Friday, November 11, 2011

Deconstructing Volatile Risk: Margin Call

In the very beginning, a group of "clean up" teams enter the company's floor and proceed to lay-off nearly 75% of the analysts. I can't explain it, but it gave me an eerie feeling of  the French Revolution and the guillotine. Then, as the film progressed, more and more verbals verified the analogy: "I need your head to feed to the floor," "Did you get the axe?" "You're still alive." All these little sparks add to the growing bonfire that purges and destroys the company we are watching. Deconstructionists like solid opposites when they analyze artwork, and in J.C. Chandor's Margin Call, you can take your pick, but the opposition between "clean" and "dirty" is the obvious choice for me.     
The film, in my estimation, is fabulous on numerous levels, but first and foremost, Margin Call starts with a great script. The two most important moments in a film is the very beginning and the very ending: the beginning because it sets the pace and gives you your first impression of the director's approach; the ending because it's the director's last chance to leave you with an impression, his summarizing thesis, so to speak, and Chandor uses both effectively. The opening picture is of New York City, distorted, super fast-paced, with the mumurings of voices and phones, everyone saying something and yet nothing at all, idle talk, as philosopher Martin Heidegger called it. The last scene is of Sam (Kevin Spacey) digging a grave, and it's just the noise of the shovel coming through the dirt in the dead of night. Chandor goes from the very abstract to a very real, intimate grieving, where the dirt actually becomes something clean compared to what you have just been through.
"Clean," and "dirty." Those two simple words take on numerous meanings throughout this complex film. The image of "cleaning house" when the lay-off crew comes in establishes how this is going to backfire. Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is a boss who specializes in high volatile risk management; he's been working on an equation that demonstrates that the company is over-invested in worthless stocks. As he's getting laid off, the team brought in to do the dirty work, uses highly sterilized language to make the "severance" as neat as possible in the"transition" to his new life. This reminds me a lot of the guillotine, which was a very "clean killer" of the elite and peasants alike.
When the lay-off crew comes in, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) tells them, "Keep your heads down and just ignore it," that is, the tapping on shoulders and people loosing their livelihoods, just ignore it. This advice is pretty much the same thing that they will do as they are rapidly selling-off the worthless holdings of the company to their fellow investors and knowingly running businesses into bankruptcy.
As Dale tells the executioners that he needs to finish this equation, they politely tell him, "This is not your problem anymore." "This," is the equation that will rivet the American economy into the Great Recession, but "this" is a case of mistaken identity: when the lay-off crew was going around and tapping people on the shoulder so they would know they were next in line, it's Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) who is tapped as being "Eric Dale."  Peter points to where Eric is, but this is no accident: it's symbolic of the equation and the "mistake" that Eric Dale had pointed out a year earlier and everyone mistook for something else entirely. After he's "released," the company has turned his phone off; after Peter breaks the news of what has happened, they spend nearly the whole rest of the night trying to get a hold of him. Towards the end, he shows up to just sit in the room, quietly, while the brokers work the fire sale, and they end up paying him $176,000/hour to just sit there, when yesterday, they booted him without even a cell phone and on half-salary.
Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) on the chopping block.
My favorite shot of the whole film is when Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) and Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore) are "going down" in an elevator (because the company is going down, as in, the Titanic) and there is a little cleaning woman, with her cart of cleaners, standing in-between these two major Wall Street "players" who made millions of dollars last year but she, as a symbol of the necessary fall they both must take in order to "correct" the markets that their greed has helped to propel. The little woman is so tiny and never says a word, doesn't even look at them, but she's the one, symbolically, bringing down the whole company, like the grim reaper. It's the cleaning job that she's doing which is making them look so... dirty. And that's a way to compare these two words, "clean" and "dirty":  is it the worthless stocks that are dirty or is it the way they get rid of the dirt that's dirty? Does getting rid of the worthless stocks actually "clean house," the way they tell other brokers, or does it turn the company into a house of abominations?
Simon Baker as Jared Cohen. At 44, he's called "the wonder boy" because he rose to prominence so quickly in the world of stock analysis. It's his call to sell everything and to anyone who will buy.
Another image of cleaning is, after the longest night of meetings and immoral discussions, Seth (Penn Badgley) is in the bathroom locked in a stall, crying, because he survived the execution team earlier that day, only to know that this "day of liquidation" is his last because of everything that has happened. He hears someone enter and start doing something. He pulls himself together and exits the stall where he sees Jared Cohen, shirt off and giving himself a shave before the early morning meetings begin. As a reader kindly pointed out to me, Seth tells Cohen that being in stocks is all he ever wanted to do, opening himself up and "exposing" his vulnerability as, Cohen, who keeps shaving, merely replies, "Really?" But, knowing that his shirt is off, we know that Cohen is "exposed" and in "keeping himself clean", he's willing to do something dirty, and axing an underling in the firm is one way to accomplish what he's willing to do. Who else have we seen shaving? Jonathan Hawker in Dracula when he was ridding himself of his "animal tendencies" so that he could see the Count Dracula's (please see For the Dead Travel Fast: Dracula).
Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) and Seth (Penn Badgley) on "execution day." Their boss, Eric Dale, has just gotten axed and is leaving. As Peter says good-bye, Eric hands him the flash drive with the equation that will change the world overnight. The funny thing about Peter's character, throughout the film, he's the nice guy, the caring, sympathetic guy who doesn't look at how much people are making, but the burdens they have to carry. At the end of the film, his friend Seth gets axed and Peter gets promoted, having lunch with Cohen, you get the idea that "he's succumbed to the dark side."
The bathroom is used extremely effectively in the film. Besides the incident noted above, when Sam is being "prodded" by the big boss, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) on whether or not he's going to participate in the fire-sale, it's in the bathroom, and he's been washing his face, but no amount of washing will take off the dirt of these sins. This has to be a reference, veiled as it is, to Akira Kurosawa's 1957 film Throne of Blood.  Based on Shakespeare's  MacBeth,  Asaji, a wife guilty of provoking bloodshed, tries to wash blood off her hands when "nothing is there," although this is a reference to the sin upon her soul. This, too, comes back on Sam when, at the end of the fire-sale, he's done what he said he wouldn't do and, for the company, it's been a success, "successfully destroying their own jobs." He's expecting to get fired, "a mercy killing," and is shocked, even outraged, when he discovers they want to keep him for "at least 24 months." After John Tuld provides him with a demeaning history of capitalism, justifying what they've done and validating that they did "the right thing," Sam says he'll stay, "because I need the money" and you know, he'll hate himself forever.
Kevin Spacey as Sam Rogers, the boss of the trading floor where everything happens. His boss is Jared Cohen and his boss is John Tuld  (Jeremy Irons). It would be wrong to not expect a great performance out of Kevin Spacey, and Margin Call provides him with a range of emotions and delicate situations to explore artistically. But it is always wrong to give sole credit to the actors: I have seen great actors do lousy performances because they didn't have a director who could guide them; with this cast, Chandor gets rave reviews for being the director that this caliber of talent deserves.
When we first meet Sam, he's in one-quarter profile. Permit me to warn you, Chandor has baited this scene extremely well. We realize there are tears in his eyes and he's been crying, when asked what's wrong, he says his dog is dying, he's been spending a $1,000 a day trying to keep her alive, but she has a tumor. It's difficult to sympathize with a guy who is crying over a dog but not his employees who just got axed, and a foolish man who spends $1000 to keep a dying dog alive. But, as I said, this scene is baited, and this is what Chandor wants you to think: at the end, when all we hear is the sound of the shovel digging a grave in the night, its the dog's grave, but what the dog has come to symbolize is Sam's own being, his loyalty to the firm.
Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore) and Jared Cohen (Simon Baker). In the trailer, you get the idea of a relationship existing between them and that doesn't happen. Robertson thinks better of herself than anyone else thinks of her and it's her head--as the chief risk manager--that Tuld feeds to the brokers on the floor for their fiasco; but she gets a nice package.
This is the sign of great writing: what was a thing of repulsion for the audience at the beginning (a sign of his waste and non-prioritizing of his employees over his dog) is now sad and pitiful; the dirt of the grave, the ultimate sign of dirt," dirt itself," is now turned into something that is supposed to be "clean," because the act of burying his dog in his ex-wife's yard (the home that used to be is) is the only act of cleansing left to him. What's ironic is, she calls the police because he was digging a hole in her yard when she should have called them because of all the lousy stocks he sold that day. As the film fades out, you still hear Sam struggling to bury his dog in the darkness of a yard where he no longer lives.
His first look at the truth.
One of the great metaphors the film uses is "the music has stopped" and this happens at least three times: when Peter's finally gotten to the end of the equation, he pulls out his earplugs and literally, the music has stopped; when Sam sits in his office, listening to piano music through headphones, his feet slip off his desk (his will is going against the will of the firm to cheat other investors) and the music stops. There is total silence but big boss John Tuld says that he has heard the music stop and they must be the first ones to do something about it. Why does this metaphor work? Music symbolizes the pace, the rhythm, the harmony, the order to which we have been tuned, and when this has stopped, that means there's going to be chaos. Yet there is also the alternate reality, or a pleasurable background noise, drowning out reality, so we can keep marching to a beat that is out of sync with the reality we want to ignore and when that music stops, it's always an ugly silence of overwhelming truth that is to be heard, and nothing else.
Ear phones come out and, literally, the music has stopped
This film operates on many levels and easily merges several aesthetics to create an effortless work of perfection that can't be appreciated on one viewing alone (that's why I'm anxiously looking forward to this on DVD so I can watch it again). But, like the great Westerns of the 1950's, Margin Call is about capitalism. When America chooses to reflect on where it's been and why things are the way they are, it first looks to capitalism. Nearly all the great Westerns (especially those of John Wayne's) are about how capitalism should work; Margin Call is about how capitalism does work. And it's not the greedy, unethical brokers and analysts who are the problem.
We are the problem.
Paul Bettany as Will Ermerson, one of the important characters who offers America a glimpse of itself. Seth and Peter ask him if he really had made over 2 million dollars the year before and he answers yes, then they ask him the key question: where did it all go? About $300,000 went to the mortgage, $150,000 to his parents, $400,000 went for a rainy day, $150,000 for a car, $75,000 went to hookers, booze and a good time, but mostly hookers, and then $50,000 went to clothes. It's also Will who breaks it down for the audience that greedy people like all of us are the ones to blame for what's happening, because we all want "jut a little more," and when does that "little more" everyone wants finally tip the scale?
Americans want to live beyond their means, and for each person, "beyond" takes on it's own level of reasonableness. In Dante's Divine Comedy, it's the inner ring of the Seventh Circle of hell, the Violent, where moneylenders are placed with blasphemers and sodomites. Many have questioned why Dante would do this, but the sin of blasphemy (sins against God) is a sin of violence, and just as the act of sodomy is a fruitless act (two men can't get each other pregnant) so moneylenders are trying to make something that can't grow (money), grow (interest should not be a sexual act to get money to bear more fruit). These inversions against the natural order of how things work is blatantly evident in Margin Call: the two most frequently used phrases are, please excuse me, "Fuck me," and "Jesus Christ." The name of God is naught but an act of violence and anger, and that's the reason why they unload those worthless stocks, instead of using the Lord as a model of sacrificing themselves and generously drawing people's attention to what has happened so everyone can help absorb the loss, they want to "save themselves" but are really condemning themselves and that's because they don't really know what "Jesus Christ " means.
One should always expect great things of Jeremy Irons, and he doesn't disappoint. You want to trust him, he's so charming and easy; you're terrified of him because he's worth a billion dollars (before the equation came out into the light) and he could chew you up and spit you out in one breath, and he does it all with the utmost ease. What Margin Call does really well, among many things, is expose both Tuld's and Sam's lack of knowledge about what stocks are, what they do and how they operate, the circumstances and consequences, the shallow reasons the men on top got there and what they are willing to do to stay there.
At one point, Seth says, "It all seems like a dream," and Peter responds, "No, I think we just woke up." The problem is, the stocks that had been analyzed were based on historical patterns of volatility, risk assessment based on historical models, and the history of capitalism; it's not like this is the first time that this has happened. This has happened plenty of times, and it will continue to do so, so we had better "take stock" of what Margin Call has to teach us about the people we trust, gambling in the market and the ugly nature of our own greed.
Due to numerous questions, comments and some deeper reflection on my own part, I have created an annex post for Margin Call which talks about why Peter was the one to work out the formula, why Sarah got fired, Eric's bridge-building, etc., Margin Call a Few More Things here.