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The Big Short (2015)
An unexpected and necessary masterpiece
Comedy is tragedy + time, right? We're now over 7 years out from the apex of the American financial crisis, which spiraled outward across the world, and yet what has really changed? People are still making millions/billions off the suffering of others, corporate control reigns supreme, fraud is common and remains largely unknown, wealth continues to be ever more concentrated in the grasp of a few, and the remainder of the populace are treated as proverbial rats and made to feel uncouth should they question the system and question not wanting to live their lives playing this sadistic game. Taking 2 pennies and selling them to someone for a hundred dollars remains a legal activity, just call those pennies by a different name and suddenly it's okay to pass them off as fair market.
It doesn't sound funny at all, but The Big Short succeeds in turning this demented and corrupt circus into something improbably hilarious and probing. The power of comedy is its ability to let us see something from a different viewpoint, allow us to process it in ways we wouldn't have been able to otherwise. As we might laugh at children for the hilariously unaware things they say and do, so too will humankind in the future hopefully laugh at how completely pathetic and ignorant our present society has been. Martin Scorsese opened the flap up into the circus entrance with "The Wolf of Wall Street" and, while making good points, was perhaps a bit too concerned with his own technique and had a bit too much indulgence, reveling in the frivolity of it all. The Big Short completely blows the top of the circus and dissects it in every way, starting with the widespread fraud and greed in business, and then examining how it has seeped into our entire existences. Even the good guys here are ultimately out there to make money, lots of it. Isn't that what society tells us we must to do, in order to be valuable? It's sick.
McKay's approach here is "throw everything in, including the kitchen sink" and that creates an energetic, brilliantly matched representation of the subject matter. This does not mean he is lacking control, however. The story being told includes so many facets and characters that it easily could have fallen into disarray, but McKay makes every single character memorable and illuminates every piece of jargon that could be confusing from the outset. It's a huge accomplishment and a far more important one than might seem apparent. The things that were allowed to happen in the realms of business, finance, and banking are absolutely INSANE and unbelievable. It has to be largely comedic because there's no other way of delivering this vast amount of information and complete failure of our entire society and make it all snap into place so continuously, without being ripped apart by the overwhelming darkness of it all. This isn't simply circumstantial and theoretical and mysterious to a degree, as in Oliver Stone's "JFK", but the cold hard truth.
It's not enough to even ask for the truth anymore and ask for answers, we need to question the entire system, a whole web of poisonous bonds that have tightly wound themselves so entirely around us. The work of the film itself is allowing us to project our thoughts, our fears, our anger, and our confusions into this convoluted conundrum. All while being told the truth, so that we at least have a place to even start down the correct path of understanding. It's acting as our own investigative journey in a time when actual news and journalism has become a tiny spec of its former self. We now have more information than ever available to us, yet it's often so shrouded and twisted as to become unrecognizable. There are still those who fear education for what it would do to their own position in life, how it would challenge their own reality. We are still held under the thumb of "greed is good", "thinking you're inherently better is good", "vanity is good".
The shiny mainstream hallmarks of a typical Hollywoood commercial product - the agreeable lighting and manicured actors and tidy locations - are so perfectly representative in this film of the emptiness within the characters and indeed in our entire society. After all the progress we think we've made towards world peace and human rights and medical advances and the stability of the human race, have we lost sight of what a fulfilling life and a world of justice should really be? Aren't we still captive to the same pointless rituals and superficialities, doesn't a veritable monarch and royal court still control most everything? We are now living our lives working for something that can be wiped out with the stroke of a keyboard. We are told something of monetary worth that is non-existent, for all intents and purposes, is something we should strive for. Making a bet on the outcome of another bet is a whole industry. The non-existent and ridiculous and pointless directly hurts the lives of many.
The Big Short is one of the most important films of this era and one of the best. I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. It is an illumination, a magical pairing of a director's sensibility to exactly the correct form that most fully allows it to blossom and hold water. It is water which the film warns us will be the next basic human necessity to be denied by those few who hold power.
Duo sang (1994)
One of the most perfect films of all time.
It's amazing how Nien-Jen Wu uses long takes, but a shot never sits on the screen longer than it needs to. Everything is a complete thought, a touchstone of understanding the people being depicted, and as soon as our senses and minds have been enveloped and the verse has reached a natural conclusion, we move forward. Unlike certain other filmmakers whose choices of long, static shots may cease to convey any further meaning after a certain point and lead to "boredom", there is a rhythm and song here that feels true to life and expresses the place, the time, the emotion, and the viewpoint of the filmmaker.
There's a ruleset Nien-Jen has with the film: the first being no closeups and the second being no forward/backward movements of the camera, except for one time when Nien-Jen breaks his own rule and creates a harrowing passage. In general the camera moves very little if it all, only when the movement of the characters needs to be followed in a shot. In any case where a large camera movement would be needed, there is an edit instead. In several instances the camera stays in one room while the "action" happens in another and it always works brilliantly, allowing us to imagine the exact magnitude of the situation for ourselves and removing any excessive melodramatics that might have otherwise occurred.
Every shot has multiple dimensions, layers to look at, and there is a natural brightness that is often contrasted with deep shadows throughout. Nighttime shots are very much cloaked in darkness with only minimal light to see the characters, but this doesn't ever obscure what they are doing and feeling. I was blown away throughout by how effortlessly gritty and yet inviting the images were. This is a GREEN film as well, with objects of nature (frequently lush trees and also fields/hills of grass) taking a prominent role in the film. We are especially exposed to these landscapes because of how open the homes are and the choice to peer outward into nature while watching the characters. The earthly tone provides a calm, a structure of how rooted the characters are into the life they've been given, and a sense of passing life.
This is also one of the most aurally tactile films ever, with the soundscape adding immense detail into what is happening to these characters. You feel as if you are living alongside these characters, hearing small sounds that naturally tingle our senses but are taken for granted, while at the same time being drawn directly into the movement and action of the individuals. The sound is sure to never overwhelm the images, and it usually does not draw attention to itself, but at the same time the exactly necessary sounds are heightened from what you might expect to hear if you were standing from the perspective of the camera. Thus we are constantly a passive observer, like a random villager watching from a small distance away, and yet also feel as if we are standing next to these people. Music is used sparingly in the film but it's surprising given the approach that it is used at all; a distinct and open feeling is always created when it appears.
Another departure comes with Nien-Jen's occasional usage of voice-over. This is a welcome and intimate touch, providing additional detailing to the story and a direct link to a tangible individual, placing us into the frame of mind of an old friend telling a special secret. Nien-Jen has a very discernible concern with telling a story, even though the narrative is episodic. He is not satisfied with only using form and images, metaphors and symbolism, but instead wants those to be important elements instead of the whole itself. Nien-Jen is allowing every tool of cinema to be used, as needed, to create his operatic vision and I absolutely love it.
The story is a two-fold love letter to appreciating what your elders have done for you and also a powerful statement for why humanity needs to treat every individual as someone who inherently deserves to be allowed a healthy standard of living. Nien-Jen's father spent his life working in the mines, killing himself in order to simply survive and provide for his family. He has to focus on just getting through life and being able to find enough enjoyment to not make daily living something that would drive a person to suicide or crime. His goals and dreams beyond that are very simple - visiting Japan once - and he isn't even able to fulfill that one dream because of how unfairly difficult and draining his life has been. We have to understand that a higher standard of basic living is a necessary right for everyone; only when that stability has been achieved can humanity more clearly work together and collectively be able to pursue higher intellectual understanding, growth, and communal peace.
The film does not overbearingly demand for us to feel this, but rather shows us and invites us. When you think about how sorrowful much of this story is, the treatment of it is not actually that depressing. Nien-Jen does not bask in the misery and ugliness of the situations or even highlight it more than a casual amount. Instead we are given truth and given an expansive portrait of a family, of a father and son, and their small joys in life allow us to process the heavier themes and to continually watch and question. Ultimately a visual recurrence characterizes the life of the father: we first see him and finally see him in a cinematic bath of white light. Over the course of this time he got no further towards bettering his life or achieving a desired journey than he could have in the time it takes a light to flash. It's sad but the respect we have for him, that Nien-Jen has for his father, is beautiful.