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

Friday, December 27, 2013

"Lower than pond scum": debating The Wolf of Wall Street

When it comes to The Wolf of Wall Street, my wife and I disagree. We noticed this morning, that when it came to critical responses, B clearly favored Dana Stevens' perspective: "The story’s relentless, unvarying rhythm—malfeasance, consumption, more malfeasance, more consumption—leaves the audience drained and annoyed." In my male crass way, I tend to favor Richard Brody's more generous view: "an exuberant, hyper-energized riot. It’s like mainlining cinema for three hours, and I wouldn’t have wanted it a minute shorter."

B: You're already condemning the movie by saying you are male and crass. You really want to say that?

FD: (laughing) [We sit in an IHOP, waiting on breakfast.]

B: I think it's a false dichotomy to base the critical responses on gender. After all, everyone was dehumanized in The Wolf of Wall Street, not just women. Children were like ornaments.  The smaller you were, the less you mattered. Women were mostly orifices.

FD: That's way harsh, Tai.

B: You are referencing Brittany Murphy in Clueless (1995) and she's dead.

FD: I would like to just point out that Wolf is just more fun than American Hustle, which, in contrast, is a comparatively safe movie. Even as I enjoyed all of the 1970's hairstyles, I still miss the much more radical politics of David O. Russell's Three Kings (1999). Like Silver Linings Playbook (2102), American Hustle enhances the plot line of a traditional genre film (such as, say, The Sting (1973)) with unfettered high level acting, but the overall experience seems fundamentally tame in ways that The Wolf of Wall Street isn't.

B: Well, if all you want is spectacle without a nuanced story with any sympathetic characterization, then maybe you're right, but personally, I prefer movies where the motives behind people's actions are intricate and not always pleasure-oriented. To me, Wolf was bereft of humanity. When the only motivation is greed, I don't care about what happens, because it's a no-brainer. There's no surprise. Even in Shame, Fassbinder's character, a sex addict, is still recognizably human. The Wolf is like a world of replicants. That's why when Dana Stevens says it repetitive, that's because it's all Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) can do. I'm really pissed off that Scorsese did nothing to underscore the millions of dollars that Belfort defrauded from people, the lives that were ruined--all of that was swept under the rug just because that's just not fun. The worst thing that Jordan does in the movie is wreck a car, and even that's seen as amusing.

FD: Let me reply. We can all agree that Jordan is ethically reprehensible, but can't we vicariously enjoy the excesses of his lifestyle just as we enjoy that of Jay Gatsby or Ray Liotta's character, Henry Hill, in Goodfellas (1990)?  I see Wolf as being fundamentally punk in its attitude towards its subject matter, and both Goodfellas and Wolf move towards punk music in the soundtrack to reflect that.

B: In Goodfellas, which I have recently rewatched, we get a backstory for Henry Hill and the mob framework for his actions. We get sympathetic characters in the form of his wife, his character's mother. Even the girlfriend is sympathetic, because we understand the motivations behind what they do. And we see the negative aspects of their lifestyle. There's a downside as well as an upside. And Henry is likable because we understand about who he is. It's not just about greed. His characterization and Liotta's acting is much more nuanced, and he's juxtaposed with people who are both better and worse than he is. In Wolf, everybody is despicable. Everybody can be bought. There's no love for anybody. Everybody is a sucker, expendable.

FD: You are generalizing a lot. I found it interesting how often Scorsese included scenes in which Jordan holds forth in front of a crowd, and the last shot is of an audience, as if he meant to include the spectators in the theater as part of the same duped group. But isn't American Hustle also about how we all hustle ourselves, about how the tendency to dupe each other is a fundamental part of the American dream?

B: Yes. That is one of the dreams of American Hustle, but unlike in the case of Wolf, we care about how these characters reinvent themselves in order to avoid crashing and burning. These are people who think on their feet, who understand and empathize. Now granted, they sometimes use that to their advantage, but they are more fundamentally human. For example, when Christian Bale's character Irving Rosenfeld joins the Mayor Carmine's (Jeremy Renner) party and Carmine gives him a microwave, Irving could have easily used Carmine to get what he needed, but instead he goes to Carmine and apologizes. In spite of the fact that he's a con artist. Irving has a Hemingwayesque code of honor and he's man enough to risk getting the shit kicked out of him to apologize. Irving understands that he did Carmine wrong. Even Jennifer Lawrence's Roselyn, given how crazy she is, still has her inability to function without her child and her jealous reaction to Sydney (Amy Adams) entering the room. All of these things are recognizably human. They have a sense of what is going too far. The characters in Wolf have no moral compass of any sort, either from some external source (like a religion), or one of their own making. And that's too easy. Talk about movies that make men look bad. This movie makes all men who like it look like schmucks or dickheads.

FD: But isn't your problem fundamentally with Jordan's point of view, and aren't we supposedly able to look beyond that?

B: Scorsese doesn't let us look beyond it. It's like being repetitively hit over the head with a large mallet. It's a one-trick movie. I only need to be hit over the head one time. Even in the meticulous way Irving works on his comb-over is much more subtle than anything in Wolf.

FD: Who knows if your appalled reaction is to Scorsese pushing the envelope . . . ?

B: He dehumanizes everybody. How can dehumanizing ever be funny? Is Hitler funny? Is 200 years of racism amusing? That's not even counting sexism.

FD: Yes, your sense of outrage may be a key aspect of why the movie will do well both critically and commercially. Scorsese in his way fits right in with the cynical devil-may-care attention-matters-the-most zeitgeist of Miley Cyrus. In order for anything to break through the fuzz of the media clatter, it must shock, and your reaction seems to suit that. Perhaps that's what Scorsese intended.

B: As we sit here intellectualizing this movie, there are tens and thousands of white men who are incapable of intellectualizing anything, and all they see is "I want my own whore to snort cocaine off of." It is Scorsese cynically playing to the masses, and those viewers who believe that the dehumanizing is okay, that I object to.

FD: Good point.

B: If everybody could intellectualize it, then it would be fine. Take something like Django Unchained. Tarantino takes on a hateful subject, but there is still nuanced characterization. So people get their say. You get to look at multiple points of view, and any viewer can decide on their own interpretation. But we don't get that prism in Wolf. It's a harsh narrow ray of light, and you can't see beyond it. Something like Boogie Nights (1997), which concerns the porn industry, has lots of different back stories, and perspectives. And it's not that every bad guy has to be punished. We have to know under what basis they operate. And it has to be more than greed, because it's not very interesting. Wolf is constructed to glorify greed, dehumanization, sexism, classism, racism, in fact anyone who is not a traditional white man. Why should I like that?

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas links

---The Christmas Card

---A Christmas message from Edward Snowden

---10 of the best film-studies books of 2013

---Rites of Passage with Joan Fontaine

---David O. Russell's filmmaking tips

---"By now, the militarization of the police has advanced to the point where 'the War on Crime' and 'the War on Drugs' are no longer metaphors but bland understatements. There is the proliferation of heavily armed SWAT teams, even in small towns; the use of shock-and-awe tactics to bust small-time bookies; the no-knock raids to recover trace amounts of drugs that often result in the killing of family dogs, if not family members; and in communities where drug treatment programs once were key, the waging of a drug version of counterinsurgency war. . . . But American over-policing involves far more than the widely reported up-armoring of your local precinct. It's also the way police power has entered the DNA of social policy, turning just about every sphere of American life into a police matter."

---"when Hollywood knew how to portray women"

---the depth of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

---"the objective of this system is nothing less than the elimination of individual privacy worldwide."

---Audrey Totter in The Unsuspected

---"I saw this film half a dozen times at the Bon Marche Mall cinema in Baton Rouge when it was in its initial release, and it was a huge inspiration to me. Looking at it now, I can see why: the things that are great about it don’t/didn’t have anything to do with having a lot of money (Catherine O’Hara trying to confuse Griffin Dunne while he attempts to remember a phone number), so it seemed within reach to an aspiring young filmmaker growing up in a suburban subdivison. Sure, there’s plenty of the patented Scorsese formal flourishes, but nothing that can’t be achieved with a standard Fisher dolly, and that’s why it all seems possible; it’s humor, insight, style, and impact are built out of a series of brilliantly constructed small things" --Steven Soderbergh

---The Clash on The Tom Snyder Show

---The Pulp Magazines Project

---behind the scenes of American Hustle

---"The Second-Hand Illusion: Notes on Cukor" by David Phelps

---"The Best Film Writing of 2013" by Movie Mezzanine

---trailers for Transcendence, Interstellar, White Bird in a Blizzard, Yves Saint Laurent, Jupiter Ascending, Edge of Tomorrow, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and The Art of the Steal

---"The Best Sister Acts of Hollywood History" by Nathaniel R

---"Basically, if we wait even a few years to implement anything less than a fossil-fuel starvation diet, momentum already built into the system nearly guarantees the climate is toast."

---The Art of the Time-Lapse

Sunday, December 8, 2013

"Remember who the real enemy is": The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and the propaganda of our media overlords

"The spectacle is the ruling order’s nonstop discourse about itself, its never-ending monologue of self-praise" --Guy Debord

"It’s certainly strange that a blockbuster film that raked in $158 million on its opening weekend revolves around a storyline about people in power actively shaping media to appeal to our sensibilities in a way that maximizes profit and marginalizes dissent." --Sarah Mirk

“Your job is to be a distraction. Your job is to smile, to read the cards that Effie gives you, and to live happily ever after.”  --Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson)

"Donald Sutherland wants to stir revolt. A real revolt. A youth-led uprising against injustice that will overturn the US as we know it" --Rory Carroll

Commodified revolt, the situationist spectacle, mass distraction--these things kept flashing in my mind when watching The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. As an installment of a popular franchise written by Suzanne Collins, Catching Fire is unusually adept at calling attention to its meta-commentary on media manipulation. The movie allegorically telegraphs its simulacrum phoniness in ways that struck me as almost realistic. It makes one wonder: who are our media overlords? How much is our information flow controlled? Let me point out some of the ways in which the movie rings true:

1) the growing disparity between the rich and the poor--This weekend in South Carolina, fast food workers in Charleston went on strike for a higher minimum wage. As a new study finds, "The wealth gap between the top 1% and the bottom 99% in the U.S. is as wide as it's been in nearly 100 years." In its dystopic way, the filmmakers of Catching Fire scarcely need to emphasize that point.

2) commodified revolt--businesses take the frustrations and the gestures of youthful revolt and convert them into commodities, thereby profiting from and nullifying the original impulse in the process. Catching Fire embodies this process unusually well. One can think of the entire hipster phenomenon of slacker dudes with beards drinking craft beer as a passively pseudo-rebellious lifestyle sold back to the young for emulation.

3) distraction--why worry about the injustices and the cruelty of American foreign policy (the drone strikes on Pakistani villagers) or domestic policy (insidious new political agendas concerning reproductive rights) when we can be more concerned with Kim Kardashian's weight loss or the current headline on TMZ.com? Katniss and Peeta understand all too well their function as distractions for Panem.

4) news and the spectacle--Catching Fire encourages the viewer to wonder how much of our media is governed by amorphous entities who promote and craft their versions of reality for us. Every news source has a bias, so that you have to compare and contrast them in order to get a vague fix on what happened. Given all of these slants, we turned to social media like Twitter to find out, for instance, how the revolution was going in Egypt because that more individualized source appeared to be the most honest. Occasionally, a crack in the organized spectacle of the media might appear in the form of the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon, but that was quickly shut down by riot police just like dissent is squelched by the jackbooted Stormtrooper-esque "peacekeepers" of the Capitol in Catching Fire.

5) Roman decadence--my significant other enjoyed the campy fashions of the rich Capitol public relations people such as Effie Trinkett (Elizabeth Banks, who at one point wears a butterfly dress that serves to emphasize how disconnected from nature the city-goers have become). The chariots, the tribute parade, the display of fascist power, and the gladiatorial fights themselves all cheerfully connote Roman depravity. Just as the Romans had vomitoriums, so do the Capitol parties include beverages that will provoke throwing up so that one "taste everything." All of this triumphal imagery suggests how America is a similar empire in decline, and that so much power requires repressive crackdowns on the increasingly poor populace to maintain a semblance of control.

6) the crackdown--part of the fun of Catching Fire's use of Katniss' limited point of view (mostly during her Victor's Tour with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson)) is that she only catches glimpses of the insurgency and the increasingly oppressive measures of the state to clamp down. She manages to peek at footage of rioting in the other districts and she directly witnesses a new invasion of "peacekeepers" taking over her own District 12 who flog and execute rebels in the main square, conduct random search and seizures, and finally firebomb the citizenry as needed. Catching Fire revels in the increasing cognitive dissonance between the happy talk of the grotesque Entertainment Tonight official media show (with Stanley Tucci's slimy Caesar Flickerman consistently stealing every scene that he's in) and the vicious crackdown going on. As Katniss' rebellious gestures continue to inflame the populace, Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) seek to use their media overlord powers to equate Katniss with oppression, and thereby diminish her appeal. As Heavensbee says, “What dress is she going to wear? Floggings. What’s the cake going to look like? Executions.”

7) nature--Katniss attracts followers due to her self-reliance, and the disconnect between pure nature (the wild forbidden countryside where she learned to hunt) and the artificial nature of the Games creates a space for her to excel. The rulers of the Capitol do not want people to experience nature because that would give them the opportunity to be self-sufficient. As a professor friend of mine said, "In many dystopian novels, the protagonist looks to nature to thrive. Totalitarian regimes seek to keep people dependent."

8) the self-reflexivity of it all--just as the citizens of Panem live vicariously through Katniss' struggle as they watch her on their hologram screens, so does the movie comment ironically on its audience doing the same. Like other forms of detournement, Catching Fire teaches us to question the message in the medium. Do not believe what I'm writing. Beware of the official story. Remember who the real enemy is.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

surveillance dystopia links

---"If anyone besides famous people knew what it was like to be a famous person, they would never want to be famous. Imagine the stereotypical highly opinionated, completely uninformed mother-in-law character and apply it to every teenager with a computer in the entire world. Then add in all bored people, as well as people whose job it is to report on celebrities. Then, picture that creature, that force, criticizing you for an hour straight once a day, every day, day after day.

That's what it's like, even the smallest bit of it. Of course, that's if you even allow yourself to stay in touch with the world using public media. If I were famous, I wouldn't."   --Sia Furler

---There Will Be Blood / Through Numbers

---Chinese freeloaders in IKEA

---Terminator 2 in 60 seconds

----"The most popular forms of entertainment involve putting people under surveillance and watching what they do."

---"14 Screenwriters Writing"

---“We are living in a time of cinematic bounty. In multiplexes and beyond, movie lovers have a greater, more dizzying variety of choices—and of screens, large and small—than at any time in history.”

---Linklater / On Cinema and Time

---Aaron Bady's "Sunday Reading"

---"how even the anti-image is, always, an image in and of itself."  --Anne Helen Petersen

---"20 Great Shots from the Films of 2013"

---"New Wave artists aging gracefully"

---"How Fox News Built Its Scream Machine"

---"How the NSA Is Tracking People Right Now"

---"I think it’s better that they should be reading Pauline Kael reviews in the New Yorker than Derrida." --Daniel Mendelsohn

---"His and Hers: Jonze and Coppola" --Sara Maria Vizcarrondo

---"Yes, but, I think 'Typical Girls' is more making fun of girls who read magazines, put lipstick on, and stuff like that. I never liked that divide. I never liked the whole 'we’re the cool girls who play music and you’re the stupid girls who go to the mall,' because I was the stupid girl who went to the mall and then later got into music. I feel like 'Girls Like Us' is a statement that there’s no unity. And there shouldn’t be unity. There are no 'girls like us.'' --Kathleen Hanna

---The History of Hollywood Censorship and the Ratings System

---"Please Mr. Kennedy" of Inside Llewyn Davis

---Actresses Roundtable

---"It's palpable, that tunnel. Damp and earthy. In each shot, you can feel all the effort and determination that went into carving it, one small shovel scoop at a time. The tunnel is the physical representation of the POWs' refusal to give up or give in. It's also their lifeline. All of the prisoners' hopes are invested in that tunnel, and so when they end up 20 feet short of the trees beyond the prison camp, it isn't just a logistical or strategic crisis. It's a dagger to the heart."  --Jason Bellamy

---trailers for Amazing Spider-Man 2, 300, Beauty and the Beast, and Cymbeline

---Hyper-reality: A New Vision of the Future

---The Journeys of Martin Scorsese