Martin Scorsese’s filmography has been poorly colored as one taken up with violence ever since his early pictures like “Mean Streets,” the impression “cemented” after the final climax and brothel shooting in “Taxi Driver.”
This thought occurred to me while discussing Scorsese’s motion pictures with a friend recently. Yes, in a way, the bloody finale of “Taxi Driver” partly set the groundwork for Tarantino, a director who has built his canon – from the ear slicing of “Reservoir Dogs” to the ejaculatory blood-spurts of “Django Unchained” – on aestheticizing violence.
But neither the Bride of “Kill Bill” or Stuntman Mike of “Death Proof” are even remotely as complex a character as Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver.”
A quick review of Scorsese’s motion pictures, and his latest, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” should remind us the director of “Goodfellas” (still the best movie about the extreme paranoia that besets anyone caught up in crime and sin) and “The Aviator” (a more even and sincere tribute to the beginning of cinema than “Hugo”) has a fixation not with violence, but with the excesses of life that precede and include it.
In Scorsese’s first film, “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?” there’s a slow-motion scene where a gang of friends are carousing in a small kitchen with empty vodka and whiskey bottles lying around.
Someone pulls out a handgun and points it at the rest, but the introduction of the weapon (violence) doesn’t slow the action or the party, it’s part of it.
It’s easier to identify Scorsese’s focus on uncontrollable excess in his major movies like “Goodfellas,” “Casino” or “Raging Bull” where one of the most striking visuals is not La Motta’s violently pulverized face, but the stacked tower of champagne glasses that overflow and are, a sign of what’s to come, removed one by one until there’s none left.
Bu it’s carried through minor Scorsese, too.
In “After Hours,” Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) can’t cope with the bizarre decadence of the streets. Life is too wild for him, and so, in the end, Hackett speedily retreats from Dante’s “Inferno” back to his job as a paper pusher.
In “The Color of Money,” Tom Cruise’s Vincent can’t give up the life that Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) persistently advises him to abandon. Vincent, the newly emerged pool shark, can’t stop; he has to keep going.
Even in Scorsese’s grindhouse flick, “Boxcar Bertha,” the gory violence takes a back seat to the tragic obstinacy of the Bonnie & Clyde duo: Big Bill (David Carradine) and Boxcar Bertha (Barbara Hershey).
In the last shot, Big Bill is nailed to a train door like Jesus on the cross while Bertha chases after him – the two were drawn not to a mission of violence, but to doing whatever was necessary to preserve their reckless lifestyle, Big Bill’s crucifixion signaling the end of that life for Bertha.
In “Mean Streets,” which is closer in story and tone to “Who’s That Knocking” than any other Scorsese movie, Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is as close a stand-in for “Marty” Scorsese as you might guess.
In the movie, Charlie can’t manage or rein in his friend, Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), but he still admires him profusely, protecting the wild liar who is introduced in the picture blowing up a mailbox. Johnny Boy lies, owes everybody money – he’s uncontrollable and Charlie envies Johnny Boy for it.
With all this in mind, it’s no surprise the Jordan Belfort of Scorsese’s recent “The Wolf of Wall Street” bears many similarities – spiritually – to Johnny Boy.
Except the Belfort embodied by Leonardo DiCaprio (Scorsese’s hand-picked successor to De Niro) in “Wolf” is smarter, jazzed up and capable of selling penny stock lies to the tune of more than $100 million.
Scorsese maintained some distance in “Mean Streets” – via Charlie – in the sympathy generated for Johnny Boy. But in “Wolf,” Scorsese removes the Charlie-barrier, releasing all restraint to revel in debauchery that’s sometimes outrageously funny but mostly just outrageous.
Belfort, the titular “Wolf,” is the embodiment of saturnalia, and Scorsese has custom-tailored the movie to fit Belfort, nothing but the most wildly dissolute is allowed in the frame to surround Scorsese’s most uncontrollable and excessive subject (hero?) yet.
What “Wolf” Isn’t
When you pare “Wolf” down, it’s not a cautionary tale about the cost of depravity or an indictment of conspicuous consumption.
Take J.C. Chandor’s finely crafted “Margin Call,” for example, where Wall Street brokers try to avert paying damages, the cost of their greed, as their world (Wall Street of 2008) collapses around them.
Peter Sullivan’s (Zachary Quinto) discovery, indirectly unearthed through Eric Dale’s (Stanley Tucci) USB memory stick, that his firm would suffer immense losses then forces an overnight scramble to unload securities and cover asses.
There’s a scene in “Margin Call” where Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) sits on a rooftop with Peter, and explains to him the extravagant lifestyle of any successful broker, the dumping of mounds of moolah because they can and don’t care. The collapse puts most of the firm in a late-night reflective mood – this is who we are and this is what we deserve though we’ll make sure we’re not held responsible.
“Wolf” shares very little concern as “Margin Call” does in exposing the emptiness its characters encounter in dim office spaces. In “Wolf,” it’s all strippers, midgets, monkeys, unshelled $100-bills. Belfort’s debauched party is one that never ends.
On the other hand, you have this year’s Woody Allen picture, “Blue Jasmine,” one of the most painful and humiliating depictions of conspicuous consumption, of the lengths we might go to construct an attractive facade though we’re only defrauding others and ourselves.
Jasmine’s (Cate Blanchett) elitist objections to her sister Ginger’s (Sally Hawkins) unfussy lifestyle and romantic choice in men are a defense mechanism she maintains in order to avoid seeing her life as hollow. Jasmine, the affluent and sophisticated socialite, not only would not, but could not associate with Ginger or her friends.
Jasmine is so far removed from both wealth and from any ability to forge a new identity in a world without it that she signs up for a computer course so she can use a computer to take an online interior decorating course.
When Jasmine’s last-ditch effort to snatch a wealthy husband with political ambition ends when her facade is disrupted, leaving her wretched and hopeless except for the possibility of finding another means to hide the fact that she’s financially and spiritually destitute.
If there’s anything in “Wolf” that is as unpleasant and uncomfortable as Jasmine’s veneer being peeled away, it has nothing to do with the moral landscape Allen is working with. Unlike Jasmine, Belfort doesn’t give a damn about hiding the shallow pleasures that have come to define him and his firm, Stratton Oakmont.
What “Wolf” Is
In those monologues delivered to the camera, Belfort even brags about his sexcapades, his Wall Street cunning and the vast amount of drugs that fuel him.
When “some chop” at sea turns into a colossal storm with squalls threatening to shred his boat, Belfort barks at his friend Donnie (Jonah Hill) to grab some “ludes” (quaaludes, which Belfort boasts earlier in a cinematic aside of consuming since us, the audience, he says can no longer acquire them) since he refuses to die sober. Belfort barely conceals his desperate drug wish from his wife standing nearby in the face of the same threat.
But Belfort’s bragging in “Wolf” is carefully structured in two parts. There are two distinct halves to “Wolf,” separated by an “18 months later” title card, with Belfort pitching his profligate life to the audience in the first half, which delivers on the trailers’ promises of juvenile, shocking humor young male demographics flock to see in movies also starring Jonah Hill & Co.
And then Belfort spends most of the second half trying to sell it to himself as his father, SEC consultant, enemy in F.B.I. agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) and finally his wife all caution him to abandon his feral impulse to exceed his already excessive sensual pleasure and fraud.
Scorsese keeps up a frenetic pace in “Wolf” to complement Belfort’s wild ride, but he never tries to wear you out. Belfort keeps going, and the movie does, too.
Mostly that is, since there’s an oddly inserted romantic sub-plot occasionally slowing the pace, which involves Belfort’s desertion of his first wife so he can get his hands on a second, Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie), one that’s more befitting Scorsese’s model and objectified woman: blonde, busty and a backstabber (or, at least, one who betrays him whether for good or bad).
The movie’s pacing slows for some dull scenes where Belfort’s first wife, a brunette, begins to realize Belfort doesn’t love her, and is sleeping with Naomi. These scenes work, if at all, only because earlier ones like where Belfort (in a sweater vest, a middle-class outfit) scans the newspapers for a clerk job after losing his stockbroker post.
It makes for a sharp difference in Belfort’s development, and one that gets ratcheted tighter after he marries Naomi. He makes professions of love to Naomi, the sort audiences have learned to cheer on when a character wants to leave a poor marriage. But then it comes as no surprise in “Wolf” that Naomi leaves him after one encounter in a nursery where Belfort derives a special sick pleasure out of humiliating her and then later in one painful-to-watch sex scene.
The wives/Naomi scenes in “Wolf” play too much like mile markers though. Who gives a fuck about women, the guys in “Wolf” would say. The answer is no one, not even Scorsese whose filmography is hit and miss in its sympathy for women, and in “Wolf,” Naomi is at base only a signifier of Belfort’s arc.
Scorsese has always been fixated on the raw, appalling and vigorous overindulgence of his male characters, and there are two scenes that really stand out in “Wolf,” that represent the sum of Scorsese’s regard for men, their comradeship and when that camaraderie barely masks their competition.
The first scene has Belfort lunching with his new boss, Mark Hanna (a delightful Matthew McConaughey), who gives him a stockbroker primer, instructing him in the benefit of pump-and-dump schemes as well as advising Belfort to multiply the number of times a day he masturbates in order to stay relaxed when he doesn’t have a vial, or bag, of cocaine around.
This is the kind of solidarity Scorsese has always admired (e.g. Charlie sticking with Johnny Boy when everyone advises him against it), and it culminates in Belfort’s Stratton Oakmont cronies echoing Hanna’s hum-jingle, in their refusal to give up Belfort in an SEC investigation.
The second scene, when Agent Denham sits down with Belfort on his yacht (christened the “Naomi”), epitomizes the rivalry between men Scorsese loves, the conversation between two men whose jokes and remarks can scarcely veil the antagonism and desperate struggle to come first.
That Belfort spends most of the second half pitching his life to himself and ends up heading, before and after serving time in prison, a sales psychology seminar is poignant.
In the movie’s last scene, Belfort asks members of the seminar’s audience to “sell me this pen.” It’s a question he asked earlier of his inner circle, a challenge rejoined by Brad, a drug dealer. But here in the last scene, none of these normal or average people can answer his prompt. The camera moves from one to another, then finally to a shot of the full crowd.
The point here is two-fold with Scorsese suggesting these normal folks cannot sell the pen because they are not crooks like Belfort & Co.
But the scene doesn’t come across without some of Belfort’s condescension, without a censure of an audience that closely mirrors the one watching “Wolf,” the one who has watched Scorsese’s prior films.
The audience stares back at Belfort, and unlike the frenzied Stratton Oakmont brokers, these normal people – us – are catatonic, devoid of Belfort’s vitality, of the excess in Scorsese’s most memorable heroes.