Occupying Wall Street; Examining ‘A Diamond as Big as the Ritz’ and ‘Cosmopolis’, Part 2

In Part I of Occupying Wall Street, we found that both stories have surprisingly similar opinions about representative billionaires, including the suggestion that even while protecting their insulation they crave validation from society at large.

And yet, despite this desired connection, both men are extremely unsympathetic to the common man. Both works portray their billionaires in open contempt for those they have control over. Cronenberg’s Packer is openly dismissive of everyone in his rambling conversations, forcing one analyst to debrief him while he receives a colonoscopy (still in the limo of course). Each of his analysts is cagey about the questions he asks them (“What is an airport?”) because they claim to know he will lose respect for them if they answer. When a stranger who has business with Parker approaches his limo, Parker is openly hostile, haranguing the man to speak quickly and stop wasting his time. This man is a doctor, whom Parker is completely unimpressed with. In an important scene between Parker and his chief of security, Parker continues his subversion of the chief’s operating procedure by demanding he hand over his gun and unlock the voice activated safety. This scene is representative of the efficacy of rules and regulations over the people who own and create the rules and regulations. The security chief has no choice but to hand over the gun and unlock the safety. The chief had just finished explaining how safe the weapon was due to the craftsmanship and regulation it was built with, and now he must smile nervously as he enables its deadly potential for his deranged unpredictable boss. Packer immediately destroys him with it, a small unconsidered event in the billionaire’s own personal downward spiral. Packer clearly wants to maintain a connection to some authentic common lifestyle, his haircut and musical taste is testament to that, but his will is absolute and empathy is not a consideration. Everyone else is forced to placate him with the notable exception of his old money wife and his would be assassin. Cronenberg and Delillo suggest this man would be completely unaffected by an Occupy Wall Street protest, that he would have trouble even considering it a conversation. I’m sure the Occupy-ers were under no pretenses that they could brainwash the rich, but perhaps it was still delusional to think they could have any effect on this kind of person while the rest of the world races to placate them. Packer is actually assaulted directly by various protests during the course of Cosmopolis and except for the last deeply personal protest in the denouement of the film, he ignores them or is offended. In one realistic situation anti-capitalists toss dead rats around the diner he is in during a city wide riot; they don’t know how close they are to the heart of the system they hate and he barely blinks and doesn’t address the event.

 

Just to be clear, we're talking about people who have a lot of these

Just to be clear, we’re talking about people who have a lot of these

Fitzgerald’s Washington is equally unsympathetic. Much of the Washington family’s policy towards the rabble (that is everyone else) is witnessed first-hand by the young friend from prep school. The visiting everyman soon realizes that in learning about the family’s lifestyle he’s also become an expendable bauble. The kicker of course is that this has happened many times before, his school chum who invited him has invited others before and so have the Washington sisters. The Washington children feign ignorance but are all aware of the consequences. After he gets a confession from one of the sisters (this won’t be the last time love conquers money in art) he learns that they feel uncomfortable about it but they do keep some of their dead friend’s jewelry as mementos. This “oh Dear” element is an enjoyable part of the satire of high society that Fitzgerald has constructed, but also is a component of the Washington’s world view that the oppression and murder of the weak is just a necessary consequence of the way the world is constructed. The most important interaction with the poor comes midway through the story when papa Washington takes the boys to see the pit he keeps in the middle of his magnificent private fairway. Trapped inside are the airplane pilots who unwisely flew over the unmarked secret location on the mine and were shot down and captured. Washington is not an insane tyrant, he sits down and talks to them. This is a wonderful breakdown of the conversation between the rich and the poor as the situation allows Washington to speak freely, with no need to insulate himself with barriers like propaganda since he is in complete super-legal control of them. The prisoners appeal to his decency, flatter him, and slander him in turn. There is a humorous undercurrent to their wild pleas as they know they will be unable to win their freedom with words alone. The bottom line for Washington is this; releasing them puts him in danger and is therefore impossible. He offers them a quick death or imprisonment and those are the most reasonable options he can come up with. There is no room for morality and the weight of the prisoner’s lives are nothing against his considerations.

It’s important to note that at this point, the Washington family is beyond dependency on the diamond. Washington has been dumping diamonds onto the market in clandestine fashion for years and keeps the converted wealth as condensed cesium in bank vaults around the country. He’s so absurdly rich that just keeping cash in banks would be too public due to the great amount, so it’s stored as an ultra expensive dense element. The absurd fortress system of protection for the diamond mine is no longer the most expedient or reasonable solution, which means Washington’s perpetuation of this system has gone beyond greed or convenience. Washington’s logic is deranged. In Cosmopolis, Packer’s logic is suspect throughout the entire film. He’s guided by flippant thoughts, crossing insane traffic for a haircut and heading into the building that holds his assassin on a whim. Both billionaires behave bizarrely, working on logic that eschews personal protection or greed. Ritz and Cosmopolis suggest that the difference between an Occupier and a CEO is almost a language barrier, one that renders the idea of reaching across the aisle meaningless.

So far the qualities discussed of these two billionaires suggest that change is close to impossible, that those who protest are fighting a hopeless battle. However both Ritz and Cosmopolis feature arcs of downfall. The Washingtons and Packer are undone by their work’s end, their finances evaporated.  Fitzgerald and Delillo both seem fascinated by the idea of cycles, even at the highest levels of power. The billionaires don’t really make mistakes in the classical sense, they are merely undone by the same forces that catapulted them to fortune originally. Washington lets slip to his young visitor that an escaped tutor, a repurposed Italian from the pit, is being hunted across the state with a heavy bounty on his head. Unfortunately the bounty is so heavy that eleven men across the state have claimed to have murdered him already.  This weakness in the system eventually comes back the haunt Washington; the Italian survives with the story of the mine and soon a mercenary army starts strafing the fortress ending the Ritz era. In the machinations of the plot this allows the young man to escape, but more importantly the Washingtons fight to the last breath. In his last moments Washington Sr. is unbroken by hubris, he does not become a bargainer or a survivalist. In a stunning scene, Washington finds a quiet patch of sky and attempts to bribe god with a massive diamond and promises. God does not answer, and ultimately Washington can no longer maintain his position between the diamond and society, which was the source of his wealth. The greed of other men finally brought about his downfall.

 In Cosmopolis, Packer runs into a similar turn of events, although without bombers and aircraft guns. He has finally made a bad bet, heavily leveraging himself against the Chinese yuan in currency speculation. His analysts go both ways on the chances of recovery but Packer can guess what is going to happen, and his erratic behavior intensifies in reaction. Cosmopolis gives evidence to suggest that this is probably how he made most of his money in the first place, betting in eccentric markets based on predictions about the world that don’t predict anything about the actual world. Packer’s would be assassin, a shuffling and violent Paul Giamatti, is a dark mirror, an intelligent former co-worker who also understood the vagaries of currency trading but has gone on ahead of Packer, fallen on hard times and been reduced to nothing. Packer’s limo and lifestyle exist because he can leverage capital, and his employees and acquaintances must tolerate or find meaning in his eccentric world view. Without the capital, with the limo finally retired, Packer and Giamatti’s philosophies are equally trite, their opinions hold no sway over each other and their arguments no glamour. Packer and Giamatti have lost the class distinction and simply become two men with guns. The same heavily leveraged margin calls that propelled Packer to an elite status have reduced him back to nothing. Cosmopolis and Ritz share this precognition that the absurdly rich will be cast down to indigence by the same capricious cycles that raised them originally. In both works, the speeches that emerge from the well-defined personal ethos of these billionaires are reduced to delusional ramblings. Delillo and Fitzgerald suggest that at least the establishments that created these billionaires, if not the billionaires themselves, will be destroyed by the flow of time.

He may be rich, but at least he's American

He may be rich, but at least he’s American

 Due to the frame of reference neither story spends much time considering what happens to the poor affected by these billionaires. Mostly the common man is represented in a functional manner, filling the expected roles. Rather than a comment on fatalism, I believe this is a consequence of the shifting of perspective from the streets to the opulent mansions. Much as the rich usually serve as evil plot motivators who impel the protagonists to adventure, the poor serve in this situation as grist for the plot. Whether it’s prisoners or protestors neither author considers giving them agency in this story. In Ritz, the protagonist is given a voice to comment on the proceedings but no functional choices. Fitzgerald uses him to suggest that the poor will easily side with the rich if they get a taste of their luxury, but that it is a poison pill ultimately leading to their destruction. Fitzgerald also has him break character at the very end to comment on the absurdity of the abysmal state the Washingtons find themselves in at last. The lack of agency is telling though, as the protagonist is unable to effectively change his financial position or ensure his own survival. Cosmopolis gives voice to Giamatti, Packer’s disgruntled ex-employee, but also seems to suggest he has no control, even over his own actions. As Packer tries to convince him of the pointlessness of his murder, Giamatti counters saying he has no choice. Overall, neither author gives credence to a revolutionary scenario. The crumbling of the Washington’s fortress is not done by farmers with pitchforks, but by mercenaries armed with bombers and soldiers. Likewise Packer’s assassin was once a colleague. Rather than revolutionary causes these are parts of their own internal cycles. In this sense, neither Fitzgerald nor Delillo imagined an effective protest like Occupy Wall Street radically altering their stories, perhaps because it was not relevant to the viewpoint they were telling their stories from.

You must have at least this much agency to ride this ride.

You must have at least this much agency to ride this ride.

Ultimately both Cosmopolis and Ritz are personal stories, heavily stylized synthetics that incorporate the author’s personal feelings and theories about the millionaires and billionaires that stand above us. Everyone knows the rich like to separate themselves from society, but both authors suggest the rich still instinctively want to be a part of society, that ruling from the high castle isn’t sufficient. Once they interact with the common man though, they seem to operate on a completely different rule set, like playing Monopoly with a three year old. Both works carefully document the divide in thought and empathy which money has created. For this reason, the protests described therein are completely ineffectual. Finally, both the Washingtons and Packer end up destitute in several senses at the conclusion of their stories. It seems like both Delillo and Fitzgerald believed that the cyclical nature of power and control would ultimately undue the men at the top of the pyramid. I’m sure this isn’t the first time you’ve seen such a plot device. Does this mean that these cycles have happened in the past, or that we merely wish it to be so? With the recent publicity of Occupy Wall Street and the financial crisis we have a lot of information to parse through that may give us some answers.

 

Join me in part 3 when we look at how correct the predictions made in these two works ended up being during the 2008 financial crisis and Occupy Protests. 

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