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[Article] – The Wolf of Wall Street


Posted February 13, 2014 by

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A Mighty Good Time For The 99%!

In a time when an abundance of movies are being produced and screened, the audience is, to a certain extent, spoiled. A wave of new films is coming out every week and from the cinema theatre to VoD platforms, there is just so much of the moving pictures coming at us from every direction. And being spoiled with choice often means that the competition for our attention and our appreciation is brutal. We’ve become a bit jaded and need stronger stimuli to get us worked up about something.

Martin Scorsese, being the smart individual and experienced director that he is, quickly caught on to this and The Wolf of Wall Street goes to show it. In fact, it could even be said that Scorsese foresaw this/ was a big part of things being how they are today (depending on the angle, and on how much one tends to like this movies). One thing is certain though: it’s been quite a while since I’ve encountered a film (to be more precise: a widely distributed film) that polarized audiences so much. All around me, people who had seen it, had either loved it, or hated it. So I knew that, one way or another, I was in for a treat.

My life would be much easier, and my mind more peaceful now if I could just join one of the two camps and be over with it. On the one hand, it was entertainment for today’s tough to please audience- done by the book. It took a lot of risks- in terms of script, of performances, in terms of the length of the movie and so on. It primarily risked being completely disliked by some, but it did so without too much consideration for them. It’s humour is, for the most part, universal- and some will love it, some will hate it. How about the message, though?

Well, in the umpth year ‘economic crisis’ is still on everyone’s lips, I would say the timing for a film about the notorious 1%, set in the heart of Wall Street, a story of rags to riches, non the less, could not have been better placed. But here it where it’s at: how many viewers actually read this into the film? And if they do, how many understand that the film is critical of this? Well, the ones who hated it certainly did not see it this way, but pretty much as the exact opposite.

It’s amazing that it can stir such strong and extreme emotions. But the problem is that the message of the film- the really important bit, that makes this more than a collection of more or less impressive acting performances, of more or less shocking images, of more or less hilarious moments- risks to be overlooked. The nakedness, the drugs, the crazy, the borderline slapstick humour is the wrapping, which for some is great entertainment, and for others is just too much. What it at stake, theme-wise, is only accessible a while after the credits roll, and requires a bit of metaphoric chewing and introspection. It is indeed a memorable movie, but not as much for its subject and message, as for the way they are delivered.

The viewer in me thoroughly enjoyed it, but the critical spirit was left wanting more. And the two can’t be reconciled- there is no middle ground with The Wolf of Wall Street. When I am asked whether I liked it and I express my mixed emotions, I am met with frowns from both camps.

It’s true, Martin Scorsese is a director and an entertainer, a craftsman perfectly mastering his craft. And he has made it a habit of making a point of not making the point. To choose just one example, besides The Wolf of Wall Street, let’s take Taxi Driver and its main character, Travis. He’s the perfect illustration of the point I am trying to make here. Instead of trying to genuinely save Iris, he priorly makes up his mind that any attempt is bound to end in defeat. No wonder it’s all doomed to fail before it even begun. A man of extremes, Travis is going down and taking everyone in his way along with him. Iris will be left where she is; her life will be no better after this, but probably the contrary.

So, to go back to The Wolf of Wall Street, my attempts to convince a non-believer that Scorsese actually is not rooting for guys like Belford are futile; when he finally gets around to paying for what he did he goes to prison- the rich version of prison in fact. After spending his time in the confinement of a space sporting several tennis courts, Belford gets out and becomes a sales guru. So not somebody who is despised for having made an enormous fortune at the expense of good honest people, but as somebody to look up to. And there are plenty who look up to him.

But I think there’s a catch here, when it comes to how European audiences perceive the film and its message, because we are not as familiar with such figures here. By that I mean somebody with the ability of being a motivational speaker that can reach and convince people by the hundreds. I was talking to a friend and telling him that I think us Europeans (or anybody except for Americans, for that matter) have a disadvantage in appreciating the message of the film due to our cultural background. He replied that we have our fare share of fellows like Belford, and mentioned the king of Spain hunting elephants while his country is in deep crisis. I felt compelled to reply: ‘I don’t mean that. I mean we are not exposed to this larger-than-life figures who are able to motivate an elephant into hunting itself’.

For me that is a big part of what the film is about, which in a way goes way beyond this main character and into the effect he has on other people. After his holiday in prison, Belford teaches other people how to sell. But he does so, after convincing them, beyond any doubt, that they don’t know anything about sales to begin with. He gives them a pen and asks them to sell that object to him. What they do is they start and enumerate the qualities of that object, praise the way it was crafted and its utility. That’s how things used to be sold to people, albeit not always involving full honesty and often appealing to emotions. But what happens now, what Belfort preaches, is that selling is not about convincing people. It’s about tricking them into buying something. That’s exactly what he does- if we go back to the efficient strategy illustrated before: the other guy takes the pen, and then says ‘sign that napkin’. It’s not about making you want something anymore, it’s tricking you into needing it (or, rather, thinking that you do).

All of this comes in a context when a lot of people have been hit hard by the economic crisis. This makes them mad for all the good reasons against those people who got rich in the process of making everything crumble. But at the same time the context makes these people more vulnerable, more likely to be tricked into believing they need one thing or another. People think they need entertainment to cope with these hard times. I don’t think they are wrong in thinking so, and neither does Martin Scorsese, for he provides us all with one hell of a good time. Nevertheless I can’t help but think that he wanted us to be not just amused, but also stirred, puzzled, and in some way enraged by what we just have seen. He’s as subtle about the message as he is flamboyant about everything else.

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Mirona Nicola
Freelance Contributor


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