Blood Money

Motifs in Cinema is a discourse across some film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2012 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of death or the dynamics of revenge? Like most things, a film begins with an idea – Motifs in Cinema assesses how various themes emanating from a single idea change when utilised by varying artists.

My subject is “Economics and Money,” which has me thinking about how Mitt Romney—that scion of wealth, that symbol of the 1%—worked his way into the movies of 2012. You could see him, for example, in The Dark Knight Rises and its garbled vision of class warfare; in the resilience of its “job creator” hero Bruce Wayne. You could feel the GOP’s “We built that!” ethos writ large in Wayne Enterprises and in the way Wayne’s money entitles him to our trust, because he and only he can build “all those wonderful toys.” (I also spent election season thinking of Romney in terms of another iconic Christian Bale plutocrat: American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, who exhibits precisely the same supreme confidence and nonexistent empathy as Romney’s public persona.)

Ah, but The Dark Knight Rises was a wish fulfillment fantasy where the rich got richer and retired to Italy. Whereas Romney lost. So maybe a more accurate avatar for him would be David Siegel, the real estate mogul whose downgrade from “mega-rich” to merely “rich” provides the narrative for Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles. It’s hard not to laugh at Siegel, who’s really the victim of his own mammoth hubris, but it’s hard not to pity him either; post-2008, liquid exhaustion seems to have replaced blood in his veins. So while Christopher Nolan depicts the rich as our saviors, Greenfield turns them into a queasy cosmic joke. The film does humanize the Siegels, but I still occasionally felt like cackling at the screen: “That’s what you get, motherfuckers!”

Yes, Mitt Romney oozed his way into superhero movies and documentaries. But you may be wondering, “What about middlebrow dramas?” He was there too! In Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage, that is—2012’s “Wall Street thriller” follow-up to Margin Call. Robert Miller, the stock market savant played by Richard Gere, is not unlike Bruce Wayne or David Siegel: like them, he depends on an elaborate façade. As with them, it’s all that keeps him from personal and financial ruin. Although Gere squeezes some pathos out of the film’s half-dozen dilemmas, it’s obvious that Miller’s morally compromised down to his bones, willing to endanger family, friends, anyone to save his own ass. Yet he’s still allowed to impress the audience with his quick maneuvering, which is symptomatic of the thoroughly disposable Arbitrage’s have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too inclinations.

Light-years from the pedestrian likes of Arbitrage lies my favorite 2012 manifestation of Recession-era anxiety: it’s David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, with heartthrob Robert Pattinson starring as Romney-ish lizard-god Eric Packer. Cronenberg takes a tack opposite that of most filmmakers, choosing to anti-humanize Eric, to embalm him in theory and harsh lighting until he becomes this throbbing, phosphorescent thing. It’s alienating to watch, since you can’t give Eric your pity or sympathy or love. But for a year so full of unfeeling, digitized violence (whether physical or economic) and with more of both on the way… I suspect Cronenberg got it just about right.


Filed under Cinema, Politics

4 responses to “Blood Money

  1. Good pick. I just noticed this meme (and interesting to see a meme taking off again, I thought the phenomenon – the meme of memes, so to speak – had died off) but won’t be participating as I’ve hardly seen any 2012 films (I was less engaged with contemporary cinema than any other year since I was, I dunno, 3 or 4 maybe, despite moving to Hollywood, or at least its outskirts, in ’12).

    “Garbled” is about the right way to characterize Dark Knight Rises’ politics, although I think its conservatism is of a somewhat different vein than contemporary neoconservatism, more of an aristocratic, slightly European paternalism than the hypercapitalist Ayn Randian Tea Party ethos. Although Romeny, for all his chameleonlike shapeshifting, was never really a Tea Partier at bottom (I was going to say “at heart”, but really who are we kidding) so maybe you are correct.

    Wrote out my thoughts on DKR’s “muddled message” last summer here:

    Haven’t seen your others yet. As of now, my 2012 new release watchlist pathetically stands at: Savages, Dark Knight Rises, Moonrise Kingdom, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Lincoln, 2016: Obama’s America, Silver Linings Playbook. Yes, d’Souza rubbing shoulders with Spielberg and Stone. Sparse viewing makes strange bedfellows.

    Expecting to catch up with Zero Dark Thirty, Les Miserables, and Argo in the coming week, although I’ve been expecting to catch up with them for a few weeks now, so we’ll see…

  2. What The Dark Knight Rises suggests about money and economics is somewhat troubling not to the point of having the rich as the saviors but having the poor be likened to mindless mobs and implicitly villainised. But, it does make you wonder how the presence or the absence of money leaves you cut off from your “peers”. Cosmopolis and The Dark Knight Rises are starkly different, and yet both depend on ensuring that the monied protagonist is removed from the society around (*beneath) him.

  3. Joel: I think you’re right there about TDKR‘s politics. They’re garbled but in a specific, complex way. I also (almost) wish I’d seen The D’Souza, since that might’ve given me yet more fodder for this piece!

    Andrew: I too wonder about TDKR‘s representation of the poor. It’s especially disconcerting that Nolan at one point intended to incorporate some footage of Occupy protests into the movie, solidifying the link between Bane’s army and real-life movements for greater economic equality. It’s such semiotic carelessness, which frustrates me perhaps more than if the movie had been more direct in its (objectionable) politics.

    • At least then Nolan wouldn’t have been able to dodge the allegations of anti-populism; in this film as it exists, the Bane phenomenon is self-negating satire, ‘demagoguery without the crowds’ as one fellow blogger described it.

      As for the d’Souza it exists in its own wildly obsessed alternate universe (one more concerned with cultural than economic identity, and thus kind of out-of-tune with the zeitgeist). Also has some, well, unusual aesthetics, including the goofiest recreations I’ve ever seen (in which the character’s mouths move in sync with d’Souza’s narration). Worth seeing for the camp if nothing else, especially now that its electoral mission is nullified.

      But 2016 also – much like Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism – offers a fascinating look at the sophisticated intellectual rationalization of some seriously untenable positions. This sophistry is as impressive as it is frustrating, and amusingly unnecessary since the built-in wingnut audience never needed such artfully-constructed nonsense to buy what Dinesh or Jonah are selling in the first place.

      It’s most like the authors built those edifices to convince themselves rather than their readers/viewers, which would be pitiable if it wasn’t so profitable.

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