View from the Couch: Margin Call

November 18, 2012 No Comments

by Matthew Sherman, MA

Matthew Sherman received his masters from MSU in German studies.  He was a Fullbright Scholar and is an academic fellow and early admissions candidate at the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute.  His current psychoanalytic interests include shame and the representation of violence.

His  Director’s Chair discussion of film clips from Margin Call:

I will be showing six clips from J.C. Chandor’s “Margin Call,” to highlight a few of the primary cinematic techniques and thematic elements. As such, this presentation will be a sampling in style, meant to underscore central cinematic aspects apropos of this particular film, while also delving into a few of my own personal interests and observations.


Clip 1: is actually the very opening Scene, which includes the end of the opening credits.

            Film has a wonderful capacity to blur the distinction between paratext and diegesis.  The opening credits of ‘Margin Call’ is no different. The paratext does not merely frame, but rather establishes a border, in order to emphasize the spill over of diegetic text, including both sound and image. Paratext is here a non-diegetic insert that is a visual and auditory establishing shot. The paratextual shot is a fixed, time-lapse of Manhatten, with a haze of music and sound overlap. The credits, then, serve to introduce the audience to the hussle and bussle of the financial market. This particular unflinching god’s eye view shot in time-lapse delivers the paradox in which the world is racing by a fixed subject, yet nothing is really changing.

            This perspective transfers into the opening sequence of the film narrative, in which a fixed camera shot captures the particular movement of this financial world, as a mass of recently released employees files towards the camera and approach the blurred clarity of proximity. The sounds and music of the paratextual shot carry over and the former merges into the locality of the office.

            Will instructs the young guns that it is “best to ignore it, keep your head down, and go back to work.” ”Don’t watch.” These first initial scenes underscore visibility. The camera constructs this idea in technique, as focus takes a primary role: focal points, focal lengths, and thus, the presence and lack of focus. The audience is, at times, unable to focus on these objects, and therefore, through their engagement with the apparatus, are subjected to Will’s instructions. We are, through technical form, forced into the visual ‘reality’ of the narrative due precisely to our relational coordinates to the screen. As viewers, we might respond with normative questions regarding the potentiality of these characters to disregard the realities of their environment, yet simultaneously we remain consciously unaware of our own literal inability to watch, to observe. We become workers within and through this systemic overlap. The master of cinema as an apparatus leaves us in a critical engagement with a directive that denies the very agency that enables such participation.

            The film exposes this relational positioning, where a woman makes her way through the floor, pulling employees who are about to get the ax. She is a ghost, an entity that does not exist outside the sphere of visibility. This collective disavowel presupposes not only the very ‘real’ existence of this entity, but more importantly the substantiation of a systematic Moloch, similar to that of the German Expressionist film Metropolis, which instrumentalizes the system of subjection in the sacrifice of its instruments. Yet, the embodiment of this Moloch speaks disingenuous pleasantries through smiling lips coated in pink lipstick. As she moves through the office, images shift between clarity and blurring, between visibility and obscurity.

            This structure, the operative functioning of the financial market and the subjects that stand as the objectification of its aims, is a façade. The firing of Eric Dale underscores the publicity of invisibility. He must walk through the office to arrive at the sacrificial tablet, as it were. The room in which this procedure officially takes place is constructed of glass on three sides. It is a transparent cage in which the ‘reality’ of the structure may become spectacle. Power is displayed so that the remaining subjects may struggle to escape the ‘truth’ of their own disavowal. This structure is self-sustaining because of this engagement with, and of, disavowed subjects.


Clip 2: is the scene which includes Peter Sullivan’s discovery in completing Eric Dale’s initial work.

            This clip is somewhat disconnected in thematically relational terms. Yet, it does limn the interconnectedness of subjective and collective experience. In a practical sense, this montage serves to break up the seemingly boring task of punching numbers by exploring the subjective humanity of Eric Dale and Sam Rogers.

            Peter Sullivan puts in his headphones and the music of the non-diegetic insert converges with the film narrative as a type of diegetic proxy. It is at this point that he begins to work on the sensitive material he received from Eric Dale.  The light, ¾ style shots in the office are contrasted by the hard cut to the dark, shadowy close ups of Eric Dale driving in his car, clearly pensive about his situation. This shot uses an unstable hand-held camera, which underscores more the blurry landscape of traffic being passed by. Moreover, it provides a subjective experience of movement and instability. The audience sees multiple shots of Eric, all of which locate his face on the margins of the compositional construction of thirds. One of these captures his reflection in the review mirror, a clichéd mirroring of identity on the road of life.

            We also see Sam at the veterinarian’s office with his dog during its final moments. I enjoy this scene because it is startling from the composite of the heartless financial advisor. Until this point we assume him to be one-dimensional. Yet, this is certainly warranted given the image of the film narrative. This scene of compassion is geographically and affectively removed from the cutthroat realm of corporate America. In his office, when he initially mentions that his dog is dying, it is constructed, not apropos of the affective, but rather financial investment to keep the dog alive. Once exposed to the scene in the vet’s office, then, we can locate the symbolic signification of language within the structure of money. To speak outside this realm of language is to betray the façade.

            An important thematic element of this series is the matter of time, another recurring aspect to the film, which is a race against time, or more appropriately, a countdown. Peter’s watch is the focus of a close-up metonymically speaking to all three of these protagonists. Peter’s time, if we may speak of it in this sense, is a flurried forward progression. This is reinforced by the short shots that capture his work. Eric’s time, as emphasized by the symbol of the rearview mirror, is retrospective. And while time is expiring for Sam’s dog, he is momentarily caught in a temporal space of time standing still. Sam also checks his watch at the end of this shot, which, although ambiguous, might suggest that he is counting the moments until his dog’s death. This symbolic death is crucial to an understanding of empiricism within the structure of the financial market. There aren’t so to speak, many moments left until the imminent death of the current vitality. The implications, then, of the scene at the end of the film in which Sam buries his dog, are quite clear in this regard.

            This clip ends as Peter finds the remaining variables of Eric’s work, discovering the looming plunge of the market. The camera slowly zooms in on Peter, as though closing in on the discovery itself. The music slows and stops at the point of revelation. Music and tempo assume an important role in this scene. If I may be permitted the use of a cheesy pun, the slow tempo of the initial song strikes a cord with the affective subjectivity of Eric and Sam. More interestingly, as I mentioned, the tempo slows as Peter uncovers the current market volatility. This is, in fact, the exact metaphor that John appropriates in the meeting for the current situation. This clip, therefore, underscores the poetic capacity of cinema, in which form presents and represents content.


Clip 3: shows the initial conversation between Will Emerson and Sam Rogers, in which Will informs Sam of Peter’s discovery.

            This scene serves to reiterate a common thread throughout the film, namely, that the puppeteers don’t necessarily understand the movements of the puppets. In other words, the nuts and bolts of the financial market operate according to the work of individuals seemingly low on the corporate ladder.  When panic sets in and Sam asks whether the model is accurate, whether Peter is correct, Will responds, “I don’t know, what do I know.” It seems, then, that the system is constituted by the manipulation of players but is reconstituted in the players’ bolstering of the system. The operation depends on the careful calculations of subjects who hold no control over operative functions.

            As panic sets in, Sam responds exactly as Will did in a prior scene. He understands the necessity to have Eric Dale on board, because he speaks the ‘language,’ that Will and Sam lack. Furthermore, the viewer is reminded of the systemic underpinnings. Eric Dale was recently let go without hesitation. He was simply a name on the list; another body to pass through the revolving door – until, that is, the security of the system depends on his presence.

            I would also briefly add that this scene illustrates a common method, implemented by Hollywood, which enables an audience to ‘understand’ the complexities of conceptual ideas, yet provides just enough gap in linguistic signification for viewers to identify the film as ‘smart.’  Will explains the meanings of the model, saying “these here are the historical volatility index limits, which, of course, our entire trading model relies on pretty fucking heavily.” This statement essentially presents an enigmatic conceptual idea, which is cunningly elucidated in the colloquial speech of the second clause. By doing so, the initial clause assumes a gap, which is filled in by a generic “this” or “this formula.” In other words, a gap in signification is constructed so that that the viewer may fill it in with a provided commonplace signifier. The viewer thus fills in the blank, while acknowledging the existence of that blank and projecting this subjective lack onto the film itself as a redeeming sense of intelligent content.


Clip 4: is the scene of Peter and Seth in the Strip club

            Is this clip an example of the standard strip club scene, inserted to stimulate the typical Hollywood audience? I don’t think so. I view this scene as one of a few which epitomize the symbolic signification inherent to the fundamental thematic exposition of the film. In a very general sense I view the film as a delineation on the particularities of an essential reading of Lacanian theory, namely, the inherent relationship of the “slave morality” within the symbolic order. The simplicity of the camera perspective in this scene affirms this equation. The fixed camera shot with an extremely slow and slight forward zoom emphasizes the systematic signification and subjective identification occurring between Seth and money as signifier.

The conversation in this clip occurs only within Seth’s character. He ponders the how much money the strippers make per night. This is a recurring theme of the film, particularly for Seth’s young character, who is driven by money. It is through a monetary value that Seth is able to define his position. Money is a relational term, a point of identification. These numbers, then, establish the social coordinates of everyone around him.

            Let’s approach the image of the stripper as though it weren’t a clique narrative avenue for monetary prostitution, patrilineal exchange, and masculine desire. After all, the strip club in Margin Call is removed from the go-to Hollywood attitude of sexualization. Yes, this is an element, and we see a scantily clad bartender, yet, the audience isn’t exposed to the act of stripping. Thus, it seems this scene aims to explore the social-psychological composition of Seth, who, unlike Peter, stands as a metonym for the financial world.

            Margin Call presents multiple, although subtle, interactions, or more specifically lacks in interaction, between wallstreet and mainstreet. The strip club scene is one. Others include the conversation between Jared Cohen and Sarah Robertson in an elevator, in which they stand on either side of a member of the janitorial staff. Another example also occurs later in the film, when Peter is walking the streets of New York and passes by a garbage crew picking up trash. Clearly these two examples relate to matters of cleanliness, a topic I will address later. But what is important here is to note the absolute lack of interaction between the investment bankers and the people who hold positions more readily associated with the working class. In these particular scenes it is as though these people aren’t even present.

            Stripping, however, is at least recognized. Seth gives it a nod for his assumption that the girls make two thousand dollars per night, claiming that it’s good money, considering. This type of identification, however, is predicated on a particular set of internalized social signs. For Seth, people are imbued with signification based on their profession, yet only as it contains a qualified signifier in monetary terms. In this regard, the Other, by which Seth evaluates himself, is simultaneous reduced and enigmatic. In his identification with the Other, he locates his position of power in relation to the monetary value he projects into that Other. This interaction reconstitutes the hierarchy of power. As a social member who bestows the relevant monetary sign, he reconstitutes the symbolic order, the Law, in his reductive signification. This symbolic order, this language, is predicated on monetary signs, which define and construct the subjugated nature of the order. This subjugation demands the subjective indebtedness to not only the order itself, but to the superior masters within the hierarchy.


Clip 5: is the conversation in the bathroom between Sam and John Tuld over whether Sam will cooperate with the plan to sell everything.

            In a film that wrestles with normative claims, that is, conflicting notions of morality, it comes as no surprise, that there are scenes involving the literal and metaphorical methods of cleanliness. This particular scene opens with Sam washing up in the restroom, when John enters to corner him.

            At first there is a tangible level of distance. This proximity emphasizes the compositional distance between these two characters. As this gap narrows it seems to be the symbolic slip of paper that brings them together, at least momentarily, as Sam ultimately walks away from John again, reestablishing distance.

            The technique of this scene is unflinchingly firm. The shifting of the camera perspectives remains mostly constant and oscillates between Sam and John in a very strict sense. The result is opposition in form. Yet, these shots are predominantly over-the-shoulder shots, which often signal, along with the metonymic close-up, a question of morality. Indeed, this scene underscores this question of right and wrong, which Sam struggles with, further emphasized in his placement before the mirror in the restroom. In contrast, it seems at least, that John approaches the matter of morality in a completely different fashion. This matter is inherent to the conversation, in which John wants to know that Sam is on board. Yet, in typical fashion, it is a matter of money, a matter of persuasion. In other words, we witness the limits of morality.

            Setting is crucial in this scene. The bathroom is essentially a location of dross. It is a place of expulsion and renewal. It should be fairly clear that this conversation, then, occurs in a place of excretion, due to the moral question at hand. John wants Sam compliant.  He wants to know that he will deliver. Yet, the true element of discussion is a figure on a piece of paper. Money is conceived to be an uncleanly construct. It is so dirty, it would appear, that it cannot even be spoken of in a place built for shit. It is he-who-must-not-be-named.

            Money is dirty, it is ideology. I am reminded of Zizek’s analogy of toilets as a representative system of ideology. He claims, not only that the codification and conceptualization of waste is ideological, but more importantly, that the act of flushing is ideology in process. I suggest, thus, that this scene speaks to the ideological function of money as an intangible ideation of corruptibility.


Clip 6: shows Seth and Will discussing the overall situation in Will’s car

            This is one a few scenes that sheds light on Will’s character. It opens with Seth asking whether he will lose his job, to which Will responds with the typical dismissive answer of, he doesn’t know. It then appears as though Will feels for Seth’s condition and states honestly that he will, in fact, lose his job. His apology that these circumstances have resulted in Seth’s predicament is immediately undermined when Seth realizes that this will really affect people, at which point Will asserts, “yeah, people like me.” Seth then says, no, real people. The distorted nature of this financial world comes to the forefront.

            Will says that he contributes to the balance of the world. He has his hand on the scale that favors the rich and powerful. Interestingly he here identifies with the paradoxical position of Seth and Peter, which is, that they, to an extent, control the fate of the people above them on the hierarchical ladder.  There is a system of scales, then, yet Will is truly conscious only to his own. His monologue condemning the rich and powerful is laughable considering he delivers it from his Bentley. Telling Seth that he should believe he is necessary to the system because he is, appears to be a self-reaffirmation, rather than genuine empathy. Will is justifying his position in the world. This is a superior position of injustice, necessary given his world-view of the hypocrisy of ‘fairness.’

In this trajectory he touches upon the moral question of money. “They want what we have to give them,” he says, “but they want to pretend like they don’t know where it came from.” He assumes an almost self-righteous position in asserting his ability to accept systemic truths and reject the hypocrisy of “normal people.” Will acknowledges his worth to the system that he condemns. He points towards the dog-eat-dog nature of the financial market.

Ultimately, Will, like all the other characters, protects the company, that is, they protect their personal investment. This is Sam’s veil as well. He mentions his loyalty to the firm in the bathroom scene, yet admits later that he is doing it for the money. The system is built on money, and it appears, thus, that the constituents of this system become enslaved to the ‘necessities’ that is produces.


In conclusion, I’ve outlined six scenes to open a dialogue with the film’s strengths, and, perhaps a few weaknesses.  By including these scenes I intended to provide a general exposition into the technical and thematic aspects that frame the film as a relatively well-constructed text. I was particularly interested in cinematic techniques that spoke to predominant themes, such as visibility, structural functionality, symbolic codification, and morality. I hope that this presentation was revealing in these aspects. Thank you.

View from the Couch

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