Thoughts On: The Wolf Of Wall Street - Constructions Of Cinema: Exploitation?


The Wolf Of Wall Street - Constructions Of Cinema: Exploitation?

Thoughts On: The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013)

The rise and fall of a corrupt broker.

I recently watched American Made, a solid film about government conspiracy, corruption, drugs, guns, war and money, and I've come back to a subject that has always fascinated me: ethics and morality (or a lack of them) in cinema. In such, there is a clear discord between what this film puts to screen and audience morality, which urges the question: why should we enjoy watching a character engage in extremely illegal acts and exploit the corruption of multiple countries?

A film like American Made is nothing new. Unethical films with corrupt, immoral characters and subjects have always been in the cinema. If we look far back to the birth of cinema, for instance, we will find the beginnings of pornography and the exploitation film. Whilst pornography and its moral discords do not need to be explained, the exploitation film is a strange genre of film that we have looked to before. In my thinking, there are three rules of the exploitation film:

1. It is a concept that the exploitation film exploits, one that is fixated on to an extreme.
2. Characters do not exist in exploitation films; they are caricatures or pawns for audience and filmmaker.
3. The exploitation film, at its best, is intimate.

These rules imply films that are fixated on violence, sex, drugs, race and a plethora of other things. Moreover, they are ridiculous to the point that they can be seen as games that, in some strangely intimate atmosphere, a sadomasochistic audience and an amoral director play. Famous examples of exploitation films are then Blacula, The Last House On The Left, Cannibal Holocaust and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Exploitation films themselves were primarily made between the late 50s and the early 80s as an American movement that followed the restructuring of Hollywood's studio system. Uncoincidentally, this coincided with the golden age of pornography and saw a select group of filmmakers take new-found freedom and run with it. However, alongside this, there was the British 'video nasty' movement, which was basically a mirror held up to the American exploitation movement by British filmmakers such as John Waters with, for example, his film Pink Flamingos.

However, as suggested, the exploitation film didn't come out of nowhere and it, in no way, is confined to a few countries across a few decades. The exploitation film can be seen to date all the way back to the birth of cinema and the late 1800s with scandalous films such as The Kiss...

And, especially to modern audiences, disturbing films such as Electrocuting An Elephant....

In short, Edison's Manufacturing Company, much like numerous filmmakers who made pornography (which includes those of the biggest company of the early 1900s, Pathé), took the power to capture and control time and space that cinema afforded and manipulated it as they knew audiences would enjoy. Understanding that this has always existed in film - and before that in photography, literature, painting and various other forms of art and performance that fit in a spectrum between prostitution and a childish euphemism - it becomes clear that immorality, as everyone who understands the term knows, is an inherent human trait. Thus, immorality and exploitation will always find their way into art and entertainment. So, when we take a closer look a genres of film, we can discover that, whilst pornography and exploitation films have always existed in various forms, their influence - which is one that stems from humanity itself - is vast.

First let us briefly consider the action film. Whether the hero is good, bad or something grey, violence, which is inherent to the action film, dehumanises, and so is, in a way, immoral and exploitative. The same can be said in respect to horror films. What's more, we can even stretch that to most dramas that feature strong physical and emotional conflicts; these films, to varying degrees, are fixated on darkness, which reduces characters to mere symbols, archetypes or characters. And comedy, this is a genre rife with violence, sexuality, immorality or, at the least, naughtiness - if it wasn't, it wouldn't be funny. In almost every single narrative, character-driven film we can watch, there is something that we could define as immoral. In such, we could even point to the most innocuous of children's films, say for instance, The Lion King, and find exploitation. As notorious as this is for being a great family movie, this is all about death, revenge, power, sexuality and pride. However, what does this mean?

Humans, whether aliens engineered it into our species, whether it was God-given or whether we just evolved with it, have the ability to, with our imagination, foresee. Knowing the future, and thus having a psychological grip of an idea of possibility, makes us human by characterising our species through fear. Fear is then our greatest tool; fears of being eaten by an animal, of being crushed by a rock, of being emotionally and physically brutalised by other people, of being alienated, lost and vulnerable is in everything we do. Fear then keeps us alive, well and motivated to stay that way. There are, however, two kinds of fear-motivated behaviour (which practically all normal behaviours can be categorised under) that we generally define with a distinction between 'survival' and living. To survive is to fear basic and fundamental concepts of death, pain, hunger, thirst, etc. To live is to fear more abstract concepts such as unfulfilment, immorality, inertia, futility, etc. It is from these two kinds of fear that we create morality and ethics. Again there are two kinds. Firstly, there are things we don't do: we (generally and most of the time) don't kill, torture, molest, steal, exploit, cheat, lie, etc. Secondly, and this stems from a fear derived from living, not survival, there are things we are expected to do: be kind, forgiving, understanding, compassionate, sacrificial, humble, etc. Understanding behaviour in such a way gives us great incite into cinema through the lens we have so far been discussing it.

These two kinds of fears are manifested by narratives because stories are conflict of some kind; there has to be a tension, even if it is as muted and trivial as a guy sitting in a room just being alive, for stories to function - after all, there has to be something to talk about by virtue of something else not happening. We fear the negative - we fear conflict - and so all stories project different kinds of fear. This is exactly why we can identify immorality and an implication of exploitation in all films; if they didn't have fear or material to be feared in them, they couldn't work, and if they don't have pressing and worthwhile fears (or conflicts) within them, they aren't worth mentioning. As a result, romances exploit the fear of being alone and all that comes connected to that - think of Jack in Titanic, more worried about Rose than himself; adventures exploit a fear of meaninglessness - think of William Wallace in Breveheart, fighting for freeeeeeeedom; action movies exploit fears of ineptitude - think of John McClain rescuing a tower full of people to be a better man and to, in part, save his marriage; horrors exploit fears of weakness - think of the characters in Saw, wishing they were stronger, smarter and better people; and comedies exploit structures of morality and fear themselves - think of Chaplin going insane in his factory job in Modern Times. Thus, in all of these films, we will see characters trying to avoid death (social or physical death) by avoiding loneliness, meaninglessness, ineptitude, weakness and structure.

There is, however, a spectrum of exploitation that skews the manner in which this character motivation functions. On one end, we have films like The Lion King, which outweighs negativity with positivity; good overcomes bad. The exploitation of fears is then trivial here; we can disregard an idea that this is an exploitation film. Some place beyond this, we have tragedies like Bicycle Thieves that see the negative outweigh the positive with negativity being a disembodied force. This means that bad things happen, but that this is sad because we can't attribute all of the blame, or all of the negativity, to the main character (or the focus of the narrative). The exploitation factor in these films is often on the brink of overtness, but, because its use is 'justified' by non-indulgence, it is often overlooked; again, the idea that these films are exploitation movies can be disregarded. In opposition to this, we have films like The Wolf Of Wall Street in which the negative outweighs the positive; evil (pretty much) defeats good. What distinguishes these films from tragedies is the fact that the evil is embodied and actively indulged as the focus of the story. Thus, we come to the realm of exploitation.

Understanding that all films have exploitation in them, but that not all movies are exploitation films, we can begin to see a tension between the rules of morality in the real world and morality as filtered through cinema. And this tension ultimately indicates that we can't think of cinema in terms of real-world ethics - and for multiple reasons. To bring things towards the crux of the essay, let us then concentrate on The Wolf Of Wall Street. Though it is long and full of excess, The Wolf Of Wall Street is pure fun and difficult to find fault in. There are those that'd suggest that this is just a disgusting, shameful film that indulges evil and finds glee in the anarchy that someone such as Jordan Belfort represents. However, in watching the film, I don't get a sense of this, and in thinking about it, I can't justify or empathise with such a critique.

Reasons for this are primarily centred around empathy. In such, there is a distance between myself and the content--the real-world history--of the film, one that is emphasised by the fact that I know that this is a re-representation of true events. However, there are questions I could ask myself on this notion. If Jordan Belfort personally screwed me over and ruined my life, would I still enjoy this film? The same thing could be asked in regards to any action, horror or disaster movie; if my friend was murdered, if my sister was kidnapped, if my town was destroyed by floods, could I enjoy these movies?

This is a hard question to answer directly as, whilst I am able to laugh at myself and the things that have happened to and around me, I've never been in a truly intense and devastating situation like those we often see in movies. Falsely or not, in assuming that I could maybe enjoy The Wolf Of Wall Street if Jordan Belfort had personally screwed me, the reasoning for this would then still be concerned with the mentioned distance and re-representation.

The saying "one day we will be able to laugh about this", says much about our topic. As said, all fear comes from foresight and being able to predict or imagine future happenings. However, foresight is often a product of intellect, memory and experience. As a result, we often fear things that have happened to us before. Nonetheless, fear of this sort can and should wane. For example, if you were once abandoned by someone you loved but are nevertheless a functional person, though the past sucks, it shouldn't still hurt if you are past, or over, it. And this says much about the function and the exploitation of fear in movies; bad things happen in life, and though cinema can simulate this, it does so with distance that opens up the way in which we see the events.

This is the key to understanding one of the major reason as to why exploitation films - anything ranging between the more mild Wolf Of Wall Street and the extreme Cannibal Holocaust - are made and are enjoyed by audiences. Because real life has consequences, we are forced to interact with it with a good deal of emotion whether we want to or not. We can then think of a famous hypothetical such as: people are tied to train tracks and an unstoppable train is coming, you can either watch the train kill those 5 people or you can pull a lever and watch one person die.

Let's not think of our responses to this hypothetical, rather, what it represents. Presented as an idea, we are allowed to think about this, maybe have a fun conversation about it. If we were actually in this situation, however, not only would it not be so interesting and fun, but we'd likely act in a different way to what we may propose when confronted with the harmless hypothetical.

Exploitation films are not just hypothetical questions, but they operate in a similar manner in that they distinguish and distance ourselves form the real world and thus let us imagine it without natural, involuntary emotional reactions. Humans all engage the world with different emotional proclivities. These predispositions to react with various degrees of emotional intensity are further stratified by classes of events. This means that we all react differently to different subjects; some people are more sensitive in general and most people are sensitive about specific subjects. This individual internal emotional composition is dissolved and played with by films because of their relationship with conception and abstraction. We have already indirectly discussed with an idea that films exploit fears and so have us react to narratives in differing ways, but, because cinema is not just not real, but exists in your imagination, we can act in relation to cinema in as contrived of a way as 'reality' is materialised in a cinematic space. This means that, when we step into a cinema, we aren't just stepping into another world created by a filmmaker, but are stepping into a new body also constructed, in part, by a filmmaker.

It is very easy to overlook this idea that, just as Leonardo DiCaprio becomes Jordan in The Wolf Of Wall Street, you become the movie's audience and, as a result, everything in a cinema - and that includes you - is the design of Scorsese and the various filmmakers who worked with him. This isn't to say that we all become zombies when we enter a film - though, this is true to a good degree. Instead, we are manipulated into projecting an imagined entity resembling ourselves; we are not ourselves, but an adaptation of ourselves in a hypothetical space when we are immersed in a film. There are then two all-important contingents of cinema: immersion and verisimilitude. If films don't affect you, what is on the screen doesn't become what the filmmaker hoped for. If a film doesn't grab you and immerse you in its constructions, you don't become the audience a filmmaker wanted to speak to. (Let us not feel sorry for the filmmaker at this point; it is their job to confront this and, if they make a bad film, these are the parameters in which they'll often fail).

To understand Wolf Of Wall Street with all its excess and immorality, all we have to hold onto is the idea that all that occurs in the film is contrived and, if we like the film, we project a contrived persona of Scorsese's making and so don't necessarily enjoy the film ourselves, but engage in the exploitation of our own fears. Let's visualise this idea:

In this image let us imagine we have you (the real you) and Leonardo DeCaprio flipping you off whilst a bunch of other actors observe and Scorsese directs in some place you can't see. This is The Wolf Of Wall Street to an alien; a crazy man in a magic box performs for us. To an active audience, there is a filter in between themselves and the screen; this filter is cinema.

It is inside the space between you and a screen that cinema exists. Cinema is then an abstract thought and a hypothetical space. However, inside that hypothetical space is the hypothetical you and a hypothetical screen constructed by the hypothetical filmmaker.

Inside cinema, we are beyond reality and its rules and so we are an avatar of ourselves that co-exists with a film in an abstract realm. It is then in this space that fear and conflict exist; this is an exploitation space in which reality and emotions are simulated under differing conditions and rules. The filmmaker then exists just outside of this space and controls the environment we step into. What we are then engaged in with the depicted scene of Jordan making a sale is a confrontation of our own fear of ineptitude and financial failure; we are made to see what it means to be ruthlessly and unapologetically successful and materialistically fulfilled. (There is also a strong element of Robin Hood throughout this film, as is mentioned, with the rich being stolen from, and this distances Jordan's evil from ourselves). We can visualise this by recognising that this image...

... relates to this conceptualisation:

This image suggests that the abstract cinematic space, the exploitation space, has changed because Scorsese is feeding us cinematic language. By extension of this, we feel and are consumed Belfort's greed and his malice, and thus we change too (which is why the screen and projected figure is green). This is cinema in regards to emotion and imagination; our imagination and our ability to perceive and foresee materialises the cinematic construct (the exploitation space), and our emotions fill this space in with guidance from a filmmaker. This occurs in all films, so let us look at another example. This...

... leads to this...

In recognising Scarlett's indifferent cunning and selfishness, we are immersed in a new realm of emotion. However, whilst we may signify this realm with the colour blue, this representation is limited. This is because we don't just feel emotions when watching a film and that colours themselves can't express the complexities of emotion. Our imagination, our intellect, whilst it constructs this abstract space through which we feel a myriad of complex emotions by virtue of essentially embodying someone else in a new realm of rules, also has a direct link through all of the three presented mediums.

This diagram means that we know that we are watching a film, that we are engaging this contrived 'cinema' as created by a filmmaker and that we are watching moving images on a screen; we are not zombies hypnotised by a film, but conscious beings that understand the parallel reality and fantasy of cinema. So, in having this link that transcends reality and constructed fantasy, we can articulate what a film is; we can understand its subtext and the mechanics of the exploitation space. However, because there is this line which potentially breaks the barriers of reality and fantasy, there can be a discord between what a filmmaker attempts to make you feel and what you actually feel. So, when someone watches The Wolf Of Wall Street and doesn't like it...

... we can understand this to be happening...

It is obvious here that the viewer's understanding of the fact that they are watching a constructed film impacts the exploitation space; they do not feel what the filmmaker wants because they see through their attempts and, for some reason or another, disagree with them. That said, however, when you watch a bad film and enjoy it, or simply see a film in a way that a filmmaker didn't intend, you can be affected in the exploitation space whilst not seeing a film in the way the filmmaker wanted. What is then crucial to understand here is that the viewer can actively impact and reflect upon cinema whilst being affected and immersed in its illusion.

With this theory of cinema's mechanics, we can explore many different realms of though, but, let us stay concentrated on the Wolf Of Wall Street. Our conception of cinema through abstract symbols and diagrams suggests that films project the unreal into a believable space that we insert some part of ourselves into before watching ourselves watch a film and a film, with all its contrivances, play out. In this realm, cinema becomes a game of the emotions whose rules are made up by a filmmaker (how good they are at coding these rules is the art of filmmaking). Simultaneously, however, cinema is self-reflection and so a filmmaker must operate with an understanding of the artful mechanics of their film, not just its emotionally manipulative (or exploitative) functions. So, whilst there is an illusion that we are in control of a film, the truth is that we are communicating with the puppet master of a specific realm. To not communicate with Scorsese and to not enjoy the world as he presents it is to dislike the Wolf Of Wall Street. Whilst we all have the freedom - even a predisposition - to do this, I do believe there is a mistake can be made in this regard.

Many people bring real-world morality into the exploitation space - into cinema - and thus they refuse to see the world hypothetically, with distance and with an understanding that cinema is a space in which possibility itself is, intellectually and emotionally, explored. In such, The Wolf Of Wall Street asks us to recognise the virtues and strengths of Belfort despite his corruption; to see the world as he sees it, to stare into the void of capitalist chaos and maybe take a dive into it. Following the logic that this is a well-designed movie, the only true fault of this Wolf Of Wall Street would be Belfort being an unlikable character. So, the question I want to leave you with is: do you like The Wolf Of Wall Street? And considering the ideas put forth, why?

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