In 1987, Oliver Stone dissected the hyper-materialism of the 1980s with Wall Street, a film where a greedy asshole sets out to make money by destroying an airline and hurting the employees in the process. Gordon Gekko was a prime example of hedonistic wealth who made a mantra out of “Greed is Good.” He’s presented as the embodiment of the corruption of wealth and power, and an extreme result of the continuing separation of management and worker. Oliver Stone, Michael Douglas, and co-writer Stanley Weiser intended Gekko to be a villain; instead, he became a hero. Vanity Fair recounts a DVD interview by hedge fund manager Seth Tobias, “I remember when I saw the movie in 1987. I recall saying, That’s what I want to be. I want to start out as Bud Fox and end up as Gordon Gekko.” He was later found dead in his swimming pool on a mix of cocaine, Ambien and alcohol.
16 years later, Martin Scorsese made The Wolf of Wall Street, a true story about Jordan Belfort, a hedonistic hyper-materialistic Wall Street manager who lives at the heights of life while making money by bankrupting regular people. Based off Belfort’s self-aggrandizing memoir, Scorsese stayed true to Belfort’s tone and expects audiences to realize just how immoral the behavior depicted in the film is. Even as Belfort skips out of years of prison time and neglects to pay his dues, Scorsese waffles on the ending, attempting a half-assed implication of the audience for allowing this behavior to manifest and worshiping at its feet. In my audience, there were a handful of baby Seth Tobiases getting off on Belfort’s behavior, ignoring the message that the movie is supposed to be a grotesquerie.
Increasingly, message movies are afraid of ambiguity. I tent to think that this is partly due to the didactic tendencise of youth, and partly out of fear that their movie’s message might be misunderstood. Nobody wants to make the anti-drug movie that makes drug use seem glamorous. At the extreme other end of the spectrum is Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream, which turns drug addiction into a hell spiral. Ambiguity gets thrown out the window for fear that somebody takes your movie the wrong way. Steven Spielberg’s post-9/11 War of the Worlds threw anvil-heavy messaging at the audience in its pro-war-machine propaganda in the shadow of terrorism (especially irresponsible during the misguided Iraq War).
There is reason for this, especially after the litigation explosion of the 1990s. Beavis and Butthead was a show about two juvenile delinquents that made fun of their behavior, yet MTV was sued when somebody claimed that a toddler burned down his trailer park after watching the show. In another incident, Oliver Stone and Time Warner were sued after two people said they watched Natural Born Killers and went on a crime spree; one of many “copycat” crimes, this particular lawsuit became infamous because of John Grisham’s involvement. Though Natural Born Killers was criticized for its sledgehammer moralizing, people still took the wrong message from the movie and/or used it as an excuse for their bad behavior.
But, sometimes the message movies get bogged down in their message and forget to be anything but propaganda. Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land is basically an anti-fracking pamphlet from Mother Jones, with all of the entertainment value that entails. 99 Homes is a Milgrim Experiment-style movie where an innocent person is forced to become a cog in the same machine that crushed him, with plenty of speeches putting the blame on various elements.
All of these examples are narrative based, but the same questions exist in the documentary genre. There’s a whole category of documentaries all based around advocacy for a certain topic. Just as a couple of examples: The Internet’s Own Boy documented the increasing privatization of information while Chasing Ice attacked pollution through the gorgeously tragic footage of ice caps melting. But, on the other end, there are the movies of Frederick Wiseman and Rich Hill, both of which purport to present their situations without bias or interference…leaving people’s public lives open to viewer interpretation.
Can a movie be too didactic or moralistic? Can a movie be too subtle? If people take away the wrong message from the movie, is that a fault of the movie or a fault of the people? Do you have a limitation for the amount of moralizing in your fictional narratives? Should documentaries take a reserved point of view?