Capitalism Makes the World Go Rounders

by zunguzungu

I find the fact that Matt Damon is a huge star intriguing. He’s not a bad actor, exactly, but expressiveness isn’t really his strength. Instead, it’s something else: he is reliably good at playing an unreadable cipher. That’s why he’s so right for a role like Jason Bourne-the man who’s lost his personality-or the title character in Good Will Hunting, the guy who can be anything but is afraid to be, and thus actually is nothing but an empty and unlimited potential. He has also, interestingly, typecast himself by playing variations on the same troubled ubermensch role, over and over again. And in that vein, I dare you to name a Matt Damon role that doesn’t involve him posessing some kind of super-power. Go!

Why these two tendencies-unreadable cipher and troubled ubermensch-come together so persistantly in a single actor is the problem I want to explore here, which I might formulate another way: why is it that the narrative of being unreadable so naturally harmonizes with the problem of great power? I would even submit that this problem is given a certain gravity by how persistantly Damon’s oeuvre responds to some of the more pressing cultural contradictions in US society today; Damon’s various Bournes, for example, seem like allegories for a broken US hegemony that both nostalgically mourns the power it has lost and grudgingly accepts that it can’t has dominance anymore.

Rounders is ostensibly much more lightweight, of course, but I the acting problem that faces him is related: as a guy with a poker face, he is prevented with the choice between either an unreadably opaque character or one whose external personality is so artificial and overwrought as to make the underneath unreadable. Turturro models the former, playing it so low key that you can practically hear the hum of the dingy refrigerators in the background, while Malkovich wears such an elaborate set of ridiculous masks that some sort of Russian doll metaphor would probably be appropriate. It’s a problem for Damon, because while watching Damon imitate Turturro would be boring, the kind of baroque stylizations of Malkovich are just as much beyond him. He ends up, as a result, in the worst of all possible worlds: trying to show the audience the clever way which he hides his inner emotional state, but he shows it to us while hiding it from his (ostensibly hyper-observant) opponents at the card table.

I wouldn’t claim that Rounders is a particularly good movie though; it is what it is. But what is it? And that’s a more complex question than it appears, not least because (if I may) the problem of how a thing comes to be what it is is the problem of fungability that is at the heart of acting, poker, and capitalism. At a very basic level, after all, the plot hinges on the question of who Matt Damon is. Is he a boring law student living with his girlfriend in (an improbable movieland) bourgeois comfort? Or is he a poker player inhabiting some niche between Malkovich’s underworld, Turturro’s just-scraping-by respectability, and the World Series of Poker? The movie’s narrative drive is fueled by this problem, or rather, by the fact that not only is he capable of inhabiting both worlds (capable of being both), but the two worlds are in irreconcilable conflict. There is, in other words, an unsolvable algebra problem at the heart of this film: (Damon = Bourgeois) and (Damon = Poker) yet (Bourgeois != Poker). Quite a problem.

It’s instructive, therefore, to look at how the film uses narrative to deal with the dilemma. It turns to one of the oldest stories in the American reportoire, gendering domestic respectability as female while aligning the dangerous extra-social activity opposed to it as a space of violent homosocial male bonding. In High Noon, this gendered choice is filled in with a certain amount of content: the wife is a Quaker, so Gary Cooper can’t be out there shooting people up (until, of course, he rejects her pacifism, shoots people up, and wins her back). In Batman Begins, there’s also a certain method to it: Katie Holmes is a liberal who believes in working within the system, and Bruce Wayne is a vigilante, but the movie ultimately makes an anti-liberal argument (just as High Noon ultimately rejects pacifism) by making her weak feminine liberalism dependant on his manly extra-legal justice.

In Rounders, the story interestingly chooses not to make the faslse resolution. At the outset, the gifted male turns away from his gift, his ability to take money from bad card players (and therefore a sublimated violence) in exchange for the woman (and domestic comfort). The movie makes clear that this was a bad trade; not only did Damon only turn away from cards as the result of a bad trauma (making Gretchen Mol something of an emasculating mommy figure) but he doesn’t feel, as he tells her, alive except when he’s playing cards. So, when presented with the problematic catalyst, Edward Norton, a hetero- vs homosocial problem asserts itself: he must choose between his domestic obligations (being emasculated and infantilized) and his relationship with his bro, Edward Norton, who needs him to play poker or he’ll get garretted or something. After a talk with father-figure law professor, he learns the vbaluable lesson of being yourself. You is a good thing for you to be, right? So Damon decides to be himself; a boy, not an icky girl, and he rides off into the sunset to win the world series of poker.

As I said, it’s not a good movie, but its dull competence is interesting in its own right. After all, why is Gretchen Mol so dead set against Damon playing poker? She has reasons, but they feel flat to me, like the opposition between boy and girl is more important than content of those categories. Similarly, Ed Norton’s weird hostility to women is never referenced or explained, just structurally determined by the role he plays in the plot, as the opposite pole for Damon’s dilemma: bro’s versus ho’s. Like Katie Holmes and the Quaker wife in High Noon, Gretchen Mol isn’t just not psychologically complex, she’s actually a very particular kind of flat: she starts out with a principle, holds to it against her man, and then adopts his principles even while scorning him for them. Mol drops him “like a bad hand” and when he tells her its not a card game but “our thing” she refuses to step outside of the poker metaphor; a bizarre about face for someone who’s been trying to convince him to be less of a poker player. Even more weird, while he’s the one who’s been insisting on his own need to be what he is, these words are ultimately put in her mouth–“I am how I am”–so that our hero can have it both ways.

What the hell is that all about? I’m not wholly sure, but I find it fascinating that “be yourself,” a phrase exactly as moronic and banal as its algebraic equivalenet (you=you), turns out to be such a revered cultural touchstone, the kind of moral lesson that children’s books in the modern era are always instilling. And the closer we get to thinking with that logic, the more easily resolved Matt Damon’s dilemma becomes: either he is one thing or he’s another, so why worry about the choice? High Noon and Batman Begins are both, sort of, about the problem that justice requires violence which is a kind of injustice, an intrinsically unavoidable problem in that paradigm. But Rounders exists in a world where no such anti-tautologies need confront our hero: he is, simply, what he is. Which is whatever he wants to be.

Thus, when (as it inevitably must) the Western genre pokes its head into the narrative, there is no cognitive dissonance at blatantly rewriting it. Norton mentions that Damon’s favorite actor is Clint Eastwood, the man “who will always double back for a friend,” and I’m like, really? Seriously? When does Clint Eastwood even have a name? Much less a friend? As Michael Rogin pointed out, Clint Eastwood’s most famous lines (“Go ahead. Make my day.”) are remembered as one thing, but actually were another: we think there’s a John Wayn-ish nobility about him, but that character is basically a brutal thug. He’s John Wayne in Red River, but without the happy romantic ending. And also, he likes to shoot people of color.

My point, I guess, is that this film-I’m talking about Rounders againgets to have its cake and eat it too exactly because it uses that kind of fuzzy reasoning, where “I” is not large and multitudinous, but small and easy. So while Damon gets to share in the romantic disrepute of the underworld, he is also (unlike Norton, who cheats) a “straight” player. The world series of poker, too, brings everything to a nice, neat conlusion: all the bro’s in the poker world revere it, and it gives an unmistakable legitimacy to a game whose popularity is inseperable from the (Western) connotations of violence and disrepute.

Maybe, though, the real dilemma of the film is distinguishing Damon from Norton, and here, too, the movie makes the distinction by lying. At one point, Norton demands, rhetorically but significantly, what’s the difference between them? Why is Damon noble and pure, while Norton is shitty and rotten? It’s the kind of hysterically unanswerable question the film has to paper over, since the obvious answer-they aren’t at all different-would be unnacceptable. So instead, the movie resorts to the kind of dream-work that resolves these kinds of problems in Freud: Matt Damon becomes who he is by being two things and then denying he was. “This isn’t a gunfight, this isn’t about pride or ego; it’s about money,” he says, but in the end, he elects to go back and finish the gunfight. He remembers an argument he had with Norton, where he urged caution, and then he does exactly what he had been telling Norton not to do, proving Norton not only right about that, but about his whole judgement of Damon, even as Damon’s success marks the end of Norton’s time in the movie.

The line about it not being about pride and ego, too, makes about as much sense as pretending the chips aren’t about dollars, and money, after all, represents more than capital. But simple answers are necessary here, or rather, the fiction of stability is the necessary cover under which capitalist speculation operates, and what could be a better metaphor for it than Poker? The poker player’s confidence game is to speculate on a thing’s value, to rely both on the manner which a thing can change its value according to circumstance–without changing what it is-while (at will) being able to withdraw it from the table and rely on it’s buying power as such. Damon gets irritated that “people insist on calling it luck,” and the urgency of this claim is related to the urgency of capitalism itself: to insist that ownership legitimates itslef, thereby effacing histories of dispossession. Ownership now, it must claim, is ownership always, never mind the blood in the water. Like Sarah Palin and capitalism, this is a movie that needs it both ways, and rather than let it fall apart, will lie, lie, and lie, with a boldness that is absolutely startling, and hard to even know how to address. No wonder Matt Damon dislikes her; she’s him.