Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Capitalizing On Imbalance: Arbitrage

Even though I am going to bash the film because of its viewpoints, technically, the film is well-done and Gere gives a great performance, as does Timothy Roth. At the bottom of the poster above, there is a car crash and Robert standing off to the side because he's "crashed" his life (a reference to the 2008 "economic crash" which we have seen referenced in films such as The Grey and The Collector). His mistress has died and he doesn't know what to do; it was a review on Internet Movie Database that made this a connection to Ted Kennedy and the Chappaquiddick affair (which would be the second time this year it has come up in a film, the first being Man On A Ledge [please see Marie Antoinette & Ted Kennedy: Man On a Ledge for more] this incident involving Kennedy and the death of an innocent woman STILL being a bitter grudge for American's that justice was not served). Like Lawless, Arbitrage wants us to start seeing all private ownership and enterprise as illegal, or at least, criminal (please see Lawless & Brass Knuckle Tactics for more). The biggest problem is the film deconstructs itself on two levels: first, the police chief, played by Tim Roth, willingly makes corrupt practices to try and convict Robert, so the police department cant be trusted and secondly, the film blames capitalism in Russia for Robert's economic downfall (greedy and corrupt business men in Russia were inflating the price of copper and brought Robert's investment crashing down leaving him broke) but what Arbitrage fails to realize is that it's because of the long and grueling history of corruption in Russia because of communism that would make such a situation plausible today, not corruption caused by capitalism which is what the film wants us to believe but can't prove (we have all ready seen this in Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol, The Chernobyl Diaries and will most likely see it in February in A Good Day To Die Hard with Bruce Willis).  Reviewing this film so long after its theatrical release and now that it's out on Redbox, we do have an advantage in Les Miserables because in that presentation, we see the climax of a good business man: Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman; please see Les Miserables: Enrichment for more). For those who are Christians, it's easy to point out the problem of capitalism--like Adam Smith, author of The Wealth Of Nations--as being a greed that is not truly self-interested: when you don't know yourself, which is what Christianity teaches and is illustrated in Les Miserables, you know where your true interest lies; whether you live in capitalism or socialism, you are going to make the same mistakes, but it's easier to repent in capitalism because it doesn't outlaw religion like socialism does.
"Power is the best alibi," the tagline runs, and Arbitrage portrays itself as a clear example of the murky lives of the rich and powerful. This film would not have been made prior to 2009, at least not the way it was, and the intended blows at every facet of a capitalist society hit their mark each time. Technically, the film is well made and constructed, although nearly everyone seems upset with the ending (discussed below); from the family members to the art world, from new capitalist economies to long-time private enterprise, Arbitrage seeks to work its own arbitrage by capitalizing on the class imbalances it presents and accentuates from current political rhetoric.
Let's start with art.
This is an interesting argument. In the scene prior to this, Robert's wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) suggested they go off to their vacation house on the spur of the moment and have a long, romantic weekend; he puts her off, then suggests the same thing to Julie when she acts like she is going to break up with him. As they are on the road, he falls asleep and wrecks the car, killing her instantly, from which he walks away, lying about his whereabouts later on. Ellen, as a mature woman, symbolizes the motherland, Robert, as a mature man and business man, the economy (specifically capitalism) and Julie symbolizes art because that is what she's doing. The economy (Robert) paying more attention to the art world (Julie, but we could expand this to say Hollywood) instead of to the motherland (Ellen) is being cited as the actual cause of "the crash" (the 2008 economic crash; in other words, the film argues, if Robert had been with Ellen, there would not have been a crash and "art" would still be alive). Why go to the trouble of making this argument? Because of a film like The Artist that so aptly demonstrates capitalism is good for art. Det. Bryer (Roth) points out that Julie isn't a very good artist, and questions Robert why he spent so much supporting her; Robert replies with the standard Gospel message of money: I can put my money in what I believe in, but Bryer makes it clear that he really understands Robert to be saying, I can buy who I want to sleep with. Julie might be upset with herself for making herself dependent upon Robert, but that was her choice, something socialists don't like to talk about; in other words, it's okay to make yourself dependent upon the government, but not upon the generosity of someone willing to invest in you. Another way to understand this, however, is that capitalism has caused the death of art, that the quality of art has gone down hill because of rich people funding their favorites who aren't really any good. Ironically, Arbitrage proves exactly what The Artist proves:  the market does fairly appraise an artist's ability. No one buys Julie's mediocre art except Robert, because she doesn't have talent as an artist, so in spite of Robert "artificially floating her" like a socialist government does with bad programs, the market tells the truth: she sucks, literally. Because so many celebrities in Hollywood are supporting the socialist revolution of Obama, the relationship of art and politics is imperative--not only to them, but to us who love film and art--because what films are and are not made and what they talk about and don't talk about all hangs in the balance.
Julie, pictured above, is a French artist Robert (Richard Gere) supports, but mostly because she is his mistress. Why? Why does this lurid affair take place in the film? Long-time readers of these humble posts have had to suffer thorough my documenting the battle being waged in cinema over the question: Which economic model is best for art, capitalism or socialism? Last year's Best Picture winner, The Artist, came out on the side of capitalism (please see BANG! The Artist & the New Agenda In Film for more), but Arbitrage (like all the pro-socialist films of today) can only attack capitalism, it can't offer a positive image of art under socialism (can we say, "propaganda?") so what Arbitrage does show us is capitalism (symbolized by the multi-millionaire Robert) "screws" art (the affair with Julie, the artist). Where Arbitrage fails to make a convincing argument here is that, while Robert obviously uses the artist for his own sexual gratification, she uses him as well for her career, and that is a point Arbitrage probably wants us to miss, only feeling sorry for her as a "victim" of the ruthless business man who doesn't really care about her paintings, just her body.
What about his daughter, Brooke?
The shooting of this scene was done particularly well (to convey the point they wanted to convey). Whereas, heretofore, they have always been in man-made settings (with the exception of the car wreck Robert causes, and that's important because it links these two scenes together) but Robert confessing to his daughter what he has done is in the natural setting of the park; why? Removing the action from the car interior, a home, office, restaurant, court, etc., "builds up" the feeling of the artificial (again, the man-made atmosphere against the trees and water and grass of the park above) and what we associate with Robert: the artificial. Brooke, however, wearing white and looking very natural, is meant to convey her "innocence" of all this (she had no idea what her father was doing) and this is intentional because her innocence gets dragged into his guilt when she becomes complicit with what he has done, which is one of the points of Arbitrage, capitalism ruins the family, and not just the immediate family, but everyone involved; because you and I live in a capitalist society, the film tells us, we are complicit and just as guilty of Bernie Madoff's crimes as he is. There is an additional point which can be made from the setting of this scene: is capitalism natural, or is capitalism unnatural? We have seen the question come up, but the debate has been more specific: was America naturally going to be a capitalist country or naturally going to be a socialist country? Which economic model is more natural? The two events taking place in the natural settings in the film--the car wreck with Julie's death and Robert explaining to Brooke where all the money went--is meant to enhance an unnatural element in both situations. It's not just that Robert is having an affair, it's also that capitalism should leave art alone; it's not just that Robert has built this unnatural empire of wealth through hedge funds, but that he is dragging his daughter into the mire with him instead of protecting her. These are very deliberate scenes meant to make us disgusted with not only people like Robert--wealthy business men--but the whole system that allows someone like Robert to exist and get away with his crime just because he has the appearance of having money. One last little note: Brooke has a brother who does very little, if anything at all. Just as Arbitrage seeks to dispel the "myth" that capitalists can and do patronize those with talent and help them succeed (Julie), so Robert's son who works at his company without apparently really doing anything debunks the so-called myth that if you start at the bottom you can rise to the top by your hard work; problem is, Arbitrage argues, the "top" is filled with the do-nothing children of the business owners so there is no room at the top where you can wiggle your way into (the film argues). To make sure his kids continue to have jobs, when he sells the company, he makes the new buyer agree to give them six or seven year contracts getting paid the same wages; this little detail makes it look like "socialism for the privileged" whereas the rest of us have to work and never get anywhere (the film argues).
The most important scene involving Brooke (who works at her father's company) and her father (important as far as the greater scope of cinema in the last year is concerned) is when Brooke confronts her father about how he cooked the books so his company would look more attractive to another buyer and Brooke, obviously hurt because she put so much of herself into the company, tells Robert they are partners and he angrily replies "You work for me," you are my employee!... why is this important? It's one more knife in the back to anyone employed by anyone, because those who work for others feel they are a part of a family because they have invested so much of themselves in the business but Arbitrage wants to make sure we know that employers don't look at us as their children--even if we are, in fact, their child--but as employees to cover up for them and participate in their sordid affairs and cover ups so they don't have to stand before justice like the rest of us (this is in the same vein as The Help, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, Django Unchained and Lincoln). There is one character in particular who really drives this home: Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker).
Sadly, Jimmy (Nate Parker) all ready has a bit of legal trouble and coming to pick up his deceased father's former employer after the car wreck only compounds the situation. Jimmy gets into a tough legal position which Robert manages--by hiring an expensive lawyer--to get Jimmy out of, but only barely, then adds insult to injury when offering Jimmy money for helping him. THAT is all made yet worse when Jimmy tells Robert that he and his girlfriend are going to open up an Applebee's and Robert has no idea what that is. Why does this situation happen? To drive home to the black population that rich white people still use them just like in the gold old days of slavery (think Calvin Candie in Django Unchained; please see Flesh For Cash: Django Unchained for more). Arbitrage shows us how Jimmy's loyalty, trust, integrity and life are taken advantage of and of no concern to Robert except how they can benefit him and keep him from being exposed.
To insure we get upset with whatever position we are on in the capitalist society, if we don't identify with Brooke, then we should identify with Jimmy. Following the line of films mentioned above, Arbitrage intentionally stirs up--not only class warfare and the differences between rich and poor--but also the differences between employer and employee. After everything Jimmy goes through, and saying he isn't going to take the money Robert offers him to make a new start, Arbitrage shows us that, in the end, even Jimmy has sunk to accepting the lowly payoff of money, just like all the other characters, and nothing separates him from Robert except Robert has so much more. This, then, turns into a moral argument, that those who would otherwise be better than sinking into such moral depravity are sunk in the end anyway because you have to have capital (the money Robert gives Jimmy to start his business) to survive in a capitalist society.
What happens in the end?
When Robert gets up to give his speech, and stands before everyone as an upstanding citizen, we know he is guilty of numerous crimes but gets off and we are supposed to be outraged that nothing will be done by anyone; why not? Socialists argue that "the masses" (to which both you and I belong) are completely dumb and we have no free will of our own and no conscience, neither do we have the ability to make good solid moral decisions because we are corrupted by a love for money and material luxury goods, hence, we do what we must in order to keep up that "addiction" to luxury goods and money, i.e., to maintain our lifestyle. At the end, everyone Robert has encountered (even the cop trying to prosecute him) has sold their soul to protect Robert for the money they are getting in one way or another, and socialists argue justice can't happen until we all break those ties (our addiction to wealth and consumerism) or capitalists such as Robert will continue to get away with it.
Do you agree with this?
This is where you and I come in.
Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter argued that vampires (symbolic of capitalists) can't kill one another, only a "living person" can kill a vampire (someone alive with indignation that they are working for someone else and that isn't "natural"); Arbitrage seems to support this because Mayfield, the other business owner (read: "vampire") trying to buy Robert's business realizes Robert cooked the books but fails to bring Robert to justice as well, because (according to socialists) capitalists all sleep in the same dirty bed. Like Mayfield, we the viewer are the "buyer" in the film, and if we "buy" into what Robert is selling us about the virtue of the upper-class and capitalism (according to Arbitrage, not myself)  we are going to be duped the same way. We have the chance, according to the film, to "bring the curtain down" on the 1% is we chose to do so. You and I have to ask, "Does the film make accurate arguments and offer a convincing alternative?" 
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner