Monday, October 25, 2010

Halloween Horror Special XII: Army of Darkness

It's classic horror cinema at its finest . . . at least in theory. An unsuspecting boob gets thrown into a situation that is at first baffling and then becomes incomprehensible. He (or she) makes a mistake that opens up the Gates of Hell or a reasonable facsimile thereof, and, uh, all hell breaks loose. The hero/heroine undergoes some kind of personal transformation. After superhuman and heroic effort, the evil is defeated, although — to ensure the viability of sequels, if any — there is always the threat that the evil wasn't quite defeated, and may rise again. In fact, it inevitably happens that whatever was done to defeat the evil in the first film only makes the horror worse in subsequent episodes.

The film is Sam Raimi's 1993 epic Army of Darkness, the logic-bending sequel to Evil Dead (I and II: they're the same pictures, pretty much) starring Bruce Campbell, who has made a good thing out of playing the hero who is almost there, but not quite. Campbell, who can pitch a screen image that is almost rational at times, comes across as a bloodthirsty and more-than-a-little-paranoid Zero Mostel, the late, great actor who could convince people he was criminally insane merely by sitting still. Not just the special effects, but Campbell's ability to deliver the most outrageously stupid lines while projecting absolute sincerity compel admiration of Army of Darkness not only as classic horror, but classic comedy . . . if a trifle sanguinary. (Okay, a LOT sanguinary. The fountain of blood may be a bit much.) A true hero (in fiction, at least) is not consciously being heroic, any more than a comedian is being consciously funny. Sincerity is essential to making the unbelievable believable. Consequently, the movie's tagline pretty much says it all: "Trapped in Time. Surrounded by Evil. Low on Gas."

Briefly, Campbell ("Ash Williams") is a clerk working at S-mart ("Shop Smart. Shop S-Mart . . . Got it?" he yells at the hapless Medievals among whom he finds himself) who in the previous film fought against an unnamed evil that slaughtered all his friends. He's thrown 700 years or so into the past during the final battle. Army of Darkness begins with him (and his car) dropping out of the sky. He's taken prisoner on suspicion of being an enemy spy. Gets thrown to some weird creature. Escapes. Blasts away with his shotgun, waves his chainsaw-hand around (short story, see the movie for explanation). Gets sent to recover the Necronomicon Ex Mortis, the "Sumerian Book of the Dead" with a Latin (?!) title, never intended for human eyes. Screws up saying the words to defuse some curse or other ("Klaatu barada nikto" from The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951). This awakens the "Deadites," the "Army of Darkness," who want their book back. They fight. Ash wins. Gets sent back to the future . . . and screws up the words again.

Back in the real world (more or less), we find the Congress back in the 1980s preparing to fight off the unnamed evil of the growing threat of European financial hegemony as the European Union draws ever closer. The rationale is that banks in Europe have always been allowed to mingle incompatible functions, and the State regulators ensure adequate oversight so that conflicts of interest don't occur.

Glass-Steagall is partially repealed, allowing financial institutions to break down divisions and blur specializations that had been instituted to protect the economy and consumers, as well as the financial industry itself. The Savings and Loan crisis ensues. It's "solved" not by reinstituting separation of function and other internal controls, but by imposing new external regulations and using tax money to bail out the financial services industry.

The rest of Glass-Steagall was repealed just before the institution of the Euro and the near-total amalgamation of Europe's financial system. This was so that American financial service companies could compete with the Europeans on their own terms. The "experts" asserted that government regulation would be adequate, just as it was for the prior partial repeal, and that internal controls achieved by separation of function are unnecessary, costly, and counterproductive. Congress agreed. The financial services industry immediately became integrated both vertically and horizontally.

Unfortunately, just as Ash forgot to say the magic words properly and so prevent the Evil Dead from awakening, Congress forgot that external regulations can never take the place of good internal controls. A regulation allows the government to prosecute, punish, and correct when somebody does something wrong . . . assuming 1) the Evil Dead, I mean, the culprits get caught, 2) the case can be proved, 3) it comes to trial, and 4) the jury agrees. Relying on regulations that prohibit conflicts of interest, inappropriate transactions, etc., is, frankly, to rely on opinion. Violating an internal control, however, is a matter of fact. "There will be no related party transactions" is substantially different from "You will not have any related party transactions that may involve a conflict of interest." Whether the former occurs is a fact, and can be proved. Whether the latter occurs is an opinion, and a judge or jury can often be persuaded otherwise.

The bottom line is that we not only need to repeal the repeal of Glass-Steagall, we need to strengthen it, and institute a sound system of internal control throughout the entire financial services industry. Otherwise, we are all going to end up like Ash, making the same mistakes over and over, and using the wrong magical words to try and achieve our goals.

Repeat after me, "Klaatu barada nesbit. I mean nickleplate. Nickeldepain. Niketennishoe. . . okay, okay. "Klaatu barada . . . nic-cough-cough."

Uh, oh.

#30#

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