August 30, 2011 Shake Your Money Maker
MarvMarsh looks at the history of big finance on screen
Gordon Gekko; Larry the Liquidator; the Duke brothers. They may sound like professional wrestlers but what they actually are is nothing like as honest and noble. They are cinema’s money men. The people at the top of the writhing pile of maggots that is the financial industry. It is not an industry that Hollywood understands, or if it does then that does not translate into a willingness to portray it accurately. A few broad strokes give us a man on the edge, betting the firm in a desperate attempt to save his drink-soaked skin; a few more give us his boss, who spends his days in his gigantic office or the back of his limousine, drinking whiskey and handing out lessons on what life is really like. A final few more gives us the young Turk who realises something is badly wrong and saves his soul by bringing down the firm and walking away. And that, pretty much, is the financial industry on film.
Given that we now live in a post-apocalyptic landscape after our dreams were all laid to waste by the feckless actions of some greedy banker scum, or so the story goes, perhaps that is all the financial industry really deserves. Films have a difficult relationship with work as it is, so to accurately and interestingly cover the work of people it is going to be hard to portray as human, let alone sympathetic, is a big ask. Also, is there really an audience for a film about an individual diligently carving out a good reputation for himself in the Compliance department of an international bank? Perhaps, but I wouldn’t want to be the one pitching it. Actually, of course I would because what if it sold? I’d be a millionaire! But it wouldn’t. I can’t even get that to fly in my dreams.
Here’s an idea for an exciting scene in a film, Producer Guy.
A trader wants to buy a lot of stock using money that doesn’t exist because he’s a whiskey-soaked desperado whose wife has left him because he chased the dream too damn hard and in the wrong direction and now he’s throwing the dice one last time and this could be the deal that turns it all around, makes everything alright. Except he can’t because he’s taking his two weeks’ enforced annual leave that he is obliged to take so that any unusual trading behaviour he has been undertaking is revealed. I see Matt Damon as the trader. Maybe Vera Farmiga as his line manager. What do you say? I smell Oscars.
There is a scene in greatest comedy of all time (yes, it is), Trading Places, where the Duke brothers explain to Billy Ray Valentine (and the audience) what their business is and how it works. Neatly, the Dukes speak to Billy Ray as if they were speaking to a child, which allows humour at their expense because they are of course appalling, condescending, self-satisfied old racists and yet also allows them to explain what they do as if they were speaking to a child, which the audience may well appreciate. His response is, as they acknowledge, completely accurate: “Sounds to me like you guys are a couple of bookies.”
There. That is the world of finance. When it is all stripped down, when the bar charts, projections, talk about sentiment and the strength of the yen are all removed: that is all it is and that is why Hollywood has a problem with it. A leading character in a film, so Hollywood feels, should be creative because creativity means they have a heart, they have engagement with the world, they are someone the audience can like. And so leading characters often work as journalists and architects. They create things. The flipside of that is people in finance. They don’t make things. In the immortal words of Gordon Gekko, the CEO of finance in cinema: “I create nothing. I own.”
So, how does cinema deal with an industry that offers nothing to work with? It demonises it. Rightly so, of course, because it is an industry filled with talentless no marks swaggering about the place as if they had discovered electricity when in fact all they have done is tried to help an extraordinarily wealthy individual get a little bit more extraordinarily wealthy. Did you know that there are still some of these people wearing braces? There are. They are out there.
Trading Places, the greatest comedy ever made (yes, it is), takes a couple of cracks at explaining what it actually is that the people who don’t actually make anything actually do. As well as the scene above, which incidentally features the greatest look to camera in cinema history, the film’s denouement is prefaced by Dan Aykroyd gamely laying out for the viewer what he calls “the last bastion of pure capitalism left on earth”, the commodities market. What Aykroyd doesn’t manage to demystify quite so easily is how a man who is quite clearly purest anti-comedy all the way down to his unfunny quarks kept getting roles in comedies and how, despite him, those comedies turned out to be among the best ever made. Still, there it is. Trading Places, Ghostbusters, The Blues Brothers (although The Blues Brothers isn’t actually funny and people who think it is are only pretending because it used to be cool to like The Blues Brothers). Aykroyd everywhere, like the necrotising fasciitis of comedy, eating the humour right out of the celluloid.
So what am I saying? That Hollywood misrepresents the financial industry, that it takes the juicy stuff and throws away the pulp? Sure, but it does that with all industries. Even hitmen are probably given a coolness overhaul. What is interesting is what it thinks is the juice.
In 1987 Oliver Stone fearlessly blew the lid off the secret, sordid world of Wall Street in the cryptically named Wall Street. No, of course that isn’t what he did. What he did was fearlessly make a tremendously entertaining pile of nonsense featuring Michael Douglas as a particularly pleased with himself Satan, Martin Sheen as a particularly sure of himself angel and Charlie Sheen as a particularly wooden boy. He also threw in Darryl Hannah, who wanders about the film making unsuccessful cracks at appearing in any way human. She wanders out again near the end and it makes not the slightest bit of difference. It also features John C. McGinley as Marvin, Charlie Sheen’s friend and fellow junior stockbroker who gets to passionately bellow into a telephone, “In ten minutes it’s history. At four o’clock I’m a dinosaur!” Yeah! Feel the pressure, the excitement, the tension, the hunger, the drive, the pace. If you want to be a stockbroker in the 80s then it is preferable that you be a gigantic pair of throbbing testicles that can hold a phone. If you can’t manage that then please, in the words of Ben Affleck in Wall Street‘s annoying little kid brother, Boiler Room, “Act as if. Act as if you are a giant pair of pulsating balls, sat there in your shirt, tie and red braces, giving off waves of pure masculinity.” No, he doesn’t say the second bit but he might as well have done.
Watching Wall Street now is a strange experience; partly because it is a very strange film, full of gigantically overblown moments that are nonetheless a lot of fun, partly because it is full of highly amusing 80s technology (including Bud Fox’s computer in his bedroom with its three bar charts which in some way indicate market movements but might as easily represent the amount of wanks he has forecast for himself over the course of the next week measured against the amount of wanks he actually had over the course of the previous week) and partly because of the peculiar effect on cinema it seems to have had. For some reason, Wall Street has become a template for how Hollywood portrays the financial industry, and that is peculiar because Wall Street is a film that was very deliberately of its time – it wanted to show us the awful truth of the 80s, man – and it is also a film that is very definitely a load of rubbish.
Ok, of course, there is no film like Wall Street. Not even Boiler Room, which while it pretends to be offering some kind, any kind, of sardonic commentary, is really just a needy little pup yapping round its owner. But the cinematic language for the world of finance hasn’t really changed since the 80s and particularly since Wall Street wrote it large. As an example, try The 25th Hour, which features a walking, breathing demonstration of what brokers so frequently are in films. There he is, sweating over a deal he shouldn’t be making, risking his job to get himself out from under (under is where brokers often find themselves in films). Does it pay off? I wouldn’t dream of spoiling such a tense moment for you. If you do watch the film look out for the broker in the background who, in a manner designed to get right under your skin and stay there, says, “We’re going for a ride now!” Imagine actually saying that in a workplace. Then again, and here I have to admit to having worked in these kinds of places for years, one person I worked with did once say, “Well, if he wants to run with the big dogs,” so perhaps Hollywood has it right after all. The tedious reality, though, is that swaggering buffoons are few and far between, as they are everywhere, though not as few and not as far between as ideal. I was actually on a trading floor this week and there wasn’t much there to get a filmmaker excited, unless they find lots of computer screens and near silence really speaks to their art.
The juice in the financial industry, as Hollywood sees it, is the pursuit of money. Perhaps they are right. Wall Street harangues the viewer with one declamation after another – Gordon Gekko speaks almost exclusively in aphorisms – and concludes by reminding us of Gekko’s earlier proud claim that he makes nothing. This time the words come from the other side of the fence, from Bud Fox’s noble old dad, a man who has almost killed himself in his devotion to the lives of his men. The contrast with Gekko is so starkly drawn that Martin Sheen and Michael Douglas might as well have dressed as an angel and a devil and clambered up onto Charlie Sheen’s shoulders. He rounds off the film by encouraging his redeemed son to work at the old airline with his father and to “create instead of living off the buying and selling of others”. If the only thing you create is wealth then Hollywood, like Bud’s dad, frowns upon you. In Two Weeks Notice, for example, Hugh Grant leaves behind the money-driven and therefore heartless world that was his life and ends up happy and with Sandra Bullock in a little flat. The capitalist has to learn the error of his ways. Given that films are often funded by the wealthy looking for tax-efficient locations for their surplus capital it might be excusable to think of this as breathtaking hypocrisy but at least, just like the salt of the earth airline staff whose company Gordon Gekko wants to wreck “because it’s wreckable”, the film industry creates something. They are just the same, you see.
MarvMarsh is considerably richer than you.