Madeleine Robins

March 1, 2017

Grace in the Face Of

Filed under: Life,Movies — madeleinerobins @ 6:46 PM
Tags: ,

envelopeA few years ago I got to be a presenter at the Nebulas. Ask any writer of SF and they will tell you that it is generally better to be a nominee or–please God–a winner. But being a presenter is pretty cool too. I got dressed up and went to the banquet and, when my name was called, went up to the podium, and was given a by-God-actual envelope. And was filled with a rush of adrenaline when I tore the thing open and announced the name of that year’s Andre Norton award. And the winner came forward ands got her award and made a speech, and I felt weirdly chuffed at having been a part of her triumph (if only a small part).

Fast forward, as they say, to Sunday night.

I tend to watch the Oscars™ primarily because I love the In Memoriam section. Call me weird (it’s been done before) but I get weepy. The last 12 months or so have been really hard on creatives of all sorts. So I watched the Oscars, and it was more or less business as usual, with more awards going to La La Land than I thought was strictly necessary, but not as many as I’d feared. And then we got to the end. To be honest, when La La Land was announced as Best Picture my husband started fast-forwarding… and then it became obvious that something had happened, because there were more people on stage than there should have been, and he re-wound, and we saw the whole breathtaking mess.

In case you were hiding under a rock and missed the sensation: La La Land was announced as the winner–and then the mistake was caught and it was announced that it was Moonlight that had taken the big prize. Heads at Pricewaterhouse Cooper, and at the next AMPAS Governors’ meeting, are likely to do some rolling, but given the way the process has worked for the past many decades, it’s hard to believe it hadn’t happened before. There are two identical envelopes for each award, held by PWC operatives stage left and right, and somehow the Best Actress envelope got handed to the presenter for Best Actress… and then to the presenters for Best Picture.

What impressed me, even with the chaos and the people with headsets milling about in the background, was the grace with which the people from La La Land and Moonlight handled the situation. When it became clear that a mistake had been made, Justin Horowitz (the producer for La La Land) announced “I’m sorry, there’s a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won best picture.” Then he added that it was not a joke, and gestured to the Moonlight company to come up. “I’m going to be very proud to hand this to my friends from Moonlight,” he finished.

And the Moonlight folks trooped up to the stage, looking a little shell-shocked and not at all sure what protocol was. No one snatched the statues away from the people who held them, there was no hint of sore-winnership. When Barry Jenkins, the producer of Moonlight, got to the mic he was graceful too.  “I have to say, and it is true, it’s not fake: We’ve been on the road with these guys for so long. And that was so gracious and so generous of them,” he said. “My love to La La Land.”

Okay, I have never won a major award, let alone one with millions and millions and millions of people around the world watching. And if you know you’re under that sort of scrutiny, I don’t doubt you might toughen up and try to behave yourself becomingly. But the shock–of losing a trophy you thought was yours, of suddenly gaining an award you thought was lost–could make anyone pardonably lead footed. I felt bad for Warren Beatty, who was clearly flustered (and perhaps feared that people would think the Old Guy had lost it).

Watching the ceremony play out and wind up, I was unexpectedly moved by a moment when it seemed like all the platitudes about awards were true: these were two groups of smart, creative people who saw each other, not as adversaries or competitors, but as colleagues.

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January 6, 2016

The Long and Short of It

Filed under: Money,Movies,Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 7:53 AM

tradingplacesOh, forever ago when I was young and foolish and had just moved back to New York City from Boston, I took a job at an investment bank. I had lived in dorms, or with room-mates, since I left home for college, and I really wanted to have an apartment of my own. And I wanted it within spitting distance of my childhood home in Greenwich Village, which was, on the face of it, ambitious to the point of insanity. So I took a job that paid very well, on the theory that I would work 9-5 and go home and write, right? Except that it was a job that ate my brain on a regular basis: there were days when I came home with my teeth clenched so hard that it took me hours to unclench. And getting any writing done was hard when all I wanted to do was slap someone upside the head. My boss was a truly smart, lovely fellow, and didn’t take himself, or his industry, very seriously. But guys who reported to him were not so relaxed or so enlightened, and they treated the support staff really poorly (which made me the one who had to take them aside and administer lessons in manners and common sense).

But I learned a certain amount about the world of finance and investment banking while I was there. The photo above is from Trading Places, a 1980s comedy about commodities training. And by the time it came out, I knew just enough about that world to understand what they were talking about, in a general sort of way, enough so that I was the first person in the theatre who cracked up at the business jokes.

Last week (after we’d gotten our fill of The Force Awakens) we went to see The Big Short, which I recommend unreservedly. The Big Short is about the housing finance bubble and how it burst in 2008. It’s well written and splendidly acted (Christian Bale and Steve Carrell are particularly good). It finds all sorts of clever ways to explain the esoterica of mortgage finance and how it all went wrong. And bing-bing-bing-bing-bing, it brought it all back.

See, at the investment bank I worked for the head of the brand new mortgage finance department. The–at the time–new idea of putting together large groups of mortgages into a bond made sense because 1) the securities would be made up of excellent, low-risk mortgages, and 2) the traditional default rate on mortgages was historically low. So these were safe, low-risk bonds–and (as my boss gleefully said) “they do good! They make it possible for people to buy houses! Everyone wins.”

Fast forward. I quit the bank so I could get some writing done. I met a guy and got married. I wrote some more books. I had a couple of kids. We moved out to San Francisco and spent a year looking for a new home. Even five years before the housing bubble burst, when we were going from Open House to Open House, there was something disturbing to me about the frenzied tenor of the housing market. There were flyers displayed in the entryways of million-dollar homes that talked about Zero-down Adjustable Rate Mortgages, and I saw people walking out with stars in their eyes and paperwork in their fists. My husband and I, being financially cowardly, eventually made an offer on a house that was a little short of our dream house, but that we could afford (with a solid down-payment and a traditional 30 year mortgage) and here we are to this day.

The disquiet I felt when I saw my fellow citizens gravitating toward San Francisco manses with massive price tags was based, in part, in my experience working in mortgage finance all those years ago. As The Big Short explains, the bonds that resulted from those sales were very often like Sunday’s fish stew at a high-end restaurant: made from the leftovers of Friday’s fresh-caught fish, and probably safe to eat. Probably. And the cynic in me believes that any time something looks too good to be true (like those Zero-down ARMs) it probably is. In The Big Short, the various people who figure out what is going on wind up betting against the market, shorting mortgage finance bonds. They all, eventually, make a bundle.

But as one character points out when his chums are celebrating the fortune their smart move has guaranteed them, each one of the bonds that failed meant families tossed out of their homes, people unemployed, schools underfunded, cities rotting at their cores. Nothing to celebrate.

I watched The Big Short with a sense of inside baseball: I actually understood some of this stuff before they explained it. But they explain it brilliantly.

At the end of Trading Places, the bad commodities traders are foiled, the good guys get rich, and everyone laughs and is happy. At the end of The Big Short some people wind up wealthy, but no one wins because the system is broken.

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