I always look forward to seeing documentaries about film involving Martin Scorsese. He’s an interesting guy, and he’s very knowledgeable. He knows a great deal about the history of movies, and he knows a great deal about some specific genres that interest me. I can listen to him talk for hours, and I have. On the other hand, I find his features considerably more hit and miss. Part of that is that, while I think we are both fascinated by the question of sin, I’m not thrilled with his portrayal of it.
I use the word “sin” advisedly. Scorsese and I are both informed by our Catholic upbringings. His was pre-Vatican II and a lot more intense than mine. He grew up immersed in the concept, and it clearly informs his work. I think even Hugo can be argued to be about sin, if you look at it in the right way. Definitely most of his famous films, such as GoodFellas and Casino. And Wolf of Wall Street.
Wolf of Wall Street came up again lately, because there was yet another article about whether the film condemns or condones its characters’ actions. The problem with all such articles is that it assumes there is one single answer. I don’t. I think the feeling about sin is deeper and more complicated than that.
Okay, I’ll start with the fact that I didn’t like the movie. Among other things, it made me just viscerally uncomfortable. There were several scenes where I wanted to curl up into a ball and not watch anymore. I despised Jonah Hill’s character and wanted him gone, and I found Jordan Belfort to be a symptom of a greater evil in society and his treatment of women to be particularly painful. So before I say anything more, that’s my own personal stance out of the way.
But look, I also think it’s hard to make a film like this that doesn’t show the crime as fun. If it weren’t, what would be the point? You can get into Reefer Madness territory, I suppose, where people just get addicted, but Reefer Madness is one of the least realistic portrayals of crime that I’ve ever seen. The real Jordan Belfort had a lot of sex and did a lot of drugs, and he spent a lot of money in extremely decadent ways. That’s all just documentably true, and there’s no way around it.
Okay, so I wouldn’t have fun doing the things Jordan Belfort did, and that’s part of the problem I had. I feel as though we’re programmed by this sort of movie to consider a hedonistic lifestyle the height of fun. Maybe I’m wrong. But I also feel as though Scorsese grew up in a world of Thou Shalt Nots, and the films he makes are an expression of his fascination with what he was forbidden in his youth.
Henry Hill always wanted to be a gangster. Jordan Belfort decided not to be a dentist because he had been told there was no longer much money in it. Travis Bickle wants to be a hero, it’s clear, but he’s also a foul person in almost every way; he doesn’t understand what heroics really are. Charlie of Mean Streets is basically a decent person except for the part where he’s all mobbed up. He can’t see his own failings any more than Travis Bickle can, and maybe that’s the problem. These are men who are deeply flawed and are incapable of seeing it.
Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe the problem is that we the audience are expected to be able to understand the men—of course they are always men—better than they understand themselves. And of course we can. And of course I don’t necessarily think we need someone in the movie standing around saying, “This action is bad!” But there is so seldom anyone in the movie who knows. After all, Jordan Belfort divorces his first wife, the person who would rather he steal from the rich than the poor.
The thing is, I say “of course,” but it isn’t “of course.” (Except about how the characters are men.) How many people do you think admire Travis Bickle? How many people do you think have gotten into stock trading in the hopes of living the life Jordan Belfort did? Even today, Jordan Belfort hasn’t really had to pay. That’s not Scorsese’s fault, but then, Scorsese and Di Caprio and the others involved in making the movie did pay Jordan Belfort a million dollars for the movie rights. A million dollars. Some of it went to the victims, maybe, possibly, but he has certainly not paid anywhere near what he owes.
I would also argue, incidentally, that Scorsese may understand film, and he may resonate with issues of sin, but he doesn’t handle women in his films very well. It’s a different issue, but it was one of the problems I had with Wolf of Wall Street. All I could think during some scenes was how impossible it would have felt to be a woman in that office. The only woman who really has a voice about the office activities gushes about Belfort. She absolves the sin, and because she does, it’s easier to believe that Scorsese does.