Monday, December 30, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street and Bodies-in-Greed

Over the past five years, the financial drama has emerged as a major subgenre. Films such as Margin Call (2011), Arbitrage (2012), and The International (2009)--together with their documentary counterparts like Too Big to Fail (2011), Inside Job (2010), and I.O.U.S.A. (2008)--expose for the American public the dangerous criminality of our post-regulatory economic environment. These films tell stories about great risks, baldfaced lies, gigantic profits, and precipitous falls. But the problem the genre repeatedly faces is how to explain (much less make exciting) arcane investment relations like credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, or naked shorts. White collar crime has all the visual and narrative appeal of an Excel spreadsheet, and hardly seems high-thrill movie material.

The new Martin Scorcese movie The Wolf of Wall Street solves this problem by deliberately replacing the cerebral with the corporeal. Jordan Belfort, the film's disreputable protagonist and unreliable narrator (played by Leonardo diCaprio), begins more than once to explain to the audience the financial details of his plots, only quickly to interrupt himself with a reminder that it doesn't matter how he made money, only that by making lots of it he was able to spend it on things that made him look and feel good--like helicopters, cocaine, or prostitutes.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Death and Substitution in Game of Thrones

I am probably the world's least likely Game of Thrones viewer. It took me five tries to get through the pilot episode, and I only succeeded the fifth time because my 13-year-old daughter agreed to watch it with me (turns out, she loves it). I imagine its ideal viewers to be the kind of folks who could play Dungeons and Dragons for months at a time, or who got lost in Lord of the Rings (a book I similarly failed to get more than 30 pages into, despite trying multiple times). Although I appreciate the genre's efforts at alternative worldmaking, I'm just not good at consuming what passes for fantasy--for me, it's too disconnected from history, and too exhausting to keep track of all the characters and plotlines.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Jay Gatsby's Shirts

I think it was the shirt scene when my experience of watching Baz Luhrmann's film The Great Gatsby shifted. Daisy is on Gatsby's bed. He races up the stairs to a bedroom mezzanine where his innumerable shirts are stored and begins pulling them off the shelves, shouting out the names of the fine fabrics from which they're constructed (cotton! silk! muslin! linen!) while tossing them, in flutters and waves, down to her on the bed below. Daisy is showered by, wrapped up in, a pool of imported English shirts, turning and laughing and finally crying amidst these "beautiful shirts." The scene is an echo of several other shots in the film that feature impossibly long ceiling-to-floor drapes that subtract space from a room until someone finally shuts the door.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Welcome to Neverland, Inc.

Last week at a convention for Python programmers in Santa Clara, California, where I live and teach, an attendee named Adria Richards posted a tweet complaining about the "not cool" jokes being made by the men sitting behind her (something about sexualized forks and dongles, which I am the wrong kind of nerdy to get). Her tweet included a photo, presumably of the offending man, which soon led his employer to fire him. Since then, Richards herself has been fired, as well as becoming the sadly predictable object of misogynist venom. Welcome to Silicon Valley's high-tech business culture.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Downton Abbey Guide to College Tuition

The word out from the Inside Higher Ed survey is that fully 70% of parents will restrict their child's choice of college based on cost. If there's one thing all parents can agree on, it's that college costs too much, and if my own experience is anything to judge by, precisely 100% of parents complain about it. But when your children reach SAT-taking age and the theoretical becomes the practical, the 30% complain in a completely different way than the 70%.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Hipsters, Steampunk, and Economic Nostalgia

Everyone, it seems, has become irritated by hipsters, the urban youth subculture whose members so desperately insist on distinguishing themselves from anything and everything popular or mainstream that they refuse even to lay claim to their own name. "I don't have a job, and I don't want one," says hipster style. "I will not be exploited!"