Why I Didn’t Like The Wolf of Wall Street (And What It Means for Indie Film)

12:00 30 December in Musings, Rants and Raves

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.

  • Lauren Tracy

    That Foo Fighters song was a strong point of contention here too…and those crazy jump cuts (not the purposeful ones). I do wish we knew more about where their dollars went but this film IS coming from a guy and crew who are used to making movies with studios – so those numbers naturally make sense to them. I hope you’re wrong about the investors losing their money. Then again, maybe I hope you’re right…so those investors will open their scope a bit… 😀

  • jbk

    Taxi driver was set for an x-rating until Scorsese agreed to darken and desaturate the end shoot out and a cut a few scenes with Jodie Foster. Also avoiding an x-rating was one of the reasons Scorsese chose to shoot Raging Bull in black and white (that and he didn’t like the ox-blood colors of gloves). Goodfellas originally got slapped with an nc-17 rating, but Scorsese cut it down to get an R. Glorifying the past always makes the present look shitty, but it’s generally a fallacy.

    • imanep

      I’m proven wrong. Goes to show how I need to be better at fact checking. But this brings up part of the hypocrisy that surrounds his and other big budget auteurs right now. After writing this post Robert Mockler (director of Dogfish project Like Me) sent me the following video and note. Curious to your thoughts!

      “Great interview with Scorsese & Coppola from 97’ about the implosion of auteur filmmaking, their struggle to get financing in the 80s, and the homogenization of the industry. They talk about their fear of being cast out of Hollywood like Orson Wells, mourn the death of UA, discuss how the potential of cinema is largely untapped because people are too afraid to take risks, and suggest that indies are our only hope. It ties into your article in an interesting way. If you haven’t already seen it, it’s worth the watch if you have an hour (or skim through it). I spend way too much time watching interviews like this…

      Scorsese is in a weird place. There is a lot of hypocrisy at play in this interview. He hates the system and celebrates low-budget independent films that take risks and yet he doesn’t want to step back into that arena. He’s used to standing on this huge stage where his films can be cultural events, which garner huge audiences, and he’s afraid of losing that power.”

  • emma j

    Don’t confuse your opinion as the measure of an artist’s intention
    People with money killed the art of cinema in the studios, and are killing them in the indies

    To say that an artist’s work is not good anymore just because YOU didn’t like it, is extremely ego-centric. What if Scorcese wanted to satrize the issue because he felt it was more powerful? What if he heard and loved the foo-fighters song and wanted to use it? Critique what you liked and didn’t like, but don’t assume they are not fulfilling their vision.

    Case in point, you listed Only God Forgives as one of the best films of 2013. By all measures of film storytelling technique, that movie failed. Which is why it did poorly critically, financially and with the audiences. Yet, you called it a great film of 2013 just because you liked it, or rather you “got” the director’s vision. Which in my opinion was mostly incoherent and self-indulgent. At least Scorcese understands film language enough to tell a story. That is what a good film is after all, a well told story. Not a series of beautifully shot, esoteric images. But, that might have been Refn’s intention all along.

    The real problem with this industry is that confident non-creatives with money, who want to make more money, feel they understand film language and storytelling better than actual creatives. And unconfident non-creatives push “cool”, “edgy”, or “risky” stories to be made without understanding the true art of storytelling. I’ve seen way too many indie films, with an “indie” vibe. The “indie-feel” movie is indie cinema’s version of a studio blockbuster. Just more fodder for the acolytes. Find the balance, and you’ve fixed the lack of film culture.

    • imanep

      I think you’re right to a certain extent. Of course my list of favorite films of last year is opinion as is this post. However, the issues I have with Wolf boils down to two things: lack of artistic risk and financial irresponsibility. Which I think in this case are very closely tied together. This is an indie film is a “studio vibe.” Which means it was riskless and compromised. I’d like to be idealistic and think that Marty is just used to this way of storytelling (which means he’s not a 1.000 hitter anymore) but the other way to look at it is he lets his art be warped (which means the money controls the art). Either way its a lose lose here because in the former scenario we have someone spending $100M on something that isn’t revolutionary. For $100M you can start a full fledged studio that produces 1,000 films that are way more risky and impactful than Wolf. In a sense, the problem you pointed out happened in this very film!

      Why I liked Only God Forgives more than Wolf is pretty simple: it wasn’t too long and it challenged me to understand it. The first point isn’t a call for 3 min cat videos to rule the world, it’s a feeling I have (and know many that share it) that a lot of the bigger films these days are very fatty and could use a trimming of anywhere from 30-90 minutes. OGF didn’t do this. The second point is more important. As you said, film is about storytelling. But it’s sensory storytelling. I honestly don’t even care if a film is good as long as it activates the audience to feel or do something. Look at the films that historically have caused outcry and impact. Most are poorly and independently made. Now if the film is great then you’ll get both award nominations AND an avid fan trying to assassinate the president (Taxi Driver reference for all you non-cinephiles out there). Frankly I don’t think OGF is a great story but the way it was presented was more challenging to understand and absorb. To me that’s what makes art impactful: it requires you to think. OGF might not be the deepest film in the pack but there were moments that required the audience to be active in absorbing everything coming at them. Wolf I could probably tell you the entire story even if I spent 70% of the film playing QuizUp on my phone.

      • emma j

        Wow. I didn’t realize my reply would end up this long. I guess writing all these college papers developed a habit. I hope you don’t perceive this as a diatribe, because it’s not in the least.

        I’m beginning to see your point clearer now. I agree that OGF was more complex to understand. I also agree that film is a sensory medium, which is why I personally didn’t like OGF. And I’ll try to explain why better in a bit. As for believing that historically movies that have caused outcry and impact were poorly and independently made, I’d have to disagree. Yes, they look cheaply made. But the reality is that the video quality of a movie is not as important to an audience as one may think. What’s important is the director’s ability to tell a story by choosing camera movement, how he/she moves the story along, and the shots they choose. Personally, I prefer a director that can tell a story without dialogue and mostly through images. I feel that way because the less the audience has to “think”, the more they can “feel”. I read that in some marketing book and I find it to be true. Studies have shown that the more a person is thinking critically, the less they can relate emotionally. That’s why structure is so important. It removes the logical side of trying to understand what the story is about. Look at Pan’s Labyrinth. While completely in spanish, it still had a huge success in the english speaking world, which is rare. That is the true power of film. It’s also why in film school students must first make silent films. As Hitchcock said, dialogue, mood, and the score should compliment the image, not tell the story (although the amount of each can, and do vary).

        I love Taxi Driver. Yet, the power it held had alot to do with the time it premiered. I feel it would not have the same effect now. To me, Wolf expressed that grossly ostentatious behaviour we’ve recently seen way too often from those with money and power. That’s a fact. Was it more studio and less indie? Yes of course. But there’s no way to showcase that level of greed and self absorbtion on such a grand scale for less. Hollywood has become a corporation, and like all corporations have ballooned past simplicity. Would I love it if 1000 more indies were made a year for that amount of money? Maybe. But quantity is not quality. There are plenty of slick movies being made nowadays, especially with the advent of digital cameras. But just because a movie can be made, doesn’t mean it should be made.

        As a creative hobbyist myself, I can humbly say that art doesn’t lie with the creator but with the receiver. You can’t force a creative vision on the audience. It is up to them how they receive it. Let’s not also forget that all the great classical artists from Mozart, Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe, et al. were not seeking to be artistic masters but were giving the audience what they wanted WHILE finding their creative voice at the same time. They were trying to eat just like artists are nowadays. Artists are few, so to create art for fellow artists will not sustain a career. The mass public just wants to be entertained and/or moved. An audience doesn’t care if a movie cost 100 million or 100k as long as they’re moved and/or told a story. I can’t critique Hollywood because it’s become too huge, and there are thousands of people just trying to keep their jobs while making the system money. I do however critique indies harder because they are falling into the same patterns as the studios. I just read a study that said Indies spent 1 billion dollars last year making movies, and only recovered 6 percent of that. Yet, the studios are not going anywhere. They’re still making money (albeit usually through ancillaries).

        I know this is long, but if you got this far, just bear with me a bit longer. Indie filmmakers from the inception of UA were trying desperately not for creative control, but to be able to make a better living as they chose. That’s why Chaplin and the others created UA. Unfortunately film is the one art where the artist cannot afford the tools to practice their trade. All that is changing as Scorcese said with digital cameras. I met this guy in a production class last year that knocked out 3 highly polished microfilms in 12 weeks. With not experience and no money. He even built a 45 dollar steadicam apparently. Was it revolutionary? Maybe only for the fact he had no experience. But as the ease of creative movies increases, the possiblity of reaching an audience decreases. In my opinion that’s always been the case. For instance, Shakespeare had to interrupt people’s daily business and get them into the theater.

        So to me, it’s an art killer to feel everything must be revolutionary. There are no new stories to be told, just different circumstances. Even with your new film “Like Me” which judging by the website which looks to be pretty interesting, is still not revolutionary. How is Kia any different than the greek myths regarding hubris and a quest to become a god? Let’s not forget that in our society celebrities are idolized like gods. The only difference is in how she goes about it. Still, doesn’t mean it can’t be a great story. Revolutionary even for those that aren’t aware of past art.

        There’s a TV trope that says “they’re here for Godzilla”. A study was conducted as to why Godzilla was so popular when it was so poorly done with low production and loose plotlines. And mind you, Godzilla is now considered a classic movie monster. What they discovered was that the audience just wanted to see Godzilla tear s*&! up, and the sooner he appeared, the happier they were with the film. So let’s not force artists to be revolutionary. The audience comes first. Without them, there would be no market. If Shakespeare can write plays that appease the audience’s taste, filmmakers can as well. If Edgar Allen Poe can write gothic stories even though he didn’t like the genre, then why do filmmakers feel the need to do as they please? Please the audience, while expressing yourself artistically. That is the mark of a true artist. Or as Steve Jobs, who always put the customer first, so eloquently put it, “Real artists ship”. Scorcese ships.

  • alecbaldwinning

    There are so many loose-ended arguments in this piece. For one, the Foo Fighters song fits perfectly. Did you miss the fact that this film is set in the 1990’s? “Everlong” was a huge hit in the ’90’s and I thought Scorsese did a fantastic job with it—the scene felt overwhelmingly believable. Scorsese always soundtracks his own films and I can guarantee you he made a conscious decision to put the Foo Fighters in his film. The superficiality and commercialized mundanity of that band fit perfectly with Dicaprio’s character. Your argument that film was better 30-50 years ago is such a defeatist way to look at things. PTA, Sofia Coppola, Wes Anderson, Nolan, Fincher, Lena Dunham, Noah Baumbach, Aronofsky, Refn—these are all fantastic directors that have put out quality films in the past decade. Judd Apatow reinvigorated American comedy. Film is doing just fine. And your attack on the film’s budget? Eyes Wide Shut cost an estimated $65 million. So is Kubrick a sell-out? Did Eyes Wide Shut render him a cog in the machine? Great directors can succeed with ANY budget. Your logic is terribly flawed. And yes, Scorsese has cut many of his films down to avoid the dreaded NC-17 rating. Do some research before shit slinging—especially if your target is one of the most esteemed directors in American cinema. Your argument regarding Wolf of Wall Street’s glamorization of greed, though a valid claim, is supported by weak evidence. Just because a film that should be “dark” uses humor to get its point across doesn’t make it one-sided. The Quaaludes scene straddles between comedy and tragedy. That scene is hilarious but it’s also heartbreaking, a wonderful dose of Shakespearean storytelling that should exist as the film’s finest moment. Scorsese consciously refuses to choose a side—a sign of a truly brilliant filmmaking. I find it alarming that students of film (as yourself) are analyzing Scorsese with such one dimensional minds.

  • Stathis Athanasiou

    A lot of issues raised here, but to me the most important one is that you can’t criticize the incredible paranoia of money and wealth, with a 100M $ movie. I totally agree with what you said. This is money for 1000 or more films or even riskier and more adventurous projects, and all used up for what? To leave archaeological evidence to the people (or extra-terrestrials) of the 46th century about how we were mismanaging our resources in the good old psychotic times of the 21st century? Hmmm… kind of makes sense this way.

    I love old Scorsese films but to me, he has lost his magic. Not the directing ability, but the magic. His films don’t touch me anymore. They are sterile. I don’t care if the Taxi Driver or Goodfellas had to be re-cut, re-written or re-whatever because of the studio, or the producers, or the FBI. They had so much magic in them, that you couldn’t sense there was somebody else messing around with them other than their artistic creator(s).

    Now all there is, is the marketing department that manages to make Scorsese and Captain America look like they come out of the same oven. I’m not saying that these particular movies look anything alike, but you now what? They do. They are polished. They are constructed from the same audience engagement rules. They use the same poster mentality. They have the same trailer formula. They are made “as they should have been made”. No room for anything that breaks the formula with which the investors/producers/marketeers use to calculate what they need to calculate.

    American film was better 30 and 40 years ago because some guys like Scorsese showed up and were doing something unexpected. They were just putting their vision on film, and their vision was 100% different from what the studios were doing with Ben Hur and Cleopatra. Nowadays these guys have become the Ben Hurs of today, and to me at least, this is not interesting. I’ve seen it a million times so far and I’m bored.

    Sorry for the long reply!
    Peace, love and innovation…

  • What next Marty Scorsese? Are they out there growing on trees? Most”indie” films are all pretty much the same tired old safe heartfelt touching story that maybe 3000 people in world want to see, and unwilling to pay more than $2 to download a rental on iTunes. Who’s going to give those guys another $1M for a no-profit return distribution deal (if any), when Marty can get them likely 20% or more.

    I’m no fan of capital-corporatism. But it seems that’s what you have a problem with, not directors like Marty.

    You lost me when you compared his old films to present day films. It’s a different world. If you want to support a $100M budget before you shoot frame one, you probably have to make a few concessions. Maybe Foo Fighters was one. I don’t know, don’t care.

    And yet you were “extremely entertained.” Isn’t that the ultimate goal of any film?

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James founded Dogfish in 2009 to produce and invest in independent film (in which he made 6 films). He was named by Deadline Hollywood as one of 2012′s 10 Producers to Keep Watching. In 2013 he launched the Dogfish Accelerator program after an inspiring experience working for TechStars in Boulder, Colorado. He’s a Northwestern University graduate and received his MBA from NYU Stern in 2013. He currently is an Adjunct Professor at NYU Tisch School of the Arts where he teaches Strategies For Independent Producing. James aspires to be one of the world’s most renowned hermits. He tends to spend most of his free time in South Williamsburg watching cartoons and googling “best Texas BBQ in NYC.” He also runs a monthly meetup called A Presentation of the Deplorable, Bizarre, and Terrible in which he binge watches 10 films in a row that most of the world has never seen (most of the time for glaringly obvious reasons). As of July 2014 only 3 people have attended.