Entry from December 13, 2011

Why do we continue to suffer with so little objection the continual tide of Hollywood rubbish keeps washing onto our shores? Maybe it’s because we have lost the ability to tell good from bad. Here’s an example from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal where L. Gordon Crovitz writes a column in praise of the movie Margin Call, apparently under the impression that it corroborates his own expert analysis of the financial crises of 2008 and today in the Eurozone. Maybe I’m too thick to understand it, but in his column, Mr Crovitz seems to me to get these crises more or less right, for he sees the problem in both cases as essentially one of self-delusion. In the years leading up to the crash of 2008, politicians wanted to believe that lending standards could be relaxed in order to extend home-ownership more widely among the poorer segments of society who, as they should have foreseen, could not repay the loans. Today, politicians still want to believe that sovereign debt is a sound investment when all the evidence tells us it is not — and that there is no end to the number of financial levers they can pull to make things come out the way they want them to. They should know better, but as the lesson of all bubbles tells us, they will not until it is too late and the bubble has burst.

Mr Crovitz is right about this, but Margin Call is not. The movie’s writer and director, J.C. Chandor, does not see his fictional crash as the result of self-delusion but of a clear-sighted conspiracy by a wicked group of businessmen who, after suddenly and inexplicably finding by a stroke of mathematical insight (huh?) that most of the assets on their books — and, apparently, their books only — are worthless, plot together to sell them off to suckers around the world before the information can get out. Hollywood, as usual, needs a villain, and its villain, as usual, is a rich businessman who is prepared to ride roughshod over anyone and everyone for the sake of his own gain. Casting the lazily aristocratic Jeremy Irons in this role and giving him a name reminiscent of that of the head of Lehman Brothers is a perfect way to underscore the film’s politically correct, left-wing view of the world’s financial crisis as the work of rapacious “capitalists” and not, as is in fact the case, governments mistakenly believing in their own powers to make people better off by fiat.

That David Denby of The New Yorker believes Margin Call to be “the best Wall Street movie ever made” does not surprise me in the least, but that Mr Crovitz quotes his opinion approvingly does. How can he see the truth so clearly and then commend to us the work of someone who would cover it up with a congenial falsehood? I have no answer to this question, but it does suggest the enormous good will that Tinseltown still has to draw on from right and left alike in selling its all too predictably distorted view of the world. From Mark Zuckerberg to J. Edgar Hoover to Dick Fuld, real people appear in the distorting mirror not as they are or were but as they best fit in with Hollywood’s well-established narrative about history and politics, and even people who know better can be relied upon to congratulate the fabricators for the sake of their exciting performances. I guess that’s what they mean by glamour.

Maybe Mr Crovitz tips us off as to the nature of the problem when he begins his article by writing “Art imitates life, even on Wall Street.” Now you would think that this would be an obvious example of “dog bites man.” Of course art imitates life. That’s what art is meant to do, isn’t it? What he seems to be groping for is the ancient paradox, “Life imitates art.” That’s what we say when something surprising happens that is unexpectedly like something that some artist has already imagined. And it’s unexpected precisely because art rarely does imitate life anymore. That’s what the great liberation of post-modernism was all about: the ancient Western mimetic principle was shrugged off like a weight on the artist’s shoulders, and he was left free to let his fancy range wherever he liked — usually over the rich fields of other artists’ work. Thus when a work of art comes even vaguely close to imitating life it becomes big news to some people — who are thus pathetically grateful for it and hardly inclined to quibble about what the artist has got wrong. Well, it’s a theory anyway.

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