The big bucks invested in films have freed film-makers to tell ambitious stories, but what stories have they chosen to tell about money? BBC broadcaster Matthew Sweet ponders this question ahead of our major film season
‘At the dawn of cinema, the camera gazed upon modest spectacles. The Lumière brothers set up their equipment on railway platforms, at factory gates, at baby’s breakfast table, and waited for something to happen. In those days, the medium hadn’t quite revealed itself for what it was: the most beguiling way of losing money yet devised; an art form that required the labour of hundreds, sometimes thousands of people – actors, carpenters, plasterers, costumiers, caterers – to produce a series of tiny images on a fragile strip of plastic.
In the movies, every shot is a money shot – which may explain cinema’s conflicted attitude to cash; its habit of spending millions in order to tell us stories about the limits of the power of wealth. That’s the lesson preached by Charles Foster Kane’s famous last word, and by the battle between the handcuffed protagonists of Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), fighting over a stash of coins in the lethal heat of Death Valley, the victor doomed to be the richest carcass in California. It’s there, too, in Mary Haron’s American Psycho (2000), which encourages us to see the desire to be rich as a form of mental illness. In an even wilder form, it’s there in They Have Changed Their Face (Hanno Cambiato Faccia) (1971), in which the Italian car industry turns out to be run by a cabal of vampires. Actual vampires.
In the movies, every shot is a money shot
This idea runs both ways. Look for the least prosperous person on the screen, and you’ve usually found your point of identification. The heroine of The Lesson (2014) enjoys that status because she’s about to be evicted from her home. Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) allows us to share the hunger and hopes of a gang of impecunious actresses, but wisely pulls the curtain once they’ve bagged their rich husbands, knowing that we don’t care about what they achieve on the mansion tennis court. Some films are founded on the ebb and flow of such feelings. The power of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2014) is derived from its inability to decide whether to be charmed or disgusted by its fraudster hero – who is such an operator that he also seems to have conned the director.
And yet, if comparable scams were not happening daily over lunch tables from California to Cannes, the film industry would barely exist. To make their work, most film-makers must dig as hard as those 1930s chorines. The alternative would be a return to the railway platform, the factory gate and baby’s breakfast. Those subjects have charm, but perhaps they’re not as exhilarating as the power most often exercised by cinema – to take money and transmute it into something much more interesting.’
The Colour of Money takes place 10–20 September.
Illustrations: Pete Reynolds, Follow the Lights
Originally published in the September Guide 2015.