An aspect of popular film that Scorsese does not abide by, despite making awfully popular films (Goodfellas, Casino, The Wolf of Wall Street), is the need to spoon feed morals and messages.
It’s no coincidence that these three films are considered a trilogy, regardless of their dissimilar plots and depictions. There is a thread that runs through them all, and it’s not just crime but the depiction of immoral groups in society. Conservative criticism of Scorsese’s fascination with these groups has cropped up again with the latest installment – The Wolf of Wall Street (TWOW). Totaling 3 hours in length, and with a chronic obsession with drug taking, naked women and profanity, the film has been criticized as glorifying the lives of the super rich brokerage firms of New York in the 90s.
The film was perfectly timed for maximum outrage, just 5 years after the financial collapse of 2008 and in the midst of constant criticism of the financial sector all over the world in the economy’s recovery. This idea in itself attracted a lot of negative attention for the film before it was even released.
And then it was released…to the sound of booing by the Academy Screening. I heard about this obviously before I watched the film myself, and my immediate reaction was a compulsion to watch it even more. For what the film is trying to be, the fact that a bunch of old men booed a film about excess of the young and rich in the 90s is a very good sign.
In a contemporary world of film where messages are made very clear from the outset, a seasoned pro of film throwing a future classic alongside Goodfellas into the midst highlights once again the ongoing struggle between filmmaking and social responsibility.
The film follows the autobiographical narrative of Jordan Belfort and his rise and fall in the brokering industry. What troubles many people is the tone of the film, narrated by DiCaprio as Belfort. The film is narrated in a past tense, but there is no remorse for the actions in the film. This is where the criticism of the film glorifying the culture portrayed is found, because the main character is telling the audience what happens as if he is proud of those actions.
This is actually different to the book the film is based on, which takes a remorseful tone throughout. Although it is still as brutally honest, the narrative comes from a man who has moved on from this world he tells of. Scorsese changed the tone of the narration very late in production, admitting that for a feature film of this culture, Jordan should be in the mindset of the time. Jordan loved taking drugs and fucking prostitutes, so depicting this in film with a retrospective as in the book would be counter productive for what Goodfellas and Casino both achieved previously.
TWOW represents a clash between artistic filmmaking and the realm of the modern film industry that spoon feeds audiences exactly what they should think. There’s no need to wonder any more what would happen to this devolving film industry if a great such as Goodfellas were to be released, because its genes are found all around TWOW. The reaction the film has had highlights exactly how much popular filmmaking has poisoned the mind of the audience to not want to come out of the cinema with questions and unclear interpretations.
Scorsese produces films on real life stories, and real life characters are not simple or easily put into categories of good and evil. This trilogy of autobiographical stories of different immoral areas of society (gangsters, casino owners and stock brokers) is not about portraying these people as evil, but depicting their story and therefore the potential of human beings to act in such immoral ways if they are surrounded by the right circumstances. Popular filmmaking loves to categorise people easily for the audience, but this creates an ‘us vs them’ complex. The beauty of Scorsese’s trilogy is that it takes you into their world and justifies how they ended up in that way, exemplified in how much you end up rooting for the main characters – who, if you read a news article of the same crimes committed, you would be disgusted.
The late Lou Reed wrote a song for the the classic 60s album The Velvet Underground & Nico called Heroin. It’s a beautiful song that crescendos into a narrative about the experience of shooting heroin. If this song was released today, it would be slammed by the media for glorifying drug use. The intentions of artistic work seem to be totally forgotten if the right ‘touchy subject’ button is pushed. The song isn’t pro-heroin or even against heroin; it’s just about heroin. It takes you into the mind of a heroin abuser in the 60s and is as historically significant as it is beautifully written. The problem with popular culture is that in order to be accepted widely, the correct depiction in accordance with society has to be used. This is why there is such a clear distinction as well as an overlap between popular and artistic filmmaking.
The tone of TWOW is therefore very provocative because it puts no filter on the true events of the story or the honest narration of a man in the full flow of excess and hubris. In some ways Jordan Belfort is likeable as a protagonist; a salesman by nature and charming even in some of the most outrageous scenes of the film. Scorsese puts the story out there in its entirety, allowing the audience to make their own decisions about the narrative. Great films tell great stories, not morals, and this biographical should not be for or against excess, but just about excess. Real life stories aren’t clear cut, and should leave the audience to make their own decisions on the complicated true nature of people, not characters.