Beyond Money and Power: The subversive psychological pleasure of Uncut Gems

There is, perhaps, no way to adequately express the shock emanating from this year’s best picture win. Bong Joon-Ho’s four-Oscar haul for Parasite in the year of our lord 2020 was momentous for so many reasons. Given the academy’s penchant for rewarding films that so often seem emblematic of their lack of touch, narrow-mindedness, and antiquated thought process, Parasite’s unprecedented victory as a foreign film exploring what the current domineering system of economic organization does to people across the financial divide feels, if but for a moment, like a powerful acknowledgment.

A lot of that recognition within critical circles is perfectly summated by its director:

The universality of the story, without the aid of typical Hollywood accouterments, succeeded in positing a meaningful message about humanity’s greatest disease. This phenomenon of relatability under the crushing weight of late capitalism, however, isn’t exclusive to the brilliance of Parasite. Though the Korean’s interpretation of the film is without a doubt, and now concretely, the best expression of life regardless of geographic location, there is another film that, in a more subversive sense, harnesses our contemporary experience. A24’s release of Uncut Gems, while a tonal and conceptual departure from Parasite, utilizes the same basic experience to push its message.

Uncut Gems, following shady diamond district jeweler Howard Ratner played by Adam Sandler, is an anxious, experiential tale of greed, opportunism, and cosmic circularity. Ratner, not unlike the suggestion put forth by his namesake, is something of an adulterous grifter that uses the sheer power of speculation, misdirection, and the twisted appeal only a scumbag could evoke to facilitate ever costlier and more intricate bets. While both the perspective and relative whimsicality of the film paint Ratner in a slightly brighter perceptive light, people who haven’t seen the movie might wonder why their feeds are littered with gifs and pictures of Ratner saying ‘I’m gonna cum’ and ‘this is how I win’ if he’s such an irredeemable human being.

It seems what we love about Howard Ratner and his subsequent foibles is a product of what began through our cultural acceptance and celebration of another anti-hero -Walter White. In Breaking Bad, we grapple with the moral relativism of a man who, like all of us, finds himself torturously subject to material conditions. It isn’t until the final fleeting moments of the critically acclaimed series that we actuate what we can’t enjoy over its six seasons. Walter’s atrocities are committed in service of a selfish desire to truly be. To achieve in response to failure. He didn’t create a drug empire of his own chemical ingenuity to combat the debt created by his cancer, or to provide for a newborn, or even his disabled son. He created a legacy of death and destruction to more authentically be. To be fully actualized within a system that represents genius and invention as a rising stock price (a systemic reward he was robbed of via the success of the company he founded and left, Grey Matter). It’s in Walter’s boldest moments that we revel in the unabashed reclamation of his ego. Images of the crudely drawn Heisenberg, ones that evoke the iconic ‘say my name’ scene, have found their way into dorm rooms and malls en mass. It exists, prior to the finale, as a testament to what it is we truly enjoyed about the high school chemistry teacher who broke bad.

Ratner, in his shameless monetary debauchery, is White’s late-capitalist evolution. Like the Uber and tech behemoths of today, the manner in which Ratner gambles with capital is indicative of our time. The ‘irreal’ value he throws in a variety of directions, all theoretical and dependent upon other circumstances, represents something similar to the fever dream we wish to attain for ourselves. The power and gung-ho agency we wish to hold over that which defines us all is a fearless character trait of the protagonist. Gone is the sob-story justification of yesteryear, of cancer, of disability, of a faceless mountain of debt; Howard has a good life. With a family, a wife, and a business, all of Howard’s tribulations are ‘lovably’ a product of a vice that endears him to the audience- careless risk with the object that controls us. He never needs to expose himself to the possibility of loss, and yet continually strives for ledge he can’t reach- even when it puts those closest to him in harm’s way. We sit, reeling from the anxiety of watching our deepest desires actuated, only for them to be once again satisfied by the realization of the moral physics we yearn for.

Howard’s sacrilege at the altar of capital, though entertaining and deeply cathartic for an increasingly economically anxious audience, must return to stasis. From the moment the film opens, the inner exploration of the opal used to defraud value greater than itself -already tainted by the conflict it’s unearthed by- whisks Ratner onto a journey he was always going to embark upon. The tale of his greed is circular and internally sound at any period in time, but it’s one that resonates all the better in an age where so many feel the crushing weight of economic uncertainty. To experience Ratner’s journey as significantly as we do is a credit to the Safdie brothers and everyone else who made the movie an experiential roller coaster of anxiety, but the phenomena of the film’s success is a result of our subjection to capital as the most significant and established power structure in human history.

To quote late political theorist Mark Fisher’s piece on Breaking Bad, “who needs religion when you have TV?” We have and always will use media to animate the reality we wish to be true but ultimately isn’t. Uncut Gems provides an immense degree of psychological pleasure because it seems to evoke an experience of what Jacques Lacan coined the ‘objet petit a’- the unattainable object of our desire. As a phenomenological conception that can never truly be actualized, the Safdie brothers take us about as close as one can get to that unattainable experience. Howard is the victor for no longer than a moment, brought hurdling back to reality by the exigent desire of the narrative. We never meaningfully experience Ratner’s success because we can’t experience it. It wouldn’t be satisfying if we did(!) As much as we’d like to see someone so freely subjugate the structures of our control, we have to believe they would be subject to some cosmically equalizing parameters. It’s far too scary a thought, far too liberating, to imagine that our freedom from capital, or at least freedom from its domineering mental control, sits within arms reach.

Uncut Gems, like Parasite and Breaking Bad, is a tale of our times. It speaks to the anxiety, fear, and desire we all manifest as subjects of a system. How it chooses to utilize that shared experience may differ, but it’s still a powerful testament to how two wildly different stories can vary so significantly in form, and yet remain so similar at their core.

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