As the winter continues and it is getting really quite cold now we are still uninclined to go motoring out of Bath visiting places or touring around. Consequently we are making the best use we can of the cultural resources available. Last week we saw movies at both The Little Theatre art house cinema, for the “bobos”, and the Odeon multiplex, for “the masses”. The former is somewhat grungy but has what they like to call the “Silver Screen” shows at 10.30am on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings for Seniors at which one is met with a sea of silver-grey heads all clutching their free coffees and biscuits while at the latter, during the daytime shows in the week, one is generally sharing an empty auditorium with about three or four other people, either seniors, shift workers or the unemployed. But to be fair, the Odeon seems to be well run and is clean and comfortable and the young staff always very pleasant and helpful and they tend to have short, neat haircuts instead of pony tails.
Now guess which film we saw at which venue: “The Big Short” and “A Bigger Splash“. If you said the former at the Odeon and the latter at the Little Theatre then you have understood the Bath cultural scene quite well although to be fair we could have seen “The Big Short” at the Little Theatre as well but not the “Splash” at the Odeon; just a little too arty.
“The Big Short” like “Spotlight” that I posted on recently is based on actual events and has to portray real people and real events in a way that is convincing and understandable but also in a way that creates sufficient drama to maintain our interest. The tension here, even though we know that the crash must come, is in watching the nerves of these various mavericks and misfits of the financial world fray as they wait to win their bets against the giant banks and financial institutions that were effectively defrauding their investors.
There is a strain in American culture that likes to cheer on the outsider who is confident in their anti-establishment behaviour and Michael Burry, the shorts and t-shirt wearing founder of Scion Capital is perfect for this with his combination of intellect and Asperger’s and heavy metal music tastes. Similarly, the Mark Baum character who is portrayed as a scourge of dishonesty who cannot hide his contempt for the bankers and can scarcely be persuaded to sell his short position when everything is crashing down as he realises that it puts him morally on much the same level as the banking fraudsters, that is ripping off ordinary people. And there is the financial equivalent of the “survival prepper”, played by Brad Pitt, “retired banker Ben Rickert [who] is actually based on Ben Hockett, a banker who joined forces with his neighbours Jamie Mai and Charlie Ledley in establishing Cornwall Capital Management, an investment fund that struck gold with their bets against the housing market“.
The movie cannot do justice to the full complexities of what happened in the crash and starts off with a brief vignette depicting the early development of the CDO, that is the securitization of mortgages in a form that enabled good risk to be bundled with bad risk and that could be moved off the banks own balance sheets. The Ratings Agencies then colluded to rate them all as AAA regardless of their true worth and all of this is portrayed as if it were a kind of sui generis artefact of banker greed. It is, however, a piece of entertainment and is not obliged to educate the public even though Americans like their popular cultural products – especially TV and Film – to adopt a didactic role in the public imagination and can be absolved on that count except that it is somewhat dangerous to allow people to think that there were no deeper reasons why the banks were behaving the way they were other than some existential greed. This was the result of twenty years of de-regulation of the American financial system which, among many other changes, repealed the Glass-Stegall Act – thanks Bill Clinton, by the way – and removed the restrictions on banks trading across State borders.
Nevertheless we are left to contemplate the moral ambiguity of a system that enabled a small number of individuals to make huge sums of money betting against institutions that had already made huge sums of money thanks to a de-regulated system and which then accepted a rescue paid for by the very people whose lives they had so successfully ruined. Nice one. This isn’t the place to engage in a crazed and futile left-wing rant but the question still lingers in the air to this day eight years later as the global economy still teeters under the load of unpayable debt, something that China is now grappling to come to terms with.
Meanwhile on a sun-drenched Italian island a group of imagined, aging denizens of the worlds of music and film are engaging in an entirely fictional set of complex relationships in “A Bigger Splash”. Not Hockney’s series of paintings of the same name, but set around a pool that is strongly reminiscent of those shimmering and hedonistic scenes, this movie achieves something quite remarkable in persuading us to believe that Tilda Swinton really is a female, Bowie-like rock star recovering from a career-threatening throat operation and that Ralph Fiennes really is a record producer who, whilst now nearing the end of his career, nevertheless produced tracks for the Rolling Stones and of course for Marianne, the Swinton character.
Currently showing on cable channels in the US and the UK is “Vinyl” which purports to depict the crazy days of the early ’70’s rock music business in which real bands such as Led Zeppelin appear. Despite having the input of Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger himself the fist episode of this was so cringe-worthy in its attempts to portray actual musicians or to present imagined bands and musicians based on those of that time. In contrast, I commend to you the incredible tour-de-force of a scene in which Fiennes enthusiastically and completely unselfconsciously dances away to a selection of Stones tracks while recounting the story to the other inhabitants of the villa and their guests of how he persuaded Keith Richards to allow him to introduce a “percussion” track onto a recording because “Keef” had insisted that he didn’t want any drums on it – and we totally believe it and are completely and genuinely entertained as if we were right there with them listening to this character sweep us along by sheer strength of personality. Needless to say things end in tears but you will have to go and see this movie to find out how adults can behave when their egos are freed from the constraints of normal everyday life.