Margin calls

November 3, 2011

Two movies this week, one new — “Margin Call” — and one old a second time — Alan Pakula’s “Klute.” Both didn’t live up to what I expected or recalled.

“Margin Call” got off to a phenomenal start. I’ve never seen any movie capture the feeling of being at a large U.S. investment bank better: the swearing, the repeated expletives, the English traders sprinkled among the Americans, the let’s- fire people-and-talk-about-them-no-more days, the perpetual fascination with how much money other people are making. But then it went on a bit too long and got a little too improbable. A friend of mine claimed it wasn’t improbable at all, just an accelerated one-day version of what happened with mortgages overĀ  six months, and that may be true, but it lost my interest towards the end. Nevertheless, a very accurate portrayal of the trappings of a culture.

I also watched “Klute” from Netflix. Good to pass the time, but less convincing and cornier than I remembered. Very dramatic music but not that much genuine tension. And Jane Fonda, the prostitute turning tricks who is ultimately won over by someone’s care? She is great at playing a tough woman, but very unconvincing as someone with a meltableĀ  heart of gold. The only way you know that she’s been touched by Klute’s care is that she tells her shrink about how touched she is, repeatedly. But she doesn’t look or sound touched at all.


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In Margin Call. Before the final boss’ monologue, a couple of rationalisations of financiers are put forward:

1) We deal at arm’s length with rational counterparties.

2) Normal people relish the credit that Wall Street provides, but at the same time blame financiers when “the world gets real fair, real quick.”

3) What’s right? Right for whom?

Then the boss (Tulda?) says more or less:

4) We can’t control or even influence events; we just react.

5) The same ratio of fat cats to starving dogs has persisted throughout history.

I might have missed a few here.

Do you think real financiers really hold those views? And what’s your reaction to them.

A couple other interesting aspects of the movie:

* the clueless and the ruthless were of greatest service to the firm (or those who are both)

* contrast between old and young (particularly 23-year-old “Seth” represents the most dogmatic pro-Wall-Street attitude)

* oblique references to “real work” are all that’s ever needed (“digging holes”, “building bridges”) … we and they know money is what beckoned them and heels them

* everybody’s smart but nobody knows what it all Means (cf. PPE morphs to PNE)

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