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 Margin Call and The Big Short. 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.
In Margin Call, what is important is less the detail of the math (glossed as an ‘equation’ or ‘formula’) than its meaning. The bank’s CEO asks Peter, the young risk analyst who uncovers the problem, to ‘speak as you might to a young child or a golden retriever’. Peter’s immediate boss exclaims, ‘Oh, Jesus. You know I can’t fucking read these things. Just speak to me in English’. Thus, even those on ‘the inside’ are exposed as fallible. Uncertainty and questioning echo through the film. The ‘formula’ on which the bank has relied for so long is ‘worthless. … It’s broken’. When someone objects, ‘there are eight trillion dollars of paper around the world relying on that equation’, the terse response is, ‘well, we were wrong’. The equally terse response to that is: ‘No, you mean you were wrong’. The film thus starts with a loss of mathematical certainty, that is never resolved. This is symbolised by the CEO’s statement that, ‘one and one no longer makes two’. Other characters ask ‘Do we even know if he’s right’? ‘Is that figure right’? And ‘You think he’s right’? The responses, whether certain or uncertain (‘looks pretty fucking right to me’, ‘I don’t know, I can’t be sure’ and ‘I know he’s right’), are never final. There is also ambiguity around the film’s use of ‘right’, which refers both to the ‘rightness’ of math and to moral ‘rightness’. Different characters take different views on whether the bank should liquidate their position. As one puts it, ‘in acute situations such as this, often what is right can take on multiple interpretations’. While, this is a reference to disputes about what is morally right, given the continuing and parallel questioning of mathematical certainty in the film, it could also apply to mathematics. Thus, both films draw attention to the power of mathematics to order the world in its own image, and so they expose it and denaturalise it.
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. Starting with examples of the clichés, Margin Call’s Peter is a former ‘rocket scientist’ who chooses to stay late at the office doing math rather than going drinking with his workmates.
In Margin Call, one banker, looking at the city through a car window, justifies his role to another: ‘If people want to live like this, in their cars and the big fucking houses they can’t even pay for, then you’re necessary’. This can be read as a way of shifting responsibility for the financial crisis from bankers to ‘ordinary’ people. However, it can also be read as opening up math, moving away from elitism. Connecting consumption to math implicates all of us in the crisis so we cannot ‘pretend [we] have no idea where it came from’ (Margin Call). Similarly, 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.