The Reception of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013/dir. Martin Scorsese/USA): A Defense and What It Means for Satire in Cinema

So,  straight to the chase, on Christmas, about half a month ago, The Wolf of Wall Street was released as Martin Scorsese’s latest cinematic outing.

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His return to comedy since the 80s release of After Hours and The King of Comedy, Scorsese’s film was a focus on the real-life illicit financial activities of Jordan Belfort (Leonard DiCaprio), the founder of Oakmont-Stratton and career fraudulent stock salesman. The movie’s focus largely was based on the extravagant manner in which Jordan carried his life, business-wise and privately. The stylistic approach was reminiscent of Scorsese’s classic Goodfellas, where Henry Hill and Jordan both express a fascination with their own business atmospheres and where they each pursue their dream jobs (if you can call such illegal professions jobs) with a hunger unmatched, reach their goal and then, like Icarus, fly too close to the sun, resulting in their spiral dive downward (humorously foreshadowed in Wolf’s opening by an ill-advised coke-fuelled helicopter flight manned by Belfort). The rest of the movies’ running time has Hill and Belfort, respectively scrambling to land on their feet.

I overall enjoyed The Wolf of Wall Street. I found it be a lot of fun and a very surprisingly successful experiment in comedy for DiCaprio (an actor I don’t usually go as crazy for as the rest of the world does), Jonah Hill (an actor I’m finding myself enjoying more and more after disliking his earlier works) and Martin Scorsese, who proves he can still make people laugh. There were some editing “wut” moments for the film, which I credit to the rushed post-production process, acting as distractions, but overall, it was a 3-hour movie that felt like an hour and a half. I seem to not be alone in this enjoyment of the film – On Sunday, The Wolf of Wall Street garnered a Golden Globe for DiCaprio’s performance after receiving two nominations (the other nomination was in Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy; which I personally thought it should have won among the other nominees). Peter Travers and the American Film Institute have both placed the movie on their 2013 Top Ten Lists.

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The problem is that there seems to be a significant vocal opposition to the film’s existence on the stance of morality. The film has been received by many audiences as a glorification of the criminal activities of Belfort through the music video stylizations, the focus on Belfort being free of scrutiny and, according to some people, a lack of a severe punishment for Belfort’s actions. As a result, they found the film severely amoral.

There’s a lot I find to disagree with this and I can’t really support my statements without spoiling the movie, so if you have no watched it yet – heads up. Also heads up to the people who wish to find this review in a scholarly manner, because I’m about to abandon that form. My apologies for lack of professionalism in the case that I cross that line.

To begin with, I don’t need to be told Jordan Belfort is a bad person. If you do need to be told that someone who cheats people like Belfort does many times throughout the movie, who doesn’t care about others, who possibly rapes his wife and then afterward beats her as he attempts to kidnap their child and who does the excessive amounts of adultery and drugs that Belfort does is a bad person, you have a problem with needing your hand held. This is not the Hays Code anymore. We shouldn’t have to abide to conservative lens in less-than-admirable lifestyles. The late thrash metal guitarist Jeff Hannemann said it better when his band Slayer was put under scrutiny for writing a song about Josef Mengele in an omniscient tone. And he’s right. The fact that the person is a bad should be obvious, the actions he performs victimizes others and the lifestyle he lives is absolutely decadent and self-serving. It’s as plain as day on your face.

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That’s ignoring the fact that the artist has very little responsibility of the audience. There will probably be some people who misinterpret the story the wrong way and take it as a promotion of the glitzy lifestyle of a criminal stock broker, much like Gordon Gekko and Tony Montana were made a cultural icon when Wall Street and Scarface came out in 1987 and 1983, respectively. But unfortunately, misinterpretation is a part of art and the artist’s devotion is only to communicating his own message and clearly as possible. Scorsese’s message is not missed by a strict majority.

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He’s humiliating the characters. Scorsese is humiliating Belfort and Donnie Porush (portrayed in the movie under the name “Donnie Azoff” by Jonah Hill). This is a comedy. This is a satire. Stratton-Oakmont is a stock firm of buffoons who are only able to work well because they idolize the one man who tells them how to walk and talk. They have no honor among thieves. They prove that they essentially are just a pack of wolves who are looking for the next out.

Which, to go against the consequences argument, is exactly what happens to Belfort. He finds out the hard way that Donnie is not trustworthy – Donnie first gets Brad Bodnick (Jon Bernthal) imprisoned through his foolishness, nearly incriminates Belfort in a foolhardy phone call on drugs and then betrays Belfort to FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) at the moment where Belfort is looking out for him most. Jordan discovers the snake that his closest partner is, let alone the loss of his income and family from his own deceitfulness and aggressive behavior. Belfort gets his just desserts at the end of the movie. He has to start from square one, unhappily teaching people how to sell pens in the gaping grinning eyes of an audience far from his home nest of New York.

But, even that is ignoring what the true message of the satire is, when it’s staring right at us in the final shot of all the happy people.

We are the suckers. We let this guy take our cash watching this film when we should have been on the lookout for people like Belfort who look for anyway to gain a quick buck. Like the ending of Fritz Lang’s M condemns us for putting our children in an easy spot to be murdered, the ending of The Wolf of Wall Street condemns us for being put on an easy spot to be fooled and shaken empty by men like Belfort.

Luckily, that’s not the real-life case with the movie, as Belfort is legally required to give up royalties for the film to pay damages for his victims, a deed he was previously willing to perform without court orders. But it insists we keep ourselves on our toes. After all, its our lives, not Stratton-Oakmont’s. As far as they’re concerned, they owe us nothing.

Now that I am done defending the movie, what does this reception for The Wolf of Wall Street say about how we as an audience take satire? Is satire truly a good thing in art? Is it really helping in the manner that the filmmaker intends it to help?

Look at all the miscommunications with recent films – People have been inspired by Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby to create copy-cat parties, CoverGirl has been using the Hunger Games series’ Capitol celebrations as inspiration to unveil a new line of obnoxious make-up. It’s not something new to satire neither – Copycat Fight Clubs have been existing since the film’s opening, people took Natural Born Killers and Dexter as inspirations to go on mass murder sprees. Even the film Watchmen was made by Zack Snyder in an opposing tone as the original satirical graphic novel, despite copying the exact same look page for page. People condemned A Clockwork Orange for the same reasons as The Wolf of Wall Street. I actually have a humorous memory of arguing for Fargo‘s value as a film to a high school classmate of mine before surprising him by explaining the movie was a comedy and not a drama.

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Like, I say, the artist’s devotion is only to his material and that’s where all his responsibilities lie. But it is still somewhat unpleasant to witness such messages be misinterpreted, especially in the case where it causes more social disorder or pain and suffering or the actions portrayed in the film to actually be recreated in a nightmarish Monkey See, Monkey Do scenario.

The silver lining is in the idea that a movie’s message is not missed by anyone. And if some people understand the point of the satire and communicate it to others, then perhaps all is not lost in art.

I don’t have a complete answer for the qualms with satire and I do want to acknowledge but it seems that culture is incomplete without satire, whether somebody gets it or not. To treat a severe topic with humor, sarcasm or wit is to provide a new form of wisdom that is previously unheard of. Some movies do fail to outright communicate the satirical nature of its work (*cough*ZackSnyder’sWatchmen*cough*), but different perspectives is important to any culture and we should not allow ourselves to shut it out from art simply because the message is missed. The signals are always going to come off as mixed, the people are rarely going to completely understand… their interpretation is of their own hand, much like the artist’s style is of his own.

They said what they felt they need to.

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FLASHBACK: The Shuttered Wit of the Director’s Mind

We like to quote individuals when they say great things. Speech encourages ideals, movements, discussion and thought. When the speech carries something of depth that can reach the heart and minds of many, that is a gift… That is something universal that has the 

As such, we quote scientists, philosophers, authors, actors, playwrights, religious figures, civil rights icons, activists, humanitarians and even fictional characters. We make sure their truth, their ideals live on beyond the person themselves. And we choose people who seem to have a connection through their role in society to the human condition. I would say the only people we quote that we should be more wary of how we perceive their words are politicians… for very obvious reasons.

So why is it that we don’t see enough filmmakers being quoted? Not only do the finest them find a connection to the subconscious and conscious plane of human existence, they mean to portray those planes in their own eyes. Their vision says more than many words could.

David and I have a wall of quotes on our respective facebooks which we dedicate to the quotes of people we encounter – friends, family, acquaintances, enemies, co-workers, students, teachers, pastors, Imams, etc. – and we post what we hear out for others to reflect on… since the ordinary man is just as capable of saying brilliant or funny things as the scientist or the civil rights activist… for, in a sense, we all are ordinary men…

I’ve decided to look in and re-read some of my favorite quotes from some of my favorite directors and put them on here. I chose quotes that largely apply outside of cinema, though many of the quotes do seem to reflect what the filmmakers say in their own movies, and certainly a good portion of them hint at or imply filmmaking techniques but apply to life as it is too…

I would some of you readers could be just as moved by these words as the words of a President.

“What chess teaches you is that you must sit there calmly and think about whether it’s really a good idea and whether there are other, better ideas.”

“The great nations have always acted like gangsters, and the small nations like prostitutes.”


“A satirist is someone who has a very skeptical view of human nature, but who still has the optimism to make some sort of a joke out of it. However brutal that joke might be.”


“I don’t like doing interviews. There is always the problem of being misquoted or, what’s even worse, of being quoted exactly.”


“The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning.”


“It’s a mistake to confuse pity with love.”


“It’s crazy how you can get yourself in a mess sometimes and not even be able to think about it with any sense and yet not be able to think about anything else.”


“If you can talk brilliantly about a problem, it can create the consoling illusion that it has been mastered.”


“You’re an idealist, and I pity you as I would the village idiot.”


“When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.”


“The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death — however mutable man may be able to make them — our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

-Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey)

“I remain just one thing, and one thing only — and that is a clown. It places me on a far higher plane than any politician.”

“I am an individual and a believer in liberty. That is all the politics I have.”


“I believe that faith is a precursor of all our ideas. Without faith, there never could have evolved hypothesis, theory, science or mathematics. I believe that faith is an extension of the mind. It is the key that negates the impossible. To deny faith is to refute oneself and the spirit that generates all our creative forces. My faith is in the unknown, in all that we do not understand by reason; I believe that what is beyond our comprehension is a simple fact in other dimensions, and that in the realm of the unknown there is an infinite power for good.”


-Charles Chaplin (The Gold Rush)

 

“Why pay a dollar for a bookmark? Why not use the dollar for a bookmark?”

“There is something about killing people at close range that is excruciating. It’s bound to try a man’s soul.”


“I love my kids as individuals, not as a herd, and I do have a herd of children: I have seven kids.”

-Steven Spielberg (Jaws)

“We’re all like detectives in life. There’s something at the end of the trail that we’re all looking for.”

“The ideas dictate everything, you have to be true to that or you’re dead.”


“Absurdity is what I like most in life, and there’s humor in struggling in ignorance.”

-David Lynch (Mulholland Dr.)

“Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing.”

“Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth; it is the most difficult to redeem.”

-Akira Kurosawa (Throne of Blood)

“One should make one’s own “notes” because there is no one way to do anything. If anyone tells you there is only one way, their way, get as far away from them as possible, both physically and philosophically.”

-Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man)


“If one devalues rationality, the world tends to fall apart.”

“Far be it from me to force anyone into either chess or dressage, but if you choose to do so yourself, in my opinion there is only one way: follow the rules.”

“I’m happy that I’m alive. I feel like someone coming back from Vietnam, you know; I’m sure that later on I’ll start killing people in a square somewhere, but right now, I just feel happy to be alive.”

-Lars von Trier (Dogville)

“Is someone different at age 18 or 60? I believe one stays the same.”

“It seems like everything that we see perceived in the brain before we actually use our own eyes, that everything we see is coming through computers or machines and then is being input in our brain cells. So that really worries me.”

-Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbour Totoro)

 
 
“There’s no such thing as simple. Simple is hard.”

“Alcohol decimated the working class and so many people.”

“Food tells you everything about the way people live and who they are.”

“It seems to me that any sensible person must see that violence does not change the world and if it does, then only temporarily.”

“You make a deal. You figure out how much sin you can live with.”

“There are two kinds of power you have to fight. The first is the money, and that’s just our system. The other is the people close around you, knowing when to accept their criticism, knowing when to say no.”

-Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver)

“The truth is that there is no terror untempered by some great moral idea.”

-Jean-Luc Godard (Band of Outsiders)

“Experience is what you get while looking for something else.”

“The young watch television twenty-four hours a day, they don’t read and they rarely listen. This incessant bombardment of images has developed a hypertrophied eye condition that’s turning them into a race of mutants.”


“I think television has betrayed the meaning of democratic speech, adding visual chaos to the confusion of voices. What role does silence have in all this noise?”


“Money is everywhere but so is poetry. What we lack are the poets.”

-Federico Fellini (Nights of Cabiria)

“I think people talk too much; that’s the truth of the matter. I do. I don’t believe in words. People use too many words and usually wrongly. I am sure that in the distant future people will talk much less and in a more essential way. If people talk a lot less, they will be happier. Don’t ask me why.”

-Michelangelo Antonioni (Blow-up)

“You have to really be courageous about your instincts and your ideas. Otherwise you’ll just knuckle under, and things that might have been memorable will be lost.”

“Anything you build on a large scale or with intense passion invites chaos.”


“It takes no imagination to live within your means.”


“I was never sloppy with other people’s money. Only my own. Because I figure, well, you can be.”

-Francis Ford Coppola (Bram Stoker’s Dracula)

“It has been my observation that parents kill more dreams than anybody.”

“Everything I do is always scrutinised. But that’s all I’ll say about that.”


“I think that every minority in the United States of America knows everything about the dominant culture. From the time you can think, you are bombarded with images from TV, film, magazines, newspapers.”


“Culture is for everybody.”

-Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing)

 

“I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

“The talent for being happy is appreciating and liking what you have, instead of what you don’t have.”


“Tradition is the illusion of permanance.”


-Woody Allen (Annie Hall)

“Trust your own instinct. Your mistakes might as well be your own, instead of someone else’s.”

“If you’re going to tell people the truth, be funny or they’ll kill you.”


“You have to have a dream so you can get up in the morning.”


“If there’s anything I hate more than not being taken seriously, it’s being taken too seriously.”

-Billy Wilder (Ace in the Hole)

“We have too many intellectuals who are afraid to use the pistol of common sense.”

“Being a hooker does not mean being evil. The same with a pick-pocket, or even a thief. You do what you do out of necessity.”

-Samuel Fuller (Shock Corridor)

“How do I respond to criticism? Critically. I listen to all criticism critically.”

“I’ll rebel against powers and principalities, all the time. Always, I will.”

“You have to be a brat in order to carve out your parameters, and you have to be a monster to anyone who gets in your way. But sometimes it’s difficult to know when that’s necessary and when you’re just being a baby, throwing your rattle from the cage.”

-Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia)

“I never reflect or convey that which I have not experienced myself.”

“In order to be universal, you have to be rooted in your own culture.”

“I’ve often noticed that we are not able to look at what we have in front of us, unless it’s inside a frame.”

-Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry)

“The most ordinary word, when put into place, suddenly acquires brilliance. That is the brilliance with which your images must shine.”

“Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.”
 
“When you do not know what you are doing and what you are doing is the best – that is inspiration.”

-Robert Bresson (Au Hasard Balthazar)

“If you take a loud pride in anything, people will rightly shoot you down.” 

“Come a crisis, we want other people.”

Danny Boyle (Trainspotting)