Sunday, December 29, 2013

"On the hook, squirming:" 10 notes on the debate over The Wolf of Wall Street

1) How does one square an aesthetic appreciation for The Wolf of Wall Street with Jordan Belfort's real-life deplorable treatment of his victims? How much does Wolf succeed because it partakes in Belfort's cynical sales techniques, thereby making audiences just as gullible to what the movie has to sell? At what point does Martin Scorsese's lovingly rendered satirical portrait of Belfort's conspicuous consumption become a celebration of the venality of the 1%? In an attempt to answer these questions, I assembled these quotes from various folk: 

2) "The specific complaints relevant to the Why-Doesn't-Martin-Scorsese-Take-Us-By-The-Hand-And-Show-Us-These-Are-Bad-People perplex goes way, way back."  --Glenn Kenny

3) "When Belfort — a drug addict who later attempts to remain sober — rips up a couch cushion to get to his secret coke stash, there were cheers.

Then, intercut with Popeye eating spinach, Belfort is irrevocably high on Quaaludes (or 'ludes,' a muscle relaxer) and dumps coke into his nose to remedy the situation —more cheers."  --a Wall Street reaction to Wolf

4) "But there is another, less otherwise admirable quality required of successful salesmen, one which yields the crucial difference between rejection and a signature on the dotted line: you need to be totally, utterly shameless. You need to face the sneering contempt of the prospective client, who loathes your very presence in his office or at the other end of the line, and you need to not mind. You need to accept that literally every single person you talk to in a day will regard you as an abjectly terrible person and you need to sell them something anyway — you need to convince them that you are a good person, a person capable of and eager to save them a lot of money, and you need to do this by believing it yourself."  --Calum Marsh's "The Art of the Sell: Why The Wolf of Wall Street Lets Jordan Belfort Off the Hook"

5) "You people are dangerous. Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining, even as the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street scandals. We want to get lost in what? These phony financiers' fun sexcapades and coke binges? Come on, we know the truth. This kind of behavior brought America to its knees.

And yet you're glorifying it -- you who call yourselves liberals. You were honored for career excellence and for your cultural influence by The Kennedy Center, Marty. You drive a Honda hybrid, Leo. Did you think about the cultural message you'd be sending when you decided to make this film? You have successfully aligned yourself with an accomplished criminal, a guy who still hasn't made full restitution to his victims, exacerbating our national obsession with wealth and status and glorifying greed and psychopathic behavior. And don't even get me started on the incomprehensible way in which your film degrades women, the misogynistic, ass-backwards message you endorse to younger generations of men."  --Christina McDowell

6) ". . . these things do have humor. You don’t have to put it in there. I mean, if you’re going to have a little fun for your company, you want to get them riled up and you want to show your appreciation, and you actually do organize throwing little people against a target – well, that doesn’t just happen off the street. People get together and have a meeting about it. You have to discuss this, OK? So there’s the humor right there.

But there’s also shaving the head of the woman, which is extremely cruel, which brings to mind the humiliation of the collaborators in World War II. There’s the cries of 'Wolfie!' – and I hate to say it, but 'Wolfie' was Hitler’s nickname. Watch those rallying scenes. [Jordan Belfort] gave them something to rally around, to be like him. 'Wolfie!' made me extremely uncomfortable when they started yelling that in the scenes. No one mentioned it, but I sensed it. It’s mind control.

And don’t forget, the movie is an impression. It’s not Jordan Belfort himself. The man is doing what he can right now in his life, he’s got legal issues he’s dealing with, and I can’t judge what he’s doing. But he seemed to be a perfect vehicle for this story."  --Martin Scorsese

7) "By making us understand the appeal of being a part of a conspiratorial organization like Stratton Oakmont, The Wolf of Wall Street becomes a movie that isn’t about 'them' but 'us.' What matters isn’t whether Jordan Belfort gets off the hook or not—though he only serves 22 relatively cushy months in penitentiary for his crimes, a matter of historically-accurate record, there’s little doubt that he’s left in a sort of purgatory at the end of the movie. What matters is that the movie leaves us on the hook, squirming."  --Nick Pinkerton

8) "One of the early conversations we had was about why these people are so detestable. You know, they have no conscience for people outside of their finite little world. I remember talking to Marty about that, and he goes, 'Look, the thing that I've learned about doing movies is, if you make these people as authentic as possible, and you don't sugarcoat that, people will forgive anything, and they will like those characters -- not what they're doing, but they will be invested in them.' It's a very conscious choice that [Winter] made in the screenplay not to show the ramifications of their actions. Throughout the picture, you go on this acid trip with them, without any regard for the people around them."  --Leonardo DiCaprio

9) "If any movie is in danger this year of having 'bad fans' it’s this one (watch closely as Scarface posters in frat houses are quietly replaced with Wolf ones)."  --Rachel Syme

10) "I think all of us, under certain circumstances, could be capable of some very despicable acts. And that's why, over the years, in my movies I've had characters who didn't care what people thought about them. We try to be as true to them as possible and maybe see part of ourselves in there that we may not like."  --Martin Scorsese


Jason Bellamy said...

So I saw the movie this morning and read this piece, and your previous IHOP exchange and the Glenn Kenny piece you link to here. I also read MZS's review at, which captures pretty completely my reactions watching the movie. Which is all prelude to saying this ...

From a theoretical perspective, I certainly understand the CONCERN that this movie can and will be misinterpreted and will inspire copycat behavior. (Of course, man, there's stuff that happens on Fox News and MSNBC every night that could inspire similar concerns.) But I honestly don't get -- at all -- how the type of person who would be cerebral enough to have those concerns could also doubt that the film is relentless in its depiction of these men as monsters.

Off the top of my head, the only scene in which Leo's character doesn't seem absolutely horrific is the moment when he's trying to step away from the company he's built and gets lost in nostalgia for one of his original employees. Of course, even that scene illustrates his twisted worldview, because he didn't write a $25K check because he believed in someone as a person. He wrote the check because he could afford to and because he needed minions to make him wealthy.

Anyway ...

We're often confronted with films that seem to forgive ugly behavior, or gloss over it with a layer of "cool." I loved QT's DJANGO UNCHAINED and feel its unflinchingly honest in certain respects, but I am uncomfortable with the scene in which the KKK is reduced to a bunch of hillbilly clowns griping about the craftsmanship of their hoods. THAT is the kind of twisting of reality that can be dangerous -- reframing a historical evil as some kind of joke.

What we see in Scorsese's picture is nothing like that. As MZS notes, Scorsese accepts and portrays the allure of money, drugs and hookers. But it's always clear that these are monstrous men partaking in these activities. In other words, the movie effectively says: with money, you, too, could have it all -- but that includes all of the pathetic, destructive and empty behavior we see in this movie.

If that's alluring to people, I feel sorry for them. But I certainly don't fault the movie for not curing them.

Craig said...

>>I loved QT's DJANGO UNCHAINED and feel its unflinchingly honest in certain respects, but I am uncomfortable with the scene in which the KKK is reduced to a bunch of hillbilly clowns griping about the craftsmanship of their hoods. THAT is the kind of twisting of reality that can be dangerous -- reframing a historical evil as some kind of joke.<<

And I didn't like DJANGO yet I enjoyed that scene. Funny. I do see your point behind the danger; it's not the kind of thing that makes me comfortable laughing at, although the danger is precisely what amplifies the humor. On the other hand, I recently purchased the Criterion NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, and one of the accompanying essays (I forget who wrote it) expressed something about that thriller's wacko sense of humor, particularly in the climactic showdown between Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish: Sometimes the appropriate response to evil is to laugh at it. Make it look ridiculous. Cut it down to size. That was Mel Brooks's response with "Springtime for Hitler" in THE PRODUCERS and all of BLAZING SADDLES; it was Tarantino's mode of inquiry throughout much of DJANGO and INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, and it's Scorsese's tack in WOLF OF WALL STREET. It's certainly not a method that's impervious to criticism, nor is that criticism always invalid. But there's nothing invalid about the approach in and of itself.

Jason Bellamy said...

Oh, I think that scene in DJANGO is flawlessly executed and I laughed my ass off both times -- and I'm sure I will again when I throw in the Blu-ray for the first time in a week or so.

But that is the kind of scene I look at and say, OK, this is really slippery, because I can't quite tell if you truly appreciate the significance of what you're depicting -- I can't tell if you understand how truly evil these guys were.

But that's NOT a reaction I can pin to ANY scene in WOLF OF WALL STREET. Constantly that movie makes it clear that these guys are addicts out of control. They're awful. They're monsters. (Several times it comes right out and says as much.) I'm just baffled that people can see shades of gray there. It's black and white to me.

Then again, I've never found the idea of snorting drugs from the nether regions of a hooker to be a sign of status. So maybe I'm projecting.

Jason Bellamy said...

Oh, and by "you" there I mean the filmmaker. Not, you know, you.

FilmDr said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Jason and Craig.

I understand the concern about misinterpretation and copycat behavior as well. DiCaprio's star charm may make his character's monstrosity harder to see. Even in the theater, I suspected that the scene in which Jordan shows his largesse for the original employee was an obvious milksop thrown to female members of the viewing audience way too late. We learn from interviews what DiCaprio and Scorsese meant by being true to despicable characters, but there's still something awkward about critics snickering along with the brokers, something swaggering about the way they defend the film in terms of its energy without fully acknowledging how offensive it can be. I still wonder if there's some basic impulse in any production nowadays guiding artists to be objectionable to get attention, how a more balanced view of Belfort's story would have left us disappointed and underwhelmed.

I agree, Craig, that one of the best ways to treat evil is to laugh at it, but, in the case of my wife, she didn't find the film very funny at all. She viewed the movie as a big locker room bragfest, fratboy behavior, old boys' one-upmanship, and that's only "funny" amongst the guys.

I still like The Wolf of Wall Street for letting us squirm on the hook of our complicated reactions.

Jason Bellamy said...

I've read a few more things today, including various comments sections and the like where people have mentioned laughter.

There was certainly laughter in my theater. And I certainly laughed here and there. But while the movie is designed to get laughs in places, I wouldn't consider it a comedy by any means. THE HANGOVER is full of frat house humor. This movie is full of frat boys. It's not quite the same thing.

And while sometimes laughter in the theater does give me pause (to go back to QT, I remember the horror I felt when one guy laughed his ass of during INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS when the German solider gets his head bashed in with a baseball bat), that never happened with this movie.

I get the sense that some people are assuming that laughter or comedy means approval or glorification. But -- to pick a random movie -- there's no glory in the awful Montezuma's revenge scene in BRIDESMAIDS, although that's certainly designed for laughter. Point being, I think we can laugh at something and find it revolting at the same time: the laughter is in essence an appreciation of entertainment that "goes there," but that doesn't mean there can't still be horror at the "reality" of what's being depicted.

I guess my point is: I wouldn't disagree a bit with your wife about the movie's mood. But I always felt that, just like in a movie where the guys in the locker room beat up the weak kid or sexually assault the cheerleader, we're supposed to be turned off by that behavior. I know I was.

FilmDr said...

Yes, Wolf specializes in evoking the kind of laugh that sticks in your throat. I'm still wondering what to make of the worker who allowed her head to be shaved in exchange for a bonus. French women who collaborated with the Nazis had their heads shaved in punishment, and in Belfort's hands that means, what? Ritual humiliation for kicks?

The Wolf of Wall Street at least has the courage of sticking to its scummy venality when so many other films seem watered down. I look forward to your thoughts on the Cooler if you can get around to including them.

FilmDr said...

A couple more items of interest:

DiCaprio's (to me rather awkward) endorsement of Belfort:

Scorsese on visual literacy: