Emotional Intelligence in "Silver Linings Playbook"

When does a movie interpretation go too far for you, not just pushing the envelope, but leaving the realm of plausibility? "Silver Linings Playbook" is a particularly good test case for this question because it revolves around the trickiness of interpretation—what the characters repeatedly call "reading the signs." The phrase "reading the signs" initially refers to emotional intelligence (Nikki's letter asking if Pat's ready to resume their marriage), then irrationality (Tiffany's view of Pat Sr.'s football "superstitions"), and finally some combination of both (Pat Sr. telling his son to go after Tiffany because "You gotta' pay attention to the signs," or it "will haunt you for the rest of your days like a curse").* To its great credit, the movie blurs the lines between these irrational vs. intelligent readings of the signs, and makes us wonder how much supposedly off-balance people actually have superb insight. But what about our own readings of the signs, as audience members looking for hidden meanings in this movie? How do we separate the good, insightful interpretations from the questionable ones and then the whacky ones?
 
As a gauge of where we would each draw these lines, let me ask this: Do any of the following interpretations of symbolism in "Silver Linings Playbook" strike you as being too far out there?

Halloween=Death, Strangers, and Favors. Instead of Halloween night, why not set Tiffany and Pat’s tumultuous diner scene on Thanksgiving or any plain, non-holiday night? Because Halloween creates the right symbolic resonance. Halloween stands for Death and Chaos (like Tiffany struggling with her husband’s death, and smashing the dishes and storming out when Pat acts superior), Strangers Making Contact (Tiffany and Pat still barely know each other), and Favors (like a Trick or Treater, Pat is asking Tiffany a favor, to pass on his letter to Nikki).


Christmas=Love and Family Unity.  Tiffany and Pat finally declare their love for each other in late December, with Christmas decorations all around. Christmas stands, then, for love and family unity, including the whole extended family that we see in the very last scene of the movie. This is classic seasonal symbolism, from “It’s a Wonderful Life” to “Four Christmases.”


Ben Franklin=Father and Country. Pat Sr. says that nothing could be more American than the Philadelphia Eagles and Ben Franklin (one of the “founding fathers”), and the dance competition happens at the Ben Franklin Hotel, on the same night that the Eagles win. Therefore, Pat Sr. is symbolically equated with Ben Franklin as a father figure, and the extended family union at the end is imagined as a union with both the father and America itself.

Ben Franklin=Santa. This is simply the logical extension of the previous interpretations. Ben Franklin and Santa are both portly elder males and legendary figures that try to unite the country. In other words, Ben is a civic Santa.
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What do you think? Too far out? Personally, I think the only interpretation that’s getting out there is the last one about Ben Franklin being Santa. The previous ones are solid according to the usual evidence standards for such interpretations: there’s a high degree of match between the interpretations, movie details, and other cultural patterns.


And even when it comes to Ben=Santa, the interpretation that’s the most questionable, I still like wondering if there’s something to it. I could go either way on this one, and I don’t mind this state of uncertainty, an in-between state that often emerges when you’re reaching the outer limits of an inquiry. In fact, some of the best insights emerge from such ambiguous gray zones, as scientists and artists say. Physicist Erik Mazur, for example, said, “Think of confusion as an opportunity to learn.” (For a good book on the psychology and advantages of ambiguity, check out Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing).
 
If you’ve read this far and didn’t flee at the first mention of Santa or symbolism, there’s a good chance you’re also comfortable with interpretive gray zones. Going beyond movies, you may also sometimes “read the signs” in other aspects of the world, such as looking at your night dreams for possible clues to future events. Don’t worry. You’re not alone. In national surveys, roughly 75% of Americans say they believe that dreams sometimes predict the future. I myself am so fascinated with these beliefs that I wrote a whole book about them, titled Corner-Store Dreams.




In this book, I tell the true story of my unlikely friendship with Ranulfo Juárez, who in 2006 asked his dreams to tell him whether he should buy a small bakery so that he and his wife could make the bread and pastries they knew as kids in Mexico. Or would the bakery bankrupt his family and send him back to working the fields of Oregon? Sifting through his dreams every morning in search of answers forced Ranulfo to look deeply at mysteries like the love and randomness of the universe and his life as a U.S. citizen. Ranulfo also enlisted me, an Anglo professor, as his confidante and sidekick in this quest, and, together, we confronted scam artists and naysayers, cultural differences and personal fears, and ultimately the Financial Crisis of 2008.

Corner-Store Dreams is nonfiction, but like “Silver Linings Playbook,” it’s a story that focuses on people “reading the signs” during a personal crisis. And Hollywood movies and personal dreams aren’t as far apart as they might seem. Both are often based on creative symbolism and narratives that deal with contradictions and tensions that we’re pondering with our unconscious minds. So whether in movies or dreams, I’d say reading the signs is a good bet.


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*To be specific, the phrase "reading the signs" is used in Nikki’s letter to Pat (Bradley Cooper), where she writes, “I have to say, if it’s me reading the signs, I need to see something to prove you're ready to resume our marriage.” Here, “reading the signs” amounts to the emotional intelligence of understanding Pat’s heart. By contrast, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) later uses this same phrase in reference to the sports “superstitions” of Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro). After the Eagles game debacle, she tells him, “Not that I give a fuck about football or your superstitions, but if it’s me reading the signs, I don’t send the Eagles guy whose personal motto is ‘Excelsior’ to a fucking Giants game….” Obviously the repetition of the “reading the signs” phrase tips off Pat that Tiffany wrote Nikki’s letter, yet no character points out that Tiffany has used this phrase in rather contradictory ways, to signify both intelligence and irrationality. Finally, Pat Sr. implodes this contradiction. After the dance competition, when Pat Sr. tells his son to go after Tiffany, he says, “You gotta’ pay attention to the signs. When life reaches out with a moment like this, it’s a sin if you don’t reach back…and it’ll haunt you for the rest of your days like a curse.” His son is so happy that his father has finally understood his relationship with Tiffany that he says, “I love you, Dad.” So Pat Sr.’s reading of “the signs” combines that phrase’s seemingly opposed meanings: now it’s both emotional intelligence (understanding his son’s needs) and superstition (“pay attention to the signs…haunt you…like a curse”).












































The Cultural Meaning of Halloween and Thanksgiving Pumpkins

Isn’t it remarkable that pumpkins play a major role in two of our biggest holidays, Halloween and Thanksgiving, yet we don’t often talk about that connection? Maybe that’s because Halloween’s Jack-O’-Lantern and Thanksgiving’s pumpkin pie are so different—yet scholars argue that this contrast is exactly what makes these pumpkins so important and interconnected. They say that Thanksgiving pumpkin pie ultimately represents the conquest of Life over Death.

To get to this deeper level, start by noting an obvious fact: Jack-O’-Lanterns are directed at outsiders, not the family. Even if the homeowner recognizes a few neighbors among the Halloween trick-or-treaters, they’re not invited in for a full, sit-down meal, unlike Thanksgiving dinner. The Jack-O’-Lantern doesn’t even look edible; it’s raw, bland, bulky, and often partly rotten. In his playful way, Jack is there to scare you, not feed you. But for precisely that reason, he prepares you for what's coming at Thanksgiving.
Wikimedia, By huk_flickr (originally posted to Flickr as pumpkin pie)

Pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving is the opposite of the Jack-O'-Lantern. The pie is eaten by family and friends inside the home, not by strangers outside. The pumpkin you saw a few weeks ago at a farm stand or on a neighbor’s doorstep on Halloween is now unrecognizable. Through pureeing and cooking, the pumpkin is no longer raw nature; it’s been domesticated and integrated into the family. The contrast effect is key. The homey aura of Thanksgiving pumpkin pie is heightened by its striking contrast with the inedible, outdoor, ghostly pumpkin of Halloween.

Moreover, whereas the Jack-O’-Lantern playfully represents Death, pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving represents Life, literally through physical nourishment, but also socially through its role in a holiday dedicated to reaffirming the family, the source of future generations. Scary ol’ Jack has been cooked, tamed, and turned into food that helps keep the family going. The pumpkin has completed its ceremonial journey from outside to in, moving from living Nature in the fields, to symbolic Death on our doorsteps, to new Life in our body and soul. Through this and other sharp contrasts between Halloween and Thanksgiving, Life overcomes Death. These two holidays are connected, then, and pumpkins, despite their humble appearance, do incredibly important symbolic work for us.

Flckr, Pumpkin Pie, by browniesfordinner, CC 2.0

Of course, most people don’t feel the need to talk about such pumpkin symbolism, and no single interpretation will ring true with the millions of diverse people who celebrate these holidays. Holiday traditions change in the hands of different social groups, both within the U.S. and around the world, so to understand the meaning of today’s Halloween pumpkins, it doesn’t help much to look at their historical origins in remote Irish customs from the distant past. While interesting, those historical curiosities distract us from what we already intuitively know about these holidays. Better to trust those intuitions and look at what’s happening in the here and now with your own holiday pumpkins. If you do, chances are you’ll see that Halloween and Thanksgiving are flip sides of the same coin.


(Please email me at pwogan@willamette.edu if you'd like to read more essays like this about holiday symbolism.)

References:
Finol, José Enrique, “The Semiotics of Ritual: Halloween in an American Community,” Opción 21: 83-97, 1996.

Ott, Cindy, Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012.

Santino, Jack, “Halloween in America: Contemporary Customs and Performances.” Western Folklore 42: 1-20, 1983.

Tuleja, Tad, “Pumpkins,” in Rooted in America: Foodlore of Popular Fruits and Vegetables, David S. Wilson and Angus K. Gillespie, eds., Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999.

Williamson, Margaret Holmes, “Family Symbolism in Festivals,” in Middletown Families: Fifty Years of Change and Continuity, Theodore Caplow et al., eds., Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.

Why Do Good People Resent Science? (What's Wonder, Not Politics, Got To Do With It?)


Most Americans really appreciate science, yet many also have reservations about it, complex feelings that go well beyond the well-known protests on the left and right against evolution, vaccines, GMOs, and so on.  We'll never understand these complicated, ambivalent attitudes toward science if we just settle for the usual wagging of fingers, either/or formulations, and ritualistic laments about the ignorance of the other side. Instead, I want to look at a less discussed feature, the state of wonder in America, and see what it has to do with some of these reservations about science.

To start, here are some survey figures that put the issue in perspective. According to one of the best public-opinion surveys, about 90% of Americans say that science “is essential for improving the quality of human lives," yet in that same survey fully 50% of respondents say that science has “created as many problems for society as it has solutions” (VCU Survey). That's astounding: half the country thinks that science is creating problems. You can't just dismiss half the population as a fringe group of hard-core Creationists or New Agers who reject science out of hand. In fact, many of these same people also feel that science is improving the quality of life, so clearly there’s a complex ambivalence here, one that transcends religion, politics, class, and education. It also transcends the current moment, which is why virtually the same survey results have been obtained for years.

To understand current attitudes toward science that can only be flagged by quantitative surveys, we have to look below the surface and go back in time. In particular, I suggest looking at images of science in enduringly popular blockbuster movies, since the ones that stand the test of time usually play upon some sort of hidden, major cultural tension or ambivalence. With that in mind, I want to say a few things about Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), the marine biologist in Jaws.

The Jaws movie is a good test case because it has been extremely popular ever since it came out in 1975, and Hooper is an interesting, complex character. Rather than a twisted scientist in the mold of Dr. Strangelove, Hooper is portrayed as an ethical and likable person, using his knowledge to save the island of Amity. Best of all for our purposes, Hooper is a scientist filled with a sense of wonder, as you can tell from the way he's astounded by "Jaws" and admiringly refers to sharks as “a miracle of evolution.” So how could anyone resent a scientist like Hooper?



The first clue is Hooper’s obsession with measurement. He’s constantly trying to measure the exact physical dimensions of the sharks in the film, talking about bite radiuses, proportions, and scale. These remarks might seem trivial until you remember that Hooper doesn’t just study sharks, he also kills them. He fully embraces the mission to destroy “Jaws," and, in the end, it’s his air tank that gets the job done. What does that death symbolize, more broadly?



I argue that Hooper embodies a popular view of scientists as killers of mystery. In this view, scientists kill off our sense of wonder and awe at the unexplained. Nothing gets spared from science's relentless measurements and thorough investigations and explanations. The more science has progressed, the more people have longed for mysteries and enigmas, a few last holdouts from science's crushing dominance, like miracle cures, "lost tribes," and, yes, sharks in the deep sea, one of the enduring mysteries of the world. The scientists aren't bad people, they're just too good at what they do. Most people appreciate their discoveries and technologies, but wish they would leave more to the imagination. It's like the paparazzi: we want them to uncover celebrity secrets, but then resent them when they get too good at it. Our imagination longs for sharks, celebrities, and other mysteries that haven't been measured to death.

If you’re like most people who identify with the scientists, you will probably object that science actually increases wonder by opening up new questions for investigation. Personally, I agree, and, since you have sought out and read this analysis, I’m guessing you do, too. That’s fine, we’re people too, but as hard as it is, we need to recognize that millions of people don’t view science the same way. In fact, in certain unguarded moments, like while walking in the woods or listening to a Bach concerto or throwing a coin in a fountain and making a wish, you, too, might be holding onto some cherished mystery, a last refuge from science. You might even indulge the feeling that those mysteries touch the deepest parts of your soul.

Whatever it takes, I just hope more people will recognize that a longing for wonder factors into reservations about science. Maybe doing so will create more understanding of others and ourselves.

That’s probably the biggest difference between today and 1975. Back in the 70s, when Jaws first came out, it was still possible to imagine a fisherman, scientist, and police chief riding in the same boat, in pursuit of the same goal, despite their differences. These days, they’d probably get separate boats and cut each other off before they even got out of the harbor.

We're really in trouble when we can no longer recognize each other’s humanity and mutual interest in both science and mystery.  



More Reading:
If you want a free, online copy of the book chapter (with bibliographic references) that this post distills, go to Academia.edu

For a shorter, complementary interpretation of the final shark explosion in Jaws as symbolic of the  Hiroshima bomb, see my post on WWII. Joining these two posts, I would say Hooper is like Oppenheimer and the other scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, fascinated with the scientific challenge of creating the atomic bomb, but not fully grasping the grisly deaths it would unleash. 

In terms of awe and magic, you might also like my essay on throwing coins in fountains.

What Do the "Jaws" Movie and WWII Have in Common?

Or put differently, what does the Jaws shark symbolize?




This question is worth asking because Jaws taps into troubling questions about stereotypes, war, and culture.

The obvious place to start is the scene where Quint, the fisherman, describes the shark attacks that followed the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis by a Japanese submarine.


Quint says, "Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. It was comin' back from the island of Tinian Delady. Just delivered the bombthe Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes. Didn't see the first shark for about a half an hour."

Quint is referring to real events, the actual sinking of the Indianapolis after it delivered the atomic bomb. Moreover, at an unconscious, symbolic level, Quint is creating an equation between sharks and Japanese soldiers. What Quint says about sharks"he's got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eye. When he comes at ‘ya, doesn't seem to be livin'"could just as well have been describing the WWII American stereotype of the "inscrutable" Japanese soldier with lifeless eyes. Furthermore, through such stereotypes, both the shark and the Japanese soldier were made out to be an enemy that suddenly attacks the nation on its own soil (the "sneak attack" on Pearl Harbor, like Amityville being attacked on the 4th of July), and a relentless enemy that hides in the water (a Japanese submarine, the shark attacking Amityville).

Japanese Submarine, 1941. Flickr, Marion Doss.






Shark fin. Flickr, Anita363.



Part of the power of Jaws, then, is that it allows some viewers—at least the ones who know about WWIIto reflect on some of the most vexing, confusing aspects of "the Good War."

In particular, when the shark gets blown to pieces at the end of the movie, viewers are encouraged to feel that such destruction was fully justified, whereas in real life polls show that Americans have felt increasingly conflicted and regretful about dropping atomic bombs on Japanese civilians. (In a related generational shift, people today are less likely to be disturbed by a doll's eyes or uncannily-realistic robot face than earlier generations were.) Even those older Americans who felt that dropping the bomb was necessary may have later come to believe that Americans lost the moral high ground when we killed thousands of women and children, violating a basic moral ideal that had been in place throughout our entire history as a nation. Many Americans don't like to talk about these ethical problemsbut most do like watching this movie and rooting for the destruction of a shark that was hellbent on killing us, including our children.
Hiroshima bomb cloud, U.S. government photo.

Jaws ending.


Recognizing the Shark
It gets even more complicated when you consider American attitudes toward German soldiers in WWII. For example, here's what one American soldier remembered about a battle on the front lines near Cologne, Germany:

"We were passing the Germans we killed. Looking at the individual German dead, each took on a personality. These were no longer an abstraction. These were no longer the Germans of the brutish faces and the helmets we saw in the newsreels. They were exactly our age. These were boys like us. ...Once the helmet is off, you're looking at a teenager, another kid." Robert Rasmus, interview reprinted in Studs Terkel's book The Good War: An Oral History of WWII.

This soldier's story sounds like Quint's points about the shark's eyeshow they seem "lifeless," or as this soldier put it, like "an abstraction." German soldiers with helmets that hide their eyes also fit Quint's image of the shark, which is the underlying stereotype of all enemies in modern Western warfare: lifeless, inhuman, animalistic.

U.S. wartime poster, 1942, Office of Emergency Management..

But as noted by the American soldier, all this changes when the enemy helmet comes off, when you get up close and see that the supposed monsters are just teenage boys like you. Quint notes this same type of sudden switch in perspective when he says, "Until he [the shark] bites 'ya and those black eyes roll over white..."

In other words, Jaws and WWII both create confusing, disturbing oscillations between media stereotypes and individual personalities, between abstract concepts and real beings, between death and life. The shark seems dead but then you realize how alive he is...just before he kills you. WWII enemy soldiers seem like abstractions, but then you realize they're humans...just before you kill them.


Hope for Humanity?

I find it comforting to hear the American soldier Rasmus say he eventually recognized the humanity of the German soldiers.

American helping wounded German soldier, 1944. Army Surgeon General, National Archives and Records Administration.
Unfortunately, such recognition of common humanity happened less often between American and Japanese soldiers, apparently due to racial biases and the brutality of the fighting in the Pacific, but I would hope that such prejudices are being left behind by now.

Jaws, on the other hand, will remain popular as long as people continue to wonder and worry about war, death, and stereotypes.





Further Reading:
For a different angle on shark symbolism, see my post asking, Why do good people resent Hooper and scientists like him?


Here's my co-authored book chapter on "Jaws," with more extended analysis

For more on Quint and many others' feelings of revulsion and confusion at dolls' eyes and similarly uncanny, hybrid phenomena, see research on the "uncanny valley in reactions to humanoid robots and "creepy dolls." And for the research cited above on contemporary reactions to uncannily human robot faces, see this short article.

Robert Willson Jump Cut journal article, where he explores the resonance between Jaws and submarine movies.

3 Ways “Big Short” Movie Downplays Banker Fraud

"The Big Short" might seem like a thorough critique of Wall Street, but compared with what investment bankers actually did in the build-up to the Financial Crisis, it feels more like a public relations coup for Wall Street—a gift with a bow on it. I don’t like saying this because the movie does many things beautifully. It’s so well acted and written that it’s now the most influential movie we’ve ever had on the Financial Crisis, and I’m a huge fan of Michael Lewis, who wrote the book that the movie is based on. But this movie perpetuates such disturbing misunderstandings of Wall Street fraud that I feel compelled to point out three major problems.

1) The Movie Depicts Bankers As Merely Clueless, Not Frauds.

For most of the movie, we are led to believe that the bankers only made one rather innocent mistake: they naively believed the mortgage industry would keep going strong, as it had for decades. Bankers at Goldman Sachs and elsewhere laugh at oddball investors like Dr. Burry (Christian Bale) who want to bet against their mortgage bonds, i.e., bundles of mortgages from around the country, also known as "mortgage-backed securities." Burry's mentor tells him that nobody at the banks reads the contents of these mortgage bundles except the lawyers, and Burry adds that even the lawyers probably don't understand what's inside them. In this telling, the bankers and lawyers were oblivious, not sham artists. Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) was an exception that proved this rule. He understands the worsening credit quality and default rates of mortgages, but says none of the other bankers do. He flatly proclaims that the banks don't even know what's inside the mortgage bundles they're selling to investors ("Nobody knows what's inside the bonds!"). When he tries to sound the alarm at his own bank, they dismiss him with insults like“Chicken Little” and “Bubble Boy.”

This depiction of clueless bankers is an appalling lie of omission, a failure to recognize the legally proven fact that Wall Street committed systematic acts of fraud that led to the meltdown in 2008. The movie doesn't show that bankers knowingly lied to investors about the rising default rates and debased loan standards on the mortgages inside the bundles they were selling. These lies weren't a matter of banker cluelessness, they were illegal acts of financial fraud, like a company advertising that their juice boxes contain 20% "real juice" when they actually contain no juice at all, just water and carcinogens.

The massive, systematic fraud committed by Wall Street banks has been proven over and over again by historic Justice Department settlements for billions of dollars. Just search terms like “bank settlement financial crisis,” and you’ll find loads of articles, such as this one in the Wall Street Journal about the 2014 settlement with Bank of America. The title of the press release for that settlement sums it up: "Bank of America to Pay $16.65 Billion in Historic Justice Department Settlement for Financial Fraud Leading up to and During the Financial Crisis." The settlement showed that Bank of America lied to investors about the quality of the mortgages they were buying, the same fraud shown in the "$13 Billion Global Settlement with JP Morgan for Misleading Investors About Securities Containing Toxic Mortgages," and the one in which "Citigroup acknowledged it was aware that 'significant percentages' of sample loans did not comply with underwriting guidelines but the bank pooled them into securities anyway."(1)

Unfortunately, though, "The Big Short" only shows oblivious, pleasant bankers at the point of sale who think Burry is crazy, which is like showing friendly car salespeople who haven't talked to the automaker's engineers or middle managers, so they don't realize what defects are inside the cars they're selling and how likely they are to blow up on impact.  Of course, not everyone at the banks knew about and committed this fraud—after all, each bank had thousands of employees—but key bankers did, and this film leaves them completely out of the story. What a gift to Wall Street.

Moreover, the movie doesn't show how this fraud played a crucial role in the Crisis. If the banks had not continued to lie to investors about the debased lending standards used on these bundles of mortgages, the investors could have prevented the crash by slowing down on their purchases of mortgage bonds in 2005-2007, before everything spun out of control in 2008. That’s what they call market discipline, and it was the best chance to prevent or reduce the crashnot a guarantee, but a chance. As the film rightly stresses, the government regulators, ratings agencies, and press were ignorant or co-opted, so they were not going to be any help. Yet investors, the ones with the most skin in the game and motivation to see through the con game, didn't put on the brakes partly because they were given a fake picture of what they were buying—and lucky for Wall Street, the film doesn’t delve into this cause of the Crisis, not even in a cut-away scene with a celebrity.

Obviously the accusations of fraud in the last part of the movie seem different—they certainly inject an angry, moral tonebut even here the movie blows it. The alleged fraud in these final scenes is a separate issue, not the same as the fundamental fraud at the heart of the system. Christian Bale, for example, is referring to bank valuations of his own rare, special investments, not the more far-reaching, devastating fraud committed against the thousands of investors who were misled about the contents of mortgage bonds, the fraud proven by all those Justice Department settlements. And these late-arriving accusations of fraud don't get explained any more than the previous, more fundamental one, the deceitful packages of mortgages.

Worse, these unexplained accusations of fraud get directly contradicted by Gosling, our all-knowing narrator and guide through this other world. He repeats what he said in the first half of the film: the bankers’ problem is stupidity, not fraud. “Yes, some shady shit is going down,” he tells Carell’s angry group,” but trust me, it’s fueled by stupidity.” In a memorable line, Gosling flat out rejects the possibility of identifying fraud when he scoffs, “Tell me the difference between stupid and illegal and I’ll have my wife's brother arrested.” How can we doubt Gosling? After all, he's the film's omniscient narrator and guide. With voice-overs and direct addresses to the camera, he sees into the past and the future,  telling us the meaning of what just happened on screen or is about to happen. Sadly, the movie doesn't doesn't show that, no, actually, Gosling's character is wrong; you can tell when certain key people at these banks committed fraud, and here's how they did it.

A "Vox" reviewer was therefore right to conclude that the movie's "ultimate villain isn't 'the government' or 'the evil bankers.' No, its ultimate villain is the combination of incompetence and stupidity..." As Ben Hallman of the "Huffington Post" noted, “the loaded word 'fraud’ is tossed out without adequately explaining what…was actually criminal. …[T]he movie does not stretch to show how bankers were purposely misleading clients.” These and other commentators have understood exactly what the screenwriters intended. Co-screenwriter Charles Randolph stated that after doing some reading and talking with a few friends in finance, he concluded that the bankers were clueless, that "no one had any understanding of the real underlying product." The screenwriters did some great work, but it's a shame they got suckered in by this notion of clueless bankers and didn't bother showing how the fraud worked, as proven by the Justice Department settlements already coming out in the news after Lewis's book was published and before the movie was released.(2)

2) Bank Fraud Never Gets Embodied in a Central Character

This movie has many compelling characters played by fantastic actors—yet we never get one central character who puts a face on banker fraud. We get a few suggestive, fleeting characters, such as the smug guy that Steve Carell talks to in the restaurant at the Vegas convention, but there is no ongoing, primary character shown knowingly lying to an actual investor, or even just someone high up in a bank taking in huge bonuses and fees from clear investor fraud. Director and co-screenplay writer Adam McKay agrees that he never put a human face on banker fraud, but he sees that as a virtuous move, whereas I see it as an egregious omission and missed opportunity to get audiences to understand what went wrong. At least we agree on one thing: this lack of a human face for banker fraud helps explain why McKay's friends in finance loved this movie. As McKay told Terry Gross in a radio interview, “My financial advisor loved the movie. He really loved the movie. I have a cousin who’s in private equities, too, and he’s in private equities, and I had a little conversation with him before I saw it. I go…you know, this movie is not actually targeting bankers. …So we really went out of our way with the movie never to point the finger at any one individual; we really believe it’s a systemic issue. So, so far all the banking and finance people in my life have really enjoyed the movie.”(3)

Sure, why wouldn’t finance people love this movie? They can safely assume that it will be hard for most of the public to comprehend or focus their anger on an abstract “systemic issue” with no compelling characterization on screen. On top of that, the bankers get to imagine they're Ryan Gosling…


3) Bankers in This Film Are Handsome, Appealing, and Powerful.

Ryan Gosling’s character, the only banker who gets developed into a full character, is not just handsome and smart, he's powerful, decisive, and omniscient. Sure, he's smug and self-interested, but, at a gut level, most viewers probably do not feel that Gosling's charactera handsome, all-knowing guy who wants to take us under his wingis the real villain. Gosling may not be perfect, but he's no fraud.

As always, viewer reactions vary, and unconscious feelings about a character are hard to prove. But my sense, based on what viewers are saying online, is that far from seeing Gosling as the villain, the majority come away with anger, but mostly just continued confusion about what exactly the bankers did wrong. With viewers having a hard time getting angry at Gosling and a faceless banking system, Wall Street doesn't have anything to worry about with this film.


                         Why It's Fair to Ask this Movie to Do Better
I'm not asking for a fundamentally different film. Exposing banker fraud would have easily and squarely fit within this film's chosen narrative structure: namely, a story about outsider investors fighting against Wall Street bankers. For example, the film could have dramatized the sections in Michael Lewis's book on Wall Street's role in housing scams going back to the 1990s, as well as the evidence of fraud in the Financial Crisis that Lewis didn't have access to when he published his book in 2010 (4). In fact, adding one nasty, compelling banker who knowingly engaged in investor fraud (instead of or alongside Gosling's character) would have enhanced the story by providing a concrete force for these underdogs to rail against. It would have allowed audiences to root for a classic bad-vs.-good guy story, and to know what exactly made the bad guys bad. And such a modification to Lewis's book would have fit within the creative license the filmmakers took in adapting it for the screen. Having already deviated from Lewis's book by adding new dialogue, a banker narrator, and explanatory scenes with Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez, the screenwriters certainly could have managed to add some explanations of Wall Street fraud. Instead, we got a movie that only insinuated fraud, but never exposed or explained it. That's a real shame because this otherwise brilliant film was our best hope for widespread public understanding of what Wall Street did wrong.


P.S. If you'd like to read a true story about the Crisis from the perspective of a Mexican-American in Oregon who in  2006 had perfect credit, unbounded love for America, and no idea the crash was coming, you can check out my book, Corner-Store Dreams and the Financial Crisis of 2008. The book tells the story of our unlikely friendship and this man's plan to buy a small Mexican-style bakery, putting at risk his life savings from working in the fields. As strange as it may sound, his best chance to survive the crash turned out to be the self insight he was gaining by studying his dreams every morning, searching for clues to the future.




  


                                              *******


FOOTNOTES:

(1) If you've only got time to read one journalist report about just how much the banks (again, meaning certain key people in them, not every single banker) knew they were committing fraud, check out this magazine article about a whistle blower at JP Morgan Chase who witnessed repeated dishonesty and debasing of quality control in the mortgage securities being bundled and sold to investors.

(2) It didn't help that Adam Davidson, the primary finance consultant during the movie's script writing and production, was in bed with the banks and finance world at this time. Ally Financial, one of the largest subprime mortgage lenders before the Crisis (later bailed out by taxpayers), was the sole sponsor of Planet Money, the NPR show that Davidson co-founded during the Crash in 2008 and where he was still employed while consulting on "The Big Short." Davidson has also apparently taken big speaker fees from Wall Street banks like JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, a violation of standard media ethics (see Observer).  Following screenwriter Adam McKay's own stated ethics, Davidson should not have been hired to work on "The Big Short." McKay tells audiences that one of the primary lessons of this movie is that you have to ask who's paying who: "I always say, look at your candidate: If they’re taking money from banks, oil companies or billionaires, don’t vote for them." By that sensible rule, and knowing the movie was supposed to be a critique at some level, Davidson shouldn't have been allowed on the movie set, yet apparently Davidson was the movie's primary finance consultant. In fact, Davidson is the only person listed in the movie credits as "Technical Consultant," and as Davidson himself later said, "There was a moment when the movie was locked, when it was done, and I was the only person with a finance background who had seen it...." So it seems fair to say that Davidson was the single most influential consultant on this film—and, based on his prior views and vested interests, he wasn't likely to encourage the screenwriters to focus on bank fraud.

(3) In a separate interview for Variety, McKay clearly states that he believes there was corruption at all levels, but he doesn't include lying to investors in his three different examples of fraud, or comment on how he tried to convey all this in the movie.

(4) The major bank settlements and DOJ investigation results didn't start coming out until 2010, the same year that Lewis's book The Big Short was released and, thus, after he'd finished his research on the causes of the Crisis. In fact, Lewis had chosen his basic storyline and explanations a couple years before the book came out (and well before the DOJ results emerged in 2010), as you can tell by looking at the striking overlap between his book and the 2008 article he published as a "Portfolio" magazine article.




What's the Cultural Meaning of the Slide in Baseball? (Peter Wogan)

Sports are like religious rituals: they reflect and instill cultural beliefs and practices. For example, the 24-second shot clock in basketball clearly reflects the fast pace of our era. So what about the slide in baseball? How does it resonate with contemporary American culture?

I think sliding reflects American ambivalence about social authority. Baseball players dress up in formal clothes, as if they're going to church or courtand then they throw themselves in the dirt.


That's the tension at the heart of both baseball and American society: respect vs. disdain for authority. Respect the rules, but kill the ump. Get dressed up, but throw yourself in the mud. Sliding is controlled social rebellion.

This social symbolism becomes more obvious when you think about the formality of the baseball uniform: white pants, a belt, a shirt with buttons all the way up the front. The impracticality of this uniform, and its extreme formality by comparison with most other sports uniforms, throws into relief baseball's social meaning.  
Flickr, Ewen and Donabel.


Most other sports won't even permit you to wear a belt (draw strings hold up pants just fine, actually better than most belts), yet baseball requires a belt. And as Paul Lukas noted on ESPN, "Once you stop and think about it...a button-front format doesn't make much sense for a sports uniform. For starters, a button-up shirt is more awkward to move around in, plus it's more formal, less sporty. That's why you wear a button-front shirt to work and some sort of pullover (T-shirt, sweatshirt, tank top, whatever) at home and on the weekend." Lukas also notes that button-up designs lead to weird problems like billowing and unaligned lettering on the front of jerseys, yet despite these problems and the viability of good alternatives, such as pull-overs, zippers, or laces, the major leagues have almost always used buttoned jerseys since the 19th century.


I would add that the persistence of formal uniforms and sliding in baseball can't be due to mere tradition. Over the years, baseball has made plenty of innovations, from the advent of batting helmets and night games to adjusting the pitcher's mound height and so on; yet the baseball uniform never lost its basic formality, and players never stopped sliding. If getting dirty in nice clothes hadn't felt rightif it hadn't continued to resonate with American ambivalence about authoritysliding probably would have been phased out a long time ago. 


Instead, sliding in a uniform still feels so right that it's hard to imagine baseball without it. As Rickey Henderson of the Oakland Athletics once said, "If my uniform doesn't get dirty, I haven't done anything in the baseball game" (quoted in Diamonds Forever, W.P. Kinsella editor, p. 121).

In fact, the slide was a novelty when first introduced in the mid-1800s and many people opposed it, arguing that players should be allowed to overrun every base rather than sliding. This is how the crowd reacted to one of the first recorded slides, during an 1859 game in Portland, Maine: "the feat fairly astonished the natives, who at first roared with laughter, but Chandler scored the run, and they then woke up to the fact that a large, new and valuable 'wrinkle' had been handed out to them" (quoted in Peter Morris's excellent book, A Game of Inches: The Stories That Shaped Baseball, p. 265).

This early phase in baseball history reminds us that there are alternative ways to reach the bases without sliding, just as basketball could be played without a shot clock. Not every sports rule or practice has social significance, but it seems fair to say sliding does.





Related Posts about Baseball:
All posts about baseball, including posts on the foul ballthe catch and sharingfeeling good in crowds, and basketball vs. baseball.


All posts about Field of Dreams (and baseball), including posts on ALS, moonlight, and Jackie Robinson.
 


10-Second Video of a Little League Player Stealing 2nd Base While the Pitcher's Not Looking: