Tuesday, April 20, 2010

High Finance

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2004)

I recently bought a copy of Sim City 4 and since then one of my main tests of self-discipline has been to avoid ever playing the game for more than half an hour a day (a tough assignment). It occurred to me one day that from the outset, I went at things like a Republican, slashing industrial taxes to virtually nothing, and residential taxes as much as I could get away with, and holding back on any kind of social amenities (hospitals, schools etc.) or other spending until the people started screaming (I did put in a church, but that didn’t cost me anything). This seems so far to be a winning strategy, but once it struck me, I was rather shocked at how easily I’d adopted right-wing orthodoxy. I mean, I’m officially a left-winger – I have an NDP membership. So why didn’t I even try to play the game in a more principled way?

Economic Assumptions

I could argue that I was intuitively banking on what I thought the game’s programmers would think – what are the chances that a cunning piece of modern technology would reject free market orthodoxy? That’d be disingenuous though. On reflection, I’m choosing to believe that my prescription for an emerging society might be different than my prescription for a mature one. If I can ever get one of my cities to grow above 20,000 people (the ceiling I’ve hit to date), I’ll try that out.

If movies are a mirror of society, as is often claimed, then their failure to reflect anything resembling economic debate tells you a lot. There are plenty of movies about rich financiers, often engaged in something unsavory, but merely to melodramatic effect. Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, with its famous “Greed is good” speech, probes a bit more deeply, but was clearly built around exaggerated archetypes –Wall Streeters reportedly loved it. More recently Boiler Room revealed the tawdriness beneath the capitalist dream, but that was a pretty flat movie.

Hollywood’s most consistent statement about money might be the often-remarked-on phenomenon of characters living much more expensive lifestyles than their circumstances ought to allow. Although this no doubt reflects the filmmakers’ insularity and a fetishizing of consumerism, it’s also emblematic of a blind belief in the capitalist American dream – in America a grade school teacher can truly live in a penthouse apartment and wear Armani (I guess the message to the budget-challenged grade school teachers in the audience would be: any day now...)


One of the very best films about money, and one of the most underappreciated masterpieces in American cinema, is Alan J Pakula’s Rollover, released in 1981 (the tagline – “The most erotic thing in their world was money.”) Pakula’s properly esteemed for his “Paranoia Trilogy” of Klute, The Parallax View and All The President’s Men, but Rollover was a colossal flop, and was quickly forgotten. Leonard Maltin’s movie guide calls it “barely comprehensible.” Of a handful of comments on the Internet Movie Database, this one is fairly typical; “The short side of the story is that this has to be one of the worst movies I have ever seen. Rhythm-wise, the movie is dead. It makes you feel like you are attending a lecture on economy at the university. And to think that I watched the movie because it was described as a ‘thriller!’”

Rollover, a deeply pessimistic film despite a final note of hope, posits that the interdependency of the financial system is unsustainable, and that even the slightest ripple of eroded confidence might bring it down. Jane Fonda plays the widow of a murdered oil exec, aspiring to take over his place as Chair of the board. Kris Kristofferson, at the helm of a bank that’s almost on the rocks, teams up with Fonda to finance a deal that’ll get her what she wants, and kick off a lucrative fee for his own shop. The deal leads them to the Saudis, awash in oil money, and for a while everything looks good, until they stumble on a secret bank account.

The film is gorgeously shot; a world of rich, glistening surfaces, where money and technology merge into a lavish but preoccupied playground. Pakula’s camera glides across endless party scenes, across facades of nighttime buildings and iconic faces. One of the film’s most criticized aspects – the casting of Kristofferson, then even more than now associated with his cowboy persona – is actually its most daring: Pakula revels in the Western archetype, to the point of framing as a quasi-shootout a key confrontation between Kristofferson and the Greenspan-like Hume Cronyn. Fonda, as a counterpoint, plays an ex-film star, and she’s exquisitely made up and shot throughout; in a couple of scenes, in tight close up with blood-red lipstick and gathered-up hair, she’s as vivid and sublimely dangerous as a Hitchcock heroine.

Expert Opinions

By using these two American archetypes – cowboy and film star – so knowingly, Pakula acknowledges Rollover as a fantasy, but one deeply rooted in the country’s own myth. A couple of comments on the imdb pegged the movie as racist in its demonizing of Saudi Arabia, but that makes the mistake of taking the film as realism. Trapped in their high-overhead sumptuousness, operating in a set of assumptions and customs so complex that even the best and the brightest have lost the thread (and still in the shadow of the 70’s oil crises), the characters have no hope of engaging with the Saudis as anything other than a mysterious, all-powerful Other.

There appears to be no chance that Rollover will ever be rehabilitated. Pakula died in a car accident a few years ago, after a series of formulaic films that dimmed the standing of his earlier great work. Still, the film’s mediocre reputation is a better tribute than a bland status as a minor classic would be. The debates about tax vs. spending vs. debt/deficit reduction have a very different complexion in the US than they do in Canada, but in each case our opinions are primarily impressionistic, because how they could be otherwise? Study the range of expert opinions on any economic matter, and the august roster of predictions that turned out to be catastrophically wrong, and you realize how we’re flying blind on this. Rollover bravely dared to grapple with that incoherence and to throw its looming consequences in our faces, and the world’s not ready for it yet.

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