What makes a movie performative? On Oliver Stone’s poor Wall Street sequel

October 17, 2010

If there is a film that every sociologist of finance needs to know, that is unquestionably Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. Filmed in 1980s, smack in the first wave of financialization, the movie taught audiences all over the world what awful people corporate raiders were. And in the process, it gave meaning (and cachet) to the profession.

As anyone who’s read a website in the past six months already knows, Stone has recently filmed the sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. I just watched it. And found it entirely underwhelming.

On the plus side, the film offers pretty images of Manhattan skyscrapers (it even shows my old apartment building, 180 Riverside Boulevard, filmed from… you got it… a glamorizing helicopter shoot). It throws out clever one-liners (see trailer). And it even has a measure of post-modern irony, namely, a baddie like Gekko giving lectures about how dysfunctional finance had become. Gekko even publishes a book on the credit crisis, which makes me think again about my many colleagues who have done just the same.

But despite the bells and whistles, the movie remains stuck in a stereotype. That is, the idea that the ethically questionable financial practices center on price manipulation through rumor. This practice, as Abolafia has shown, might have been the business of 1987. But it’s just outside what mainstream financial practices (good or bad) are nowadays. Where are the credit derivatives? Where is the securitization? And where, of all places, is the high-frequency trading? The film tries hard to present, in a similar way to CSI Miami, a few sequences of rapid zooms that purport to get at the underlying data. But it’s clunky.

Far more interesting than this poor sequel, then, is the wonderful piece that the Financial Times had on the original film last September. According to the very creative Francesco Guerrera

In the two decades since its release, Wall Street and its lead characters, the father-of-all-evil Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas in an Oscar-winning turn) and the corruptible ingénu Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), have exuded an almost hypnotic attraction on scores of would-be bankers and traders.

The film, however, took on a life of its own, defining a financial era in the eyes of the public and the industry it portrayed. Despite being neither a big box office nor critical hit, its influence on popular culture remains strong. Gekko-esque wisdom, such as “lunch is for wimps” and “greed is good” (the actual quote is “greed, for lack of a better word, is good”), has long since passed into common currency.

The effect, which Guerrera calls “art imitating life imitating art” is something that sociologists of finance know well, namely, performativity. Not the Black-Scholes type, with the market device shaping behavior in ways that fit the original model, but the “I apologize” kind — that is, the one created by language. (And I should note, at this point, that this is a type of process that the literature has explored much less than device performativity).

In the rest of the FT article, which I highly recommend, Guerrera interviews famed Wall Street executives such Bill Winters in search for the causes of the outsized impact that the movie had. Out of all the different theories that explain this Austinian performativity, one particularly stands out. “Bad people,” one interviewee explained, “make good movies.”

One Response to “What makes a movie performative? On Oliver Stone’s poor Wall Street sequel”

  1. […] 21, 2010 Following up on Daniel’s point on HFT missing from mythical accounts of Wall St, and continuing thoughts from an earlier post on the May 2010 […]

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