Sunday, January 3, 2016

Truth is Like Poetry

... and people fucking hate poetry.

It's a line from the excellent film The Big Short, which is brought to us by Adam McKay, the director known for goofball comedies like Anchorman and Step-Brothers. But it's nothing like that. At all.

It's listed on IMDB as "Biography, Drama," but it has its funny moments. It's really a rare form of docudrama. It could be used for a flipped class in economics. Star-studded, the actors break the fourth wall from time to time to explain what really happened. And, even better, to help us grasp the essentials of complex subjects like derivative trading and synthetic funds, they use celebrities to act out analogies in mini-seminars throughout the story.

You can get essentially the same story from Inside Job, but nobody wants to see a bunch of talking heads explaining how the market collapsed. Instead of watching real people talk about real events that they experienced first hand, we want to see actors bring some colour and staging to it all. Curious, but there it is. And it really works!  People will see this and understand. Well... they'll understand more than they did two hours earlier.

It's similar to what happened with Trumbo, a 2007 documentary, and Trumbo, a 2015 drama. People will watch the latter because of the stars in it. Except the former documentary is significantly better entertainment.

Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett (Greg Lippmann)
Steve Carell as Mark Baum (Steve Eisman)

Christian Bale as Michael Burry

In The Big Short, the actors are perfectly cast, but what's particularly impressive is that they carried out the mission to create an engrossing vehicle for a very upsetting message that so many knew about and chose to ignore or actively bury with pleas like:  "Could you please stop being such a buzzkill, dude?"

Now if McKay could do it again for climate change.

ETA this link "debunking" the film (h/t Larry). The article clears up some aspects of the film, but I put debunking in quotes because the article takes the film to task for making these men out to be heroes saving the day. I didn't think they were portrayed that way at all. I thought it was pretty clear they were also con men taking advantage of, what they hoped was, the stupidity of certain players in the system. At one point, Vennett clarifies that he's no hero. And although Baum waited to trade his shorts until the very end, and even though he seemed to feel badly about it, he still did it knowing, very clearly at this point, that he was also part of the problem. They were heroes the way Newman and Redford were heroes in The Sting. They were conning the cons, but they were still clearly immoral themselves. It's just fun to watch them in action.

ETA another criticism. I'd say the errors listed in this one are errors of omission rather than inaccuracies. When I saw it, I noticed they don't get into the shift in governmental policies starting in the early 70s. It might be too much to ask in a film that passes the 2 hour mark, but it would have been amazing from a teaching p.o.v.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

On Justice and Hatred

I had an online discussion at Dawg's Blawg about the primary theme of Tarantino's newest film, The Hateful Eight, and it got a bit too provocative to manage a sincere response in the window of a comment, so I brought it here. Unfortunately I can't discuss the ideas without spoiling the film, so do see it first before continuing to read. This is a movie you won't want spoiled.

The film traps ten characters in a cabin in the middle of a blizzard: two bounty hunters, a prisoner, a Sheriff, a General, four disguised gang members out to free the prisoner (one in hiding), and the coach driver. The coach driver, O.B., clearly doesn't count in the hateful eight, but it's debatable which miscreant is excluded from the tally. The movie poster above suggests the hidden outlaw doesn't rate regardless his acts of violence, but John Ruth is the only one that doesn't actually shoot anyone.

First of all, a few things stood out to me as I watched. The film celebrates ruggedness and tenacity. Daisy, the prisoner, garners our respect for being able to take a punch with a wicked little smile. She is one tough cookie. The bounty hunters argue over the merits of John Ruth's insistence on taking prisoners in alive for the hangman as opposed to Major Warren's refusal to work harder than necessary for the same pay. I'm not convinced Ruth is more moral, but that he better enjoys the game of bringing his work to its final conclusion, perhaps of toying with his prey. But this lengthy discussion serves to open the question of the right way to complete a despicable act such as watching a woman die, which, I'd argue, primes the audience to consider the type of morality necessary within a sphere of the kind of harsh reality expected of this setting. This is key.

O.B. is the only soft character in the bunch. He can barely tolerate the cold much less any violence. He's the designated "bitch" of the group, sent on errands he barely manages. One outlaw kindly offers him food, but a little later another poisons him. His softness warrants him no favours.

The film also celebrates cunning. The Sheriff is on to Warren and outs his Lincoln-letter ruse to the cabin, but later he commends the little touches included in the piece of writing. There are all sorts of cleverness and sneaky goings-on here.

Also notable to me was the spotlight cast on the many documents of import: the Lincoln-letter, the bounty hunters' respective warrants, and the faux hangman's order of execution. These acted as proof of the acceptable boundaries of their brutal behaviours and the respect duly afforded to them.

There were curious little loyalties among the group, spoken or unspoken contracts. The outlaws were tight and purposeful. The General was keeping their secret on a promise of being released at the end. The two bounty hunters made a deal to watch over either other's bounty. And Ruth and Daisy, although the most brutal relationship, show a camaraderie from time to time, like when he genially offered her a shot of whiskey and drinks with her.

One of the gang members, Oswaldo, playing the part of a licensed hangman, gave a speech about the necessity of cool heads in the pursuit of justice. He argues that the hangman's impartiality is what makes a hanging moral: "The good part about frontier justice is it’s very thirst-quenching. The bad part is, it’s apt to be wrong as right." It's the dispassionate act of killing that makes it more likely to be a moral act. But the courthouse is just another venue where a good story can win the case, and many characters here might be spinning a convincing tale. The fun in the film is figuring what's actually true, and not everything is clarified by the end.

And at the end, against Warren's first impulse to put a quick bullet into her, the Sheriff insist on stringing up Daisy under the guise of right action because it follows the letter of the law, yet clearly there was some joy garnered in watching her dance. That was a mere show of morality hiding an ulterior motive.

So, here's how I understand it all: We can't know what really is right or wrong in many cases. We can't deliver justice accurately, with any certainty, even in a court of law. Justice is a slippery notion and relative to each perspective. It's not to say it can't be found, but that it can't be done easily or with certainty, and I'm not convinced the justice metered out by a society is necessarily more fair than that determined by individuals within the claustrophobic confines of a cabin.

With respect to the debate at Dawg's Blawg, Dawg argues that the theme of the film is hatred, but I see the slipperiness of justice dominating scenes far more prevalently. By way of comparison, The Revenant was a movie about hatred. One character is driven by hate from the pivotal act of injustice to the very end. I think it can be argued that the deaths in The Hateful Eight are from a sense of survival of the self or a kinship affiliation; sometimes the murders were awash in hatred, but that hatred wasn't the primary motive of most of the acts. The film is a symposium of sorts with each key player bringing his or her own philosophy of justice to the fore leaving the audience to sort out the coherence of each claim, and a variety claims to justice do exist. Keep in mind Plato argued in favour of slavery: "Justice consists in the superior ruling over and having more than the inferior" (Gorgias section 483). It's an argument we abhor now, but there it is, on the table with the rest of the ideas.

From the outlaw perspective, saving one of their own is an act of bravery. They murdered many innocents before the beginning of the story, then continued as necessary toward their final end of freeing Daisy. Dawg suggests "Their casual killing highlights the underlying theme of hatred," and, in the comments refers to hatred as "the binary opposite of love." None of these murders was an act of hatred, but of indifference, which I'd argue is the antithesis of love. The moral fortitude of the outlaws was such that two of the gang members, Gage and Jody, gave themselves up to Warren as soon as Daisy's life was threatened.

When O.B. and Ruth are mysteriously poisoned, Warren doesn't open fire on the unarmed suspects or threaten them with torturous acts, but lines them up for questioning. He has a different set of rules than us civilized folk, but he's still operating within a system. One notion of justice is that we respect other's free actions without interference unless they violate other's rights. In that respect, he acted justly.

Warren kills the General, but it's not an impassioned acting out, but a patient game of preventing the General's hot revenge against him for a provocative tale. He manipulated the situation so he wasn't directly punishing the General for the inequities of years past but for taking aim to shoot at him. Now this was an act awash in hatred. Hatred demands pain and suffering - the kind Warren imposed on the General by implanting a horrific final memory, and the kind Warren and the Sheriff put Daisy through when an expedient death was a far easier and more merciful option. But the rest of the killings were basically collateral damage in the quest for life.

If they all acted from hatred, we might expect more torturous scenes. However, for the sake of argument, if we accept hatred as the opposite of love, then consider how a cast acting from loving kindness might behave in each situation. Warren might forgive the General his transgressions and the many derogatory comments he was asked to endure. The gang members might trap the household in the stable with adequate provisions and enable them to be found long after they escape with Daisy. And if they were caught, Warren and Ruth might have brought the outlaws to be held in a prison where they could be rehabilitated without risking harm to anyone. It might look something like O Brother Where Art Thou, a lovely film, but then we wouldn't get to see their heads blow off!

The discussion that precipitated this post ended with Dawg's very provocative point:
"Justice, to me, is based upon a social contract, and this was the most anti-social bunch of miscreants imaginable! I am wondering if we unconsciously expect hatred to be enacted in anger, given how bound up in destructive violence it is. Yet Eichmann did not strike me as an angry man. He was, however, enacting hatred at Auschwitz."
I'm not sure the analogy rings true unless we look at it from the point of view that Eichmann was working to rid his society of a perceived "Jewish Problem," and the bounty hunters were working to rid their society of the outlaw problem. Clearly these differ in that outlaws, by definition, have done some damage to society than requires punishing consequences. But they're similar in so far as the murderers are, within the perception of each time and place, acting for the greater good of their society (of their people). The law, acting from the power given it by the people, put those names on paper, not the bounty hunters. They merely acted as agents of the law - so long as they had those warrants in their pockets.

This brings it all back to the slipperiness of justice. Is the social contract the objectively true determinant of Justice, or is it just the best we've got so far? And the more I think of it, the more it occurs to me the film really is a mirror of Plato's Symposium with arguments of justice in place of love and certain death replacing party crashers ending the final scene! Cool.

ETA - Check out this review too!