An excellent contemporary example of cynical ideology can be seen in the reception of Martin Scorsese’s 2013 film, The Wolf of Wall Street. In terms of content and narrative arc, Wolf fits the template of Scorsese’s biggest films, which have always been character studies, promised by name – Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas – and delivered by chronicling the character’s idealistic rise to the top that is ultimately dragged down by the weight of the outside world. Film critics were immediately polarized about The Wolf of Wall Street. The film’s protagonist, Jordan Belfort, was not Scorsese’s standard anti-hero fair – it does not explore the contingencies of history by probing who “could have been a contender” nor does it reveal the ugly hand of justice through “a man who stood up … to the filth.” This is a film about the predatory wolf behind the raging bull of Wall Street.
Predation is depicted in Wolf as a narrative of excess. The film begins with a plucky Belfort showing up to work hard. His first big lesson in exploitation comes at lunch with a coked-up lecture sealed with a chest-thumping ritual – a practice Belfort incorporates into the pep talks he later gives to his own rabid pack of brokers. Within the first few minutes, Black Monday puts a quick end to Belfort’s good faith; in what follows, he learns to promise others the moon, only to steal a small sliver of it for himself and a select throng of followers.
As such a narrative makes clear: the film’s intention is to serve as a morality tale. Belfort is a slick character whose belligerence, arrogance, and deceit only flourish as the film progresses. Early scenes of opulence grow into absurd debauchery, including a chimpanzee in roller-skates handing out tickets to brokers, public group-sex at the office, and parties where strippers and a naked marching band parade between desks. The implied point of view is that Belfort’s character sums of all of the worst tendencies of Wall Street and that by showing all of them at once, the audience will surely be repelled. Belfort is unlike other, more complex Scorcese characters – the Goodfellas put family first even when abusing them, the Taxi Driver cares about justice even if it is perverted and warped, and the Raging Bull battles through masculinity even when it is fatally flawed. The wolf has only one-dimension: greed.
Yet The Wolf of Wall Street can fail in its singular task. Business Insider journalist Steven Perlberg witnessed its failure firsthand during an advanced screening at a theater next to Goldman Sachs. The financial professions veritably howled throughout the film, and all at the ‘wrong parts.’ At one point, Belfort tears at a couch to get at his cocaine – cheers. Sniffing coke again to regain his sense after taking too many Quaaludes – more cheers. Slyly evading a federal attempt to implicate his pack by slipping them a secret note – the audience cries out with even louder cheering!
Certainly Cultural Studies and other scholarly fields make room for such a response, usually by arguing that a cultural artifact can be interpreted against the intent of the author; but this is an instance where we want authorial intent to work! So my question is: how do the subjects of critique come to enjoy being criticized on film?
5 thoughts on “Wolf of Wall Street and Cynical Ideology”
This is a great post that is written well. Definitely gave me a new affinity for the film.
Hi Anarchist Without Content:
thanks for the article. Sometimes its great to read something written from a different direction. browsing through your work I come back to the first sentence: “Escape is the oldest story of freedom, and it is among the simplest.” I would like to quote that in my desertation… which is about artists ‘escaping’,or not making objects that are deemed ‘acceptable’ to the art institutions. But being artists they have to make, or do something. dilemma, oh dilemma escape to where, where is freedom? Institutional critique is full of so called ‘exit strategies’. So I decided to make all sorts of things which are not reducible to the one thing all institutions want: that one object that they can catalogue away, archive and deal with in the knowledge that that thing is the original, and it is complete in the way they understand it, etc.
Mind you nothing new about that…
All the best Walter
Thanks, Walter. If you do choose to quote it: what an honor! I love the idea of “escaping art” (especially in a “desertation”). Please continue to fill us in with what you’re doing as it progresses. : D
1a. an abandoned work or text. Left to waste with the aim to escape the Institution (of art, of learning, of society) in order to regain some sanity.
1b. a work without content.
2. a protected area without inhabitation of any kind.
3. (Mathematics) a function without purpose.
Just reading Mike Davis’ City of Quartz:
“Indeed the postmodern role of L.A. noir may be precisely to endorse the emergence of homo reaganus. In an afterword to the fiftieth anniversary edition of What Makes Sammy Run?, Budd Schulberg confesses consternation that his savage portrayal of avarice and ambition has been recuperated as a ‘handbook for yuppies’:
‘The book I had written as an angry exposé of Sammy Glick was becoming a character reference… That’s how they’re reading it in 1989. And if that’s the way they go on reading it, marching behind the flag of Sammy Glick, with the big dollar sign in the square where the stars used to be, the twentieth-century version of Sammy is going to look like an Eagle Scout compared to the twenty-first.'”
And let’s not forget the scene from Boiler Room, the earlier adaptation of the Jordan Belfort/Stratton Oakmont case: