Why I Didn’t Like The Wolf of Wall Street (And What It Means for Indie Film)
This past weekend I saw The Wolf of Wall Street. It struck a cord in me as someone in the film industry. The film ultimately has all the qualifications showing why we are in the midst of an artistic and financial downturn. Now maybe I’ve grown bitter trying to fight the good fight over the past half decade. And if so I really want to hear someone make a convincing argument why American film today is better than it was 20, 40, or 60 years ago. The issues I have with Wolf are issues I have with majority of the films, both independent and studio, that are being made today.
To begin, let’s explore the artistic vision of the filmmaker. There was one scene which was the straw that made me write this post: the quick transition scene with Everlong playing on the soundtrack. Can you imagine Marty Scorsese sitting down in the edit room saying, “You know what this 30-45 second scene is missing? A Foo Fighters song.” I can’t. The fact of the matter is, to call Scorsese a “filmmaker” today should be offensive to the real artists our industry fails to employ. Don’t get me wrong, Marty is currently a phenomenal director capable of things I wouldn’t be able to do even if I tried. But Wolf demonstrates that he is nothing more than a cog in a machine. A true filmmaker IS the machine. However, when the machine gets too big it’s difficult to control on your own and many choose not to. Even when financed by an independent source (yes, Wolf is considered a 100 million dollar INDIE film) the filmmaker’s vision must be compromised and informed by outside forces in order to satisfy a lower common denominator in consumers.
For example: the edits made on the film to revise the original MPAA rating of NC-17. I bet if you asked Marty in the 1970s if he could edit his film in order to comply with a third party rating system he’d light up a joint and say “Fuck you.” Which is why films such as Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, and Goodfellas destroy films like The Wolf of Wall Street in overall quality and importance for the history of filmmaking. With Wolf we have a system informing the creative vision rather than supporting it.
As a result you lose the grain quality of film that has been missing from most of the current generation of filmmakers. I’m not talking about the grain from watching a film on stock versus digital. Frankly I don’t give a damn if you use acrylic or oil based paints as long as the artist is a mastery of the medium he or she uses. The grain I’m talking about is the dirt the audience feels covering their souls once the credits start to roll and you catch your breath for the first time in 90 minutes. It’s showing Margot Robbie spread eagle in the film instead of cleverly blocking things out. It’s glamorizing greed and power instead of satirizing it. It’s saying, “Look at what we are capable of,” instead of “Look at how stupid some of us can be.” Psychologically it’s the difference between making the audience want to be Tony Montana versus want to make fun of his error in judgement. The film covers one of the most atrocious sprees of sex, drugs, and greed in the history of humankind and presents it to you with slapstick Quaaludes scenes ending with a fat guy choking on ham as the punch line. I’m glad I got a good laugh but it would’ve been more powerful if instead I felt polarized and disgusted by humanity from these sequences.
Additionally I can’t help but watching this film about a corrupt institution full of financial fat and wasted potential and see the irony in what the production team is doing to the film industry itself. Unless I am not privy to a business model in this industry (that being the independent film industry, not the studio system) I see almost no way in which this film will be a financial success. It will be nothing more than a service deal to the employees involved (from producer all the way down to production assistant) and potentially bankrupting investors. I kept finding myself questioning many of the financial decisions made by the producer team and trying to figure out how much each red flag cost. What is the licensing for one of the most popular Foo Fighters songs? Is it really worth it to hire Matthew McConaghey for about a week of work (loved him by the way, but don’t know how his brief cameo can possibly move the needle financially)? I begin to think “What’s the difference between a $430K monthly credit card bill for a Ponzi scheme and one for a feature film?”
All in all, as an audience member, I was extremely entertained. As a student of film I will question Marty’s new pop style of filmmaking. But as someone trying to fix the many problems film faces today I have to beg for people to stop making this stuff. Or at least dedicate even just 1% of your $100 million budget to the creation of literally 10 feature length indie films to be made by the next Marty Scorsese. After all, he or she is going to be the one willing to take the risks to piss off a bunch of people with their art. And the upside on a film like that has an impact both financially and artistically for decades to come.