Thursday, January 5, 2012

On Wall Street 2 on top of Margin Call (trust me)

The following statement should be read without irony: there is something very interesting going on in Wall Street Street 2: Money Never Sleeps. To be completely transparent, this is partly due to the fact that I cannot resist financial crisis films. In the same way that I find sport films so compelling as I'm forced to contemplate my body’s inability to perform such feats of athleticism, I’m drawn to any story that focuses on people in really nice suits, doing mental math and understanding red ticker tape—both realities are so far removed from what I know the utter escapism wins me over, full stop. That being said, the first time I saw WS2 I fell asleep. Months later, however, in light of the myriad of other financial collapse films (Up in the Air, The Company Men, Drag Me To Hell) Stone’s film began to crystallize; WS2 collapsed—pardon the pun—under its own narrative plenitude (legal intrigue, corporate espionage, familial drama, babies, motorcycle races) and in this managed to capture the sprawling impact of the 2008 financial collapse. Just like effects of the crash, the film was all over the place. 

While Stone did focus on the personal impact of the collapse—from Louis Zabel's (Frank Langella) suicide to Susan Sarandon as the perfect caricature of a New Jersey real estate agent—WS2 also captured the speed of collapse itself. Both the film’s editing and plot move at breakneck pace, whether it is Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) racing through Manhattan streets on his motorcycle or the repeated quick pans up and down New York skyscrapers, interjected with quick cuts of the teeming city streets. More than once the film’s screen begins to subdivide amongst traders around the world, like a mutant virus proliferating under a microscope, collapsing any sense of space and evoking the mind boggling pace at which money (our money) is moved in a digital age. Stone even pushes this further, as he not only employs split screen but layers them, as the camera often adopts the point of view from “inside” the computer, shooting "through" it while superimposing the screen on the characters’ faces. Both the crash and the characters in WS2 race along with that aforementioned ticker tape which is often superimposed over Moore's bemused face.

This kinetic text—please, please, please Tony Scott, make a financial collapse film—when placed next to Margin Call seems utterly out of place. Margin Call talks, WS2 runs. Margin Call waits, WS2 rushes. But then this is why the films shouldn’t be placed next to each other, but on top of each other. Bear with me.

WS2, in a manner that only a cartoon-like approach to film making could, actually grapples with the sheer incredulous speed at which immaterial transactions with material results take place. And here I use “cartoon” not to debase the film but because Stone literally composes (draws) this system on the screen, with those split screens, quick cuts and superimposed ticker tape. In fact, unlike any other financial collapse film to date Stone actually attempts to re-recreate the collapse itself—a catastrophe that “happened” in the digital sphere, between the shuffling of fabricated money and binary code, and thus had no physical trace—in a sequence that lies somewhere in between The Matrix and a CNN newscast. But more importantly, just like a cartoon WS2 imagines (or rather wishes for) a world in which we can keep up this pace, zipping along like Road Runner.

Margin Call, by contrast, is slow. Intense, meticulously crafted and with a taut script, its moves feel laborious, not flashy. Other than a few helicopter shots of New York (even these pan slowly across the skyline, as opposed to the rapid swooshes and jerks of WS2), and the inevitable shot-reverse-shot editing, J.C. Chandor’s camera does not dart or even usher the film along. In fact, the only tracking shots in the film are paced to the characters’ strides, as they march from one office to the boardroom, past empty desks with illuminated computer screens (after all, money never sleeps).

What becomes so intriguing about Margin Call is that this pacing, our inability to keep up and maintain (if not control) the very system that we built, becomes painful obvious. Sitting in a boardroom discussing Peter Sullivan's (Zachary Quinto) calculations which prove the onset of the financial collapse Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) demands the time. A minute later he asks again: “Fuck,” he barks as 60 seconds have already passed. The firm, the traders, the executives, cannot catch up to the crisis, an immovable force constantly propelling itself forward (that the two "good" characters in the film are engineers is no mistake). Margin Call then works as a palimpsest with WS2, sliding over it perfectly, for as the crisis slowly unfolds we imagine Stone’s digital world playing beneath its surface, rushing at a terrifying speed as the characters on screen can clearly not keep up.

Like WS2, Margin Call also toys with the use of screens, or rather reflective surfaces. Whether it is refracting the blurred lights of New York’s skyline in a manner akin to a lens flare (J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg are exec producers on the film) what is outside of the frame—or the trading floor—is conjured. Similarly, the smudged window of the back of a cab behind Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) and Peter, blurs and contorts the light behind the pair, suggesting the murky reality that exists beyond. Continually in Margin Call what should be transparent is not, suggesting not only the complexity of its characters but something of the financial system itself. Because of this, the film feels equally insular and porous, as we only ever can understand so much before we're lost again in the jargon and numbers, wondering about the material impact on the lives of others from the seemingly intangible financial crisis which remains hovering at the film’s edges, just beyond the frame.

But let me go back to this proposed double bill, or layered screening. As ludicrous as it literally sounds, conceptually taking the films together does encapsulate the terror of the crash, and the very system that we live in. Indeed the fact that WS2 would have to be played 1.25 faster (math!) to run behind Margin Call only seems more fitting, increasing that frantic pace and confusion, since what is lost at WS2's end is this sense of a loss of control. The only foreshadowing of the future is a bubble drifting upwards at the birthday party of Moore and Winnie Gekko's (Carey Muligan) child. We know that bubble will burst, but not now, not soon (we hope). Margin Call, by contrast, leaves us Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) digging a grave for his dog, Ella. As the screen goes black the credits roll over the diegetic sounds of earth scraping on steel. Perhaps this is a reference to a comment John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) makes earlier in the film that Rogers could have been “digging ditches” all his life. But it also feels, and sounds, like he is digging his own grave, and that we're all digging with him.

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