The Column – Money Never Sleeps: On Fixing the Global Financial Crisis

Miguel Penabella | 27 June 2012

The Column is a Free Tea segment that serves as a forum with which to discuss random topics on cinema and topics outside of it in a pseudo-opinionated manner, much like your weekend newspaper column. A little more informal and more concise than your regular Free Tea feature, these pieces are meant to both inform and express personal thoughts on various issues.

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I once took an economics course, but most of that time sitting in lectures either witnessed me browsing Reddit or reading music reviews off Pitchfork. Naturally, I suppose I’m more than qualified to speak on the global financial crisis and potential approaches with which to solve such a quandary. I have to admit, I’m completely oblivious to the various G-20 summits held around the world and I have no idea what the term “hedge fund” means, but I do enjoy reading Bloomberg Businessweek and I did actually pay close attention in my Asian studies class, the syllabus of which focused on late 20th century and 21st century contemporary global issues ranging from glocalisation to critical media theory. By no means am I supposing that what I have to offer to economic discussion carries a profoundly intellectual, even mildly thoughtful weightiness. What I do hope is for an amusing spiel of a column that may or may not instigate some kind of appreciative consideration, or even an amused grin on one’s face.

Ever since the major turning point in 2007 when the global financial crisis and recession became an immediate thing within our society, global think tanks and politicians have been squabbling on how the bloody hell to go about solving the problem. I for one oppose austerity measures in Europe and champion the tried-and-true rules of elementary economics concerning expansionary fiscal policy. An increase in government expenditures and a cut in taxes will increase aggregate expenditures and real GDP growth, thus gradually lowering the rate of unemployment and balancing the budget. That’s the old route taken directly from economics’ fundamental level, and that tends to work in 20th century politics. Unfortunately, the 21st century has complicated the issue, what with the Eurozone, more recent changes in the Glass–Steagall Act, globalization, so on and so on. The truth is, people will hesitate in investing in such an unstable economic atmosphere no matter how safe it may seem; political mudslinging in the upcoming election and media spin will likely exacerbate already build-in anxieties for the future. On the other hand, people will also doubt the integrity of the banking system, especially considering how interconnected the world’s economies have become due to our incessant championing of the virtues of globalization. With vital countries on the brink of economic collapse (specifically Greece, Italy, and Spain), the thought of their failures causing a catastrophic domino effect on a majority of the European Union, and unavoidably, on the United States warrants uncertainty and anticipation lest people’s savings and pensions disappear should Greece ever implode from all the chaos. 

Even more distressing is how flawed our banking system operates, because if people decide to begin taking out their savings in a nice about-face to the global financial sector, then the entire industry would crumble. No matter how much we loathe the overpaid, underhanded Wall Street money machine, they’re here to stay simply because they’ve written themselves into the global financial system in such a way that their removal would sink economic conditions even further. And because unmitigated economic globalization has now become central to economic thought, the complex interactions within the market and its contribution to gross domestic product becomes a bit fuzzy. We’d like to spend more money in an effort to appease our government’s push for investment and consumption to stimulate the economy once again, but that’s not taking into account the actual goods produced. Because the manufacturing sector of developed countries like the United States and the United Kingdom have been outsourced to areas of cheaper industrial labor, namely developing countries China and India, buying imported goods only stimulates their GDP. Truth is, a majority of the goods we purchase are produced overseas, and this factor confounds the conversation on how to stimulate the economy once again.

So what does the cinema have to say about the global financial crisis? As history tells us, no other industry during the Great Depression in America prospered quite like the film industry. Granted, there were a number of theater closures and flops, but the classic, monopolistic studio system of RKO, MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros., and 20th Century Fox continued to make money all throughout the Depression to the point where the Supreme Court allowed these monopolies to exist because they were so vital to the economy. Hell, even a company as significant as 20th Century Fox emerged in the midst of the Depression in 1935. Clearly, if an industry that produces nonessential goods/services can subsist and even flourish in an era where entire populations waited in soup kitchen lines, the film industry can thrive in this era’s recession, right? For the most part, the 21st century has shown that cinema is recession resistant, but not necessarily recession-proof. MGM tanked in 2010 when it declared bankruptcy, but in the context of the modern movie industry spectrum where dozens and dozens of growing companies exist (and not just the five major studios back in the 1930s), MGM’s failure comes as no surprise. Even as one monolith lays low in a slow recovery process, numerous other studios are rising to take its place: Lionsgate (The Hunger Games), The Weinstein Company (The Artist, The King’s Speech), etc. People will always turn to the cinema as one of the cheapest sources of escapist entertainment because of the medium’s role as mass entertainment. An increasing number of films are being released with each passing year, and the top earners are already surpassing the billion dollar worldwide gross mark, regardless if the numbers are adjusted for inflation or not.

The widely successful Harry Potter series has earned $7,706,147,978 in the course of a decade, which is still greater than the total grosses for 24 James Bond films or 7 Star Wars films (including that animated one that nobody remembers), proving that even in the midst of the worst part of the economic crisis, the cinema will prosper. And let’s not forget the flourishing newcomer that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whose six films have entered into the pop culture consciousness as one of the surefire moneymakers at the box office. People go to the movies even when food needs to be put on the table and mortgages need to be paid because these troubles simply vanish in the dark, air-conditioned palaces where recession woes cannot enter. Movie theaters are the purest form of bread and circus to appease unruly masses – the junk food of the lobby paired with the bright, Orwellian screens looming over passive audiences. There are a number of exceptions to the rule, however, as some films also reflect social realities to comment on modern times. The critical and commercial results that come out of these films reveal significant insights on how many Americans feel about the political/economic topics implied within, and these results speak a lot about our current social atmosphere.

One recent example is Oliver Stone’s flop back in 2010 with Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, a film that features the iconic Gordon “Greed is Good” Gekko (Michael Douglas) returning to the screen. While the film may be a sequel to a high profile title, box office returns have resulted in a much talked about failure amongst the film community. What Stone failed to anticipate was the worsening financial crisis and the tarnished image of Wall Street, and the film’s depiction of moneyed figures representing the corporations/financial institutions that played a major role in our current economic malaise simply alienated audiences. In contrast, 2010’s surprise hit The Town won over critics and audiences with its premise of populist everymen from a working class background combating the forces who’ve plagued the economy in the first place. Director Ben Affleck portrays his characters as bank robbers on surface level, but in the context of the financial crisis, a heist film as this pretty much serves as a middle finger to the banking system itself. Then there’s the Occupy-tinged Coriolanus and the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises, and you can see for yourself the vast majority of America sympathizing with working class woes and shunning the corrupted institutions that brought down the economy to begin with.

The populist-minded mood of filmgoing audiences couldn’t be farther away than the current American government, which many critics have derided as a “Wall Street government.” Indeed, such big names as Federal Reserve chairmen Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke (the latter of which is our current one) have been plagued with controversy over their support for Wall Street names. And let’s not forget Treasury Secretaries Henry Paulson and Timothy Geithner (the latter of which is also our current one), both of whom have worked in Wall Street and thus, to many Americans’ populist eyes, view them simply as out of touch with everyman misfortunes. What the government needs to recognize is its constituents’ disproval of Wall Street and major corporations – having them onboard may perpetuate our continuing financial crisis. Instead, as Mr. Smith reminded us back in 1939, even an earnest common man can make it to Washington. Added to this prospect the current “We are the 99%” movement of Occupy, the masses are beginning to reawaken to more direct action against less than stellar government policies.

One last consideration on the global financial crisis: world markets. I’ve brought it up numerous times before, and I’ll bring it up again. Globalization has changed the face of international relations, and if developed countries are to pull through an economic downturn, leaders absolutely must turn to developing countries. These emergent powers drive economic growth, specifically the much talked about BRIC – Brazil, Russia, India, China. In the realm of the cinema, the popcorn blockbusters of the summer have proved time and time again that overseas box office grosses are vital for considerable ticket sales – especially China. Men In Black 3 grossed over $75 million in the country, a considerable return that exceeds any other national audience besides the United States. Just like in the economic realm, reception from overseas markets remains absolutely vital if consumers in America are reluctant to spend money. As a result, many films have received international financial backing such as the upcoming Iron Man 3 and Looper (both from DMG Entertainment, a Chinese studio) and even production company Legendary Pictures have created a Chinese offshoot studio Legendary East and partnered with Huayi Brothers Media Corp. to release The Dark Knight Rises.

In conclusion, the most straightforward way to help the American economy would be to cater to China’s whims. After all, refusing to admit that the country isn’t a credible superpower would be a step towards doom, and of course, we want to avoid a Cold War-esque manufacturing race because we’ll surely suffer for it. So then, I suggest taking a step away from Wall Street and looking across the ocean to brighter prospects that lie beyond the horizon: for the greatest good of economic recovery, we should all probably watch The Dark Knight Rises then.

Notes 1

The Hunger Games

Miguel Penabella | 14 May 2012

The Hunger Games

Dir. Gary Ross, 2012 

Jennifer Lawrence located herself on the Hollywood map with 2010’s Winter’s Bone, instantly launching herself as one of the most bankable young figures working today. Along the meandering path that would become her career following her breakout 2010 role, she has tapped into the mass movie-going consciousness in the hugely successful X-Men: First Class and proved indie credibility with secondary roles in The Beaver and Like Crazy. The screen adaptation of the first of Suzanne Collins’ breakout young adult novel series The Hunger Games finally witnesses Lawrence steering her first leading role in a big budget film as the watchful sister turned survivalist gladiator Katniss Everdeen. Ross’ translation of the text to the big screen provides a fine example of blockbuster excitement and emotion interlaced, resulting in a well paced and narratively gripping film despite its lengthy runtime and extended exposition. Holistically, The Hunger Games elegantly unfolds its sci-fi survival story with a dexterous touch for expressing Collins’ compelling totalitarian world and even more compelling lead character. Nevertheless, the ideologies inherent within the narrative remain problematic when filmed on camera. The Hunger Games’ preoccupation with scornfully critiquing spectacle culture reads better on paper than on screen simply because the film conflictingly invites us in on the critique and actually cheers on the very events that Collins aims to reject. This representation of arena violence on film conveys something enthralling rather than revolting because Ross makes the mistake of detaching audiences from the expressive carnage he presents. Instead, the film aligns audiences with the fictional spectators of the Hunger Games, thus relegating moviegoing audiences complicit in the very activities it loathes. 

The overarching “bread and circus” analysis of a totalitarian universe begins with its basic premise. Gary Ross realizes Collins’ dystopian world of Panem, the remnants of North America following the collapse of civilization itself, with a flurry of contrasts. The thirteen laboring districts carry an aura of dilapidated, gloomy isolation compared to the richly colorful, ominously fascist aesthetics of the Capitol. Each year, one boy and one girl from each district are randomly chosen (in an event called “The Reaping”) to participate in the titular reality television show, a perverse duel-to-the-death format akin to The Running Man or Battle Royale. Numerous critics have parroted this film’s similarities to the aforementioned two, but many have overlooked its even closer comparison to Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s abysmal yet slightly intriguing 2009 film Gamer. Both films feature an emphasis on exaggerated pop culture kitsch borne out of our current society’s obsession with Project Runway or literally any reality TV show on TLC, commenting on the rapidly declining nature of mass culture. Neveldine and Taylor also immerse the film in a dystopian setup with a populace totally desensitized to violence thanks to a similar (albeit with guns and grenades) gladiatorial television show, but Gamer ultimately squanders its big, even Orwellian ideas in a poorly constructed package.

The Hunger Games, on the other hand, is far more expertly assembled. The naturalist tones of the first half hour recall the Ozarks-set Winter’s Bone or the melancholically sylvan Martha Marcy May Marlene, conveying the stark visuals of photographer Dorothea Lange’s vision of the Great Depression in rural America. This early utilitarian aesthetic starkly juxtaposes the tinge of dystopian sci-fi visuals that follow, featuring uniformed guards and giant flying aircraft that look eerily out of place. Children of Men comes to mind when viewing this raw, dirtied outlook on the future where widely diverging social classes exist that pit the haves against the have-nots. The visuals itself look excellent, channeling a grizzled frontier country with characters in Depression era dress that could be lifted out of a period piece itself. Nevertheless, the editing and framing techniques that Ross employs squanders the power of the images with his nauseating, at times nearly unwatchable shakycam handhelds. For a viewer who enjoyed even Matt Reeves’ hyperactive, aggressively shot Cloverfield, the first half hour of The Hunger Games with its foolhardy combination of incessant close-ups and a chaotic maelstrom of visuals obnoxiously frames even the most mundane of shots in a tight, wobbly squeeze. Ross appears to be stabbing at a taste of “raw” and “primal” naturalism akin to Winter’s Bone or even Deliverance, but these camera techniques only serve to remind audiences of the fabricated nature of this strained approach to gritty realism.

The failed attempt to expose the “rawness” of the moving image thankfully dissipates when the district’s tributes ultimately board the train to their future fates. Ross transforms his approach to framing and mise-en-scène in the Capitol, delivering more composed medium and long shots that take full advantage of the widescreen format. The probing eye of the camera lingers over the decadence and luxuries onboard the train, from the lavishly decorated pastries (a surprisingly disconcerting shift from the plain loaves of bread in the district) to the plastered make-up and apparel of an unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks as Capitol representative Effie Trinket. Once these static, more elegantly poised shots comprise this stretch of film, The Hunger Games finally finds ground rather than distracting itself with the exposition. Thus, the film thankfully connects with Collins’ smart and engaging narrative, emphasizing a resilient leading character at its core. When Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) steps up to replace her already selected 12-year-old sister Prim (Willow Shields) for the annual Hunger Games, the film presents a nonconventional heroine. Driven neither by enthusiasm or personal vendetta, Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen functions as a character pushed by a duty to care for her sole sibling because of her physically absent father and mentally absent mother. In the novel, the protracted length of the narrative in prose lets such a grisly sacrifice sink in more profoundly than the generously long but breezy two and half hours of film, but Ross makes good use of his phenomenal casting, expressive Appalachia locales (with some scenes sharing the same landmarks from Michael Mann’s North Carolina-shot The Last of the Mohicans), and Collins’ easily captivating storyline.

Jennifer Lawrence channels the self-sufficient survivalist Ree Dolly from Sundance favorite Winter’s Bone, caring for a catatonic mother and sibling while the father remains absent from the picture. Certainly, Lawrence ushers in the weary determination necessary for The Hunger Games’ woodland hunter, gritting her teeth in the face of adversaries, deadening her eyes to steel, and even roasting a squirrel in what could even be a knowing reference to Winter’s Bone. And despite the awful filming techniques of the first half hour, Ross manages to convey the impoverished backwoods setup of the coal-mining District 12 to fairly realist lengths. For those who’ve read the novel, District 12 exists in the vestiges of the Appalachian Mountains, and the Capitol government’s deliberate neglect of the people there and the occasional backwoods joke by Capitol talk show host Caesar Flickerman (expertly played by Stanley Tucci) mirrors our own society’s marginalization of impoverished rural communities in the very same locations. Nevertheless, Katniss prevails as an underdog fighter and one of the most well rounded female characters in recent mainstream film history. The aforementioned lack of parental figures force her to take on the roles of both father and mother, seen hunting, bartering for goods, caring for Prim, and ultimately laying down her life for a greater good. The character represents a smartly played out deconstruction of traditional gender representation that leaves plenty of gray areas for stereotypically simplistic demarcation points for the role of a cinematic female character.

Katniss ultimately overshadows both fellow male tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and longtime friend Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), despite the fact that both actors do fairly good jobs for their roles. When she eventually arrives at the Capitol with Peeta and Haymitch Abernathy (a welcome Woody Harrelson) in tow, she immediately sets an impression on the citizens, and in turn, on the audiences. Part of the competition is acquiring sponsors that can potentially send in necessary supplies for survival during the Hunger Games, and Katniss quickly demonstrates her autonomous, proactive nature even before the games begin. When Katniss initially meets her Capitol stylist Cinna (a surprisingly decent Lenny Kravitz), she initially snubs him of simply being there to “make me look pretty.” When he corrects her and asserts that his job is to make an impression, the film thus sets out to highlight the compelling protagonist inherent at its core. Nicknamed after an illusory pyrotechnic fashion piece, Katniss becomes “the girl who was on fire,” thus aligning the character with one other recent mainstream heroine, Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s adaptation of the Millennium series, dubbed “The Girl Who Played with Fire” in its second book. Furthermore, one can’t help but associate both Katniss and Lisbeth with its obvious allusions to the story of Prometheus, portraying both characters as tampering with things that could push the stability of power relations over the edge. Both stories deal with civil change: in The Hunger Games, this transpires in a burgeoning class uprising against the Capitol; in the Millennium series, change occurs on political and institutional levels in contemporary Sweden. And both stories contain uniquely compelling, steely female protagonists that slowly destabilize patriarchal power structures built into their diegetic worlds. Katniss Everdeen concerns herself with all these issues, resulting in one of the most absorbing up-and-coming leading protagonists in recent times. She is Robin Hood, Ellen Ripley, Joan of Arc, Che Guevara, and Bear Grylls all in one, and Lawrence’s ability to sell such a multidimensional character makes clear the actress’ flourishing talents.

Apart from Katniss Everdeen, childhood friend and companion hunter Gale radiates a sense of earnestness about him even as he ruminates in a conflicted and solitary manner when Katniss becomes a lamb to the slaughter during The Reaping. Katniss’ fellow District 12 representative Peeta is immediately likable as a flawed character suffering from a layer of guilt due to his higher social class in comparison to the rougher, less etiquette-bound Katniss. Nevertheless, once the two selected representatives arrive at the Capitol, everything becomes a fabrication ready for consumption by the city’s campy, exaggeratedly caricatured bourgeois leisure class. Katniss initially feels disgusted by such weighty emphasis on mentoring in terms of fashion, personality, and public image, but Haymitch always quickly reminds her, “It’s television!” Thus, Ross finally grounds the film in a decent attempt at social commentary via a satirical take on our society’s predilection for reality television. Pop culture and politics go hand-in-hand in Collins’/Ross’ world, portraying gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) and the Capitol President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) dealing backroom politics to continue using the games to keep the masses docile amidst totalitarian rule. It’s Katniss and Peeta’s gradual destabilization of the televised order that power structures begin to change: viewers are influenced by their humanist, slightly populist stance towards the rights of the districts, persuading them to break free from apathy and incite anger against the Capitol like a mad as hell Howard Beale in Network. But rather than voice their concerns with politics and society, Katniss and Peeta rebel through their actions during the games as a means to “show them that they don’t own me.”

The primary act of rebellion inherent within The Hunger Games to topple entire power structures is the fabrication of a star-crossed romance. Initially an attempt by Haymitch to calculatedly attract audiences to the representatives of District 12, Katniss and Peeta begin to believe the fabrication as reality. Comparable to George Orwell’s own 1984, a moment in which Peeta clasps Katniss’ hand carries not only a romantic connotation, but also complex political and symbolical implications as efforts to rise above the system that controls the masses. Finding a sense of humanity and purpose beyond mere survival amidst the death and slaughter surrounding the games ends up becoming the filmmaker’s ultimate intention. So even though Katniss and Peeta fall for their own fabrication meant to garner attention from the Capitol sponsors, The Hunger Games reveals the omnipresent power of television to totally influence emotional responses: to create love, to incite anger, to unite districts, even to destabilize governments. The scenes that find Katniss and Peeta together ultimately reveal Ross’ (and of course, Collins’) final thesis: that inside each of these obedient killing machines beats a human heart.

Nevertheless, the one issue that needs to be analyzed still remains open: the games itself. Therein lies the most problematic aspect of The Hunger Games, an issue that was mentioned briefly but must now be fully fleshed out. While watching Ross pit his young hunters against each other before us, the distancing, voyeuristic aspect of the cinema complicates the original intention to criticize these barbaric spectator sports. Audiences become involved in the activity because the film focalizes its narrative to Katniss herself, thus resulting in audiences unintentionally participating as Capitol-like citizens entertained by the desultory slaughter onscreen. Like any fiction, audiences will gravitate towards its main character because they are sources of sympathy and connection, but Ross’ deliberate decisions in filmmaking undermine Collins’ original themes. Rather than focus on the more interesting, yet mundane (Hollywood translation: boring) aspects of survival as the novel does – gathering food, finding water, beating the heat, making shelter, starting a fire – Ross focuses the action on grander battle scenes as expected for a summer tentpole film, thus hypocritically aligning the filmmakers with the gamemakers. Ross and his diabolical gamemaker Crane provide their respected audiences with the spectacle they long to see, manipulating aspects of the action to influence the viewing experience. Naturally, the most important aspect of a film regarding teenagers slaughtering others for sport is the violence.

Like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the film cuts away at the precise moment during a killing scene, thus blatantly reminding viewers that the film is a PG-13 fabrication. These aren’t stylistic flourishes that heighten tension, but rather an example of filmmakers forced to adhere to standards and expectations brought upon by its demographics. Viewers of this film are most likely going to fall between the 12-18 range, the intended audience for the young adult teen series. Because of Ross’ decision to limit his violence onscreen to adhere to suitable ratings, the games’ depiction of violence does not deliver the shock necessary to make an appropriate statement. The overall premise of teens killing their peers onscreen should be a big enough shock, but Ross elides the carnage via whooshing camera movements away from the act itself, thus robbing the actions of their necessary emotional weight. Of course, if the camera were to revel in the blood and gore of a murdered child, the film would suffer as a repellent example of violence as entertainment once again, thus mirroring the Capitol audiences within the film cheering on such gruesome spectacle. Ross rides a thin line between violence carrying emotional impact and violence for the sake of violence, and thus the filmmaker decides to take the easy route and keep its onscreen gore at a minimum. The consequences of such an action have increased ticket sales from younger adolescents, but this avoidance of taking chances divorces the violence from its meaning.

Kinji Fukasaku’s 2000 film Battle Royale serves as the corrective counterexample in terms of its approach to adolescent violence, giving audiences an unflinching crystalline presentation of the butchery. The entire purpose of both The Hunger Games and Battle Royale is to portray kid-on-kid violence as repulsive, and straightforwardly depicting such appalling spectacle works in Battle Royale’s favor. Gary Ross’ preferred filmmaking modus operandi never delivers anything remotely unsettling, instead offering the typical action film theatrics with flashes of blood and gore for effect. Of course, simply displaying expressionless violence doesn’t necessarily equate to a profound message; a sense of emotional power must go hand-in-hand with the visuals. Perhaps one of the most successful instances of a film containing minimum blood and gore while maintaining a profound solemnity to the visuals was the conclusion to the Harry Potter series, witnessing solemn mourning among the remaining characters after their grandiose last stand with a profound emotive quality. There are moments to Ross’ film that nearly match such weightiness, including a number of intercut shots of spectators watching the games meant for stark contrast. A number of shots mid-game show the bloodthirsty mob of Capitol spectators enthralled by the violence, but a cut to the districts finds a silent crowd of onlookers gathered only by an obligatory sense to watch their children’s final moments. These instances are laced with a hauntingly quiet atmosphere that resonates more powerfully than any of Ross’ adolescent violence. 

Early on in the film, Gale remarks to Katniss that “If no one watches, they [the Capitol] don’t have a game.” This early suggestion of an inherent teenage rebelliousness against the bread and circus government initially comes off as impossible in Collins’ dystopian world. What The Hunger Games seems to propose, however, is that we are already living in a post-collapse society. In an age of Kardashians and Project Runways, perhaps our image-obsessed world isn’t too far off from the pop culture saturated Capitol. The games itself may already be slowly coming to fruition given our intense fascination with violence in visual media, the pervasiveness of reality television, and pop culture’s bizarre fixation with celebritizing younger and younger stars (Bieber, Gomez, the Smith kids, and now even Lawrence herself). And finally, take the film’s ultimate taunt. When one steps back and actually witnesses any filmgoing audience watching the film, how close do these crowds approximate to the gawking Capitol spectators viewing the games on their own giant screens, sitting in a restless state until the champion finally emerges? Do we already resemble the society that Suzanne Collins has proposed and just haven’t noticed it yet?

Notes 3

News Feed [volume 1]

Miguel Penabella | 9 August 2011

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Notes 3