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Near the end of last year, I spent ten days in Ghent, where I watched Sean Durkin’s new film, The Nest (2020). Durkin’s attention to mood and composition made it stand out among the usual festival fare. More acutely, I liked Jude Law’s cheerless, glassy performance as the self-made arriviste and paragon of English mobility, Rory O’Hara (a nice joke, hinting at the character’s presumed transatlantic, entrepreneurial Irish ancestry). His tendency to bullshit, ceaselessly inflating others’ expectations, creates schisms in his family, invites disapproval from his colleagues, and precipitates his probable downfall. Rory is a commodities trader seeking to extract maximum returns from London’s mid-80s Big Bang banking deregulation. He’s fixed in the certain pursuit of a faintly sketched outline, an imagined grand total, and an impossible, arbitrary measure of material triumph. The film’s other nice joke, even though its tonal elements are mostly modulated as if it were horror, is that the viewer recognises Rory’s folly as one of serial incapacity: for self-examination, perspective, modesty.
Generally speaking, then, financial ambition is ugly, and it makes people ugly. This statement is axiomatic of the yuppie, an abbreviated form of young urban professional, whose lack of introspection makes him the figurative opposite of TS Eliot’s pitiable ‘Hollow Men’ (1925). In contrast to Eliot’s emblem for the uncertain and inadequate individual, beaten at by all sides, the yuppie is resolutely undaunted by the opportunities afforded to him by modern life. The beautiful failure of the sensitive hollow man, from which so much of art derives, holds little immediate connection to the upstart, transient success of city boys and brokers. Yet in Rory’s case, he appears to embody a memory of his earlier, upwardly mobile incarnation, a private past that the film only insinuates. Rather than use flashbacks, Durkin employs strained, haunted dialogue and lingering shots of faux-conviviality to suggest Rory’s once sparkling reputation. Workplace interactions are freighted with assumed history and present insecurity. What exudes from Rory is a sad-eyed tribute act to his previous indefatigable self, now a little more vacant, exhausted, forlorn.
Would it be possible to depict the avaricious yuppie without seeking recourse to his ugliness? In cinematic renderings, he may be good-looking or coiffured (like Law) but at root should remain repulsive, because he has to snarl and sweat, so as to indicate the physical burden of mostly office-based work, and because he must be driven by the most sickening impulse of all, the accumulation of obscene wealth. If there is heroism to be discovered in him, it is probably located somewhere in his brazenness, which is at once manicured and aspirational, feeding a monochromatic personality through a very simple motivation: pure greed. Law’s Rory is conventionally handsome, made unattractive by virtue of his unconcealed chip-on-the-shoulder desperation, which functions as the characteristic inversion of Law’s Dickie Greenleaf, the assured and moneyed heir to a shipbuilding fortune, from Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley (1999). It is precisely the unrefined eagerness found in the former role, which Law plays somewhat delicately, that discolours the eternal olive complexion of the latter.
The cinematic yuppie, elsewhere, risks functioning as the default avatar for evil ideology. In Naked (1993), Mike Leigh alternates between the misadventures of a pretentious down-and-out, Johnny (David Thewlis), and of a sociopathic landlord, Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell), both of whom could be plausibly argued to represent the diverse social detritus of Thatcherite economic policy. The unlikeable Johnny survives in our affections because of his protagonist status, and because Leigh frames him without moral condescension, soliciting a kind of sympathy for his self-destructive plight. Jeremy is depicted as the unequivocal villain. Often framed in unappealing close up, he variously grunts at the gym, smothers his mouth with restaurant chicken legs, demands his hairy back and shoulders be massaged, and prances around the flat in a mournful pair of budgie smugglers. Later, he reveals his name is Sebastian. Working on the assumption that the yuppie is ugly, Jeremy succeeds on almost every count. Yet his superficial sheen still manages to impress several women, one of whom he attempts to choke with the exposed jaws of an ornamental dinosaur.
In Naked, where the class divide is starkly delineated, the viewer’s source of identification veers away from the yuppie. If any degree of folk heroism can be applied to this nebulous entity, it is likely through American instances, most potently illustrated by Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). To be coarse, British audiences are more disposed to emulating a US investor like Jordan Belfort, particularly when he’s played by Leonardo di Caprio, because the associations with Wall Street, indicative of a purportedly pure and meritocratic national culture, presents fewer of the rigid class hang-ups prevalent in the UK. Given that the film came out while I was studying for my undergraduate degree, I can anecdotally attest to the excitement of future possibilities it elicited from my peers. This was several years after the Great Recession, so releases like J.C. Chandor’s downbeat and expository Margin Call (2011), which reimagines the composite failures of Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch, failed to similarly colonise the popular consciousness. Despite the relative comeuppance of major characters in both examples, there’s scarce evidence of the fragile introspection we anticipate from our flawed, ironic anti-heroes. No Hamlets here, only analysts and executives, concerned with calculating market trends and hard equations.
This isn’t to suggest privileged New Yorkers can’t be shown delving into melancholy, existential reflection. Two films released in 1990 tried to encapsulate the faltering aftermath of the city’s super charged brand of finance capitalism. Although elements of Britain’s wannabe banker class have swallowed, digested and excreted the stockbroker aesthetic (think: brick phones, power suits and striped ties), these movies shift the focus from the stereotype and onto its near neighbours. Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan makes fun of the yuppie-adjacent Urban Haute Bourgeoisie (pronounced UHBs), whose declining assets are matched by a lack of economic viability, repeatedly situated in florid intellectual conversations and exaggerated sensitivities. New money, needless to say, is lurid and vulgar, but these fledgling dilettantes seem aware of a collective imminent demise. The ubiquitous late-night parties offer them at least temporary respite from an incoming day-to-day of underwhelming labour productivity.
Jon Jost’s All the Vermeers in New York, which quite deliberately blurs the line of the sublime and the numerical, provides a matter-of-fact account of the yuppie’s demise, despite its apparent art-house stylings. Mark, a broker not too dissimilar in age to Rory, falls in love with a French woman, Anna, who he thinks looks like a Vermeer portrait, which he visits with metronomic regularity in his limited downtime. Mark acknowledges his futile everyday absorption of quantitative data, desiring redemption through the power of painting. Jost replays the crucial scenes from different viewing perspectives, heightening the dramatic irony and emphasising the characters’ doomed search for meaning. As Mark ominously states, just as his client’s stock falls through the floor: “There’s a rapture, and I’m dying with it.” Half-predicting his fate, he suffers a brain haemorrhage in a phone box, expiring with a whimper, the world going on without him.