the theater to examine the entire screen to take time and notice the picture in its entirety. But that’s just me. There are plenty of people who can’t stand movies by Apitchatpong Weerasethakul but I dig them.
Williams’ connection of the three genres and how they link to ideas of excess, perverse, and gross is a lot like Marks’ connection to the truffles, the pigs and human perspiration/excrement. I’ve often thought about perfumes and how manufacturers add deer musk to them. This idea of using animal perspiration in order to please human social environments was always interesting and weird for me. It makes a point on how the use of an animal perspiration in order to mask human odor actually blurs the line between what pleases the human olfactory and offends it.
The blurry line between what pleases and offends, and how pleasure and offense are socially acquired concepts also interest me, like how white cultures hated Korean food for so long because it stinks but now they’re all about it. The rise in Korean food’s popularity is in conjunction to the country’s rise as a global economy. That offensive smell of fermented soybeans and cabbage, which was once a huge cause for alarm (there’s a story in 1960s Germany, when Korean students made soybean stew in their dorms, the authorities called fire trucks believing that the sewage pipes had burst), is now a fad, and is now in the realm of acceptable smelly foods like smelly cheeses are (has anyone ever smelled a piece of raclette?).
To critique the film Lucy a bit further, I found this line, “Do you speak English?” coming up again and again really distasteful. Even when they’re in France, the cop asks the gangsters, “Do you speak English?” not “Do you speak French?” It’s this blockbuster preference for English always–no matter what–because that’s the way to sell–and assuming that if a person has an Asian face, the question, “Do you speak English?” must always be asked by default. A language that isn’t English is like a smell that needs to be expunged or covered up with loud images, sounds and effects. These gangsters are speaking a language we don’t understand or care to understand; the audience won’t understand or care to understand. Let’s make a million police cars tumble over one another so that people can forget about their irrelevant language.
Even after Lucy acquires all these new skills, and while knowing full-well that she is in Taipei, she walks around with a gun demanding to speak only to people who speak English. Otherwise, they’re shot to death. So bizarre. Crazy. When I saw that scene in the trailer in theaters, I knew I didn’t want to pay to go see this movie. A scene like that celebrates exceptionalism. How Luc Besson and his producers don’t see the danger in that is depressing to me.
Having Choi Min-sik star in a film that is set in Taipei is also weird. Much like how kimchi and dwenjang are part of white fetishism/fad, the star of Old Boy is now part of the perfume club. But why is there a Korean g sitting around in Taipei? Why not his own country? It’s another one of those–“Oh, they’re all the same–doesn’t matter”–kind of moviemaking pull: “Taiwanese, Korean–same face, same thing.” There’s no explanation for this displacement. Even while conducting business in Taipei, Choi’s character speaks Korean. He’s linguistically impotent–no Mandarin, no English, no French–just a violent Korean thug. I found this bit distasteful, too, not to mention irresponsible.
If I have to dig for merits to the film, I’d say the effects were really interesting. They were avant-garde, and exploring something we don’t know yet, and imagining a future. I enjoyed the interruption shots of the mouse trap/mouse, and the predator/prey. These random intercuts show the versatility of the moving image as a medium in order to express mood.
These kinds of avant-garde techniques are present in The Last Angel of History. The film reminds me of videos I’ve seen at museums that play with sound and image for a new experience. The film itself is in line with what the black musicians like Sun Ra, George Clinton and others were attempting with futuristic sounds and experiences. This reference to the future as a return to something is infinitely fascinating to me. I think there’s something there to explore with regards to excess, too, and the excess’ history in relation to sci-fi and sensationalism. It’s something I’ll be thinking about.
I read about female genital mutilation (FGM) in an anthropology class as a freshman in college, and what I recollect the most is that one of the main purposes of FGM is to make sex unpleasant for girls in order to prevent infidelity—essentially, perform a painful circumcision on women for an ideology that suits the dominant group—the patriarch. But notice how in Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaade (2004), polygamy for men is the norm at the village in Burkina Faso; women must remain faithful to one man and not enjoy sex, but men can have more than one wife and enjoy sex.
While reading Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus,” I thought a lot about what causes harmful/oppressive traditions and practices to continue in spite of being inhumane. Althusser notes ideology’s “reproduction of production” and the agencies that allow this production to perpetuate. While watching Moolaade, I kept wondering why the male elders in the film persistently remained ignorant to the problems that were arising from the practice of FGM as a ritual for young girls in the village. As Althusser might put it, the male elders’ ideology does not “correspond with reality,” and as agents of reproducing the product of their ideology, they must uphold tradition (protect their ideology) and all of its rituals including FGM. For instance, when news spreads that the girls have run away from the “purification” ceremony, the men simply say that the girls must return to the ritual and have the performance done. When news spreads that two of the girls committed suicide at the well to avoid the circumcision, the men simply move on from the topic and avoid discussing it (meanwhile, the women of the village all gather in the night by the well to stand vigil). When Binetou dies from the performance, the men remain firm in their stance and express no remorse for the death of yet another young girl. While doing so, they cite Allah, and say that a man’s word trumps that of a woman’s, and so Colle must undo the Moolaade. Althusser’s diagnosis of a hurtful practice continuing in spite of its harms would simply be that this village is performing what any other Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) would perform, and that is protecting the actions and agents that produce the State’s ideology by putting it to practice, thus allowing this ideology to regenerate, perpetuate and reproduce.
Jacqueline Bobo writes in “The Color Purple: Black Women as Cultural Readers” that “traditions are made, not born.” Similarly, Althusser argues that ideology is a concept that is universally present in the minds of individuals and as a collective: “Ideology has no history.” If this is true, then it introduces the possibility that a new idea that gets upheld as an ideology can also permeate through groups and enter the collective consciousness to become the new ideology; as Bobo puts it, “When an articulation arises, old ideologies are disrupted and a cultural transformation is accomplished.” In Moolaade, this articulation begins with Colle first claiming a Moolaade for the girls who ran away, and protecting them. Then Colle is beaten in public before everyone in the village including the male elders. The transformation happens in the form of encouragement from the women standing by for Colle, telling her not to give up or fall down; this begins to materialize a new ideology by disrupting the old ideology; the tears shed by Amasatou while watching her mother get beaten is another disruption of the old ideology, where she would have done anything (buy new clothes, get her genitals cut) so that she could marry Ibrahima—a wealthy man of a respected family. This breakdown of the old spirit leading to an awakening for all of the village women is finalized in the film through the death of Binetou, one of the youngest of the group of girls who fled the ceremony.
When the women arrive at the center of the village—at the site of the phallic-looking mosque—where the women’s confiscated radios burn, the women confiscate the Exciseuses’ knives and throw them into the same fire; the women no longer need the radio to inform them of what is right and wrong; they hold that information internally, they have a voice to express what they believe in, and the willingness to put those beliefs into action. Furthermore, when the Exciseuses give up the knives, they become allies with the mothers—even for a moment; the mothers who suffered pain and loss stand together with the women who performed FGM and killed their daughters while upholding an old ideology: “An articulation results from a coming together of separate discourses under certain specific conditions and at specific times” (Bobo, 105).
Althusser says that an ideology “recruits.” Ideology functions through “interpellation” or “hailing.” It catches the attention of the subject through a Subject (mirror effect). In Moolaade, the Exciseuses finally recognize themselves in the mothers who suffered child loss and pain, and most especially in Colle—a martyr figure (like Christ, as Althusser might put it). The women in the village who previously stood with the Exciseuses later come to tell Colle that they “felt the blows” when Colle was being beaten before them, thus hailing them towards a new ideology. This cross recognition leads to what Bobo calls a “cultural transformation.” Bobo is not naïve, though. She says, “[Cultural transformation] is always in the process of becoming.” Ideology—new or old—can only exist when there are agents who keep it in function, and allow it to materialize.
In the second to last scene, when Amasatou tells Ibrahima that she is and always will remain a “Bilakoro,” her stance is as important as Ibrahima’s decision to accept her for what she is without trying to fit her into the outdated ideology—one that silenced and ignored the women’s cries against FGM; the union of these two will put the new ideology into motion through practice. Sembene’s maleness as a filmmaker is important for this film. The two men who express their support of the women’s ideology—Ibrahim and Colle’s husband—do so by physically walking away from the shade where the male elders sit; they each come to terms with leaving behind what ideologically defined their masculinity in order to find union and happiness with the women in their new ideology. This recognition from agents of the patriarch is also noteworthy. This alliance is also part of the articulation that Bobo describes, and part of the unity that must be “strengthened.”
(Originally published on UCLA’s FTVDM Bulletin.)
*There is a new film out entitled Sembene! (2015) which recently played at the AFI Film Festival. Check your local theaters to find play dates.