Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street”

I hope that the reader will allow me to offer a dissenting view of Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.”  It’s too long, much of it is boring, and considered even as satire or black comedy it is unconvincing.  I did laugh heartily at a few points in the movie, in particular at the physical comedy of the two main characters overdosing on quaaludes.  I have done a short sampling of critical response and am somewhat baffled by the highly positive reactions engendered in the main by this film (although I am aware that not everyone liked it).

My problem with the movie, apart from its inordinate length, is that it falls into the same trap as many of Scorsese’s movies:  it has no moral compass and ends by glorifying empty and loathsome people, simply by devoting so much time and attention to them.  Just to pick on a comparatively minor point, but one which is telling, at no point in the movie does a salesman of a financial security fail to make a sale.  At the outset of the movie, Jordan Belfort, the anti-hero played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is hired to make cold calls at L.F Rothschild, he is looking for wealthy clients who will be new to the firm, and he is told by his immediate superior to get on the phone and to stay there all day.  But the tedium of this job, and the psychological toll it would take on the vast majority of people, is nowhere depicted, not at the beginning of the movie, not in its middle, and certainly not in its denouement.  The movie gives no sense, none whatever, of the reality of cold-calling.   So one of the few things that might actually seem to the informed and sensitive viewer to offer something redeeming about Jordan Belfort, that he is good at a very difficult job, is never shown.  Belfort never has to overcome obstacles.  Incredibly, on the one occasion, early on in the film, when Belfort is shown making an actual sale of a penny stock, the fish at the other end of the telephone line makes no objection, offers no resistance.  But nearly every sales course ever given is about overcoming objections and resistance from the “client.”  Speaking generally, a film so ungrounded in reality cannot be saying anything from which a sentient viewer can learn, or by which she could even be moved.

Instead, the viewer is led to believe that Belfort’s sales rhetoric is so mesmerizing that hordes of salesmen follow his prescriptions with unquestioning zeal and hero-worship.  This has nothing to do with the real world, where salesmen of financial assets are likely to be cynical, back-biting, treacherous, and envious of their bosses or of more successful salesmen.  People around the world are now engaged in telemarketing, they interrupt me at the lunch or dinner hour at least once a week in rural France.  In Scorsese’s topsy-turvy world, however, every cold-call results in a sale and leads to financial success for the salesman.  Scorsese trivializes everything he touches.  Most of the crimes he depicts are victimless, in the sense that the harm done to the victim is not depicted.

The role given to Kyle Chandler, as the FBI agent pursuing Belfort, after Belfort has become a successful white-collar criminal, is a comic-book caricature of the G-Man who refuses to be bribed.  Yes, Scorsese does not flee from telling us, in a brief concluding scene in which Chandler’s character is shown riding home on the New York subway (the only occasion in the film when this character is given the slightest hint of depth), that it might be unreasonable to expect people who are not paid very much to resist the blandishments of wealth.  There are other moments of modest ethical significance.  It is gratifying to see Swiss bankers engaged in money laundering depicted as the sleazy crooks they are, but the point is made so offhandedly and light-heartedly that one barely notices it.

Nothing about this movie contains enough psychological or socio-economic weight to make it believable, even as metaphor.  It’s just a highly self-indulgent romp, and it is painful to see so much time, money, and talent wasted in this excess.  If I want to watch a movie about salesmen, I would rather watch “Glengarry Glen Ross” ten times than be forced to endure having to watch this bloated entertainment more than once.  Once was more than enough.

I suppose that the performances of the principal actors are good.  I certainly will not say that they are bad.  On the other hand, this sort of broad black comedy does not strike me as being particularly demanding of actors.  There is no subtlety to be had anywhere here.  This is an excessive portrayal of materialistic and sexual excess, but it is simply not believable and therefore not really engaging.  I was bored.  Too many of Scorsese’s movies (“Goodfellas,” “Casino,” and the hugely overrated “Raging Bull”) are exactly like this.  This is not my idea of entertainment, and it is certainly not my idea of art.

I cannot say whether the memoir or novelistic memoir which formed the basis for the film script could have been made into a much better movie than the present one.  Certainly, it could have been made into a shorter movie.  Why does a movie that has so little to say have to be so long?  At the risk of sounding like a moralizing prig, Scorsese is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

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Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island”

I have often said to friends and acquaintances that I think Martin  Scorsese is a hugely overrated director.  “Goodfellas,” which I recently watched for the second or third time, chronicles the history of people so repulsive that one hardly knows where to begin.  Scorsese has given the phrase “banality of evil” new meaning, and he has done so repeatedly in his movies.  Looking at gangsters objectively, or from a distance, fails to make them attractive subjects.  But Scorsese’s entire approach to the phenomenon of the Italo-American gangster is to attempt to endow his gangsters with the charm of the quotidian.  Yes, gangsters like to eat and cook and have sex.  Still, where they belong is in jail or in a cemetery and away from human view.  The antiheroes of “Goodfellas” are despicable, stunted creatures.  Watching a movie like this becomes an exercise in self-loathing.

I cannot improve upon what A.O. Scott had to say about “Shutter Island” in his “New York Times” review:  “But in this case the equivocation, the uncertainty, seems to come from the filmmaker himself, who seems to have been unable to locate what it is in this movie he cares about, beyond any particular, local formal concern. He has, in the past, used characters whose grasp of reality was shaky — or who stubbornly lived in realities of their own making — as vehicles for psychological exploration and even social criticism. But both Teddy’s mind and the world of Shutter Island are closed, airless systems, illuminated with flashes of virtuosity but with no particular heat, conviction or purpose.”

http://movies.nytimes.com/2010/02/19/movies/19shutter.html

While I was often gripped by the technique in this movie and by the claustrophobic atmosphere of pervading dread, I also felt terribly cheated in the end by the simultaneously overwrought and superficial nature of the screenplay.  I honestly do not understand how people of talent can commit themselves to this kind of childish manipulativeness.

I did catch a few minutes of “After Hours” on television recently also, and that is a well-made, funny movie, one I will watch with pleasure again in the future.  And I watched the entirety of “Raging Bull” again recently, widely regarded as Scorsese’s masterpiece.  Here again, the central character is mainly repulsive, and the fight scenes in this movie are not the masterpieces of realism they are sometimes represented as being.  In fact, they are highly stylized and unrealistic.  The fight scenes in “Hurricane” are considerably better, for example.

“The Last Temptation of Christ” awaits me.

“Accidental Husband” – should have been aborted

“Accidental Husband” is a 2008 romantic comedy directed by Griffin Dunne and used as a star vehicle for Uma Thurman, but it also enjoys the presence of Colin Firth and Isabella Rosellini in supporting roles.  It was released to theaters in the UK but went direct to DVD in the US because its distributor went bankrupt, according to an Internet source.  I saw it last night because it had been on French satellite TV.  It is a terrible movie.  Nearly everyone agrees about that.  But the reason it is terrible, and the reason its script is unbelievable, is that the basic premise is that true love can develop quickly between an upper-middle-class author and radio personality (Thurman), whose career is to dispense advice about love and finding Mr. Right to women, and a working-class stiff in Queens, a firefighter.  It is true that this firefighter has the cosmopolitan trait of being on good terms with an Asian family of vaguely Indian extraction, because he lives in an apartment above their restaurant and because, presumably, he’s an open-minded guy.  The fiancée, who breaks off an engagement or courtship with our firefighter, appears to have been Hispanic.  So the firefighter lives in the cosmopolitan melting pot of Queens and is not a racist.  But does this make it at all likely that the well-off and successful career-girl Manhattanite heroine, who also happens to be a striking beauty, heretofore highly practical in her approach to love, will get wet only for the firefighter?

The only interest to me in this movie is that its plot hinges entirely on a dubious premise about love between people of different social class in America.  No reviewer or viewer of the movie whom I read this morning on the Internet comments directly on this, but this is the only point of the movie.  This raises the question of whether there is a taboo about discussing social class in America in public.  It is the mixing of social classes which drives the plot and makes the movie’s ending entirely predictable.  The only other plot feature of interest is that it’s apparently OK, or even desirable, for an erstwhile upper-middle-class bride in white, including veil, to have premarital sex with the fireman she loves.

The premise of the movie is consistent with serious sociological studies that I have heard about on the Internet.  There are not enough high-earning, well-educated men to go around for the number of highly educated, high- earning women in the US, apparently.  So high-earning women are learning to make do with less well-educated men as husbands, or so I have heard.  My wife and I have not actually run into these couples.  In our own case, my wife made more money than I did in our professional lives, but she is not the better educated one.  We both found the premise of this movie completely unbelievable.  I nevertheless wonder if this misbegotten movie script was conceived in the way that Malcom Gladwell conceives of his very successful writings, if it was ripped straight from the headlines of some work in academic sociology.  In any case, this sociological premise might be interesting to watch if it were presented at all believably, and if the viewer were presented with some of the moments of tension which are likely to arise in the social and extended family lives of married couples in which levels of education and taste differ markedly.

A Serious Man – an existentialist movie?

We just saw “A Serious Man” in English at one of our local theaters,  in a sparsely attended screening.  We tend to be more than a year behind in our viewing of films.  Now I have read seven or eight reviews of the movie.  I don’t want to say too much about it until I have watched it a second time.

After the screening, our friend E. wrote to us to say that, because of my prompting, she had been rereading “Le petit prince” by Saint-Exupéry and come across a passage in which the prince talks about being a serious man.  Then, in another coincidence, last night I was reading a volume of essays by Hannah Arendt that I have and came across the following passage, in an essay about French existentialism that was published in “The Nation” in 1946:

“”The French Existentialists, though they differ widely among themselves, are united on two main lines of rebellion:  first, the rigorous repudiation of what they call l’esprit du sérieux; and, second, the angry refusal to accept the world as it is as the natural, predestined milieu of man. »

« L’esprit du sérieux » consists essentially in the social roles imposed upon us by society, by bourgeois society more specifically.  I wonder if the brothers Coen were aware of l’esprit du sérieux as a trope in French existentialism when they chose the title and some of the thematic material for this movie.  It seems likely to me that they were.   This is something not mentioned in any of the reviews I have seen.

Movie Review, Lakeview Terrace

This post contains a review of the movie “Lakeview Terrace” (2008), starring Samuel Jackson.  The post contains plot spoilers.  I recommend the movie, with some reservations.  It would be better to have seen the movie than to read this post before watching the movie.

The movie, in my judgment, is first about race, second about the American suburbs, and only in a tertiary way to be considered a thriller.  It’s a script about some interesting sociological phenomena that has been wedged into a thriller format.  Considered as a commercial American thriller, it is perhaps slightly above-average in quality, which is to say not very good, because not entirely credible in all of its plot elements, mainly whether the most extreme actions of the characters are credible.  But the sociological aspects of the movie, and the portrayal of the central character by Jackson, rescue the film.  The movie has some things to say about race in America, and about suburban life, at the time at which it was made that are not merely platitudinous.

Opinion about the movie seems to have diverged greatly.  Based upon a glance at Movie Review Query Engine, it would appear that most reviewers found the movie to be a rather pedestrian thriller, but it had its defenders.  Roger Ebert, a notoriously easy grader, gave it 4/4.  I was very pleasantly surprised to find that Anthony Lane gives the movie a mainly positive review in “The New Yorker,” saying that the first hour, and especially Jackson’s performance, are close to riveting and that the action denoument of the last 45 minutes is less than entirely convincing.

One of the reasons I liked this movie, perhaps the main reason, is that Jackson’s character reminds me very much or a next-door neighbor my family had in San Francisco when I was an adolescent, a hard-working blue-collar man who was very strict with his children and probably had rather conservative attitudes regarding virtually everything.  I was invited to dinner at their house a few times, and it was always a tense experience.  One never knew what might arouse the wrath of the patriarch, who was very imposing physically, tall, wiry, and very strong.  He was not a man prone to mirth.   Unlike Abel, as played by Jackson, though, the man I knew had married a white woman, and the couple had four children.  When I later moved away for college, I heard that they had divorced amid rumors of domestic violence.  Abel, a career street cop in Los Angeles, now a sergeant as he approaches retirement, is a particular kind of “race man,” though, who is offended by intermarriage.  This seems very credible to me.

Abel, it transpires, has been thrust over the edge by the fact that his wife was killed in an auto crash three years ago.  Due to the accident, as we only learn well over half the way through the movie, Abel learns that she was probably having an affair with her white boss, who was driving at the time of the accident.  The script’s implicit premise is that Abel has been tormented by the betrayal and by the fact that his wife would have betrayed him with a white man.  The rage that this apparently inspires also seems quite credible to this viewer.  One also has the impression that Abel could not have been easy to live with at any stage, that he has always had a good deal of racial resentment that might have been difficult for his wife to endure.  The wife had sought consolation from someone less tormented, less wound-up, a white man.

The plot hinges upon the fact that a young biracial couple has moved into a house next to Abel’s in a pleasant but probably remote suburb of Los Angeles.  The movie’s opening sequence is clever, in that both the viewer and Abel probably mistakenly assume that a distinguished older black man who arrives with the couple is in fact the husband, that we are looking at a May-December couple.  But we are quickly disabused of this assumption, as it turns out that the young white man driving a rental moving van is in fact the husband, and the older man is the young wife’s father.  It later transpires that the father is a successful attorney in Oakland.  The interesting part of the young couple’s marriage is that the husband, who went to U.C. Berkeley on a lacrosse scholarship, has married up.  The young husband is apparently a rather uncomplicated jock now making his way in the business world as a mid-level executive for a supermarket chain.  His wife apparently works in computer animation or clothing design, it is not entirely clear, but she seems to have had more money than her spouse, as is clear from the fact that her father had wanted to help the young couple buy a more desirable house than the one they have bought, which is a 3-bedroom suburban home with a swimming pool at the end of a cul-de-sac.  Unfortunately, they have moved nextdoor to a racially obsessed and bereaved psychotic policeman.

A feature of the plot that goes unremarked in the reviews I have read is the prominent part played by a huge, mostly white drug dealer/police informant.  In an early scene, Abel rousts his informant, who plies his trade in South Central LA at Abel’s suffrance, for information.  We learn in this scene that Abel is offended by the drug dealer’s assimilation to black street culture and by his overall racial ambiguity.  The drug dealer, for his part, cannot understand why Abel is so obsessed with biological race as a marker.

In a later scene, Abel, contrary to expectation, agrees to host a bachelor party for a young police colleague, but he has done so only to torment the young couple nextdoor with noise.  But the scene is an interesting one, revealing the police to be as one imagines professional athletes to be when they congregate socially, somewhat contemptuous of the general public and of the law, as well as of women.

Another character in the movie is the suburban neighborhood itself, Lakeview Terrace.  The movie well conveys the sense of pride Abel takes in his home, a pride which has unfortunately veered into obsessive paranoia, as evidenced by the high-powered security lighting he has installed.  Abel can be seen watering the plants in front of his house.  He patrols his cul-de-sac street at night in his own private “Neighborhood Watch.”  Some Asian neighbors host a party for the neighborhood.

An aspect of the plot which is not entirely believable is that the young biracial couple who move into the neighborhood are described as having purchased a “starter home” and have refused financial assistance from the wife’s parents.  Where did they get enough money to purchase this house, which must have cost at least $800,000?

The neighborhood has been built on a hillside and is subject to wildfires.  All too predictably, a wildfire occurs and threatens the neighborhood, which has to be evacuated, in the movie’s concluding scenes.  There is here a somewhat unhappy confluence of implications about development policy and sprawl and the requirements of increasing the suspense and sense of impending doom in the concluding scenes of a suspense film.  These scenes might have been more powerful if the wildfire had been depicted as having threatened Lakeview Terrace without actually reaching it, if it had appeared in TV footage of a similar neighborhood just across the valley, for example.  As things stand, there is just too much contrivance and coincidence.

The movie builds to a happy resolution, as Abel meets his deserved end and the young biracial couple ride off into a presumably happier day.  I was greatly pleased when Abel is finally punished for his racially motivated extravagances.  The message seems to be that Abel had endured racial indignities all his life and had developed elaborate coping mechanisms, a very tough carapace.  That he should have done so to no purpose, because race is no longer deemed to be terribly important in the new society that is dawning, is more than he can bear.  Abel’s defenses were shattered when his wife died under circumstances that were emasculating for him, and his psychological crisis is brought to the breaking point by the arrival of the insouciant and privileged young biracial couple next door.  I have known this man.  He is not someone who exists only in the minds of the script’s writers.

“Human Desire,” starring Glenn Ford

Ask, and it shall be answered.  We recently watched “Human Desire” (1954) on Turner Movie Classics, starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, and Broderick Crawford and directed by Fritz Lang.  The film is based upon Zola’s “La bête humaine.”  Somehow watching an American film noir with French subtitles in the middle of the night in the French countryside adds an additional allure to the experience.  My wife and I saw “The Blue Dahlia” with Alan Ladd in a very crowded and hot small cinema in Paris in the early 1980’s – an unforgettable experience.

Ford plays a Korean war veteran, Jeff Warren, who returns home to his job as a railroad engineer.  He is tempted by the corrupt Vicki, played by Gloria Grahame, who is unhappily married to a railroad yard foreman played by Broderick Crawford, while a more wholesome young woman (Jean, played by Peggy Maley), who happens to be the daughter of Jeff’s affable older friend and brakeman, suffers from an unrequited love for Jeff.   It is interesting to see the apparently wholesome character played by Ford be tempted by the devil, as it were.  When Jeff realizes that Vicki has been manipulating him in order to induce him to murder her husband, he recoils from the brink of complete depravity.  Vicki had asked him, before his realization, if it was difficult to kill a man.  “No, it’s the easiest thing in the world,” he replies, speaking of his wartime experience.  But I have just been introduced elsewhere to research which claims that a very small percentage of soldiers actually are willing to kill the enemy and that most killing in war is performed by a small percentage of the soldiers.  In any event, it turns out that Jeff Warren has not been transformed by his wartime experience into a criminal, and the film’s ending indicates that he will opt for the wholesomeness of his friend’s daughter.

This is not a great movie, but it is a highly enjoyable entertainment.  The atmospherics of the railroad yard and of the small town dominated by the railroad are appealing.  It all takes me back to childhood, Glenn Ford, and the comforts of late-night movie watching.

I was disappointed to read that Ford became a Republican in later life.

Movies, an introductory post

I have always loved the movies, since I was five or six years old and attended double-feature matinees in the local theater in Columbus, Ohio.  And I loved watching movies on television as a child, especially late at night when my parents were out.  I associate this experience with Glenn Ford, for some reason.

More recently, I came to enjoy going to theaters less.  It’s just a lot of trouble, getting in the car and finding a parking place, and it became rather expensive.  Now we have a big-screen high definition television, and we primarily watch movies that I have recorded on DVR from our satellite television service in France, which means that we are about a year behind in our viewing of recent feature films.  In 2009, I think we went to the cinema perhaps three times.  We saw “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Wrestler” in English with French subtitles at local cinemas.

It was also becoming increasingly difficult to attend the cinema in the US without being disturbed by the talking of fellow customers.  That happens less often in France.

In any event, I am happy with the domestic viewing experience, and so we rarely attend the cinema anymore.  In addition, we are regaled with a fabulous selection of movies to watch on our French satellite television service, because we pay for two separate premium services, Canal+ and Canalsat.   We do this for two reasons.  One is to compensate for the fact that we are no longer going to the cinema very often, and there is no video rental service comparable to Netflix in France.  There are such services, but they do not have a comparably broad range of titles.  The second reason is that I can follow some American sports, particularly the NBA, to some extent by subscribing to these two services.  In addition, there are two excellent music channels, Mezzo and BravaHD, on CanalSat.

As regards the selection of movies, American movies are much in evidence, in English with French subtitles.  Turner Classics is available, with the addition of a small number of films that are not American and are shown in their original language.  CanalSat also has its own classic movie channel which is international in scope but with a French concentration, as might be expected.  Broadly speaking, the selection of films available is better than anything I could have imagined, including both art films and commercial films, from all over the world.

For anyone interested in the history of French film, having these two satellite services is a voyage to paradise.  It is a paradise I rarely enter, however, because my wife’s French is not good enough to watch unsubtitled French movies with any pleasure.  And, truth be told, my own success in being able to follow an unsubtitled French movie is hit or miss.  The older the film, the more difficult it is, because of the quality of soundtracks.  Crime films are particularly difficult, whether old or recent, due to the prevalence of slang and the slurred and clipped way in which people tend to speak.  A French actress of our acquaintance recently told me that she has been asked on film sets to speak in a less articulate way, in order to be “more natural.”  But, in fact, the way people speak in many movies is not really natural, it’s an invented hyper-naturalism in which people speak in a muffled and highly accelerated way.  It is as though there is a contest to distinguish the real French speakers in the audience from the pretenders, and the pretenders can include Frenchmen who are not attuned to the latest slang.  There is nothing peculiar to French cinema in this regard, of course.  We have watched episodes of “The Wire” on DVD with English subtitles, because we were unable to follow crucial parts of the dialogue without subtitles.

So I hope that this will be the first of many posts devoted to commentary on film and television.  My taste in film generally tends towards social realism.  I am not generally attracted to film that is primarily visual in its ambitions, nor am I attracted to surrealism in film or poetry.  And I generally like film narratives to be readily comprehensible.  If there is jumping back and forth in time and perspective, I don’t like to feel that I am taking an IQ test in order to be able to follow the narrative.  I will probably have a post about “Slumdog Millionaire,” which I recently recorded but also saw in a theater, and about which I had what might be a novel interpretation that might not survive a second viewing, that speaks to this.