By Dr Katy Shaw
‘There is nothing in this film you don’t already know’ declares Russell Brand in the opening scene of Michael Winterbottom’s new movie about the 2007-8 financial crisis Emperor’s New Clothes. A joint project between heavy-weights of the directing and comedy worlds, the movie’s main focus is the financial crash of 2007-8 and its consequences, from bankers’ bonuses at HSBC and Citibank, to the Occupy movement, corporate tax-dodging by Vodaphone and Apple, the privatisation of housing and zero hours contracts. Finished only two days before the premiere last night – to include up-to-date statistics on bankers’ bonuses – the film makes a series of suggestions for ways to improve economic, political and social systems, remedy perceived injustices and close a growing gap between rich and poor on both sides of the Atlantic.
Winterbottom had originally wanted to work with Brand on a movie based on his first tome My Booky Wook about his early years growing up in Grays, Essex. In The Emperor’s New Clothes, Winterbottom ploughs much of the same ground, using the London commuter town as a framing device representing a wider demise in the political, economic and social condition of contemporary Britain. Following Brand on a journey of education – from Grays, to London, and on to New York – the epiphany encouraged by his quest is one of collective organisation. Brand is presented by the film not as an alternative leader, but as a personable ringleader, a figure who can participate and enact change by using his celebrity to amplifying social causes and movements. From the New Era housing estate in Hoxton, to the international TTIP agreement, the comedian’s understandable economics (often written on the back of his hand in ballpoint pen) propels a wider, shared, journey of inquiry.
Yet Brand also remains the ultimate paradox of this film. As millionaire-turned-activist, he spends much screen time jumping ticket-gates at train stations, climbing over bankers’ garden fences and performing the tensions of his foot-in-both-camp standing. In the final moments of the movie, he even admits that the new tax laws it espouses will effectively ‘fuck him over an all’, while he is jointly compliant in working for, or associating with, the ‘evil liver-spotted tarantula man’ and many of the media figures and organisations profiled by the movie as malign influences. The real star of the film is actually Channel Four News Economics Editor Paul Mason, who injects its economic assertions with authority, perspective and experience. Masons’ shared sense of the drive for an alternative, of 2015 as ‘a moment in history ripe for change’ adds much-needed critical weight to Brand’s repeated rhetoric for an alternative to corporate hegemony in the twenty-first century. Mason highlights that these are crises of ideas as well as of capitalism, and that that smashing of the welfare state as an austerity response to the crash has simply not worked. The film also benefits greatly from the considerable talents of CassetteBoy, whose bespoke rap-piece forms the closing credits.
‘It’s a good time to market a film like this, when there’s an election’ Brand mused in the subsequent Q&A and for the audience it was impossible to ignore the heavy focus offered by the film on the UK Con/Lib coalition. Footage of Cameron and Osborne peppers the film emphasising the current government’s role in enhancing the power and profit of elites. Across the film, Brand profiles groups that encourage people to become involved in their own political destiny, from the international Occupy movement, to smaller more local housing groups and bespoke campaigns. Disillusioned with traditional politics that no longer represents the average person, the movie presents economics as an apparatus for ordinary people to become engaged with the political once more. Having previously been criticised for telling young people not to bother voting, Brand takes a slightly different approach here suggesting that ‘we are worth more than voting […] I’m looking for more radical solutions’, ones that ‘engage real people for real change, politics is something we can’t just get involved in twice in a decade’.
Winterbottom complains that it is ‘hard to make these issues interesting, dynamic and fun as well as accessible’, yet this is exactly where Monty Python’s Terry Jones and his credit crunch film BoomBust, also released this month, succeeds. A production designed to generate awareness, debates and engagement rather than simply profit, BoomBust is a valuable and exemplary intervention in an ongoing project to re-write popular conceptions of the 2007-8 financial crisis. In its confident analysis of the routes to, events during and consequences of the crisis, BoomBust does not swerve from difficult material – puppets regular appear on screen to recite economic theory verbatim, alongside song, slapstick and animated shorts. This clever weaving of fact and funny creates that rarest of things – a humanised economics. Quite simply, BoomBust is an utter joy – an educational, inspirational, head-in-hands unbelievable, romp through a shared history of bubbles and crashes and the ultimate failure of neoclassical economics to acknowledge tensions inherent to its own systems.
In press briefings, the production teams behind BoomBust and Emperor’s New Clothes openly state their hopes that the films become new educational tools, ones that encourage education and promote unionisation. While both movies are undoubtedly inspiring, educational and ambitious, viewers would be better enjoying a double-bill, turning first to BoomBust for an economic education about what happened in the past, and then to Emperor’s New Clothes for a mission-call about enacting change in the future. Both films offer important interventions in a financial crisis that forms not only a significant part of the history of the new millennium, but a pivotal role in shaping the years to come. As Brand asserts half way through his own movie: ‘If you aren’t angry enough to kick a pig into a ditch you aren’t understanding this’. Combining comedy, kudos, anger and outrage, BoomBust and Emperor’s New Clothes offer essential viewing for everyone who agrees that contemporary value does not begin, and end, with the economic.
Dr Katy Shaw is Principal Lecturer in Contemporary Literature and Subject Lead for Literature at Leeds Beckett University. Her forthcoming book Crunch Lit is published by Bloomsbury in Autumn 2015.