The Three-Trillion-Dollar Opera

Despite mostly rave reviews, it’s safe to say that there’s no comparison between 30-year-old Brecht and Margin Call’s 37-year-old writer-director J. C. Chandor, first-time filmmaker and son of a Merrill Lynch lifer. Margin Call has an emptiness at its core, a refusal to answer or even really ask the questions about the system it portrays.

Margin Call

Margin Call (d. J. C. Chandor, US, 2011)

What is robbing a bank compared to founding a bank? Last October, Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera blew into town with questions like that, as relevant as ever. Robert Wilson’s spectacularly designed and acted production at BAM was the first thing I’d seen in a long time that reminded me of what Art feels like, but the tickets weren’t cheap, and the show made me ask myself if Art can solve any of our problems, or if Brecht would have even wanted it to try. Now we have the movie Margin Call, a look behind the scenes at today’s version of criminal (if not technically illegal) scams—those of Wall Street’s filthy rich, not London’s filthy poor.

Despite mostly rave reviews (and some pans—more on that later), it’s safe to say that there’s no comparison between 30-year-old Brecht and Margin Call’s 37-year-old writer-director J. C. Chandor, first-time filmmaker and son of a Merrill Lynch lifer. (Remember Merrill Lynch?) Margin Call has an emptiness at its core, a refusal to answer or even really ask the questions about the system it portrays. It sticks to the margins, like its title, a phrase I don’t remember coming up anywhere in the movie itself. The film’s empty core may reflect the emptiness of our present moment, though. In any case, it has a lot to tell us.

The deus ex machina is one of the players.

The rumble of machinery offstage—an overhead helicopter, making all the characters on the roof look up: it is as explicit a classical, theatrical deus ex machina as the Mounted Royal Messenger who appears at the end of The Threepenny Opera to pardon Mac the Knife and give him a hereditary peerage, castle, and pension. (“Since this is opera, not life, you’ll see mercy prevail over justice,” we are told.)

In Margin Call, it’s CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), the man at the center of the drama’s problems, not outside them. His divine status is confirmed at the end of the movie, when he eats a godlike meal alone in a heavenly, white-tableclothed room high above the city, the master of all he surveys, a “master of the universe.”

Despite its arguably implied criticism of the bankers, the movie shows Tuld as God and there is no longer anything outside the machine—regulators? laws? mobs with pitchforks?—at least not in this world. Everything is this world.

Money is mercy.

There is enough money at Tuld’s disposal, notwithstanding the apparently catastrophic crisis in his business, to resolve every other character’s moral conflict. Tuld—or, much the same thing, his company—pays off Eric Dale, Sam Rogers, Sarah Robertson (Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, all superb), the nameless traders about to destroy their own careers, and morally-aware but soon-to-be-promoted Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto). With one exception, that of a nameless cleaning lady in the elevator with two executives—and this would have been a very different movie if she had any life of her own, or a single line, spoken to bosses, coworkers, family, even to herself—Stanley Tucci’s Eric Dale is the closest we get in the movie to an outside life and sense of distance. But Dale, after refusing (“Fuck them!”) to spend the day out of sight at the office after he’s fired, ends up right back there for a million dollars. “It wasn’t a choice,” he tells Robertson. “It never is,” she says.

Since everyone in this movie has a price, and Tuld has infinite money at his disposal, moral dilemmas don’t get very far.

Everything is relative. Except money.

When Peter Sullivan asks Sam if what he’s planning to do is, you know, right, Sam says: “Right for who?” No one in Margin Call can step outside the system to take a position, an ethical position, on anything. The strongest moral argument in the movie—Eric Dale again, describing the actual bridge he actually built in his past career as an engineer, saving actual commuters actual time, 1,531 years of it so far, he calculates—is successfully undercut by the person he’s talking to, Will (Paul Bettany): “Don’t think about it. Some people like driving the long way home, right?” Who am I to say bridges are better than bonuses? is the moral position here: everyone’s different, to each his own, it’s just my opinion.

Will’s name is no coincidence: he stands for the will, intentional effort, a connection the movie confirms with the otherwise extraneous scene where Will swings himself over the railing on the roof, explaining that people aren’t afraid they’ll fall, they’re afraid they’ll decide to jump. When he swings himself back, he has shown his mastery over his will. (He likewise represents personal urges—$75,000 a year worth of hookers—and self-reliance, with his full name another give-away: Will Emerson.) His mere intentionality is exactly why he hasn’t succeeded at the firm like snakish Jared Cohen (Simon Baker)—he tries his best, but he simply wasn’t born serpentine enough. The ultimate failure of Will to change anything is another expression of the movie’s fatalism—the same quietist inevitabilities that Tuld propounds from his table on top of the world. Economic crashes come and go. “It’s the same thing, over and over.  We can’t control it . . . just react and make a lot of money.”

Money works differently now.

When money comes up in The Threepenny Opera—which it does less than you’d think—it’s a simple, zero-sum matter: Peachum’s beggars extract monetary tokens of compassion; Macheath and his men rob and pillage; Mrs. Peachum buys off Jenny and the other whores; whores get paid by their clients. When someone takes, someone else gives or loses, and you know which side of the transaction you’re on because you’re right there.

Not anymore. While Peachum trades on compassion, the brokers in Margin Call just trade. The only jobs in the world of the movie are in service (the cleaning lady, or chauffeurs, or hot bartenders trading on their looks), not manufacturing or selling any concrete products. Money comes from nowhere. Or, if you prefer, from leverage: buying and selling an original asset dozens of times over, creating dozens of times the value of that asset in “the system.” And, prefer it or not, from fraud, when the initial asset is worthless—“the greatest pile of odiferous excrement in the history of capitalism,” as Tuld says—and sold anyway, “to a willing buyer at a fair market price.” It’s all very mysterious, as the movie hammers home by repeatedly showing the bosses needing a rocket scientist to explain to them the numbers and charts on their own computer screens, and it is a total repression of the material base: money makes money from more money.

John Lanchester, in his recent book I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, draws a valuable distinction between industries and businesses. The car industry makes cars, the publishing industry makes books, and they try to make a profit but that isn’t their reason for being. People in a publishing industry don’t wake up and think about how they can maximize shareholder value. People in a publishing business, on the other hand, do. In business, the sole purpose is to generate profits, and one’s “line of business”—cars, books, credit default swaps, undergraduates—is an arbitrary means to that end. Money works differently once it has become an end and world in itself.

Peter’s friend Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), often called a heartless bastard by other characters, is only being consistent when he constantly asks how much money people make or what their houses are worth. Marx wrote about commodification, but in a world where everything’s a business, everything and everyone have been monetized. Labor isn’t a class enemy or obstacle, they’re non-players, scenery, like the cleaning lady in the elevator. Tell Seth how much you’re worth and Seth’ll tell you who you are, or what you are, or to what extent you exist. Maybe that’s why he cries when he finds out he’s going to get fired. He says that it’s because a job like this is always what he wanted to do with his life, but the movie doesn’t make us believe it.

It is technically correct that we are human beings.

Money has worked its way down into the innermost center of all of these characters, so we don’t relate to them the same way we used to relate to pre-monetized people. In fact, the core of the critical split over Margin Call that I mentioned is the issue of identification: we’re asked to relate to these nasty monsters, say the naysayers, or else the movie doesn’t do its job of making us feel for them—e.g., this “lifeless” movie “audaciously asks us to empathize with obscenely overpaid risk analysts and their bosses, a gambit that fails” (Melissa Anderson, Village Voice)—while the yaysayers admire its ability to awaken empathy, both ours with them and theirs with us (“one of the strongest American films of the year . . .  If Wall Street executives find themselves at a loss to understand what the protesters outside are getting at, they could do worse than watch this movie for a few clues,” David Denby concluded). Choire Sicha of The Awl, half-agreeing with a scathing description of the movie as “banker-propaganda that tries to make you believe that, despite their obvious flaws and all, deep down those Wall Street bankers are complex human beings, just like you and me,” wittily points out that “it’s also technically correct that people on Wall Street are complex human beings, just like you and me!” But the real question is: If money is at the core of what these complex people are—what we are too—and money now works in new ways, what kind of beings are we, and how are we supposed to relate to each other?

Brecht had a thing or two to say about identification, of course. In his view, feeling a climactic catharsis of emotion leaves an audience complacent; empathy and identification destroy the viewer’s critical capacities. He wanted to provoke shock and awe and analysis, questions like: Is that really how things work in our society? What made this possible? How can we change things? Brecht’s main strategy, the so-called “alienation effect” (better translated as “distancing” or “defamiliarization” effect), involves forestalling empathy and identification: “stripping the event of its self-evident, familiar, obvious quality to create a sense of astonishment and curiosity about it.” In terms of acting, that means creating a distance between audience and character, and between actor and character. “There must be a process of exchange between spectator and actor,” Brecht wrote in a note to The Threepenny Opera, “with the latter at bottom addressing himself directly to the spectator . . .  The actor has to tell the spectator more about his character than lies in the part.” That is, the actor has to stand outside the character’s reality and convey things the characters themselves do not know, namely the existence and nature of the contingent social forces shaping their behavior.

All of this is quite precisely what never happens in Margin Call: the movie is practically a catalog of everything Brecht thought you shouldn’t do. The thoroughly impressive actors lose themselves in their roles; even the slightly scenery-chewing Jeremy Irons conveys that it’s Tuld who chews the scenery in his board meetings, not Irons on the set. What the Marxists called “bourgeois art” treats social forms as eternal and unchanging, for example by focusing on the universal elements of the human condition, rather than as contingent, historical forms of a system full of contradictions and subject to radical transformation; Margin Call does exactly that, most obviously with its time-lapse shots of the New York skyline punctuating the action of the movie, a reminder of cosmic cyclical natural forces outside anyone’s control. None of the characters’ fatalist explanations and pleas of having had no choice convince the other characters, but they aren’t meant to: they’re designed to convince (at least stupefy) us. Likewise the way mysterious capitalist facts are constantly explained to the other characters, generating no actual insight but identificatory a-ha’s of pseudo-understanding. (“Peter explained it to Sam, and Sam understands it, so it makes sense!”) No one really tells us how the system works—not the characters, and certainly not any “distanced” actors; no one really lets us understand them, or ourselves. Compare The Threepenny Opera’s lessons on any number of things, for instance how hard it is to generate and sustain compassion: “The Bible has some four or five sayings that speak to the heart; when you’ve used them up you’ll go hungry in a hurry.”

It worked. I ended up feeling that it’s true—the characters are just cogs in a mystifying system, like they say they are. No one has any better explanation for their, and our, condition than they do. I feel bad for them to the extent that there’s nothing they can do about it, and feel bad for myself. I leave the theater liking the movie just fine and admiring its craft: thinking about the movie, not the world.

Don’t look for texture in the real world.

I haven’t said much about the look and feel of Margin Call, because in a way it doesn’t have any. The office looks like how it looks to work in a corporate office; the bankers’ clothes emptily signify what people with those jobs wear; layoffs go down as they so often do; occasional glimpses of the outside world blur past. The director rigorously avoids filmic moments which could have given texture to the movie’s world—a close-up of the cleaning lady’s face in the elevator, showing what she thinks of the conversation; a look inside anyone’s home (we see two exteriors); even lingering on the bartender’s hot body—as indeed he should, within the terms the movie operates in. Chandor told The Wall Street Journal that he resisted one producer’s effort to have “one of the younger characters discover corporate malfeasance and turn his boss over to the feds, to satisfy audiences’ blood lust,” and good for him; Peter Sullivan, the first half’s sympathetic hero on a quest for knowledge, practically disappears from the second half of the movie rather than achieving a typical Hollywood apotheosis. Margin Call reduces to a bare minimum the overlay of plot convention onto the realistic content, in the interest of making the story feel like “real life,” i.e., unchanging, self-evident, et cetera. It is pure, in its way—a delivery system for its textureless, frictionless, monetized content.

In fact, the movie goes the old bourgeois art of catharsis and identification one better, collapsing the distance between characters and audience even more than aesthetic empathy does. We are asked to respond to the movie as though to a person or fact, not work of art. Critics seem to like or dislike the movie depending on how they feel about bankers as people. In Brecht’s terms, any art about “human nature” or “the way the world works” reinforces the reigning ideology, but Margin Call is a kind of black hole of ideology where the way the world works is like money explicitly as much as implicitly, and the characters and the movie work like money too.

However Art works, it’s not like money. I think that’s why The Threepenny Opera at BAM felt so good. Brecht’s era was more open, or at least dual, with the acknowledged existence of an alternative World Order out there; our world feels fundamentally fixed and stable, alternatives ruled out and questions of how the world should be thus answered by default. Even if we once wanted Art to get out of the way of analysis and dialectic, we need it now to create the distance it used to suppress. The point is not to understand the world, but to reawaken our imagination, so that we can envision changing it.

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