At the first critical dramatic pivot moment of J.C. Chandor’s solid Margin Call, Zachary Quinto’s Eric stares at his computer screen, carefully removing his earbuds, as the camera slowly cranes downward. The technique demonstrates that Eric has encountered urgent, potentially catastrophic information about the investment bank he is near-anonymously employed at. We never see what Eric sees; instead, the camera – and the audience – occupy the space of the computer itself, as if the information Eric sees should be projected directly on our imaginations.
This technique is common amongst recent critically-acclaimed films that use information, math, data, code and the like as major elements in their plots; the information itself, implicitly meaningless and insignificant on its own to mass audiences who likely don’t possess the expertise of characters (or, for that matter, the filmmakers) is only made fleetingly available, if seen at all. Instead, traditional dramatic techniques illustrate the dramatic affect of the information.
Films like Margin Call, Moneyball, and The Social Network balance reliable, empathetic experts (i.e., endearing nerds) with naïve everypersons or conventional narrative devices in order to demonstrate the importance of information, largely without exhibiting information itself. This is an interesting yet surprisingly conservative approach to information-grounded films released in the middle of the ostensible Information Age. Rather than paint a democratized landscape of data, these films posit that information is privileged almost exclusively to the intelligent and the young, and then these films contort themselves to speak to audiences outside specialized fields of expertise.
The cinematic legacy tandem to Margin Call serves as a reminder that this practice is hardly new. Oliver Stone’s Wall Street may not have invented the conventions of representing stockbrokers, but it certainly popularized them: young men on phones engaging in derivative-speak while they snack on foods, yell to their coworkers, make indecipherable hand signals, and read data onscreen as if it were the alphabet. That film’s lesser Gen-X clone, Ben Younger’s Boiler Room, does the same, but occasionally offers shorthands from Nicky Katt that border on patronizing (Giovanni Ribisi’s protagonist is a rare nerd-genius/everyman hybrid in his role). But it doesn’t matter whether or not we really understand every detail of what’s happening – it’s exciting because Michael Douglas recites a good monologue and Vin Diesel for some reason receives a round of applause when he hangs up the phone.
Think of every New York Stock Exchange-set scene you’ve ever witnessed where dozens of (mostly) men make aggressive gesticulations, throw money in the air, and yell at nobody in particular – it doesn’t really matter whether we know what they’re doing, or even if it’s an accurate portrayal. It’s the demonstration of the ritual itself that provides excitement and meaning. (Meanwhile, Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis explains these processes rather directly from the isolation of a limo, albeit with DeLillo’s rhetorical flourishes.)
Where these tropes existed most prominently in representations of Wall Street, mainstream American filmmaking in recent years has wised up to the fact that at-least-somewhat accurate representations of computers and the Internet are important in order to create a semblance of narrative verisimilitude, no matter which industry it’s tied to. Gone are the days of WarGames, Independence Day, and The Net where computers were omnipresent and any mention of the terms “virus” or “file” could cover any gaping plot hole.
But this verisimilitude is manifested through a transparent admission of ignorance (or, at least, limitations). Take the dramatic moment in The Social Network, for instance, when Andrew Garfield’s Eduardo Saverin realizes he’s being shut out of Facebook (or, more accurately, when he realizes his ownership share has been diluted), he marches across the office, the camera tracking from below, as he smashes Zuckerberg’s computer while he’s “wired in.”
What it means to be wired in, I’m not quite certain, nor do I know the repercussions of stopping such a process. I speculate that Aaron Sorkin, an admitted luddite, doesn’t either. However, it’s clear to everyone that a smashed computer and an angry Andrew Garfield armed with Sorkinesque banter means drama. It’s a nice shorthand that both acknowledges and avoids the information these characters know that most audiences likely won’t have access to. And it sums up Sorkin’s approach to the rest of the film, as The Social Network was less a film about the new informational capital created by the millennial generation, and more an update of the Kane-esque rise-and-fall narrative of a commercial American empire.
But when specialized information does need to be conveyed legibly, an interlocutor is present who stands in for the naïve masses, i.e., us. That’s why Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane is the protagonist of Moneyball, not Jonah Hill’s Peter Brand. In Margin Call, the need for a more accessible audience is made comically explicit in this scene after CEO John Tuld, played by Jeremy Irons, asks Eric, who is literally a rocket scientist, to speak to him as if he were a “golden retriever.” Pay attention to the way Irons transforms Eric’s information into an illustrative and direct metaphor involving shit and the end of capitalism as we know it.
Between two Sorkin scripts and Chandor’s Mamet-lite approach to dialogue, The Social Network, Moneyball, and Margin Call owe more to Glengarry Glen Ross than to the film that coined the moniker “greed is good”: they trade on fast-paced dialogue between capable actors, building on dramatic quips and clever insults instead of melodramatic displays of emotion and affect. They are “complicated” films in the generic sense that they’re made for adults and require attention in the way that regrettably few films do. Lincoln, though set before the heyday of the Industrial Era, much less Information Age, is probably 2012’s example of this category of film, with its layered portrayal of congressional maneuvering penned by a writer who knows how to approach rich dialogue.
Yet these films do not embrace the complexity that their specialized subject matter suggests. Careful maneuvers are made by filmmakers to illustrate the meaning of information without exhibiting the information itself for the audience to interpret (assuming that audience is capable of doing so); or, if the information is made available, it’s translated by characters within the film itself. (It’s telling that the very difficulty of interpreting data itself is presented by Margin Call as one of the causes (or symptoms) of the 2008 financial crisis depicted.)
This doesn’t undermine the dramatic value of these films by any means; instead, the practice of maneuvering around information through technique is precisely where the dramatic value of these films is realized. However, I wonder if this will prove to be an issue in the near future. As industries of information capital continue to be ever-more specialized, one’s ability to interpret certain forms of knowledge becomes deeply tied to their specific area of expertise. Yet work is where a great deal of drama originates. So how will films find a way to speak to, and across, these privileged sites of knowledge in the future? Will they continue to use well-worn narrative techniques that have existed since before the Information Age, or will they assume an audience that possesses a more specialized degree of info-saviness and adaptability?
Shane Carruth’s Primer is an example of the latter possibility. A hit at Sundance in ’04, the film enjoyed a modest-to-good theatrical run. But its real life flourished when the film was released on DVD (the film’s cult status is arguably the source of the majority of the buzz surrounding Carruth’s follow-up, Upstream Color). The film’s specialized language is hardly made accessible to general audiences. However, those who aren’t familiar with the engineering lexicon that the characters practice are able to gain further access and appreciation of the film by re-watches, educating themselves elsewhere, and creating and consuming information that renders the film more accessible.
Dramatic convention may make for a solid one-time viewing, but an intriguing film that challenges its audiences to adapt to a specialized form of knowledge can instantiate a lasting and evolving form of critical engagement from that audience.
Author’s Note: Thanks to Margaret Rossman and Josh Coonrod for contributing insights and observations to the subject of this article – or, more accurately, for loaning out their perceptive idea.