Sunday, March 16, 2014

The hyena of Wall Street

In his review of Scorsese’s latest, A. O. Scott asks a curious question: what is the movie, really – satire or propaganda? He apparently leans toward the second, with an important qualification (more on that at the end). He also faults Scorsese for his usual fascination and lack of critical distance from the exploits and protagonist he depicts – in this case, the Leonardo Di Caprio character and the bunch of evil clowns he has gathered around himself (who, Scott points out, are less violent than the “Goodfellas” mobsters – but also a lot less inhibited since they are unconstrained by professed loyalty to any code of conduct and traditional loyalties). I would add that the “debauchery” Scorsese presents to our senses is so grotesquely over the top, so absurd and often carnivalesque, that it takes a serious effort to take it seriously. Still, I would say the truth here is mostly in the eye of the beholder – an age-old truism which has also become a post-modernist cliché.

The movie itself suggests as much, as it shows a curious reaction to a damning profile of the Di Caprio character. The offending story is ostensibly published by Forbes after he begins to rake in millions and drive a movie-inspired Ferrari. He is enraged and braces in for a dip in his reputation – but is instead mobbed by hordes of dressed-up youngsters clutching their resumes. This reminds me of that older article by Michael Lewis, “The End,” in which he describes how in his twenties (during the Gordon Gekko years) he was paid obscene amounts to peddle financial wisdom on Wall Street. He eventually succumbed to the deep disgust this lucrative employment provoked in him, and published a tell-all book called Liar’s Poker. His desire was (I am quoting from memory) to convince that impressionable kid from Ohio State that a career in finance was not worth it, so he (or – less often – she) could instead follow his heart to a more fulfilling career and lifestyle. There was a problem, though. Many in Lewis’s target audience read his book as a how-to manual, and he found himself “knee-deep” in letters (this was in the pre-internet age) from aspiring students seeking career advice.

If this is the kind of sensibility you bring to the movie theater, I am afraid no movie could work as a biting social satire for you. This was also obvious in much of the reaction to “The Great Gatsby” which inspired a fad for Gatsby-themed parties filled with boisterous fun. The Gatsby flick, by the way, was also grotesquely overt the top visually – apparently, this is what it takes now to get to the hearts and minds of movie goers (or so many movie makers and bureaucrats think).

Scott makes an additional emphatic point in his review. He says there is, indeed, something that “makes the ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ a vital and troubling document of the present” – though the business operation at its heart is so clearly on the fringes of the “big finance” machinations which brought about the latest financial crash. The Di Caprio character bothers Scott most with one thing – “his approach to life.” Apparently, this is something that has become widely shared – even by the timid losers (at least at the aspirational level) to whom the busted former financier sells his sales techniques. Hence the lack of real moral condemnation at the end – in the movie, and in life. On the bright side, Di Caprio did not get the Oscar he probably craved.