The Owls | Gekko-Sploitation, Wall Street 2, and Late Boomer Guilt

Ws2 Ben Walters and J. M. Tyree chat about film for The Owls site. Together, they wrote the BFI Film Classics book about The Big Lebowski for The British Film Institute, and they’ve co-written reviews of No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading for Sight & Sound. This month, they discussed Oliver Stone’s Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, the sequel to Wall Street and Stone’s take on the financial sector meltdown in the United States in 2008.

JMT: Where did you see Wall Street 2? Did the audience seem to enjoy it?
2:26 PM BW: well, i saw it at a press screening so it’s hard to tell. critics don’t make for very expressive audiences
JMT: How does the film look from the UK, the austerity land of Conservative budgets?
2:27 PM BW: well, kind of out of time, i must say – i thought it felt like a period piece
as if it were set at the end of the previous era (greedisgoodia) rather than during the subsequent one (austerityland). bit of a shame, as the first film was so zeitgeisty
2:28 PM but i suppose Stone was going for a gotterdammerung kind of thing…?

2:30 PM JMT: One thing I noticed is that, while Michael Moore trashes the bank bailouts in Capitalism: A Love Story – essentially giving the Republicans their election year playbook in his supposedly progressive film – Stone goes to great lengths to “explain” the government’s actions as “responsible,” etc., in that very wooden scene set during the abyss of the financial crisis.
BW: well, when you’ve got eli wallach telling you the world’s gonna end, you better listen, right?
2:32 PM JMT: A lot of cameos, speaking of Wallach. That same real estate broker is back. The new music by Eno and Byrne makes a delicious bookend to Stone’s use of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in the first film, it all seems so promising at first! Stone himself appears – am I mistaken? – as a purveyor or buyer of “ridiculous art.” Hmm…
BW: haha
2:33 PM i wasn’t sure if he was purveying or looking to buy. bookend i think is exactly right – i was expecting more of a survey of the new landscape but WS2 is more elegiac – or at least trying to be?
JMT: The original Wall Street [WS1] has a lot of wit. And it’s so fast paced. It’s a cocaine film.
BW: right, and very streamlined and sleek
2:34 PM this was a lot more muddled… but could that be apt?

Limos & Hairgel

2:37 PM JMT: Very interesting –> WS1 has this delight in the evil. Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) is totally seduced by Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) and the interior design stylings of Daryl Hannah. It’s a film about pinkie rings, two-inch TV screens, ordering “Evian” at the restaurant, big hair, cocaine in limos…as Iain Sinclair once said about the 1980s, “cocaine in the executive washroom.” But here in WS2 the protagonist, Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) isn’t really fully seduced into the realm of evil. He’s got his Third Way idealism about his laser fusion plant investment scheme intact all the way until the end. I thought it could have been funny if the fusion plant turned out to be a “green tech” scam…

2:38 PM Like an faux-environmental pyramid scheme. But that just shows I was hoping for more camp…
2:40 PM BW: yeah, that would have been more fun. but in a way Jake’s dilemma is more ambiguous – it’s not angel vs devil, good vs greed, in private as well as business
JMT: That’s clearly Stone’s intention…yes…
2:41 PM BW: do i detect a whiff of uncertainty?
2:43 PM JMT: Well, no, I think you’re exactly right – the film is a parable that still believes in The Third Way of Clinton and Blair. It reminds me of those Ameriprise investment commercials Dennis Hopper made, God bless him. The commercials were geared toward Boomers in this sad and obvious way. They said, you can have it all, a mutual fund that invests in wind farms (and cigarette companies), your VW van, a guitar, and a home equity loan. There’s a whole generational complex here related to the abandonment of 60s idealism, I think.
2:44 PM I’m being very unfair to my elders and betters, but…

BW: that makes sense. there’s an ad playing on tv over here at the moment for some kind of investment product (i forget the name) which is unabashedly targeting that generation – ‘you’ve worked hard, now you deserve to enjoy your yachting and vintage cars and manicured garden’ kind of thing – and it seems stunningly tasteless. and i think that’s what made WS2 seem slightly out of time – a boomer attempt to suggest things are still all right. that final happy-smiley-child’s-birthday-party sequence was perverse, like jamming your fingers in your ears and singing a happy tune
2:46 PM JMT: Yes – although in WS1 Gekko does seem genuinely hurt by Bud Fox’s betrayal, like losing a son, so there’s a precedent in the original for viewing Gekko as a family man who wants to bequeath a legacy. Obviously he’s a supplanting father figure competing with Bud’s union rep Dad (Martin Sheen). I delight in that because it suggests Gekko wants an Ayn Rand-like alternative family unit based on evil quests for money. A “team,” as Daryl Hannah pointedly says to Bud when she leaves him – a team! This is more fun to watch than battles over the funding of some flaky laser fusion machine that’s going to save the world. Bah-humbug! 2:47 PM It’s like an Al Gore Power Point.

2:48 PM BW: haha. but it’s not even that, it’s a magic wand. it’s like the film can’t face the idea that everything’s screwed
there’s got to be a deus ex machina solution and if it weren’t for those old-school greedy BASTARDS we’d have it
stone’s trying to sell us a magic bullet

2:51 PM JMT: Well, okay, Stone did go around Latin American talking to all those left-wing leaders, right, so South of the Border is worth bearing in mind here. And his presentation of the crisis, in terms of the fall of Lehman Bros and the near collapse of Bear Stearns, is fairly historically faithful. Or at least it mirrors the brilliant PBS Frontline doc on the subject, Inside the Meltdown. U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, a die-hard Wall Street guy who believed in “moral hazard,” had to initiate the government salvation of the banking sector against his own free market philosophy.
2:52 PM BW: my point is that the new movie doesn’t come up with a convincing dramatic framework for channelling these things through character and story
2:53 PM it’s all fairytale stuff about magic fusion reactors and implausible reconciliations
it’s more like cymbeline or winter’s tale than faust
2:54 PM JMT: Yes – wonderful comparison – especially because the female lead, Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan) is so malleable that she’s almost Shakespearean. She’s like, “Oh, I don’t want 100 million dollars, just tell me what you want to do with it.” That money’s tainted! No good can come of it. Wait…unless…we can end our dependence on foreign oil and coal reactors…
2:55 PM BW: she spends two hours crying
2:56 PM JMT: And structurally, Martin Sheen’s role in the narrative of WS1 (and his position as the film’s moral center) has either been replaced by Winnie or else it’s been automated! – I mean, literally – He’s been taken over by that fusion machine. From unions to green tech…it’s a very weirdly apt portrayal of U.S. Democratic party politics.
BW: there’s certainly a sense that politics has disappeared from this world altogether, which seems fair enough
2:57 PM we see some hints of 9/11
JMT: That’s also a gesture to WS1. The WTC Towers get some prominent shots, and now in WS2 there’s the shot of the empty site.

BW: yes, quite a few in each and one shot in WS2, i think, of a newspaper with obama’s face on it and the word DESTINY
2:58 PM but where WS1 had a sense of a politics behind people’s actions – that ayn rand-ish principled greed, destroying things BECAUSE they’re vulnerable – WS2 has a kind of grubby private opportunism vs airy bleaty activism – which is perhaps not an unfair version of contemporary public life
3:00 PM the new one is quite good, i guess, at conveying a sense of collapse and entropy – that’s what makes the attempted reinstatement of order in the last 20 minutes so pathetic
JMT: There’s also this idea in WS1 of “real work” where you manufacture honest stuff, like airplanes, versus high finance, which is this mumbo-jumbo numbers game.
BW: yes, making versus owning
here it’s all much more conceptualised
3:03 PM JMT: I wanted more evil – it’s there in the depiction of Gekko in London sweeping up all these “distressed securities” in the wake of the crash. But then he goes soft for a real family, and they…accept him…after he steals 100 million from them…or something. They’ll all go into the fusion scheme together and lose their shirts!
3:05 PM I tell you, I’m convinced that scientist in California is scamming them. Cut to Terence Stamp smoking a cigar as the fusion factory is dismantled. Maybe it’s owned by the clean energy subsidiary of BP!
BW: haha, brilliant!
i kept thinking of marty mcfly and doc brown…
JMT: :)

3:06 PM BW: the redemptive coda is really bad, dramatically and morally. it makes no sense in the story and i can’t see any bearing to how things are panning out in the real world
3:08 PM JMT: If I were Winnie, I would have dumped the 100 million into the Frozen Truth web site for liberal bloggers she’s working on.
3:09 PM BW: what’s ‘frozen truth’ anyway?
what does it mean? what does she stand for?
3:12 PM JMT: I suppose “liquid truth” could be another sleazy metaphor for money. I see Winnie as a Generation Y New Yorker, raised under the umbrella of wealth drawn from high finance, probably a former dot.commer, determined to change the world, only not that much. As for Jake, it never seems to occur to him that if he wants to save the world maybe he should try another career path! I do like Susan Sarandon as “Jake’s Mother” (she has no name in the credits?!?), returning to being a nurse after her real estate business collapses. That brief glimpse of her back at work…
3:13 PM BW: yeah – along with the intimation that she hasn’t learned her lesson!
there’s lots of unclear, unsimple aspects to the film, i just don’t know if they’re meant to be that way
3:14 PM this jostling crowd of mentors for jake, for instance – the old-school banker, the ‘reformed’ gekko, the scientist, the upstart master of the universe…

Bad Dads…

3:15 PM and the visual clutter of the film – the ugly colour palette, those bizarre statistical graphics stone uses, those clashing pictures in josh brolin’s office (goya next to keith haring?!)
3:16 PM JMT: Right – the visual art theme also comes from WS1…The Gekko home has classy art. In the 1980s, the wealthy bought art as a hedge against inflation.
BW: if he left things messy and getting messier, that would make sense and be pretty apt to the situation, but he seems to want to resolve it all
3:22 PM JMT: Yes, this whole idea of muddle might be the key. Visually, morally, psychologically…
3:23 PM BW: …which i think could have been a fruitful way of dealing with the subject, but does stone know he’s doing it?
it’s, um, muddled…

[Coffee break.][6 minutes.]

Cell! Cell!

3:29 PM JMT: I think you’re right, the film is muddled. Really, the film is Gekko-sploitation, they know this sequel will make money, done. Bring out the hair gel and the big cell phone. Then what? I was hoping for camp. To me this film is a late Boomer parable about some very muddled generational compromises relating to the financial sector, made by a member of the Ameriprise Generation. In WS1, the money that’s stolen by Gekko comes out of a pension fund for airline workers. Now that the real airlines like WS1′s Bluestar have steamrolled their unions in bankruptcy courts and pensions are a dead idea, they’ve been replaced by 401(k) investment schemes where individual workers choose their own adventure in the stock market, tying their individual fate to that of large corporations. Because of the end of the pension system and the bailouts, all Americans are working on Wall Street now, so it’s a patriotic duty to see this film. Can we all get rich together through the market and retire with wealth without committing horrendous crimes? I imagine there’s deep ambivalence in the Boomer heart about all this.
3:32 PM Not buying?
3:33 PM BW: i’m sure you’re on to something there
JMT: The ending of the film contains your magic bullet idea that solves all these anxieties in one go – we can all invest in the fusion plant, get rich together, and save the world.
3:34 PM BW: there must be an escape pod?
JMT: From the broken economy?
And the broken family?
BW: right. just hold your nerve and we’ll ride it out… as they said at lehman…


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