Thursday, November 17, 2011

Margin Call: A Few More Things

It's just such a great movie, and there have been some people asking me more questions about it, so I am creating this annex post to finish up a few thoughts on Margin Call (original post is Deconstructing Volatile Risk: Margin Call).
Sam and Peter on the morning of  "the big day."
One question is, why is it Peter who discovers the problem formula? As Eric is being escorted out of the office after being laid off (which has nothing to do with what he's working on) he passes several people to whom he could give the flash drive to, but he passes them up. It's only after he has already said good-bye to Peter, and Eric is waiting for the elevator that Peter wants to say a few more words of goodwill to him and then Eric gives him the flash drive.
J.C. Chandor directing Peter.
This emphasizes that "Peter's a good guy," he's not like Jared Cohen or John Tuld so he can be trusted to do the right thing with the information. BUT there is a bit of ambiguity because, as is noted several times throughout the film, just as the elevator doors are closing, Eric tells him, "Be careful." Is this a point of revenge that Eric is planting, on the company or on Peter, because Peter kept his job but his boss Eric loses his? Revenge on the company that's letting him go? I don't think that's possible. Granted, Eric ends up coming back during the fire sale, suggesting that we all have a price, but it appears that Eric's motivations in analyzing the risk the formula was working out is genuine and, while he's angry about being laid off, he's not taking it out on anyone.
Eric Dale getting laid off after 19 years with the company and buying a new house.
There's another question about Eric's character in the film: what's up with his monologue about bridge-building? When Will tries to get Eric to come back into the office, Eric talks about how he had built a bridge previously, that saved travelers hundreds of years in travel time, saving one individual like 130 years. This is the genius of the film: there is no such thing as saving a person 130 years in travel time when there is a good chance that they won't even live to their 80th birthday: numbers lie, and that's the point of this scene: we make the numbers tell us whatever it is that we want to believe in and then when they tell us something that is completely counter-intuitive (like I have saved 130 years of my life by taking this bridge to work instead of the longer route) we still believe the numbers because we have been taught to believe that numbers don't lie.
Peter on the day of layoffs when the "clean-up team" mistakenly taps him on the shoulder thinking he is Eric Dale, Peter's boss, who should be laid off. Nothing happens "by accident" in a film, and this "mistaken identity" validates further that it's Peter who is "destined" to get the formula right and not Eric. Why? A year previously, Eric had gone to his boss, Sarah Robertson, and told her that the company was over-investing in certain areas and she passed on the info "but not with the proper level of alert"; it's exactly why Sarah, on this day, had Eric laid off, because he was doing a better job than she was, HOWEVER, he was also--in the eyes of people like Jared Cohen and John Tuld--trying to keep the company from making as much money as it could by investing in these bad risks. Peter has to be the one working out the formula because they have already ignored Eric.
When the company is talking about just a 25% loss of value ending up costing one company trillions of dollars, those numbers don't exist, the same way, regrettably, that investors thought they had hundreds of thousands of dollars when, after the market crashed, they realized they only had a few thousand. Those hundreds of thousands never existed. And that's the point of Eric's monologue about the bridge, and I think Will understands that. When you make a religion out of numbers, you are making a religion out of something that doesn't exist but that definitely has consequences. It's because, as I all ready noted, when the name Jesus Christ exists only as a curse, you cease to be able to do the right thing and can only do the expedient thing, because all you care about is yourself, but you haven't learned how to really care for yourself, either.
So, continuing, why is it that Peter discovers the problem?
In the a meeting with Jared Cohen, before John Tuld is brought in, Peter is asked what he did previously and, like Eric, he had been an engineer. "It's all just numbers,... but the money was much more attractive here." He had been, literally, a rocket scientist, having done his graduate work on the draft caused by rocket engines, etc., etc. He was saying it too fast for me to be able to get it down, but I knew as he was saying it, that the paper he did was a metaphor for exactly what he's doing now: watching an enormous engine explode. This is why Peter is able to solve the formula: he has been prepared for it (in terms of his paper). But it's also because he's a nice guy and the "system" is going to gobble him up and make him apart of itself so that, as a nice guy, he doesn't exist anymore.
Seth, Peter and Will on top of the company talking and smoking.
The formula...
The formula Peter and Eric work on is a pattern, really, a pattern of what the markets have done in the past within certain parameters of behavior; this is really the basis of chaos theory, predicting unpredictable behavior. When you are looking for patterns, as in Daren Aronofsky's 1998 thriller Pi, you start to find them everywhere: what's a pattern in the film? First, cleaning up (which I have already discussed) and secondly, the pattern of language, specifically, "Fuck me." This is actually a pattern, because this is really the only curse that anyone in the film knows. Thirdly, the final variable in this formula I am working up, when Tuld is on his way, the camera sees Jared Cohen's back as he stares at himself in the office window (similar to the window in the picture below). He asks, "How do I look?" and it's his reflection being projected over the reflection of the city sleeping beneath him.
What does 1 + 1 + 1 = ?
Worshiping the golden calf.
As I said, the numbers in the film don't add up, either in terms of travel time on the bridge or in terms of dollars and assets, it's all imaginary, but it's all supposed to mean something and mean something important. When you have to make a science out of predicting when the stock market is going to crash, because you have started to believe that you are smarter than the market, the market isn't the only thing that will crash. The continuous use of the phrase "Fuck me" becomes, literally, a chant, a mantra, almost like a prayer, because the god that these number fiends have been worshiping is going to do exactly that to them, and lead them to do exactly that to their fellow traders, New York City and the world.
Someone asked why it's Sarah that gets fired instead of Jared Cohen?
It's the ones who see risk in the risk that are getting fired. Sarah saw risks and warned Cohen and Tuld, but didn't give the proper alert so the company could be saved; Peter, has saved the company by catching the formula before the other companies caught theirs. Cohen is staying because he's the one ruthless enough to keep making money for the company and that's the only thing that matters. That's part of the reason why Sam is so distraught when he hasn't lost his job, it puts him on par with Cohen and that's not where he wants to be, but that's exactly where his actions have landed him. When Tuld throws the investors Sarah's head, that's literally a human sacrifice such as the pagans used to perform and now the golden calf is wanting for itself. Is there anything Sarah could have done to keep her job? No, because the ones like Sam and Tuld who know nothing about markets, can easily replace someone like Sarah who does, but now, has not only cost them money, but shown how stupid they are.
John Tuld eating alone at the end, consuming, which is what he's good at.
In my final conclusion, this is an amazing film in every way. In the theater, I do want to warn you, I noticed a couple got up and left, so it's not "entertainment" in the way most people think of and there is a chance that you wont like it. However, if you appreciate how movies are made, and high quality drama, please, do check it out.