Saturday, January 25, 2014

On Movies and Moral Anchors

(Reflections on “The Wolf of Wall Street”.)

I am comfortable with complexity,
and I think I’m pretty good at keeping my moral compass
while recognizing that I am a product of original sin.
-- President Barack Obama (quoted in the current New Yorker)

Had it been merely up to me, I would not have gone and seen the movie, based upon David Denby’s review in The New Yorker, and a general lack of interest in watching Wall Street sharks on the screen.   (In this respect, they are classed with serial killers, boxers, and baseball players on my personal cinematic to-avoid list.)   The blandishments of glitz and drugs are among those I happen to be immune to.   And, had I been watching it alone, rather than in the company of a Named U.S. Spouseperson who (a stone Di Caprio fan) was loving every minute of it, I would have walked out after half an hour.   My appetite for cinematic depravity is extremely limited;  for a time, I actually used to dial up the minute-long recorded reviews provided telephonically by the Catholic Church, for some guidance as to what to see.   Yet, having stayed, I found much to enjoy, principally the comedy, both physical and verbal.

We went, knowing that the film was controversial.   My companion had been perturbed that people had been denouncing the film by saying that the villain doesn’t get his comeuppance.   After  we had seen the actual movie, she wondered which movie the others had seen.  She rather thought that losing your wife, your kids, your house, your car, your bank balance, and going to jail,  does count as a comeuppance of some sort.
However, what makes a movie moral  is by no means that the ultimate verdict of Judgment Day shall be anticipated here in this life -- as it so manifestly is not, despite the hype and come-ons from certain motivational evangelists outside the discipline of the Historical Church.   It is probably a good thing that movies aimed at children do mete out such punishments and rewards on-screen, by way of gently shepherding the development of Just Deserts, to be followed later by that of Right and Wrong, ultimately to be heightened and quite transformed in the fullness of Christian understanding.    Hollywood habitually panders to the childish desires of its audience in this regard, as the Historical Church notably does not;  but we cannot fault Mr Scorcese for refraining from regressing to that level.  Moreover, he was closely following the perpetrator’s memoirs in his narration:  the actual scamster was not sent to prison for life, nor was he struck down by a thunderbolt from the blue, nor (as the Erinyes would have it)  gobbled up by gerbils, beginning with the genitals;  sorry, it didn’t happen.


The critical reactions to this film have been all over the map.
The Guardian reviewer complains (with what passes  in these times  for the equity of Solomon) that, while much pussy is on display, we do not likewise get to set lots ‘n’ lots ‘n’  lots  of cocks, and the one they did show he found (apparently a connoisseur) personally disappointing (duly noted;  "More cocks for the gentleman in aisle three, please")  And he objects, with great Correctitude, that “With a couple of notable exceptions, the women here are all wives, girlfriends and sex-workers.”  (The complete absence of nuns,  woman Supreme Court justices, or female astronaut-cum-brain-surgeon-cum-rocket-scientists from the trading floor  is indeed inexplicable other than by imputations of sexism.)  Though also (as he does not note):  with (as we shall argue) only one notable exception, there are no admirable men.  --  Folks:  If you want positive role-models for women, do not go to Wall Street, neither in the movie-house or on lower Manhattan.  (Cf. further the excellent memoir Liar’s Poker in this regard.)   And if you want to see your favorite identity-group  glowingly portrayed upon the silver screen -- women, or Hispanics, or plumbers, or meteorologists, or Pacific Islanders -- then make a movie; don’t kibbitz the one that other people have made. 
Actually, as the Telegraph reviewer pointed out, the movie does make an extra-textual concession to current sensibilities:

Scorsese includes a sensational scene that echoes the moment in The Public Enemy where Cagney vengefully pushes half a grapefruit into the face of his lover. Here, though, it is Belfort’s outraged trophy wife Naomi, played by Margot Robbie, who hurls a first, second, then third glass of water in her husband’s face, while he throws a spluttering tantrum.

That is very much in line with the current fashion, in movies and especially on television, of depicting men as schlumpfs (an emasculated Cagney) being easily pushed around by superwomen.  Maybe that’s an improvement, matter of taste;  but surely we have seen enough of that.
(There are other scenes of Belfort being masochistically abused:  One  by wife  as he crawls on the floor, the whole thing watched on a hidden camera; and one by a somewhat homely dominatrix -- an unpleasant scene (mercifully brief), but which ends with a very funny line:  “Wolfie, Wolfie!” he yelps, as the hot wax becomes too much;  yet she continues the torture.  “Hey, that’s my Safe Word!” he objects, in the jargon of that sad trade.  Fuck your safe-word” she retorts, and keeps on abusing him .)


And what of that lone male exception to the general depravity, which I mentioned earlier?
“Down these mean streets, there must walk a man, who is not himself mean.” (The credo of PI Phillip Marlowe.)   In this movie, in a brief and understated role, that upright man is Denham, the FBI investigator (based, we are told, upon the real agent Gregory Coleman, whom we here salute).   The small but crucial role is played with great patience and self-effacement by Kyle Chandler, whose visage in repose  says more than words.   The virtues of such dogged self-restraint recall those we praised in our review of Argo,  concerning the role taken up by actor/director Ben Affleck.

Among the most poignant and elegiac moments in movies, come towards the very end of the weary road traveled, and occur without words.  Such is the silent and solitary walk beneath the falling leaves, that culminates “The Third Man”;  such, the blowing leaves across the lawn, as a single shot rings out in the distance, in the second “Godfather”;  and such, here, the agent’s lonely ride on the New York subway, after another wearying day at work, as he silently beholds the care-worn faces of the strangers around him, whom he is sworn to protect.

Roger Ebert:

Belfort chides the prosecutor Denham for living what Henry Hill would have called the goody-two-shoes life, and in a scene near the end, as Denham rides the subway home, we can see that the taunt stuck in his craw.

(He’s not a prosecutor, he’s an FBI investigator, but anyway.)

David Thomson agrees:
When he tells the FBI man who has been tracking him for years that on his lowly government salary the agent will still be riding home on a hot, slow subway watching the lost faces he’s supposed to be protecting, this could be the bravado of a crook on the run. But then the movie depicts that glum moment and Mr. FBI looks like a stooge who realizes every Belfort boast was gold.

That might well be the director’s intention;  I don’t know, I saw it through my own lenses, with a vision entirely different, tutored and clarified is it has been  by the example of Father Brown.   As Denham’s eyes beheld the tired and decent subway-riders at the end of another workday, to me it felt like a return to sanity.  Here were the people that Belfort had fleeced:  and -- thanks to Denham’s tireless efforts -- Belfort (as we are reminded in the next shot, surely a hint at what was in Denham’s mind as well at that moment)  was heading off for a stretch in the slammer. 

The perspective I have in mind  is difficult to convey in a few lines;  but I shall try, simply by way of pointing to a short work which, all in itself, is worth a dozen of the films of Mr. Scorcese:  G.K. Chesterton’s “The Queer Feet”, featuring the portly bespectacled detective-priest, Father Brown.   In this tale, Brown is obliged by circumstances to undo a swindle being perpetrated upon “The Twelve True Fishermen” (the name is an irony), these being a group as select and wealthy as the money-men of Wall Street:

Since it is immeasurably unlikely that you will ever rise high enough in the social world  to find “The Twelve True Fishermen”, or that you will ever sink low enough among slums and criminals to find Father Brown, I fear you will never hear the story at all  unless you hear it from me.

The key to solving the mystery, which Father Brown, even more immured than Nero Wolfe, solves purely by listening to footsteps, from within the confines of a cloakroom, lies in something just a bit off about the rhythm,  just as, in the classic story “The Wrong Shape”, it turns upon a subtle corruption of shape.

Father Brown recovers the silver loot and returns it to its (improper) owners, while recovering (how far more precious a treasure) the thief to Grace.  (Though, in a merely physical sense, he lets him go.)

“Did you catch this man?” asked the colonel, frowning.
Father Brown looked him  full in his frowning face.   “Yes,” he said, “I caught him, with an unseen hook  and an invisible line  which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”

Laus deo!

And then, his work there done (though never understood or properly appreciated),  Father Brown must end his workday.

And saying “Good evening,”  he pushed upon the heavy doors of that palace of pleasures.  The golden gates closed behind him, and he went at a brisk walk through the damp, dark streets,  in search of a penny omnibus.


Thus far have faith and philosophy had their say.   What of the actual human viewer?   Consider the response of my companion, who watched the whole thing enthralled.
At one point, as the Bureau’s investigation inexorably progressed, she remarked (the first thing she had said in the course of the movie): “It’s too bad he’s doing things that are illegal.”
I turned and stared.  “Um, honey, even apart from that:  he is not a good man….”
Her attitude (which I report with reticence) flowed by no means from generalized moral obtuseness, but from a specific scotoma supplied from the collective unconscious, from the psychic substrate from which we grow:  She sees in Di Caprio the visual image of her former suitor and her current son.  (This insight was originally supplied to me by someone who knows us both.)  Do not scoff at this;  it is because of such instincts that mothers put up with us at all.


A.O. Scott begins and ends his review with a question;  respectively,

Does it offer a sustained and compelling diagnosis of the terminal pathology that afflicts us, or is it an especially florid symptom of the disease?
Does “The Wolf of Wall Street” condemn or celebrate?

Answer (respectively):  “Neither”;  and “Both”.

It’s not important to “get this movie right”;  it is not an important movie.   One good friend hated it;  my wife loved it;  de gustibus.   The bacchanalia quickly fades;  eternal things remain.

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