Thoughts on The Wolf of Wall Street

Some thoughts on The Wolf of Wall Street (spoilers ahead I think).

Wolf of Wall Street Poster

Finally got through Wolf of Wall Street. It took me three sittings of start and stop sessions. It was overall an entertaining film to watch and as a huge Scorcese fan, I think it is on par with his post-De Niro catalogue.

Before watching the film, I had tried to not read to much of what people were saying about the film. It was a bit difficult though to not catch the buzzing of backlash on the film when it initially came out. The thing that seemed to be coming across my feed most of all was critique like the LA Weekly article “An Open Letter To The Makers of Wolf of Wallstreet and the Wolf Himself.” The general tenor of these criticisms being that the film glorified the world of boiler room shyster traders and the male-dominated hedonistic misogyny. I can understand how some viewers might feel this way about the film. It’s hard to disagree that this world is not made to look sexy when you have Leo DiCaprio surrounded by cocaine, qualudes and a plethora of naked women. But I actually had the exact opposite criticism of the film.

Despite amazing performances and masterful direction, I felt like the movie was overly judgmental of its subject. Not that I think anyone wants to make a movie that defends these people, but there was nothing conflicted or nuanced about these characters. The film set out to expose these types of characters as the shitheads they are. But did anyone ever think these people were anything but shitheads to begin with? It’s only by the technique (the aforementioned artistry of the actors, director, etc) and not the actual story that I felt compelled to watch the film. It is also why I think it took me three sessions to get through. I never felt bored by the film and there are definitely some very memorable scenes (e.g. Lemmons) but as easy as it was to watch the film, it was equally as easy for me to take a pause when it was getting late.

Goodfellas PosterI had read the script before watching the film and to see how Scorcese transformed what was pretty much a mediocre script into a collection of very compelling scenes proved to me that my love of him as a master filmmaker is not unwarranted. As I read the script, I could see where the comparison to Goodfellas was being drawn. But the key element of Goodfellas, the alchemy of that story, the reason I will stand by my opinion that that film was his masterpiece (yes, even better than King of Comedy), that one piece of the puzzle that is so important to Goodfellas’ success was completely absent from Wolf of Wall Street. That element is a soul.

There was something in the way Scorcese told the story of Henry Hill in Goodfellas that showed that he deeply loved these characters. As damaged or depraved as they were, he held them deep in his heart. It was this love of the characters that made the audience lock into the film. In Wolf of Wall Street, you get a deep sense that Scocese hates these people, you sense that Leo hates Jordan Belfort. I even heard Jonah Hill on Howard Stern last week talking about how when meeting with Scorcese and trying to convince him to cast him, Jonah couched his take on the characters as the people that are what is wrong with America and he felt passionate to help expose this (or something to that effect). Everyone in the movie is wholly unlikeable and mostly because nobody who is making the film actually likes these characters. In fact I’d go so far as to say that everyone who made the movie looks down on these characters and what you end up with is a film that places the audience in that same morally lofty position of being able to easily say, “Oh those financial people are all just evil.” And as predictably as Rocky beating the crap out of Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang, Drago, etc., here too these evil-doers get their due.

Goodfellas StillIn Goodfellas, Henry Hill is a flawed man who is searching for a family, a place to belong in the world. It is his own greed and self-destructive tendencies that bring him down. And it is the deterioration of the family (both his mob family and his actual family in the film) that is so heartbreaking. We root for Henry even when we know he is incapable of making the correct decisions. We hope he will find that place in the world even though we know he does not belong in it. When Jimmy sends Henry’s wife to pick out some dresses next door or asks Henry to take a trip to Miami, it’s nerve-wracking, devastating and so damn riveting because we care, we empathize, we relate to the deep deep flaws of Henry Hill. We as an audience do not condescend to him; we know that we are just as flawed and just as easily swayed by temptation, greed, power. And it is a tragedy to see Henry Hill end up in exile at the end stuck in a suburban purgatory where the marinara is watery ketchup.

In Wolf of Wall Street, there is not a single scene that matches the nuance of emotional depth that Goodfellas has. The two films are only similar in the way Raging Bull and Rocky are similar. In the end, Jordan Belfort is a man motivated by greed and his downfall is that he is motivated by greed and what he loses is a soul he never had… and his money which wasn’t his to begin with.

I Hate All Absolutists (in response to Brian Koppelman’s “Con Men, Gurus, and the Screenwriting Instruction Industrial Complex”)

These are my thoughts after having read Brian Koppelman’s blog post “Con Men, Gurus, and the Screenwriting Instruction Industrial Complex“:
 
Having been on both sides of this argument at different points in my artistic career, I have to say that while Koppelman says some truths, he also seems to be holding too steadfastly to this purist idea of filmmaking as an artistic expression. Unfortunately, film is a business and there is value to understanding the common language of the industry. You would not go into a job in finance and not know what currency you are trading in. It is important to understand how and why you are breaking, bending or ignoring “the rules”.

Having now taught screenwriting, I also have a deeper appreciation for systems like “Save The Cat,” “The Screenwriter’s Bible” and “Story”. Do I believe any of these books will give the secret method to writing the next Citizen Kane? No. But what they do give is a point of reference, a way to relate what one does in their writing to what others have done before them. Without a point of reference from which to base discussions, there is no way to actually constructively engage in critique.

I often told my students that I can not teach the aspect of writing that is alchemy; that is up to the individual artists. But what I can teach is a way for one to approach the material.

For myself, I think much of what Koppelman suggests is stuff I did on instinct in the past. I genuinely liked to tinker with dramatic situations. I voraciously studied movies that were similar to whatever I was working on. I once poo-poo’d all screenwriting theories and books accusing them of creating uninspired homogenized mass art.

But now that I have gotten older, I find that I really appreciate what these screenwriting “gurus” have done. The hardest part about writing is not the actual writing, it is the rewriting. Going back to the thing and saying, “there’s something wrong here” or “something is not as strong as it could be”. What I like about being armed with resources like McKee, Snyder, August, Field, etc. is that it gives me something to poke the first draft with like a stick. Without the stick, I either have to use my finger and risk it being bitten off or just go in blind and mess with things willy-nilly until the piece is fixed but not in any way that I could recreate come the next project or problem.

In short, my response to this piece is that I subscribe to the Bruce Lee Jeet Kune Do school of screenwriting: draw upon whatever is the most useful technique for any given situation. To deny the merits of any one way limits your ability to be successful.