Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Most Violent Year

I just watched this movie.

Oscar Isaacs plays the owner of a fuel oil company in 1981, the peak year of violent crime in New York City. Needless to say, it's an industry in which organized crime is salient, in real life and of course double in the movies. But he just wants to sell fuel oil. One way of looking at it, is it's The Sopranos from the point of view of the people they preyed on. Another way, it's the kind of movie Deirdre McCloskey used to call for, a celebration of bourgeois virtue. I don't know if McCloskey would like the results in this particular case. What's very clear here is how much bourgeois virtue depends on, or is constituted by, its dialectical relationship with the liberal order on the one hand, the rule of law; and on the other hand the personal loyalties of family and tribe. Your status as a business owner depends on your relationship to your wife, children, in-laws, on the one hand, and to the agents of the state on the other. The capitalist is always an embodied human being, never the pure personification of capital. (It's worth noting that Isaacs' key counterparties are a Hasidic clan and a grandfather-granddaughter operation.)

We also see the void at the heart of the capitalist ethic. Several times, other characters ask Isaacs why it's so important to him that his business keep growing. His answers range from "Just because" to "I don't understand the question." These exchanges reminded me of a line from Nietzsche that Bob Fitch used to describe real estate speculators:
We must not ask the money-making banker the reason for his restless activity, it is foolish. The active roll as the stone rolls, according to the stupidity of mechanics.
Isaacs' performance is quite affecting, and it's clear that his character has real human connections to his family, his employees, and his business peers. That only makes it more effective when we see how much his concrete choices come down to "the stupidity of mechanics."

The depiction of New York back in the day feels real. The dialogue is smart and the camerawork and sound are effective, in my uniformed judgement. It's a good movie, I recommend it.


  1. Looks like a good movie. Stagflation, pre-Giuliani New York City, all of the conservative, neoliberal tropes about what went wrong before Ronnie Raygun and Volcker saved the day.

    BTW, about Greece:

    Fri Mar 27, 2015
    Neither Grexit, nor Grexident. Euro and 'drachma' in parallel?
    by Jan Strupczewski

    (Reuters) - Greece is unlikely to exit the euro, either intentionally or accidentally. But it might be forced to introduce an alternative means of payment, in parallel to the euro, to pay some domestic bills if a reform-for-cash deal with its creditors is not secured soon, several euro zone officials said.

    Athens has lost access to bond markets and international creditors are not willing to lend it more money until it starts implementing reforms. An official familiar with the matter told Reuters this week that without fresh funds, the government will run out of money by April 20.

    "At some point, when the government has no more euros to pay salaries or bills, it might start issuing IOUs -- a paper saying that its holder would receive an x number of euros at a point in time in the future," one senior euro zone official said.

    "Such IOUs would then quickly start trading in secondary circulation at a deep discount to the real euros and they would become a 'currency', whatever its name would be, that would exist in parallel to the euro," the official said.

    If the government ran out of euros to pay wages, pensions and suppliers, it would have to introduce capital controls to prevent a mass outflow of euros from the country. That might limit the amount Greeks can withdraw from cash machines or send abroad, as happened in Cyprus in 2013.


  2. And DeLong defends Krugman:

  3. Thanks. I need to write more about Greece. But while I'm sympathetic to the Strupczewski argument, I feel he -- like almost everyone else -- misses the key point that money is not issued by governments, but by banks. So the Greek government does not have to issue anything, it simply has to ensure the euro-denominated deposits in Greek banks continue being usable to make payments.

    And yes, I saw the DeLong thing. I need to write a response to that too. But I plead innocent to ever saying Krugman is not a true Keynesian. On the contrary, I've said clearly that the argument I object to in his textbook, was indeed made by keynes, in the General Theory and elsewhere.

  4. I saw the movie too. I have to say it's a bit of a comedown from "Margin Call": nowhere near the same acuity and cold-bloodedness. It's true that our fuel oil hero in MVY has to play games with the cops, hiding some unsavory business history, but in general he's presented, like you say, as a paragon of bourgeois virtue. The whole byplay with his driver/protege who isn't willing to get beaten to a pulp again as a martyr to law-abiding capitalism I found unconvincing: the "you made bad decisions" thing. It's a very well-made film and it held my attention, but I felt it was gelatinous at the core.

  5. I was just going to chime in about loving 'Margin Call' -- haven't watched 'The Most Dangerous Year' yet, but feeling an odd tension of really wanting to, and actively dreading it... not unlike my feeling about the last season of The Wire. (Which I still haven't finished, using some rationale that it will not have ended until I do.)

  6. Ahem: 'A Most Violent Year'.

  7. OK, I'll watch Margin Call. Incidentally, A Most Violent Year was recommended to me by Gary Mongiovi, who you guys may know.

    I thought the interesting thing about the movie was precisely that the protagonist did turn out to be a good bourgeois. It set up expectations that we were going to be seeing a gangster movie, but all the hints about the wife's family, about them being sent a message, and so on, were just teases. But it worked because the formal resemblance to a gangster movie acted as a sort of template or substrate that let you see the parallel between regular, legal businesses and gangsters. So to me, the interesting thing about the driver wasn't whether he was some kind of martyr, but the willingness of the Oscar Isaacs character to throw him overboard.

    Nina - Yeah, the last season of the Wire was a bit of a letdown.

    What did you all think of Inherent Vice?

  8. Wish I had seen Inherent Vice during the week it played here, but I was wrapped up in a paper with a deadline. Finished the paper, missed the movie.