Thursday, February 06, 2014

A Wolf in the Hand is Worth Two in the Street

What's in your wallet?
On a large enough scale, the profane and the sublime eventually intersect and become indistinguishable. It's one of the countless indefinable, constantly shifting, and oftentimes unrecognizable lines from which the tangled web of both our cultures and our psyches are woven. Human perception is sort of a paradoxical endeavor in that it is dependent upon creating boundaries and making distinctions that are always arbitrary and subject to constant change. It's kind of weird to think about, but our understanding of the world and ourselves and every achievement and failure, every triumph and tragedy, every altruistic deed and act of pure debauchery, is dependent upon absolutely necessary yet completely meaningless distinctions.

Which is not to say that I embrace nihilism or believe that everything is meaningless. Well, actually, everything is meaningless. People, places, events, natural phenomenon, etc., are only meaningful insofar as they are attributed meaning by us. Humans are the meaning-making animal. We are a species of Prometheuses, bestowing that mystical fire of relative significance upon all that we see, and our gaze stretches far indeed.

Now I wish to follow the gaze of Martin Scorsese and his latest film The Wolf of Wall Street. This is, by far, his most postmodern work as it serves as a deconstruction of the subjectivity of morality. While there are hints throughout, the real key to the cipher was the final shot of the final scene. The movie focuses on the exploits of the real-life Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), a Wall Street savant who made millions swindling people, often blue collar workers spending their life savings on the desperate hope that was peddled to them on the edge of a diabolically mesmerizing sales pitch. However, the final scene is a reversal as the camera turns its focus on the audience of a get-rich-quick seminar run by the only slightly hard-done-by Belfort. And as we look at their blank, eager faces, we see a twisted reflection of ourselves. At the same time we despise men like Belfort, we are also fascinated by them.

The Wolf of Wall Street calls into question our tendency to construct our perception of the world based on polar opposites: Black and White. Love and Hate. Samuel L. Jackson and Eugene Levy. It demonstrates the blurring between the sublime and the profane. The movie is no doubt an elevation of the subject matter but it is also, simultaneously, a condemnation of that very same matter. It is upon the edge of this dichotomy that the film finds itself perfectly balanced and poised for attack.

For my purposes here I use the term "elevation" in place the term "glorification" that's being bandied about by the film's detractors because glorification can imply both tacit and explicit approval of the particular subject matter, which is clearly not the case with The Wolf of Wall Street. Sort of. In Judeo-Christian mythology, for example, the character of Satan is elevated to a status of power approaching--if not actually attaining--deification, yet is still vilified and presented as an object of contempt. Also, although not glorifying in the traditional sense the despicable people and behaviour depicted in the film, the level to which they are elevated calls into question the fine line that represents the distinction between glorification and condemnation, and forces us to reconsider and recrystallize our stance on the issue, whatever that stance may be.  

To be fair to those who call The Wolf of Wall Street a glorification of the people and behaviour that it depicts, they are partially correct, but not for the reasons they might think. The movie invites us to dig deeper and consider whether condemnation on a large enough scale is a type of glorification and vice versa. In one sense, this is also the core of the modern-day concept of celebrity, where we sometimes find ourselves simultaneously deifying and vilifying an individual, and often for the same reason.

We, in the audience, are meant to feel at least a little uncomfortable by the juxtaposition and intertwining of these seemingly conflicting motivations. This, I believe, is at the thematic core of The Wolf of Wall Street. It challenges us to reconsider the clear-cut distinctions we make between the elevation of the subject matter and its glorification or condemnation and asks us to consider an alternative:

What if it's actually both?

And what if it has to be?

We simultaneously despise Jordan Belfort (or, at least, should despise him upon examination of all of the available quantifiable evidence), yet we are in awe of him. And we should be. (In awe, that is.) Belfort as he is presented in The Wolf of Wall Street is most definitely a likely candidate to be considered a Great Man in the Thomas Carlyle sense of attaining a certain level of cultural and historical significance. We can't help but deify people like Belfort to some degree because his exploits seem inhuman, or maybe even superhuman. He seems more like a demi-god or some mythological creature than a mortal man because he does things that are, for one reason or another, impossible for the vast majority of mortal men.

No, that's definitely not what one of those is supposed to look like.
You should definitely go to a doctor or something.
I think a lot of The Wolf of Wall Street's genius lies in demonstrating that it is possible to elevate an otherwise despicable specimen to godhood while at the same time damning him. The majority of well-adjusted, socially normalized people who enjoy witnessing these exploits primarily do so not through some vicarious thrill based on wanting to live that life and get away with fucking a stranger (or a thousand) in the ass and getting away with it, but by wondering at this Being whose exploits seem on the verge of incomprehensibility. It's possible to be in awe of someone (or something) that you completely despise, but that blurring of polar opposites becomes difficult to process, especially for those who have not already embraced the enlightened position of moral relativism as part of their worldview.

It's the absurdity of the situation that we find entertaining, and I was incredibly surprised to find that The Wolf of Wall Street was actually a comedy and not the drama I had been expecting. When used effectively, comedy can be a very powerful tool because it allows us to engage with morally repugnant, heinous, or taboo topics in a safe, socially acceptable way. The audience can laugh (if sometimes nervously) at the depraved goings-on not because they are amusing in and of themselves, but because they are so grotesquely absurd and filled to the brim to the point of achieving mythological status that they subvert expectations, which is a key component of comedy.

Our enjoyment of such depravity is also due in part to the Car Crash Syndrome. When we pass by a fresh accident on the highway, even the most reasonable and enlightened individual has the tendency to turn into a rubbernecking asshole. We have a morbid fascination with destruction and death (literal and metaphorical). We fear it, but by confronting it, that fear gives way to exhilaration. We never feel more alive than when we are closest to death.  Craning your neck to get a better view of the twisted metal and (potential) victims (or, if you're lucky, corpses) is not an attempt to embrace death and destruction, but rather a means to validate one's own sense of life and vitality by contrast. Likewise, watching, being engaged by, and/or enjoying the metaphorical orgy of capitalism, drugs, and bad behaviour (and then, later, literal orgies) in The Wolf of Wall Street is not to embrace those things but rather to reaffirm one's sense of morality by seeing a clear counterpoint.

Similarly, the audience at the end of the film serves as a call to action. It can effectively be read as a warning of the dangers of that point at which condemnation and glorification blur and bleed into each other. Though Belfort and his ilk should be held accountable for their actions, we are also reminded that people like them do not exist in a void. Belfort benefited from an entrenched culture of greed and an unchecked social system that allowed him to succeed. And it is a culture that many of us--to varying degrees--are complicit in.

Seriously, though, regular gynaecological exams are an
important part of a healthy lifestyle.
Belfort--in a very telling scene near the end of the film--explains how he basically got away with everything nearly scot free: "For a brief, fleeting moment, I'd forgotten I was rich and lived in America." The Wolf of Wall Street is a morality tale, but it is a morality tale that invokes the macrocosm of our culture as a whole. I find it far more powerful, in fact, than other so-called cinematic morality tales in which the protagonist of the microcosmic narrative receives some sort of comeuppance because in this movie, like a lot of times in real life, the bad guys win.

Belfort has a downfall of sorts, but as Selina Kyle observed in The Dark Knight Rises, it seems that rich people don't even go broke the same as middle class or low-income people. Most morality tales are self-contained narratives, but The Wolf of Wall Street doesn't make it that easy for us. Everything isn't wrapped up in a neat, little bow.  This lack of karmic retribution is supposed to spur us into action. We are meant to take issue with this apparent oversight in justice. We should feel angry. We should feel frustrated. We should want to leave this movie feeling like we need to go out and change the system and make these motherfuckers provide adequate restitution for their crimes.

But it's hard. It's hard because we, as part of that audience at the end of the movie, are indicted alongside Belfort. Because part of us, a deep, dark part, does in fact have a tendency to glorify men like Jordan Belfort. At the same time we denounce the system that allowed him to succeed, we also hold onto this perverted hope--however vain or small--that we can find the Big Loophole. That we can become Great while avoiding the moral pitfalls to which Belfort and the rest of his pantheon succumbed, and indeed the very same pitfalls that have befallen all who have found themselves bestowed with unlimited power and proven the old axiom true time and time again. But the lesson isn't that any one of us could sit on the same throne and somehow do better; the point is that the system that Belfort epitomized and the ideals it embodied are incredibly flawed if not completely broken.

Something, something, masturbation.
The movie doesn't leave us with easy answers. Instead, it encourages us to start asking questions. One clear example has been dialogue surrounding the real life Jordan Belfort briefly appearing in the movie and potentially profiting from either the movie or the book he wrote on which the movie was based. On the one hand, Belfort is a total scumbag who by all rights should be put behind bars for the rest of his natural life, preferably infected with all manner of venereal diseases administered in the harshest way possible.

On the other hand, he's been ordered to pay back $100 million to clients he defrauded. This moral question is as significant to ask as it is difficult to answer: Is it wrong to pay back the victims of your crime by indirectly profiting from the selfsame crimes against them, in this case by selling your story? Honestly, I'm not sure that I have an answer to that question, or that there is a right answer. And that's the rub; so many situations in life that often most require a clear ethical answer are often the ones for which there is no clear answer. Through its constant straddling of moral ambiguity, The Wolf of Wall Street constantly calls into question moral absolutism and presents morality as it actually is: a spectrum characterized by blurry lines, unclear distinctions, and often a lack of clear-cut answers.

It's unfortunate that precisely because of this ambiguity between glorification and condemnation in The Wolf of Wall Street, many people will fail to act or misdirect their anger at this piece of art instead of the broken system that it has helped lay bare. Even after the jarring depiction of events in the film that so often strayed dangerously close to the facts, there will be many who will watch with an uncritical eye and be unable to follow the trail of destruction and debauchery back to its source. I can sympathize. It's far easier to criticize an artistic endeavour than to go out and initiate social change on any meaningful level. I get it.

It's OK to be angry and disgusted at the end of The Wolf of Wall Street, but I think that to direct that anger and disgust at the movie instead of at the people actually responsible for these atrocities is counter-intuitive, counter-productive, and, quite frankly, irresponsible. I can accept that people might not like a piece of art that I like based on a solid critical analysis, a reasonable interpretation, or even because of an emotional "gut" reaction. But for anybody to condemn The Wolf of Wall Street because of its supposed lack of morality is ludicrous.

It's only because it's more palatable to denounce a work of art than to admit that, despite an extremely vivid call to action against a morally bankrupt system that continues to allow people like Belfort to pray upon the weak, we probably have absolutely no intention at all of doing anything about it. I can count myself among those who have looked at themselves in the mirror held up by The Wolf of Wall Street and found myself wanting. But I don't try to shift the blame. For me, The Wolf of Wall Street is an excellent example of art as mirror, and it's perhaps more telling about people's moral viewpoint whether one sees the movie as a glorification or a condemnation of its (anti-) protagonist and all of its other grotesquely entertaining content.

The Wolf of Wall Street is, indeed, profane, and it majestically revels in that profanity to the degree that it becomes sublime. It aptly demonstrates the subjectivity of the human condition as it simultaneously indicts and elevates--even, at times, glorifying--not only its subjects but also its audience. We are invited to engage with the text in a way we are rarely asked to do as we straddle the line between wonder and disgust. And like all of our lines, this one is not clear-cut. The Wolf of Wall Street is, in many ways, a film without an ending. Instead it is left up to us. And the end begins now.


The Wolf of Wall Street is an easy 10/10 = One Wall Street Tycoon's Head Doing Drugs From A Hooker's Asshole


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