All the Money’s Gone: The Making of ‘The Pawnbroker’
When I first heard Ryan Bisio’s ‘Pawnbroker’ at a show in 2010, the line “all the money’s gone” immediately grabbed me by the throat. And given the recent global financial meltdown, the line would appear to be relevant to millions around the world. Just as in the song, my own experience with empty bank accounts has forced me to reflect upon my own moral limits. How far would I be willing to go to ease the burden? Or perhaps more importantly, how easily would I give up as a result of my own destitution? As a consequence, I have looked into the abyss of my soul, and have glimpsed out of the corner of my eye some frightening monsters.
‘The Pawbroker’ conjures up one of the great literary characters from one of the great literary masterpieces of the last 200 years. Raskolnikov of ‘Crime and Punishment’. A highly intelligent man possessing a cold logic representative of the burgeoning scientific revolution, he decries his own destitution. He sees around him the opulence of the aristocracy in the tsar’s realm, but also the abject poverty smothering the vast majority of the population. And out of this poverty a class of parasitic bottom-feeders emerges with gold flowing from their pockets. The merchant vampires. Those who desperately wish to reach the lofty heights of the landed aristocracy, and who feed off of the debilitating privation of the second and third classes to get there. And all of these traits he sees manifested in the local pawnbroker, an odious well-to-do crone of a woman…completely and utterly bereft of empathy.
And so he hatches a plan. The pawnbroker must die, and Raskolnikov take her wealth. She serves no purpose in society but to compound the misery of others, whereas he is an intellectual who can contribute greatly to the progress of mankind. Her wealth would clearly be put to better use under his enlightened stewardship.
Soon the deed is done. The pawnbroker and her poor sister lay in pools of blood, and Raskolnikov walks away a richer man. But at what price? Soon, to his horror, he discovers that he has transgressed across his own moral boundaries, and into the darkest recesses of his very being. He sees his true reflection, not the enlightened modern man but a ruthless monster, born out of a deadly mixture of privation and moral weakness. In the end, his conscience defeats his cold rationalization, and he turns himself in.
After hearing the song, I was struck with a powerful image of a desperate man furiously digging a grave to its cadence. For days the image refused to leave my mind, and soon I felt compelled to bring that visceral image to life. I called Ryan and the stage was set for another music video. The music clearly wouldn’t fit a 19th century theme, so I decided to make it a bit more relevant to America, and adapt it to the Depression Era. And what better place for a Depression Era piece than Steinbeck’s Monterey, California?
We began filming the video at the abandoned and deteriorating army base Fort Ord in May of 2010, the perfect locale for a Depression Era setting. Economic pressures, however, began to weigh on us more and more like the earth on mighty Atlas’ shoulders, so it wasn’t completed until early November. At the time, I was particularly upset about the continental-drift-like progress of the project, and my inability to complete it. Yet now it seems completely appropriate, and wholly within the very spirit of the theme. Our own destitution stood poised to lay to waste a project we worked so hard to bring to life. Yet our trajectory followed a different one than Raskolnikov’s. Where he gave in to his own monsters, we escaped the clutches of our own to produce some of our best work to date. In the song, Raskolnikov bemoans, “All the money’s gone. I rise to my feet…” Yet unlike him, we stayed on ours.