Martin Scorsese, Unnecessary Controversy, and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

Martin Scorsese is one of the greatest filmmakers of our time. His films tackle difficult subjects and ask difficult questions. There are no easy, spoon-fed answers to those questions, either. His films deal with flawed individuals who often lead morally questionable lives. To his credit, Scorsese does not shy away from the ugliness of those lifestyles. More often than not, we watch as his characters reap what they sow.

From Taxi Driver, to Goodfellas, to The Last Temptation of Christ, and now his latest, The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese’s films tend to push a lot of buttons, causing lots of unwarranted knee-jerk reactions from misguided individuals.

With Taxi Driver, some felt that Scorsese foolishly portrayed Travis Bickle, a psychotic loner, as some sort of vigilante hero. The graphic violence in the film was also frowned upon, so much that the MPAA desaturated the color of the blood in the film, so that it looked a bit like Pepto Bismol instead of thick red gore. When John Hinckly, Jr. attempted to assassinate Richard Nixon in order to impress actress Jodie Foster, his actions were said to have been inspired by Scorsese’s film. Clearly, this was the act of an insane man. However, there were those who seemed content to condemn Taxi Driver and its creator as irresponsible and dangerous, instead of acknowledging the film as the dense and complex character study that it really was. For those of us who know Taxi Driver well, we walk away from the film time and time again with the understanding that Travis Bickle is no hero.

With Goodfellas, many accused Scorsese of glorifying the mob. In reality, Goodfellas is an intelligent, breathtaking account of one man’s infatuation with a soul-crushing lifestyle, which leads to a downward spiral, and finally a last minute chance at redemption.

With The Last Temptation of Christ, angry hordes of right-wingers launched into the biggest controversy yet, hurling accusations of heresy and blasphemy, conveniently ignoring the title card at the beginning which clearly explained that the film was not based upon the Scriptures. The deeper meaning of the film was lost due to the self-righteous crowds of loud and obnoxious philistines, and any sort of praise that the film garnered on its initial run was overshadowed by all of the unnecessary commotion.

And now, Scorsese’s latest film, The Wolf of Wall Street, has arrived – and so has the noise.

Just this week, an open letter was published, courtesy of LA Weekly, by a young woman named Christina McDowell – whose father was allegedly in “cahoots” with the infamous stockbroker and criminal, Jordan Belfort. Christina goes on to tell of the trials that she had to endure as a result of her father’s involvement with Belfort, and yes, a good bit of it is pretty sad. At first, I was put off by this open letter, but after reading it again, I was able to drudge up some sympathy for the girl. This letter either is or isn’t a pathetic last minute ploy for attention, but I tried to remain positive on my second reading. Yes, McDowell has a right to express her opinion – to a point.

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On the second page of the letter – about four paragraphs down – Christina states: “So here’s the deal. You people are dangerous. Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining, even as the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street scandals. We want to get lost in what? These phony financiers’ fun sexcapades and coke binges? Come on, we know the truth. This kind of behavior brought America to its knees. And yet you’re glorifying it — you who call yourselves liberals.”

She then goes on to call for a boycott of the film – a film which she has yet to see herself.

So here it is. The artist is said to be “dangerous”. The film is “reckless” and “phony”. Scorsese is “glorifying” the debauchery – and he is a liberal, so that must be out of the question. And we should stay far, far away from Scorsese’s latest cinematic offering because it is responsible for all of the evils in the world. Boycott, boycott.

Sarcasm aside, this is where Christina – as well as many others – get it all wrong. I’ve seen The Wolf of Wall Street. I watched it this week, all three hours of it – and you know what? I found most of it horrifying. Yes, there are many comedic moments in the film. We laugh along with Belfort and his cohorts as they party and carry on – for maybe the first hour or so. You want to know why? Because, in real life, when you are caught in a hedonistic, greedy whirlwind of temporary pleasures, it can seem like lots of fun. Until it isn’t. After a while, I began to feel repulsed by what I was seeing on the screen. I wasn’t laughing nearly as much. I saw these people for the power hungry assholes that they really were. I saw how they were destroying their families and hurting the ones who were closest to them. I saw that they didn’t care much either way. Scorsese rubbed all of this in my face, and I saw a side of humanity that made me cringe – that nauseated me.

The Wolf of Wall Street does not “glorify” the corruption on the screen. It beats you over the head with it, until it finally breaks through the part of you that is desensitized to this type of material and makes you sick. It peels back the glossy layers of this particular lifestyle until the rot underneath begins to reveal itself.

It would be different if the characters in the film didn’t pay for their crimes, if they lived happily ever after in a “roses and rainbows” type of scenario – but this simply isn’t the case. Real people were hurt by the actions of the ruthless degenerates that we see on the screen. People like Christina.

And this is why I simply cannot understand her reaction. The Wolf of Wall Street is a cautionary tale – probably one of the most effective films of this kind to come out in a long while. And while it has been said that a group of Wall Street douchebags allegedly cheered on the actions of the characters in the film at a private screening, that really says more about these deluded individuals than the film itself.

The fact remains that McDowell has not seen the film. In order to properly critique – or, in this case, condemn – a film, you must see the film in its entirety. Otherwise, your opinion of the film is worthless. It carries absolutely no weight. And, lest we forget, context is everything. Just because you think that the film promotes a deviant lifestyle does not mean that this was Scorsese’s intention.

These types of controversies are mostly shallow and ridiculous, often initiated by those who lack the skills to properly analyze and interpret a particular art form. In other cases, the vitriol can usually be narrowed down to a vast misunderstanding.

Either way, this uproar is completely unwarranted and more than a little excessive.

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