Sunday, September 20, 2020

Picnic

 

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

 

Picnic (1955) explores the various stages of youth and maturity mostly during one day in a Kansas town. The film comments on how being attractive is an overrated commodity. It addresses change versus the status quo and socioeconomic class differences.


 The first sounds and images are that of a train stopping in a Kansas town. The engineer paused there so that Hal Carter (William Holden, in a very physical role compared to his laid-back coolness in other performances) can get off. That Hal has convinced the man to give him a free ride and let him off where he wants points to Hal’s persuasive, charismatic personality. Hitchcock used a train as a symbol of male sexuality in North by Northwest, and, as we see here, Hal has a great deal of sex appeal. Also, he is a drifter, an outsider, an agent for change or disruption who upends the staid plans of a community. He is sort of a human monkey wrench in the romantic chemistry machinery. He tells the engineer he is there because he knows a young man whose father is rich and owns the grain elevator business in those parts. But the engineer is skeptical of this grimy poor fellow’s aspirations and is sarcastic by saying the governor is a friend of his and that’s how he got his railroad job.

 

Hal washes himself off in a nearby stream, a way of making himself presentable. He takes out of a bag a pair of shiny boots, and he later puts on a suede jacket. They are sort of a costume to make him look more appealing. As he enters the town, he encounters the older Helen Potts (Verna Felton) and her neighbor, the very young Millie Owens (Susan Strasberg), whose gazing at Hal shows the alluring effect he immediately has on women. He asks Helen if he could do some chores for her, but she says it’s Labor Day, and nobody is working. Labor Day can be seen as a metaphor for the passing of time. It announces the unofficial end of summer, a time of youthful fun and vacations, and is the prelude to the next natural cycles consisting of autumn decline and the subsequent cold death of winter. Helen asks if Hal is hungry and he flashes her a smile and smoothly says that he guesses his “stomach didn’t know it was Labor Day.” It’s an effective line, showing his hunger doesn’t stop for a holiday, but the humor, along with his offer of work, shows he seeks no pity. She invites him in for breakfast.

 

Millie sits outside her house, smoking a cigarette, which shows her unfeminine ways. given the time. She reads the book The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which was also made into a film, and which suggests the desire of people to connect to others, although there is futility in trying to do so, and that theme appears here. The shot also has Millie dressed in what appear to be work clothes, so she is not trying to stress her looks. She is also reading literature, demonstrating her interest in using her mind. Her sister, Madge (Kim Novak) sticks her head out of the second-floor window, drying her wet hair (a step in displaying her good looks). Drops of water fall onto the page of Millie’s book, possibly implying how Madge dampens her sister’s life. 

 

Their mother, Flo Owens (Betty Field) comes outside and compliments Madge’s hair. That there is a rivalry between the sisters is evident when Millie complains that Madge “primps and fusses” as if she were, “the Queen of Sheba.” There is to be a Labor Day picnic, and Madge says that Millie could get a date if she dressed and acted properly. In defiance, Millie puts a hat on and wears her glasses. Madge is condescending toward her sister when she sings, “Beggars can’t be choosers.” By appearing the opposite of Madge, Millie allows herself to not compete with her attractive sister. It is funny that later she meets Hal, who is a beggar, and who seems to be able to choose the women he desires.

 

Flo’s boarder, Rosemary Sydney (Rosalind Russell) pops her head out of a downstairs window with her hair in rollers and she is smearing moisturizing cream on her face. She is older, but like Madge, she feels required to work on her appearance. She says, “Anybody mind if an old maid schoolteacher joins their company?” It is an obvious bit of exposition. But it goes along with the scene’s stress on how a woman feels obligated to attract a man. Rosemary says she doesn’t like it when a man wants to get “serious,” and notes “I lived this long without a man. What’s to keep me from getting on without one.” She may be “independent,” as Flo notes, but Rosemary still is aware of the judgment of others by calling herself “an old maid” and she continues to pretend that she can act younger than her years. Flo mentions Howard Beavens (Arthur O’Connell), but Rosemary shrugs him off as a romantic possibility by calling him a “friend-boy, not a boyfriend,” suggesting that Howard is just a friend who happens to be male and his gender is a secondary factor in their acquaintanceship.

 

After breakfast, Hal starts to help Helen, and asks about his college pal, Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson). Helen informs him that Alan visits her pretty neighbor, Madge, often. Helen tells Hal he should take off his jacket. When he says he has a dirty shirt, she volunteers to wash it for him. He asks if it's okay to remove his clothing, and she says he’s just a man. Helen doesn’t realize the emotional power she is unleashing. This baring of his muscular chest attracts the attention of the peeping Rosemary. However, when Hal sees her and offers a smile, she is embarrassed, given her unglamorous appearance. Rosemary hides her interest by complaining to Nellie that Hal shouldn't go around half-naked, dismissing his supposed arrogance by saying “who does he think he is?” Nellie wants to know who’s not wearing much clothing. The sexual tension that Hal brings to the town begins to build. 

 

The scruffy teenager Bomber (Nick Adams), with a name that shows he has no subtlety, is riding his bike on a paper route (an activity reserved for boys his age), and wants to know where Nellie’s sister is because, “It’s no fun looking at you, goonface!” It is an adolescent insult. He says she dresses like a man, and the two get into a fight. Nellie seems to be constantly reminded of how she doesn’t measure up to Madge in the looks department. She says that, “The ones we love are always pretty, but the ones who are pretty to begin with, everyone loves them.” Beauty may derive from love, but the innately attractive have an advantage up front. 


 Madge rejects Bomber’s clumsy advances about riding in a hot rod he only co-owns. The older Alan has progressed in the romantic process because he sends flowers to win her acceptance. She expects a man to be a “gentleman,” with the proper decorum that implies. Bomber accuses her of being snobby, and chases her around the yard, pleading for her to give him a shot at being her boyfriend. His childishness is offset by the older, “bigger” Hal who arrives and intimidates Bomber by bouncing a basketball found in the yard off of Bomber’s head. The humiliated boy leaves. Madge averts her eyes, partly embarrassed by Hal’s lack of clothing, but also probably not wanting to stare. Flo comes out and sharply asks what Hal is doing there. When he asks if she is the mother, he gives a smile and a nod that shows he thinks Flo looks good for her age. As Hal leaves, his complimentary gesture has the proper effect as Flo’s coldness seems to melt a little. Helen calls Madge over and says that Hal knows Alan. Madge is proud to know the well-to-do Alan, and tells Hal where he lives, but she is flirtatious with Hal, smiling and brushing her hair. 


 Hal and Alan have a male bonding reunion as the latter is being taught by his father, Mr. Benson (Raymond Bailey) how to play golf on the spacious lawn in front of their mansion-size house. It emphasizes the difference in the socioeconomic positions between the Bensons and others in the story. Hal doesn’t try to hide his modest background. He says he didn’t come right over when he arrived in town because he looked like a bum. He says he worked at the gas station back home and then went into the military. But, Alan doesn’t seem to care about economic deficiencies and is genuinely happy to see Hal. Alan remembers that Hal planned on going to Hollywood, most likely to cash in on his rugged good looks. There is a bit of a comic jab at the movie industry’s overemphasis on appearance when Hal says that he had a screen test but despite his handsome appearance, the studio still wanted him to get new teeth. He says a “babe” landed him the test, and Alan says, “Same old Hal,” which implies that Hal has used his influence with women for quite a while. Hal, trying to show that he can be a decent person. says he was at a ranch in Nevada and worked hard there, not womanizing or drinking, and saved some money to participate in a deal in Texas. But his baser instincts kicked in when two beautiful women in a convertible lured him with backseat martinis and they partied. After getting him drunk, they robbed him. Apparently his attractiveness can’t protect him from bad things happening. Hal is envious of Alan’s wealth, but conversely, it appears that the conservative Alan wishes that some of Hal’s amorous adventures would happen to him. Mr. Benson, before driving off, expects Alan to meet him at the country club, but Allan says he has a date with Madge. His father gives a disapproving look, so we know he does not think Madge comes from a family that is good enough for his son.

 

Flo tells the nineteen-year-old Madge she better get moving to land Alan. Flo doesn’t seem to be speaking to Madge, but to herself, as she stares straight ahead and appears to be summing up her own plight when she says that “a pretty girl doesn’t have long. Just a few years.” If a young woman loses her window of opportunity, “she might as well throw all her prettiness away.” Her assessment of how women have a short shelf life because their beauty fades along with their chances to succeed in life stresses what a narrow path there is for females to get ahead at this time. Flo is making sure Madge has a lovely dress to package her goods for the day’s celebrations. 

 

Millie continues to show her disdain for her sister who gets to dress up and go places. Madge retaliates by saying how Millie is not interested in boys. She does not understand that her sister is just putting on an act because she doesn't feel secure enough to compete with her sister to attract males. Madge emphasizes the superficial interests of men as they like what a woman wears and how she smells. Millie, again holding a book, is stressing how beauty wins out over intelligence when it comes to getting attention from boys. She says sarcastically that her sister is “so dumb, they almost had to burn the schoolhouse to get her out of it.” Madge is stung by her sister’s accusation and they fight with Millie running off in tears. But then in a reversal of how it appears, it is Madge who is envious that Millie has earned a scholarship to go to college. Her mother lists all of the material things Alan can give Madge as she points a large mirror at her, as if the only important thing in her life is how she looks. But Madge admits that she doesn't feel comfortable with high society types, and then shows she is not just a shallow beauty when she says, “What good is it just to be pretty?” Flo is confused by her statement, not understanding why her daughter doesn’t value the gift she was given. 

 

Flo begins to ask if Madge has kissed Alan, whether she enjoyed it, and if Alan wanted to go further than just kissing. Flo doesn’t believe Madge sounds enthusiastic enough about showing passion for Alan. At this point it seems as if she is trying to pimp her out, and Madge appears to understand the implication and goes to her room crying. Flo seems upset with herself but takes it out on Madge by warning her not to be so negative toward Millie. We now learn that Flo has actually seemed to favor Millie, which reveals more of why Madge envies her sister. Flo explains that when Madge was born both her parents idolized her, and her father carried her on his shoulders suggesting she was a prize to be elevated above others. Men viewing females as prizes is noted elsewhere in the movie. But, he eventually looked elsewhere for his satisfaction and left the family. So, when Millie was born, Flo felt she had to double the attention to be paid to her because she lost out on a father’s love.

 

In Alan’s car, Hal echoes Madge as he says he was a hero on campus, but his acclaim was only “between the goal posts.” (We find out later that he received an athletic scholarship but flunked out in his junior year). Just as Madge admires Millie’s brains, so does Hal express his envy of Alan’s intellectual achievement in college. Both he and Madge are similar in that they get noticed for their physical attributes, but they find that particular success is too limiting. Hal admits alcoholism finally ruined his father and he died in jail. In contrast to that sad story of defeat there are the massive grain storage facilities that Alan’s father owns, stressing his economic success. Alan’s father didn’t want his son to just have a cushy position as the owner's son and made him work with the other employees so he could learn the business. His knowledge of the operation is obvious as he takes Hal for a tour. Hal hopes that Alan and his father can get him a job. But, instead of expressing thanks for even a low-level position, he voices the desire for an office job with “a sweet little secretary.” He still thinks he can rise above his current station in life based on his charisma in lieu of other talents and hard work. Alan politely tells him that he has to be patient if he wants to work his way up the corporate ladder. Hal is impatient to finally make something of himself after wasting so much time being a drifter who didn’t want to grow up.

 

Alan takes Hal to the local lake for some swimming. Hal’s magnetism is on display as he dives perfectly into the water. The young women can’t keep their eyes off of him and Millie brags that he will be taking her to the Labor Day picnic. In that way, she gets some of that envy that was mostly reserved for her sister. The older young man, Hal, causes the insecure teenage Boomer to gripe about the fuss being made over Hal. The sexy outsider injects a fresh sensuality into this staid community. Alan is alone with Madge and wants to have time with her later by themselves saying he wants to make sure she is “real” in the “moonlight.” For him, she is almost too beautiful to be true. Madge again shows her reluctance to be categorized only by her looks. 


 There are shots of the lower legs and feet of the men and women changing in their respective locker rooms. It is voyeuristic camera work for its time and adds to the charged sexuality that has been ignited by Hal’s presence. While getting changed, Hal expresses reservations about going to the picnic. He says he never went to one and when he was growing up he was “shooting craps or stealing milk bottles” instead. His reluctance being with those of a respectable social class mirrors Madge’s feeling uncomfortable with Alan’s country club circle, and shows more similarities between the two. The conversation between Hal and Alan is reflected in Madge and Millie talking in the women’s locker room. Millie, too, is uncomfortable about socializing, but for her it’s because she is not sure how to be with boys. When Millie overhears Hal talking, we realize they are just on the other side of a wall from each other, which accentuates the intimacy of the moment. Hal even stresses that point when he tells Millie she better “get away from this wall. You’re liable to get educated.” That would be knowledge in the biblical sense. Then there is an even more erotic shot showing how the women and the men are next to each other in changing rooms. The nerdy Millie seems to want to expand her learning beyond books as she tries to peep into the men’s side, but Madge thwarts her attempt.

 

Rosemary returns to Flo’s house accompanied by fellow teachers Irma (Reta Shaw) and Christine (Elizabeth Wilson), who teaches the course entitled Feminine Hygiene, another reference to female sexuality. Rosemary acts uninterested in Howard’s phone call and seems like she doesn’t care to dress up for him. Millie has traded in her work clothes look for a lovely dress and lets her hair flow. Hal and Alan arrive and even though Hal admires Millie’s appearance, he still calls her “kid,” which shows how he does not consider her a romantic interest (and rightly so, given her age. Even Madge is too young for him, although Novak does not appear to be nineteen). 

 

Hal is muscular and energetic as he loads the car with items for the picnic and his effect on the women, including Rosemary, is obvious. When a horn honks, Rosemary is hoping another man is showing up, but she is disappointed that it’s middle-aged, average looking Howard. She shows her feelings when he compliments her appearance but she is critical of his lack of a sports jacket. Alan calls upstairs to get Madge to hurry up, but addresses her as “Delilah.” Is that how men see her, as being similar to the woman whose beauty is so magnificent she takes male power away? When Alan escorts Madge down the stairs, the other women sing “Here Comes the Bride,” adding that marital pressure that Flo applied earlier. Madge’s mother wonders why her daughter didn’t wear the more glamorous dress she tried on earlier. Madge most likely is doing what Millie had been doing, dressing down, but here it is because she doesn’t wish to just be assessed because of her appearance. Hal meets Madge and comments how the borrowed clothes look tight on him because he’s “kind of beefy through the shoulders.” Obviously the women admire that aspect of him, and even the elderly Helen once again says, “nobody would mind if you took it off.” So he loses the jacket and then speeds off with Millie as if the car was fuel injected with testosterone. 

 

There are cuts between the car Hal is driving, the one Alan, Flo, and Helen are in, and Howard’s auto with Rosemary as passenger. Flo is surprised at Hal’s lack of “breeding” since he went to the same college as Alan, but he then tells her of his lack of academic skills. That condescending view made by Flo is appropriately followed by Hal and Millie singing the “oink-oink” sounds from the song about Old MacDonald’s farm. He’s ready to sing a song his father taught him, but then changes his mind, which suggests that it was obscene and should not be repeated in front of a young girl. Alan says he didn’t like how Hal “bragged and swaggered,” but then he roomed with him and they became acquainted. Could it be that there is envy here, too, on the part of Alan who wishes he could exhibit Hal’s virility? Howard sees nothing wrong with doing a little drinking on the way to the picnic, and considers Rosemary an “old poke” for criticizing his alcoholic intake. He says he went down a side street so she can have a drink with nobody seeing it. She is funny when she finally gives in by hunkering down with her coat over her and takes a gulp while at the same time being worried that she could lose her job as a schoolteacher. She is caught between acting on her passionate nature and meeting the moral standards that restrict that nature. 

 

A picnic sounds like wholesome fun, and there are three-legged races, water sports, a pie eating contest, music, etc., but it does involve eating, which suggests satisfying one's appetites, which include sexual ones. Hal has to edit himself again when he talks about the fun he had once in the past but realizes the anecdote would be indelicate for these upstanding citizens. Hal and Millie didn’t win the three-legged race, and Helen says that Millie isn’t into sports because she “cultivates her mind,” another reference to the theme of the body versus intelligence. Howard invites Hal and Alan to visit his general store, and adds he lives upstairs by himself in a small apartment, right next to the bank. These simple lines show his static, economically modest life and the mention of the bank contrasts the economic disparity between the working man and the affluent. 


 Rosemary asks where Hal acquired his boots. He readily admits that they are the only things his father left him. We know his father was an alcoholic, and Hal’s financial situation is even more deprived than the other working-class people. He says his father said a person needs boots because one has to do a great deal of “kicking,” suggesting the need for fighting for oneself. He also said that the boots let people know he is approaching, which means announcing his presence, and not staying in the background. Hal says his father also said the boots let others “know you mean business when you get there.” His words echo Alan’s earlier assessment of Hal’s macho swaggering. He stands up and towers over the others with his feet spread apart, taking up as much territory as he can. He leans his body against a tree, visually suggesting his strength is as strong as the wooden bark. He stands over Rosemary, who sensually eyes him up and down, and Howard is next to her, looking up as Hal’s manliness overshadows him. 


 Alan haltingly says that Hal is shy around people at first and then once he gets to know them, “you can’t keep him still.” Alan’s face registers embarrassment because of his friend’s boasting and maybe he feels overshadowed by Hal’s larger-than-life performance. Hal’s face shows that he knows Alan is making apologies for him, and he appears hurt by the remark. What follows is a verbal duel between Alan and Hal, who says his father didn’t come from millionaires (suggesting Alan has had it easy because of his birthright). He then says that his dad did have connections and wanted Hal to get involved in the oil business. Allan interrupts and cuts him down to size by saying they “found a place for Hal scooping wheat.” Hal again shows momentary dismay, and then says he wants to start from the bottom up, stealing what Alan said about his father wanting his boy to learn the business that way. Helen suggests it would be nice if Hal could join the country club and play golf, but Alan quickly announces that Hal will not be able to afford that. Again, the sting is mirrored on Hal’s face as he hides it, his good looks now in his arms as he leans against the tree, as if his handsomeness is in retreat. Rosemary, liking Hal’s raw manliness, suggests an alternative for Hal, saying, “The bowling team’s a rowdy gang.” Hal then says by going to this picnic he learned that maybe it’s time he stopped bouncing around like a “pinball” and settle down in a town with good people like this place. His statements about letting go of childish ways is contradicted by his actions as he stretches his arms wide and holds the ropes that hold Madge in a wide swing. He looks commandingly down upon her and they simply say “Hi” to each other. The looks on some of the others present, especially the alarmed Flo, show they recognize there is chemistry between the two. Still showing off youthful exuberance, Hal then starts to climb up one of the ropes, his gymnastic abilities on display. 

 

As day begins to turn into night, Helen notes that people seem to disappear at a picnic, suggesting couples seek privacy. Rosemary and Howard look at the sunset, and Rosemary compares the end of the day to a fight, the sun going out in a fiery blaze “to keep the nighttime from creeping on.” With these comments, the picnic, like summer, is a metaphor for life, with people wanting to enjoy being alive before the festivities end. 

 

Millie sketches Hal, and he notices, complimenting her work. He then says he was a model once, and others painted him almost “raw,'' a good word that means nakedness but also describes Hal’s unpolished ways. He is the object of art, not the artist, which points to his lack of higher aspirations that would lead to a more satisfying life. He admits to his shortcomings and says, “I sure do admire people who are artistic,” and those who can appreciate good books and music. He is very impressed that Millie memorized all of Shakespeare’s sonnets (now that is impressive), and even writes poetry herself.

 

Adding to those who have broken down into couples are Alan and Madge. She thinks his father will feel that winning the Queen of Neewollah (Halloween backwards) contest is silly. But Alan’s father is impressed by “people who win things, or make the most money.” He then looks at Madge to see if his reference is understood by adding, “or score the most points at a football game.” He obviously wants to see if she is attracted to Hal. But, his words also point to how success is acknowledged by awards and competitive wins, as opposed to the intangible quality of one’s character. He keeps calling Madge the prettiest girl in town, and he is like his father, wanting to win her as a trophy.


 People come together again as a band plays and those in attendance dance. Madge wins the Queen contest, and she rides a boat as the rest of the celebrants sing her praise. It is a spectacle and Hal, being a person used to displays that attract attention, is impressed. Howard says to Hal he always likes seeing Madge but then admits he knows he couldn’t touch her with a “ten-foot pole.” Given his age, he shouldn’t be any closer, but it reflects the romantic compromises that aging enforces. His words just make Hal want to boost his self-confidence by being able to win Madge as a prize, similar at this point to how Alan perceives her. There is a shot of him in an adoring stance in the foreground with the slouching Millie in the background as she no longer has Hal’s eye. Rosemary shows her envy of Madge and Hal’s interest in her when she scoffs at the young woman’s winning the title when she says that she was that pretty when she was younger. Rosemary seems to want to live in the past.


 Madge says she will try not to become “conceited,” since she is finding all of the emphasis on her being the most beautiful girl in town as shallow praise. She even takes off the cape and crown right after her short speech. Hal wants to dance with Millie, but she’s never danced with a boy and is used to leading. But her inability to be figuratively subservient to a male means she doesn’t have the right mating “rhythm.” But Madge does. She sways in the background seductively drawing Hal toward her and away from the resentful Millie and Rosemary. Despite Madge’s saying all of the attention paid to her is “silly,” she is drawn to the new handsome man. In this case it is not opposites that attract. Hal and Madge then start dancing close to each other and a worried Flo observes the couple with Helen noting that Flo used to dance as well as Madge. But that probably reminds Flo that if her daughter doesn’t get involved with the right guy then she will live a deprived financial life, like her own. 

 

Rosemary is inwardly depressed about her aging, and wishes she could get Hal’s attention, but is stuck with Howard’s lousy dancing. After complaining about Howard’s drinking, she is now drunk herself. She starts kicking up her legs. Howard says they are shapely, and even though she wants attention, she berates Howard as representing how men only are interested in a woman’s looks. She is getting older so she wants to downplay appearance, but really wishes she could be young and beautiful. After Howard jokingly reveals his legs, Rosemary becomes embarrassingly sexually aggressive, trying to expose Hal’s legs. She then grabs a hold of him and dances with him, asserting her attractiveness by talking about a cowboy who was once in love with her. He liked her because she was older and had sexual experience. She is trying to use her age as a plus to compete with younger women. But her self-esteem is suffering as she repeats again that she is an “old maid schoolteacher.” Hal tries to free himself from her, and she is pathetic as she clings to him with desperation, ripping his shirt as he pushes her away. 

 


Millie feels sick from drinking, and yells at Madge for being the pretty one and undermining her time with Hal. To get revenge for her own rejection, Rosemary blames Hal for giving liquor to the underaged Millie. She then angrily indicts Hal for betraying Millie for Madge, and goes on to say that he thinks he’s an “Apollo,” but he really doesn't know how to act like an adult. Because she knows the pain of getting older and losing the benefits of being young, she is like a grim reaper telling him he’ll be gray sooner than he realizes and will not amount to anything because, “The gutter’s where you came from, and the gutter’s where you belong.” What she says is what Hal fears the most. A spotlight shines on them to illuminate the uproar, but it symbolically exposes the fears of Hal, Rosemary, Madge, and Flo. Alan sees the ripped shirt on Hal, which shows that his sexual power can’t be covered up. Alan now sees what he wanted to suppress about his old friend, and announces, “I should have known better than to trust him.” 

 

Hal runs off in shame and Alan and Flo go to see how Millie is doing. Rosemary almost screeches that she wanted to have a good time and is upset that she spoiled things. Howard blames it on the harvest moon which is pictured in the sky. It is another symbol of aging, alluding to how what has grown must be cut down. Howard suggests going for a ride and Rosemary manically agrees to the idea as a last chance at excitement before she has to go back to the drudgery of her job. 

 


Madge follows the upset Hal to the car and refuses his attempt to send her away. They drive off and when he stops, he angrily takes off his shirt, washes himself in the river, and talks about a train coming soon. He has circled back to the beginning, having made no progress in his situation. He admits that Rosemary saw through him like an “x-ray machine,'' and says he is just a “bum” with no place for him in the world. Madge offers encouragement, saying he is young, “but not so young you’re not a man, too.” She doesn’t like the kind of woman Rosemary represents, implying that the older woman’s resentment of youth and beauty as she ages is wrongheaded. She is supportive when she says he is a good dancer, and “entertaining.” She seems to want to find worthwhile qualities in him just as others have overlooked her attributes. In this way she sees him as a kindred spirit. He wants to deflate her attempts at positivity, admitting he was in reform school for a year for stealing a motorcycle, most likely stealing the bike because he wanted to escape his life. For him, the facility was like a prison. His mother turned him in and when he was released, she didn’t want him because he was in the way of her relationship with her new boyfriend. Madge connects with him on this point because of her mother and father’s problems, as she says, “It’s awful when parents don’t get along.” He says he never confessed his past to anyone, and he expects her to run off. She instead kisses him. She says she gets “so tired of just being told I’m pretty,” which is what she feels has happened to Hal. A train is passing by, and Madge says they must go back to the picnic, but he asks, “Do we?” He is suggesting that this place is not where they fit in.

 

Rosemary and Howard return to Flo’s house after their drive. Rosemary is still distraught as she is now looking behind the rowdy, fun fa├žade she maintained since her youth to face the fact that she is getting old. She has gone from one man to another without finding satisfaction in a long-term relationship. She hasn’t put down roots somewhere that would give her the kind of home that fits her maturing age. Her going from one rented room to another shows her clinging to a youthful lifestyle. She wants Howard to take her with him and reminds him of his promise to marry her. But he admits that when one reaches a certain age there is a tendency to settle in and stick with the security of the status quo. She understands what he is saying, but she says there must still be room for change. As she has become older she is feeling the vulnerability of aging alone. She clings to Howard like a lifeboat and tells him she must marry him. She even gets down on her knees to plead for him to take her away from her emotional solitude. However, he rejects her because he most likely sees her wanting him out of desperation and not because of love.

 

Madge and Hal are behind her house as she hopes to sneak in because it’s very late. He wants to continue being together because she makes him feel “patient.” It’s the word that Alan used to advise Hal what he needed to succeed. He’s saying she helps him to slow down his impetuous youthful urges so he can work and wait to earn her love. This scene contrasts with the previous one in that Rosemary’s life is a cautionary tale for Hal because she was not patient and has waited too long to be mature enough to act her age. Rosemary is now impatient to fix what she didn’t do earlier with relationships. 

 

Hal returns Alan’s car to the Benson estate, but Alan, furious because he sees Hal as stealing his girl, not his car, called the police to say Hal illegally took the vehicle. Hal tries to explain what happened between him and Madge was different from his dealings with women in the past, but Alan doesn’t want to believe that Madge doesn’t really love him. Alan attacks Hal, who pushes him off. The police say they will take Hal to the jail for the night. Hal hated his time in reform school which he saw as imprisonment and refuses to go peacefully. He fights off the cops and takes Alan’s car to get away. Mr. Benson tries to discourage the cops from going after Hal. Alan makes clear his father’s motive. Mr. Benson wants Hal to take Madge away from his son since he doesn’t think she comes from that part of society that is good enough for his boy. Alan announces that he hopes Hal gets away. That way, he will not be around to get Madge’s attention. The film here is stressing the theme of class struggle. The police pursue Hal who is the outsider who has threatened the norms and plans of life in the community, and those in power want to punish him for his disruption.

 

Howard in his small, modest apartment is upset contemplating how many changes he would have to make in his living area to accommodate Rosemary’s presence if they were to marry. Hal eluded the police and seeks sanctuary at Howard’s place. Howard doesn’t need an explanation. He knows what happened at the picnic and he probably understands why Hal is on the run from the rich Alan. Howard likes his whiskey, the refuge of many of those struggling with their lives. He says they both have their troubles and need some drinks to cope with their respective problems. Howard tells Hal that there is no need to feel he must marry Madge just because he is attracted to her. Hal is quiet, so he doesn’t give Howard the permission he sought to not wed Rosemary.

 

The next morning Howard shows up at Flo’s to tell Rosemary he can’t marry her. But she is so thrilled to see him there she assumes they are to be married and announces the wedding plans to the household and her teaching colleagues who are present. He looks like a deer caught in the headlights as he is swept up by the enthusiasm of the women. However, he starts to enjoy the fact that Rosemary seems thrilled. Flo tells Madge that Alan called and said he doesn’t blame her for what happened the previous night and wants to talk with her. Flo obviously is hoping that there will still be a marriage between Alan and her daughter.


 

Howard secretly tells Madge that Hal is hiding in his car and needs to talk with her. Hal sneaks out of the car and seeks out Madge, but Millie, Flo, and Helen are also there. Hal says he is in trouble and will be leaving, but he feels that he must tell Madge he loves her. He confesses he never said that before to a woman because he would have felt like a “freak.” It’s a word a boy would use, and love must have seemed too strange for his childlike mentality until now. He wants her to run off with him, but she says she can’t, given the situation. As he goes to hop on the train he says he knows that she loves him, too.


 
Flo knows that Helen liked Hal. The older woman says that everything was “so prim … and then he walked in. And it was different.” She continues by saying, “there was a man in the house. And it seemed good.” Hal brought a virile vitality that was absent from the lives of these women. Millie tells Madge that her life will consist of her going to college, living in New York City, and writing outrageous novels. She promises that getting married, having children, and living in a small town is not for her. But she seems to regret that she will probably not fall in love, which makes her a “dope,” despite her being the smart one. And she knows her sister wants romantic love and urges her to go after Hal. Just as in the beginning, the immature adolescent Boomer arrives on his bike and shouts up to Madge to let him “be next.” His words echo what Rosemary said about having a string of unsatisfying admirers without any lasting love. 



 
So, Madge appears dressed carrying a bag and tells her mother she’s going to Tulsa to meet up with Hal. Flo says Hal will not be a good provider, will turn to alcohol, and there will be other women. She is concerned that Madge will repeat what happened in her life. Madge smiles and says that “You don't love someone because he’s perfect.” Her statement points to the difference between “sense and sensibility” that Jane Austin wrote about. Love can be wonderful and heartbreaking, but it is part of the human experience. Madge admits that she doesn't love Alan, and to stay would be an emotional compromise too painful for her. When she finally pulls away from Flo, it is like the cutting of an umbilical cord. Madge can’t accept living the “prim” life that her mother wants for her. She hops on a bus that heads out of town. There is an aerial shot showing a view that reveals that there is a much wider world waiting for her.


The next film is Ruby Sparks.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Big Short

 

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

 


Director/writer Adam McKay takes on subjects that are complicated - economics, politics (Vice) - and is able to make them entertaining. In The Big Short (2015), a seemingly contradictory title, he focuses on the factors that led to the financial collapse in 2008 in the United States. He uses a bag of tricks that includes having characters speak directly to the audience, including celebrities playing themselves, in an attempt to explain what happened during this Great Recession. He has a number of quick edits that keep one’s attention from drifting off which can happen during stale discussions about money. The movie doesn’t show anybody as a hero, because there was none. But it does show there was a range of culpability among the participants. 

 


The film opens with a quote from Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” It sounds enigmatic, but it suggests that putting your trust in something that is obviously a lie creates a house of cards that will crash down on you. Twain’s first line grants a pardon for ignorance. The second line assigns blame for knowingly letting bad things happen. The image that the quote is superimposed upon is that of a man balancing a child on his shoulders. Could this imply how regular people were impacted by Wall Street’s big money scammers? Or could the balancing child also point to the precarious nature of our economic health?

 

The story begins with the movie’s narrator, the sleazy Deutsche Bank employee Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), talking directly to us saying that banking used to be boring and bonds were something you gave your kid and, “Maybe when he’s 30 he makes a 100 bucks.” Lewis Ranieri (Rudy Eisendopf) invented a type of investment called mortgage-backed securities which bundled large numbers of mortgages together which generated income through fees by selling what seemed like a safe investment because most people were paying their mortgages. Basically, what happened was that greed on steroids kicked in, and there was the granting of home loans to people at risk for paying mortgages back. The inevitable result was that there were defaults and the whole system crashed. 

 


That’s the overview. The many devils in the details were more serpentine in their devious actions. There were some people who saw the fuse that was lit on the impending explosion despite the denial that anything was wrong. Vennett says that outsiders and “weirdos” knew there was a problem. They did something others didn’t, “they looked,” which means they didn’t accept as real what “just ain’t so.” Jared hands over the narrating baton, at least temporarily, to one of these outsiders, hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale, in another one of his terrific performances). He provides some personal background in an interview with a new analyst. Burry was a doctor who lost an eye to an illness and turned his brilliance toward making lots of money in financial investing. Burry is funny as a quirky fellow on the spectrum who says that his glass eye (which we see one time fell out playing football in school) was one factor which separated him from others. Thus, he has “always been more comfortable alone.” He quickly goes from unexplainable smiling to projecting a sad appearance. He says he can’t even compliment people without it becoming awkward, as he tells the analyst that he has a nice haircut and then asks, “Did you do it yourself?” He fiddles with drumsticks at the office, plays the drums loudly and listens to hard rock music, so he’s definitely not your typical Wall Street businessman. He tells the analyst that a sure sign that financial disaster will occur is when rates of fraud go up. That happened early in the Great Depression, and he was seeing that occur presently. So, the implication is that when there is an increase in unethical and illegal financial activity generally the chances are that everyone will suffer because they allowed illegitimate activity to happen. He hires the young man and tells him he wants the names of the multiple thousands of mortgage bond investments, quite a big request. But, it’s an example of what Vennett was saying about how these outsiders really “looked” at what was going down.

 

We then switch to outraged, loud, stressed out Mark Baum (Steve Carell, who is over-the-top hilarious and emotional in this role). He hates banks since he lost his brother to suicide. Baum believes the financial institutions destroyed him. He enters a grief counseling session late and proceeds to “hijack” the meeting, ranting about how a bank delayed telling its customers that they had overdrafts in their accounts in order to collect large amounts of penalty fees. He asked a bank executive how he could “sleep at night” for what he was doing. Baum is a character who wants to make money in the capitalist system, but doesn’t wish to “screw” over average working people. Vennett describes Baum as a man who wants proof in order to believe in something, as opposed to those who don’t want to see the writing on the wall. Vennett says the cynical Baum “never believed that any company was legit without proving it.” Humorously, there is a flashback to Baum’s childhood where his rabbi tells Baum’s mother that her son is exasperating because he is “looking for inconsistencies in the word of God.” Yes, Baum didn’t even trust the Almighty. Vennett says that Baum started his own fund on Wall Street, and had a nose for deceit, or as Vennett humorously puts it, Baum knew when the Wall Street bull “had gone number two.” After the death of his brother, he felt everything was a “lie.” His wife Cynthia (Marissa Tomei) is worried about him and says he should quit his job. Baum is torn in two, both loving his job when it’s done ethically and hating it when he sees people getting ripped off. He masochistically loves being the man angry at the way the system is run. As he later says, “I am happy when I’m unhappy.”

 


As Burry analyzes the data he sees that the mortgage loans were granted to people with poor credit ratings who either already defaulted on their loans or would do so soon as these “subprime” adjustable rate mortgages were scheduled to shoot up their interest rates in 2007. As he looks at the information, there are cuts to people who are thrilled about owning the dream houses they can’t afford, and then there are sale signs posted on lawns to drive home that theme of denial about what’s really happening. Burry calls his boss, Lawrence Fields (Tracy Letts) about “shorting” the housing market, that is, betting against the housing market prospering. (“Shorting” is a gamble. It means to borrow, not purchase, a stock or bond from a lender, quickly selling it, and if it’s value declines, buying the item at a cheaper price, while pocketing the difference at the specified time of return to the lender. If the value of what is borrowed goes up, the borrower loses money by paying for a more expensive investment that must be returned to the lender. Hey, I’m not an economist, I just looked it up). Fields perpetuates not wanting to see the truth when he says to Burry, “bubbles are regional, defaults are rare.” Bale is funny, showing Burry’s quirks as he repeats strings of words, cleans the blinds in his office, and brushes and rinses his teeth while trying to speak on the phone. 


 Vennett continues to narrate saying that Wall Street loves to invent jargon like “mortgage backed securities, subprime loans. Tranches.” He says they are meant to confuse people, make them feel “bored” and “stupid,” and present the appearance that only the investment workers “can do what they do.” To entertain conveying this information, McKay gives us actress Margot Robbie, playing herself, in a bubble bath to comically explain some of the economic terms. She drinks champagne as she relaxes in her bathroom, which mirrors the greed of the wealthy. She says Ranieri’s idea was a good one, making billions for banks by getting 2 percent fees selling the bundled mortgage bonds. But then the lenders ran out of mortgages, since there are only so many homes to sell to qualified borrowers. So, the banks filled the securities they sold with very risky mortgages called “subprimes,” which Robbie says are “shit.” 

 

Burry contacts large investment banks, including Goldman Sachs, to create “credit default swap” products which bet against the mortgage loan business. The banks, only wanting to believe what they want to believe, see Burry’s willingness to buy these “swaps” (and pay premiums on insurance to make sure his investment will be forthcoming if the banks go belly-up), as easy money for them. The song that plays with the line “Shake your money maker” mirrors how these myopic banks believed they received 1.3 billion dollars from a foolish investor. Eventually Fields, Burry’s boss, severely questions Burry’s action and wants “his money back.” But Burry insists when the variable rate mortgage interest rates skyrocket in 2007, homeowners, whose incomes have flattened, will default on their mortgages in massive numbers.


 

Vennett gets wind of Burry’s actions at a club where the bankers celebrate their windfall from the “crazy” investor. Baum has a group of investors: Danny Moses (Rafe Spall); Porter Collins (Hamish Linklater); and Vinnie Daniel (Jeremy Strong). Baum’s fund is sort of a subsidiary under Morgan Stanley that allows his business to keep its autonomy. When Daniel was young his father was killed in a violent crime, and Vennett narrates that he doesn’t talk about his loss, just like Baum. McKay then has Daniel address the audience, confirming he doesn’t talk about it. These breaking of the fourth wall moments add to jarring us out of getting bogged down in financial stuff, as do the comical exchanges about the incongruity of the irritable Baum possibly leaving Wall Street and trying to act civil to customers at his own Bed and Breakfast. Vennett’s assistant accidentally calls Baum’s number and that is how Baum’s group finds out about Burry’s idea. They, too, don’t dismiss the belief of eventual collapse, but instead discover that the mortgage bonds are not doing well.

 

Baum and his crew meet with Vennett, who is a pushy salesman as he says he “smells money.” This guy is not an idealistic fellow. He just looks for places to acquire wealth. (As Baum says later he wouldn’t buy a used car from him). Vennett tried to sell Burry’s idea to the banks themselves, but they laughed him out of the office because they felt that Burry’s idea was nutty. So, Vennett tries to get Baum’s outfit to buy those “swaps.” He uses a Jenga tower with segments labeled with the credit ratings assigned to the mortgages, with the “shit” loans on the bottom, propping up the tower. “Tranches” (a portion of something - McKay spells out the definition for us) comprise layers of these various-rated non-government backed loans supporting a large portion of the market. These loans were given to people with bad credit ratings and no verifiable income. The default rate on mortgages has risen to four percent and the prediction is that it will rise to eight percent, which will cause, according to Baum, “Armageddon.” 

 

More humorous diverting entertainment is inserted when Vennett says he is certain about the math as he points to his numbers guy, Jiang (Stanley Wong). He says the man is so Chinese, he can't speak English. Of course, arguing someone is great at mathematics just because he’s Asian is racist, as Baum points out. Jiang then addresses the audience in English and says Vennett likes to add authenticity to the smartness claim, and he really finished second and not first in a Chinese math competition, as Vennett claimed. There is dishonesty it seems, in every Wall Street transaction. 

 

Vennett says inviting them to invest in these swaps is like he’s, “standing in front of a burning house, and I’m offering you fire insurance on it.” A good metaphor as he’s making the argument that it’s a sure thing that the housing market will disintegrate into ashes. The banks, even his own, are getting large fees selling the bundled bad mortgage loans. So, greed has blinded them from seeing anything going wrong. The bonds are getting great credit ratings and thus are erroneously propping up this aspect of the economy even though they are based on nothing. Vennett says when the banks discover a bond is “too risky to buy,” they “repackage it with a bunch of other shit that didn’t sell and put it into a CDO, or Collateralized Debt Obligation.” McKay has Vennett interrupt the film again, telling the audience the late chef, Anthony Bourdain, will explain CDO’s. This sequence mirrors the Margot Robbie bit of getting a celebrity to humorously explain a complex investment term. Of course, our humor comes from outrage as Bourdain demonstrates in a kitchen that CDO’s are similar to making a new stew out of old fish that didn’t sell. The exterior is different, but what’s underneath is the same rotten product. And, they get AAA ratings. Fraud anyone?

 

After Vennett leaves, Baum says he wants him to be right because he is angry about his brother and wants to profit off of the bank’s “stupidity.” He justifies betting against the banks as a sort of revenge for the institutions charging 25 percent interest on credit cards and burying young people with student debt. But is this the ethical way of getting back at the banks, making money from the greed of others? Doesn’t that compound the problem? Why not just expose it? These guys are not as unscrupulous as those at the top of the financial food chain, but they are still in the capitalistic game to make money. Baum says to find out if what Vennett said was true they actually must go out into the field and check to see if there is a problem with the housing market. They are willing to do that, as opposed to others who fiddle while the economy burns.

 

The focus shifts to Charlie Geller (Johns Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) as they hope to pitch to JPMorgan Chase. (By the way, except for Burry, all of the names here are fictitious although based on real people). Geller and Shipley are young and have just arrived in New York from Colorado. But they have grown their investment company from working out of a garage and starting with $110,000 to the point of handling about 30 million dollars in investments. Not good enough, though. They need an ISDA Agreement, which McKay spells out as an authorization to sit at the “big boy table” and its’s not “available to stupid amateurs.” The film implies that considering how dumb the “big boys” were handling the mortgage loans, it is ironic that these young men can’t even have a real meeting with a large institution. There are notes on the screen that say comically that trying to do high level trading without an ISDA “is like trying to win the Indy 500 riding a llama.” The condescending attitude of the company is shown as a low-level employee basically dismisses them in the lobby and they are told by security they must leave. 

 

The two could not get anywhere with any other banks. There are proposals on the lobby coffee table by other people who did not sell their proposals to the bank. They pick one up and it’s Vennett’s pitch. Geller’s character talks to the audience here saying how they didn’t really discover Vennett’s housing bubble analysis in the lobby. It was more a word of mouth thing and they read it in a publication. Director McKay is transparent about how film distorts some of the facts for brevity and dramatic purposes. It’s funny and unusual to have a filmmaker own up to this fact right in the middle of the story. There is more speaking to the camera to help move the story along and draw in the audience to what is being said. Shipley says in a flashback to their early business days, “People hate to think about bad things happening so they always underestimate their likelihood.” Vennett narrates that “the markets will sell options very cheaply on things they think will never happen.” There is a little cartoon of a slot machine on the screen in the lower left corner to stress the gambling aspect of investment work. Since these two men invest little money on long-shot failures, if they are wrong, they don't lose much. If they're right, it pays off big. So, the products that Burry first noticed and Vennett promulgated about worst-case scenarios that people don’t think will occur is right up their financial alley. 

 


They contact Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt, looking nerdy and older with scruffy long hair and a beard) to help work the credit default swap angle. Vennett narrates that Rickert was a trader in Singapore for Chase, but “quit the whole game in disgust.” We get a flashback of Rickert and Geller as neighbors in Colorado walking their dogs. The movie suggests that sometimes sheer coincidence can change one’s world. Rickert thought “the whole world was going down.” He sort of went off the grid, growing his own vegetables, and is so paranoid he has multiple phone lines to weed out the government listening in on his conversations, even though he is no longer in the brokerage business. We see a flashback shot of Geller and Shipley eating at his table as Rickert says one ingredient to getting the soil ready is to add “urine.” There is a funny shot of Geller hesitating before putting a forkful of salad into his mouth. If it wasn’t for these amusing, quirky aspects of the movie, a story about mortgages would make breathing exciting. 

So, it’s the outsiders, those who hate the system for what it has become (like Baum and Rickert), are rejected by the big shots (Vennett, Geller and Shipley), or are unorthodox (Burry, who says he doesn’t know how to be “funny,” or “sarcastic” or “to work people”) that are willing to look behind the curtain and see what is really playing out. As Groucho Marx once said, he didn’t want to be part of a club that would have him as a member. Being on the outside can bring objectivity and clarity.

 

Moses and Collins investigate what’s happening with the housing market by actually going on the ground per Baum’s instructions. The images presented make the case for the widening economic disaster. What they discover in a housing development near Miami are rows of “for sale” signs, and homes with newspapers piled up outside, showing that the residents left in a hurry without even canceling their subscriptions so they could avoid dealing with foreclosures. There is a renter who has been paying his rent but who doesn’t know he could be evicted soon because the house owner is defaulting. There is another house with past due notices, and the inhabitants only took the TV without even cleaning out the cat litter in their quick getaway. One house that has been abandoned has an alligator in the pool. Scary and funny, a hard combination to make work, but McKay pulls it off here. 

 

Baum joins Moses and Collins and they hit the bricks and see for themselves how over-invested people are in mortgages on high-priced real estate. They meet two young, smirking, swaggering real estate mortgage brokers who say that in one year the number of mortgages they granted went from ten to sixty. One boasts that he was a bartender and now owns a boat. Ninety percent of the mortgages have adjustable interest rates. They laugh when they are asked if any loan applications are rejected, saying that would mean that they weren’t doing their jobs. They call the mortgages “No income, No Job” loans, since “Corporate doesn’t care” about the viability of the mortgages. They target immigrants who don’t even understand what they are signing but are happy to get a home. One broker says that he can make five times as much signing up a subprime (remember that means “shit”) adjustable rate mortgage on secondary markets. Aside, Baum says he doesn’t understand why these two guys are “confessing.” He has a professional ethical standard he follows. Moses and Collins explain to Baum that the two brokers are really “bragging.” The thrust here is that making money in the moment is all that matters, and there is no thought about consequences for the individual home owners or the economy at large. 

 

The brokers say they sell properties to strippers. A very funny scene follows with Baum buying time with a stripper who writhes around him, but all he wants to know is her mortgage situation. She says that people where she lives have multiple loans on their houses and only had to put down five percent. Baum tells her that when the “teaser” interest rate balloons she will be paying 200 to 300 percent more each month. She says her broker said she could refinance. Baum calls the guy “a liar.” She is stunned by Baum’s comments, and even worse, admits to owning five houses and a condominium. She didn’t want to believe the proverbial warning, “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.” Baum is convinced that there is a housing bubble that is ready to burst. He calls Daniel to contact Vennett and buy the swaps.

 

Geller and Shipley talk to Rickert, who verifies that what the men sent him was frighteningly accurate about the housing market. They want Rickert to get them the ISDA so they can get at the “big boy table” to trade on a large scale. The disenchanted Rickert says that “It’s a pretty ugly table, guys.” What we have learned about the unscrupulous dealings going on, Rickert’s description is spot on. Rickert agrees to help them. (There is a shot of the paranoid Rickert on an escalator at an airport wearing a N-95 mask, which is like an eerie prescient image of the current pandemic). 

 

We get several shots of people going about their daily mundane activities as an overheard quote at a Washington, D.C. bar appears on the screen: “Truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry.” (IMDb notes that McKay wrote the lines). These words tie in nicely with the opening reference to Mark Twain which stresses the central theme that people don’t want to know what’s real if it’s not what they want to hear. So, despite the fact that, as Burry predicted, mortgage delinquencies are soaring, the subprime bond prices are rising and Moody and Standard and Poor are still giving the “shit” loans AAA ratings because big finance doesn’t want to acknowledge the collapse of the house of cards they are living in. In fact, pressure is applied to sell the swaps as they still (erroneously) appear to be high risk investments.


 Baum and Daniel confront Georgia Hale (Melissa Leo) of Standard and Poor about still giving high ratings to bonds that make up the risky mortgage packages. Hale, at first,  is wearing these large, dark tinted glasses because of an eye condition. Be alerted that anytime eyes and vision are noted in a film, it is a metaphor, usually for characters being morally blind (Chinatown, Bonnie and Clyde, Blade Runner). When Baum asks if the S&P ever gave poor ratings for the bond applications, she says that if they did, companies will go to competitors, like Moody, and pay them fees to get what they want. Greed in the driver’s seat again. Baum and Daniel are outraged. However, Hale questions their motives since she knows that they own substantial swaps and they will profit by the collapse of the mortgage market. She rightly accuses their attacks on her agency’s desire for profits as evidence of Baum’s group’s moral hypocrisy. 

 

Burry’s fund, Baum’s group and Shipley and Geller have invested heavily in the swaps, and are being told to put up more collateral to back up their investments because, as Shipley says, the banks either are “clueless” of the true value of these crappy mortgage instruments or are covering up their culpability in disastrous investments. It could be they are both, as Rickert on the phone says that he talked to someone at Bear Stearns who didn’t know what a CDO was. (In this enigmatic discussion we get humor, as Rickert says he’s late for his yearly “colonic” which suggests he needs to flush out the poisonous elements invading him physically and mentally). Despite the lack of a payoff, Vennett and Shipley say that they should buy more swaps, which is greeted by dissension from the partners. Vennett and Rickert tell their partners to go to Las Vegas to attend the American Securitization Forum. In order to keep Baum’s outfit committed, Vennett says there will be in attendance “every bond and CDO salesman, subprime lender and swap trader.” He says if they are betting “against the dumb money” then they should learn “how dumb that money really is.” 

 

The first shot of Las Vegas is accompanied by the ominous organ music from The Phantom of the Opera which adds a satiric sound and feeling of hidden horror lurking behind the fake mask of economic prosperity. Here all of the principles (except for the seclusive Burry) assemble. Vennett tells Baum to try to zip it and not “spook” people there by loudly talking about their swaps, since they don’t want everyone to start buying them, diluting their profits. The opening statement at the forum is “Business is good,” and is built on the strong foundation of the mortgage business, which sums up the phony Kool-Aid these people have been drinking. The speaker admits that there will only be a 5 percent setback in the subprime area. Baum can’t contain himself and tells the speaker there is a “zero” percent chance of the subprime losses stopping at 5 percent. 

 

Geller meets with a woman who works for the Federal Government's Securities and Exchange Commission which is supposed to police the financial sector and prosecute illegal activity. At a Caesar’s Palace pool, to emphasize the affluent bubble the deniers live in, she says that they don’t investigate mortgage bonds, and since there was a budget cut, “we don’t investigate much.” More being asleep at the wheel going on. She isn’t even there officially and is actually looking for a job with one of the big banks. Geller questions the legality of her “working for a financial institution right after you’ve been working in financial regulation.” She says there's no law against it, and runs off to network with someone who works for Goldman Sachs, which shows how vulnerable to exploitation the economic system is. 

 


Even Burry has doubts about his mathematical logic paying off. He admits that he may have underestimated how fraudulent the system had become. At dinner, Shipley says they should “short” AA rated bonds, knowing that they will go down. Rickert says they can pull it off because the adoption of that “clueless” attitude that Vennett noted would cause the banks to go along with the deal because they would see the bond prices going up and would think Shipley and Geller were suckers. As the two men celebrate what they think will be a killing in investments, Rickert brings outraged perspective by saying how many millions will suffer from what is coming because people will lose jobs, homes, and pensions. Since they like numbers, he tosses out a lethal statistic that says for every 1 percent unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die. They are making a fortune by “betting against the American economy,” which, when one thinks about it, shouldn’t even be allowed, because then one has a vested interest in failure. So, Rickert says, “just stop fuckin’ dancing.”

 

To add to the unbelievable selfishness of investment managers, we have Baum talking to a man named Chau (Byron Mann) who sells CDOs for Merrill Lynch. He claims to represent the customers and says that the CDOs he sells are of the highest quality. But, he states that he personally assumes “no risk for these products.” Basically, no matter what happens to the people taking out these loans, which they don’t realize they can’t afford, or those investing in these worthless mortgages, he will get his fees and not be hurt. In other words, I’ve got mine, who cares about you. Baum can’t believe his ears as Chau starts talking about CDOs derived from other CDO’s, some of which are called “synthetic CDOs,” which contain more investing in bad loans. This stuff is so unbelievable it gets funny just hearing about how convoluted all of these crazy monetary terms are. From another table, Vennett adds more humor by saying that Baum’s face looks like it’s boiling like the villain in Dune.

 

McKay once more uses a celebrity, Selena Gomez, along with “the father of behavioral economics,” Dr. Richard Thaler, to help decode synthetic CEOs. They sit at a card table, appropriately in Vegas, because all of this investing is speculation and gambling. Gomez has been winning and is holding a good hand right now. She thinks she can’t lose, and everyone wants to get in on the action. It is fallacious reasoning, says Thaler, to think past winnings translate into continuous future success. That’s what happened with the housing market. Two people now want to make side bets on Gomez’s future hands. That would be the “first synthetic CDO.” Then another couple bet on whether the first two people will win or lose, which comprises the “second synthetic CDO.” And so on, until an original investment mushrooms into a great deal of money in several pots. However, if the initial investment is a bad one at the outset, you are talking about a whole lot of losers. 


 After talking with Chau, Baum feels ill from the unscrupulous machinations that are going on. Chau wants to compare how much he is worth with how much money Baum has, as if that is the only measure to show how worthy one is. Baum tells his team to short all of Chau’s investments, betting against him, and says he will try to find a little redemption playing roulette. Small time gambling seems virtuous in comparison to what he just heard. Baum back home tells his wife that things are so much worse than he ever could have imagined. He feels guilty that the first thing he did concerning his brother when he was depressed was to offer him money, which probably he realizes was like rubbing salt into a psychological wound. 

 

Burry bangs out his frustration and anger at how broken the system has become on his drums. He has special prerogatives in his authority over his fund, and takes the extraordinary and daring move of writing to his investors preventing them from withdrawing their money. If he is wrong about his projection, many would suffer financially.

 

We get another quote, this time from the novel IQ84 by Haruki Murakami: “Everyone, deep in their hearts, is waiting for the end of the world to come.” If one is honest, the film suggests, all of us have apocalyptic thoughts. If not, why are there so many books and films on the subject? Here it is the economic “Dark Ages” coming, as Shipley puts it. The financial news broadcasts how the housing market is crashing and lenders are going bankrupt. In order not to deal with the situation, the large investment banks fake power outages or computer problems so they will not have to deal with Burry’s claims. Shipley and Geller realize that the banks are trying to dump their lousy CDOs on unsuspecting buyers as they try to recoup some money before the prices on those investments tumble. Shipley calls his mother to warn her about the coming crash, and the two want to warn everyone by way of the press. But their contact at the Wall Street Journal won’t touch the story because he doesn’t want to burn the bridges he built with investment banks based on what he calls Shipley and Geller’s “hunch.” The problem about a “Big Lie” is that if voiced loud enough and by those in authority, it tends to become believed. 

 

Baum’s group now learns that the swaps that nobody thought were worth anything are now the hot item to purchase. Baum finds out from Kathy (Adepero Oduye) who works for his umbrella company, Morgan Stanley, that the company sold a ton of swaps which means Morgan Stanley owes a tremendous amount of money on these bets that mortgages would fail. So, Baum realizes he was betting against Morgan Stanley which means he was betting against himself. Because Morgan Stanley is $15 billion in the hole, all of Baum’s company’s “accounts go on their balance sheet,” according to Daniel. The point here is if you bet against the whole economy, one gets sucked into the black hole that results. Baum says he doesn’t want to sell the swaps yet because he wants to see the banks “bleed” before selling them life rafts. But he is putting his own company at risk if he waits too long and Morgan Stanley goes bankrupt.

 

Shipley and Geller are in a similar predicament since they bought 80 percent of their swaps from the tanking Bear Stearns. Unlike Burry, who protected himself in case the banks went out of business, these two are at risk. They need Rickert’s help to unload their investments. There is more humor as Rickert is in a pub in England that he says smells like “sheep” with hardly any wi-fi service and is trying to sell 200 million dollars in securities on his laptop. The customer in the bar says Rickert is either a drug dealer or a banker, and he has more respect for the former, which we can understand, given what’s happening. Rickert is able to net them 80 million just in time before the economies of many countries froze assets and were on the brink of failure, so expansive is the economic meltdown.

 

Vennett, addressing the audience, holds a bonus check for $40 million dollars. He says he never said he “was the hero of this story.” He was the narrator because, besides tying the plot together, he is the right selfish person to show how there are no heroes here. Mark Baum is the only “Big Short” (thus the film’s title) who delayed selling. (As IMDb points out there is also a visual pun in the film as there is a large billboard shown with comedian Martin Short’s face - thus a “big Short). Baum speaks at a financial summit meeting and says people in America reside in a world of “fraud in banking, government, education, religion, food, even baseball.” He says this time deception flourished, and he thought we were better than that to let it happen. And, “average people will have to pay for all of this,” since they always do, he says. The eventual bailout of the banks proved him to be right. Even as he speaks, the false optimism previously voiced by a Bear Stearns executive rings false as the stock of the company drops 38 percent in the short time they spoke. Everyone starts to bail out of the auditorium, most likely to try to salvage what’s left of their wealth. 

 

Investment giant Lehman Brothers’ stock went to zero and was not rescued by the government. People who lost their jobs there leave in droves. Shipley and Geller walk through the decimated headquarters of the institution, stressing the catastrophic results of greed and the denial of truth. Burry says that his work wasn’t what he expected. He narrates, “This business kills the part of life that is essential.” As we see those strutting Florida real estate brokers now looking for jobs, Burry says that unfortunately people don’t choose who to listen to based on facts, but upon what “seems authoritative and familiar.” In other words, it’s easier and more comforting to listen to the well-known person with the big microphone who is in power than to question what is being said. 

 

After Burry’s fund gained 48 percent, with a profit of $2.69 billion, he closed it down and retired. The bailout is coming, and Daniel believes that as part of that action the government will have to break up the banks and send people to jail. Baum says no, the banks always knew they would get rescued and in the end they’ll find a way just to blame immigrants and poor people for our economic problems, implying that those marginal groups will be portrayed as the leeches that drained the economy because they couldn’t pay their mortgages.

 


McKay has Vennett be satiric as he says hundreds went to jail, the SEC was overhauled, and Congress broke up the big banks and regulated the mortgage industry. He follows that with, “Just kidding.” With the bailout, Vennett says, the banks took the money, paid themselves bonuses, and lobbied against any major reforms. “And then then they blamed immigrants and poor people,” he adds. As it turns out only one guy went to jail. Baum finally sells the firm’s assets, but he felt like he was one of the bad guys. Daniel says they were kicking the real bad guys in the teeth for selling people out of the American Dream. But, Baum’s group contributed to the depletion of funds that added to many employees losing their jobs and possessions.

 

The notes at the end of the movie sum up the economic fallout: five trillion dollars was lost in real estate values, pension funds, 401k accounts, and bonds; eight million people lost jobs; six million lost their homes. Burry contacted the government several times to show how he predicted the collapse, most likely to prevent another one. Nobody responded to him, again emphasizing the desire not to want to hear the truth, no matter how disturbing it is. And, to show how pointing out flaws in the system is a threat to that mindset, Burry was audited four times. At the time the film was made, banks were selling a new form of CDO.

 

The thrust of this movie is that every human system is subject to corruption, and to protect the powerless, there must be vigilant policing to protect a country’s citizenry.


The next film is Picnic.