Gilbey on Film: drama out of a crisis

Why have movies - documentaries aside - been so slow to respond to the credit crunch?

Is there anything left for a documentary film to say about the financial crisis after Inside Job, Capitalism: a Love Story and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room? David Sington's The Flaw proves that there is.

The picture draws its title from the words of former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who told the US Congressional Committee: "I have found a flaw in the model that defines how the world works. I was shocked." Greenspan overestimated the self-stabilising ability of the free markets, and pumped funds into the economy whenever it showed a hint of waning; "Boosting economic activity is just a euphemism for trying to encourage consumers and businesses to borrow more," says the film's executive producer Stephen Lambert.

The Flaw takes as its focal point the fluctuating level of income inequality since the 1920s, and shows through personal testimony and fluid graphics how the gap between rich and poor in the US widened immediately prior to the most recent crisis; this resulted in a situation where the majority of wealth went to a minority of citizens. That's $700bn shared among just 15,000 Americans, according to the film.

It's very lucid also on how financial inequality has reflected and exacerbated its social equivalent -- the way a moratorium historically on bank loans to African-Americans or Asians helped create ghettoes for those communities (and, in turn, shaped the largely white suburbs). I learned a lot from the film, and never felt my tear ducts were being gratuitously squeezed; when Sington does deviate from his (formidable) collection of financial experts and into case studies, there are few of the manipulative tricks so beloved of Michael Moore. Just the facts, ma'am.

That said, I could do without the supposedly comical archive material, drawn from old public information films and animation, which is used as visual punctuation to break up the sea of talking heads. You know the sort of thing -- after a sobering detail, the film will cut to a faded piece of footage in which an anonymous actor exclaims "Great Scott!" or something similar.

This is an unmistakable Moore-ism, and one which inherently patronises the audience ("We know you might be getting bored," it seems to say, "so here's something zany"). Weed out those stylistic irritations and The Flaw would be nearly flawless.

It did make me wonder, however, why filmmakers specialising in fiction have been so slow to respond to the crisis. Although there has been a slight trend in US cinema toward characters suffering economic hardship (Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's Sugar, Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy and Meek's Cutoff, the recent Win Win, even Little Miss Sunshine), no one has convincingly translated the story of the credit crunch into a film narrative. Dominic Savage's Freefall did it rather incisively, I thought, but that was television. The British stage hit Enron may have fizzled out on Broadway but it may still reach cinemas, with a film version currently being developed by the producer Laura Ziskin (George Clooney is lined up as a possible star and/or director).

Where, though, are the original scripts addressing the defining catastrophe of early 21st century life?

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution