Tuesday, December 31, 2013

I'm Aware I'm a Wolf Soon As the Moon Hit

I'm working on another post right now that gives some thoughts on a couple other 2013 releases I haven't written about yet, but for now, I just want to get some of my WOLF OF WALL STREET impressions down.

It probably goes without saying (especially if you've seen my letterboxd) that I completely loved WOLF.  It's my number one film of the year by a landslide, and barring an enormous upset from either the Coens or Spike Jonze (killer cameo in this, by the way), it'll sit imperious and unflappable atop the 2013 heap like THE MASTER a year ago.  As Brandon said, it really is that good.

Scorsese's WOLF is one of the most scathing and darkly hilarious depictions of free-market Capitalism, commodity fetishism, and rampant addiction ever put on screen.  It isn't about the American Dream deferred, but the American nightmare realized (to borrow a phrase from Brandon).  The quintessential American narrative of prosperity and freedom through the acquisition of wealth is taken to the extreme edge and then thrown right off of it.  It's a headfirst dive right into the iniquitous wet dream of Reganomics, wholesale deregulation, and white collar invincibility.  If it pisses you off or disgusts you, it really should.  This is cutting satire, but also a pretty frank depiction of the American financial system we've created, one that depressingly is only getting worse.

Though the film is almost unrelentingly sharp and pulsating, I can completely understand someone not liking it for the simple admission that it was just too much for them.  As entertaining and downright incendiary as it can be, it really isn't easy to watch or digest with any level of comfort or gratification.  It's uncompromising and intentionally abrasive, almost daring you to laugh at some of the most atrocious and depraved behavior imaginable.  But anyone who thinks this cretinous lifestyle displayed by these thug stockbrokers is glorified is either dead inside or frankly not paying a modicum of attention.  As I saw Keith Uhlich mention on Letterboxd, this is satire, which of course means that if it's done well enough, it will separate the lazy from the astute. Black comedy is rarely understood initially by the masses, just look at the reception to THE KING OF COMEDY.  WOLF won't win any awards and the majority of audiences will hate it, but history will be kind to this gem. At least I hope so.

I'm pretty befuddled as to how anyone with any intelligence could think WOLF glorifies its characters' behavior.  Perhaps I just missed all the glory in being so monumentally fucked up on quaaludes that you are forced to crawl around in a more helpless state then your infant daughter?  Or maybe I missed all the shimmering splendor in being so vindictive and paranoid that you beat your wife and try to kidnap your own child while you're completely high on blow?  The film's dark humor and stylistic flourishes should not be confused for hedonistic approval (just listen to the dialogue for chrissake–it always undermines the revelry with real biting commentary).  Scorsese isn't celebrating these guys; he's making them look as absurd and degenerate as possible.  Not for one second are they made remotely likable or heroic–they are the biggest sleazebags you could imagine. It's insane how many people see this movie's only purpose and function as entertainment and have a hard time processing how it could possibly be both entertainment and a work of art, challenging and intellectually probing us.  You know what's also an incredibly scathing indictment of capitalism and greed while being entertaining as hell?  Mamet's play GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS.  That thing won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984.  It's got a lot of similarities to WOLF.  Both are essentially about the long con, the shifty peddling of bogus investments, and the false signifiers of promise and prosperity (the name Straton Oakmont is basically synonymous with Glengarry Highlands or Glen Ross Farms–all three are empty titles masking a lie, feigning respectability).  Both also absolutely refuse to pander to their audiences.  GLENGARRY never walks you through its complex maze of greed and betrayal; it struts its deadpan machismo without moralization or overt instruction.  Only the careful observer notes the dark irony and satire undercutting everything the characters say and do.  And yet GLENGARRY is largely understood in the theatrical world as not being a glorification of the real estate industry but as an acerbic commentary on its capitalistic weaponization.  Something tells me that if WOLF were written as a play, it would have no trouble being understood as satire...

Another criticism I've seen is that the film is only excess with nothing ultimately to say about it.  Again, I call bullshit.  To see the film as pure excess without any ultimate point is to precisely look beyond the point (and, of course, to utterly miss the satire).  This lifestyle IS pure excess taken to the point of absurdity.  This type of greed is a hollow indulgence with no aim other than the objectification and consumption of everything in its path–it should be depicted no other way.  This is where Scorese's satirical humor here is so much more critically on point than Stone's WALL STREET because the guys in WOLF aren't even pretending they offer anything to the world other than cruel manipulation and mass consumption.  Belfort may give rallying cries to his minions (so many office shots recall Vidor's The CROWD or Wilder's THE APARTMENT – glad Pinkerton addressed this in his piece) or shoot phony infomercials about how he's helping to lift people from their destitution and economic anxiety, but he's nothing but transparent about his desire to cheat, steal, and fuck over as many people as possible in order to serve himself and his band of thieves.  McConaughey (who's fantastic, like every other actor here) essentially lays out the entire philosophy of investment banking and the art of being a stockbroker in that exquisite early scene.  These Wall Street guys aren't captains of industry; they don't produce anything; they just scam people out of money.  Their entire enterprise is a fugazi, a false signifier for respectability, built on nothing but fairy dust.

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