Why are the big movies of 2013 so disempowering?

(Flickr / Sigfrif Lundbgerg)

(Flickr / Sigfrid Lundberg)

There are a number of important political lessons we can derive from this year’s big holiday movies, but the most valuable might come from audiences: Movies about desperate people sell. For the third straight weekend, American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street, movies about ambition, greed and lies, have finished in the top five at the box office, outflanking holiday heart-warmers like Saving Mr. Banks. Meanwhile, Her — although far from being among the biggest earners — is leading the awards conversation with its story of a desperately lonely man in a future of omniscient technology.

So how do movies about desperation deal with questions of power? The real question might be: How can we, the audience, take back our power and force Hollywood to do things differently?

To watch or not to watch the ‘Wolf’

Martin Scorsese’s latest film The Wolf of Wall Street is a three-hour journey into the depraved minds of a handful of rags-to-riches stockbrokers who break all the rules, do all the drugs and discover new levels of misogyny. Based on a memoir by Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), the film depicts a home-cooked boiler room operation that balloons under the leadership of Belfort into the firm Stratton Oakmont — eventually employing more than 1,000 brokers whose sole purpose is scamming blue collar workers on the sale of penny stocks.

The film, which opened on Christmas Day, has come under fire for being an ambiguous retelling of the story of the “Wolf” without the condemnation that he deserves. Slate movie critic Dana Stevens explained the dilemma by asking, “Was Wolf of Wall Street a critique of capitalist masculine privilege, or a three-hour-long feast on the goodies such privilege can buy?” Her answer was “both.”

However, there is a problem with this logic, which credits the opaqueness of the film as its strength, and seems content to accept complexity as complexity, without giving it context. As Jordan Belfort learns when he gets panned in a Forbes article and gains the eponymous moniker “The Wolf of Wall Street,” all publicity is good publicity, which in this culture means the dominant narrative, no matter how scandalized, wins. The next day, after the exposé is written, young stock brokers flood his office looking for a job.

In an open letter to Martin Scorsese and others involved in the making of the film, the daughter of one of Belfort’s associates attacks The Wolf of Wall Street for once more giving Belfort and bad men like him space. “You people are dangerous,” she wrote. “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… Come on, we know the truth. This kind of behavior brought America to its knees.”

Watching the film in theaters, at noon on a weekday, this ambiguity came to a head over and over again, creating uncomfortable situations for the crowded audience, reinforcing the movie’s tension. During some of the raunchier scenes of sex and excess, the theater seemed evenly split: Some cheered or laughed appreciatively, others sighed loudly or hushed the cheers. A number of audience members walked out at various times. From a conscious perspective, there are two ways to look at The Wolf of Wall Street: Wade through the filth to get to know your enemy, or take the Bartleby approach, and remove your consent and say “I would prefer not to.”

The technology of loneliness

Her is a new and engrossing film by Spike Jonze — director of Where the Wild Things Are and Being John Malkovitch. It takes viewers on a beautiful journey into our collective isolation chambers, which we create for ourselves everyday, often with the aid of technology. Set in a sort of vintage future where men wear high-waisted wool pants and women tie light, polka-dotted scarves around their necks, the film shows us a world searching for authenticity at every turn. Technology is at the forefront of the movie, which hinges on the relationship between a man and his operating system, but as Kyle VanHemert pointed out in Wired, the technology of the movie is largely invisible. Instead of focusing on the dynamic interaction of humans with technology, as many sci-fi genre movies do, the film centers on human relationships, making it feel personal and intimate.

The question of technology is also important for activists and organizers — a problem which was recently animated by the media response to Kony 2012. But more important than the devices, it’s the connections that the devices make between people that the film draws attention to, which current metrics are unable to account for. In the future world of the movie, according to VanHemert, “technology hasn’t disappeared… It’s dissolved into everyday life.”

Theodore (played by Joaquin Phoenix) works for a website called Beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, plays video games and has naughty chats with other singles before bed. Then Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), Theodore’s new Siri-like operating system, comes along and changes everything.

The tender relationship he discovers, which the film wisely avoids sending into the realm of comic absurdity, illuminates the dark corners of Theodore’s life, allowing him to look with fresh eyes on his past relationship and reevaluate his place in the present.

Unfortunately, all this comes at the cost of a hackneyed female character trope that overshadows the film’s poignant message. Samantha is an operating system, the perfect computerized secretary who organizes Theodore’s work schedule and his personal life — before, ultimately, satisfying his sexual needs as well. In short, Samantha is at Theodore’s beck-and-call in nearly every way, offering a picture of a more perfect woman from the point of view of a man’s desire, and she comes in the form of an invisible object that he has purchased. This means that despite Scarlett Johansson’s penetrating vocal performance, Joaquin Phoenix has an incredible amount of screen time all by himself, literally banishing women from the picture. It begs the question: Will women’s second-class status in society be replaced by the second-class status of a computerized woman in the future? In her review of Her called “’Her Is Really More About Him,” Sady Doyle captures this sentiment, rejecting the flimsy and apologetic argument that Theodore is well-meaning: “No matter how sensitive or tearful Theodore is, all that doesn’t stop him from fucking a woman that he has purchased so that she can provide him with unpaid labor.”

The surprising ending does, however, offer a twist that alters this dynamic, posing questions that strike at the heart of the logic of monogamy and begs a different, spoiler-filled reading.

Do the hustle

Last on this list of disempowering films is American Hustle, a slick, comedic thriller about a few clever con artists who get in over their heads. It is also an absurd retelling of the 1978-1980 FBI anti-corruption operation Abscam, which took down six congressmen and one senator. Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, the expert crook who is apprehended by the FBI and used as a pawn by rogue agent Richie DiMaso (played by Bradley Cooper) to devise schemes that will ultimately entrap the politicians. Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence play Rosenfeld’s love interests — Sydney the co-conspirator and Rosalyn the wacky wife, respectively — who prove time and again that women are the driving force behind the plot.

The film offers a funny and human glimpse inside the dark world of FBI covert operations, which is often mythologized in the world of political activism, when it should instead be demystified. Unfortunately, the best coverage the movie is getting from this angle has been celebrating FBI reforms following the Abscam scandal. In his attempt to construct the biggest corruption bust in history, DiMaso shows how FBI agents can abuse their positions, taking for themselves the autonomy to operate in morally ambiguous areas without accountability. This perspective largely ignores the recent history of FBI entrapment against Muslims and political dissidents, and the shift back toward more autonomous roles for agents with less accountability.

DiMaso also uses the sympathetic and idealistic politician Carmine Polito (played by Jeremy Renner) as the bait to lure in other politicians, who raise money under the table in order to revitalize Atlantic City and create working-class jobs. It’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t proposition that shows the powerlessness of politicians to enact change. In this sense, the film makes a case (albeit a weak one) that change must occur outside the system because it exposes the fatalistic mechanisms the system uses to maintain the course, no matter where it is leading. It’s a complex interrogation of a confusing historical moment that will keep you on the edge of your seat. You might not leave feeling empowered, but you’ll feel a whole lot wiser about how this whole entrapment thing works.

Here’s an idea for 2014: Instead of making movies about the outrageous abuses of stock brokers, the banality of lonely white men, or glorified FBI entrapment, what if Hollywood took up the counter-narratives and inverted relationships of power. Let’s see a film about the families impacted by evil stockbrokers like Jordan Belfort. There wouldn’t be as much ambiguity there. Or why not a movie from the perspective of Samantha — the human-made female consciousness, burdened with man’s work, trapped in an operating system? Or the activists who recently came forward, admitting that they broke into an FBI field office and leaked documents to the press exposing COINTELPRO? That’s the kind of movie I want to see in the new year — viable alternatives to the spat of disempowering films about desperate people. And if the same kind of talent is involved in their production — a slew of great actors and directors — I bet big audiences will storm the box offices, desperate for an uplifting story. Perhaps they’ll even leave the theaters with a new sense of agency, inspiring new activism.

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