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Great Recession and Financial Meltdown Films

Drag Me to Hell

For the past year or so I’ve been keeping a shortlist of post-AIG recession-themed films, with the hopes of one day teaching a Great Recession film class. There are, however, a number of concerns – some pedagogical, some ideological – that come with the topic. For one, I wouldn’t want to put students’ political and economic beliefs so squarely on the table, with nowhere to hide and no end in sight. Nor would I want the class to become my own personal soap box to proselytize and indoctrinate. (That’s what the blog is for, after all.) On the other hand, maybe it would be a good thing to bring students’ feelings and thoughts on the current economic situation directly into the classroom. In this job market, it’s something that’s no doubt already in either the back or front of their minds, in which case why not talk about it openly and explore its popular and cinematic representation?

That said, I would hesitate to teach a straight-forward documentary like Inside Job (2009) or Capitalism: A Love Story (2009). Though I am probably sympathetic to their shared perspective on “what brought about the financial meltdown,” they don’t strike me as particularly insightful or innovative, and would, I imagine, come off as didactic, closing-off rather than opening-up conversation. In fact, I would be much more partial to screening a conservative or libertarian documentary – and not as a red herring for the main, “true” feature. In my experience – hardened when I taught a politically-themed “Seminar in Composition: Film” class last year – Nietzsche’s dictum, given under the subsection “The Epistemological Starting Point” in Book 3 of The Will to Power, is a good guide for engaging political topics and positions:

Profound aversion to reposing once and for all in any one total view of the world. Fascination of the opposing point of view: refusal to be deprived of the stimulus of the enigmatic.

I think that rather than teaching the truth, so to speak, especially on a polemic-inviting topic like this one, it’s more effective, pedagogically, to teach curiosity and fascination with the other argument. A Nietzschean pedagogy wouldn’t relay everything to an assessment of its truth-value and be done with it, or organize everything said or seen against that crippling balance sheet, but would be much more interested in political topics’ capacity to generate big feelings, passions, and new forms of organization and power, whatever their validity, ethics, or justification.

President Barack Obama stands in front of a generator at General Electric, Friday, Jan. 21, 2011, in Schenectady, N.Y. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

So if I were teaching a class on the so-called Great Recession, I think I would include a lot of Tea Party- and libertarian-oriented visual media –  the recent Atlas Shrugged: Part I, for instance – and approach it a bit like an ethnographer or participant-observer, more curious to see what my students would make of it than in setting the record straight. That said, I think it would be more important to take a closer look at Obama’s “economic recovery” photo-ops, the fascinatingly dark White House Flickr stream, and, more broadly, the exploitation of new, little-understood forms of publicity, propaganda, and surveillance by the first administration to make use of social media in a big way.

As for the cinema, there are not in actuality all that many recession-themed films to choose from, a lack that is no doubt in itself symptomatic of a greater crisis in representation. However, where mainstream publications do acknowledge this conspicuous, and surely structuring, absence, it is often only to excuse it. The A.V. Club‘s “inventory” of (missing) films goes so far as to suggest, even in its title – “Hey, things could be worse: 21 great films to put the recession in perspective” – that such films don’t “yet” need to be made, if only because “things could be worse.” Though only two of the twenty-one films listed actually dates from the Great Depression – I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932) and Man’s Castle (1933) – the implication nonetheless is that when things get worse – and the article almost seems to be suggesting that things will get worse – recession-themed films will organically emerge from the ether and appear in cineplexes everywhere.

The November 2010 Los Angeles Times article “Recession-themed films? Not at the multiplex” makes use of the same fallacy – of a Great Depression Hollywood sensitive to the times – to explain our own age’s insensitivity to ours. Though, like today, few Great Depression-themed films were actually made during the Great Depression – I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932) is the most well-known exception – Lewis Beale insists that “Today’s filmmakers — unlike their 1930s counterparts — have basically ignored the downturn’s effects on regular people, opting instead for the usual youth-oriented fare.” What’s conspicuously missing in editorial accounts of Depression Hollywood is that it was not until World War II when the recovery was well under way that the poverty and hard times of the Depression were widely acknowledged on the screen. And even then, it is often argued – by Paul Schrader, for instance, in “Notes on Film Noir” (1972) – the angst, cynicism, and hardship of the Depression was most acutely expressed not in films strictly about the Depression during the Depression, but afterwards, and more stylistically than thematically, in what only retroactively became known as film noir. One question for us, then, is whether there are less literalist approaches to the recession at work in Hollywood today – approaches that may be more stylistic than thematic, and so less obvious and identifiable than a simple plot line or setting?

That said, the films that do directly, and thematically, refer to the recession tend to situate themselves at the top, in a financial capitalism setting. Both Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) and the lesser-known Subprime (2010), which is not yet available on DVD, are concerned with demystifying the opaque world of high finance and giving an image to what can otherwise seem technical, invisible, or unrepresentable: namely, banking regulations, the specialized vernacular of the stock market, and the social conventions of the insular, exorbitantly wealthy inner circles of the institutions that, in effect, crashed a world economy. Though Wall Street 2, especially, is ultimately as mystifying as it is demystifying – I mean, our sympathies are made to lie with an implausibly (and disappointingly) reformed Gordon Gekko – the film does at least succeed in acknowledging an institution that the media and the national political discourse in this time of austerity and anti-government populism refuses to consider a political or economic actor. These films are, in other words, a poor substitute for anthropology or political philosophy, but where they fail (or are, rather, uninterested in succeeding), something like Karen Ho’s Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street – or, for an insider’s perspective, the anonymously written (with N+1‘s Keith Gessen) Diary of a Very Bad Year: Confessions of an Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager – and David Harvey’s recent The Enigma of Capital: and the Crises of Capitalism (especially the chapter, “The Geography of It All,” on rent, housing, and the subprime market) would put these films in perspective and help reveal the ideological maneuvers at work beneath their slick and humanistic surfaces.

For Lewis Beale, however, the slew of Wall Street-themed films are already problematic in their refusal to mention the meltdown’s effects on “average people.” Even Up in the Air (2009) – the only recession film that, for me, manages to paint a systemic picture while still holding close to the people on the ground – is complicit in its focus on Ryan Bingham’s (George Clooney) lifestyle, “barely touching on the people whose jobs he eliminates.” Beale, rather, finds The Company Men (2010) to have struck the right note, in its exclusive focus on three characters who lose their jobs in a round of corporate downsizing. A far cry from I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932), which follows the struggles of a wrongly convicted itinerant worker, The Company Men – which is still, to me, a Wall Street film in many respects – is about well-paid corporate executives who after getting laid off are forced to make some adjustments and, ultimately, rediscover themselves. “Despite the relative affluence of the key characters,” Beale argues, “writer-director John Wells’ picture is universal in its portrayal of the anger, depression and financial difficulties these men experience and of how the loss of their jobs also means a loss of identity.” Though this may be true on some level, the political context of its release could not help but interfere with its universalist message. In January 2011, the national economic debate was, after all, dominated by executive pay scandals (the “banker bonus“) and cries from the rich that they’re poor. Perhaps it would be fruitful to compare this film, in a classroom setting, with the more recent and more humble Larry Crowne (2011), which features a laid off salesman, played by writer/director Tom Hanks, who decides to go back to college and, not unlike those in The Company Men, reinvent himself, find happiness, and start anew.

Both films are, in this sense, excuses to tell a tale of redemption and reinvention, offering happy endings and a resolution that can only seem ideological and naive in this context – not that the viewers who these characters are supposed to represent are capable of being fooled on this point. Only Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell (2009) avoids these pitfalls. Though it is ostensibly about the subprime meltdown, and in that respect falls under the Wall Street category, the protagonist is a loan officer in a small town rather than a banker in a big city, and the woman she evicts, who happens to be a gypsy, is as a result able to become a force – a supernatural force – to be reckoned with directly, through a “curse.” Though this film seems to have received only terrible reviews, it strikes me as the most sophisticated and formally complex recession film to date, and I think students would find it the most entertaining and clever of the bunch. Either that, or the romcom Post Grad (2009), starring Alexis Bledel as Ryden Malby, a college graduate trying to find a job and get by. I haven’t seen this one, but I’m sure I would be almost afraid to teach it, especially to seniors. But then again, isn’t that the point – to see how cinematic forms have adapted to new, more personal forms of horror?

In the meantime, Brit Marling, the co-writer, producer, and star of Another Earth (2011), will be drawing on her experience at Goldman Sachs, where she interned as an economics major at Georgetown, in next year’s Arbitrage (2012), which will star Richard Gere as a hedge fund manager cooking the books to sell his fund to a big bank. Though (if Arbitrage is any indication) it looks like Wall Street-set films will continue to dominate recession-themed productions, television, I suspect, may be taking a different approach. However, my lack of cable – due, in part, to the wage crunch of this same recession – has put me a little behind the times and unable to comment. And for a recession that is first and foremost televisual, a class on it that focused exclusively on the cinema would likely paint a biased or inaccurate picture. So, if you have any recommendations – of recession-themed programs or episodes – they would be much appreciated. I don’t think this class could be taught correctly without an extensive televisual component.

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  • FelipePS

    The further I read your entry, the more excited I got about the prospect of your planned course on Recession-themed media products. Let me know when and where the course is offered and I’ll take it!

    I understand your misgivings about how to approach this course, and I agree entirely with taking a page from Nietzsche to plan the class. It would seem, however, that coding the politics behind films like “Atlas Shrugged” as an “other” might lead to the same result as starting with “Inside Job” and laying your ideological cards on the table. The ethnographic curiosity you (rightly, I believe) turn to should be applied to all the works in the course and their perspectives, not just to the ones that seem strange, alien, or extreme. One issue I foresee with this take on the material is that students will become very inquisitive about where you, the professor, finally stand on the issue. I’ve seen this happen in Masculinity Studies seminars, where the professor would start the conversation, and then staunchly refuse to answer when asked directly what he thought. Some attendees of this seminar seemed quite frustrated with his position, but I believe it worked, since the absence of the authoritative voice never allowed the conversation to settle and accept whatever the professor said. It would be a matter of finding how you can keep your interventions in the class (as lectures or during discussions) illuminating, but not definitive in giving them conclusions, and when you want to bring in those arguments that you have deemed the most nuanced and compelling.

    As for televisual texts, I’m a bit out of the loop myself, but having seen, on DVD, past seasons of “Breaking Bad” and “Weeds,” I think they have a lot to say about this topic. While they are not about the effects of the Great Recession on entire populations, or about this specific collapse per se (although I’m sure they will engage with it in current seasons), they both have protagonists who take extreme measures to deal with financial difficulties. I mention them because responding to economic crises is a central part of these shows’ central premises. I’m sure individual episode of other series have their Recession-themed moments (“Modern Family” tackled it in a memorable episode, where Phil, who works in Real State, allows his frustration with a particularly tough month for his business to get the best of him when dealing with a malfunctioning fire alarm), but “Breaking Bad” and “Weeds” are about the long-term consequences of acts that appeared to be committed in the name of desperation and survival in difficult times, yet reveal the true nature of those who committed them. Just a suggestion for another possible angle.

    I would also suggest using something like “The Amytiville Horror” which addresses fears of foreclosure and bankruptcy without providing the larger context of a widespread crisis.