The Wolf Of Wall Street For Dummies by Dino Hollywood
“The most fundamental mistake you can make with any piece of fiction is to confuse the content with the subject. The content is what is in a movie. The subject is what the movie is about. Word counters are as offended by a Martin Scorsese picture as by a brainless violent action picture, because they see the same elements in both. But the brainless picture is simply a form of exhibitionism, in which the director is showing you disgusting things on the screen. And the Scorsese picture might be an attempt to deal seriously with guilt and sin, with evil and the possibility of redemption. If you cannot tell one from the other, then you owe it to yourself to learn; life is short, and no fun if you spend it disowning your own intelligence.” – Roger Ebert
This far into the evolution of the cinematic form, I shouldn’t have to step forward to spell things out in this manner but a random sampling of the critical and public reaction to a recent feature film release reveals that yet again, some of us have been flummoxed by a genius that extends too beyond our collective scope to grasp. This concerns the reception of an artfully antagonistic work of allegorical avarice and the once absent chapter in Martin Scorsese’s vast, historical, American criminal chronology which begins in the late 1840’s with Gangs Of New York, continues through the 1920’s with Boardwalk Empire, and up until now had been annotated for expansion from the late 1980’s to mid-1990’s somewhere between Henry Hill ordering egg noodles and ketchup and Sam “Ace” Rothstein bemoaning the pyramids obstructing his pining view of a paradise lost. The picture in question is entitled The Wolf Of Wall Street and only if you have seen it should you feel free to pass go as I do not wish the ensuing tirade to taint anyone’s initial reaction or reading of what I consider a visual masterwork.
The Wolf Of Wall Street is not an indictment of Jordan Belfort or our financial crisis but of us, and this, I contend, is what turns our protective and critical instincts against it. The film does not moralize and due to its refusal to judge its subject, many reviewers have expressed feeling cheated. Now I was not around for the initial critical reception of Raging Bull, but archival notices indicating any such qualms with that masterpiece’s resistance to deny Jake LaMotta his humanity are either fewer and father between or have since been shamed into retraction. It is only when Scorsese’s fun house mirror reflects our own impotence as the impetus propelling us to flail in the wake of bullshitters who project boatloads of self-confidence that the lap-dogs begin paddling back toward their laptops to type out an “SOS”. “How dare a filmmaker be so irresponsible as to give us a front row seat to this capitalistic gang-fuck but fail to execute the proper sentence on its perpetrators so we can leave the theater feeling satisfied or superior?” seems to be the general consensus. Nevertheless, to lash out now is laughable when the film’s core conceit is confronting us with the same passive part of our nature that calls us to line up in solidarity for the vicarious thrills of a Hollywood blockbuster but stand down or scoff when it comes to something like the Occupy movement.
Somewhere along the way it has become acceptable for the rabid uninformed to bark without shame, while film criticism sidesteps its responsibility to what has actually made it to screen. The grammar of a given film is seldom if ever contemplated, freeing up space for more plot synopsis, vague conjecture and exclamation points!!! The conversation has devolved to such an extent, that even those with no basic understanding of the criteria with which we process a great film, feel province to pile shame on its creators. The Wolf Of Wall Street’s charged and timely subject matter seems to have imbued even its subject’s real life victims and their supporters with an indefensible sense that our prospective pity is credential enough for them to comment on art. Thus, a smattering of “scathing” open letters have been written c/o Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio since the opening of perhaps their boldest and most accomplished collaboration to date. To nobody’s surprise, not one of these misguided missives makes a single salient point concerning what has been committed to celluloid. This is what occurs when liberal sensibilities are confused for a discipline or a craft and when film is confused with a court of law.
Mr. Scorsese is a master of the moving image whose work speaks in eloquent volumes and entirely for itself but clearly in a language many filmgoers including “critics” no longer comprehend. The language I refer to is cinema and Scorsese’s vocabulary sagely draws no distinction between protagonist and antagonist. In his seemingly endless canon of classics there is no traditional “hero” or “villain” to speak of. Outside forces only exist as symbolic extensions of the inner inequities we all fear facing. In this respect, The Wolf Of Wall Street is exemplary of its heritage and Jordan Belfort’s very introduction wholly epitomizes it. The distance he so impetuously puts between himself and us “the little people” by making sure we know that he’s the film’s protagonist and not the Dwarf he’s just tossed, says everything. But it is two precision-calibrated freeze frames that do the real heavy lifting. The amount of op-ed real estate devoted to whether literal Dwarf-tossing took place in the Stratton Oakmont office is embarrassing. If visual metaphor is that taxing, Terrence Winter’s exactingly crass metonymy allows Jordan to interpret for us as he openly scoffs at an FBI agent’s unassuming assertion with his revealing retort, “Me, the little-man!?” If you are indeed visually illiterate, I will hereby address you directly as I further dissect a sampling of the optical allegory implicit in the picture and how it symbolically relates to the protagonist/antagonist dichotomy.
For a film focusing on one man’s financial ascent, which uses stairs metaphorically, I wonder if you found it at all curious, that the man is never shown climbing upward; he is only shown descending or having already arrived. In following Jordan Belfort’s “climb” to greater financial heights if you didn’t intellectually register the number of times he physically moved down a tier or simply manifested in a higher tax bracket, you felt it. Sorry, but you didn’t have a choice. It’s not a plot point or a line of dialogue it’s a visual motif. Your brain connects subliminal dots whether you can articulate it or not. In tracing Jordan’s momentum, the single notable exception utilizes a spiral staircase shown from a disorienting, Daliesque perspective-tunnel so that as he moves up his downward trajectory remains in tact. All of this culminates in the coup de grâce of sight gags where in a Quaalude-induced semi-coma, we assume Jordan’s POV of the slightest flight of downward steps. To both him and us, the low, curbed angle processes a staircase so abnormally elongated it appears to ascend.
The idea of lowering oneself to new material heights is not only confined to a stairs but to crashing helicopters, planes and eventually boats. You may recall the private copter “landing” on the estate to reveal our drooling “hero”, but with the help of a judicious cut, he’s dapper and back on top (of a staircase), maintaining the sale of his own myth. But the crucial thing that the odd chronology has spared us witness is the next beat where Jordan actually works to gain control over his faculties and fails miserably, falling in the pool. Not only does this suggest that there is always further to fall but that the character’s real struggle is purposely being hidden from our view. Redacted. This is the same approach Mr. Scorsese took in his 1964 student short It’s Not Just You, Murray!, another deliriously sad essay of denial that I defy detractors to see as “glorification”. In fact, exactly like Jordan, Murray starts out in total control of his picture’s direction going so far as to pan the camera upwards with own hand but the more forcefully he sells us, the more he is undermined by his own rapidly unraveling psychology made manifest through loaded imagery.
Have you forgotten that the first image in the film is the icon of a lion and that the last image is of lambs? Neither animal is literal as the first is unleashed on the unnatural office environment via composite by Madison Ave. ad-makers and the last is an audience not unlike us; “sheep” secluded into being sold, jaws agape, looking to the king of a capitalistic jungle-gym for insight into how to steal our classmate’s lunch money. And while his roar remains, the king in question has long since (in the eyes of those of us paying attention) been stripped of his power to project anything save for his own superiority complex. Can you call to mind the opening reel and the ease with which our “protagonist” changes the color of the very sports car that our “antagonist” ends up demolishing? At first blush, Mr. Belfort’s word is as good as gold, all he need do is say it and it becomes so. Now what about in the aftermath of his rescue, when an airplane explodes mid-air and the wet and shivering “wolf” wonders if we’ve even seen it. In the end, the onus is on us to confirm or deny this once confident man’s version of events; we can embrace, reject or even repress the very existence of his worldview. But at least we now understand the cost of doing so.
The Wolf Of Wall Street follows the struggle of a repressed conscience, a theme Scorsese has connected with water in the past, most rigorously in both Cape Fear and Shutter Island. In each of those films, water holds the power to haunt, refracting a guilt-ridden protagonist’s psyche into a karmic monster. In Raging Bull, water is symbolically associated with Jake LaMotta’s second wife Vickie, a young blonde who’s angelic allure and intangible power to heal is revealed as her husband’s shallow objectification, obscuring her true nature as a living, breathing woman. In Jordan Belfort’s case, both uses of the water metaphor are married, haunting him by foiling his grandest plans and mocking his inability to have a lasting or realistic relationship with anyone of the opposite sex. This connection extends intrinsically and lives through performance in how comically disproportionate DiCaprio distends Jordan’s reaction to a glass of water when wielded as a weapon by his second wife Naomi, another unknowable and archetypically angelic blonde. Much in the same way Jordan handles the women in his life, he continually attempts to master water by throwing money at it (figuratively as well as literally) but only ends up sinking his yacht and by extension its namesake, his wife. And here the link is made inextricable.
I wonder if you thought it accidental that when Jordan and the Swiss banker first meet, they are identically framed from mirrored angles with the banker’s back to an office aquarium and Jordan’s back to the ocean? Did you figure the fixed aquatic framing of Jordan eyeing the banker’s exotic fish adoringly for random b-roll? What about his shit-eating admiration for Donnie’s swallowing of the gold fish? What about his exasperation at his colleagues for their lack of familiarity with Moby Dick? What about his crystalline point of view of the cannonball pool splash that drapes Naomi like some kind of mermaid when first they meet or the distance his flat, wakeless pool intimates when he reveals his ankle bracelet to Donnie as his wife paces, dry-docked in the background? Is it by coincidence that the Swiss banker ends up with an interchangeable, objectified blonde who is shown giving herself over to him, not only freely but in bed, the very same setting in which we first met Jordan’s wife and last saw her submit to being taken against her will? Does it even need to be mentioned that Naomi’s bedroom introduction occurs in a God’s eye view, a shot Scorsese practically has a patent on and is almost always associated with retribution?
Disabuse yourselves of any notion of the haphazard. None of this is coincidence. These decisions are not arbitrary. They are the considered associations of a deeper mind and heart than your own, meditating in close collaboration with an unparalleled phalanx of consummate craftsmen. And yes, even the appearance of Steve Urkel in a hot air balloon is no accident. Never mind that the scene in question concerns an average working man’s fear of heights. Never mind that Urkel says, “One pull for up. Two for down!” suggesting that when you’re full of hot air it takes less effort to rise than fall. All you really need to know is that the show is called “Family Matters”.
I suggest that the next time you’re in search of an After-School Special with Scorsese-style trimmings but none of the associated psychological heft or symbolic anthropology, watch American Hustle.