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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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear