Wednesday, October 3, 2012

"Arbitrage" - An Important Movie?

If you haven't seen it, Woody Allen's 1989 film "Crimes and Misdemeanors" is a good one. I remember at the time reading how the actors (especially Martin Landau and Alan Alda) played their characters as much nicer people than Woody Allen had intended them to be. The result was a much more believable story. Because few people live their lives full-time in "asshole" mode. There's often a thread of logic rationalizing their idiotic or selfish behaviour, allowing them to see themselves as good people; sane people in an insane world. (Again, one of the great significances of the Margaret Wente plagiarism scandal is how it exposes the extent to which so many people don't have to justify their views in a genuine debate. With no counter-arguments [that they have to defend themselves against] people like Wente get to drift along in blissful smugness, believing they're vindicated.)

I think something similar might be happening in the film "Arbitrage" starring Richard Gere:

I was reading an interview with Gere about the film and he was saying that he wanted to play the character (a corrupt Wall Street tycoon and a philanderer trying to cover-up the accidental death of his mistress) sympathetically. His character wasn't supposed to be a cartoonish villain, but a flawed, selfish, rather ordinary man.

Saul Landau from CounterPunch has an ambiguous response to the film; Is it a loathsome attempt to paint a sympathetic portrait of a man who epitomizes the super-corrupt US ruling class, or is an attempt to paint a realistic portrait of this archetype?

What emerges is a Hollywood portrait of the modern villain. Gere’s character no longer resembles the one he played as the “Pretty Woman” millionaire. In “Arbitrage”, he portrays modern evil, a compelling looking man willing to do whatever it takes to help himself, in business and lust, but without social conscience or a sense of responsibility.
This fa├žade of a philanthropic patriarch. who philanders as naturally as he dines with his family, emerges on screen as a realistic portrait of the kind of felon who could wreck the world economy and think only of saving himself as the world collapses around him. Realism, Hollywood style. Justice? Not in the “Arbitrage” script, nor in the reality of the US economy or justice system. Attorney General Eric Holder has ordered raids on marijuana distributors that have licenses, he’s prosecuted John Edwards and former Yankee pitcher Roger Clemens, all unsuccessfully, but has indicted none of the criminal bankers who broke the system. Will a film about this lapse of governmental action provoke the AG to arrest a real bad guy?
The film's catch-phrase - "Power is the Best Defense" - seems to show an awareness of the issues involved.

Because to a great extent, these Wall Street criminals aren't evil super-geniuses cackling and giddy. A lot of them are just stupid shmucks. They buy up financial junk because there might be a big pay-off, sometimes they get burned, and they cast about for some way out of their predicament. Enormous wealth means comfort, pleasure and security. It's not a world they want to leave. Walking around in their bubbles of privilege they justify gross social inequality by denigrating everyone else (the 47% from Mitt Romney's blathering) and looking for other people to blame for all that's wrong in their worlds.


Gere's character accidentally kills his mistress by falling asleep at the wheel of a car. Martin Landau's character deliberately murders his mistress and successfully covers it up. But at the end of the film (set a year after the events of the film) he appears to have re-connected with his wife. He's a genuinely loving and happy family man and successful, caring physician. The body of his mistress is quietly mouldering away somewhere, forgotten. He's a criminal, but he sees himself as a decent guy who has been given a second chance. He's a murderer.

"Arbitrage," if it gets across the way that our elites function and gives us a grown-up understanding of the pathetic reality of the so-called "1%"  could be a very worthwhile movie.


Owen Gray said...

It sounds like the film has the same message Hannah Arendt delivered after watching the Adolph Eichmann trial: Most evil is banal.

It is committed by "ordinary, hardworking" people. Eichmann was a family man and a superb manager who sent people to gas chambers.

Just an "ordinary guy."

thwap said...


Good point. In this instance, it's attractive people in elegant surroundings. Their pleasing appearance masks the inner corruption.

Purple library guy said...

Mind you, I think often this "likeable villains" thing is overplayed. A lot of our financial, and right-wing political, elites are not likeable. They may not be cartoon villains (except Dick Cheney), but they're sure as hell assholes. They're arrogant, obnoxious "big swinging dicks"* with no taste and no class, whose idea of impressive is ice sculptures of Michelangelo's "David" pissing champagne. They're the kind of people who, when they travel, stay in identical hotels no matter where they go, and rarely stir farther than the hotel bar where they schmooze and posture and play superficially-hearty social dominance games with the other rich arrogant folks doing the same.

Seriously, a few years ago I went to a daughter's wedding which she held on this small Caribbean island, and one of the relatives who came is this rich business dude. So a group of the family went for the afternoon to this even tinier island with nothing on it except gorgeous beach, gorgeous scenery, and a tacky little bar. So he walks straight into the tacky little bar, faces away from the windows and drinks all afternoon without ever giving the whole thing a glance, and then later commented that there wasn't much there. Other than the wedding&reception itself, his whole stay in St. Martin I don't think he was ever anywhere except a hotel, a bar, a limo going between hotels and bars . . . I don't think he spoke a single word to any local not in a uniform.
Basically, an awful lot of modern rich folks seem to be something like that horrific Australian father guy in "Muriel's Wedding", only more successful at it. Look at Dean del Mastro, or Baird, or Toews, or Rob Ford.

So I'm not sure these sympathetic portrayals of people doing objectively unpleasant things are much more realistic than cartoon villain portrayals. Don't know if the failure to show them as the unpleasant oafs so many of them are is a class problem so much as Hollywood's suspicion nobody would want to pay them money to see that movie.

*"big swinging dicks" was a Wall Street term for the sort of alpha-males of the financial trading world.

thwap said...


I see your point and I agree with it. There are many paths to enlightenment. A film that shows that villains don't have to be obvious gives us some weaponry against them though.

Just as (say) a film that shows the hollow, empty people behind all the bluster and extravagance.