Lessons learned from Wall Street's tumble

OK, folks, now that everyone has had time to take a deep breath, let’s consider the lessons of Wall Street’s Hell Week. Here are a few:

1. We’re all at risk. We all smirked when the high rollers took a hit. Now we’ve all taken a hit. Money market funds are wobbling. So are insurance companies and retirement funds. Even those who stuffed money into their mattresses are checking against leaks.

2. We’ve all learned some dirty little secrets we never wanted to know. Like the fact that virtually every major corporation has trusted its testicles to a weird insurance conglomerate called American International (which sounds like a CIA front). It turns out AIG was started in Shanghai and built up by a character named Maurice Greenberg who was forced to resign in 2005 amid a flurry of subpoenas charging he was cooking the books.

3. Though front-runner John McCain keeps insisting “the fundamentals are sound,” even the blustery Wall Street Journal editorially points out that McCain “uses words like credit default swaps as if it’s the first time he’d ever heard of them.” And Sarah Palin thinks a derivative is what’s left when you cut up a moose.

4. The ferocious mergers-and-acquisitions types who’ve been running the world are suddenly confronting a giant “stop” sign. They’re so desperate, they’re even backing theBush administration’s $700 billion bailout, which is so vast that Franklin Roosevelt would have dubbed it socialism.

Many of us vaguely remember the battle scars worn by our parents and grandparents who lived through the Great Depression. Clint Eastwood once told me how vividly he recalls his jobless parents moving from town to town across a barren landscape and the psychic shock they suffered.

The present generation of kids takes a lot for granted. Maybe Hell Week was a valuable reality check.

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MEMO TO ETHAN AND JOEL COEN: The one word that scares artists the most is this: Cold.

Guys, you know what “cold” means: No offers. No audiences. That’s why I want to congratulate you: You’ve turned cold into hot.

Your movies are beyond cold. They’re downright frosty, and “Burn After Reading” is a prime example. You guys don’t write characters, you write caricatures. As Richard Corliss puts it in Time, your portrayals “betray a condescension, almost a contempt.”

Most of the top critics complained that “Burn” was too cynical even for their tastes, but the film still rolled to a bountiful $19.4 million opening weekend — your strongest ever. So you again proved your talent for alchemy, turning “cold” into “hot.”

You did it last year, too, with “No Country for Old Men,” another chilly movie. What I admired about “No Country” was your solution to the third-act problem. Since you couldn’t think up an ending, you simply stopped shooting. You should have done the same with “Burn” because that ending didn’t work there, either.

Your consistency carries into your media interviews as well. Your behavior with the press reflects the same pattern of condescension — you make no effort to respond or even to connect. As a result, your media presence, too, is frosty.

But then again, cold has turned into hot for you guys, so stars like Brad Pitt and George Clooney line up for minor parts in your movies. Again, both of their characters were caricatures, but their presence helped open the movie.

Though things are going great for you now, I wonder if you would nonetheless consider a way to shake off the chill. Several possible steps are worth consideration.

  • You could do the unthinkable — make a movie in which someone actually cares for someone else.

  • You could go your separate ways for a movie — maybe sibling rivalry would be good for the work.

  • You could sit down with a script doctor and ask him how to write a third act.

Remember, your career, too, may have a third act some day, so it might be a cool idea to do a little prepping. It’s possible that cold may actually turn out to be, well, cold.

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