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22 October 2011 @ 10:07 pm
Margin Call  
I can't say that Margin Call is exactly an enjoyable film, but it's absolutely frickin' brilliant.

This is a film where everything happens in the spaces between words, between lines, between scenes. It's a... what's holier than a Swiss cheese? A ciabatta of a film, but tasty nonetheless.

This is a film about the Wall Street collapse of 2008 that barely attempts to explain the insanely complex financial shenanigans that caused the crisis. It feels as though the filmmakers decided that the audience is never going to understand it anyway, so let's go ahead without explaining it at all. Though there is some explanation late in the film, and as one critic said they play the "explain this to me in words of one syllable" card a bit too often, the key here is that you don't need to understand the finances. All you need to understand is how important they are to the characters, and the top-notch cast makes that abundantly clear through a variety of understated techniques.

Another way in which this film takes place in the gaps between lines is that it depends a whole heck of a lot on the audience's understanding of the characters' world. If this film somehow fell through a time warp to the year 2000, no one would understand it. You need to have at least some understanding of the 2008 financial crisis to understand the plot. You need to know that when one character flips another character a small black object (which barely even appears on screen), and later that second character pulls the top off of something that looks like a lipstick, that it is a USB thumb drive... and what a thumb drive is, and how it is used, and what it can contain. When two characters are sitting at a bar, and you hear a buzz, and one of them glances down at his lap, and they both leave the bar without a word, you have to know what text messages look and sound like and what they can mean.

When I was in high school I took an acting class in which we memorized a very simple, meaningless dialogue1 and then had to present a brief scene using that simple script to express a relationship between two characters (first date, estranged lovers, father and son who's going off to college, etc.) -- it's all in the intonation, the body language, the pauses, the subtext. Practically this entire movie is like that. Much of the dialogue is banal, and the action restrained, yet the actors manage to convey the emotion and importance of the situation.

And the situation is important, dramatically important. There's a lot of tension in this movie, even though we know how the 2008 financial crisis ended up.

I commented to Kate on the way home that "this is a science fiction movie, and the science is economics." But, as she pointed out, that isn't really true; it's not SF because there's nothing in it that didn't actually happen. This is, nonetheless, a fabulous example of how you can take a plot that is made up of technobabble and mathematics and turn it into a story about people and emotions. I'd love to do something like this in SF, but as I mentioned above it depends so much on the audience's understanding of the history and technology that you would have a real tough time writing an SF or fantasy story that still worked if you left out as much as Margin Call leaves out.

So, in summary: not a fun movie, but one that's worth studying.


1 I still remember every word: "Hi." "Hello." "It's been a long time." "Yes it has." "How've you been?" "Do you have to ask?" "No, I suppose not." "Did you walk?" "No, I got a ride." "Oh."

Kalimac: puzzlekalimac on October 23rd, 2011 05:49 am (UTC)
I think it can be done. It'd have to be an SF story set in the near-present, as this movie is, or the recent past, and heavily grounded in reality, to do this. But there are SF stories of that kind, and I think this technique is doable.

To be set in an imagined future, it'd need a lot of raw exposition, separate from the plot, of a kind that used to be common in SF but is apparently not the done thing these days.
Deldel_c on October 23rd, 2011 11:31 am (UTC)
I think your text example is a good one, but the thumb drive is just a slight twist on the floppy disk, or those squares of perspex that sf films used to represent "futuristic data storage media". The only problem would be that the clichés of futuristic data storage media weren't usually shaped like lipstick cases. They were more often something shiny or glassy, and flat rather than tubular. Apart from that, there's nothing about a scene involving a thumb drive being tossed around that couldn't have appeared in, say, "Outland" or even "2001".
David D. Levinedavidlevine on October 23rd, 2011 05:26 pm (UTC)
The trick here is that there was absolutely no dialog or other clue that the small black object was a data container of any kind. You had to have the cultural knowledge to understand what was being tossed and what it meant.
scarlettina: Movie tixscarlettina on October 23rd, 2011 03:02 pm (UTC)
This is interesting to me on a number of levels, not the least of which is that it's playing at two major multiplexes in the Seattle area, it's got a terrific cast, and I have never heard of it. I've never seen a trailer--nothing. Your post is the first mention I've seen anywhere. Given how on top of movies I try to be, this is kind of astonishing to me.

As for the storytelling technique, minimalist scripts are always interesting. I suspect that one of the reasons the cast is so impressive is that the script leaves a lot for them to do, to interpret. It allows them to truly be storytellers. I'll have to see this if I can.

PS--I did that acting exercise, too, when I took classes several years ago. It's a great little tool, demonstrating the potential that this sort of minimalist writing provides. Cool stuff.

Edited at 2011-10-23 03:03 pm (UTC)
Wolf Lahtiwolflahti on October 23rd, 2011 03:08 pm (UTC)

Just because something really happened doesn't mean that it isn't fictional.
Curtis C. Chensparckl on October 24th, 2011 08:25 am (UTC)
Related to your comment to Kate: I feel like the TV series "House" is also science fiction at heart, not because the events depicted couldn't or didn't happen, but because the science (medical in this case) is way over the heads of most of the viewing audience. Very often, the diagnoses aren't even explained; it's how the onscreen characters respond that tell us whether the technobabble is good or bad, and to what degree. And when it's done well, it's brilliant.