Bright Lights Film Journal

The Wolf of Wall Street: Who Are We to Judge?

In Jarhead, his memoir of the first Iraq War, Tony Swofford calls our attention to a paradox of “antiwar” films. When he and his fellow Marines hear they’re about to be deployed, they rent the classic Vietnam movies — Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket — and spend days watching them, viewing and re-viewing the scenes of battle and rape and carnage. “There is talk” writes Swofford, “that many Vietnam films are antiwar, that the message is war is inhumane and look what happens when you train young American men to fight and kill . . . But actually, Vietnam war films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message, what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended.”

This paradox is rooted in the fact that “Mr. and Mrs. Johnson in Omaha or San Francisco or Manhattan . . . watch the films and weep and decide once and for all that war is inhuman and terrible,” while at the same time, “Corporal Johnson at Camp Pendleton and Sergeant Johnson at Travis Air Force base . . . and Lance Corporal Swofford at Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base watch the same films and are excited by them, because the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills.” The effect of this magic brutality, Swofford concludes, is grim. “As a young man raised on the films of the Vietnam war,” he writes, “I want ammunition and alcohol and dope, and I want to screw some whores and kill some Iraqi motherfuckers.”

Swofford may be writing about war films, but his insight applies to a much larger spectrum of the art. And it’s directly applicable to both Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and the critical response to the film.

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The plot of the movie is simple, a rehashing of the old narrative of the rise and fall of the American criminal. This is a story Scorsese has explored many times, perhaps most notably in GoodFellas and Casino, although there are thematic lines that run back to his earliest films. Jordan Belfort (played to devastating effect by Leonardo DiCaprio) starts as a lower middle-class kid, works his way up through charisma and illegality to fantastic wealth, celebrity, and debauchery as a stockbroker in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and is finally brought to ground by the dull, hardworking authorities. This is a storyline that has been used by an entire spectrum of American films to examine, condemn, and celebrate criminal activity, and it’s along the lines of condemnation versus celebration that most critics have constructed their readings.

On one side are the critics who’ve read the movie as little more than an amoral celebration of masculine excess. They point to its repeated scenes of drug use, fetishization of prostitution, blatant embrace of sexism, and glorification of extravagant wealth. David Edelstein writes on the culture website Vulture that the film is “three hours of horrible people doing horrible things and admitting to being horrible.” Joe Morgenstern, in The Wall Street Journal, carries the argument a step further, arguing that the excessiveness of the film undercuts the very possibility of it offering any kind of social critique. “Any meaningful perspective on the greedfest of the period,” he writes, “is obscured by the gleefulness of the depiction.” The furthest expression of this sentiment comes from Christina McDowell, writing in L.A. Weekly. She has a unique perspective on the film: her father was convicted of penny-stock fraud in a trial in which Jordan Belfort was one of the government’s main witnesses. In addition to nearly destroying her young adulthood, she explains, her father wrecked the lives of numerous ordinary people. These people, often elderly, invested money with him and ended up losing their life’s savings. For McDowell, given our recent history, Scorsese’s glamorization of the titular “wolf” is reprehensible, and the film is no more than a “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.”

The Wolf of Wall Street

The chorus on the other side has been much louder. Numerous critics have celebrated the film’s technical genius, its brilliant comedic scenes, and it’s almost addictive watchability. “It’s like mainlining cinema for three hours, and I wouldn’t have wanted it a minute shorter,” writes Richard Brody in the New Yorker’s Front Row blog, in the first of two long posts on the film. Christopher Orr, writing in The Atlantic, calls it a “magnificent black comedy, fast, funny, and remarkably filthy.” Orr explains that it’s not a “message movie” but one that’s worthwhile because it is a “fucking great . . . movie movie.” There is an air, that is, of pure formalism in the readings of some of the proponents of the film, the notion that its value arises first and foremost out of its technical accomplishments rather than its moral stance (or lack thereof).

Generally, though, most of these critics have felt the need to at least acknowledge that the movie contains a certain critical angle on the figures at its center. It’s “abashed and shameless, exciting and exhausting, disgusting and illuminating,” writes Matt Zoeller Seitz on RogerEbert.com. But it is not simply a technical masterpiece, “it’s one of the most entertaining films ever made about loathsome men.” The inclusion of the descriptor “loathsome” here, and of similar caveats in the writing of other, similarly minded critics, leads into a disputation of the idea that it is a celebration or endorsement of “horrible people doing horrible things.”

Brody, for instance, argues that in the end there is an ethical, or humanistic, element undergirding all the cinematic fireworks. He writes that “Scorsese, without at all seeking to justify, explain, or apologize for Belfort’s actions, reveals the impulse behind the vulgar self-indulgence and the grotesque insensitivity, the terrifying yet ecstatic inner force within the petty monster of vanity.” That is to say, depiction does not equal endorsement, no matter how spectacularly entertaining that depiction is; and we must allow for this kind of portrayal if we are to understand our worse selves. The ultimate stance of the film, for Brody, is clear, and he closes by explaining that “of course Scorsese doesn’t approve of Belfort’s actions; who would? We may wish that such behavior didn’t exist, but its existence is a central part of human nature.”

We can see in these initial responses — the argument that the film is simply celebration and the argument that celebration contains an inherent critique — a reflection of Swofford’s ideas about the reception of war films. On the one hand are his Marines, seeing only glamorization, and understanding the relationship between glamorization and emulation. On the other are the viewers who believe they understand the film the way the director would like it to be understood, as standing in some sort of critical or condemnatory relationship with its subject matter.

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“like well-dressed animals in lushly decorated terrariums”

But there are finer grains here. These come clear in the arguments of the critics who have offered the closest readings of the relationship between the text of the film and its subject. Seitz writes that the film is not simply an examination of human nature; it is “disgusted by this story and these people and finds them grotesque, often filming them from distorted angles or in static wide shots that make them seem like well-dressed animals in lushly decorated terrariums.” He goes on to explain that “We’re supposed to figure out how we feel about the mix of modes [the depravity and the filmic celebration of that depravity], and accept that if there were no appeal whatsoever to this kind of behavior, no one would indulge in it. This isn’t wishy-washy. It’s honest.”

Glenn Kenny, on his blog SomeCameRunning, points to a scene in which we see the characters in a conference room talking about hiring dwarves to throw at a velcro bull’s-eye during an office party. His argument is that as funny as this scene is, we are obviously meant to condemn the characters, or at least see in them a critique of their (and our) environment. “Because they now inhabit a world in which everything is commodified,” he writes, “their talk is half earnest, half ‘can’t believe we’re getting away with this shit’ shitty awe, trading observations about how you should never look a dwarf in the eye and how the wee folk gossip among themselves.” We may laugh, but the cutting edge in this scene, and its stark portrayal of the effects of the social environment these men inhabit, should be clear to every viewer. “Can one genuinely not see the point,” he asks, “or would one just rather not?”

Nick Pinkerton, on the Sundance Now blog, writes that the film is at least in part an indictment of the audience itself: “By making us understand the appeal of being a part of a conspiratorial organization like Stratton Oakmont,” he explains, “The Wolf of Wall Street becomes a movie that isn’t about ‘them’ but ‘us.'” We are included in the film’s critique because we are participatory in the culture on display. What Scorsese understands so clearly, Pinkerton believes, is “that any American hoping to impose his or herself onto the world must necessarily make him or herself heard over a tremendous din.” The consequence is that to show us to ourselves, Scorsese must make a film of excess; the assault of debauchery is exactly the point. It condemns all of us for the degree to which we participate in, and love, the tumult it exposes. And for Pinkerton, in the end, “the final judgment is . . . clear.” He links to an episode of The Twilight Zone in which horrible people at a party are each given a monstrous mask. They don the masks and laugh, but soon realize that their faces have become warped into the shapes of the masks. We cannot hide from our true selves, is the claim the movie makes, even by asserting that the awfulness is just something we put on to entertain ourselves.

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Each of these readings plays on the idea (and we can agree or disagree with this) that the text of the film — its construction, content, and implication — reveals a biting attack on our culture and perhaps even ourselves.

Platoon

But return to Swofford for a moment. His idea, read closely, is not that the Marines don’t understand the movies they are watching. His idea is that “Mr. and Mrs. Johnson in Omaha or San Francisco or Manhattan” are approaching the films through a belief in the awfulness of war, one that the “antiwar” movies confirm “once and for all.” It is this belief the Marines do not share. It’s not that the Marines don’t know that some people think war is awful; it’s that they don’t agree. And because they don’t agree, they are attuned to a kind of radical force of the films themselves. This is the “magic brutality” to which the Marines respond, and that may, it seems, slip past the people who all too easily read films like Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket  as “antiwar.” There are two things to be considered here. One is the question of the force of the film images themselves, compared to their intended, or implied, “message.” Put that aside for the moment, though, and first consider Swofford’s implication that one way of reading movies is to think about what their reception tells us about their audience, and that audience’s predispositions toward the material.

In these terms, it’s worthwhile turning back to Richard Brody. In his first piece on the film, which reads it as an explication of human nature, he writes that “Scorsese’s vision is a tragic one, rooted in the stark wisdom of Belfort’s division of the world into those who, unendowed with such a gift, a hunger, and a will, are relegated to lives of frustration and narrowness; and those who, thus endowed, seek to fulfill their unfulfillable cravings by taking advantage of the former.”

What is interesting here are the assertions that Brody slips in under the rug. This sentence sounds a great deal like an attempt to deny that the issues at play in contemporary America are due to any problems in the system, and to claim instead that the immorality exposed by the film is one of disproportionate gifts — it’s not that Belfort is an asshole, or that the game is rigged, it’s just that Belfort is simply capable of more (differently “endowed”) than we. The “stark wisdom” of the film is thus about us, and the fact that those of us who do not share Belfort’s “gift” or “hunger” or “will” are thereby “relegated to lives of frustration and narrowness.” Brody extends this line further in his second piece on the film, also for the Front Row blog. In that piece, he issues a preemptive dismissal of anyone who might protest that they aren’t part of the problem. No matter what you might think, you are complicit because you are a contributor to the so-called “libidinal economy.” “Let he who has no 401(k),” writes Brody, “throw the first stone.” In the end, the idea is clear: we are all at fault, because we are participatory in a system that thrives on the chicanery of Wall Street, a system in which those with “disproportionate gifts” are rewarded. And we are at fault, ultimately, because this is a system we love. Scorsese, he writes, “knows perfectly well that he is giving us something that we want, something that we need, and something that taps into dreams and ambitions that are both central to life and completely suspect.”

“whether it’s true that the financial calamities of the last twenty years are actually the fault of the rest of us, rather than the fault of the men at the top of the system”

Set aside for a moment his rather revealing ignorance (somewhere around half of Americans have no 401(k) or retirement plan). Set aside, also, the glaring political question this brings up, which is whether it’s true that the financial calamities of the last twenty years are actually the fault of the rest of us, rather than the fault of the men at the top of the system. Focus instead on the light this throws on the way we cast judgment in our contemporary moment. It’s not them who’s at the center of things, it’s us. And ultimately, the issue isn’t really culpability at all, it’s the problem of differing gifts. (Matt Zoeller Seitz, for his part, goes a step further in this regard and claims that the film is ultimately about “addiction” — Belfort’s addiction to drugs and power, and our addiction to the stories of men like Belfort. Here, the issue is neither culpability nor differing gifts, but a diagnosable ailment. Addiction, as we all know, is a disease.)

Down at its core, this relationship with judgment is what the film reveals, much as Swofford’s war/antiwar films reveal something about our differing relationships with violence. Intentionally or not (and we’ll get to that), The Wolf of Wall Street is a film that foregrounds the strange notion that we’re all as responsible as Belfort is for the havoc people like him cause, except that we’re responsible, powerful in some sense, because we’re powerless.

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“three hours of mainlining bro-ness”: Jonah Hill and Leonardo DiCaprio

It is interesting, perhaps, that in the initial critical back and forth about the film, only two major pieces are by women. The first is the one by McDowell (the daughter of the jailed stockbroker), in which she lambastes Scorsese and DiCaprio for endorsing the kind of behavior that destroys people’s lives. The second is by Anisse Gross, writing for The Rumpus. Describing her experience in the theater, she explains that she “kept oscillating between the thoughts ‘I can’t believe they just belittled that woman like that again’ and ‘loosen up Gross!'” She was caught, that is, between casting judgment and the belief that she should not judge (or that the film prevented her from doing so.) “It’s this positioning,” she writes, “that made the three hours of mainlining bro-ness difficult to process.”

There are feminist criticisms to be made of the film, and they will come out, I suspect, as the dialogue continues. (This has long been one of the main lines of attack against Scorsese: as Kenny notes on his blog, “because the themes of Scorsese’s films have largely centered around masculine worlds, he’s bound to come in for some critical challenges, some of which may be based on misunderstanding and some not.”) But the point, for the moment, is about our complicity and power. Gross, for her part, hints at a reading that is more conflicted about these things. “In the end,” she writes, “this is not a movie about Wall Street. This is a movie about the allure of capitalism and how that allure keeps us entrenched in capitalism.” As for the underlying questions of the film, she seems to insist that they should be seen primarily as questions, rather than answers: “Is the film insinuating that we are all to blame for our poverty? Or, conversely, that we are the victims? I suppose the more important question is: Are we greedy intrinsically? Or has the system made us this way?”

But her initial discomfort as a woman shouldn’t be overlooked, because it highlights another aspect of power relations in the film. I’ve made, through Swofford, the comparison to war films; others have made comparisons to films like Hawks’s and DePalma’s Scarface films. The point in these comparisons centers on the difficulty inherent in picturing bad behavior because of the degree to which that picturing might be taken as endorsement, by young Marines, would-be gangsters, or men out to conquer the masculine world of finance. But it’s worth noting that there is a difference between war films and traditional gangster films and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Scarface

At least a part of the appeal of those earlier films comes from a portrayal of a kind of externality, which manifests in a distinct relationship to power. Both Scarface films are inextricable from the immigrant experience, and from social moments when questions of immigration and assimilation were central to questions of the national identity. Because of this context, their stories of a rise to power are at least in some sense stories of impossibility. They have traction because of the degree to which an Italian gangster in prohibition Chicago or a Cuban gangster in 1980s Miami can never achieve the kind of cultural centrality he wants: these character are held off from their ultimate desire exactly because of the conditions of their ethnicity and poverty. The possibility of emulation they offer is thus for outsiders; their stories are of the unempowered attempting to take power in the only way available to them, and the inevitable failure of this. The antiwar films about Vietnam, while bearing a more complex set of social stratifications, also share this ambivalence about the American centers of power. The soldiers they portray are at the mercy of everyone above them, from their commanding officers to the stateside population that has sent them to war. Questions of ethnicity and class abound, and, like masculine/feminine questions, these are always related to the issue of power. (Remember Keith David’s line when he finds out that Charlie Sheen has volunteered because he doesn’t think the poor should be the only ones to fight and die: “Shit. You gotta be rich in the first place to think like that. Everybody knows the poor are always being fucked over by the rich. Always have, always will.”) The violence in films about Vietnam, no matter how magically brutal, always exists in this context. These are outsiders, and no matter what feats they are capable of, they are always, as soldiers in wartime, fucked.

Scorsese’s film inverts this. It is not about the ultimate impossibility of taking the reins of power. It is not about outsiders coming face to face with the futility of their ascendancy. It is not about people — gangsters or soldiers — who will always be eternally on the outside. (This is where the film differs, too, from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: the point of that book is that the people at the top are always eternally out of reach, no matter how much money someone like Jay Gatsby amasses.) This is also one ground on which a feminist critique might be staged: Scorsese’s film is not about the permanency of being an outsider, at the mercy of the system. It’s about the power and desirability of being one of the insiders, and they are nearly all men, and nearly all white, who game the system.

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DiCaprio and Scorsese on the set

To return to the beginning, The Wolf of Wall Street is, I think, a nearly brilliant film. The more formalist defenders are absolutely right about its cinematic elements. The acting is wonderful, and it is extremely funny at points. If there is a complaint about the direction, it is only that at moments Scorsese feels as though he’s reprising himself, using the best of all his old moves. These moves are so influential as to have permeated the very language of contemporary cinema, and there are moments when to this viewer the movie feels a bit like a pastiche of that language rather than a focused application of it. The writing is more spotty, and at times feels derivative of the Apatow comedy mode, but still strong. It is not much interested in character — there is, for example, no real “development” of Belfort’s character — but that’s because the notion of interiority lies outside the purview of the film: the lack of interiority of the characters is a part of the idea.

For the most part, these are minor quibbles. Scorsese is one of the giants of contemporary cinema, and he is operating here at his full powers. But it is exactly this power that raises one final question about judgment and responsibility: If the main readings of the film are on target (and I think they are) and Scorsese means to implicate all of us in the Grand Guignol of America, does he mean also to implicate himself?

Brody quotes the director from an interview with Le Nouvel Observateur, comparing himself to Mack the Knife in The Threepenny Opera, and to DiCaprio’s character in Wolf. Scorsese had his own days of empty excess, he explains, back in the ’70s. He too overcame them (Belfort, in the film, eventually kicks his drug habit). The difference between them is that Scorsese is an artist. “I’m not like Mack the Knife, who doesn’t make anything, doesn’t produce anything,” he says. “I create. It makes a hell of a difference.” This is undeniably true, both in fact and implication. But it insists, if subtly, that the artist, because of the fact of his production, stands outside the matrix that enmeshes the rest of us. In this, it highlights the a final difficulty in terms of judgment, systems, and power: the film seems to see itself, perhaps naively, as above the grounds of the culture out of which it arises. It points the finger everywhere but at itself.

Andrew O’Hehir, in his strong second piece on the film for Salon, makes a comparison to Picasso’s Guernica. He explains that he recently encountered a discussion “of whether it was a great painting because it was an antiwar and anti-fascist painting, or whether that was an extraneous factor that made the audience feel virtuous about admiring the work’s balance of careful design and explosive aesthetic innovation.” His point is that these are always complicated matters, and that both aspects — the political and the technical — are always in play. He also points out that Picasso’s painting “drew mixed reviews and sparked heated debate on its 1937 unveiling; many leftists thought it lacked a clear political point of view.” This is similar, in his opinion, to the arguments being made by those who are critical of The Wolf of Wall Street.

Guernica

But this misses a deeper point about Guernica. As T. J. Clark has argued in Picasso and Truth, the triumph of the painting comes in part from the fact that it represents a culmination of Picasso’s wrestling with a series of pictorial issues. Earlier in his career, Clark argues, Picasso was ensnared in a nineteenth-century notion of existence as confined, as taking place in some sense indoors. “The world, for the bourgeois, [and Picasso]” he writes, “is a room. Rooms, interiors, furnishings, covers, curlicues are the ‘individual’ made flesh.” The high cubist paintings were an attempt to capture this, with their focus on objects and surfaces and presence. But as this dream of a containable modern order faded before the grinding events of the early twentieth century, Picasso’s understanding of “space” — crucial to painting — as an interior thing was challenged. He moved the settings of his works outside; he began to paint monuments and to incorporate monstrosities into his vision. The picturing of the bombing of the city of Guernica was a kind of culmination of this struggle. The bombing itself represented a moment when the old worldview, the “whole imaginative structure of habitation” with its belief in the primacy of interior spaces, was rendered undeniably into the past. The bombs, the rubble, the death from the sky had done that. And “how on earth was painting to represent such an ending without falling itself into special rubble?” In terms of Picasso’s relationship with painting itself, then, Guernica, represents a struggle with his own history as well as the world’s history, and “tackling it entailed . . . reinventing his whole worldview.”

The point, to return to O’Hehir and Scorsese, is not that Guernica represents a “balance of careful design and explosive aesthetic innovation.” It is that the painting embodies an attempt to wrestle with the painter’s own body of work, and at the same time to solve the challenge of applying that body of work to a radically new world. The Wolf of Wall Street suffers in comparison, even given the differences in time and medium. It lacks a similar aspect of self-struggle, of awareness of the relationship between the world it is picturing and the modes of its own construction. For all of its accomplishments, the film fails to establish a relationship with its own approach. The moves that Scorsese brought us — the voice-over, the stark violence, the linguistic assaults, the brilliantly mobile camera work — arose from the outside. At their best, they were a rejection of the increasing plasticization and homogenization of both American culture and Hollywood films. They stood for a technical capacity, a language, in which jarring virtuosity was a mark of a refutation of the mainstream, of the inside position. They work less well as a hallmark of that position. Unconsidered, they become an almost smug reminder of the centrality of film, with its glamour and magic and hip soundtracks, to our current cultural moment. Picasso struggled with the fact of his worldview, and his mode of picturing; Scorsese, in The Wolf of Wall Street, shows no similar awareness of the course of his own work. The film never, among all its attempts to assign motives for the behavior on screen, truly considers itself. This is the deepest problem with judgment in the work.

There are moments when a kind of self-awareness rises close, if not quite, to the surface. Many critics have pointed to passage in which we’re told in voice-over that one of the workers in Belfort’s firm committed suicide, and then flash to a shot of his body in a bathtub full of blood. The entire palette of the film changes: gone are the bright sharp joyous tones, replaced with a horrific, dead black and red. They have pointed, as well, to the closing sequence, which is of an audience in New Zealand listening to Belfort, released from jail and become a motivational speaker/sales guru. (Just as, tada!, we are watching the film itself! As fine as the sequence is, we’re uncomfortably close to the ridiculous, on-the-nose closing shot of The Departed.) The idea is that images like these are a counterweight to Scorsese’s uncritical application of his own technique, to the “magic brutality” of cinema, a kind of pulling aside of the screen to wink at us. But don’t they achieve their effects, if we agree that this is the intent, by the same slick wizardry that underlies the rest of the film? And aren’t they still implicating the characters, or us as the audience, far more than they are showing an awareness of their own fetishization of technique, power, and status?

Belfort’s arrest

There are other possibilities out there. Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, for all of its flaws, leaves no doubt from its first frames — of bouncing, partying, spring break breasts shot in neon close-up — that it’s aware that the obsessive sexual glamour of the medium of film has played a part in the culture of excess that it, like The Wolf of Wall Street, takes as its subject. The point is not that Scorsese should be condemned for making a wildly entertaining film but that any claims of a shared moral complicity — one that might include the medium itself — are undercut by the film’s lack of insight into its technical construction. The most it offers are easy asides, which do not come off as particularly convincing when placed against the brilliant avalanche that surrounds them.

There may be people, finally, who object to the comparison of Martin Scorsese to Pablo Picasso, or of film to painting. They may feel this puts an undue pressure on cinema and its makers, or that film is different because of its position as “entertainment.” This is fine; I just happen to disagree. Cinema is the dominant art form of our time. It affects us, it shows us ourselves, it stands alone as art. We should never shy away from celebrating its accomplishments, or from expecting its practitioners to wrestle with themselves and their medium to the fullest of their abilities.