William Shakespeare made many an allusion to the world being a stage; most famously in As you like it where the phrase is the title of a monologue:
All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.
What follows isn’t a rant about the telegenic overtaking the cerebral, although that may be well deserving of an article in a more boring publication at some time, but rather one about the sheer volume of pretence that gnaws at the heart of all that is supposed to be important and real in modern society.
Reportedly, the sight of Michelle Obama gracing the Oscars – the former moniker “Academy Awards” being consigned to the dustbin of history in keeping with the meme of the Twitter generation – to present the award for Best Picture stuck in the craw of many political observers in the United States and elsewhere. “How could the First Lady of the United States demean the office of the president so by appearing in a mere awards show?” they cried in unison.
Her defenders point to the FLOTUS being a sporting personality who is breaking tradition from the aloof image of her predecessors and embracing wholeheartedly the pop culture that underpins America’s confidence in itself. The more economics-oriented of her fans also laud her for doing her bit to boost America’s chief cultural export, even if the actual volume of revenues generated by Hollywood remains miniscule compared to real exporting industries such as aeronautics and heavy engineering.
Both sides though miss the larger point, for when history is written, this part of mankind’s story will be rightly remembered as the one where everyone in power wasn’t so much enacting their authority but merely acting as if they were.
An important part of such acting is to be seen to be acting, for who does care about the quiet person in the back room who has designed the perpetual motion machine; the chap in front acting as if he’d press the nuclear button to send us all to Kingdom Come (that’s your cue, Kim Jong-eun) is much more interesting.
In that world, the FLOTUS, or indeed the POTUS, isn’t an external party to the play-acting that surrounds us all – they are the Master of Ceremonies, out to hand awards to those of the world’s powerful who manage to do their jobs with the greatest creative license; awards to the people whose actions create enough of a short-term tailwind to embellish their own hold on power and enshrine fictitious achievements whose undoing will be blamed on a whole new cast of folks for the mere sin of ambling along later.
So the FLOTUS is accused of not quite being FLOTUS but rather a lady pretending to be FLOTUS? Perhaps so – but what would one say of the people in the role of US Treasury Secretary who have intoned time and again, “The United States remains committed to a strong dollar policy”, before turning around and signing a few hundred quadrillion of cotton-backed IOUs to spread around the world – namely the US dollar notes.
How good an actor do you have to be to do that with a straight face time and again, even as everyone in your immediate circle doubles over with laughter at the sheer absurdity of your theatre.
Former treasury secretary Hank Paulson may have been pretty good as an over-the-top Hollywood villain delivering news about the end of the world in a flat monotone. The Nosferatu of economic collapse had emerged from his hiding place, and in an era before sensational, minute-by-minute Tweeting and Facebooking (one assumes that is the verb format), his patina of outright evil grabbed the imagination of viewers: in that film the sight of a charming old man with a couple of cloves of garlic was enough to send everyone into raptures.
His successor, Timothy Geithner, though, was much better at exhibiting as his enemy a more subtle form of sinister evil that could only be quelled by opening up a Pandora’s Box of trouble, in effect unleashing the very forces that would sink the global financial system at a not-too-distant date in the name of saving the self-same system.
He is a hero in the James Bond vein, throwing out a constant stream of innovative gadgets with ludicrous names like TARP and QE to keep the villains at bay, even if it did mean bumping off half the population of a major city before the opening credits. Truly, not even Hollywood and its army of coked up screenwriters could have concocted a villain of that magnitude that could make the actions of someone like Geithner appear heroic – and yet here we are.
You want tales of the American dream? How about this one about a boring old academic whose only claim to fame was in debunking the only serious paper that questioned the direction of the economy back in 2006 but had been written by a foreign pretender (lets call this character for argument’s sake something that sounds silly, like Raghuram Rajan, chief economist of the International Monetary Fund; like anyone is going to think that could be a real person).
In return for this defense of the status quo, the academic was made head of the world’s most important central bank and proceeded to do everything that was expressly against his mandate in order to rescue an unsuspecting world from the results of any righteous actions that may have disadvantaged the privileged few.
Oh, so that doesn’t sound like a heroic story? Well then, let’s layer in some guff about property prices of houses owned by illegal immigrants notching up some gains and that should be enough to get the Oscars rolling in. Minority interests and all that stuff – make sure there is a Hispanic chap with a darkish wife who is turfed out by a banker midway through the film and then returns to his home in the climactic scene. Job done.
You want an international antihero? Why here we give you this utterly ridiculous media tycoon in a southern European country, who is accused of much corruption – both financial and moral, the former involving true cretinism while the latter involves hiring underage prostitutes to parties with his like-minded lascivious chums – but who, in a fit of redemption seems set to storm back into the corridors of power to rescue his country from the clutches of the austerity-prone hardnosed Germanic tribes from up North.
This being a European film though, such a person could lose – more than once as it turns out – and everyone generally leaves the cinema not feeling happier than when they went in. That’s European cinema for you, not quite Hollywood, you know.
What’s that you say – oh, you want something about the undead – that eternal fascination of the hormonally challenged pre-adults? But oh, so the old Nosferatu stuff doesn’t work because of the antediluvian script? Not to worry, we can show you all the zombies, werewolves and vampires you’d want in any one show – just call up the manufacturers, bankers and pensioners from the real economy to play the parts will you.
The only casting note is to make sure that the manufacturers are sufficiently zombie-like, so pick amongst Japanese exporters for example. As for the bankers, no need to be picky; pretty much any of them will do, and being available in such large numbers you’d think their rates would have come down, but sadly not.
As for the pensioners, make sure their vampire guises are well protected by, for example, having people known as “fund managers” to shepherd them around. These chaps are terribly professional about never letting this stuff called “sunlight” in some quarters – and “true returns” in other quarters – anywhere near the herds.
Ah, you want to make a horror movie and someone called Warren ran off with the ketchup factory through a leveraged buyout you say? Oh well, that is going to play havoc with the film’s finances now won’t it – how could you make a proper thriller without the ketchup splattering about.
For the closing credits, the bard again says it best, for he ends the monologue in As you like it thus:
Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.