Who's Worse in "Killing Them Softly," Bankers or Politicians?

“Killing Them Softly” clearly takes aim at the 2008 Financial Crisis, but who comes off worse in this critique, Wall Street bankers or Washington politicians?

To answer, we first have to figure out who stands for the bankers and politicians in this movie, which is not nearly as obvious as initial reviewers assumed. Brad Pitt's character also calls for analysis. 
 
  
Politicians
If anyone in “Killing Them Softly” represents Washington politicians, it’s Driver (Richard Jenkins) and his bosses.

Driver has the classic markers of a politician, such as a suit and tie (formality), glasses (theoretical knowledge), and a professed belief in the American nation and founding fathers (as Driver tells Jackie, “’Out of many, we are one.’ You hear that line? Line's for you…Oh, now you’re going to have a go at Jefferson?).




Driver (Richard Jenkins)
Driver’s bosses also clearly have the stereotypical qualities of Washington politicians:

·They make decisions very slowly, through complicated group consensus (Driver characterizes his bosses as “No decision-makers.” Jackie responds, “What is it, a committee?...This country is fucked, I'm telling you.”)

·They barely understand what it is they’re trying to regulate (Driver says, “I got to take them by the hand and I got to walk them slowly through it....” Driver himself took a long time to understand what Jackie was telling him about the importance of public perception of the main robbery.)

·Even though they’re supposedly in charge, they ask others to tell them what to do (Driver repeatedly asks Jackie what he thinks they should do next).

Granted, the lines can seem blurry, especially since we never see Driver's bosses. Driver’s suit and tie and reference to “corporate mentality” could also fit in a Wall Street office. But in light of the numerous striking overlaps, it’s fair to say that Driver and his bosses primarily represent politicians, not bankers.  
 
Bankers

On the other side of the equation, the mobsters in this movie clearly represent Wall Street bankers. The main evidence here is their fundamental similarity: both mobsters and bankers in the film gamble so much that they crash their respective economies. Plus, the film stresses a more specific similarity: both are completely dependent on confidence in their business operations.

We repeatedly hear that the total economic crisis of both the mob and Wall Street can only be solved by taking drastic measures to restore confidence. For example, we hear President Bush stress confidence when he speaks on the TV playing during the card-game robbery: “As uncertainty has grown, many banks have restricted lending,...We're in the midst of a serious financial crisis, and the federal government is responding with decisive action. We boosted confidence in money market mutual funds....”  In a precise parallel, the crisis among the mob after this robbery is so bad that Jackie (Brad Pitt) tells Driver that Markie (Ray Liotta) has to be killed, to deter others from robbing card games and further undermining faith in the mob system (“If people think he [Markie] did it and he's still walking around, you're gonna’ have kids waiting in line knock them fucking games over”).  Not that Jackie is being equated with Bush or Wall Street. He's simply expressing his superior understanding of mob logic, which is the same as Bush and Wall Street's: confidence must be restored so everyone can make money again.

This isn't a one-off. We hear Bush repeating this same confidence message in the very next scene, on Driver's car radio: “There has been a widespread loss of confidence. …And major sectors of America's financial system are at risk of shutting down.”

Then, in the later scene where Mickey (James Gandolfini) arrives to carry out a hit, we hear Bush stress confidence yet a third time: “Confidence in our financial systems is essential to the smooth operation of our economy, and recently that confidence has been shaken.”

The overlap between these 2008 media clips and the mob’s focus on confidence is overwhelming. The mob is clearly being equated with Wall Street. But where does Jackie fit in all this?


Brad Pitt’s Character 
 
Matt Thomas insightfully argues that “Killing Them Softly” draws a sharp contrast between two worlds: the real world of the bankers and politicians who escaped punishment in 2008 vs. the mobsters in this film who paid for their mistakes with their lives (killings of Markie and the three low-level criminals who robbed the second card game). By juxtaposing these two worlds, the movie highlights and condemns the lack of accountability for the elites responsible for the Financial Crisis. 
 
I completely agree. Brad Pitt’s character Jackie is a fantasy of a Super Punisher who makes people pay for their mistakes—a wish-fulfillment image of what should have metaphorically happened to the bankers and politicians in 2008, but never did. Jackie is an imagined third party, above and beyond the politicians and bankers. This makes much more sense than asserting (as some have on popular websites) that Jackie represents the actual political regulators in 2008. To the contrary, Jackie comes out of Western mythology. You can tell as soon as you hear that ominous Johnny Cash song when Jackie first appears on screen: "And he decides who to free and who to blame…When the man comes around." 
 
Building on Thomas's excellent analysis, I would just add that it's worth exploring the way this critique applies differently to the bankers and politicians.   
 
Ultimate Implications 
 

“Killing Them Softly” offers a powerful critique of the 2008 bailouts on multiple levels. 
 
The critique of Wall Street bankers partly comes from implying that they’re crude white-male mobsters: gambling, stealing, lying, killing, etc. And as Thomas rightly observed, showing mobsters paying dearly for their mistakes creates a biting reminder of what did not happen with real bankers in 2008. You can feel these critiques in your guts.

The politicians, on the other hand, are criticized more for their cluelessness than their greed. Calling the main politician character “Driver” is funny because he’s not actually in control, even over his own car. When they first meet, Jackie immediately starts telling “Driver” where to drive and park (“Bang a right and go a couple blocks”). Jackie then corrects Driver for his erroneous, naive assumption that the robbery was committed by “kids,” and he repeatedly explains the importance of punishing Markie. Delays, confusion, and hesitation on the part of Driver and his bosses cause Markie to suffer a brutal beating, before they finally comprehend Jackie’s advice and have Markie killed quickly and mercifully. These weak, dim-witted politicians claim to be the “Driver” and the “bosses,” but Jackie is actually the one running the show. Richard Jenkins never really had a chance going toe-to-toe with Brad Pitt.



Jackie (Brad Pitt)

The corollary is clear. Washington pretends to control Wall Street banks, but even in a major crisis, they don’t know how, and they just end up doing what Wall Street says—giving them billions of dollars. In the media clips heard throughout the film, President Bush repeatedly tells the American people why they have to bail out the banks, but he’s just doing his job as a figure head: addressing the public and maintaining the illusion that the government is in charge. Bush is really just passing along the "give us your money" confidence argument that Wall Street fed him, alluded to in his mention of “the government’s top economic experts.” In the real world of 2008, a major such expert was Henry Paulson, who pushed hard for the bailouts as Bush’s Treasury Secretary…and whose previous job was CEO of Goldman Sachs on Wall Street! This, too, gets pointed out in a radio clip, heard as Markie pulls up in his car: “That is Mr. Paulson's [bailout] plan, former head of Goldman Sachs….We should not be rolled by our Wall Street exec, who's masquerading as Secretary of the Treasury.” 
 
Deciding who comes off worse in this critique, politicians or bankers, isn’t easy. It depends largely on whether you think it’s worse to cause mass suffering through stupidity (politicians) or selfishness (bankers). Also, if you believe Washington let Wall Street call the shots because they needed their campaign contributions, then they're practically as corrupt and selfish as the bankers. Or if you think banks, like government agencies, are run by know-nothings like Driver, then the banks take another hit. Either way, there’s plenty of injustice and critique to go around in this film.

For a personal look at the actual Financial Crisis, you might also want to read Corner-Store Dreams. In this book, I tell the true story of my growing friendship with an immigrant owner of a convenience store who almost lost everything in 2008 due to Wall Street’s credit scheme, rather than any fault of his own. It’s a personal and cultural story about trying to beat the odds by sticking together, overcoming racial differences, and understanding dreams. Or if you're looking for a reality check on another popular movie about the Financial Crisis, see my post titled "3 Ways 'The Big Short' Movie Downplays Banker Fraud." Whether through these or any other sources, we need to keep analyzing and remembering the Financial Crisis of 2008, never thinking it was a weird accident that can't happen again.


Emotional Intelligence and Symbolism in "Silver Linings Playbook"

"Silver Linings Playbook" is interesting due to its hidden symbolism—and view of compulsive superstitions as emotional intelligence.
 
Reading the Signs: The key phrase is "reading the signs," which gets used in conflicting ways over the course of this movie.

This phrase first comes up 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 emotional intelligence: accurately understanding Pat’s true emotional and mental condition. 
 
Yet, interestingly, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) also used this exact same "signs" phrase to refer to the sports “superstitions” of Pat's father (Robert De Niro). 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….” We find out that Tiffany actually wrote Nikki's letter, but nobody notes that Tiffany has used "reading the signs" in contradictory ways—to mean both emotional intelligence and irrational superstition. 
 
 
The dividing line between emotional intelligence and irrationality gets even blurrier at the end of the movie. In the scene after the dance competition, when Pat Sr. tells his son to go find 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 responds, “I love you, Dad.” In this final usage, reading the signs means both emotional intelligence (Pat Sr. understanding his son’s emotional needs) and superstition (“pay attention to the signs…haunt you…like a curse”).
 
To its credit, then, the movie blurs the lines between emotional intelligence and supposedly irrational superstitions, and suggests that they have a lot in common: paying close attention to subtle aspects of the world, noticing patterns, making inferences, empathizing with others, and listening to your heart. Despite the movie's jokes and dismissals, Pat Sr.'s "superstitions" actually get a vote of confidence.
 
But then there are also audience members who like to "read the signs" in movies by interpreting hidden symbolism like this. How should we differentiate between solid movie interpretations and downright wacky ones, the equivalent of irrational superstitions? Where do we each locate our personal "chaos threshold"?

Test Your Chaos Threshold on These Symbolic Interpretations
To gauge where we each draw these lines, here's a question: Do any of the following interpretations of symbolism in "Silver Linings Playbook" strike you as being too far out there?



Halloween=Death, Favors, and Chaos. Instead of Halloween night, why not set Tiffany and Pat’s tumultuous diner scene on Thanksgiving, Labor Day, or simply an ordinary, non-holiday night? I'd say it's because Halloween is about Chaos (acting scary, breaking social norms)—a theme that resonates well with Tiffany smashing the dishes and storming out of the diner. More specifically, Trick or Treating centers on Asking Others for Favors—which is the symbolic equivalent of Pat in the diner asking Tiffany to pass on his letter to Nikki. And of course Halloween involves symbols of Death (ghosts, skeletons, witches)—which fits well with Tiffany talking about her husband’s death. 
 
Names. Names in this movie are significant. For example, "Tiffany Maxwell" implies she's trying to get herself and Pat maximally well. And it can't be a coincidence that the history teacher who's having an affair with Pat's wife is named Doug Culpepper, as in he's got a cold pepper (not virile) or he's culling pepper (stealing sex) from Pat. But what about "crabby snacks," the term used twice to refer to food prepared by Pat's mother (Jackie Weaver)? Apparently it's because these snacks distract and calm Pat Sr., who gets nervous and crabby when he's watching an Eagles game with a lot of money riding on it.

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, the movie symbolically equates Pat Sr. with Ben Franklin as father figures. And when we see the whole family and Danny (Chris Tucker) happily together in Pat Sr.'s house watching football at the end of the movie, we're seeing an image of unity at multiple levels—a healing union with the father, the city of Philadelphia, and the entire United States of America.

This healing is needed to overcome the 2008 Financial Crisis, which robbed Pat Sr. and others of their retirement savings and could have led to resentment against Wall Street and Washington. Instead, after winning the big parlay bet, Pat Sr. says in the final seconds of the movie that he will be getting his restaurant, meaning he will continue as the primary breadwinner for his family. Like Ben Franklin but at the family level, Pat Sr. resumes his traditional place as a (white, male) provider.(1)

Christmas=Love and Family Unity. Tiffany and Pat finally declare their love for each other in late December, with Christmas decorations all around, and in the very last scene we see the whole extended family happily together in the house. This makes sense because Christmas stands for love and family unity in both popular conceptions and many movies, from “It’s a Wonderful Life” to “Four Christmases" and, yes, Hallmark Christmas movies. 

_______________
 
What do you think? Too far out? Personally, I don't think so. There’s a high degree of match between the interpretations, movie details, and other cultural patterns. Like acceptable "superstitions," these interpretations are at least trying to be based on paying close attention, noticing patterns, making inferences, and listening to one's heart. 
 
Even when it comes to crabby snacks, the interpretation that's perhaps the most questionable and least consequential, I still like wondering if there’s something to it. 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” (see Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing). If you didn’t flee at the first mention of symbolism, there’s a good chance that you also have a high enough chaos threshold to be comfortable exploring such interpretive gray zones.

Dream Symbolism
Going beyond movies, you may also sometimes “read the signs” in other ways, 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 and national crisis around 2008. It turns out that 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.






Footnotes:

1) There are complicated racial dynamics here. In real life, Ben Franklin advocated for the emancipation of slaves and led the first abolitionist society in the colonies, yet he also previously owned slaves. In the movie, there's racial/ethnic diversity and friendship, but the lead characters are all white.

The Cultural Meaning of Halloween and Thanksgiving Pumpkins

The pumpkin seems little and humble, but it is extremely powerful within the ritual contexts of Halloween and Thanksgiving. Ultimately, it represents the triumph of Life over Death.

To get to this deeper level, we have to consider the striking contrasts between the pumpkin's uses in these two rituals.

For Halloween, carved pumpkins are placed outside the house, and directed at neighbors and strangers. These pumpkins are not good to eat. They're raw, thin on the inside, and already rotting. What a contrast with Thanksgiving pumpkins!
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. Pumpkins are no longer raw nature; they've been cooked, domesticated, and integrated into the family. The contrast effect is key. The homey flavor of Thanksgiving pumpkin pie is heightened by its striking contrast with the inedible, outdoor, ghostly pumpkin of Halloween.

But the symbolic contrast doesn't stop there. The Jack-O’-Lantern playfully represents Death, through its association with nighttime and all those scary costumes. Even though Halloween costumes and carvings have gotten cuter and less scary over time, a certain level of death and ghost symbolism still attaches to the Jack-O-Lanterns, especially from the point of view of little kids walking around in the dark. Rot also usually indicates death. By contrast, pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving represents Life. Pumpkin pie is food, so it's literally the basis of life. And, on a symbolic level, pumpkin pie represents the unity of family and friends--in other words, social life.

At Thanksgiving, the pumpkin completes its ceremonial journey. It has moved from living Nature in the fields, to symbolic Death on our doorsteps, to new Life in our body and closest social groups. Through this and other sharp contrasts between Halloween and Thanksgiving, Life overcomes Death. Despite their humble appearance, pumpkins 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: their movement and transformation from outsider to insider symbols. If you do, chances are you’ll see that Halloween and Thanksgiving pumpkins 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.

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:
See also my post on shark attacks, tears, and the USS Indianapolis, and 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 to cause the Financial Crisis of 2008, 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 is incredibly well acted and written, and it definitely provides some insight into short selling and the Financial Crisis. Nonetheless, "The Big Short" perpetuates fundamental misunderstandings of Wall Street fraud—and now some people are (re)watching it in order to understand the issues raised by GameStop—so I feel compelled to point out three major problems with this movie.

1) The Movie Depicts Bankers As Merely Clueless, Not Frauds.
For most of the movie, we are led to believe that Wall Street bankers only made one rather innocent mistake: they naively believed the mortgage industry would keep going strong, as it had for decades. In this telling, Wall Street bankers were oblivious, not sham artists.

Our guide throughout the movie, Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), makes this point in no uncertain terms. He understands the worsening credit quality of Wall Street's mortgage bundles (called mortgage-backed securities or bonds), but says none of the other bankers on Wall Street do. He says they're all "asleep at the wheel" and "No one is paying attention." When he's asked point blank whether it's illegal for the banks to lie to investors about the "dog shit" that's inside these mortgage bonds, he flatly proclaims that the banks don't even know what's inside the bonds they're selling to investors, screaming,"Nobody knows what's in the bonds!" Even within his own bank, they dismiss him with insults like “Chicken Little” and “Bubble Boy.” In other words, the movie makes it sound like Ryan Gosling's character was one of the only bankers on Wall Street who realized what was wrong with these mortgage bonds. Supposedly the rest of Wall Street was simply oblivious.

I'll show that this is not true, but just so it's clear that Gosling's character isn't an isolated case in the movie, here's one more example: the bankers at Goldman Sachs laugh at Dr. Burry (Christian Bale) because they think he's crazy for betting against their ultra-safe mortgage bonds. Burry's mentor agrees, adding that nobody at the banks knows what's inside these mortgage bonds. 

Here's the problem: This depiction of clueless bankers is an appalling lie, 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 bonds they were selling. These lies weren't a matter of banker cluelessness, they were illegal acts of financial fraud. The banks were 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. This is like showing friendly salespeople at the local car dealership who don't have any contact with the automaker's engineers or safety 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 the mortgages inside these bonds, 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 at least reduce the impact of the crash. 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. By contrast, investors were the ones with the most skin in the game and motivation to stop the insane mortgage machine, but they didn't put on the brakes partly because they were given a falsely rosy picture of the mortgages 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 related to his own unusual "shorts," 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 even these bait-and-switch accusations of fraud don't get explained any more than the previous, most fundamental one: the deceit underlying all those mortgage bonds.

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. 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 our guide 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.” I don't think any of us is missing anything. In fact, we're perceiving exactly what the screenwriters said they wanted us to see. 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 in making finance come to life, but it's a shame they got suckered in by this notion of clueless bankers. By leaving out the investment bank fraud proved by all these Justice Department settlements, they let Wall Street off the hook. Michael Lewis didn't have this settlement news in hand when he published the book that the movie was based on, but the screenwriters certainly had access to these crucial legal facts well before they released the movie, and unfortunately they chose not to include any of it in the narrative.(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 mortgage brokers in Florida and 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 viewers to focus their anger on an abstract “systemic issue” with no major characters on screen to make it real and comprehensible. 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 characteran all-knowing guy who takes us under his wing and guides us through this worldis the real villain. 

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 the majority come away from the movie with fundamental, ongoing confusion about what exactly the bankers did wrong. Even those inclined to condemn "greed" don't come away from this film any more aware of what specifically went wrong here. With viewers having a hard time understanding the fraud committed by an unseen, 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.  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 an actual character for these underdogs to rail against.

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 brilliantly crafted film was one of our best hopes 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 first-generation immigrant 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 bakery in Oregon with his first-ever business loan, putting at risk his family and life savings after working in the fields for many years. It delves into the personal side of this Crisis for innocent citizens and small business owners.


  


                                              *******


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) The major Justice Department settlements for mortgage fraud started coming out in 2012 (with some even earlier) and the movie was released in 2015, so the screenwriters had enough time to make the script reflect the legally proven facts about Wall Street's fraud. They also had taken enough creative license to go beyond Lewis's book, as I argue further below. So Lewis's book shouldn't be blamed for the movie's shortcomings, especially since he didn't have access to the legal information about Wall Street fraud that came out after his book was published. Lewis finished his research and published his book in 2010, well before the major bank settlements and DOJ investigation results started coming out in 2012. In fact, Lewis had chosen his basic storyline even earlier, as you can tell by looking at the striking overlap between his book and the "Portfolio" magazine article he published in 2008.


 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.






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:

Comparing Basketball, Baseball, and the Civil War


Baseball and basketball's differences reveal a lot about American culture. Plus, they're kind of funny.

                   BASEBALL vs. BASKETBALL

The baseball uniform looks like a formal outfit, something you wear to church. 
The basketball uniform looks like a bathing suit, something you wear to the pool.

Baseball looks like a battlefield, with a few soldiers trying to pass through enemy territory. 
Basketball looks like a dance floor, with couples trying to decide who they should dance with next.

Baseball is played outdoors, on green grass.
Basketball is played indoors, on a beige floor.

What lies beneath these differences? Baseball comes out of 19th-century agricultural America. Basketball comes out of 20th- and 21st-century office culture: fast-paced, lots of teamwork and immediate, visible rewards, all played out in clean indoor spaces with florescent lights. Baseball is slow and formal. Basketball is fast and informal, like the times when they rose to popularity.

Both baseball and basketball entertain millions of people, so there's no use asking that impossibly subjective question, "Which is better?" I just want to suggest that the entertainment in each case draws on resonances with larger economic and cultural trends, at least for some people in messy, semi-conscious, and individual ways. Obviously there's no such thing as a single "America," and probably few people look at basketball uniforms and think "That's a bathing suit." This baseball-basketball comparison is partly a joke, but not completely. I hope it encourages thinking about the resonances between sports and larger cultural forces. (Sorry, I can't think of a funnier way to say that.)
 
Wait, Baseball Is Connected to War:
I'm obviously paying tribute here to comedian George Carlin's famous riff on the difference between baseball and football. But while I love Carlin's comparative method and most of his insights, I can't agree with his depiction of baseball as gentle and peaceful. Baseball is actually like a battlefield, as I just suggested. It's as much rooted in warfare as footballjust a different kind of warfare.

Baseball's underlying combat structure is not World War II's "long bombs" and "aerial assaults," which Carlin rightly connected with football. Instead, baseball resembles and re-enacts the basic combat structure of the American Civil War: line infantry, i.e., standing out in the open while the enemy fires at you, and you try to return fire and get closer to them. The central challenge for many soldiers in the Civil War was to have the courage to stand on the field while someone shot at them from close range, and that's the same challenge faced today by a batter who has to stand in place while a pitcher throws a hard, fast projectile at them.


And baseball still revolves around a primary emotion stirred up by the Civil War: longing for home.  White soldiers constantly talked in their letters about wanting to go home, African-Americans had much more vexing longings for home, and the single most popular song for soldiers on both sides was "Home, Sweet Home," (see Susan J. Matt's book, Homesickness: An American History). As much as they wanted to, though, almost nobody could get back home. Most soldiers were afraid to desert the army for fear of losing their honor, so they stayed in the war...and, during its long down times, played lots of baseball. Soldiers from far-flung states with idle time in camp spread enthusiasm for the game and standardized its rules of play. The Civil War's silent battlefield signals with hand gestures were even turned into baseball's sign system, more or less the same system used by pitchers, catchers, and other players today (see Paul Dickson's The Hidden Language of Baseball, p. 24-34). Baseball as we know it today owes a lot to the Civil War. Standing at the plate today, all these years later, a batter still embodies the central dilemma of a soldier in the Civil War: the attempt to "balance the competing demands of a love of home and a desire for honor" (Matt, p. 77).

After the war, the feelings of homesickness turned into nostalgia, a longing for a home that could never be fully recovered. During the late 1800s, this sense of nostalgia rose as American society got roiled by racist segregation, urbanization, industrialization, migration, immigration, and other social changes. Not coincidentally, baseball, a game that is all about trying to go home, continued to rise in popularity during this same period. During this traumatic war and its aftermath, baseball became America's "national game," attempting to create imagery that could unite large parts of a deeply divided and wounded country. (See, for example, George Kirsch's book about the interweaving of baseball, the Civil War, and patriotism, Baseball in Blue and Gray.)

So when you play, watch, and enjoy baseball today, you're essentially viewing the Civil War through the refracted lens of ritual, play, and art. Of course, few people today are literally thinking of the Civil War when they watch or play baseball. But even if you don't know anything about baseball's historical origins, you still understand the courage and honor it takes to stand up to a fastball thrown inches away from your body. And you can imagine what it's like to want to get off the battlefield and go home. As George Carlin said, "I just want to go home! I hope I'll be safe at home!"

One of the few people to write about baseball's violent core was former MLB Commissioner Giamatti, who said baseball consists of a man standing on a hill throwing a rock at a man below him holding a club (Giamatti, A Great and Glorious Game, 1998, p. 58). More recently, this New Yorker cartoon came up with a similar Paleolithic comparison:
"A lot has happened since your last at-bat."

(By John Fistere, finalist for Caption Contest, July 30, 2018)
   
Like Carlin's comedy riff, this New Yorker cartoon builds on a truth not often talked about: violence is part of baseball's subtext. (I hope I'll be safe at home!)


Related posts:

5 Reasons Why "Twilight" is So Popular



Reasons for the Popularity of the Twilight Saga that You Might Not Have Heard Before:

1) Ambivalence about Red Meat
In recent years there’s been growing discomfort in the Western world about eating red meat, particularly among young girls who object to the blood and killing...yet the overwhelming majority still eat red meat. The image of the Cullens, “vegetarian vampires” who struggle with their urges to drink human blood, plays upon these ambivalent feelings about meat, not to mention sexuality. (Citations at bottom of the page.)

2) Bring Back the Wolf
Let’s not forget Jacob…and environmentalism. As anthropologist Lee Drummond notes, Americans’ relationships with animals has become polarized, caught between extremes of household pets and distant predators like the wolf, mostly known through mass media and environmental campaigns. Twilight’s cute werewolf, Jacob, directly addresses this schism.

(Wikipedia, "Gray Wolf")

3) And the Blood
Twilight confronts another paradox: blood is pervasive, from wars to menstruation, yet it’s usually carefully hidden from view in contemporary American society. As Drummond argues, blood in Twilight thereby addresses fundamental issues about male and female, life and death, gender and sexuality.

4) Multi-ethnic Unions
It’s not a coincidence that both Edward and Bella are exceedingly pale (i.e., "white"), while Jacob, the other side of the love triangle, has a darker complexion and is Native American. As anthropologist John McCreery notes, the film is dealing with the appeal, realities, and complexities of multi-ethnic unions in contemporary society.






5) All the Usual Reasons Vampires are Cool
Vampires have what many humans want: power, beauty, wealth, mystery, sex appeal, immortality, boundary-crossing abilities, etc. Twilight partakes of a long line of vampire stories, as well as previous fashions like “heroin chic,” as John McCreery notes.

Usual caveats: These 5 explanations don’t apply to everyone, nor cover all the many possible reasons for Twilight’s appeal. They're just something to think about.

Credit and Links:
These ideas, among many others, have emerged from an exploratory, sky’s-the-limit discussion about Twilight that happened March, 2014 on the Open Anthropology Cooperative site, with Lee Drummond as the convener and driving force. I also recommend Lee Drummond’s book American Dreamtime, where he provides superb anthropological analyses of movies like E.T., Star Wars, and Jaws (full text on Center for Peripheral Studies website).

 1) Declining Red-Meat Consumption
For example, one study showed a 39% decline in American consumption of red meat from 2009-2012; another study showed that young females in Australia and the U.K. are 3 times as likely as males to be vegetarian; and one of the main reasons young females gave for being vegetarian is that they don’t like ingesting blood (posted by me on Open Anthropology Cooperative, “From the Center for Peripheral Studies, After Lance....” direct link on p. 69).

2) Wolves
Lee Drummond wrote:
In a world where our experience with farm animals has dwindled to next to nothing, we readily consume hours of documentaries and talking-head accounts about the lives of physically distant animals such as major predators.  The wolf in particular is without doubt the most stigmatized of animals – bestial man-eater, ally of demons, stalker of Little Red Riding Hood.  And yet, Bella’s only other significant alliance in Forks is with Jacob, wolf-boy, werewolf.  Could it be that the rehabilitation of the wolf – a major hot button issue today – is accomplished in Twilight through a love affair? (OAC, p. 66).

3) Blood
Lee Drummond wrote:
Our lives are awash with blood, blood from animal slaughter, from our endless wars, from street crime and other gun violence, from menstruation, childbirth, and abortion.  Yet it is all ever so carefully hidden.  Bella personifies that need to hide blood from view; she is terrified of it, faints at the sight of it.  And yet she wants, with every fiber of her being, to become one whose entire existence is predicated on human blood.  In aspiring to become a vampire, she bridges two disparate and seemingly irreconcilable identities of life-giver and life-taker…. (OAC, p. 70).

4) Multi-ethnic Unions
John McCreery wrote:
As Danah Boyd points out in It's Complicated, racial and ethnic divisions in behaviour may still be prevalent; but in any major metropolitan area, which is where the majority of Americans now live, multiethnic or multiracial couples are becoming commonplace (OAC, p. 78).

5) Other Reasons
These are touched on at various points in the OAC Forum, and developed at greater length in various websites and the vast scholarly literature on vampires.