Monday, November 22, 2010

It's Just a House

There’s a percentage on your mortgage and your house is gone
There’s a percentage on your mortgage and your life is gone

(Rock Off Crew, ‘Losing Our Home’)

Pixar’s Up is without a doubt the best film made to date about the subprime mortgage crisis, unless you were to contend that rather than about it was in and of the crisis. Writing began in 2004, near the peak of the housing bubble; the film was released five years later, when most Western nations were busy bleeding themselves dry to rescue what was left of their credit institutions and simultaneously doing nothing to prevent the most vulnerable borrowers from losing their homes, or else actively kicking them onto the kerb. Production took place whilst all of this unfolded, forming a perfectly rendered background of dying hopes and crumbling certainties.

‘What I am saying to you is that I have found a flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works.’ Alan Greenspan said this in October of 2008 in front of Henry Waxman and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. That was the punishment for his leading role in causing the immiseration of millions of people: having to publicly concede that there may be a flaw in the model of the self-regulating free market. But spare a thought for the man, for it was no small admission: the model underpinned everything, it was the guarantor of American prosperity itself. In 2000, when Fannie Mae formulated a plan to extend home ownership to 18 million more low and middle income earning families, it chose to call it nothing less than its ‘American Dream Commitment.’ This commitment involved ‘bringing global capital to local communities,’ and global capital obliged, so long as it could place a bet on the outcome of each of those mortgages, which Greenspan dutifully allowed. What could possibly go wrong?

A flying house. An old man literally tethered to his only asset. Quite another dream, that of escaping with one’s home away from civilization and the economy, and inside of a childhood drawing. There. An image, like in one of those proposals that architects and design firms put forward for no practical purpose other than enhancing their creative reputation. Say, a vertical city built under a disused viaduct. Or a lone house perched atop a cliff, next to a waterfall.

When Up shifts out of its extended prologue and into the present tense, Mr Fredricksen is about to lose his house and be moved into a retirement village. The house itself is to be demolished to make way for a massive residential building, a development that this side of the crisis seems somewhat incongruous – are the busy city centers encroaching on the quiet suburbs these days in America? My head is full of stereotyped images of abandoned peripheries and dilapidated inner cities and commercial areas reclaimed for aspiring loft dwellers rather than large scale new construction, but I make no claim to actual knowledge. At any rate this aspect of the set up fits within the usual and supremely ironic Pixar theme of the struggle against the inexorable and dehumanizing march of progress told in the full glory of digital 3D. The face of evil here is a suited property developer who’s always talking on his cell phone despite appearing to be mouthless.

Fredericksen escapes the predicament by tying thousands of helium-filled balloons to the house, and it is clearly an escape in imagination as much as one in reality – set against the backdrop of the most catastrophic housing market collapse in history, it’s an image that demands to be deconstructed.

Floating gently above the clouds, away from earthly troubles. It is intriguing to speculate how the unfolding storlyine, the creeping of the word subprime into the media conversations and common parlance, the progressive deepening of the crisis might have affected at this time the screenwriters and the artists, many of whom would have had their own mortgages to service. Real estate prices in Emeryville, California, where Pixar Animation Studios is headquartered, began to tumble in the spring of 2007, although not quite as severely as in some other parts of the state, which was one of the worst affected by the crisis.

It is a storyline that you can also follow on the shelves of your local public library. Go to the real estate section and watch the mood swing on the book covers. In 2006, it’s upbeat books with fantastic titles along the lines of Proportunities: How to Use Creative Finance to Make a Fortune in Real Estate; by 2008, it’s the post-mortems of the bubble and the bust, and how to make the most of a bad situation. Whilst the Net has a funny way of overwriting its own past, there too with a little Google savvy you can take samples and measure the time it took for the perceptions and narratives to begin to match reality. One of my favourite documents is the Cato Institute daily podcast of 31st of August 2007, in which supply-side economist Alan Reynolds downplayed the implications of the subprime crisis for the housing market – let alone the wider economy – and placed the blame for it squarely on the borrowers themselves, whom he painted as either liars who fudged their loan applications or serial property ‘flippers’ motivated solely by greed. We know now what to make of both of those judgments, but it’s not just how comically wrong Reynolds turned out to be that makes the piece interesting; it is also his neoliberal emotional blindness to the lives of those who faced foreclosure. ‘They can just walk away’ was his somber summation. It would be nothing more than ‘an inconvenience’.

Apply your natural capacity for empathy, or watch Lesley Cockburn’s American Casino for a sense of the actual devastating impact of those foreclosures, which hit and continue to hit disproportionately inner city and African American communities. Yet interestingly the song by Baltimore band Rock Off Crew featured in the documentary opens with a line that is at odds with the remainder of the lyrics in its yearning not for a solution or respite, but for an escape:
All I want to do is get away, just get away
Away from the struggle and the repayments, away from having to carry the house on your back, or at the end of a rope, perhaps. Away from the American dream and the injection of global capital into local communities. At its most visually lyrical, Up literally embodies this yearning.

But just like the market, so too the house will have to come down eventually, and Fredericksen’s character arc is carefully paced so that by the time he has to let go of it, he is ready to do so. First he jettisons with a grunt of satisfaction his beloved furniture, full of the encoded gestures and memories of his life with late wife Ellie,

later he watches as the house itself disappears into the clouds. And when his young traveling companion commiserates him on his loss, there comes the quip that completes the arc: ‘It’s just a house’.

Just a house. One of the effects of the credit crisis has been to foreclose on the aspirations of home ownership of the working class, further deferring the promise of security and prosperity for all that free market theory regards as its inevitable long-term outcome. I don’t recall in which interview or at which juncture of the crisis Jon Stewart complained rather pathetically that ‘our wealth is our work’, as if his own ideology actually allowed for such an equation. If the ongoing crisis has (re)taught us anything, it is that our work will create somebody else’s wealth. And when the crunch comes, it's the working poor and the unemployed who have to learn to let go, to rise above their attachment to material goods, as if your house was really just a house, and not also a refuge, a shelter from the uncaring outside, the anchor to your community, the thing that once paid off protects you from being evicted or foreclosed, or cushions the blow if you lose your job.

In an interview for Democracy Now! on her documentary on the crisis, Lesley Cockburn spoke of how she and the other researchers had found one of the film’s main subjects, Baltimore high school teacher Denzel Mitchell, ‘inside a Goldman Sachs investment product’. She meant that they had traced the mortgage for his Baltimore home in a derivative devised and put together in Manhattan, but the choice of words is telling: it makes sense to say that they found him in there, wrapped in a financial instrument, his own little speculative bubble. Floating. This is the destiny that Fredericksen ultimately chooses not to pursue – to float away in his house, somewhere offshore, amongst the clouds. That terse statement of fact – ‘it’s just a house’ – becomes then also a refusal to be defined by a property relation, and the means to re-enter society as a free(er) subject. It’s the other side of walking away, of letting your house be taken.

In the very last image before the credits of Up start rolling we discover that the house has landed gently just where Ellie had fantasised as a child. It is a comforting resolution, inevitably so, full of symmetry and sentimental denouement, and yet at the same time unsettling, for it leaves us with the picture of a dream without its dreamer, of an economy without people. It is also therefore, in one final ambiguity, a picture of the crisis.

The hat tip for the link to Matt Taibi's article in the first paragraph goes to the indispensible Zunguzungu.


Taramoc said...

Beautifully put, as usual.

To add to the 'it's just a house' sad assessment, I recently watched in one of the many pieces that 60 Minutes has done on the mortgage crises an interview to a retired couple who was about to leave their house somewhere in California.

They had spent most of their life in that house, it looked cozy, furnished with love, and a real genuine testament of their life together. The garden was beautiful, looked like it could have been featured in a magazine.

The really sad part? They didn't really need to leave the house. They had good pensions and their mortgage was well within their means. They had a comfortable life, and definitively didn’t need to build equity with their property, but the amount of money they were giving to the bank was way above the real value of the house, who had hit rock bottom because of the crises.

You could see in the woman's eyes that she didn't want to leave, but the husband had decided the he didn't want to keep paying for something that wasn't worth the money anymore, even with all that sentimental value attached to it.

What kind of society attaches so little value to memories and feelings?

WV: Morsess: the object of an illicit love affair that is conducted only through letters written in Morse code.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I'm still trying to recover from catching an episode of How Did You Get so Rich on the house of Norm Zada, which to the contrary is incredibly opulent and fully paid up yet... empty. It's not minimalist, it literally has no furniture, nothing. It was horrifying.

Unknown said...

After stealing the bear's cave, Thag immediately negotiated rights for My Crib My Castle, including a makeover series for the caveless bear family.

concerc, not enough concern

George D said...

Last week BNZ offered $1.6 billion in covered bonds to the European market. These allow investors to buy AAA rated debt bonds, secured by, and ahead of, all other creditors the bank has. Essentially, they are a slightly less risky version of the credit instruments that caused this bubble, and like these, allow banks to turf people out of their homes to ease their debts. The assumption is that the bank will never fail, or face a radical constriction in its supply of credit.

The New Zealand banking industry seems particularly jealous of BNZ for getting there first, and the Australians likewise. Such debt is illegal for Australian banks, but they are pushing to have the regulation abolished.

Deirdre said...

Fabulous analysis... I will have to watch Up again with a more critical eye.

For other light entertainment based on the subprime crisis, can I recommend "The Financial Lives of Poets" by Jess Walter?

And while I'm at it, can I suggest sweetjuniper blog for photos of Detroit that are pretty much beyond comprehension... it does my head in that so much can be valued so little that it is simply walked away from...

PS Nice to see you and family on the weekend, thanks for coming by.

Megan Clayton said...

When the long-lived widow died
the mortgage on her house was paid
and the balance of her estate
divided between her seven children.

With its share, one family bought a modem,
Nothing so fast had you ever seen
nor noisy had you heard till then.

Memories and messages flung down a cable
through the gargling, the garbling
of the connecting machine.

It was the vo voi voic voice
voice voic voi vo
voi voic voice of home.