Thursday, June 28, 2012

Pounds of Flesh: Mad Men and Greek Austerity



Char Roone Miller
George Mason University


The black silhouette of a well-dressed man falls through the opening credits of Mad Men, cascading through a cityscape displaying advertisements for the program's world of desire: cigarettes, booze, and women.  As if it lacks even a pound of flesh, the silhouette lightly lands on a couch facing, like the viewer, the television and the products it advertises. Don Draper, the lead character, an advertising executive exceptionally skilled at selling fantasy, occupies the position of male desire that many characters in the program wish they could occupy, a perspective from which all the objects of his desire are easily attainable.  Like the silhouette in the opening shot, Draper is mostly a shadow; the demands of family, friends, and his own body scarcely register.  Nothing he desires costs him very much, yet, no one, it often appears, could ask for anything more. 


(Note: this post contains Mad Men season 5 spoilers - ed.)




Draper embodies an inhuman lightness concerning human problems and responsibilities; he cheats on his wife, neglects his children, smokes continually, receives awards for the work of other people, drinks Old Fashions throughout the day, and denies knowing his brother. Rarely do commitments and promises weigh very heavily on this character. He remains the physical embodiment of the fantasy products he so skillfully sells.




Behind the office doors at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, doubts about this way of life and the costs of doing business pile up.  Set in a center of American capitalism, Madison Avenue in New York City, Mad Men consistently portrays the lack of satisfaction faced by the Don Draper’s of the world. Even Goldman, Sachs, the show seems to promise, can’t sleep at night.  Heavy casualties pile up in the wake of these very successful business people; the sacrifice of family, friends, and colleagues so that people like Draper can make and remake themselves in the interest of making money. 




In the penultimate episode of this season Draper confronts a partner’s appropriation of money from the agency.  Lane Pryce, a junior partner confronted with large bills, forged Draper’s signature on what he thought would be an early Christmas bonus. Pryce took the money in order to maintain family obligations; responsibilities generally neglected by Draper.  The partners, however, give up their bonuses, leaving Pryce holding $7,500 in fraudulently appropriated funds. This crime could have played like so many others on the show, the kind of thing that white straight men easily forgive one another. When Draper discovers the fraud he fires Pryce, not so much for the money as for a loss of trust.  The issue, as with many accounts of the current economic crisis—from American mortgages to Greek sovereign debt—isn’t the money, but rather some perverse demand for trust.  Bankers in Greece, for example, only stand to have their levels of profit lowered by forgiving and restructuring debt; they are not in danger of actually losing money. Draper and the firm will be fine; in fact Draper offers to cover the debt for Price as he asks for his resignation. In the final episode the firm begins to make so much money the partners don’t know what to do with it all.  Just as Draper, flush with enough wealth that he never has to worry about such things, fails to understand the monetary pressure on Pryce, banks and corporations demand trust from workers in an uneven exchange that treats the worker’s demands for money and power as a morally suspect type of selfishness. Pryce, according to Draper, broke that trust and must pay the price. 




Currently, European and American banks demand that Greece pay a similar price. Money piles up in Greek, German, and American banks, even as the extraction of that money costs so many people in Greece so much: unemployment at 20%, a health care system cut by 25%thousands dropped from disability support, and major sources of public revenue sold to private companies. One symbol of the price of austerity is the 22% increase in suicide since 2009including a 77-year-old retiree who shouted “I don’t want to leave debts to my children,” just before pulling the trigger in front of the Parliament building in Athens


In Mad Men’s first season, viewers learned that Don Draper was an identity assumed by Dick Whitman, when the real Draper was killed next to him in the Korean War.  Draper is long dead; Whitman just acts like him. In effect, every time Whitman claims to be Draper, it’s a crime mirrored to a minor degree by Pryce’s forged check. The position that Draper occupies in order to condemn Pryce’s crime was made possible by a much larger but essentially similar crime.  In the case of Greece the debt that Greeks are being forced to pay was produced through, in many cases, criminal financial exploitation. Goldman Sachs, for example, helped Athens hide its debt by hiding loans as currency trades and by setting up financial arrangements to take over the profits from the airport of Athens. While this may have been criminal the demand for payment still weighs heavy. The ethical demands of money and capital take on a reality lacking in other social relationships (especially for the Draper’s out there). Money’s demands are high for Pryce: the body falling through space in this episode has more weight than a mere shadow; the weight of a hanging body, the weight of Pryce hanging himself behind his office door.


The dapper Draper resembles in style and privilege Christine Lagarde, the managing director of IMF, who the Guardian recently described as elegantly serene, even as the fiscal demands she forces on Greece inelegantly fractures Greek serenity. Ignoring the damage and violence that austerity inflicts on the bodies of living Greeks, she advocates for cuts in education of Greek children, cuts in medical support for the old, and the privatization of public resources. Sounding like Draper’s response to Pryce, she points out the ways that ethics demands that Greeks pay their debts and that money be treated as the preeminent marker of fairness. Debts (to banks) must be paid. “Do you know what? As far as Athens is concerned, I also think about all those people who are trying to escape tax all the time. All these people in Greece who are trying to escape tax.” German Prime Minister Merkel, The Wall Street Journal reported, also asserted the ethical status of paying debt at the cost of great suffering. “It is more important that the new (Greek) government stick to the commitments that Greece has made to the international community and its partners in the European Union.” Forbes Magazine called the renegotiation of the debt by the Greeks 'disgraceful.' “Greece committed a grave injustice,” Richard Salsman argues. “Contrary to convention, morals and money go hand-in-hand.  The Latin root of ‘credit’ is trust.”


Christine Lagarde
The camera's attention to Pryce's dead body does more than symbolize the hypocrisy of the banks and the human costs of financial demands. The very sight of the bloated body provokes a visceral response to the abstracted violence of money and forces a confrontation with the values and flesh excluded from monetary systems of value. Pryce's dead body, moreover, like the sovereign’s material body, confronts the viewer with the equality and immanence of animal flesh.  





The financial crisis is about money but it’s never really about money. It’s about the trust, faith, and belief that people put into money. It is about the production of value in the human body. Gilles Deleuze writes in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation about novelist K. P. Moritz’s description of the execution of criminals and the affect of their meat: “the horror of sacrifice he feels when he witnesses the execution of four men, . . . . ‘thrown on the wheel’ or over the balustrade; his certainty that in some strange way this event concerns all of us, that this discarded meat is we ourselves, and that the spectator is already in the spectacle, a ‘mass of ambulating flesh’; hence his living idea that even animals are part of humanity, that we are all criminals, we are all cattle . . . . This is not an arrangement of man and beast, nor a resemblance; it is a deep identity, a zone of indiscernibility more profound than any sentimental identification: the man who suffers is a beast, the beast that suffers is a man.” Pryce’s flesh in Mad Men makes visual an affective response to the abstract suffering produced not by torture on the wheel in the name of a political sovereign but by the costs of money, credit, and debt to notions of popular sovereignty and equality. The “we” that is concerned here is a “we” made flesh in the body through which money circulates.




Even though it invites a response to the world in abstract, non-sensual, and immaterial terms, money is not an escape from life.  Money moves in relation to life and bodies, establishing the value and meaning of matter.  Money is one of the factors involved in our affective response to the universe, effecting how we see, what we see, and the meaning of those physical responses.  Money receives its value in relation to flesh even as flesh, weighed in pounds or kilograms, priced in dollars, euros, yen, and pounds, receives its value in relation to money.


I know cooler heads should prevail, but am I the only one who wants to see this?



Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Banking Reform, Financial Instability and Crisis Politics


John Buell is a columnist for The Progressive Populist and a faculty adjunct at Cochise College. His most recent book, Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age, will be published by Palgrave/Macmillan in August.
Jamie Dimon, JP Morgan Chase's high-profile CEO, has performed a public service. His firm's well publicized $3 billionand countingloss puts to rest, at least for the time being, the notion that we can count on deregulated financial markets and self-interested bankers to reach socially optimal outcomes. That Dimon's loss matters to more than his stockholders is clear from the attention given to this story. Even our limp corporate media recognize that should this bank fail, it will become a further burden for taxpayers. The more frightening prospects, however, go well beyond JP Morgan Chase. These large investment banks remain wrapped in complex, interdependent webs. Bankruptcies, like Lehman Brothers' in 2008, retain the potential to paralyze credit markets and necessitate huge taxpayer-funded bailouts. Nonetheless, even in the face of recent history and its current losses, Dimon and his Wall Street colleagues continue their reckless speculation. They lobby for and extravagantly fund campaigns on behalf of the flawed deregulatory ideology that supports and encourages this speculation. Their outsized lobbying and campaign contributions already constrain our democratic freedoms. The future crises their speculation may cause could occasion an even more authoritarian politics.
 

Jamie Dimon


Classical market theory, on which Dimon and much of the corporate media so frequently rely, pictures a world in which economic actors are independent of each other and none controls enough of the market to set or manipulate prices. They are price takers rather than price makers.



Jamie Dimon


That world is long dead in finance. A few firms control large portions of the market and have leveraged their market shares into political power, further distorting and destabilizing markets. Their apologists have failed not merely to predict this crisis but have no theory as to how economic crisis is even possible. They are thus utterly unqualified to lead us out of the crisis. And their inadequacies are especially consequential. Oligopoly and instability in particular product markets can affect long term economic growth, but distortions and instability in the market for credit and money, the life blood of a capitalist economy, potentially threatens the entire system.


Jamie Dimon


Dimon's colossal misstep has led to renewed interest in the Volcker rule, which would prohibit depository institutions from using client money to speculate in financial markets. The risks to the entire financial system when the banks that hold our deposits can speculate in financial markets are widely recognized. Positive as such a step is, it nonetheless has several inadequacies. Under the versions of the rule now being discussed banks would still be allowed to engage in speculative trade on behalf of their clients, a loophole big enough to encompass many complex and dangerous trades. And if the modern full service banks refuse to engage in such trades, will they not lose at least some of their depositors to more lightly regulated hedge funds?


Sad guy on a trading floor, October 7, 2008. Source: http://sadguysontradingfloors.tumblr.com/


Progressives have quite properly praised New Dealers and the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act for its separation of garden-variety commercial banking from the more speculative investment banking. Glass Steagall ushered in a generation of stable prosperity. Yet as Hyman Minsky, perhaps the twentieth century's most profound progressive student of finance pointed out, Glass-Steagall had lost its effectiveness long before its formal demise. Commercial banks were prohibited from engaging in security trades, but investment banks were allowed to perform many of the usual depository functions. In addition, the environment in which banks operated changed as a consequence of the very success of Glass-Steagall and post World War II capitalism. Wealth, both in the form of personal assets and pension funds, was being accumulated in large amounts. (I draw my analysis of Minsky from an excellent monograph prepared by the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, Beyond the Minsky Moment.)






And paradoxically, even the post Vietnam and OPEC decline of US capitalism benefited finance. The large and growing balance of trade deficits were compensated by large capital transfers to US bond, stock, and real estate markets, widely regarded by our trading partners as the deepest, most speculatively lucrative in the world. (See Yanis Varoufakis, Modern Political Economy, Ch. 11 "From Global Plan to Global Minotaur.) These beliefs became in fact self-fulfilling prophecies. This was an age of what Minsky called "money manager capitalism," and increasingly economic growth was dependent on speculatively driven increases in asset prices.


Enter such innovations as the money market mutual fund. And just as they were losing some of their depository business, conventional banks were also under siege on the loan side. A commercial paper market through which large pools of capital were used to finance short-term loans to big corporations emerged. These largely unregulated funds were able to offer big corporate borrowers better deals for both loans and deposits and naturally eroded a large part of conventional banks' business.


Sad guys on a trading floor, October 7, 2008. Source: http://sadguysontradingfloors.tumblr.com/


With governments generally choosing not to regulate these new financial innovations, conventional banks had to change to survive. And conventional banking changed in ways that lie at the heart of our contemporary crisis. Administrative rulings allowed them to create special subsidiaries so as to take some of their assets off their books and in turn securitize these assets, turn them into combinations of loans that were marketed at a higher price than single­ and presumably more risky ­loans commanded. And in order supposedly to reduce risk further, a whole new world of derivatives was created, especially the credit default swap.  These presumably insured banks against declines in the value of the synthetic securities. These swaps generated fee returns for banks and because they were unregulated they proliferated like wild fire. They added to confidence in the game, thereby adding systemic risk.


Sad guy on a trading floor, October 7, 2008. Source: http://sadguysontradingfloors.tumblr.com/


In the process the whole model of banking changed from what Minsky called "originate and hold" to "originate to distribute" banking. Further in order to compete, banks were allowed to merge and become bigger. In many industries, size enables economies of scale, but for banks the principal gain was cheaper access to capital. That access was based largely on the market's perception­--remarkably prescient in this case--­that governments would not let big money center banks go under.


The Emperor has made a critical error and the time for our attack has come.


As I examine this brief thumbnail sketch of financial history, I draw several tentative conclusions. Size matters. Smaller banks are less likely to drag the whole system down. Economies of scale in banking are achieved at levels far smaller than today's largest banks, five of which control about 50% of all banking business. Nonetheless, even smaller banks, especially given the herd mentality that often prevails in financial markets, could precipitate a crisis. Securitization thus demands a closer look. Minsky suggested that banks be organized as holding companies with subsidiaries that would provide deposit services, home and small business loans, insurance, advice on long term estate and pension planning. Each subsidiary would be regulated and would have appropriate capital requirements. An individual bank can fail because of its small size without bring others down ­unless they are engaged in copy- cat techniques. And within each bank, restrictions on size and subsidiary function allow examiners a better chance to understand and supervise activities and to see where possible problems may be emerging. Furthermore, the failure of relatively small banks is salutary. Problems can be spotted and nipped before they threaten the system. When banks are too big to fail, their inadequacies are often papered over and each crisis tends to be larger and more threatening than its predecessors. We are already on this road. The collapse of the housing bubble was far worse that the tech stock bubble collapse, which itself exceeded the Latin American debt crisis. Furthermore, too-big-to-fail banks are both a consequence and a cause of oligarchic politics, with politicians and bankers locked in a socially destructive alliance.


Following logic similar to Minsky, University of Massachusetts economist Gerald Epstein has suggested: "There is increasing recognition by economists and public officials that the too big to fail banks need to be cut down to size. Senator Sherrod Brown has introduced the SAFE banking act which, like his proposal with Senator Ted Kaufman in 2008, is designed to limit the size of banks and put on hard leverage limits and size restrictions." Smaller banks structured in these terms would be more inclined to build the kind of relationship banking that Misnky advocated, where loans are held and the banks have a long term interest in the development of their clients.






Perhaps Minsky's greatest insight was the recognition that any financial regulations regime may be susceptible to problems and must develop in conjunction with the evolution of the economy. His recommendations for institutional reform were hardly the final word, but they did suggest a framework that might spur more stable growth in the foreseeable future and foster attentiveness to new problems.




Minsky's alternative banking model is a long way off, but short of that we can surely take steps to reduce bank size. In addition states can create their own public banks, as North Dakota has done. (See for instance Ellen Brown's piece on this.) State banks need not and should not get into the business of evaluating individual home and business loans. Nonetheless, they can serve important system-sustaining purposes. They provide depository services for state taxes and other fees. Why should private banks reap profit from holding and recycling these funds? They can address social priorities by making loans to community banks engaged in small business and housing lending. Such steps would be positive in their own right and would open further discussion of just what banking is for.




Finally, unlike many of our bankers and political leaders today, Minsky realized that just as the productive economy's health depended on a healthy financial sector, the financial sector required productive manufacturing, service, and commercial activities.  Minsky continually emphasized that "the success of Glass-Steagall was due as much to the existence of Big Government as a complement to the lender of last resort function of the central bank as it was to the restrictions placed on the assets that deposit-taking institutions could hold." Minsky would undoubtedly follow Epstein and Brown political economist Mark Blyth in denouncing the austerity agenda that so grips both US and European politics today. Financial deregulation, corporate power, and shredded safety nets are a toxic brew:  As Epstein puts it,"austerity [is] making all of these solutions more difficult. With few attractive options to lend to businesses, which have little incentive to invest in plant and equipment in a stagnating economy, excess liquidity piles up on the balance sheets of banks and corporations. With lax regulation bankers have more and more incentive to undertake the dangerous gambles like those at JP Morgan. People must demand and politicians must enact an end to the policies of the austerity buzzards who are squashing jobs and economic growth, and preventing investments in people and in the transition to a green economy. As Keynes understood, unless the government takes a lead in job creation, a stagnating economy with massive liquidity will only encourage more speculation and more financial instability."


Jamie Dimon



Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Feeling Gangster Squad


The art of trailers has become its own genre of filmmaking. Video games, political ads, even commercials for food and insurance borrow techniques from the form of the trailer. While coming attractions are as old as moving pictures the modern trailer eschews story and outline for an assemblage of affectively charged and relatively disconnected sights and sounds. The work of the trailer, the excitement that it generates often far exceeds the films, or even politicians, it hopes to promote. The affective intensity of this form of promotion so commonly causes the complaint “the trailer was better than the movie” that an active attempt is made to produce films at the same amplified pitch resulting in summer movies like Men in Black III, Transformers, etc for which narrative is no longer even an afterthought, it is entirely absent. 
Although all movies have trailers the pinnacle and likely driving force of such innovations in compressed sight and sound is the action film. Explosions, fleeting love interests, more explosions, executions, tense torture ticking bomb scenes all held together by a rogues gallery of heroes and villains. A facial line-up superimposed on a series of disconnected but thrilling events all set to some soaring score; either coming pop hit or operatic aria. One cannot help but feel the concerns of those that saw in aestheticization a fascistic impulse. The great filmmaker Francois Truffaut once remarked that there was no such thing as an anti-war film because the medium was too powerful it glorified everything on its screen. Despite the fact that most trailers are now viewed on cell phones or ipads there is still something about the metonymic mix of image and sound that lends itself to glorification. The body is mobilized for enjoyment. In what follows John Protevi and Jairus Grove with a guest appearance by Davide Panagia explore the composition of a recent trailer for the movie “Gangster Squad” in an effort to diagram the affective economy at work in a mere 2 minutes and 30 seconds of video.


* * * 
John Protevi
  Louisiana State University 
The trailer for Gangster Squad yields a prima facie reading of multiple fascist affective tropes.  It glamorizes extra-legal state agent violence aimed at purifying a corrupt society by "going to war." It's only a very small part in a larger tendency of many such cultural moments, but it's worth analyzing on its own.
  Here's a quick reading of the visuals and the verbals of the trailer. Not shot-by-shot, but picking up on some of the most obvious fascist affective elements. As we'll see, the trailer is not exactly great cinema, but didn't somebody once say you can read the cultural unconscious much better with schlock than with good art?
  Before we start, Davide Panagia asks us to keep in mind that in both the visual and aural affective registers there is something compelling about the staccato delivery of the clich├ęd lines, the boxer motif throwing solid punches, the rat-tat-tat of the machine gun & bullets, and the of hip-hop rhythms and sounds. Superimposing all these aspects can we speak of such quick-delivery motifs as a central affective register within which fascism might resonate? The staccato is not enough to suggest by itself to suggest a fascist affect – we'll make that case below -- because these elements work in other spheres also (think of Barthes's 'punctum', or empiricism's 'impression'). That said, the aural and visual staccato punctuality of the trailer seem to scream out a kind of temporal foreshortening that is in no uncertain terms anxiety-producing.
The opening sequence is the Sean Penn monologue with him punching the heavy bag, and some stock shots of the Hollywood sign. I don't think there's much to note here, a little Realpolitik ending with the hubristic "Out here I'm god" (0:01-0:37). But as with all this reading, I'd be happy to get suggestions in the comments.
Things pick up when we get Nick Nolte's grizzled cop veteran talking to Josh Brolin's determined leader of men: "Los Angeles is a damsel in distress, and I need you to save her" (0:38 – 0:41). So here we have society as soft, female, and endangered, with the male cops called upon to swoop in to save her.
  Then we cut to beat-up suspects being led into the police station. Ryan Gosling: "what happened to them?" Brolin: "they resisted." (0:41 – 0:45) Besides the glorification of violence, we have the action hero one-liner trope, which increases the sympathetic identification with Brolin.
Then back to Nolte, who redefines the problem from law-enforcement to warfare: "it's not a crime wave, it's enemy occupation" (0:46 – 0:49). There's a War on Terror forecast here, but we don't have to dwell on that. It's enough that civil society is declared just a mask for warfare. So the heroes have to answer the fascist demand: the homeland is occupied by enemies, the liberal response to treat the gangsters like criminals rather than war enemies is ineffective, what are you going to do about it?
  The response is a black-ops / plausible deniability / "off-the-books" group of cops. At 0:50 Brolin says "I'll need men." What kind of men? Men who walk forward, always forward toward the camera, steely-eyed, no words, just shooting. Men of action. Fascism is always about forward movement, isn't it?
Then after the recruitment scene, Nick Nolte's voice-over at 0:55 – 0:57 says "you are to make no arrests, this is off the books" with the camera panning down the City Hall phallus.   
  Then the boys walking toward the camera in front of the building. That's the kind of government we need, a cover for off-the-books operations.
Gosling mocks socialist ethos at 1:00-1:04 ("doesn't seem right that he should have so much while others have so little") – with a two-shot of Emma Stone and Gosling. She's part of the "so much" that Penn "has." She's a possession. 
Then the Penn character shows the depths of societal corruption that will be redeemed by the extra-legal violence of the heroes: "we're standing in the middle of a money-making machine." Images, gambling, then stacked Tommy guns on desk 1:05-1:08. Then,"we got all the whores and dope sown up" – with shots of each (1:10). Then move terror: gangsters shooting at family home with Christmas lights (1:12).
  Then Brolin is addressed at 1:19 as an officer: "you call it Sarge." Paramilitary violence. Brolin rallies the troops -- "we're going to war" -- but again, we're talking about making heroes out of cops who go off-the-books and wage war at home. 
  Brolin continues "there's no glory in this assignment." But the movie is glorifying the selfless heroics of the black-ops crew, who aren't in it for the money – they light piles of it on fire – they are in it to be the redemptive fire cleansing society (1:20 – 1:27).
  Brolin: "You do this, there's no going back" Gosling, with insouciance, "well, you gotta die of something," extinguishing cigarette (daring, devil-may-care, my life isn't worth that much if we can get some action and clean up the corruption). (1:27-1:31)
  Intercutting of "no badges, no names, no mercy," with various violence / brutality / torture (beating a guy tied to a chair). 1:32-1:35.
  Then the boys march ahead (forward motion for the fascists) with explosions in the background. 1:36-1:38. 
Then we get a car careening on edge and Gosling shooting out the window. A suggestion that things are poised on the edge (1:38). 
  Then we get one of the biggest affective punches of the trailer, the Emma Stone / Ryan Gosling sex and violence link. First we get the repartee (1:39-1:46), then some gunshots (1:47-1:49), then a very quick shot of Gosling and Stone in bed, a bit of flesh, with him starting to roll over on top of her (1:50), then Brolin with his shotgun at waist level pointing up and out (1:50-1:51). 
  Now there's a lot to talk about here. The appeal to teen boys of all ages: go off-the-books and you too can fuck Emma Stone! The embarrassing Hollywood Freudianism of shooting = ejaculation; that real men do it from on top (I'd be interested to know if they have an earlier scene of Stone on top of Penn); and that Gosling's conquest of Stone gives Brolin an erection. Of course fascism isn't the only affective style that links male-bonding and male-dominant sex and violence, but the glamorization of that linkage seems to me to resonate strongly with the fascist affective style.
Then at 1:52 – 1:59 we get interspersed credits with character shots. Penn's character says 2:00 – 2:10 "a cop that's not for sale is like a dog with rabies; you just got to put them down." We cut to Brolin walking down a movie theater aisle, then gangsters shooting up a movie theater, bursting through screen. Other than the reckless shooting up of a public space, showing the gangsters' depravity, I have to say the coming through the screen stumped me, and I'd be glad to get help in comments as to what is going on here.
  Now for the ending one-liner, 2:10 – 2:17. We see a gangster on the ground, smirking about the weakness of liberalism, that cops have to respect the rights of gangsters. "You're a cop, you can't shoot me." Gosling does that one-handed load-the-shotgun maneuvers, looks down the barrel of the gun, and says "not anymore." Cold-blooded elimination. Gun flash illuminates his face, then black. Then title. 
  What to make of the one-liner? (1) Gosling is "not anymore" a (regular) cop -- he's off-the-books. Or (2) the special type of cop that Gosling represents is "not anymore" bound to obey a fundamental code of liberal society, that cops use only the amount of force necessary to detain a subject and that they not mete out justice on the spot. Or (3) he's "not anymore" even an off-the-books cop, but a lone wolf. There are two plausible motivations here: (a) Penn has killed Stone, the gun moll, after having discovered her infidelity or (b) Penn has killed Brolin. Either way, Gosling has then broken free of even the black-ops squad to go rogue for personal revenge. I'm not sure if reading 3 of the one-liner resonates with fascist affect, but readings 1 and 2 certainly do.
* * *


Jairus Victor Grove
  University of Hawaii
The 'above the law' hero-cop is an extremely popular figure. It plays into almost all superhero films and certainly all mafia films.  The story is always the same. A frustrated man unable to cope with the violence around him is driven to leave behind the law and follow a higher law. The causal factor is always the extremity of the villain. This is the formula for The Dark Knight as much as the infinite supply of buddy cop movies. It is in fact hard to remember a summer without a revenge flick following this formula. These films also follow a trailer formula. Generally we come to absolve the hero of his illegal acts because he bares some personal cost or loss that redeems the spectacular destruction as an act of sacrifice for the greater good. For a movie to work that is to say for people to want go see it all of this must be felt in the 3 minutes of trailer that will introduce the film. One has to anticipate the enjoyment of the heroes desire to kill. To give a sense of how this is accomplished bellow there is a brief sketch of the trailers for the Untouchables and L.A. Confidential as they are undoubtedly predecessors of Gangster Squad. 
The Untouchables Starting at 1:51: 
  Canadian: I do not approve of your methods.
  Costner/Ness: Yeah, you’re not from Chicago.


In The Untouchables Brian DiPalma stages virtually the same story as Gangster Squad. After all, as the film goes, Al Capone could not be taken down without exceeding the law (the tax evasion part of the story is underplayed compared to the shotgun justice thematic). Sean Connery’s line, ‘he pulls a knife, you pull a gun, he puts of one of your men in the hospital, you put one of his down” is front and center in the trailer for the film. In no uncertain terms it is cold war escalation dominance with period accents and Tommy guns. The trailer in particular is interesting in that the aural sensible is partitioned almost entirely by voice overs until the end in which an aria, Vesti la giubba from Pagliacci, reaches its fever pitch as the violence escalates and our appetites for full spectrum hero vs. mob violence is truly wetted. Obviously arias are common to film climaxes as the opera’s crescendo cant help but make you want the crisis resolved. It pushes you further into the zone of tension fearful the voice will break until it does in the realm of DiPalma and Coppola with a gunshot. One could also say something about the choice of music so inescapably Italian. Although what is interesting is that the aria is supposed to carry us along with the heroes (Anglos, Irishmen, accountants) not the Italian Al Capone. The trailer is held together then by a traditional musicless introduction of key characters, the setting of the stage of heroes and villain, the foreboding presentation of Costner’s wife and kids as the potential sacrifice, and to seal the deal a contextless violent climax set to opera. 
Leading the charge of the Neo-noir aesthetic that owned the late 90’s (and made the new Batman series possible as Memento caries through both the aesthetic of noir and the violence beyond good and evil motif as well) James Ellroy’s LA Confidential is basically the same movie as Gangster Squad although reversed as the two hero cops are originally part of an under the table ‘gangster squad’ that turns out to be a front for running drugs and killing the competition. However of course in LA Confidential the ‘bad’ gangster squad is merely the pretext for Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe to disavow the immoral extra-legal violence of ‘bad cops’ for their own moral  justice/revenge killing spree. In this case the damsel in distress is not L.A. as Nick Nolte says in the Gangster Squad trailer but Kim Bassinger. Again though in the trailer and in the film the music is period appropriate or at least is engineered to sound like what we think this ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood would sound like. 
  As the tension builds in the trailer you begin to hear the faint violin section growing louder, short staccato attack gives way to a big lush string section typical of many scores of the period all of which sound like Thomas Newman’s score to The Road to Perdition. Beautiful, big, lush, string sections, oversaturated production, lots of music only, slow action sequences, and kill shots. Generally the scores are, I think, to capture the tragedy and the beauty of someone's act of sacrifice. This sets the affective mood to feel good about the enjoyment of killing as it was something that had to be done. I suspect however the real fuel for the enjoyment comes from a baser desire to witness payback or revenge. In this way Russell Crowe’s excessive violence in LA Confidential is already cleansed and ready for enjoyment in the trailer before seeing the film through its juxtaposition with the tragic score and brief sad glances of Kim Bassinger. Although we come to find out Crowe isn't dead, so it's not really sacrifice despite the fact that he got the music for it. Cheating I think. You should have to die to get the whole orchestra.
These trailers and the movies that follow them proceed by the revenge/extreme justice playbook. Justice can exceed the law but at least the secondary heroes have to pay for it with their lives. Kevin Spacey gets it when he becomes noble in L.A. Confidential; in The Untouchables Sean Connery gets gunned down as does the hapless accountant. And we have all of the slow-building sad violin solos to carry us through.
Gangster Squad is more like Fight Club than its predecessor revenge flicks. I think it was Houston Baker that pointed out that the entire Dust Brothers' soundtrack to Fight Club was hip-hop with the black voices removed. The tracks are sampled and rendered entirely instrumental to create the ‘OG (original gangster) sensibility’ but with the voices of Pitt and Norton. This is of course the fantasy of the movie. Pitt and Norton play at the lives that hip-hop reports on. They start a kind of crime club not because they are poor, marginalized, or stolen from Africa, but because they are bored and tired of cornflake blue ties and Ikea furniture.
While Gangster Squad has a strong visual investment in the same Noir period of L.A. as L.A. Confidential no one cues the swing music or tragic string section. As the renegade cops go fully BADASS the striking anachronism of Jay-Z begins to play. There is much that can be said about violence in hip-hop. The best of hip-hop does more to re-present violence than represent violence, to steal a line from Spivak, however in this case neither make sense. The violence of kick-ass, Jay-Z “I am Che Guevara with Bling On” swagger is put to use by the faces of Gosling, Broelin, and Nolte. I think this is what makes this film truly fascistic. It is the full enjoyment of being beyond the law without any cost or necessity to disavow the guilt inducing enjoyment of violence. There is at least in the other movies a cost or a sacrifice to leaving behind the law in favor of divine violence. People get killed, families are drawn in, etc. Things GET REAL. 
In the trailer for Gangster Squad we have one of Jay-Z’s most over the top songs, samples of screams over industrial clanging synthesized to sound like the crash of cymbals and a driving beat, then visually and aurally punctuated by explosions on screen. The Jay-Z song “Oh My God” comes from Kingdom Come, his most triumphant album (in the sense of Triumph of the Will). The production on the whole thing sounds like it was made by the archangels of a self-proclaimed God. Wagner for a new generation. As a result it has none of the texture and ambivalence of earlier albums which is to say it is a crass celebration of speed boats and Lambos in an intermittently brilliant career. The over-the-top production for "Oh My God" is meant to provide the back drop to Jay-Z’s rags to riches, will-to-power, Horatio Alger story with a black, urban twist. Growing up poor with a single Mom and then through the streets to become the godfather of hip-hop intolerant of young upstarts who questioned his authority during his retirement. Kingdom Come is after all the first album Jay-Z made after he called off his retirement. What is clear in both the production of the original song and its strangely out of history placement in Gangster Squad is that at the top, in control is what strong men prove when questioned.
I have always thought the production of Kingdom Come sounded like something Mussolini would have commissioned. Its is a series of hollow anthems and Jay-Z is their nation. This further compounds the horrifying mishmash of references to the war on terrorism, the decline of the city, the public as damsel in distress, such that we have something quite different from The Untouchables and LA Confidential. We have a music video for enjoying violence as violence with a little sexualization on the side. I am not sure if it is worse than the other two movies as they invest authoritarianism with a sense of nobility but it's not better. Just different but a difference that lends itself even more to the affective form of the trailer as the justificatory backstory is barely needed.
  What is at play in the Gangster Squad trailer is also part of an aural racial aesthetic that uses hip-hop as the go-to for the enjoyment of senseless violence. Interesting that the sound of young urban black male identity is now the reservoir for the reclamation of white male machismo that is if the content of the lyrics are sufficiently removed. As vapid as this particular Jay-Z song is Jay's story is a compelling one and all that remains for the trailer are grunts and background vocals. There is also something about the aural racialization of crime and decay at work here that is made more explicit by the use of hip hop but is present in all three films. I think particularly in the case of LA Confidential these movies are nostalgia trips. In these new modern times of urban decay and rampant crime where are OUR heroes willing to sacrifice their honor and reputation for the greater good? Hip-hop in this context is particularly creepy. Every fascist needs an emergency and urban decay has been enough to make the prison industry a bottomless bipartisan pork barrel.
Although again I think the aural aesthetic of Kingdom Come's 'Oh My God' is one of swagger it is after all a comeback album where the king reminds everyone what the penalty for disrespect is. However these other resonance ought not be ignored. 
  As the inclusion of torture by heroes in films is now de rigueur we ought not be surprised by Gangster Squad. And I am not saying all of this to join the chorus of moral panic over senseless violence. What I think is worth taking seriously is the sense that is being made of violence. As a technique of mobilization not unlike singing in battle or national anthems the trailer as a form is something more than merely an advertisement. And as the trailer form seems to work best as a collage of violence and pulse-accelerating music all held together by close ups of a few unforgettable faces it should not surprise us that it is increasingly the format for politics. It should however concern us.