Sunday, September 16, 2018

A Look at Recession Cinema

This September marks the tenth anniversary of the 2008 economic crisis that begat the Great Recession. According to the Brookings Institute, this event was the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that job losses were unprecedented. The causes of the 2008 collapse are somewhat complicated but the crisis was rooted in the home mortgage market. Banks loaned money to customers who could not afford to pay it back and then repackaged those home loans as mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations that financed other parts of the economy like pensions and retirement savings. When enough home owners defaulted on their mortgages, the whole system came crashing down, taking some of the largest investment banks in the world with it and destroying American wealth. Forbes reports that the median family net worth dropped 40% between 2007 and 2010 with the brunt of the loss felt by the middle class. 

In the ten years since the start of the Great Recession, filmmakers responded with stories about economics, power, and capitalism. What follows is a brief look at some of the notable titles in the genre I call recession cinema.

Documentary Films
Documentary filmmakers were the primary cinematic responders to the economic crisis. The recession was decades in the making, with its origins reaching back to the Reagan and Clinton administrations, but for most people—including the political and economic elite and the journalists covering Wall Street—the events of 2008 seemed to come out of nowhere. The financial press corps in particular failed to understand and report what was happening until it was too late. In the aftermath, documentary filmmakers stepped up to explain the crisis and untangle a convoluted web of confusing financial jargon and political corruption.

One of the first recession documentaries was I.O.U.S.A. This film exposed the extent to which the American economy was propped up on unsustainable credit and it was released in August 2008, about a month before the economic collapse metastasized into a national and global crisis.

Filmmaker Michael Moore also got in on recession cinema with 2009’s Capitalism: A Love Story. Like a lot of Moore’s movies it was entertaining and rabblerousing but it was also a little unfocused. In fact, Capitalism: A Love Story might capture Moore’s best and worst tendencies more severely than any of his other films. But Capitalism: A Love Story is notable for the extent to which it was in touch with the struggles of everyday Americans. Very few filmmakers put the stories of middle and working class people on the screen but Moore’s movie did that in some heartbreaking sequences of people being evicted from their homes. At the time of its release, Moore teased that Capitalism: A Love Story might be his final movie but he has continued to produce and direct since then, most recently this year’s Fahrenheit 11/9.

Also notable among recession documentaries is The Queen of Versailles. Lauren Greenfield’s film documents the lives of David and Jackie Siegel of Westgate Resorts who owned one of the most elaborate homes in the United States. The filmmakers captured the way their lavish lifestyle hit the skids during the recession. But the portrait of the Siegels was not flattering and David Siegel filed a defamation lawsuit against the filmmakers but ultimately lost.

Any survey of recession cinema must include Charles Ferguson’s 2010 documentary Inside Job. In less than two hours this film broke down exactly what happened and explained it in a way that was accessible to general audiences but also put the crisis in a larger context. Inside Job explained the relationships between Wall Street bankers, Washington bureaucrats, private and government regulators, and celebrity intelligentsia who unwittingly conspired to create an economic house of cards. Inside Job remains the definitive documentary about the 2008 crash and it is mandatory viewing for anyone trying to grasp what happened.

To the extent that they could, documentary filmmakers filled in a gap left by the popular press. There can be no denying that business journalists missed the biggest financial story of the last thirty years. But documentary features, which can take years to make, are no substitute for everyday coverage provided by regular publications. Cinema simply cannot get into the details the way that a book or a series of exposés can. And documentaries are also easier for the public to ignore than a consistent stream of news from local and national outlets. That’s especially true in a polarized media environment where the documentary genre has become increasingly politicized.

Feature Films
The economic collapse of 2008 filtered through different filmmaking genres and made an impression on movies that might not otherwise have taken notice of economics. For instance, Bridesmaids is an unusual romantic comedy precisely because the economic instability of the lead character is such an important part of the story. A lot of romantic comedies are about wealthy and glamorous people or proletariats who become bourgeois by falling in love with a wealthy person. Although it doesn’t dwell on the matter, economic anxiety is a key part of Bridesmaids and shapes the internal and external conflict of the main character.

Also notable was The Dark Knight Rises. Economic resentment underlines the way in which supervillain Bane recruits an army of disillusioned Gotham citizens to turn the city into a miniature failed state. It was surprising to see such an overt political theme in a studio tentpole film and The Dark Knight Rises remains unique in that respect. None of the superhero films since have taken on such ideas.

Filmmaker Uwe Boll made a point of exploiting recession anxiety. The filmmaker, who is generally derided but has nevertheless carved a niche for himself in the industry, directed a number of revenge fantasies in which a heavily armed assailant opens fire on the political and economic ruling class. Among these was 2013’s Assault on Wall Street which is exactly what it sounds like.

One of the most interesting titles in recession cinema, and one that has been underappreciated, was Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 picture The Girlfriend Experience. The film is about a high class escort, played by Sasha Grey, who caters to wealthy Wall Street clients. The film is cerebral but it also makes a pointed analogy between this woman’s occupation and what her clients do for a living. More generally, The Girlfriend Experience explores the commoditization of our personhood, a theme Soderbergh would revisit in his Magic Mike movies. The Girlfriend Experience has since been adapted into a television series.

Aside from slipping into the subtext of a lot of features, the recession also provided filmmakers with narratives about people directly affected by the collapse. A few productions attempted to tell stories about average folks starting over, such as Larry Crowne and Everything Must Go, but these films weren’t very good. Much more popular and more successful were dramas about people working in the banking industry. Margin Call is among the most impressive of these. The film dramatizes a twenty-four hour period in which the staff of an investment bank realizes their firm is on the brink of collapse. Margin Call does the job of drama with the characters working through complex moral and ethical problems. It is also an incisive portrait of cutthroat capitalist survival and the final monologue delivered by Jeremy Irons puts the collapse in a larger historical context.

Based on the nonfiction book by Andrew Ross Sorkin, the HBO feature Too Big to Fail dramatizes the 2008 financial collapse by focusing on Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and his inner circle as they attempt to stave off an economic collapse while negotiating with the United States Congress and the major investment banks. Too Big to Fail neatly summarizes what happened in the fall of 2008  and how the response to the crisis was compromised by free market ideologies and the power structure of Washington and Wall Street.

Similar to Margin Call and Too Big to Fail but with a very different tone was 2015’s The Big Short. Based on the book by Michael Lewis, The Big Short dramatized the true story of investors who identified the mortgage bubble for what it was and positioned themselves to make a great deal of money when the bubble burst. The Big Short was very funny except when it wasn’t and the film subversively questioned the ways we measure success.

Other notable banking dramas included Arbitrage, starring Richard Gere as a compromised hedge fund manager, and 99 Homes about the eviction of homeowners by unscrupulous mortgage lenders.

One of the unusual banking films in recession cinema was Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, a sequel to the 1987 film. Michael Douglas returned as Gordon Gecko and the film focused on how he rebuilds his brand. The 2008 collapse is actually a set piece in the Wall Street sequel and Gordon Gecko’s return is a metaphor of the power and resilience of the banking system.

Hollywood’s Cognitive Capture
Hollywood’s failure to tell stories about the average working class citizen and its emphasis on the economic elite reveals the industry’s own biases and blind spots. In the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse, many of us wondered how the business press and the regulatory agencies failed to see it coming. The answer was cognitive capture; the journalists and regulators were so close to the people and institutions they were supposed to monitor that they saw the world and the economy the same way the bankers did. The observers didn’t have the critical distance to think outside of the box. Hollywood is just as susceptible to this kind of thinking and it shows in their movies.

Hollywood’s cognitive capture is evidenced by two titles. Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street was based on the life and crimes of Jordan Belfort. The film does not evade Belfort’s misdeeds but it does certainly glamorize them and his debauched lifestyle. In this film, Belfort was an antihero but he was still nevertheless characterized as a hero. Even though he’s punished in the end he’s never really remorseful. The penultimate scene of Belfort in a minimum security prison is a wink and nod to the audience. The Wolf of Wall Street tapped into the American taste for excess and the movie was among the biggest box office successes of Scorsese’s career.

Another example is the 2015 remake of Poltergeist. The movie demonstrated a dim aware of the housing crisis. A family has purchased a new house after suffering an economic hit and losing their previous home. The new house is large and spacious and well-kept but Poltergeist includes a bizarre dialogue exchange between the parents and their upscale friends. While hosting a house warming party, one of the guests makes a clumsy remark about how the family is now living in a bad neighborhood. It sounds as though the family is living on skid row but in fact it is the kind of home many Americans only dream of owning. The faux economic hardship of Poltergeist comes across as a wealthy Hollywood producer’s idea of what poverty looks like.

American cinema’s focus on Wall Street and forsaking of Main Street is an inevitable outgrowth of the industry’s focus on spectacle. Hollywood—and by this I mean American cinema as a whole, not just major studios—is a dream factory. They are in the business of manufacturing fantasies. In feature films we see people who are better looking than we are but also more courageous and more successful. The titans of Wall Street embody that fantasy. As much as Americans might claim to identify with the simple tastes of blue collar heroes, the fact is that many successful Hollywood films give us just the opposite and the audience eats it up. This brings to mind Ronald Wright’s famous observation that average Americans “see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Hollywood plays to that delusion. They also reinforce it.

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