Story Pile: The Big Short

This is one of those movies that serves as a kind of Fight Club test for me.

The movie doesn’t set off red flags, not in the same way as Fight Club. That movie is one where if someone espouses how much they love it, you have to hold your breath and find out whether they’re one of the fans who recognise how cool the movie makes Tyler Durden (who ultimately wins), or if they’re one of the fans who recognise how that’s a really bad thing.

With The Big Short, the movie is interesting, about a topic I find interesting, and presents it in interesting ways, as it restructures a complicated narrative of many moving parts into a simple, understandable, easily followed movie. What I wonder about, when someone says they love this movie, is what about it they love.

The Big Short is a 2015 movie, in the space of a ‘dramedy’ based on the 2010 book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine. The book is basically an extensive autopsy on the 2007-2008 Global Financial Crisis, and brought together a variety of researched sources that knew it was coming, knew what was going to happen, and how all claims of it being a surprise or a black swan or freakish outcome were completely wrong. It is an examination of thousands of different actions by a dozen large bad actors, expressed in the lives of millions of people, and as a book, it is mostly shocking in how much it could gather and prove about the deliberately obfuscated.

It’s also a big book about lots of different people’s stories interacting with a large, occluded event. That meant when it came time to make a movie about it, or rather, a documentary, you had to try and grapple with how to explain this enormous subject in a way that didn’t make it seem smaller, seem less immense than it actually was. It’s easy for a movie to make a big thing seem small – look at how many movies make the transition through outer space seem fast and convenient. It’s another thing to make a big thing seem big and yet still be able to see it moving.

The movie takes a documentary air and does some things that are, for lack of a better term, fun with its storytelling.

The movie has a stuffed cast that includes, well, pretty much everyone in 2015 who was in the right space and time to play a role in a movie about a bunch of rich white people moving money around in a way that ruined everything. There’s Christian Bale and there’s Ryan Gosling and there’s Brad Pitt (sick Fight Club reference bro), Crucially, the characters you see, the movements you observe, are not of the people doing the thing, because the actual crash was the culmination of thousands of repeated actions by a veritable fleet of bad actors doing it over, and over, and over again, and assuming there would always be more for at least one more transaction.

The protagonists, the central characters of the story (for the most part) are not the doers, but the observers. People who saw the crash coming and had a variety of possible reactions to it.

It’s not factual factual? There’s plenty of discrepancy between the real sequence of events and the smoother, more natural story the movie could tell you. The timing doesn’t work out perfectly, either, some names are changed, but the core of the movie, the details about the things that are explained and the mechanisms of this story are all very literally true.

The movie has this other element going on where because it’s describing some extremely nonsensical financial behaviours, it has to do that in some way that’s interesting. There’s a lot of challenging ways to do this, with characters sometimes back-and-forthing an extremely difficult explanation, but the problem that creates is you need characters who need things explained to them. In this movie, everyone involved in the weird mechanical movements of banking nonsense is doing stuff that requires them to already know it.

The movie therefore does sequences where it just straight up talks to you, the listener, about something boring, and does stuff to make it funny, or interesting. After all, all the characters know what’s going on, they understand it so they can explain it to one another. The only person who doesn’t know what a leveraged subprime mortgaging collateralised obligation is is you, listener, so here’s Margot Robbie to explain it to the camera directly using her own voice for once.

The Big Short isn’t that sophisticated a movie. It’s about something that’s complicated but in the end isn’t really complex. I briefly considered putting this Story Pile in the Magic Month story sections, too, because it is ultimately dependent on an economic magic trick. The essence of a subprime mortgage and these bundles is where there’s no information being hidden but information is being obscured. It’s that boundary between complexity and complication. If you shuffle a deck of cards, and then put that deck in a box, then put that box in a bigger box, then put that box in a watermelon, then put that watermelon in a truck, then set that truck on fire, the key information – the order of the deck – is unchanged and honestly, unrelated to the sequence around it. It’s not complex. There’s no way that the movements and shifts of the box in any of that sequence is meaningfully altered by that process.

All of which means that just, no matter how you cut it, it’s a big problem that people could see, people could understand, and a problem that people committed, knowingly, and without caring about it. It was one of the largest criminal acts in history, and it was, no matter how they claim otherwise, not committed out of ignorance. Every excuse about it was just that, an excuse.

And then there was a change of the guard, a shift in power, and suddenly, nobody was being punished for it, despite it being clearly and publically a committed act of immense evil, built on layers of evil, by knowing parties. I guess the red flag for me in this movie comes from when if you watch it, and walk away feeling helplessly bummed at something that couldn’t be helped, or if you’re left wondering about how necessary banks are in the first place.

Just on my mind lately.

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