“Illusion, Michael. A trick is something a whore does for money. Or candy.”
– Gob Bluth, aspiring magician, Arrested Development
On Page 17 of Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, the author quotes Steve Eisman – who would be renamed Mark Baum and played by Steve Carell in the movie of the same name, which will be sorta reviewed by me below – when the fund manager found about bullshit mortgage loans issued by a company called Household.
Household had been marketing and selling their loans as 30-year ones with interest rates of seven per cent. Although, they were actually 15-year loans with real rates of 12 per cent.
“It was blatant fraud,” Eisman says in the book. And then, “They were tricking their consumers.”
From the sinister fraud to a gamey trick, in just one sentence. Words are so important, and humans’ worst deeds or intentions are often disguised and camouflaged with carefully, conveniently placed adjectives. Mobsters never ask for someone to be killed – instead they say, “Take care of that guy,” which means the exact opposite of what it reads. Or, as was immortalized in that courtroom scene from The Godfather: Part II, “When the boss says to push a button on a guy, I push a button. Know what I mean?”
Likewise, The Big Short spends an awful lot of time educating you on just how confusing and belittling Wall Street’s rules, terms, and conditions are meant to be – the enemies of the film end up being CDOs, or Collateralized Debt Obligations. They’re basically bets on nothing, the film says, and ghost money is passed off as real richness, multiplied by more and more side bets made on the initial, rocky wager. But to hear someone talk about CDOs or Subprime Mortgages, you’re either going to fall asleep or you’re going to yawn and leave the room. That’s the point, of course. As long as you don’t realize how sinister the practices is and, even better, as long as you don’t ask questions, then the men in the top floors of the tallest buildings in Manhattan can continue selling products without a purpose.
It was all an allusion, really. That’s what you’re left with, after spending a couple hours with one of the best movies of the past couple years. And the film’s main characters, who are its conscience even as they themselves pry revenue for individual profit, aren’t innocent of clouding others’ crimes with the same rhetoric, either – fraud isn’t a trick, after all.
A trick is something innocent, or at least something done with a wink. A trick often gets credit – if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying, as sports nuts like to say when their team gets away with a travel or a trip or pass interference. (As if NBA refs would ever call a travel anyway…)
Brad Pitt was the hero of Ocean’s Eleven for running tricks and cons, robbing three Las Vegas casinos of hundreds of millions of dollars. Ironically, 15 years later, he’s one of the heroes of The Big Short – this time by exposing fraud on Wall Street, which is its own kind of casino, and by exploiting it. In Ocean’s Eleven, the victim was a pretty detestable billionaire humanoid played by Andy Garcia. In Big Short, the victims are “poor people and immigrants,” as Carell’s and Ryan Gosling’s characters put it.
Basically, Ocean’s was all about a trick – and we loved to watch the trick. The Big Short is all about fraud, which is something much more worse although not really less illegal.
But again, it’s all an allusion. Most of The Big Short races through with surprisingly incredible electricity – given that it was adapted from a Michael Lewis book about bonds and derivatives and yields and securities and OH MY GOD SO BORING – and humour. The acting is incredible, each of the outsiders bringing their own distinct personalities and shoulder chips to the table.
The parts for me, though, were the brief few-second montages every 30 minutes or so – every time the movie wanted to let you know what year it was now set in, that a substantial amount of time had passed. It did this by editing together snapshots and familiar clips from pop culture of the era between 2005 and 2009.
At one point, just as the financial world is about to explode, you see a scene from The Hills, with Lauren Conrad dumping one of the several men she pretended to love on that show. We hear Brian Williams’ voice at the start of the film. While the intro quickly moves from the 1980s to the mid-2000s, we’re treated to a kaleidoscope of images of the years in between, like Bill Clinton hugging Monica Lewinski.
It’s all meant to give you an idea of when the movie’s actions are taking place. But it also takes you back to that time, if you can remember it – and you see the flickers of things you once knew very well and have since forgotten, and your only reaction is to say, “Oh yeah. Remember that?”
I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in 2009. So the global recession hit hardest just as I was going into my fourth year at Western University – Lehman Brothers shut down in September, 2008, for example. Even though I can remember very well a time when the American economy was an impossible-to-gore bull, even though I remember like it was yesterday so many things I thought were cool in 2003 or 2005 or 2008, taking their coolness for granted, it’s hard to now remember when it felt like to live in a healthy or rich world.
Coming out of university, the initial and immature thoughts were that we were screwed – how did kids our age have such shitty luck to graduate into the most depressed economy since the 1930s? But that’s not really even the truth. The truth was more that we were walking out into Pompeii after the lava. It wasn’t that there wasn’t any money for us – it’s that there weren’t any careers for us.
In a way, we dodged a bullet. We were too late and we arrived after the destruction. But whatever we were being groomed for, whatever accepted economic rules or guarantees we grew up with, they were mostly gone.
I wanted to be a journalist. By the time I was ready to be one, a century-old model for news and publishing had gone poof. It was always an allusion, perhaps. It was never really real.
Like those flashbacks in The Big Short, everything that had once meant so much one day or one week or one year has disappeared into the past. Celebrities from 10 years ago are nobodies today. Industries from 10 years ago are punchlines today.
The film’s most lasting moment shows a hot couple kissing on a dance floor, presumably at a high-flying nightclub in Las Vegas, as everyone else dances and throbs around them like midnight will never come. And then a Haruki Murakami quote pops up – “Everyone, deep in their hearts, is waiting for the end of the world to come.”
That’s probably cynical. But so what?
White Cover magazine