Why the Arts Ignore the Art of Finance
Finance is the great neglected subject of American art. Among the enduring American writers, only Theodore Dreiser took up the serious study of the “Lord of Finance” as a central figure in the national story. His extraordinary novels The Financier and The Titan, based loosely on the career of the 19th century entrepreneur C.W. Yerkes, offer an indelible portrait of an amoral genius whose drive to create new types of financial transactions Dreiser explicitly likens to an artist’s need to write or paint or sculpt.
These two books are among the glories of American literature, and the fact you likely haven’t heard of them – or were never given them to study in college – helps explain why most 20th century writers had no interest whatsoever in the subject. I can think of only one major American novel, William Gaddis’ JR, that centers on the act and art of investing.
This is understandable in one sense. There’s nothing inherently dramatic about the pricing of an initial stock offering or the construction of a derivative. And that is perhaps why Hollywood has, historically, stayed away from finance as a subject. Intellectual labor isn’t fun to watch. People talking on phones can be exciting, but only for a minute. People negotiating deals can be interesting, maybe, but only if you understand what the deal is about – and that’s hard to get across. People who aren’t involved in market transactions find them abstruse and confusing, and the people involved seem to find it necessary to talk to the rest of us like we’re four years old.
In a desperate effort to make his audience pay attention to the underpinnings of the 2008 financial crisis he was portraying in his movie The Big Short, writer-director Adam McKay put the gorgeous actress Margot Robbie in a bubble bath with a glass of champagne and had her explain the process by which bad mortgages were bundled with good mortgages to create uniquely dangerous derivatives. It was a clever way to acknowledge that the material he was putting on screen was recondite and confusing – and to allow him to break the fourth wall and literally deliver a 90-second lecture on the packaging of mortgages.
These movies, conceived during the crazed bull market that began in 1983, offer up Wall Street and investment banking as an exciting free-for-all world.
There’s a great moment in Trading Places, the 1982 comedy set in the world of commodities futures, in which Ralph Bellamy pedantically explains to Eddie Murphy that pork bellies produce bacon “that you might find in a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich,” at which point Murphy just turns and looks straight into the camera in disbelief at Bellamy’s condescension.
The laugh might be real, but the movie’s climax hinges on a number that appears on a digital board, and we in the audience have literally no idea what to make of it until Murphy and his friend start jumping up and down with joy. I’ve seen the movie a dozen times and I’m still not sure what happens. I think they bought on the dip and then the commodity price recovered some, but I could have that totally backwards.
Trading Places is almost certainly the Great American Commodity Futures movie, in part because there are so few others. A terrible Barbra Streisand would-be comedy of the 1970s, For Pete’s Sake, concerned a cab driver overhearing two passengers discussing a U.S.-Soviet agricultural trade deal. The movie was originally called July Pork Bellies, which would have been the worst title of a movie ever.
The problem with investing as a popular culture subject is that it’s generally a practice in which the rich and the near-rich engage to make themselves richer or just rich, and movies are a mass medium whose audiences are generally not rich (and often teenaged) and can’t be relied upon to care about the concerns of the wealthy.
That’s why the savviest Wall Street movie may very well be Working Girl, the 1987 comedy about a secretary from Staten Island working at an investment bank. A relentless self-improver, Tess carefully reads the business press and comes up with a merger-takeover idea entirely on her own – only to see her patrician boss steal credit for it. The boss gets her comeuppance and Tess moves from secretary to banker. Working Girl is about how a kid with nothing but gumption to her credit can out-think her corrupt superior and be rewarded for her honesty and hard work – in other words, a classic American fairy tale.
Also in 1987, a movie with an eerily similar plot turned on a kid from nowhere outsmarting the corrupt Wall Street suits. The Secret of My Success featured Michael J. Fox as a kid from Kansas who goes to work in the mailroom of a Wall Street firm and – just as Tess from Working Girl poses as an executive – basically invents a non-existent banker who makes brilliant financial calls.
These movies, conceived during the crazed bull market that began in 1983, offer up Wall Street and investment banking as an exciting free-for-all world in which good ideas and good people can prevail because there are still decent guys at the top who recognize virtue. Consider the startling title sequence of Working Girl, in which Tess rides the Staten Island Ferry steaming toward the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan as a Carly Simon song proclaims Tess’s destination “the new Jerusalem.” Wall Street the New Jerusalem? Never before or since has the annual Goldman Sachs bonus been taken to be an updated letter from Paul to the Ephesians. But because the song and the movie are in service to a distaff Horatio Alger story, they get away with it.
And that was the end of that, because the same year saw the release of Wall Street, writer-director Oliver Stone’s condemnation of the world of investment banking. Its demonic character, Gordon Gekko, tempts an ambitious young fellow named Bud from a working-class family (his father is a union organizer) into a life of inside trading crime. “Greed is good,” Gekko says in the movie’s most famous line (borrowed from a notorious speech by the soon-to-be-jailed Ivan Boesky). Gekko becomes his substitute father, and Bud even betrays his own father by using information he overheard to help Gekko make moves that threaten the airline company his father works for.
Bud’s father makes a passionate speech about how he does things with his hands and makes real stuff, as opposed to Bud, who just… makes… money. “There is no nobility in poverty any more, Dad,” Bud says, and demands that his father stop moralizing at him. “I don’t sleep with no whore and I don’t wake with no whore,” his father replies. “That’s how I live with myself. I don’t know how you do it.”
The brief moment of pop-culture comic optimism about finance – and interest in the positive aspects of investing – was over. Wall Street set the tone for every movie about investing that followed it. Investment bankers are bad guys, no matter where they are on the socioeconomic scale. They’re bad if they’re at the very top of the game, as they are in Margin Call. They’re bad if they’re phone jockeys making cold calls trying to get people to buy penny stocks, as in Boiler Room. And then, of course, there are the movies documenting the downfall of real-world investment figures, like The Wolf of Wall Street.
But through it all, one thing has persisted. The number of films that concern themselves with the engine of the world economy is tiny, and is likely to get even tinier. You think it’s hard to understand a derivative? Try blockchain.