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Invasion of the Asset Swappers


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
July 11, 2005

[This commentary (along with a picture of an alien head in the print editionnot to be confused with my photo) appears in the July/August 2005 issue of Financial Engineering News. This commentary contains a four-letter word considered obscene by many that my editor excised and I reinserted, so you have been warned. My next regular column will take me back to the schoolyards of my youth and to present-day retailers A.C. Moore and Michael's.]

Financial engineering can be scary stuff. In his latest movie, The Girl From Monday, renowned independent film director/writer/composer Hal Hartley creates a science-fiction dystopia where people have been securitized and are bought and sold on financial exchanges like pork belly futures or shares in Martha Stewart. In charge of things is the obligatory evil corporation, Triple M, which is not its credit rating, but instead stands for Major Multimedia Monopoly. Triple M is a monopoly in name onlyit faces relentless competition and sports a cheap logo that no self-respecting monopolist's corporate identity department would be caught dead using.

Mr. Hartley is not to first to take on the financial world. Oliver Stone gave it a shot with Wall Street, whose catering budget likely exceeded the $300,000 that Monday is said to have cost. Stone's film, however, sent mixed messages and ultimately did more to glamorize Wall Street than to demonize it. Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) came off as a slick guy with neat toys who happened to value money over people. Given that Gordon could afford lawyers who would keep him from talking to the Feds, for all we know he got off scot-free. Greed may or not be good, but it is devilishly difficult to translate that deadly sin to the big screen.

The Girl From Monday manages, despite its tiny budget, to chalk up another victory for style versus substance. With a limited make-up budget, the aliens (from the constellation Monday) look just like us only much better looking. It comes as no surprise that the movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival because Bill Sage, who plays the protagonist and financial engineer (although he prefers the title "idea man") and who cooked up the scheme to securitize people, bears a striking resemblance to Robert Redford as the Sundance Kid. Leading lady Sabrina Lloyd (Sports Night and Sliders) spends the bulk of her screen time posing in provocative ways and talking dirty. The title character, who spends much of her screen time skinny dipping, looks like a Brazilian supermodel because she is one.

No one has a body on the constellation Monday, so it makes sense that when they materialize on earth they would choose from the A list. The movie's mantra is: "The word becomes…flesh…no…the body remains…what?" This is how the movie starts and we hear it twice more so that we know it is important even if it is not nearly as catchy as "May the force be with you."

Human bodies are central to Monday. The critical line in the movie is: "Let's fuck and increase our buying power." Popularity and self esteem, as demonstrated by the ability to have sex with desirable people, has become the path to material success. In other words, the future is just like New York, Hollywood, and your typical high school. (High school does play a role in this movie because in the future criminals with offenses not serious enough to warrant deportation to Triple M's lunar theme park concession stands are sentenced to teach in public high schools.)

In Hartley's future, where New York's finest have undergone an extreme makeover to give them a more menacing look, sex is no longer pursued for personal pleasure except by outlaw deviants. Every act concludes with the participants reporting to their local ATM machine to push up the value of their personal stock, replacing the usual locker-room boasting or cocktail-party chatter. Risk management plays an important role in the future with insurance companies providing protection against the financial consequences of unfortunate couplings.

The movie itself is visually arresting, sometimes to the point of distraction. Nothing in the movie was filmed; everything was videotaped and then tweaked in post-production to give it a distinctive look and feel. The overall effect of the movie is Bloombergesqueevoking the disjointed, low-res feeling one gets from flipping between numbers and charts for too long. Most scenes with geometrical backgrounds that often evoke UPC barcodes and almost every scene is shot at a tilt, perhaps because barcodes only scan correctly when fully horizontal.

While Monday lacks the expensive special effects and explosions that sci-fi fans have come to expect, like any cerebral work of science fiction, it is not really about aliens, the future, or better living through chemistry. Instead, it serves as a wry commentary on where securitization, direct marketing, and media conglomeration are taking us. The problem facing Hal Hartley, like Oliver Stone before him, is that the benefits of securitization, such as expanding homeownership to low-income households, are far more visible than any deleterious effects that may later come down the pike. Hartley's efforts at making these effects visual, such as tattooing everyone's wrists with barcodes, can come off as a heavy-handed. Indeed, people are already turning into securities without the need for barcodes or vast conspiracies involving disembodied aliens.

In professional golf, for example, the cost of earning a place on the PGA Tour has escalated to the point that aspiring Tigers often sell shares in themselves (actually, their future earnings) to investors. If these shares are not already securitized and traded, it is only a matter of time until they are. No one ever talks about how this could be dehumanizing to the players. Instead, they emphasize how some golfers were able to quit their day jobs in stereo stores or used car lots in order to take a shot at their personal dream.

Although it may not translate into film (or video), there is a very real horror behind Monday's mantra: "The word becomes…flesh…no…the body remains…what?" Perhaps the "what" that remains is information. The path of financial innovative often involves reducing people to information. Monday, like much of contemporary science fiction, implies that not just people, but all of existence, may be nothing more than information in the most literal sense of being bits manipulated within some cosmic computer.

The main message of Monday is that all of material existence exerts a corrupting influence on people. The "immigrants" from Monday can end up so totally addicted to physical existence that they can find it impossible to return to their homeworld where individual identity is not even a concept.

Monday's off-screen hero is Henry David Thoreau. His Walden, banned by Triple M, is the bible of movie's counterrevolutionaries. Capitalism's greatest sin would appear to be that it links everyone together in a web of mutual economic interest that Hartley dubs the "dictatorship of the consumer." Of course, real-world capitalism never has to do this by force because membership (credit cards, cell phones, Internet access, etc.) has its privileges. Capitalism is evil in Hartley's eyes because it is simply another form of collectivism.

The most revealing line of the movie is its last onenot of dialogue, but of the credits. It reads "Copyright The Monday Company LLC 2004." This makes Monday the ultimate indie flickindependent of both big studios and little production companies. Time will tell if Hal Hartley, who uses "cross-collateralized" as a pejorative term early on in Monday and who is releasing the movie to DVD after a brief art-house run, is onto something.

Copyright 2005 by Miller Risk Advisors and Financial Engineering News.