OK, that's not true at all. Sex Panther in German is Sex Panther. Verfremdungseffekt means “alienation effiect” or “estrangement effect” in German, and it might provide the secret to how Adam McKay, the director of Anchorman and Talladega Nights, made The Big Short, an Oscar-nominated hit about credit default swaps that's so far grossed over $ 87 million.
Don't worry, it makes as least as much sense as the financial crisis.
Adam McKay spoke to BuzzFeed News from Washington, D.C. where he was in town to attend a (storm-delayed) screening and discussion of the movie with a former Fed official, a fund manager, and financial journalists; he was attending a dinner hosted by Planet Money founder Adam Davidson, and trying to see populist Democratic senators Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren.
The D.C. milieu suits McKay's adaptation of Michael Lewis's financial crisis chronicle. The movie is very Hollywood (starring Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, and Steve Carrell); it's wonky (a major plot point in the film is banks dragging their feet in correctly pricing complex financial instruments); and it's explicitly meant to stir up outrage at the nexus of Washington and Wall Street.
“Our goal was more than to effect direct change, which would be a little crazy, but to get the conversation going again and inform people,” McKay says.
He's not exactly an unbiased observer. He relishes criticism of the movie from conservative outlets like Forbes, the Wall Street Journal's opinion pages, and the New York Post, which called his film “a $ 28 million campaign ad for Bernie Sanders.” The Post “flat-out hates the movie, which I love,” he says.
McKay's political views are not hard to figure out. While much of Hollywood has gone all-in for Hillary Clinton — the entertainment industry and the financial industry are the third and fourth biggest donors to Clinton's campaign; Steven Spielberg and Dreamworks chief Jeffrey Katzenberg have both given the Hillary Clinton Super PAC Priorities USA Action $ 1 million — McKay donated $ 2,700 to Bernie Sanders in May, although he's shied away from a formal connection or endorsement of the campaign.
“I wanted the movie to speak for itself, I didn’t want to be known as the Sanders guy who made a movie,” he says. “I didn’t want to think of it as a right wing / left wing issue, I wanted to let the movie have an impact.”
But McKay did say that Sanders' anti-Wall Street rhetoric and his support for breaking up large financial institutions (as opposed to Hillary Clinton's focus on regulating the dangerous activities of a range of financial institutions) does in fact jive very well with The Big Short.
“My focus is on the banks capturing government, that’s really the thing and it’s the thing we can do the most about,” McKay says. Or as the Vermont senator puts it, “Congress does not regulate Wall Street; Wall Street regulates Congress.”
Sanders is not shy about associating himself with the movie — a video tweeted by the campaign shows a woman asking him if he had seen it. “Damn right I have” Sanders replies, saying it was an “excellent film.”
A filmmaker to the left of the Clintonite wing of the Democratic party is nothing new in Hollywood, and nor are movies that criticize the financial industry. What McKay did in The Big Short was deliberately jump into the weeds of the more arcane aspects of the financial crisis using the agents of simplification and superficiality — the entertainment industry — that he thinks blinded America to the internal rot of the 2000s.
“Why did our culture miss this, the numbers were so obvious that there was a problem, how did our culture miss this?” McKay asks.
To help explain, he uses what he calls “the 24 hour entertainment culture” both to build out the mid 2000s period he covers and to directly explain what happened. (This criticism of the inanity of the entertainment-news complex is a major theme of, yes, Anchorman, McKay told New York magazine.)
So we have Margot Robbie in a bubble bath giving an explainer on the rise of mortgage-backed securities, and Selena Gomez and University of Chicago professor Richard Thaler using side-bets on blackjack to describe the synthetic collateralized debt obligations that allowed investors and banks to make near-infinite bets on the direction of housing prices.
There are also little bits of the culture of the pre-crisis era: a Ludacris video, a Britney Spears interview, South Park, the cult-y rock band The Polyphonic Spree. “I was lucky that the explosions with those products happened to coincide with that point of the popular culture,” McKay says.
“What were we paying attention to, what were the stories, what were the vibes of this country?” McKay muses, and says what he's doing is “kinda like John Dos Passos,” whose 1930s U.S.A. trilogy combined narrative with biographical sketches, newspaper headlines, advertisements, and lyrics from popular songs to create an all-encompassing portrait of the United States in the early 20th century.
There's also something distinctively European about McKay's approach. In his willingness to use untraditional tools in a politically-minded film, McKay puts himself into a long line of artists well to the left of Bernie Sanders, like the German playwright Bertolt Brecht and the French director Jean-Luc Godard. The two Marxists thought that narrative disruption, breaking the fourth wall (at one point in The Big Short, Ryan Gosling's investment banker turns to the camera and explains that the current scene never really happened), and direct insertion of cultural artifacts could help provoke critical thought from the audience more than traditional narrative methods.
In Godard's A Married Woman, for example, discussions of the Holocaust and trials of Nazi officials give way to a montage of print underwear ads and characters mouthing advertising copy. “Certain forms of advertising are going so far as to become people's own thoughts,” Godard said.
“I thought it was important for the movie to be straight ahead with the audience that everything is being spun twisted as advertising,” McKay said about The Big Short.
The Big Short's quick cuts, montages, and stock footage disorient the viewer, evoking the twisted markets where investors betting that housing prices would collapse enabled banks to sell more products to investors who wanted to bet against a collapse of the housing market.
This all magnified the eventual impact of the crash, which was only softened by hundreds of billions in taxpayer dollars that helped, in one egregious instance, a giant insurance company pay out its obligations to big banks. The stars of the film, who made righteous bets against Wall Street and the housing market, end with a hollow victory: they win the bets, but watch in the process as the rot at the heart of the financial system, and the country, is exposed.
“The stage began to tell a story. The narrator was no longer missing, along with the fourth wall,” McKay explained. “The background adopted an attitude to the events on the stage — by big screens recalling other simultaneous events elsewhere, by projecting documents which confirmed or contradicted what the characters said, by figures and sentences to support mimed transactions whose sense was unclear.”
OK, McKay didn't really say that. It was the German playwright and “estrangement effect” theorist Brecht in “Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction.”
Here's what McKay really said: “They never imagined that things were so twisted and broken that it would end up that their investments were paid back by a bailout.”
He's talking about the protagonists of The Big Short, who worry about whether the banks that took their bets against the housing market would stay in business long enough to pay out the winnings. Anchorman's dim weather guy Brick Tamland put it best: “There were horses, and a man on fire, and I killed a guy with a trident.”
“We’ve had some effect,” McKay says.