The fine line

As a listener of the Slate Cultural gabfest, I was pretty disappointed to hear that no one on the podcast shared my enthusiasm for The Wolf on Wall Street. It’s been on my mind, and Richard Brody’s piece on the New Yorker helped illuminate what I found exhilarating and devastating about it:

Let’s start with that last shot, which I cited but remained coy about when writing about the movie before it opened. By now, there has been enough discussion for everyone to know that it shows an audience—attendees at a sales-technique seminar held by Jordan Belfort, in New Zealand, after his release from prison. Belfort challenges those in the front row, one by one, to sell him a pen. None of them has a clue, and Scorsese’s camera rises over their heads to scan the yearning, vacant faces of the aspirants in the rows behind them.


As with the ending of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Gertrud” and John Ford’s “7 Women,” the end of “The Wolf of Wall Street” renounces a world of horrors even as it embraces its destructive passions. The difference is that Scorsese’s vision is utterly unromantic: the ideal that he has in mind isn’t within the grasp of human endeavor. Scorsese’s movie is hardly about Wall Street, even less about the specific mechanisms of Belfort’s financial fraud. (Though they’re pretty fascinating—despite Belfort’s comic demurrals: the fraudster seems to have had as good a time concocting his schemes as he did profitting from them.) Rather, the movie is about the drives and urges, the pleasures and the self-indulgences, the power plays and manipulations, the ingratiations and deceptions, the allegiances and the compromises and the calculations on which human society runs—about life in this fallen world.

Success in today’s world, in America, plays off the same impulse that drives you to ride a roller coaster, or watch a scary movie – an impulse for extremes that reach so deep you may just throw up.

To see Belfort’s victims, look in the mirror—and look there to see Belfort’s collaborators, too. There are no innocents in Scorsese’s vision; the movie is a unified field of dubious desire, of temptation, evil, and sin.

What else is this country, more than anywhere else, running on? A fine line separates the drive to succeed and the drive to succeed without victims – so fine that I’m not sure it exists, another point that was made in another New Yorker piece:

It seems that con artists, for all their vices, represent many of the virtues that Americans aspire to. Con artists are independent and typically self-made. They don’t have to kowtow to a boss—no small thing in a country in which people have always longed to strike out on their own. They succeed or fail based on their wits. They exemplify, in short, the complicated nature of American capitalism, which, as McDougall argues, has depended on people being hustlers in both the positive and the negative sense. The American economy wasn’t built just on good ideas and hard work. It was also built on hope and hype.

Surely we know by now that the future is unknowable, but still we are willing to listen to those who claim to have seen it or to will it. The stock market is going to go up. This company will transform the world. You will make a million dollars if you invest with me this week. And it is this “unquantifiable mélange of risk, hope, and hype provides both the capitalist’s formula for transforming the world and the con artist’s stratagem for turning your money into his money.”

Is this why there has been no major prosecutions related to the financial crisis of 2008/2009? There are none because we understand this to be the price to pay for capitalism and the American dream, that because this is capitalism and America, we hope, or even trust, that with the right amount of ingenuity and none of the horridness we may find ourselves as winners in this game some day?


(Side thought: This country benefits so much from having an entertainment industry that is able to tell stories about its own country – great stories, stupid stories, all stories that illuminate something about this place.)


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