I just watched the 2011 film Margin Call yesterday, set in the 2008 financial crash, and was really wowed by it. Not necessarily because it’s great cinema, or because it’s philosophically profound, or because it has good emotional characterisation. It fails to achieve those qualities to various degrees, but to the extent that it succeeds it is something rather more significant. It reminds me of Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler’s classic 1940 novel about Stalin’s show trials, although really it’s about a greater issue: the collapse of trust in an ideology.
I’ll admit that I’m in love with the intellect and power portrayed in Margin Call. Yet, although it has the flashy mathematics (or movie-script version thereof) and suits, it actually shows their limits. Mathematics provides no solution, merely a stark depiction of the situation; power is constrained to work within the existing networks of greed and strength. No-one’s even really shown making an unexpected power-play, there’s not much narrative tension (that is, given that we’ve seen the actual crash happen); despite the premise that the firm’s trading has gone outside historical limits, exposing it to catastrophic losses, what actually happens occurs within preset limits of the firm within the market. After the beginning, there are no more surprises. And even that one, it is repeatedly hinted, is not that much of a surprise.
Similarly, in Darkness at Noon you always know that Rubashov, the Old Bolshevik, is going to be executed. It’s not even a matter of when or how, although it is to some extent a matter of why. This is because Koestler was writing in the aftermath of the worst period of Stalin’s terror, in 1936-7; and also immediately after the great betrayal of Communist ideals in the Hitler-Stalin (or Molotov-Ribbentrop) Pact of 1939, a crushing blow to European anti-fascists still attached to the Party. The crux of the argument, as presented by Koestler, is whether Rubashov should accept his fate at the hand of a capricious dictatorship because through it acts the Revolution, the historically inevitable but subjectively fallible progress of man, as a collective; or if there is enough value in man, as an individual, to assert their moral right over political exigency (and inevitability).
(I use the term man here advisedly; this, and other books in the genre and period, are about men, written by men, concerning primarily values in the abstract, and secondarily the very serious emotions they produce in those men. I’ll admit I’m equally in love with the historico-political profundity, although I’d argue that it’s not necessarily gendered except by default - I’m sure women of the time could write and think the same, when allowed. See Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook for an account of a slightly later but similar period - the 1950s - from the perspectives of Communism and feminism, and where Koestler is referred to as a “swine”. As for Margin Call, it fails the Bechdel test because the only time two women converse they are engaged in firing Stanley Tucci. Demi Moore has a fairly strong part as an older, senior executive (and in one excellent scene she and the guy from The Mentalist talk over a silent cleaning lady in an elevator) but while the rest of the film is almost entirely about men, and how they wrecked the global economy, I would argue that it doesn’t display any unnecessary machismo.)
A similar theme pops up in Margin Call, once it becomes clear the firm’s holdings are to be ‘liquidated’ (the same word used to describe political executions in Stalin’s Russia; the film also begins with a purge, in the form of layoffs). Zachary Quinto’s character - it’s so hard not to see him as young Spock - poses the question as to whether the course of action is “necessary.. or right”? Needless to say, he is in no position to influence the outcome, although he is the one who discovered the horrible truth (Rubashov’s guilt is not in any of his real actions; although it is perhaps in his awareness of the guiltiness of the system). By this stage it has already been established that what is right “can come in several interpretations”; more prosaically, it is identified solely with the need of the firm and its wealthy owner(s) to accrue their own best advantage.
It is at this point that I see an ideological parallel between Darkness at Noon and Margin Call, or better perhaps, a mirror image. The first is about the flaw in Communism that crushes individual lives (altogether rising to a great number) in pursuit of what, subjectively, may or may not ultimately benefit ‘the masses’, but which objectively we must have a paradoxical faith in as the supremely rational interpretation of history. The second is not so much about any fervent belief in the market, as a practical commitment to the acquisition of wealth - and its mathematical techniques - which lead however to the inevitability of capitalism’s structural problems as the ruling logic of human life.
In each case there is a profound fatalism mixed with what is ostensibly a criticism of the subject at hand. If Darkness at Noon was an anti-communist novel (although Koestler expressed the Bolshevik viewpoint so well, or at least appeared to, that some thought he was still a Communist - including the FBI), then there’s a good case for arguing that Margin Call is an anti-capitalist film, or at least an anti-financial capitalism one. Each at least implicitly offers the temptation to believe that reform of the current system is impossible - either economically, taming the markets through regulation, or politically, allowing for a democratic revolution - but in painting such a gloomy picture of the status quo and, as it were, reifying its ideology it perhaps makes the argument for it. That at least is what I see as the main and deepest theme of the criticism of Darkness at Noon, from the divergent viewpoints of George Orwell to Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
As I read it, the latter’s Humanism and Terror, first published in Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes of which he was the political editor, is part attack on Koestler and apologia for Stalinism, but also takes the heartless logic Koestler was supposedly criticising and expands on it as a justification for a pro-Communist political position (now in post-war France; Merleau-Ponty eventually broke with Stalinism during the Korean War). It becomes whatever is the opposite of an immanent critique; or alternatively, a sort of Pascal’s Wager on the progress of History (l’Histoire, always capitalised). The ever astute Orwell, writing a few years earlier, pointed out that by caricaturing the philosophical motivations of the Bolsheviks Koestler ultimately fails to reveal all that much about them and fails to acknowledge his lack of a viable and coherent alternative. For Orwell, “all revolutions are failures, but they are not all the same failure”.
Margin Call indulges in occasional philosophising about the market and man’s place in it. In one scene, in a way rather reminiscent of Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev where one character has to bring back an exiled Old Bolshevik to face a show trial, the fired ex-manager in the risk department, who began the uncovering of the financial catastrophe, is tracked down to his new home in leafy Brooklyn at dawn. In being persuaded to return to the firm by a mixture of coercion and recompense, he recounts how he once built a bridge in his former career as an engineer and how he has calculated all the objective time saved from people’s commutes. As if that represented a ‘real’ value to be weighed against the smoke and mirrors of the financial market; for Koestler (who studied to be an engineer before abandoning it for journalism and political activism) mathematics and physics represent the tangible certainty that the Bolsheviks thought they, too - or maybe it was just him - had found in Communism. By contrast, Zachary Quinto’s analyst character was a ‘rocket scientist’ with an advanced degree from MIT before joining finance for the money.
It all culminates in a monologue by the boss man, played by Jeremy Irons, in the executive dining room looking out over New York. Capitalism is an endless cycle, with winners and losers always in the same proportion, and all we can do is try to win as much and as often as possible - but the next crash will always come. Kevin Spacey’s character, who is about to quit in disgust and exhaustion at what the firm forces him to do, backs down: not, he says, because of the speech, but simply because he “needs the money”. In this way the film cleverly disavows the power of its own spoken ideology, by implying that the more fundamental force is just built-in human desires (an ideological position in itself, needless to say).
Darkness at Noon attempted to resolve its own philosophical dilemma by turning Rubashov’s eventual surrender into a kind of existential gesture, or act of faith. In the future, perhaps, we will have some kind of humane socialism, but for now there is no option (for the Bolshevik, at least) of rejecting the brutal regime that orders your own execution. Margin Call is distinctly less optimistic, in that it doesn’t even hold out the hope of a better capitalism (only one in which you may, for a time, make a lot of money) but it does emphasise the lack of any other choice. The problem is that what each portrays as an inevitable vice, the systems’ defenders turn into an inherent virtue: what is Communism but humanity’s progress into the next stage of social evolution; what is capitalism but the free pursuit of happiness? By representing each as an ideology with such a firm grip on the human mind, even in failure, we guarantee their continued success. Perhaps we need to reject ideas altogether - although that is the one thing we certainly cannot do.
wolfpartyjoe said: 9 and 23?
9. Favourite historical film
That’s a tough one, actually. For a start, I’m not much a film buff, although I have recently realised I will watch anything from the 1970s, particularly with the involvement of Scorsese, De Niro, New York, poorly paved streets, etc. But when it comes to history, I think I prefer engaging with it on the grand, or at least political/’intellectual’, scale that doesn’t really translate into cinematic representation very easily. Unless it’s a character study posed in an historical epoch I like, I suppose - but I don’t even read much historical fiction, as opposed to fiction written in (or near to) historical periods. As a depiction of social history, I rather liked Jimmy’s Hall this year, although it’s probably good rather than great as a film. Really, I’d have to include TV drama series: Carnivale, Band of Brothers, and Mad Men. Or for a film based on a really good book, the 1967 version of Ulysses.
23. Favourite historical song
Certainly in terms of how often the chorus gets stuck in my head, the Clash’s ‘Spanish Bombs’, although untangling the references can get pretty complicated.
Really interesting Rob Horning piece about data surveillance, population control, the construction of the self, truth and probability (and profit). Although this line is actually a plot point from The Matrix: Reloaded*
"A margin of noncompliance has already been factored in and may in fact be integral to the containment of the broader social dynamics being modeled at the population level."
(*you know, the scene with all the tv screens, and the long expository speech - that I couldn’t really follow when I saw it first, but just happened to be watching a few nights ago)
Cool, thanks, I’ll keep an eye out for it. I really enjoyed his other film Silence, and this seems like it covers similar themes as well. In fact I wonder if this quote might not actually have been from Tim Robinson?
interstate808 said: That book is right at the top of my list right now, dying to read his whole trilogy of Connemara books.
I saw the trilogy all in one volume in Hodges Figgis a while ago (before I knew I was coming to Galway). To be honest I’m not sure I really like his writing style - it seems rather verbose, but that may just be because I’m tired and reading a lot of other heavy stuff - so I chiefly bought it for the map and the ‘gazetteer’ with all the info on place-names and geography. That said, I am generally quite up for philosophical musings on space and time.
Victor Serge, Conquered City (1975)
1. I saw Scanners for the first time last night. The exploding-head scene was familiar from a myriad of clip shows, but the finale was both new to me and genuinely impressive.
2. I’m about halfway through reading this other Serge novel, and its also peppered with these transcendent images which simultaneously pull you out of what you’re reading and push you further into the reality of what he’s talking about (in this case, the Russian Civil War).
unnamed speaker, Silence
(at least I didn’t recognise the voice, which was off-camera, and it didn’t sound like any of the other people who did appear in the film - which may sound strange but the director is on record as saying there are little tricks like that to, if not confuse viewers, then make them think about what they’re seeing and hearing)
This - endless, echoing sound - is a really powerful romantic idea: it’s in the opening of Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sound Forever (in the sound of the Big Bang echoing around the universe), it’s in the story of the Listening Monks in Terry Pratchett’s Soul Music (also an excellent broad satire of rock’n’roll) and also obliquely, as I recently rediscovered, in Tolkien’s creation myth for the world of Middle Earth (where the Music of the Ainur becomes the template for the entirety of history). I think, though, that the simultaneous existence and negation of voices in it is an even more powerful addition.