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.

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Bad Thoughts ~ Thoughts on the BrBa Finale and the Future of TV

I was inspired to write some thoughts I had on Breaking Bad when I commented on a friend’s post on FB (BTW SPOILERS AHEAD). I realized that I had this blog over here that wasn’t being used and was in need of a jump-start, so I am going to re-post my thoughts here. I am a little rusty with the blogging stuff so I know this is not the most witty or eloquent post I’ve ever written, but I have to re-start somewhere. I promise to try and be more snarky in the future.

Breaking-BadIn a nutshell, this is going to explain why Breaking Bad is a game-changer and why the finale was the best one I can think of in my own television viewing history. It comes down to the dramatic architecture of the show which is unlike any that has been attempted on television before.

Let’s start with the difference between TV and film. The main difference between the dramatic structural design of tv vs film is that film is about a character coming to self-actualization and tv is about characters avoiding self-actualization.

TatooineThat is why in film Neo in Matrix and Luke in Star Wars are completely different from the way they are presented at the beginning of the story, you can’t begin another story with these characters the following week and have them make the same journey again. If The Empire Strikes Back were about Luke having to re-learn trusting the Force, we would be like “wha-?” It is also why The Matrix trilogy failed miserably; the Wachowskis were unable to figure out how to move the story of Neo to the next level properly.

In TV though, in order for a show to continue for indefinite multiple seasons (as networks are wont to do in order to maintain the steady consistent revenue of advertisers), the main character has to remain virtually unchanged. Sam on Cheers is pretty much the same guy at the end of the run as the beginning. The reason why people were disappointed with The Sopranos ending is because Tony didn’t come to any kind of self-actualization but rather became resigned with the fact that he is the same guy that we initially met. That is why one of the worst finales in TV history was Seinfeld, because that show was based on four people who would never come to terms with their own nature and the finale only cemented that by locking them into a cage without any sense of self-actualization.

MASHgoodbyeThis is not to say that shows aren’t able to create finality and sometimes very satisfyingly (M*A*S*H comes to mind) but for the most part the endings don’t feel as complete and resolved as BrBa because BrBa had the end game in mind from the very beginning i.e. Vince Gilligan was moving Walter White towards the moment of complete self-actualization the entire time.

This is why people on the internet are quoting his line to Skylar “I did it for me.” This is that moment of complete self-actualization. It is the kind of moment like Neo finally seeing the Matrix. Or Luke finally trusting the Force.

dexterAnd what makes BrBa a game changer is that it is setting a new mold for storytelling on TV – it made it possible to have a long form arc for a character. In the past, the idea was to create never-ending serial loops about characters that basically re-lived the same story/lessons week-to-week, season-to-season. This is why Dexter was mocked in its last season and derided for its finale. I did not keep up with the show but I know that it is the same story as the first season – a serial killer who kills serial killers. And with each subsequent season from reading online reactions, it seemed to have peaked at the Lithgow season and then steadily began to fade like carbon copies of itself as each season went on.

If you came in to BrBa at season two, could you really say it was about a chemistry teacher who turned to making meth to leave his family a nest egg? In season three was it the same story as season two? No, each season, each episode pushed the character closer and closer to that moment of clarity. By the fifth season, the fact that he was a high school chemistry teacher was hardly relevant to the story at all.

This is why TV is the most exciting medium for filmmakers now. We are now in an age where we no longer have to try to cram the emotional weight of a story into a two-hour feature film; because of BrBa, we can now tell epic stories that span years in order to really explore the depths of a character’s psyche and push the limits of an audiences emotional investment.

deathBy the end of BrBa, I think many of the fans weren’t sure how they felt about Walter White and at multiple times throughout the series probably wavered back and forth on their allegiance to him. And regardless of how the audience felt about the choices Walter White made along the way, they were always compelled by the story and the evolution of the character. That doesn’t happen with Sookie Stackhouse where they need to artificially populate her world with more and more magic to distract you from the lack of emotional growth int he character (same thing happened with Buffy and on Heroes).

What BrBa said to the industry is that if you build a proper story, the audience will be there for the entire journey. LOST came close in achieving this but they were caught between the two philosophies of storytelling and ultimately suffered from trying to serve both (which is impossible because the concept of the perpetual looping episodic narrative is antithetical to the self-contained hero’s journey).

I will miss Breaking Bad but I am hopeful that it has created an opportunity for a very new approach to storytelling on TV. And we will be seeing a lot more like it soon.