When I was thirteen years old, the world economy collapsed.
I feel like that’s worth stating baldly because it seems at times like people have forgotten, or at least misremembered. It wasn’t a little blip on the road to progress, or a tough couple years we all made it through relatively unscathed. The economy didn’t disappoint or underwhelm, it fucking imploded. The financial crisis became the Great Recession became the “recovery”. It wasn’t that long ago – and it arguably never ended – but its impact on popular culture seems absurdly slight for something that transformed the world. For something that killed so many people. So I feel like it’s worth stating baldly.
When I was thirteen years old, the world economy collapsed.
People lost their jobs, their homes and their lives. The first two are obvious, but it’s worth lingering on the loss of life. You’re probably thinking of suicide, and that’s fair: when belts tighten, they often become nooses. One study suggests an extra 10,000 suicides occurred in the US, Canada and Europe between 2008 and 2010 as a result of the recession. But even that horrifying figure – ten thousand people dead who otherwise wouldn’t be – is a drop in the ocean compared to the half a million preventable cancer deaths in the same period.
We’re now in recovery, but only in the technical sense. Two years after the recession began, there were around five thousand homeless people in Ireland. Ten years after the recession began, those figures have almost doubled, even as almost two hundred thousand homes sit vacant. Home ownership is at its lowest in almost fifty years, which means more people are tenants in the rental market, which means predatory landlords can charge extortionate rates of rent and still fill their rooms, because people need to live somewhere. Rents are now higher than at the peak of our economic boom, even though, obviously, the renting population is worse off. More money goes into the bloated bank accounts of the rentier class, where it’s far more likely to just sit there than if renters were spending it on goods and services, moving it productively through the economy, creating jobs and upward pressure on wages.
For many people, the Great Recession never ended in any meaningful sense, because the jobs never came back to their area, because their wages were cut to “save jobs” and never restored, because they lost their homes and when all your wealth is tied up in your house, losing it doesn’t just leave you homeless, it leaves you broke. Nothing was done at the time to help those people, and nothing’s been done since. We needed stimulus to encourage spending and instead we got the exact opposite: austerity. Not only did the rich and powerful refuse to do the only thing that can reverse a recession – give people more money to spend – they looked down from their perch atop the wreckage and decided what the povvos and the plebs really needed was to have the blood sucked from their fucking bodies.
Actually, that’s a bit kind, as it implies austerity was a stupid, misguided and futile attempt to make things better, rather than a calculated, malicious and effective policy to enshrine inequality as a permanent feature of our society. But don’t take my word for it: just ask David Cameron, who claimed his government’s brutal cuts were a tragic necessity in 2010, but announced just three years later they were actually super good and should last forever. Naturally, he gave this speech at a lavish banquet and spoke at a gold lectern, because once you’re saying out loud what was supposed to be subtext, you may as well make it as loud as possible.
The alleged “recovery” years have been nothing of the sort for the people most affected by the crisis. They were, at best, survival years, where the poorest were lucky to just about maintain what they already had, with little hope of accruing assets or even getting a raise. If you came of age amid the crisis, the recession and the recovery, as I did, it’s almost impossible to overstate just how much it has affected your life, provided you weren’t insulated by your parents’ wealth. Leave aside for a moment the financial effects – though that’s really hard to do when, for example, the median young family in the United States has effectively zero wealth – and it’s still hard to wrap your head around. We were raised in the good times, when things were just gonna keep going up and up and up. Sure, there were bad things going on in the world – unjust and illegal wars, for one – but at least most of us could hope for better than our parents’ generation, and our parents’ generation already had a lot of nice things, like relatively stable housing and gainful employment. Those of us from working-class backgrounds could believe we had a shot at the kind of high-wage, low-toil jobs the last generation never did. We could have homes and jobs and families, and give our kids all the things we never had. I wasn’t well-off growing up, but those were the kind of assumptions I carried. I believed when I was an adult, I would enjoy a more comfortable and contented life than previous generations.
Then, when I was thirteen years old, the world economy collapsed.
I don’t say it to be dramatic. I say it to provide context for a simple question: why didn’t it happen in film and television?
I could give a bunch of examples where it’s really conspicuous that no one’s acknowledging the recession, like Modern Family, but the real absence is larger, systemic and invisible. It’s not in the stories that obviously should have been about the recession, if anyone involved in making them had thought about it for five minutes, but the stories that could have been about the recession, just because the recession was happening in the world and most stories are set there, and in the stories never told. There’s no reason that, for example, The Big Bang Theory shouldn’t have the post-recession reality embedded in its narrative. There’s an on-going housing crisis in California, yet Penny, the female lead, lives in the same building as two Caltech physicists and seems to have plenty of disposable income despite working as a waitress for most of the show’s run.
It’s not just that it doesn’t reflect reality – not everything must or should – or that the relative opulence and stability of their lives is distractingly implausible, though it absolutely is. What most baffles me about popular media that just acts like the recession never happened is that it would be a really useful way to create dramatic stakes in a story and that its absence is actually creating lots of bad writing when people need to contrive drama where it could arise organically from the conditions of society. One of the defining features of the post-recession economy is increased work precarity, but people on television and in movies lose their jobs almost never and never for largely arbitrary reasons, even though it’s like the easiest way to create drama ever. The only show I can even think of that acknowledges the growth of the exploitative gig economy is the recently-cancelled Superior Donuts, whose supporting cast included a middle-aged laid-off factory worker who made ends meet with odd jobs, and even that mostly just used it as a setup for jokes. (Do you ever think about how as recently as a few weeks ago there was a sitcom with Katey Sagal in it and no one watched it? Crazy how the times have changed.) America is in the midst of a historic homeless crisis, but I can’t think of any shows with homeless characters other than Orange is the New Black (in flashbacks) and Atlanta, and Earn’s homelessness in the latter mostly happens off-screen and doesn’t seem to make his life materially more difficult in any way. I can think of just five films about homelessness from the past decade (Being Flynn, Shelter, Time Out of Mind, The Lady in the Van and The Florida Project) and they’re all indies that no one saw. You’ll find a bit more in documentaries, but people famously don’t watch documentaries very much.
It’s not that each and every movie or show that could have been at least in part about the recession failed in not doing so. It’s that pop culture has severed its already tenuous connection to reality and created a false view of the world in its place. And it’s not a harmless thing. The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s The Gulf War Did Not Take Place argued that the modern system of instantly-transmitted mass media, especially news, creates the illusion of immediate access to events happening in the world, even as the information we’re receiving is filtered through the prism of the state and corporate influences that decides what we need to know and what we don’t (e.g. as per the title, the Gulf War as portrayed in Western media did not necessarily resemble the actual events that occurred in the Persian Gulf). Even when it comes to fiction that we understand to not be real, we tend to assume in good faith, on a subconscious level at least, that it’s largely based in something that resembles reality, the common frame of reference that allows art to make experience intelligible to those who haven’t experienced it. We take things at their word, and so we let cop shows convince us that being a cop is as dangerous and noble as it is on TV and family sitcoms tell us millennials are spoiled, selfish, entitled brats who’ve never known real hardship.
When I was thirteen years old, the world economy collapsed. But, in the reality as seen through pop culture, the Great Recession Did Not Take Place. It’s not surprising or anything. Wealthy people – the people who decide what films and TV shows get made – didn’t just weather the recession: they actually became even richer while everyone else got poorer. From their perspective, the recession literally did not occur. Now and then a film will pop up that says otherwise – Up in the Air in 2009 was about mass layoffs and 99 Homes in 2014 was about the foreclosure crisis and The Big Short in 2015 was about just how exactly it all fell apart – but they’re just the glints of already-fading recall in the eyes of the lotus-eaters. If you’re looking for an earnest chronicler of post-recession reality in popular culture, it’s a long, lonely search. There’s Sean Baker, director of Tangerine and The Florida Project, and, of course, the world’s only rockstar documentarian, Michael Moore. But neither of their post-recession filmographies hit the trifecta of cultural impact: popular, acclaimed and good (not since Michael Moore was written off as a relic, at least). That’s a status only one filmmaker working today can claim: Steven Soderbergh.
Steven Soderbergh has always been suspicious of corporate power, as befits the original crossover star of indie cinema. He’s made two films based on true stories of corporate malfeasance – Erin Brockovich and The Informant! – and his growing disdain is apparent in the shift from the former’s inspirational tone to the latter’s utter acerbic contempt. His 2013 psychological thriller Side Effects is in large part about insider trading. Two of the three bad guys in the Ocean’s trilogy, the throwaway heist films he made with his rich actor friends, are CEOs (and the one who isn’t is an aristocrat). When the gang are forced to ally with the first film’s villain to take down the third’s, they relish the opportunity to screw him out of his take by donating it to charity. “You think this is funny?” “Well, Terry, it sure as shit ain’t sad.” It’s a moment that sticks in my head all these years later as a reminder that honestly who gives a shit if rich people lose money.
Three Soderbergh films from after the crash – The Girlfriend Experience (2008), Magic Mike (2012) and Logan Lucky (2017) – are probably the only concerned effort by a major filmmaker to tell a story about how the recession felt. They may not be intended as a thematic trilogy (though the first two feel like companion pieces) but they function as one anyway: The Girlfriend Experience is the crash, Magic Mike is the recession and Logan Lucky is the recovery.
The Girlfriend Experience is the least good, at least by conventional standards of film. It’s one of the low-budget experimental movies that Soderbergh makes between his glossy thrillers and biopics, and there are a lot of choices that could be either genius or stupid, I haven’t made up my mind. The editing and non-linear narrative do a good job of capturing the disorienting anxiety of the time just before the crash, when everyone was waiting to see just how bad things would get, but the scenes set on a plane to a boy’s weekend in Vegas are overexposed to the point most of the actors’ faces aren’t visible, and I don’t think it’s anything but ugly. Soderbergh’s casting of pornographic actress Sasha Grey in the lead was controversial, but, for my money, she’s the best part of the film. She plays Christine, a high-end escort whose clients are mostly financiers who constantly express their panic over the imminent financial crash (the crisis was unfolding as the film was shooting). I honestly couldn’t tell you much about Christine’s interior life with any certainty, because The Girlfriend Experience is about how the modern capitalist economy forces you to turn yourself into a product to stay ahead and Christine is so good at it that she’s almost inhuman.
The film is interspersed with interviews between Christine and a journalist, and it becomes more impossible to tell what’s honest and what’s calculated about her answers to his questions as the film goes on. Things that seemed sincere, even raw, are recontextualised as more of the story becomes apparent in ways that suggest they’re just Christine marketing herself, as she has done throughout the film. We almost never see Christine’s life away from work, not because she’s with her clients all the time, but because even her time away from her clients – what even she might naively call her free time – is dedicated to her work. If she’s not with her clients, she’s invested in the work of maintaining her appearance, getting haircuts and buying new clothes, to keep up the illusion of the “girlfriend experience” she offers. She’s not just a sex object for her clients, though she is that. She plays the role of companion and confidant, dressing above her social class and faking a sophistication she doesn’t really have. What money she makes at her work is immediately eaten up by the cost of working, and if she can’t save, she can’t achieve her dream of giving up sex work and opening her own boutique. She talks social media strategy to increase her bookings and sleeps with “The Erotic Connoisseur” (an escort critic, basically) in hopes of a good review, but he screws her over. Christine’s life is so consumed by her work that her private diaries, accessible only to her and the audience, consist mostly in lists of the clothing she wore for particular encounters with clients and how she can improve in the future. Even her most secret thoughts are utterly consumed with the constant commercialisation of not just her body but every aspect of her life.
There’s an atmosphere of apocalyptic foreboding in The Girlfriend Experience. Both Christine and her boyfriend Chris, a personal trainer who wants to start a sportswear brand, seem desperate to make their plans come to fruition immediately, not out of impatience, but from a real sense they have to do it now or it’ll never happen. In a blunt metaphor for the US economy, they’re both dependent on the patronage of men on Wall Street, not because finance is such a useful and productive activity, but just because that’s where all the money is, and all their clients are talking about is how the world is about to fall apart. The promise that’s sustained them in their unsatisfying, demanding jobs (as a trainer, Chris needs to maintain his body and play friend to his clients in ways that unsubtly mirror Christine), the promise that if you work hard now, you’ll reap the rewards later, seems to be unravelling in front of their eyes just as their frustration with their personal stagnation is reaching its boiling point.
They both kick into high gear, with Christine pursuing a risky plan to become the kept woman of a businessman (even though it will cost her relationship with Chris), while Chris lets a client take him on a trip to Vegas as a wing man in the hope he can parlay their connection into an opportunity to pitch his clothes. Both dissolve the final boundaries between their personal and professional lives in a frantic attempt to make sure there’s something solid to hold on to when the world comes crashing down. I’m sure they were told, as everyone in my generation was, that to get ahead, they’d have to “sell themselves”, that it wasn’t enough to just be good at doing whatever job you were seeking, that you had to make yourself attractive to your prospective employer as a person. But obviously if you’re selling who you are as a person, then who you are as a person has become just another commodity to be bought and sold. And the more you try to sell yourself, the more you have to shape yourself to be what employers want from workers: compliant, subservient, disposable. And so Christine sits down to fill up her diary with her innermost self and all she has are clothes tags. When the businessman spurns her to stay with his family, there’s only enough of Christine left as a person to sell to the journalist.
If The Girlfriend Experience is about the panic that preceded the crash, then Magic Mike is about the dread that followed, when it seemed like things would never get better. Mike (Channing Tatum) is a sex worker like Christine, a stripper working in Tampa, Florida, a city that was devastated by the housing crash, and which had the highest homeless rate in America at the time Magic Mike came out. He too is caught spending too much of his life on maintaining his body for a job he doesn’t want. But his dream is a bit more modest than a boutique or a sportswear line. Mike likes to make custom furniture out of reclaimed materials from the beach – we only see one, a table made out of what looks like a turbine – and he’s always hustling to make his dream a reality. There isn’t a lot of work in Tampa at the moment, so Mike picks up whatever odd jobs he can from Craigslist, mostly construction and auto work, the scraps of what used to be full-time jobs, paid in cash under the table so pesky income taxes don’t slow him from saving. He needs to get his business up and running because, unlike Christine, Mike can feel the constant work eating away at his soul. He has no friends outside work and while Mike understands the value his stripping adds to the lives of the women who come to see him, it just saps value from his. He tries to get a small business loan so he can quit, but he’s turned down because of his credit score, so he decides to stick with his troupe as they open a new club in Miami, where owner Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) promises he’ll have 10% equity. The stake in the club becomes an obsession, and we see why when his love interest tries to distance herself from him, claiming she can’t be around his lifestyle. Owning a business isn’t just a dream for Mike, it’s the only way we can imagine taking ownership of himself after selling himself for so many years:
“You can’t be around my–I’m not my lifestyle. That’s who you think–? That isn’t fucking–I’m not–. Am I Magic, uh, am I Magic Mike right now talking to you? I’m not my goddamn job. That’s not who–that’s not what I do. That’s not me. It is what I do, but it’s not who I am. I’m not just–. That’s why I want to go to Miami. I don’t want to fucking be some 40-year-old stripper. I want to own something.”
Unfortunately, by the end of the film, Mike’s been screwed out of his equity by Dallas and blown all his savings on paying off his friend’s drug debts. He’s worked hard, he’s hustled, he’s sold himself. He’s done all the things you’re supposed to do and he has nothing, because that’s what it’s like now. Work used to let people thrive, but now it barely lets them survive. More and more of those in poverty are in full-time work, victims of a lost decade where inflation outstripped wage growth, i.e. where everything got more expensive but wages didn’t rise to match and people were left living paycheck to paycheck. Mike is one of those people, eking out just enough to keep eking, never enough to save and make plans and find stability. One catastrophe – a car breakdown, a health emergency, a job loss – and it all evaporates. Financial mobility becomes an impossibility. And Magic Mike knows who’s responsible. The stripping scenes are the big draw – and, to be fair, they’re pretty great – but the scene that lingers in my mind is Mike’s meeting at the bank. He’s turned down due to his credit score, effectively a measurement of his trustworthiness as a debtor. The bank don’t think he can be trusted with their money, and the subtext makes the scene utterly galling. A bank! Saying someone else can’t be trusted with money! A bank! The cheek! First they destroy the economy through fraud and corruption and greed, then they expect to be bailed out by the taxpayer, and then they turn around and dare to accuse others of being untrustworthy? The arrogance is staggering, and while Mike does his best to stay positive throughout the meeting, he loses his cool when the loan officer condescends to offer Mike a place in a relief program for distressed clients. “I read the papers, okay? The only thing that’s distressed is y’all.” That line’s been banging around in my head for five years now, mostly because it’s not true. After everything they did, the banks should be in ruins, but they’re not. More than anyone else, the recovery was for the banks, the biggest of which are bigger now than when they were too big to fail.
Logan Lucky brings us deep into that so-called recovery, and its protagonists are those for whom the recession happened while the recovery never did. Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum, again) is a miner-turned-construction worker barely making ends meet, and that’s before he’s fired because his bum leg makes him an insurance risk. He’s not doing half as well as Christine, who lived in a stupidly-big apartment, or Mike, who at least made enough to rent a nice beach house. Jimmy lives in a trailer, and his dreams aren’t as big as Christine’s or Mike’s – he just wants to be in his daughter’s life, the most basic simple want he could possibly have, and one that’s put in jeopardy when his ex-wife, who has custody, announces she’s moving with her new husband, just as Mike is fired. If The Girlfriend Experience is about panic and Magic Mike is about dread, then Logan Lucky is about despair. Our heroes are people with no hope of better. In addition to Jimmy, there’s his brother Clyde, who lost a hand in Iraq and just about gets by with a crappy prosthetic at his bartending job. Their sister Mellie is the only person to escape the Logan family curse, and even she’s just doing okay as a hairdresser.
They recruit the Bang brothers, a family of small-time criminals, to help them rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway, initially during an auto fair and then, when that becomes impossible, in the middle of the Coca-Cola 600, the biggest race in NASCAR, which one of the Bang brothers literally compares to robbing from America. The world won’t give them a fair shake, so they use their wit and will to make off with millions of dollars, and, in the end, even the people they robbed don’t care, since they got it all back (and then some) in insurance. Everyone involved gets a healthy payday (Jimmy’s take alone is enough to buy a house nearer his daughter), including an elderly prison inmate who staged a riot to cover the breakout of two crew members, an unwitting bank worker they tricked into helping with the plan and an old schoolmate of Jimmy’s who runs a mobile clinic to provide healthcare to the poor, just because that seems like the decent thing to do.
I know this doesn’t sound particularly despairing – it almost sounds like a bunch of people with nothing to hope for finally getting ahead in life – but only because I haven’t told you about the final scene. The last act of the film concerns the FBI investigation into the heist, lead by Agent Grierson (Hilary Swank) and her partner, who somehow manage to put together just about every part of the incredibly convoluted plan, but have their investigation stonewalled because the company who owns the Speedway know their insurance probably overpaid them and don’t want the thieves caught, in case they have to pay it back. But, at the very end of the movie, when the crew gathers at the bar where Clyde works to celebrate a job well done, Clyde turns around and there’s Grierson’s grinning face. She knows they did it, and she’s going to cling to them like a thin film of scum until someone slips up and she can take them down. It doesn’t matter that no one was hurt. It doesn’t matter that no one else even cares. By daring to take from those who have too much already so that those with too little can finally have their share, the Logans have upset the established order, and that just can’t be allowed to stand. If you know anything about this world, it’s hard to watch that final scene and not know in your bones that she’s gonna catch them. People like them aren’t allowed to win. That kind of leniency is reserved strictly for predatory mortgage brokers, corrupt financial regulators and bank executives.
The Girlfriend Experience, Magic Mike and Logan Lucky – what I’m pretentiously going to call Steven Soderbergh’s recession trilogy – tell a story about the lives of ordinary people in the years since the financial crash. From film to film, their existences become more meagre, their dreams become smaller, and yet they’re still denied what little they hope for. They work hard, they play the game, they sell themselves, but it’s never enough. The system’s not even broken. It’s working exactly as intended for those at the top, just not for the average person trying to make it.
I live in a housing estate in a small village in rural Ireland. When I walk to our one shop to buy some milk, even in this small place, there’s a mile of scars left from the crash. The foundations of houses that were never built, the concrete cracked apart by rain and ice. The small business park with just three units in use – a hairdresser, a day care and an accountant – and half the downstairs unfinished, all bare girders and twisted rebar. If I catch a bus to the next town over, what used to be the main shopping plaza is just empty buildings, apart from one bookshop and a Yankee Candle store, of all things. The newsagent, the supermarket, the sports shop, the restaurant, all closed, and closed for some time. I know this isn’t uncommon. I know this is the world over. It’s disorienting to watch as much film and television as I do and see so much of reality reflected back, but never the part of reality where you live. It’s not about “representation” or whatever. It’s about the slow realisation that people in power just don’t think you’re real, not in any way that matters.
When I was thirteen years old, the world economy collapsed.
It’s a relief to know someone looked down from the ivory tower and wondered what it must feel like to live in the ruins.