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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Nice one..I concur too..I hope the sex scenes were not real in the above list but were just inflated and exaggerated..
Hollywood movies like the mainstream media are disempowering because that is the narrative that the capitalist, patriarchal hierarchy wants told. Hollywood like the corporate media has two purposes. The first purpose is to serve their corporate masters and financiers by producing narratives that maintain the necessary illusions, provide misinformation or promote their lies – in short to disempower anyone who watches them. The second purpose is to make money. What a scam getting you to pay for their propaganda and mind pollution. I am constantly amazed by the intelligent people who are somewhat careful about what they put into their bodies – eat and drink – but seem oblivious to the crap that they allow into their minds. The real question is why would anyone want to force Hollywood to do anything? There are any number of good movies by independent film makers out there. At least for now, there is a relatively open and expansive internet. A person does not need to support or otherwise be a co-dependent in their propaganda and disempowerment – you have at least some limited freedom to choose what you watch. And, for good measure, you can always smash your TV!
Just like if you want a healthy body, you have to stop eating junk food and the products of violence and misery – if you want a healthy mind, you must stop consuming the “entertainment” pablum being spewed out by the control system.
Psychological beat-downs; can’t have a cooperative, respectful, intelligent, loving Human Race. Must socially engineer the masses for their own destruction. When’s the last time Hollyweird produced anything uplifting, for the betterment of Humankind? When’s the last time you viewed a loving, united, well-adjusted, happy family situation on TV? When’s the last time ‘Comedy’ was truly witty and not at the expense of another? Stop watching television PROGRAMMING. Stop paying Hollyweird so you can be manipulated.
There are a tremendous amount of good movies and documentaries out there. But, most of it is not coming out of Hollywood. Recently, I watched one that would be of interest to WNV readers: “A Place Beyond the Pines” Its theme of violence resonating through generations, and ultimately of redemption is very empowering. Another not made in Hollywood movie, I would recommend is “Beasts of the Southern Wild” Then there are documentaries, many people don’t even have a clue about what’s out there. If you like good film, you might want to check out the Guardian UK.
“American Hustle” is the best named of all the movies. It’s only disempowering if you take it at face value. What about looking at as an allegory for American society. The corporations and banks hustle the politicians, who hustle the voters, and the rich hustle everyone, including as they say in the movie themselves. What if you look at it as a metaphor for the social relationships in American society. In a society where everything is reduced to commodities, consumers and money, social relationships are reduced to one big hustle. But, don’t forget how how it ends. Reality begins when the hustle ends. In a way, I feel like that is what nonviolence and creating a new horizontal society is about – ending the hustle.
Assault on Wall Street is powerful and cathartic, though maybe not an appropriate recommendation for this site with its vigilante hero, but hey, it’s just a movie. It’s told from the point of view of a couple, victims of the stock collapse and the medical system. The resolution is stunning and the audience cheered. Best film I’ve ever seen on Wall Street sleeze, bar none! It’s a politically incorrect gem.
Probably too late to comment on this post, but if anyone’s reading this far back, they might want to know about “Nebraska.” While not overly about the economy, Alexander Payne’s latest film is permeated by its realities. In “Nebraska,” ordinary life is presented in all its drabness. It is filmed in black and white; is set in unattractive, economically depressed, Midwestern towns; and it depicts the sedentary monotony of many Americans’ lives spent sitting in front of TVs or at dingy bars–lives occasionally peppered with banal conversation or disrupted with bickering or fights. But over the course of two leisurely hours of storytelling, we get to see the extraordinary things ordinary humans will do for those they care about (and some of them even seem to care about all of humanity). The drab backdrop, quiet humor and real-looking people in “Nebraska” may not give us the kind of heroes who break into offices to expose the truth, but it does show us that most of us aren’t wolves. Stripped of the dazzle and flash of “Wolf” and “Hustle,” Nebraska reveals the core of what it means to be human: the need to connect, the compassion we feel for others, and, ultimately, the nobility we sometimes manage to express –despite so often coming across as an unsavory species.
I think something that’s missing from this critique is the fact that stories of the down-trodden or desperate are always the ones that do well because we either identify with the plight of those characters or because peeking behind the scenes at someone else’s misfortune makes us feel better about ourselves. This is nothing new. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that perhaps the reason why a so-called “heart warmer” like Saving Mr. Banks didn’t do as well is because these vacuous Disney productions aren’t interesting to most. I think lumping all of these movies into the same category is about as useful as comparing the show ‘Girls’ to ‘SpongeBob Squarepants’. Yes, both are aired on television but that’s where the similarities stop. I did not at all enjoy The Wolf of Wallstreet due to it’s deplorable, unrelatable characters while American Hustle was entertaining and even though I myself have not participated in any sort of grift, the characters were likeable and the storyline interesting – great film.