Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Wolf of Wall Street

I finally got the chance to see The Wolf of Wall Street and I'm surprised more people don't bring up Hemingway whenever they talk about it.

There's a lot of things to be said about Wolf, but what stuck out most to me during the week since I first saw it, was that I wasn't entirely sure what Scorsese wanted the audience to feel. I hesitate to bring this up, because I don't want to sound like some right-wing radio host claiming that liberal Hollywood has an agenda, or that someone is trying to brainwash us, or that all directors have an axe to grind or whatever...but there's a bit of truth to all of that. Movies send messages, some of them intentional and others a bit more subconsciously, but they all have a message. Even the dumbest of the dumb action movie can sway your thinking towards positively associating manliness with "goodness". Another good example is the horror or slasher genre, where the chaste, pure, clear-headed teenager typically survives to the end, while her sex and drug obsessed friends get hacked to bits. The director may not have set out to declare, "Let's make virginity a cool thing," but you end up leaving the theater identifying with the protagonist and their character traits.

Where Hemingway comes in is both in his writing style and his direct advice in how to craft a story. His style, as anyone who took a high school Lit class, was short, direct, to-the-point and laid out nothing but the barest of facts, much like a newspaper article would read. Not only was the goal to be as descriptive as possible in the least number of words, but also to be as objective as possible. This allowed the reader to make of the character and situations presented in the story however they so wished. Further, in a series of "letters" written to a hypothetical young, aspiring author (or authors) named "Mice" and donning the nom de plume "YC" (short for "Your Correspondent"), Hemingway instructed future writers to write in exactly this way. It's been years since I read it, so forgive the faulty paraphrasing, but Hemingway emphasized that as a man, a human being, you need to have an opinion on the situation presented before you, but as a writer, you need to present it as clearly and unbiased as possible. The example I think he gives is a fistfight, where he is actually on the same side as one person, but presents the facts as they were, without tipping his hand for which person is his friend.

Of course, while Hemingway became well-known for his objective style of writing, you can never prevent tipping your hand, especially when you're the one creating the story, and that story must come from the perspective of only one person. Enter The Wolf of Wall Street, a recreation of the autobiography of the real-life Jordan Belfort, who spent his career getting ridiculously rich through shady, extra-legal methods.

The movie is told entirely through Jordan's point of view, and every scene that does not directly feature Jordan is him explaining what is going on in it through use of a voiceover. Not to get too literary on everyone, but it calls Jordan's reliability into question as a narrator. For example, we are presented with a scene where his Swiss banker is seen in a very fancy-looking apartment, being teased by somebody else's extremely sexy wife. She emerges from the bathroom, completely naked and presenting herself to the camera, then struts over to the bed where the banker lies, presumably post-coital and also naked, before jumping on the bed and taunting him to make love to her once again. He complies and pulls her down under the covers and the scene ends. Now, the movie states this as being matter-of-fact. We have no reason to doubt the veracity of Jordan's account of any tale (save for one scene) so this, for all intents and purposes, was real.

But was it really "real"? Imagine your friend is the banker and he's retelling the events in that apartment to you. "Yeah man, I was in this apartment, this like, super great apartment, and I was banging this chick, right. She was like 30 years younger than me. And we get done and she goes to the bathroom or whatever, and when she comes back out, her tits are all, like, whoa. And she's like, c'mon do me again, and I'm like whatev girl. I gotta work in the morning, but she just wants it like, so hard, bro, so I just had to give it to her."

Now, I'm obviously embellishing a bit with the tone of voice your "friend" is using, but my point still stands: If anybody told you this story and expected you to believe it, you would call bullshit on them immediately or at least demand some evidence.

Throughout the film, Jordan recounts all of his adventures and they seem to never have any downsides. The message seems to be "Go ahead and cheat and lie to people; the consequences will be awesome". Especially in our present economy, this seems like a very awkward statement to make. (Maybe in the 80s this would have flown, but post-recession America? C'mon.) The whole thing starts to make more sense when you consider that it's all based on the narrator Jordan Belfort, whose character was based on the autobiographical-version of Jordan Belfort, which eventually comes back down into being a real person. By my count, there are at least 2 degrees of separation from this film and the truth (film to autobiography and autobiography to reality). So, while Scorsese is showing us all these really fun parties, and all the babes, and the money, and the mansions, and the cars, he never attempts to pass it off as "the truth". He maintains Jordan's voiceover narration, and includes him in every scene aside from the one's he narrates. (These scenes, by the way, have 4 degrees of separation between him and the truth: real friend to real Jordan, real Jordan to autobiography, autobiography to autobiographical Jordan, narrator Jordan to us.)

So while the movie may be presenting this cheating and lying as being totally fucking awesome and having no downsides whatsoever, the fact that we see it through the lens of Jordan Belfort -- a drug addict and notorious liar -- we can begin to piece together Scorsese's true message: Greed is bad.

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