What we talk about when we talk of the weather (something approaching a review of Margin Call)
As much as I love the darkened space of the cinema, where I can be anyone, if just for a moment, when I turn up, unannounced and cold, outside one of those big commercial duplexes, and tell myself that inside, in the warmth, there shall be miracles awaiting me, I always feel as if I am acting in bad faith.
I’m not really expecting to see film. I just want to find the world outside, inside that dark, welcoming room.
There are two ways in which I go to the cinema, and they are almost totally distinct — I shall call them mode I, and mode II.
The first begins — at least in this city — with Pariscope, that small repository of indexical information that the internet should have rendered useless but that persists, in the hands of men and women such as myself, who hunker down against the spring rains, and search its pages for familiar friends — directors whose very names are enough to conjure anticipatory pleasure (recitation as anticipation and memory combined). What draws me to these directors is what I can only call their cinematic voice; Godard, Marker, Wong Kar-Wai — their images are so utterly distinctive that to see their films — however bad — allows me to a continue a conversation I have been having with them over the years. To claim that some of Godard’s work from the 80’s is, strictly speaking, unwatchable, is no defence against my love. I’m in love with that voice, not whether it tends towards successful movies (and isn’t Sans Soleil a thousand times more interesting than Le Jétee, for my money one of the most perfect films ever created?). Almost all of these directors are dead. Some were, or are, American. Some are yet living. Very few — perhaps four — manage to combine both the latter characteristics.
Living American directors are encountered principally when I embrace Mode II.
Mode II -- I must turn up at the cinema unannounced, and no friend should be there waiting for me. I do not look either for singularity, or for a unique voice. What I want is the absolutely generic voice of Hollywood: a visual language so efficient and well-known that it merely needs to be suggested for its regular contours to be recalled. [I can imagine, post-apocalypse, that the accidental framing of scenes in our personal lives according to the requirements of Hollywood film narrative will bring about the same sort of confused contentment in us that is given to the mice in Kafka’s story, Josephine the Singer].
In Hollywood's generic nature, I hope to encounter the world: its contours heightened by wish-fulfilment and ideology. [And isn’t that, really what makes reality so unreal — that we recognise ourselves here, in the cinema, and not in the confusion of life].
In my more sceptical moments, I suspect that I go to the cinema in Mode II just to talk about it afterwards. That the films are merely grist to the cultural-studies graduate student in me. More indulgently, I think to myself these unbidden trips to anonymous multiplexes are occasions to think.
I approach these films with the inverse frame of attention to that of mode I (cinema as temple; everyone silent). I eat popcorn, talk during the film, and scribble notes all the time (it is not clear to me which mode I enjoy more, only which is more vital to me).
Bad faith is inscribed in my enjoyment of Mode II — I am not really expecting miracles. The film itself — its cuts, its suggestions, its montage — is never the real reason I enter the cinema. On hearing of Soderbergh’s — an American director who nonetheless makes the list of Mode I — Contagion, I could only think of apocalypse, Malcolm Bull, and Bosch. My desire to see the film was simply an excuse to tell the story of America’s changing relationship to the apocalypse (whose horror now is not a final conflagration, but that the apocalypse has already happened, and no one noticed).
Yesterday’s trip to the glass and white stone banality of the MK2 next to Mitterand’s modernist horror-story, the BNF, involved another sort of apocalypse, this one financial.
I had never heard of Margin Call before I stepped into the cinema. I could only guess from its name — and the suggestive stock numbers on the movie’s poster — that it must be dealing with the financial crash.
What could be more perfect, for a Mode II film, than one dealing with that most central of topics today?
Well, I was wrong — Margin Call wasn’t really a film about the crash. This most American of films dealt with that most British of subjects — the weather.
The weather has not always been simply something outside of our control: an excuse for British chit-chat or the possibility of impending doom (tsunami, hurricane). It used to be the way we measured our passage through the world — in harvests, in seasons: rhythms that bound us to the earth that we relied upon. This relation is still preserved today. In French, the weather is le temps (time), and the ever-erudite Justin E. H. Smith notes that this link is also present in Hungarian (időjárás) and in Romanian (timpul).
Today we are far away from this point. Time is parceled out chronometrically, in flat, unrelenting units; those same units we use to calculate future’s indexes, and derivative markets, those same units that seem to us much more real than the weather, or the flux of seasons (which a simple flight can alter): you can escape the weather, but you can’t escape time.
One of the weather’s interesting properties is its reach. It affects large groups, without being reducible to a simple causality issuing from a single actor. We swim in it, this weather. Elias Canetti, in his speech for Hermann Broch’s fiftieth birthday (In The Conscience of Words), heralds the writer as the great poet of atmosphere. “For he is always concentrated on the wholeness of the space he finds himself in, on a kind of atmospheric unity. In each person, he recognises a singular existence breathing his own air.”
This weather, which links us together, and provides the fodder for the conversations in which we articulate, and work through, our relationships with each other, is the subject of Margin Call, except that it is a particular weather that today binds us together, and it's called money.
The film opens inside a fictional trading company in New York. People are being sacked, and the risk analysts stand around confused as their boss, a stoic Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), heads for the door, tossing the young wizard Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) a flash disk — he wasn’t allowed to finish what he was working on before being fired, and cautions Peter, “be careful.”
The rest of the film details the impact of the data on the flash disk, as analysed by Peter: all of the companies worth, it turns out, is bound up in “toxic assets.” The film plays out almost entirely indoors, but New York is always present, through large windows, and atop roofs. The city appears — as the film effectively plunders old clichés — as alternately dream world (unreal fantasy built of the money we make in here), and reality (there, in the world outside, as least they are doing something concrete; we just push around numbers).
The film hangs in the space between New York and the office. It is not a portrait of the collapse. We never really leave the office building, and learn little of the details of the assets — the crash itself is a by-now familiar song that is hinted at to tell the film’s real story.
That story, however, is not a set of character studies. The psychological portrayals are thin, and we get little sense of the narratives of the character’s lives, though Sam, Kevin Spacey’s wonderful middle manager, gets some effective early humour out of his concern for his dog, dying of cancer: he can’t sleep, he reveals, because of the dog, even as he glorifies the sacking of 60% of the office floor (only survivors remain, he says).
The actual story the film tells is of the ways in which we talk about the weather: which is to say, how we talk about money, and the place it has in our lives as a liquid fabric: the breathing space between us.
The strangeness of this stormy weather is indicated by the bizarre nature of the catastrophe confronting the characters. What Sullivan’s model reveals is that the catastrophe has already happened, and yet we had been continuing on, regardless (the catastrophe is not one of moral action, or of ethics, or even of everyday practice, but was hidden: a question of secret powers, that we, while agents of our own catastrophe, were simply unaware of).
[What haunts the faces of the younger members of the cast throughout the film is something like the sentiment: couldn’t this simply go on; can’t we ignore this catastrophe that has already happened without us noticing. And the serious point here is -- if the catastrophe is not part of our ethics -- of our everyday lives -- how can we think about how it might change the way we act day to day? Isn't it as external, simply put, as the weather?]
The degree to which we ourselves are the catastrophe, its fait accompli nature, is revealed by the strangeness of the (lack) of moral choice in the film. As the extent to which the company is leveraged on toxic assets is revealed, an imperious CEO, Tuld, gloriously played by Jeremy Irons, sweeps in. He has a simple solution — sell all the toxic asserts. Tomorrow. For next to nothing. In so doing, the company : (A) Saves itself, by getting the most out of the assets they can, before word gets out that they are worthless. (B) Brings on the crisis, by forcing public recognition of the worthlessness of the assets. (C) Royally screws their competitors and partners.
Sam, Kevin Spacey’s character, objects to the solution Tuld proposes. People will never trade with us again, he argues. We are going to bring on the crisis, by being the first to acknowledge its nature. Sam’s reticence is philosophically interesting. He does not propose another solution. Continue trading? Continue the fiction? [If our primary duty is to our associates, perhaps this is justifiable]. Or, though he doesn’t propose it, Sam's reluctance suggests something else — go down with everyone else: let the game end. Morality here only emerges as a reticent about what is the only course of action except self-annihilation. And, as Tuld reveals, in winning the argument, there will be a lot of money to made in the collapse (the game can't end, or at least, not in this way).
Tuld wins because Sam’s primary loyalty (what with the dog dying and all) is to the company. Tuld also realises that even if the firm destroys its trading partners, they will trade with it again — self-interested competition is the very nature of the community they are involved in.
All of the characters swim around in money, in events that have already happened (the question is, as with the question of an umbrella, whether or not we recognise them, and take ownership of them).
The moments when the characters gesture outside of the film, to the way they are perceived by society, or what the effects of the banking crisis will be, seem cheap considered as arguments, but are revealing of the basic aporias at the bottom of the characters in the film.
Having successfully steered the firm through its fire-sale, Sam approaches Tuld towards the end of the film. He wants to quit. He wants out of the whole mess. Tuld says nonsense, and makes a fine speech: there have always been rich and poor, there has always been money circulating, we have built all this with money, this firm. It is a classic naturalisation — rather than agency, history, and decision, there is invariance and continuity. There is just the weather, it comes and goes, it affects us all, and we deal with it. Sam relents, but not because of Tuld’s speech, but because “I need the money” — not realising that his invocation of subjective need and Tuld’s falsely objective description of a world of people constantly (ever and always) trying to make money are but two sides of the same coin.
There is no outside to the film; no question of the Gods directing the weather, or even of our own part in creating it. At some point, almost all of the characters invokes another, more real world, that they once inhabited. Eric Dale, the risk manager who first discovers the crisis, was an engineer. Now jobless, as he sits on the steps of a house he can no longer afford, he tells a worker from the firm — “I built a bridge. I saved people hours, thousands of hours.” Even his appeal to the concrete ultimately finds justification only in empty time, in vapid succession that people can use to make more money. Sam did a useful job. Peter Sullivan, the whizz-kid who completed Eric Dale’s analysis and confirms the crisis, was a rocket scientist. All of the, the film wants to tell us, were seduced into the atmosphere of money and turned away from socially useful roles: everything that was solid for them, became liquid.
In the weakness of the characters' appeals to the concrete, I think Tuld has the last laugh. When Sam complains that he could have done something useful with his life, Tuld sweeps his hand out, and gestures beyond, to New York. This is as real, he says, as anything out there. This is where we live.
The horror of the film is not the effacement of any sense of responsibility for a fait accompli, nor is it about the effacement of the legislative history that allowed the crash. The assets are much more toxic than that.
The assets, such as they are (and with such complex things, who can really work out what they are worth?) are in the youngest member of the firm, played like a concrete mask by Penn Badgely, who, in the midst of the crisis, is still asking everyone how much they earn, and still counting the numbers he might, or might not get. The horror is the sheer inability for any of the characters to be able to step outside.
They are reduced, in the end, to talking about the weather.
There will be heavy storms ahead.