Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street
seen @ AMC Fresh Meadows 7, Fresh Meadows, Queens, NY

So. Martin Scorsese. A quick search through WSW makes me realize I haven't talked about him a great deal here. I haven't written about any of his classic films yet, partially because there's not much more I can say about them that hasn't already been said. As you're aware by now, I'm not about deep critical film analysis. There are better places you can go to for that. But I ought to say a few words about him while I have the opportunity.

His status as America's Greatest Living Director has been cemented by now. At this point, I think it's safe to say that he's one of the few directors that the average American can name off the top of his or her head. Immersed within film culture as people like us are, it's easy to forget sometimes that not everyone can name the world's top filmmakers, but Scorsese has become a household name at this point, partially because of the quality of his films, and partially because of his longevity.

In reading about his career, I've found it remarkable how movies have come to define his life in a profound way. In the three-plus years I've worked on this blog, I've come across, and continue to encounter, other bloggers who are similar cinematic die-hards. As much as I enjoy movies, this blog has always been more of a means for me to write on a regular basis as it is to write specifically about movies. I don't hold with those who insist on a certain "way" to write about movies, like, you must always cite the director and the year, you must always refer to this, that and the other thing when critiquing a film and blah blah blah - not that I disapprove. Scorsese's generation was among the first to take such a deep, analytical approach to discussing films. He's as much a film scholar and historian as a filmmaker, and I think because of that, his work is all the better.

Scorsese has never been afraid to walk on the wild side in his films. His personal life and beliefs have informed the kind of material he likes to take on. In a recent interview, he has said, "I’m a lapsed Catholic, for sure. Which is what allows me to make films, to work in the entertainment business. Otherwise, I wouldn’t make any concessions. I’d be praying constantly. Making films means grappling with the outer world, confronting it." This likely explains why his most memorable films tend to be lightning rods for controversy. 

Which brings us to The Wolf of Wall Street. I became a film fan during the latter half of Scorsese's career, so I had to read about the reaction to films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ and Goodfellas after the fact, as opposed to experiencing it firsthand (though I do vaguely remember reading about the reaction to Temptation when it came out). This latest round of outrage, centered around Wolf, affected me, I admit, and I was in less of a hurry to see it as a result.

I've talked about the film-going group I'm part of that Vija runs. There's one woman in it named Lynn; I mentioned her briefly when I wrote about Blue Jasmine. She's a former co-worker of Vija's. Big animal lover. Seems to know her movies well. She saw Wolf independently of the rest of us, and on our Facebook page, she tried to convince us that yes, it is worth seeing, although some of us, including me, weren't entirely swayed. It's easily the biggest debate we've ever had over a movie - a friendly one, but a debate nonetheless, and it made me begin to rethink my own position.

I don't know anyone who was directly affected by the financial crisis of 2008, but from what I've read of Jordan Belfort, the subject of Wolf, he strikes me as one more example in a long, long line of American capitalism unchecked by morality and fueled by sheer, naked greed. History is full to bursting of men just like him, but in this modern age, we put them on a pedestal and make celebrities out of them, even if/when they get caught. Indeed, incarceration often does little to derail their notoriety. It's like they get rewarded for bad behavior, and that pains me. It disturbs me, and I believed that Belfort's story was still too recent, still too much of a fresh wound, to be venerated on the big screen, even by a master like Scorsese. (It's the same reason why I still haven't seen United 93 yet.)

What I forgot, and was reminded of once I finally chose to see Wolf, is that Scorsese is the same guy who put the life stories of Henry Hill and Jake LaMotta on the big screen, in addition to presenting fictional characters like Travis Bickle as protagonists. Antihero tales, plunging deep into the dark side of human nature, is what Scorsese does, perhaps better than anyone else alive, in large part because of who he is and the things he has experienced. We still talk about his films many years after the fact, and I have no doubt that future generations will continue to do so.

I should have had more faith in him. 

Not that it's easy to watch a movie about a morally-bankrupt character, especially one that's three damn hours long. In another recent interview, Scorsese addressed this issue directly:
...I grew up in an area where as far as I knew, this was the world. It was an area in Manhattan, an old, old fashioned culture. An evil culture. I knew them first as human beings. Some were nice to children and other people around them, and would help other families. Some were not nice at all. Later on, I discovered a number of them were not wholesome characters, to say the least. To say the least. Yet, I also knew some of them were genuinely good people forced by circumstance or their own human weakness into a life of doing bad things. But they were basically decent people. It happens. People do it in war, people do it in business. People do it in love. [Wolf] is about human weakness. If we don’t recognize it, if we don’t say it exists, it’s not going to go away. The hell with us, we’re old, but what about the young ones. What are we going to do, put some political correct ribbon over it? No. There is evil in us.
I understand this much. A recurring daydream of mine is all the things I would do if I could control people's minds. (I guarantee you I would not become a superhero, put it that way.) This is a major theme in Wolf: yeah, Belfort is a rotten guy, but in a lot of ways, we created him, and given half a chance, if we were in his position, some of us would be him. Would I? Maybe. I've talked here before about what I'd do if I had piles of money, and those things are all true as far as they go, but could I resist the urge to indulge in some of my darker urges? Especially if I thought I could get away with it? If I were being totally honest...

All this said, it turns out my friend Lynn was right after all. Wolf is absolutely worth seeing - and no, I don't think he's advocating or glamorizing Belfort's behavior here, as many people think - although I have to admit, the three hour run time made it extremely difficult. (She thought the time goes by quickly. I'm afraid I still have to disagree with her on that point!) By the second hour, I was beginning to lose focus. At least three people in the same aisle as me, plus several others around the packed auditorium, were fiddling with their cellphones, and believe it or not, I found I didn't care. (A marked contrast from previous experiences at the Fresh Meadows.) I understand that Scorsese felt we needed to see as much of Belfort's excess as possible, but after awhile, the impact was lessened for me. In the old days, they used to give us an intermission for three hour-plus movies. Maybe we should go back to that?

I think it's amazing that Scorsese, in his fifth decade of professional filmmaking, still has the power to provoke and shock us with his work. It inspires me as a creative person, and it makes me strive to dig deeper into my own work for truthful moments.

I lucked out in that I got to see Wolf for free. A few weeks ago, I found an old AMC freebie pass that I had misplaced in the pages of a book and forgot about. It was still valid, though - it didn't have an expiration date. Still, I was reminded once again why seeing a movie at AMC can be a great chore. They played an extended trailer for the new Mark Wahlberg war movie Lone Survivor, which included interviews and behind the scenes stuff for no particular reason. In all fairness, I have heard good things about this film and maybe I'll see it, I don't know, but I didn't need to see this longer trailer before a three hour movie. And I definitely didn't need to see a great big preview of the new Jack Ryan reboot movie, where they show an entire fight scene. 

And all this, of course, is after the actual advertised start time on the ticket. I know, I shouldn't go to AMC if all I'm gonna do is complain about it, but I did have that freebie pass... and I still have those free popcorn and soda passes from my screening of Gravity that went FUBAR, so I suppose I'll be headed back there again before long. I'll just have to remember not to complain.

Cold enough for ya? I went to see Wolf wearing four T-shirts, a long-sleeve turtleneck shirt, a sweater, a light jacket with a hood, a medium-heavy coat, a winter hat and gloves. The past few days, Twitter has been loaded with complaints and jokes about the single-digit weather here in New York and around the east coast. (Best one I saw: New York Post film reviewer Lou Lumenick calling the weather the result of a promotion for the winter-themed, animated Disney film Frozen.) The theater was nice and cozy, however, and sitting in the middle of the aisle, surrounded by others didn't hurt either. And all this on the heels of a major snowstorm. How much longer until spring?


  1. Rich, you say you don't do deep analysis, but your work doesn't strike me that way. There is no need to cite all the cinematographers, who did what when, what cameraman did what shots .... your analysis of this movie was excellent. I have not decided whether to see it, but now I think I will. That's mainly because of a really thoughtful and cogent remark you made: "Belfort is a rotten guy, but in a lot of ways, we created him." If the movie deals with that, it's worth a look. By the way, our 15 below (real temperature!) weather has passed, but the mountains of snow are still here! Ah winter in Indianapolis!

  2. Well, I appreciate you saying that. There are times when I feel like I need to take a more analytical approach to writing about a movie, but they're usually not as much fun. That's why I do all the weird and goofy posts.

    Most of the snow here in NYC is almost gone, but I'm sure we'll get more soon. When I lived in the Midwest, I recall biking in 20 degree weather late at night and not even thinking twice about it. Now I can hardly imagine that was me!


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