Saturday, October 11, 2008

Perception

The cost of the Wall Street (1987) negative was around $15 million; it grossed $45million in the initial US box office release.







Gordon Gekko is superrich but not really part of the establishment. A figure of intelligent cynicism, abundance and personal rather than institutional power. ("Makes twenty times what Dave Winfield makes in a year.") Will and energy. Culture too – he possesses a refined aesthetic sense. The screenwriter claimed to have based Gekko’s style of pontificating on director Oliver Stone.

The impression of Gekko’s rogue status, playing a system ‘subversively’ from within, expert in it but adversarial with the regard to its rules (the spirit of competition in a pure form), is not only conveyed by his explicit lawlessness, which we might be free to assume the norm at his wealth level, but underscored in various oblique ways, so that the audience is prevented from identifying him as an embodiment of the ruling class, or even of the financial industry, or, despite the film’s title, of “Wall Street”. He is a disruptive element within it, necessarily created by it but not a microcosm. Most effective in creating this apartness, at least for a New York audience, we never see Gekko in his own real home in NYC: placing that home in any swank building in Manhattan would fix him too firmly and specifically in a network, a social setting, a structure of unassailable power and legitimacy. He is seen on the move, in limos, in restaurants, and in his rented office in a tower, like a Renaissance condottiere, and finally confronting in single combat his insubordinate protégé on a misty green field in Central Park. When we see him "domestically", it is only at his beach house in Montauk, a costly, luxurious but pale, impermanent haunt, not a residence, poised on an expanse of empty sand at the edge of the foaming, heaving, wintry Atlantic, wearing a bathrobe. He's a pirate king. Or Monte Cristo. Playing Shogun, wise master to his favoured apprentice "poor, smart and hungry - and no feelings." Of all Hollywood’s finance/corporate themed films, Wall Street is intended as the most didactic, the most unforgiving indictment, but it is the most in love with its heavy, tempter, bearer of evil forces. The figure of ruthless finance capital, unproductive rampaging speculative capital, doubles as the phantasy figure of upward mobility in meritocratic America, land of opportunity, and even, whisperingly, as a image of revolutionary potential. His fall enacts thus both a consoling phantasy punishment of crime (the comeuppance of insatiable parasitic destructive speculative capital) and, less overtly but in some ways more intensely, a registration of victorious Thermidor, of successful Reaction, the end of the revolutionary era and of revolutionary possibilities, the acknowledgement of the Reaganite immiseration of the working class and middle class, rendering this figure of the self made mogul, to which they aspire, false and thus requiring disposal and repudiation. Bud will not repeat Gekko’s (streetwise unconventional) trajectory, indeed Bud’s failure to do so will take Gekko, the figure of the American dream of seized opportunity, down with him as the film itself undermines the promise he represents (ethically, practically, politically), even while it poses, itself, with its auteur, as that promise confirmed and vindicated. This composite that is Gekko is thus additionally used as the mouthpiece for the director and screenwriter’s direct address to the audience, from ‘the dark side’ of self congratulatory ‘success’, which doubles as the Master’s counsel to his apprentice, but allows the filmmakers not only to conceal their complex attraction to the cruel but charismatic pirate king they have fashioned as their dark double, but to disavow and obscure the applicability of his lectures to their own industry.

Telling the story of Bud’s failed effort at embourgeoisement involves telling, obliquely but significantly, the story of an enterprise, Blue Star airlines. The film raises in an indirect quasi-allegorical mode the possibility of socialism – the Fox family, the working class, becoming the owner/manager of the airline, through working class solidarity - but contains that possibility within ‘there is no alternative’ verisimilitude which requires its depiction within the generic tale of personal advancement and cross class cooperation. The corporate raider is offered as a possible resource and instrument of social change, and his capital is sought within the plausible story as the practical means of obtaining control over the enterprise, but this sequence also conveys, in ‘the political unconscious’, an attempt by the agent of the working class to instrumentalise all the seductive qualities his figure embodies: initiative, determination, courage, the bold, rule-changing, ruthless revolutionary energy needed to accomplish this transformation, to “turn the airline around” and place it in the hands of “the heir of the working class”. How this turning around is explicitly envisioned and depicted (just expanding the enterprise and making it more profitable within the given framework) does not limit the possibilities of “turning around” and transformation the story implicitly raises (only to reject), precisely because of the presence of Gekko as a force of unbridled self will, capable of remaking the world, which introduces alongside the story of Blue Star’s trade unions and their pursuit of their interests the explosive element of human inventiveness and self interest, the possibility of something unexpected being brought about by people making their own history. Gekko’s indifference to customary constraints contrasts with the union representative’s mode of negotiation, but putting them in the same room, in Bud’s apartment, poses at least the question to the audience of what would happen were some kind of combination of qualities created, were the union representatives to possess the ferocious determination to prevail, to use powers falling to him by circumstance to transform reality to his advantage, that Gekko possesses and embodies. “Greed is right”: in his odd mix of social Darwinist and populist rhetoric is conjured the spectre of the collective greed of the working class which expresses itself – twisted and stifled by individualism and bourgeois ideology - in Bud’s ambition, greed for pleasure, leisure, justice and liberty, greed for utopia, transforming society, bringing about communism. The vision is conjured, already deformed and hamstrung by the dominant ideology, to be further mangled and repudiated by narrative. Yet its images, the vision, (of wealth, leisure, freedom, abundance, power, of the life for which Bud and not only Bud but the audience is greedy) however contorted, remain the most seductive. The film makes a tremendous effort against its own impulses to moralise about the lifestyle Bud desires and thus to trivialise the benefits it offers (liberty, leisure, plenty, pleasure) and especially to trivialise and rebuke his desire to escape a life of wage slavery in the cubicle by any means necessary. Hammacher Schlemmer gadgets producing meals that look a lot better than they taste, garish exhibitionist over-decoration of his condo, a lovelife divided been a call girl and a shallow woman he cannot fully possess, neglect of his downscale friends and cynical use of his upscale ones, disrespect for his father. But all this is displayed as advertisement as well, the loving Tom Wolfe exactitude of stereotype and props easily drowning out the overt disapproval and fun-poking. Selling a lifestyle and preaching against it at the same time, the commodified critique of “capitalism as its finest” – the “illusion” of value “become real” (in the aesthetic object, an abstract canvas) - indirectly absolves itself as it advertises itself, encloses critique of itself and extracts surplus value.

The (false) naïve faith and hope the film, with Bud and the union representatives, places in the heroic individualist capitalist energy (recognised and distrusted as despotic, amoral and fascistic by Carl Fox) is quickly betrayed – Gekko’s ‘revolutionary’ energy is revealed as necessarily destructive and selfish. With this fusion of lawless, inventive self-determination to heartless individualism, the film performs its liberal duties of repudiation of ‘extremism’ and revolution in the guise of mature dissent. Bud “saves” Blue Star in the most conservative, non-transformative fashion: he saves it as a capitalist enterprise, saves the workers’ ‘jobs’, by transferring his loyalty from Gekko the pirate who does not hesitate to destroy capitalist enterprises to realise his private/personal utopia, to the white knight, in this case literally a knighted Englishman, whose practise of corporate raiding is more ‘honourable’, cautious, stability-preserving and paternalist. (He transfers his allegiance from the capitalist to capitalism.) The alternatives between which the protagonist must choose are familiar contradictions: Gekko’s form of destruction of capitalist enterprises (competition) and Wildman’s preservation of them (class war). The narrative offers preservation of capitalist enterprises as clearly preferable to their obliteration but only by, ever so faintly awkwardly, latching the obliteration of production itself to the obliteration of capitalist ownership and exploitation. Another type of transformation is hinted at, though overwhelmed by the only two alternatives (‘restructuring’ with cheaper labour or asset stripping). The alternative to Gekko’s creative destruction, which fuses a vision of finance capital with an allegorical suggestion of the revolutionary abolition of capitalism with the effect of discrediting the latter while seeming to chide the former, is a kind of fantasy feudalism-in-capitalism and a recommendation of petty bourgeois reformism which holds out the promise that the working class can manoeuvre for its own survival between capitalist competitors; the spirit and structural imperatives of competition it turns out are not only the danger – when ‘taken to extremes’ –in capitalism but the solution, the stabilising force which makes capitalism finally the best of all possible arrangements and allows Bud to conclude ‘there is justice in the world’. But this declaration is ironic – that justice Bud realises through the mechanism of competition is revealed as the rigged justice of a system which blocks his upward mobility. - “Did somebody die?” - “Yeah”. The petty bourgeois myth of the ladder died. The working class whose standard of living and political power rises generationally died. The pirate energy whose potential is revolutionary if ever it would be fused with the working class died. The possibility of Utopia died. The audience is set up to be relieved that it is the phantasy of piratical upward mobility that has died, because led to fear it is Carl Fox who has died. But Carl Fox survives, is vindicated, the working class soldiering on, with dignity, the bearer of timeless values. The moral approval of the ‘culture’ and character of wage workers is offered by the dissident capitalist as consolation and compensation for the permanent inescapability of the condition of unfreedom and drudgery, the registration of the abolition of all utopian possibilities, the chastisement of the persistent ambition as inescapably criminal, depraved and doomed to fail. Like Nietzsche, but with different commitments, Wall Street forces a false identification of the desire for revolution/liberation with fascistic ruthless individualist supremacism and confuses and then replaces the championing of that communist impulse, humanity’s unquenchable desire for liberation, leisure, pleasure and plenty, (rooting for Bud), with hypocritical self congratulatory bourgeois admiration for the moral superiority of those whose desire it daily thwarts and obstructs (for their own good, to spare them the temptations and corruption the bourgeois himself must endure as best he can).

Glengarry Glen Ross, (1989) based on Mamet's 1984 stage play, is set in an environment of real estate sales. The film's negative cost $12.5 million. Domestic box office was about $10 million.



Mamet’s vision is routinely deemed more sophisticated than the pop culture product of Stone and the like simply because it is cruder, misanthropic, unpleasant to consume. Sermons mustn’t be uplifting, consoling and gratifying when the congregation is so depraved.

Other People's Money (1991) was also adapted from a stage play. By 1991 the theme is technological obsolescence and postmodernisation. (The company is saved by ‘populist’ technological/social advances – the metal wire being replaced by fibre optics is newly needed for automobile airbags.)




Trading Places (1983), a phantasy of the efficient market, when the free market by its invisible hand would reveal true worth so long as access to competition in the free market was not blocked by obsolete extra-market structures of hierarchy; the market envisioned as the lever of meritocratic upward mobility and guarantor of equality and ultimate justice:



2 comments:

  1. good to see you're still writing.

    nothing really substantial to say about it at the moment, but great post!

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  2. thanks traxus,

    jameson came up in a thread at leninino's (dominic fox trying to rope him into this garbagy question begging explanation stuff, just what you were saying, the capitulations) and a remark in Benedict Anderson's book about Rizal, not really related but kind, made me wonder if there is not a kind of homeopathic thing in all these various monte cristos, which are more or less Progressively coopted – starts off democratic, or socialist, ends reactionary/fascist – via detours (such as buddy movies), just formally, by this increased fetishisation, abstraction/sublimation followed by distillation and reconcretisation. From personification and characterisation to stereotype to image to action figure. Anyway, its homeopathic – there’s a critique of a system and a figure who embodies its worst qualities and its negation/nemesis, who cures it somehow, either by absorbing its evils and being expelled, like Gekko, or by absorbing it all as a kind of dollhouse “psyche” and becoming its Volk Fuhrer figure, debased and redeemed, purified by fire whatever, like the Dark Knight. But in both cases there is monte crist-ism, and in all these cases the indictment that is being sold is itself cured (not just the society indicted, but the indicting depiction) through the deployment of the figure absorbing its traits and meanings in these different combinations, the distilled substance of the "society" as seen by the assumed complaint (i won't say 'critique' because it could be critique but could also be just dissatisfaction which could be reacting to a set of images of problems that are distorting to differing degrees).

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