SPOTLIGHT + THE BIG SHORT – Themes, Agenda & Exposition
‘We’re living in an era of fraud in America. Not just in banking. But in government, education, food, religion, journalism, prisons, baseball…’
Mark Baum, THE BIG SHORT
‘Rider implicated after motor found on bike at world cyclo-cross championships… on Saturday a hidden booster motor was found in a bicycle being used at a major event… in the bottom bracket of a machine reportedly belonging to the pre-race favourite in the women’s under-23 event, the European champion Femke van den Driessche of Belgium.’
The Observer Jan 31st 2016
Two quotes that struck a chord with me last weekend – one from THE BIG SHORT, the new film about the financial crash of 2007-08; and another from last Sunday’s Sport section of The Observer.
The quote from THE BIG SHORT talks to one of the themes of that movie, and the other quote echoes it! One of the most frightening conclusions of THE BIG SHORT is that nothing has been learnt from the financial crash among the first world’s financial institutions.
THE BIG SHORT is a deeply political film that wears its heart on its sleeve – it’s anti-capitalist, and hugely thought-provoking. It’s a tricky balance in a script between having a powerful agenda as a writer, and being ‘on the nose’ – but THE BIG SHORT finds that balance brilliantly.
The themes of THE BIG SHORT were also to be found in another Observer Sports story – ‘Aston Villa manager Remi Garde says Charles N’Zogbia has opted to see out his £65,000-a-week contract rather than leave.’ Well, there’s a surprise! This is a man who has started exactly 0 games for his club this season – and yet still his employers pay him more in a week than the vast majority of us can dream of making in a year.
In the world of top-level sport, he is certainly not exceptional. And this is the same sort of madness that THE BIG SHORT is about. To quote ‘Mark Baum’ again –
‘I just know that at the end of the day regular people are going to pay for all of this. Because they always, always do.’
As with the financial institutions, so with football. When Aston Villa are relegated at the end of this season and saddled with player contracts like the above that they can no longer afford, it’s the ordinary spectator who spends a considerable portion of their annual income on following their team, who will suffer the consequences of the mess made by the club owners who are in the game for a quick buck, and who gamble the future of the club they own to line their own pockets.
But if corporate, institutional greed can be understood (?) when there is so much money potentially at stake, it beggars belief that this sort of fraud is also prevalent in a sport like cyclo-cross. I mean most of us don’t even know what cyclo-cross is! It’s a tiny, niche, non-Olympic sport, with the lowest of profiles. And the idea of hiding an engine in a bicycle is almost laughable it’s so brazen! What possible joy can that team / competitor get from achieving success in this way?
One of the things I loved about THE BIG SHORT was its sense of outrage. One of the elements that makes a good script stand out for me is what it’s trying to say, and how it communicates the writer’s agenda, their passion. So many of the best scripts do this, and THE BIG SHORT is a shining example.
I came out of the cinema with so many thoughts and questions. It made me think about how everything in life is political – the way we all live our lives involves making political decisions, whether we like it or not, on a daily basis.
Last weekend I also saw the film SPOTLIGHT, which I enjoyed – although I don’t think it’s on the same level as THE BIG SHORT.
One of the big script issues in both films is that of EXPOSITION, and how this is handled.
Both films throw the most enormous amount of information at you via dialogue. In SPOTLIGHT, it’s almost as if they’ve taken this issue on board – and decided to ignore it. Scene after scene involves thinly-characterised journalists trading reams of investigative information. The actors’ main response to this issue seems to be to rattle through their lines as rapidly as they can – which isn’t a bad idea. Rachel McAdams in particular speed-reads her performance. It’s also one of the least cinematic films I’ve seen – visually it’s very uninteresting, and almost all of the story-telling is dialogue-driven rather than visual.
But strangely, the film sort of works. It takes a bit of getting used to initially, but as it develops, the reality of the case under investigation, the facts, are so stunning, that the unfolding of the exposition is almost enough in itself to carry the audience along.
In contrast, THE BIG SHORT is wonderfully inventive and imaginative in the way it handles exposition.
One thing both films have in common is that their narrative journeys are pretty straightforward – we know where both films are headed before they start, but both use different techniques to take us along for the ride.
From the opening sequence, THE BIG SHORT acknowledges the difficulty of its exposition head-on with direct address to camera, voiceover, on-screen captions and every stylistic device in the book (including stopping the action to have celebrities explain arcane financial notions to us, direct to camera!). The tone of the film is knowing and humorous. One of the ideas, in this film that is packed with interesting ideas, is that the financial institutions rely on the complexity of their workings to bamboozle those it wants to bamboozle. For me, the film was a brilliant combination of the entertaining, instructive and downright shocking.
Where SPOTLIGHT’s characterisations are generally paper-thin (although, again, weirdly, this sort of works) the characterisations of the principle characters in TBS are full of believably real foibles and idiosyncrasies. As with so many of the best screenplays, each of the main characters is wonderfully and believably dysfunctional. And so, however complex the context of the scenes, we enjoy spending time with these recognisably flawed human beings.
Like so many of the best films THE BIG SHORT holds up a mirror to the human condition, and to contemporary culture.
It’s important to appreciate the best films like THE BIG SHORT – for what they are, because there are so few of them. I saw a trailer for the forthcoming film DEADPOOL which even in the 2 minute trailer managed to be offensive on several levels. The story seemed to be selling itself as – a man with terminal cancer is miraculously transformed into a superhero / killing machine, and then goes on a trail of extreme and graphic violence, killing random people in a variety of bloody and horrendous ways. Nice.
Here’s a link to THE BIG SHORT script. Enjoy!
Until next week,
All the best
Feb 5th 2016