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, as well as other masterpieces like Liar's Poker and Moneyball. But this movie perpetuates such disturbing misunderstandings of Wall Street fraud that I feel compelled to point out three major problems.

1) The movie makes the bankers seem merely clueless, rather than showing how their deliberate lies to investors led to the Crisis.

For roughly the first half of the movie, we are led to believe 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 traders like Dr. Burry (Christian Bale) who want to bet against their mortgage securities. In this telling, the bankers just couldn’t see what was coming. They were idiots, but not crooks. We only get to know one banker who could see the crash coming, Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), but he was an exception that proved the movie's rule of banker naivety. He tells the crew for Mark Baum (Steve Carell) that nobody at the banks is paying attention to the worsening mortgages, that they're all asleep at the wheel. When he tries to sound the alarm at his own bank, they call him “Chicken Little” and “Bubble Boy.”

This depiction of clueless bankers is not only wrong, it plays right into the hands of the banks. The movie exonerates Wall Street bankers by failing to show that they 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 naivety and clueless, 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." News of these settlements didn't usually make the front pages because they didn't involve jail sentences and, in a plea-bargain type of legal fiction, sometimes lacked a technical admission of guilt, but the number of settlements, the reasons given for them in the legal statements of facts, and their record-breaking monetary penalties clearly demonstrate financial fraud. 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. What a gift to Wall Street.

Moreover, the movie doesn't show how the banks’ 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 Crisis by slowing down on their purchases of mortgage securities 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 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 last hope, 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 second half of the movie is somewhat different. Main characters throw out many angry accusations about the market prices for bonds being rigged, and together with the long scenes in Vegas, there's an overall feeling that the banks are up to no good. However, even here, the movie is garbled. Our wise guide and host throughout the story, Gosling, repeats what he said in the first half of the film, that 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 brother-in-law arrested.”The movie doesn't go on to refute this self-serving, defeatist view; it doesn't show that, no, actually, you can tell when 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." Adam McKay, the director and co-screenwriter, had the same misunderstanding, as I show in the next section. Randolph and McKay did some great work, but it's a shame they got suckered in by this notion of clueless bankers.

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, central 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.”*

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 and Appealing—and, yes, a little scary, but in an all-powerful Edward Cullen way.

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. In a major deviation from the book, Gosling’s character becomes our all-knowing narrator and guide through this other world. He can see into the past and the future, with voice-overs and direct addresses to the camera telling us the meaning of what just happened on screen or is about to happen. Sure, he's trying to make money, but it's hard to see someone like thisa handsome, all-knowing guy who wants to take us under his wingas a villain.

Of course, nobody can know for sure exactly what audiences are going to see in Gosling or this movie as whole, and reactions will vary. But my sense, based on what viewers are saying online, is that the majority come away with continued confusion about what exactly the bankers did wrong, or a vague sense that they’re just too powerful and aggressive and something doesn’t seem right. This bothers me because a movie as widely viewed as this one had the chance to get the public to understand what Wall Street did wrong.

By asking this movie to have more accurately conveyed banker fraud, I don’t want to sound like the critics who lament that it didn’t say more about the problems caused by the Federal Reserve’s interest rates, or irresponsible homeowners, or Fannie and Freddie, etc. To ask a film to take a narrative focus outside the one it has set for itself is unfair. Instead, I’m trying to take the film on its own terms: a story about outsider investors fighting against Wall Street bankers. The film could have easily incorporated an accurate indictment of the bankers and still stayed within this narrative structure. 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 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. At the very least, adding just one more cut-away scene or written epilogue would have gone a long way toward clearing up the movie's confusion about banker fraud.


Fun Reading: More Sources Proving Banker Fraud on Mortgage Securities
If you've only got time to read one journalist report about just how much the banks 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.

But if you've got more time, check out this comprehensive book on the Crisis by financial reporters Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera, who write: “After the crisis of 2008, a common refrain arose that no one saw it coming. But that was never true. State attorneys general had filed lawsuits [against subprime lenders]. Housing advocates had continually beat the tom-toms.” An executive at one bank, Lehman Brothers, wrote a memo in 1995 describing mortgage company Famco as a “sweat shop” specializing in “high-pressure sales for people who are in a weak state.” Yet just three years later Lehman Brothers sold millions of mortgage-backed-securities for Famco. McLean and Nocera sum up as follows: Did Wall Street know what was going on? You bet it did.”.

+If a quote is off by a word or two, that’s because so far I haven’t been able to watch this movie with rewind; I’ve been watching it in movie theatres and taking notes.

*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:


Andy Knipe, ALS, and Baseball

I will always think of Andy Knipe, my younger cousin, as an innocent kid, the tag-along. When our families got together, with eight of us cousins sitting around the table, cracking jokes and poking each other, Andy was just trying to figure out where he fit in. We’d ignore him, but every once in awhile he’d crack us all up, usually by squeezing food through his fingers or reminding us about the toilet. His life of mischief was underway.
Andy, up to no good
Eventually I moved out to the West Coast, while Andy stayed in New York, got married, and excelled at his job, making funny TV commercials for companies like FedEx and Pepsi. His audience and humor had evolved. His jokes now cracked up millions of people all over the country. He almost seemed like an adult.

Then, at age 37, with a wife, teenage daughter, and two little boys, he got diagnosed with ALS.

At Christmas dinner that year, he couldn’t make the salad tongs squeeze together, but otherwise he seemed fine, so I still thought there must be some mistake, some way out. But there wasn’t. ALS continued to destroy his nervous system, relentlessly. By my summer visit back to New York, he was in a wheelchair, hands propped on the armrests, unable to turn his head from side to side, barely able to swallow. His body was frozen in place, but he was fully alert, watching himself die.

In his final months, Andy and I connected over baseball. He sent my 9-year-old son a heavy encyclopedia of baseball history, which my son took to bed with him every night and studied like the Rosetta Stone. And Andy answered my questions with emails about baseball legends like Catfish Hunter and Don Zimmer. Because of his limited physical mobility, Andy's emails came out pithy and tantalizing, like Chinese fortune cookies. To type out a one-line email, he put on a headset that tracked his eye movements, looked ahead at a computer screen, and then clicked with his index finger—one of the only parts of his body with any sensation left—on the word or letter he wanted, one at a time, with great concentration.

But with his last ounces of energy, Andy didn’t just compose Zen-like emails. He also got on websites for Red Sox fans and carefully clicked out messages like this:

“R-e-d S-o-x = S-c-u-m-b-a-g-s.”

Yes, he spent his final days tormenting Red Sox fans, the arch rivals of his beloved Yankees. Some of his insults were so disgusting that websites banned him.

After awhile, though, the emails and rants tapered off, as the disease took over every last inch of his body, including his internal organs. In August, 2005, he decided not to get an artificial respirator. At age 38, he wrote a final letter to his kids and got ready to die.

I couldn’t get a flight to New York in time, but I called to say goodbye. Andy couldn’t speak anymore, so I did all the talking.

I said I loved him. I said I was sorry I ignored him so much when we were little. 
Pretty soon I was fighting through tears to complete my sentences, incoherent ramblings about childhood memories and wanting to see him again. Up until that moment, I hadn't been able to comprehend Andy's impending death, but now, realizing that once I hung up, I'd never talk to Andy again, the certainty and utter finality of his death sank in

I finally let go. I hung up, and Andy died a couple days later.

The funeral on Long Island was mostly a blur. Carrying Andy's coffin through the church with the other pallbearers, my cousins and younger brother, seemed too easy.  We just placed our hands on the top of the coffin, to guide it, but the wheels on the cart below did all the work, rolling quickly along the smooth wood floor. How was it that we could walk so effortlessly, while Andy, the youngest among us, was dead and in a box beneath our hands?

The biggest surprise came after the funeral, at the lunch reception. Suddenly one of my cousins shouted, “Sick Bastard’s here!” Looking over at the restaurant entrance, I didn’t see anyone who looked sick or like a bastard, just a regular guy in his 30’s. I found out that "Sick Bastard” was this guy’s screen  name. He was a Red Sox fan who had traded insults with Andy for months, until Andy finally let on that he was dying of ALS. By that point, they’d spent so much time together online, trying to reach new heights of creativity with their insults for each other, that they’d formed a bond. Sick Bastard, who had never met Andy in person, drove down from Boston to attend this funeral in the heart of Yankee territory.

This was like a soldier walking onto the middle of a battlefield during the American Civil War and screaming, “Shoot if you want, but that’s my brother over there and I have to see him again.”

My cousins, all faithful Yankee fans, mobbed Sick Bastard, hugging him and treating him like a celebrity.

Even after his death, Andy was still making us laugh...and teaching us how to live.


Links, Photos, and More:

Curt Schilling's Words About Andy:

At the funeral, I found out that Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling had asked the other players to pray for Andy before the game that day.  Schilling knew full well that Andy despised the Red Sox, but he didn't care; they had become friends through their fundraising for ALS.
Here's what Schilling wrote about Andy: 
"ALS, three small yet horrifyingly fatal letters. Devastating letters because they, right now, are a guaranteed death sentence for its victims. Why is it, then, that just about every ALS patient I’ve ever met, including Andy Knipe, wake up each day with a smile? Why are they the ones that bring laughter and joy to a room of seemingly healthy people? I don’t know why, but I thank God each and every day for putting these people in my life, and my families. Andy was a great man, Yankee allegiance aside! He was, until his last breath, working to improve the lives of so many others while his withered away. Andy is the man you meet that reminds you, without a word, how lucky and happy you SHOULD be."

Andy in his 30s.

Andy with ALS and that constant smile that Curt Schilling mentioned.
Andy teaching nephew Ben to drink soda. A few years later, he took Ben to the horse races, as his sister Susan fondly recalls. 

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

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

What would George Carlin say about Basketball vs. Baseball?

Here's what comedian George Carlin might have said...

                                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 on green grass.
Basketball is played on a beige hardwood floor.

In short, baseball comes out of 19th-century pastoral America. Basketball comes out of 20th-century office culture: fast-paced, lots of teamwork and immediate, visible rewards, all played out under florescent lights and clean indoor spaces.


P.S. More Carlin-Inspired Stuff
Carlin Wrong about Baseball:
I actually don't buy Carlin's depiction of baseball as wimpy. Baseball's central drama of pitcher-and-batter is just as war-like as football; it's just a different kind of warfare. As former Commissioner Giamatti once said, baseball consists of a man standing on a hill throwing a rock at a man below him holding a club.

Lately I'm even thinking that baseball might have gained popularity in the late 1800s due to its emotional resonance with both the pistol duels and line warfare of the American Civil War. Like a batter standing there while someone throws a hard object at him at 90mph, the central challenge of duels and the Civil War was to have the courage to stand there while someone shot at you from close range. All these things have the same combat structure and sense of honor.

Regardless of historical origins, baseball clearly has violence at its core, but the violence has been ritualized and made into artlike a movie fight scene with gentle, ethereal music in the background that makes you feel something beautiful is transpiring, despite the violence. And one that ends with someone saying, as Carlin did, "I just want to go home! 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).

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.

Join the Discussion:
These ideas, among many others, have emerged from an exploratory, sky’s-the-limit discussion about Twilight that has been going on since March, 2014 at the Open Anthropology Cooperative, led by Lee Drummond as a driving force. Lee and the others welcome new voices, so please consider joining. You can read specific posts at the links below and sign up to join the discussion here.

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).

Credits, Links, and Elaborations:

 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.

Spaghetti, Syrup, and Escalators: Interpreting Culture Shock in "Elf"

The movie Elf wouldn't be so funny if it didn't contain a surprising element of truth. I mean, pouring maple syrup on spaghetti is funny, but is it really that crazy? Americans eat waffles and syrup, sweet and sour pork, and other combinations of sweetness and carbohydrates, so why not syrup and spaghetti?
I admit it's still gross to imagine putting syrup on spaghetti, so perhaps a better example of the power of social convention—and its relative arbitrariness—is the lesson Buddy (Will Ferrell) gets from his human brother about proper dating etiquette. The brother tells Buddy that he should take his female co-worker on a date by asking her "to eat food," but it has to be "real food, not candy." The movie is again making a joke by pointing out that a custom Americans take for granted seems arbitrary and strange from a kid or elf's perspective. What makes this joke especially interesting, though, is that it exposes a contradiction and puzzle in American culture: Why does our culture tell us to to eat nothing but sweets for other rituals, but not first dates? After all, Americans offer and consume pure candy on other ritual occasions, such as Valentine's Day, and these sweet rituals make perfect sense from a biological perspective: attraction to sweet tastes is one of the few biological universals we humans (raised by humans) share. So why don't we sip maple syrup or Coca Cola, and nibble on fine chocolates, on first dates?

There's an even better authority here than mere biological science: Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. In the Harvard bar scene in this movie, after Skylar (Minnie Driver) gives Will (Damon) her phone number, she says, "Maybe we could go out for a cup of coffee sometime?"

"Great," Will says, "Or maybe we could go somewhere and just eat a bunch of caramels."Skylar is baffled, so Will explains, "When you think about it, it's just as arbitrary as drinking coffee."

Will is making a reasonable anthropological point about American culture's skewed rules for the ritual consumption of food and drink (a point that would apply to other cultures as well).

I'm not trying to convince readers to run out and eat caramels or put syrup on their spaghetti, I'm just saying that Elf exposes the social construction of taken-for-granted American customs, from food habits to escalators. Buddy reminds us that an escalator really is a scary machine with gnashing metal teeth, a modern contraption that is literally and metaphorically "earth-shattering." His escalator ride  creates a perfect body metaphor for the disorientation caused by culture shock throughout this entire movie.


That’s what culture shock does at its best: it moves the ground beneath our feet, giving us a fresh way to see things, including escalators and advertisements about “world’s best cup of coffee.”

At least that’s the way I see it, and not just because I'm an anthropologist. The popularity of movies like Elf shows that people all over enjoy culture shock for the sheer joy of surprise and illumination. Even neuroscience research proves comedy and cognition are linked: on fMRI tests, the same parts of research subjects’ brains light up when they solve word puzzles and when they watch videos of stand-up comedy. In the best cases, we're laughing and thinking at the same time.

Now here’s a more personal take on culture and escalators. About 7 years ago, I was flying out of Newark Airport, not far from New York City, where Buddy the Elf had his adventures. I always love airports—the intersection of cultures, the people on the cusp of changes large and small, the liminal betwixt-and-between atmosphere—but the Newark Airport is fairly large and impersonal, and on this particular morning, it was filled with long lines and grumpy people. I overheard one passenger say to a counter attendant, "How friggin' rude."  I myself was low on sleep and rushing to catch a flight back to Oregon, so I tried to keep my head down and not interact with anyone.
Newark Airport, Manhattan in background. Credit Ramriot, Flckr.
When I got to the foot of an escalator, though, a South Asian woman in a sari tapped me on the shoulder and I had to stop. She couldn’t speak English, but she smiled broadly and then started to guide the hand of her small son, about 4 years old, toward me. A couple confusing possibilities raced through my mind. Was this a trick to exploit my sympathy for a mother and her little kid, who was, in fact, adorable? Did she not know how to find her gate? Did she lose something inside the escalator?

She just kept smiling, offering me the little boy’s hand, and speaking in an incomprehensible foreign language. Then I figured out the problem. She literally had too much to handle: two little boys (her other son was even younger) and a large suitcase. She couldn’t hold onto her two sons' hands and the suitcase while riding the escalator. She was forced to do what no mother should ever have to do: ask a stranger to take her little boy's hand in a crowded public place.

Suddenly it all  made sense, and I felt like a jerk for having been distrustful. Of course I agreed to help.

When the boy put his small hand in mine, the harsh airport atmosphere melted away and I felt it—pure human connection.

Riding up the escalator, the little boy held my hand and looked back and forth between me, the moving stairs, and his mother, standing right behind him, whispering words of assurance. Near the top, as the stairs disappeared into thin air, he showed no signs of stepping off, so I picked him up high in the air and set him back down on solid ground, as if this were a little game. Once the boy got a couple years older, he'd surely master the escalator and treat it like a joyride, but at that point he just looked confused. I wanted to make sure they made it to their gate safely, wishing I could find out all about them, their backstories and travel plans, but the mother just mumbled a thank you, took her boy’s hand, and sped off in the opposite direction.

I never saw that mother and her boys again, but I've thought about them many times. I hope they reached their destination.

Maybe Christmas should be like my escalator ride with that boy—moments that move the ground beneath our feet.

Related materials:
Peter Wogan, “What’s So Funny about First Contact?” Visual Anthropology Review 22:14-33, 2006. (In this journal article, I analyze a documentary about first contact in the 1930s between Australian goldminers and aboriginal peoples in Papua New Guinea. I analyze Westerners’ fascination with technology as a ritual of supremacy, but also as a source of “wonder,” and I place the discussion within the Obeyesekere-Sahlins debate over rationality.)

The Terminal (Great comedy movie about a Russian passenger (Tom Hanks) who lives in JFK Airport for weeks.)

Occupy North Pole Video (Makes sense.)

Golf's Spatial and Spiritual Dimensions

What is going on with that weird posture in golf, all that hunching over? And what about those mystical relations between the ball, land, sky, and player? I got interested in questions like these for personal reasons. My father-in-law has been battling with Parkinson's disease, trying to maintain his balance and coordination and dignity in the face of the disease's relentless attack on his nervous system, and he has fought particularly hard not to let Parkinson's take away his golf game, one of his greatest joys. Over the last decade, he made compromises. He accepted that his shots wouldn't go as far as they used to. Sometimes he fell down on the golf course. But he refused to give up. He also insisted on teaching me how to play. In fact, the worse his shot got, the more determined he seemed to teach me how to hit the ball right. I still can't say my shot has gotten very good, but I've felt as close to him on the golf course as anytime in the years we've known each other. And while walking through the grass and searching for my ball in the woods, I've had ample chances to reflect on golf's mysteries and how this game gets inside your soul. Here are a few tentative thoughts.

The Set-Up

The union with the ball begins with the set-up stance, in which the golfer stares down at the ball, head bowed, as if in prayer. Few other sports require such single-minded focus on a stationary ball. In sports like baseball, basketball, and football, the ball moves too fast for anyone to get a lock on it; in golf, every play begins with a mini-meditation on the ball.

 Flickr Rennett Stowe 

Watching the Shot

In the switch from the stationary set-up position to the swing and then the ball’s soaring flight, the golfer undergoes a sudden, radical shift in perspective—from head bowed to head raised, from a focus on earth to sky, low to high, abjection to transcendence. Having started off like a prayerful hunchback, the golfer soars like a bird.                         
Flickr Russ Glasson

Flickr North Central College Long Shot

I say "the golfer soars like a bird" because the golfer is now intimately connected with the ball, as if it were his or her spirit double. The ball traveling through the air mimics the golfer's mind and body so precisely that its flight path reveals microscopic, hidden tics in the swing that even the golfer often can't consciously recognize. Once golfers see the ball going astray, they often apply "body English," contorting their bodies up and down, to the right, left, and sideways, as if the ball, sensing the golfer's desperate movements behind them, will feel obliged to change course, to please its human twin. Even golfers who suppress these spontaneous movements often still talk to their ball, whispering, begging, yelling, and otherwise imploring in such sincere tones that they almost seem to genuinely believe the ball can hear them. Whether mystical or maddening, it's hard to deny the felt union between ball and player.

A pro putting body English on a hook shot (Anyonefortee.com)
Even President Obama needs body English sometimes (Flickr Madu Babu Pandi)

Of course, you sometimes see body English applied in other sports as well, and that's for good reason: the same magical principle of "like produces like" appears around the world and throughout human history. This is what anthropologists call “sympathetic magic,” a long-standing, common type of magic found in everything from a love potion made with red flowers to induce a red heart, to bowlers who spontaneously jump to the left or right when they see their ball heading for the gutter. By slowing down the game and putting the focus on the ball's flight path, golf makes such sympathetic magic a central part of the sport's experience.

Searching for the Ball

Once the ball lands, the player assumes yet a different relationship with it. The ball is now a tiny white dot in the distance, whether nestled far off in the grass, or, worse, out of sight in the woods, water, or sand. Searching for the ball forces more mindful concentration on it and the natural surroundings. Moreover, the player again experiences what novelist John Updike calls the "intoxicating relativity" of golf, i.e., the constant changes in scale and spatial relations as the golfer and his or her ball move through the game. Updike writes, “As it moves through the adventures of a golf match, the human body, like Alice’s in Wonderland, experiences an intoxicating relativity—huge in relation to the ball, tiny in relation to the course, exactly matched to that of other players” (Golf Dreams, "The Bliss of Golf," 1997, p. 147-150). (Whatever you might think about Updike's fiction, it's fair to say his reflections on golf are as insightful as his famous essay about Ted Williams' final home run.)

FlickR Erik Anestad
Although Updike is referring here to the tininess of the golfer’s body in relation to the course, his point also applies to the golfer’s spirit double, the ball itself, which is even tinier in relation to the course terrain. Here's the way Updike puts it: “To see one’s ball gallop two hundred and more yards down the fairway, or see it fly from the face of an 8-iron clear across an entire copse of maples in full autumnal flare, is to join one’s soul with the vastness that, contemplated from another angle, intimidates the spirit, and makes one feel small."  In other words, the ball induces a sense of the golfer's place in nature and the universe—connected yet humbled, as in religious experiences.

Flickr Andreas Krappweis

If talk of the universe and religion still sounds like romantic hyperbole, remember that sheer scale can fundamentally change a person's emotional experience, as anyone will attest who has ever felt awe and wonder at the grandness of the ocean, mountains, or stars, or just a beautiful, tall cathedral or large-canvass painting. Joseph Parent, author of Zen Golf, seemed to be getting at the same point when he said, "we also experience what we see, so perhaps our mind is as big as our field of vision. What if I asked you to imagine the farthest star in the galaxy? Now how big is your mind?" (2002, p. 15).

Of course, I try not to think about all this when I'm swinging. I just listen to my father-in-law's advice ("hold the club gently, like you're holding a bird...feet shoulder-width apart"), bow my head, swing, watch the ball fly—and hope it reaches its destination.