Typically films (and television programmes) use two visual techniques to show mathematics. First, there are specific images that stand in for the process of doing math, usually, people writing feverishly on windows, mirrors and transparent whiteboards. Second, there are scenes that seek to explain math. These extract you from the normal mise-en-scène, as images change to depict structure and pattern, and normal speech is replaced by a pedagogic voice-over from a mathematical ‘genius’. These scenes naturalise how: ‘mathematics produces new inventions in reality, not only in the sense that new insights may change interpretations, but also in the sense that mathematics colonises part of reality and reorders it’ (Skovsmose, 1994, p.42). They convey the power of math and the role of mathematicians in mediating that. Their specific mathematical content is irrelevant to the story.
Both these patterns are broken in The Big Short and in Margin Call. There is no feverish writing in either. Their visual shorthand for doing math is typing into computers, as small screens of numbers and graphs flicker across the big screen. This shift, from old-fashioned to contemporary images, arguably makes math feel more accessible. This is supported by the four scenes explaining math in The Big Short. Three exist outside the main narrative, as in other mathematical fictions, using glamour, celebrity and metaphor to describe the math of mortgage-backed securities, shorting a market and CDOs. They feature: actor Margot Robbie sipping champagne in a bubble bath; chef Anthony Bourdain preparing food in his restaurant; and ‘Dr Richard Thaler, father of behavioural economics’ and ‘International Pop Star’ Selena Gomez gambling in Vegas. In a change from the past, the film invites its audience to understand mathematical ideas which are then integrated into the narrative. The film’s narrator, banker Jared Vennett, sets these scenes up in opposition to the confusing use of ‘financial jargon’ that he describes as a deliberate strategy to exclude by making ‘you feel bored and stupid’. This financial jargon is implicitly mathematical.
Beyond this focus on the accessibility of math we find a challenge to its objectivity. In a key scene, Jared tries to sell the idea of shorting the housing market. He is asked ‘You’re completely sure of the math’? In reply, he points to ‘my quant’, an East Asian man. Jared explains he speaks no English, is called Yang and came top in a mathematics competition in China. The film instantly cuts to the ‘quant’. Looking directly into the camera, he tells us that he speaks English, is called John, and came second in the competition. This draws attention to stereotypes of Chinese people as ‘naturally able’ at math. It also exposes mathematical truth as reliant on social factors for authentication: who makes a claim is more critical than any so-called objective criteria.
Typically in mathematical fiction, people doing mathematics combine features of the socially-awkward geek/nerd and the heroic genius. Stories about the financial crisis reproduce these clichés but they also turn them into a problem suggesting we shouldn’t leave math to an expert elite. The Big Short’s Michael, who develops the idea of shorting the housing market, wears no shoes in the office and admits: ‘I don’t know how to be funny. I don’t know how to work people. I just know how to read numbers’. He is one of the ‘outsiders and weirdos’ who saw the ‘lie at the heart of the economy’. Although weird, they are presented as innovators as we’re told that the man who invented Mortgage Backed Securities has ‘changed your life more than Michael Jordan, the iPod and YouTube put together’. These characters are simultaneously geeks and geniuses. But they are not heroes as such characters are in most mathematical fictions. They did and do not save us. As Jared chides us towards the end of The Big Short, after his $47M bonus for 2008, is announced, ‘Hey I never said I was the hero of this story’. These characters provoke more alienation than empathy. As critic Roger Ebert (2011) put it, the ‘long black cars and executive perks’ in Margin Call are ‘paid for with what was inescapably fraud. One of the characters has a sick dog. The dog is the only creature in the entire film that anyone likes’. Their nastiness and fallibility are a warning that we should not leave finance to an elite and so that we need to open up access to math.
Breaking the fourth wall in The Big Short implicates us by placing us inside the action. This is most obvious at the end of the film, when Jared explains: ‘In the years that followed, hundreds of bankers and rating-agencies’ executives went to jail. The SEC [Securities and Exchange Commission] was completely overhauled and Congress had no choice, but to break up the big banks and regulate the mortgage and derivative industries’. As Jared speaks we see images representing the events he describes. Then, after a pause, he announces ‘just kidding’, reminding us of the bank bailouts, bonuses and lack of reform. Despite knowing what happened, every time I watch this, I momentarily indulge in the fantasy of economic justice. The scene ‘moves us beyond what is merely actual and present into a realm of possibility, the not yet actualized or the not yet actualizable’ (Undoing Gender Butler, 2004, p. 28). It indicates we need democratic accountability in our financial systems, something which would also require a democratic math.