MOVIES JANUARY 1, 2014
Last week, an "open letter" addressed to Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio appeared in LA Weekly. Written by a woman named Christina McDowell, the letter was meant as an attack on The Wolf of Wall Street, the new Scorsese movie starring his new muse, DiCaprio. The eponymous character played by DiCaprio, Jordan Belfort, testified against McDowell's father after he (Belfort) was arrested and eventually sentenced to prison. McDowell, for understandable reasons, has little sympathy for either her father or Belfort, both of whom ruined many lives thanks to their financial crimes. McDowell decided to write a letter to "Marty and Leo" outlining the ways in which her life was ruined by these men. Now that the letter has gone viral, it seems worth writing about, especially considering that other liberal publications—from The New Yorker to Slate—have taken aim at the movie, in part for romanticizing or "whitewashing" Wall Street. Unfortunately neither the open letter nor the critiques of the movie add up to anything convincing.
McDowell's letter begins by outlining her father's behavior at Stratton Oakmont, the brokerage firm where Belfort and his cronies engaged in massive fraud. She then explains how her family suffered—emotionally and financially—from the crimes. It's a powerful and depressing story, until this very abrupt shift, directed at the director and star:
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.
Put aside for a moment that sexcapades and coke binges were not in fact what brought America to its knees, and that Belfort's crimes were largely distinct (and occurred much earlier) than the crimes which actually wrecked the economy. We can at least acknowledge that some of the same hypermasculinity and greed that Belfort and his underlings exhibited were also present among the (mostly) men who caused the crash. (This seems to me to be the point of the film). She continues:
And yet you're glorifying it—you who call yourselves liberals. You were honored for career excellence and for your cultural influence by the Kennedy Center, Marty. You drive a Honda hybrid, Leo. Did you think about the cultural message you'd be sending when you decided to make this film? You have successfully aligned yourself with an accomplished criminal, a guy who still hasn't made full restitution to his victims, exacerbating our national obsession with wealth and status and glorifying greed and psychopathic behavior. And don't even get me started on the incomprehensible way in which your film degrades women, the misogynistic, ass-backwards message you endorse to younger generations of men.
McDowell then continues by simply asserting that the movie glorifies Belfort, before writing:
Let me ask you guys something. What makes you think this man deserves to be the protagonist in this story?
"Deserves" to be? McDowell here seems very confused by the concept of art. One doesn't reach some level of sheer goodness before he or she becomes eligible to be fictionalized or captured on-screen. (Someone should politely tell her that there have been movies about Hitler). McDowell then continues along the same line of "questioning," asking,
Do you think his victims are going to want to watch it? Did we forget about the damage that accompanied all those rollicking good times? Or are we sweeping it under the carpet for the sale of a movie ticket? And not just on any day, but on Christmas morning?? [Italics hers]
The last line here is more sad than anything else, but again, McDowell is confused about art. I can very well understand why Belfort's victims (and McDowell) do not want to watch the movie, but that is hardly the first question that a filmmaker should ask himself or herself. Presumably there are people who did not want to watch Schindler's List or Hotel Rwanda, either.
It is thus completely beyond me why McDowell's letter has gotten so much positive attention. Still, it is worth trying to answer the question of whether Scorsese and DiCaprio (and the writer, Terence Winter) either aimed to romanticize—or unintentionally romanticized—Belfort. McDowell's doesn't even really make an argument, but David Denby, for instance, wrote in The New Yorker that, "It’s meant to be an exposé of disgusting, immoral, corrupt, obscene behavior, but it’s made in such an exultant style that it becomes an example of disgusting, obscene filmmaking." Matt Yglesias says that the movie "whitewashes" the real problems with Wall Street, and that "Endlessly retelling stories about the lowest-rent and most egregious frauds around ultimately becomes a barrier to understanding," what really happened during the crash. (Yglesias, you can see, is making the opposite argument that McDowell made).
In a case like this, intention is the most important thing to judge. It's not Oliver Stone's fault that one movie he directed (Wall Street) and one movie he wrote (Scarface), both of which were meant to be critiques of capitalism, were embraced by the capitalists in their respective subject areas. Nor was it George Orwell's fault that some conservatives used 1984 to attack the Labour Party (which, given Orwell's political views, was obviously not his intention). There might be extreme cases where artists are so reckless that they have to take responsibility for misrepresentations of their own work, but it's hard to think of them, and generally you can't take blame for the ways in which you are misinterpreted. (Therefore I don't care that various idiots were cheering at the wrong moments during the movie, or at least I don't care about it in regard to the movie) And I think it's pretty clear that no one involved in Wolf of Wall Street thought it was meant to function as a defense of drugs (which Scorsese himself has battled) or wild sex or greed. (DiCaprio may have some explaining to do for this video he made touting Belfort's speaking abilities. It's true that Belfort has supposedly reformed, but given the continuing dispute over restitution to his former investors, DiCaprio should probably not have muddied the film's message).
I think some of the anger at the movie stems from the fact that the film presents drugs and wild sex parties and boatloads of money as understandable (even if not reasonable) objects of desire. And here is where I would make my defense of the film. It is a mature artist who can show you why people are attracted to those things, rather than pretending they are not at all appealing. Scorsese did the same thing in Goodfellas and Casino, to brilliant effect. No doubt some moralists would like to pretend that there is nothing at all fun about sex outside of marriage and nice cars and yachts, but life just doesn't work that way.
This leads to my second defense of the movie, which has been less written about (SPOILER ALERT going forward). The movie is quite clearly being narrated by an unreliable narrator. Very early on we are given a glimpse of this when a Ferrari quickly changes color, but even more notable is the big Quaaludes scene, which critics seem to think is the best in the film, and which is indeed ten minutes of sustained comic brilliance. One of the narrative tricks at the end of the scene, however, makes it very clear that what we have just witnessed was not an accurate account of events. We are seeing Belfort's vision, in all its drug-addled insanity.
Now, critics are perfectly within their rights to object to this narrative choice. As David Edelstein writes in his negative review, "much of what we respond to in a work of art is the distance between the artist and the subject." I don't happen to agree with him in this case, but he is at least responding to the film that actually was made by the filmmakers, which unfortunately can't be said of all commentators.