Monthly Archives: June 2014

JC Chandor: Margin Call and All is Lost



Our Man (Robert Redford) using a Sextett navigation tool in All is Lost (directed by JC Chandor, 2013)


American director JC Chandor is one of the most exciting new filmmakers. His brilliant first feature, Margin Call, described the horrors of a near financial breakdown from the inside of a Lehman Brothers-type investment bank. The film gave an unprecedented fictive insight look into a high-stress scenario based on the initial stages of the 2008 financial crises. When a trader (Zachary Quinto) first discovers anomalies in the system, the lower ranking employes gather and stare incredulously into the graphs and numbers on the computer screen (Paul Bettany, Penn Badgley). A wonderful cinematic standoff moment of human bodies vs. highly abstract technological data. The danger is, and here lies the palpable, but immaterial, quantum-abstract horror, somewhere hidden inside the banking network ready to unleash a toxic tsunami. The company faces a systemic or human-made (who knows) error so huge it could bring down the entire company and ripple through the global economy with destructive force. Bettany and co. stare at numbers, numbers somehow linked to their very lives, and the lives of countless others out there in this complex, interconnected maze called city. There are no usual physical monsters in Margin Call, the immaterial ‘new’ horror is inscribed instead into the general atmosphere, the tenseness of the employees, the uncertainties of the consequences if this goes wrong. Note: Financial crisis first manifests itself in unusual algorithmic patterns, then rumours spread and lead to radical changes of the emotional inner state of the employees (the sudden realisation of the magnitude). Words are uttered, the problem is addressed via simplified models (‘talk to me as you would talk to a child’), then stress breaks free, open threats come to the outside, containment deals are forged. Some guard sane, professional pragmatism (Kevin Spacey). The top boss arrives at 2am (helicopter), calm but tense (Jeremy Irons). The parties try to understand, again, what has happened, and to make a plan how to fix it. Anger erupts, the Head of Risk and her boss is help- and speechless (brilliantly played by Demi Moore and Simon Baker). They have no clue. The only person who saw it all coming (Stanley Tucci) got fired recently.

Besides Melanie Gilligan’s Crisis in the Credit System, Margin Call is the best films about the financial crises. It portrays the systemic dangers of technological financial systems. Margin Call is a film about technological acceleration, human despair and the feeling of obsolescence when faced with systemic catastrophe. In short, a film about Anthropocene, the age that ‘marks the evidence and extent of human activities that have had a significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems’ (Wikipedia). Humans built the global economic infrastructure, but when toxic products, bubbles and other dangerous economic elements appear and the overall system stability is threatened, humans find themselves in a position of helplessness, in a radically fragile state, as if put in place by an Artificial Non-Intelligence. Here, a new existentialism comes in.

In his most recent film, All is Lost, the ensemble cast has disappeared in favour of an aged, but healthy looking Robert Redford, the only actor to appear in the entire film. Is JC a true author cineast? Would a thematically coherent inner line emerge? After watching All is Lost, it can be confirmed. Chandor continues his existentialist quest into the very fabric of contemporary human fragility in a global, interconnected world. Here, the global is an international water and trade route environment (the Indian Ocean), where Our Man (Redford) gets shipwrecked by a drifting container (an anonymous, modern-metal body with cheap mass-produced shoe-entrails spilling into the ocean).

For the rest of the film, Our Man is struggling to keep alive in the rough sea. It is compelling to watch how Chandor manages to focus on the objects that give hope to Our Man: cans of food, a sun hat, a plastic water canister, a sextant, maps and navigation book, a water protection suit, paper etc. Again, as in Margin Call, we have technological devices, albeit simpler ones, that take center stage in the game of survival. In Margin Call, the technology is hidden away in computer systems and financial networks. The objects in All is Lost are man-sized, basic, helpful. They become co-protagonists of sorts, because Our Man cares for them and we with him.

In today’s world humans and objects are intrinsically bound together (think of smartphones). All is Lost is an homage to one particular object, the sextant (see image above). Wikipedia: ‘A sextant is an instrument used to measure the angle between any two visible objects. Its primary use is to determine the angle between a celestial object and the horizon which is known as the object’s altitude. Using this measurement is known as sighting the object, shooting the object, or taking a sight and it is an essential part of celestial navigation.’ The object is a hymn to good old engineering and a metaphor for navigation as such. We don’t know much about Our Man on the ship, he certainly enjoys being alone at sea, but when disaster strikes, his will to live is firm and he is looking forward to get into the Indian cargo trade route, were huge ships transport goods as part of the endless global trade stream. But these ships simply pass by without noticing him. This is a strong moment in the film. The massive, megastructure-like container ships look like automated freight spaceships drifting through space. Truly non-human entities assigned with a mission in a global network: to bring goods fabricated by human laborers (+machine help), to human customers. The human size, next to such a ship, is negligible. The ship has human agency (the mission and goods designed by and for humans), but would not stop to consider a single human life in need). It is on a capital mission. 

Both films take place mostly in an inside (the corporate building in Margin Call and the ship in All is Lost) surrounded by a beautiful, but potentially lethal environment. The general lethality level rises with the failing of technological aides. But the films do not proclaim the innocence of man, in contrary, they are testament of the deep implication and embeddedness of the human being in the fabric of the world. ‘It’s not man vs. nature, but rather man vs. the byproducts of mankind’ (Noah Gittell, Hollywood’s Scariest New Villain: Random, Floating Junk, The Atlantic, Oct 18 2013). In the Anthropocene era, humans seem to have arrived at a fragile crossroad: They established global systems and trade infrastructure that, generally, work pretty well, except when they don’t. The two films show how fragile human’s relationship with technology and technological equipment still is. The jamming of the wet communication radio seems to tell us ‘what if technology fails and leaves us for dead’?

A message or instigation of these films could be to deeply overthink our fragile relationships with capital and technology and to find ways to make them more anti-fragile (a notion that Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote about his book Antifragile).

Regarding the weirdness of capital, David Denby wrote (All that Glitters: Margin Call’ and ‘Anonymous, New Yorker, Oct 31 2013), How could men and women paid fortunes for their judgment have continued, as late as 2008, to package, repackage, and sell billions of dollars in bonds backed by subprime mortgages? Our sense of the unreality of their enterprise is far greater than their wonder at our innocence.’ Noah Gittell compares the dangerous floating junk in All is Lost and Gravity (the shoe container and the space debris) in his Atlantic article Random, Floating Junk. Gravity is another existentialist movie and there are surprising parallels between the two. But these films don’t give teary anti-technology statements, they cannot be seen in any nostalgic, existentialist light. As I would argue, Margin CallGravity and All is Lost are in fact films of Promethean order.

One could mistake these films as conservative, status quo reinforcing tales. ‘The world is fragile enough, don’t go into space, don’t go to the sea. Come back and stay with the family’. But that would be a reactionary reading. The films have far more destabilising, visionary, game-changing underpinnings. They say ‘look, we got to this point as humans. Shall we stop here and be ripped apart be random space junk? Shall we let our economy crumble because of toxic, semi-illegal derivative products? Shall we continue to rely on a few fragile technological objects rather than prepare for the real storm to come?’ These films call for a new age of acceleration proposed in some texts in the recent Accelerationist Reader (Urbanomic 2014). In the reader, Benedict Singleton calls for a renewed space age in his ‘Maximum Jailbreak’, referring back to the stunning (and hilarious) set of ideas by cosmist Nikolai Fyodorov. Reza Negarestani, in his ‘The Labour of the Inhuman’ calls for a renewed age of enlightenment by building sophisticated, nested, global, decentralised and self-revisioning rational structures. Negarestani uses the words ‘rational vectors’ to describe the navigational characteristic implied in his concepts (the All is Lost Sextett comes to mind again with its vectorial purpose). An Accelerationist stance seems to say, ‘let’s understand our terrestrial standing as co-authors of Anthropocene. Let’s really understand it, and therefore, let’s build (infra-) structures that assume our position as beings-as-common-authors in order to make us and our impact on earth more anti-fragile, more self-revising, more rational (which implies a concentration on cities to alleviate impact on the general ecological environment outside the cities)’.  Accelerationism wants technology that is more solid in its anti-fragility and reliability. Space junk should not constitute an existential danger for space travellers. One company or even several economic bubbles shouldn’t be a threat to the entire global economy. We can build it better. We are the engineers, so let’s not be content with the current fragile infrastructure.

Again, what these films show (with an Accelerationist spirit in mind) is that we shouldn’t content ourselves with myopic smartphone absorption, but might want to consider the bigger picture, the existential frame we are in as a species, on a globe in space. We built a complex, global infrastructure, but let’s not stop there. Let’s start a global dialogue and reconsider this infrastructures to continue or start the real Anthropocene project open for continuous revisions.

JC Chandor’s two films thus raise important questions about our age at crossroads. What on first sight feels like cinematic examinations of existential angst situations hides much deeper issues regarding what humanity might decide in order to truly navigate a technological world of their own making.

What is man, Our Man, when facing a major event, such as a storm, wether it be of natural or financial origin? Coming back to the Sextant tool, how do we navigate existence (the existential and rational question) and how to move forward, as a species? JC’s next film, A most Violent Year, features Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac. Wiki synopsis: The film’s story is set during the winter of 1981 in New York City, one of the most violent years on record in the city’s history. Looking forward to see where Chandor is going, and we with him.

MG 2014

TED CHIANG – Stories of Your Life and Others (2002)

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang (published in 2002 by Small Beer Press) is a collection of eight short stories (around 30-40 pages each).

Four of these (Understanding, Story of Your Life, The Evolution of Human Science, Liking What You See: A Documentary) are excellent in my view and touch on many complex issues regarding how we perceive life, other human beings and technological devices/discoveries.

Note: Story of Your Life will be made into a movie starring Amy Adams, with Denis Villeneuve directing. The basic synopsis:
Story of Your Life will star Adams as an expert linguist who is recruited by the military to determine whether a group of aliens crash-landing on Earth come in peace or are a threat. As she learns to communicate with the aliens, she begins experiencing vivid flashbacks that become the key to unlocking the greater mystery about the true purpose of their visit.

Read below what Chiang thinks of Hollywood’s somewhat simplistic treatment of Science Fiction material. It is of interest how the adaption will portray the aliens and their potential motives for visiting earth.

From a conversation between Ted Chiang and Betsy Huang where he talks about his personal view of SF:

TC: (…) One of the things I talked about was how my sense of science fiction differs from the popular conception of it. I think most people’s ideas of science fiction are formed by Hollywood movies, so they think most science fiction is a special effects-driven story revolving around a battle between good and evil, or something along those lines. While I like a story of good versus evil as much as the next guy, I don’t think of that as a science fiction story. You can tell a good-versus-evil story in any time period and in any setting. Setting it in the future and adding robots to it doesn’t make it a science fiction story.

I think science fiction is fundamentally a post-industrial revolution form of storytelling. Some literary critics have noted that the good-versus-evil story follows a pattern where the world starts out as a good place, evil intrudes, the heroes fight and eventually defeat evil, and the world goes back to being a good place. Those critics have said that this is fundamentally a conservative storyline because it’s about maintaining the status quo. This is a common story pattern in crime fiction, too—there’s some disruption to the order, but eventually order is restored.

Science fiction offers a different kind of story, a story where the world starts out as recognizable and familiar but is disrupted or changed by some new discovery or technology.(my italics) At the end of the story, the world is changed permanently. The original condition is never restored. And so in this sense, this story pattern is progressive because its underlying message is not that you should maintain the status quo, but that change is inevitable. The consequences of this new discovery or technology—whether they’re positive or negative—are here to stay and we’ll have to deal with them.

This is a quintessentially science fiction storyline and it makes sense only in the wake of the industrial revolution. To a pre-industrial society, this kind of story would be incomprehensible, because no one had ever seen the world change in their lifetime. After the industrial revolution, we understand this story because we’ve all seen the world change. That’s what I think is at the heart of science fiction and what I usually tell people who aren’t familiar with it, whose ideas are mostly informed by Hollywood.

There’s also a subset of this progressive story pattern that I’m particularly interested in, and that’s the “conceptual breakthrough” story, where the characters discover something about the nature of the universe which radically expands their understanding of the world. This is a classic science fiction storyline. In Asimov’s “Nightfall,” for example, the characters undergo a conceptual breakthrough. They discover that their world is merely one planet in a universe that is vastly larger than what they had imagined before. Or James Blish’s “Surface Tension,” in which the characters are microscopic organisms living in a pond. They build a craft to leave the pond, which means overcoming the powerful surface tension of the water’s surface. When they do, they discover that the world is vastly larger than they had conceived.

That is a story pattern I like a lot, because one of the cool things about science fiction is that it lets you dramatize the process of scientific discovery, that moment of suddenly understanding something about the universe. That is what scientists find appealing about science, and I enjoy seeing the same thing in science fiction.