Saturday, 13 May 2017

The Big Short (2015): A Review

Now, I know what you might be thinking. Since I reviewed Whiplash a couple of months ago I must be some kind of dweeb who watches Oscar nominated films. And, I mean, maybe I am a dweeb (answer in the comments, this isn't rhetorical) and I do watch Oscar nominated films (for instance, I've also seen Birdman), but I'm not an Oscars dweeb. In fact, I can barely tell you what films won Oscars, let alone those that were merely nominated. But more to the point, I don't like critics.

Now, on one hand you might just say the reason I take issue with critics is because I am some kind of radical hipster. That is to say, you think I don't like things because they're popular. If so, you must be my brother... but since he has no self-generated opinions where did you read it first?? But while I can see the logic... critics exist simply to guide opinion... I am utterly contrary... people listen to critics... therefore I dislike critics and their criticisms (or dislike them because they function as opinion leaders and I'm mean like that)... the reality is that critics are like weathermen: they very rarely get it (right).

The thing is, what I see myself as doing is having independent opinions (this is important). I might do things a bit weirdly and prefix a review of a movie in a blog with a spiel all about me or I might offer an entirely conventional reading of the Bucky Barnes/Steve Rogers relationship. I think that I see things as they are, as much as anyone can do so. And, yes, this extends to my thinking that I am better at perceiving randomness than you. The point is that I back myself.

So, sure, it's true that I am sympathetic to the notion of "people are sheep" led by blind shepherds like critics. And, naturally, I'm one of those people who puts up barriers when something is raved about. And hell yeah I'm a believer in fatigue... that sense of "Every man and his dog is talking about this, choose something else, damn you!" But for every time I think that critics have missed a trick and are talking about something irrelevant (maybe the subpar cinematography... as if that matters... or the lack of artistic quality... as if critics know and as if that's what we want in an action flick), I think this is because there are valid reasons for this, not irrational heuristics like "a critic thinks it, they must be wrong." And I'm never going to suggest something I like is bad because others like it too, now. I don't care.

But the thing is... I read what critics have to say. I know they loved fake Avatar and hence fawned over Pocahontas in Space! when it came out (Pocahontas is also not a film I care for). I know they liked King Kong (2005) at the time, too. But I listen to critics, when I avoid weather reports like the plague, because they have something to say (the weather's just bollocks; I look out the window). And thus I can tell you fake Avatar is over-rated (and if this reassessment took hold it'd become under-rated) and that they were right about King Kong. To the best of our abilities, we need to take things, not at face value, but as they are. What something means isn't going to be found that way, but what something is and intends to be matters as well. It is possible to be wrong, That's the big message here.

As regular readers of this blog (please, please exist) know, I'm an economics student. In some respects, I'm not a particularly good one because I'm a stereotypical "I know it for the exam" kind of student (honestly, though, if you knew it once, when you relearn you really refresh but if you never knew it, you're learning... and this is a big difference). But I do know what economics is, and The Big Short is not about economics. The Big Short is a movie about applied finance. I can't tell you how that's different to finance or how that is different to financial economics as I have never know very much about these (indeed, I spent time actively avoiding studying the latter during my most recent timetabling season). If The Big Short makes you want to studying economics, power to you... but please don't interpret the film as being about what economics is.

What happens in The Big Short does rely on economics. That is, without macroeconomic (in particular) understanding, the real-life versions of the characters wouidn't have been able to do what they did. The point I am alluding to here is that economics is more than the study of money (and definitely isn't about the practice of making money from financial instruments, transactions and whatever other buzzwords I'm missing), which is a little dishonest. This movie is about people who do this. That is, hedge fund managers and would-be big traders. More specifically, it's about three sets of men who bothered to look into what was going on with the mortgage based practices of mid-noughties America.

Very simply (and with all suitable disclaimers), the Global Financial Crisis happened because there was a housing (as opposed to tulip or dot com) bubble in the USA. The thing with bubbles is that they generally rely on what everyone "knows" being true. Invariably, this isn't the case and housing is not a sure thing. (In NZ it's artificially made surer due to regulatory practices and policy settings.) Yet, reality does not guide people's behaviour, so what mattered was that people thought this way. As a result, lots of mortgages were made on the principle that the house values would make up for the inability to afford (in the everyday sense) the houses the loans related to. And these mortgages are known as sub-prime mortgages.

Once the sub-prime mortgages were created, they then got shifted around and changed hands so much anyone who might have known their "true" risk wouldn't have known where to look for their current owners to see how it panned out. And even if they had cared to do this (they didn't... the GFC's beginnings are also a case study in incentives and regulations), they very likely would have believed that the new ownership structure meant it was all A-OK. Chuck in some more big level cock-ups (ratings agencies and conflicts of interest) and a quick diatribe about American politics and, voila, millions of people without jobs, homes and that all important sense of security.... globally.

So... some dudes realised the world was about to end and decided to make some money. And you feel okay with this because, morally, they were the man sticking it to the man? Or, rather, it's okay to fiddle while Rome burns if you're not responsible for the arson, the procession of the flames or able to do anything to stop it. But it's still an interesting question: can you grow to like bankers enough to watch the film? After all, bankers have been scum since 2008. You know. I know this. Alex knows this.

In some sense, you wouldn't expect a movie about easily the most significant development of the last ten years to have spoilers. You especially wouldn't expect a movie made with hindsight about people with foresight to have spoilers. Well... you'd be wrong.

The Big Short isn't just an... idiosyncratically put together film, it's a film where the outcomes aren't all "already known" and I was legitimately curious about how it pans out. But I think the reason the critics liked it is because it is idiosyncratic. And that's ironic given how I started this alleged review, but it totally fits the characters. Remember, this is a film about people who looked at the prevailing sentiment and thought, "What is this based on? Is it real?" And they didn't change anything except how much money they made. And how much money they stopped their clients from losing. This was not a house of cards that stayed up based on beliefs... according to the film anyway.

Also, the characters just weren't cynics without reason. It's no respectable thing to be cynical if you can't explain why they're wrong. The fact of the matter is that the "wisdom of the crowd" is a real thing. The issue is that the crowd is meant to represent something quite different to a real crowd... that is many people with independent decision making processes. A real crowd, of course, is essentially a single organism. Similarly it is no respectable thing to be cynical, when your cynicism is the reason someone has to be cynical. And if that's you... at least the characters in this film wonder about what their ideas mean. Don't be you. Be them. If that's you.

I don't know if The Big Short is really going to appeal to people who didn't even bother with the soundbite. I don't know if it has the same resonance if you can't get over bankers. I don't know if it resonates. But I will say... if I picked up a graphic novel that looked as nuts as the film's construction, I'd read it. That's a ringing endorsement, dear reader. Certainly better than that rubbish Whiplash.

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