The Wolf of Wall Street “Missed the Boat Entirely”

TheWolfofWallStreet_iTunesPre-sale_1400x2100There is a scene in Martin Scorsese’s new film The Wolf of Wall Street where a Forbes magazine article is published about the story’s central protagonist, Wall Street con-artist Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Belfort is enraged by the “hatchet job” that calls him out for his deceptive practice of selling practically worthless penny stocks for huge commissions by misleading faceless victims on the other end of a phone. He thinks the article will ruin him, but his wife calms him down by saying that all publicity is good publicity. She turns out to be right. Following the article’s publication Belfort’s firm, Stratton Oakmont, is swarmed by people looking for jobs, and his business grows exponentially.

That Forbes article was intended to be a damaging exposé, but it backfired, just as Scorsese and DiCaprio’s film itself is backfiring now. If the tandem, now on their 5th collaboration, are to be believed, they set out to make a film that shines a light on Wall Street corruption and greed. But that’s not the film they actually made. Not by a long shot. And The Wolf of Wall Street, like the Forbes article in the film, appears much more likely to inspire, rather than discourage, another generation of materialistic greed and exploitation.

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In 1987, Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street put the phrase “greed is good” into the cultural lexicon while attempting to skewer the financial sector. Gordon Gekko was the film’s villain, meant to personify everything wrong with 80s-era excess, but to a generation of people looking to get rich quick, Gekko’s catchphrase became a powerful mantra. Jordan Belfort himself was among that wave of young people who flocked to Wall Street in those days. While Belfort never utters the phrase “greed is good” directly, he fully embodies that mentality, openly instructing his subordinates to take money from their investor’s pockets and put it in their own without any regard for the client’s well being, all while indulging in the most hedonistic lifestyle possible.

Belfort innovated a method of selling cheap stocks to unwitting investors, retaining a 50% commission on the trade, manipulating the stock price, and then leaving the investor holding the bag when the bottom falls out of the stock. The brokers cash in while the investor’s go into debt. Belfort champions a ruthless approach of hard selling and pumps up his team with daily profanity laced inspirational tirades before the market’s opening bell.

the_wolf_of_wall_street_trailer_tWatching The Wolf of Wall Street is comparable to being run over by a freight train, in all the worst ways possible. Everything about the film is long, loud, and obnoxious. There is no subtlety or nuance, every performance is paper thin, and virtually every scene is longer than it needs to be. The Wolf clocks in at just under 3 hours of headache inducing parties, sex, drug use, and yelling. Lots of yelling.

What’s important to understand about this is that simply depicting certain behaviors isn’t necessarily the same thing as condemning them. In order to condemn what’s being depicted an artist needs to provide the proper context, and The Wolf of Wall Street is totally lacking the necessary context to condemn the activities of Jordan Belfort and his band of cronies. According to DiCaprio and Scorsese, who are now on the defensive about the intended message of the film, the audience is supposed to witness the reckless greed, misogyny, and debauchery on screen and come away with the idea that those things are wrong, but they never give any context to guide the audience to that view.

Without proper context, showing drug-fueled orgies with prostitutes set to music is a glorification of that behavior. Without proper context, showing ruthless stock market manipulation and fraud for personal gain at the expense of others, which allows for extravagant lifestyles complete with enormous yachts, beautiful women, all driven by a “fuck everyone” mentality, is glorification, not condemnation.

As a side point it should be mentioned that the film puts a huge number of nude women on display, but the only glimpse of a male sexual organ is a half-second shot of Jonah Hill masturbating in public, and the anatomy shown is almost certainly a prosthetic. It says a lot that the film is willing to objectify women so blatantly on screen while preserving the men’s dignity, even as they engage in very public sex acts. Besides looking totally unrealistic, it demonstrates the ongoing double-standard women face in society.

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DiCaprio, who was recently quoted in an interview by Hitfix, said that those who accuse the film of glorifying Belfort’s activities and lifestyle have, “missed the boat entirely.” He goes on to say, “I mean ultimately I think if anyone watches this movie, at the end of Wolf of Wall Street, they’re going to see that we’re not at all condoning this behavior.” But this is not the case, and it’s actually DiCaprio and Scorsese who have missed the boat.

Ironically, in the same Hitfix interview, he explains exactly why Scorsese made a film that lacks the context needed to give the story the meaning he claims was intended. “The unique thing about Marty,” DiCaprio says, “is that he doesn’t judge his characters. And that was something that you don’t quite understand while you’re making the movie, but he allows the freedom of this almost hypnotic, drug-infused, wild ride that these characters go on. And he allows you, as an audience — guilty or not — to enjoy in that ride without judging who these people are.”

What is difficult to understand here is how Scorsese and DiCaprio thought they could make a film that condemns the financial activities and hedonistic lifestyle Jordan Belfort exhibits without personally judging him in any way. By making a film free of moral judgement, told exclusively from Belfort’s point of view, which entirely ignores the suffering of his penny stock scam’s victims as well as the larger context of Wall Street corruption, we’re left with a movie that effectively glamorizes everything it shows. The closest thing to a victim shown in the film is the secretary who is paid $10,000 to shave her hair off for the entertainment of the whole office, and even that is within the office’s walls, oblivious or indifferent to the suffering they’re causing outside.

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Granted, a lot of things eventually go wrong in Belfort’s life. He gets divorced twice, he sinks a yacht, almost watches his friend suffocate while high on drugs, loses millions of dollars in a Swiss bank account, and ultimately spends a short time in a country club prison. But no true tragedy befalls him. No real lesson is learned. At the end of the film Belfort isn’t remorseful about the damage he’s done or the lives he’s ruined, and he even starts a lecture series teaching others how to get rich. This positive ending is shown in the film without any irony or judgement, and as the film comes to a close it becomes obvious that The Wolf of Wall Street is a 3 hour love letter to Jordan Belfort. What else could it be without the moral judgement of the film maker and the proper context to show the audience the real damage people like Belfort do to the world?

The saddest part about all this is that as wild and reckless as Stratton Oakmont is shown to be, Scorsese never clearly illustrates that Belfort and his buddies are just small potatoes. Why even bother to tell this particular story without making the point that it’s just a tiny microcosm of a much larger systemic problem? Unless, of course, the real intention is to glamorize and glorify Belfort and people like him.

The fact that he’s not Goldman Sachs and that he has a “fuck you” attitude toward the larger Wall Street firms seems to be something that Scorsese admires, as if Belfort is some sort of noble renegade outsider fighting against the system. It’s easy to get the sense from the film that Scorsese empathizes with the “anti-establishment” mentality and the creative cut-throat business practices Belfort employs. But even if the director doesn’t personally condone Wall Street greed and corruption, there would be no way to know based on his self-admittedly judgement free film that refuses to show the real fallout of Belfort’s actions and the true context of the story.

The audience gets 2 hours and 45 minutes of wild partying, sex, and drug use, 15 minutes of Belfort’s mostly consequence-free “downfall,” and 0 minutes spent on the proper context that would give the story a more meaningful point about the nature of the system, or on the damage Wall Street greed does to other people. All the audience sees is how Belfort is effected, and he comes out pretty well in the end.

Scorsese and DiCaprio created a film which allows everyone to superimpose their own morality to the subject matter and render their own verdict. If you’re someone who thinks Wall Street greed is ugly and wrong, you might imagine you’ve just seen a film that agrees with you, because it depicted all the behavior you already oppose. On the contrary, if you’re someone who thinks it’s okay to make a profit for yourself and live a life of luxury and excess, everyone else be damned, this film is also for you, because it shows just how glamorous that life can be, without judgement.

It’s obvious that Scorsese and DiCaprio wanted to make a big film. It does take some artistic risks, but in most cases they fail, mostly because the film has no positive moral position to reinforce. So the party rages on, and after a while, the bloated, obnoxious film feels like a hammer crushing your skull. It’s not pleasant, and given that The Wolf of Wall Street totally missed an opportunity to say something important about the times we live in, it’s not worth the pain.

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Unlike the Forbes “hatchet job” that angered Belfort before it helped him grow his business by leaps and bounds, The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the book written by the wolf himself. Belfort’s account might have been honest about his wild behavior and his willingness to scam people to enrich himself, but it’s definitely not a hatchet job of any sort. This film is designed to ultimately make Belfort look pretty good, and it will likely help to enrich him even more by promoting his lecture series. All publicity is good publicity, after all. DiCaprio even went out of his way to shoot a promo for Belfort’s real life speaking engagements in which he lavishes the man with praise, even though he still owes restitution to many of his victims.

Given what The Wolf of Wall Street is, as well as what it isn’t, and the fact that DiCaprio supports and promotes Jordan Belfort in real life, it’s safe to assume that when Scorsese and DiCaprio try to make the case that their film is meant to condemn the behavior it depicts, rather than glorifying it, that they’re lying. It is uplifting to note that critics as well as the general public are calling them out for their dishonesty and putting them on the defensive. Those people, like the daughter of one of Belfort’s co-conspirators who wrote an open letter opposing the film, are not the ones who missed the boat entirely. Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese did, and it’s a good sign that a lot of people aren’t buying what The Wolf is selling.

After Felina: Breaking Bad is a Balanced Chemical Equation

:::SPOILER ALERT:::

Last night, AMC’s cult hit turned cultural phenomenon Breaking Bad came to a close, and while the finales of previous great television shows such as Lost and The Sopranos failed to satisfy audiences creator Vince Gilligan was able to craft a measured, subtle, and nuanced final episode which tied up all major loose ends and provided emotional closure, without betraying the central themes that have carried the show through 5 seasons.

As Walter White states in the very first episode, chemistry is the study of change; growth decay, and transformation. And like a balanced chemical equation Breaking Bad took us through Walt’s transformation from middle class chemistry teacher to meth kingpin, honestly and meticulously, accounting for every detail, always getting the formula just right. It was this scientific, almost obsessive approach to quality storytelling that allowed Breaking Bad to become perhaps the most politically relevant show during this Golden Age of Television.

Just like Lost and The Sopranos before it, Breaking Bad has been put under the microscope and analyzed from all angles. Much has been said about Breaking Bad being a show that was designed with its ending in mind from the start, which is true, but that’s not the only reason it now stands above the other great dramas of the era. Breaking Bad succeeds where other shows fell short due mainly to the fact that it was an honest reflection of American society that never compromised or strayed from its vision. The end, when it came, wasn’t meant to shock or take the audience by surprise. It had a feeling of inevitability, derived from the momentum the show built from the beginning.

Vince Gilligan has said publicly that he doesn’t care much for politics and that he doesn’t give the subject much thought. Though generally vague about his personal political views, he’s stated that he considers himself more conservative than most of the entertainment industry. Yet Breaking Bad has emerged as a genuine progressive television series, clearly indicting the system of capitalism that rules over society, and the way it infects all aspects of life, including the way the “traditional” family unit reinforces greed and the exploitation of others.

All art puts forward social and political messages, even if making a political statement isn’t your primary objective. Perhaps Breaking Bad is simply greater than the sum of its parts. Even if Gilligan doesn’t consider himself a progressive, and even if members of his writing staff sometimes publicly misinterpret aspects of their own story during interviews, through their creative collaboration a piece of progressive art was born. This isn’t to say that Breaking Bad‘s progressive position is purely accidental. By crafting of a narrative about the nature of greed and the pursuit of power in a detailed, almost scientific way, developing characters honestly and realistically, always making sure the chemical equation was correct, Gilligan and his team were able to accurately reflect the horrors of the capitalist system, and the moral truth was allowed to shine through their work.

Breaking Bad is about a man who’s been beaten down, victimized by a capitalist way of life that champions a man’s ability to provide for a family, and his inability to live up to that standard despite being a kind, respectable man. He’s been conditioned to believe that he’s a failure, and when he’s diagnosed with cancer that will most likely end his life in rapid fashion, he sets out to reclaim his manhood, to prove to the society that he’s been victimized by that he can provide after all. While we empathize with Walter’s plight, his decision is ultimately a selfish one in that it’s designed primarily to satisfy himself. Even though his choice is rooted in legitimate pain caused by the system, he sets out to master that system for his own selfish pride.

The series takes us through Walt’s entry into the drug trade and through his transformation into a murderous monster as he’s corrupted by capitalism’s need to expand no matter the cost to others. Through the entire show he lies to his family (and to himself), but Breaking Bad always shows the audience Walt’s true motivation. His wife, Skyler, eventually finds out and attempts to resist. Defiantly she says, “Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family,” but she, too, eventually succumbs to the corrupting influence of accumulated wealth. While she originally objected to Walt’s drug manufacturing on the grounds that it would bring danger to the family, ironically, maintaining the perfect image of the “traditional” family unit is what allowed her to ultimately give in and assist Walt with his criminal dealings, rather than turning him in.

By the time we approach the final episode, Walt’s pursuit of wealth and power, which had been negatively impacting society in ever expanding concentric circles for some time, which he was fine with, has finally damaged his own family, the very thing he always said he wanted to protect and provide for. His brother-in-law, the DEA agent Hank, has been killed by the very forces he unleashed. His son, Walt Jr., finally learns the truth about his father, and with his family in shambles and no where to turn Walt is forced to go into hiding. He takes refuge in an isolated New Hampshire cabin with virtually no contact with the outside world, which gives him time to reflect on what he’s done and who he has become. When we arrive at the finale, Walter White’s growth, decay, and transformation is complete, and the show has been the study of his change.

When “Felina,” the last episode of Breaking Bad, begins, Walter White has come to terms with the evil man he has become. While he may regret the bad things that have happened, it appears Walt has made peace with who he is and what he’s done. He’s not remorseful, he simply has no more need to lie to himself or anyone else, and he glides through the last days of his life completely at ease, his criminal instincts having become second nature. During his last conversation with Skyler he admits for the first time that he did it all for himself, not for the family. “I liked it,” he says. “I was good at it.” In this moment Gilligan is rubbing the truth in the faces of those who argue that Walt remains a good person.

Even Walt’s final plan, which he returns to Albuquerque to set in motion, is still mainly motivated by selfish pride, rather than any genuine altruism. He’s come back to find a backdoor channel through which to give his money to his son, and to eliminate the organization that stole his drug money and is still selling his signature blue meth. Walt Jr., who would rather be called Flynn, has completely rejected his father and doesn’t want any of his blood money. Walt forcing that money upon his son is more for his own peace of mind, so he can die knowing that he actually did provide for his family despite everything that went wrong. And getting rid of Jesse, Lydia, Todd, and the gang of neo-Nazis isn’t really about setting things right or getting any sort of justice, it’s about making sure that his product, the blue meth, dies with him. It’s an act of reclaiming ownership over what he considers to be his property, rather than trying to rid the streets of a toxic drug for any sort of humanitarian reasons. Even at the very end, Walt is still out for himself, trying to maintain his image and solidify his reputation.

While it’s unclear as to whether Walt goes to the neo-Nazi compound with the intention of killing Jesse, or to rescue him, ultimately Walt takes pity on him and spares his life once he sees him in chains, and Walt offers Jesse the chance to kill him once the Nazis have been dispatched. But even this isn’t really a genuine sacrifice. Walt knows he’s about to die anyway, and with nothing left to accomplish, offering himself up on a platter for Jesse is more about assuaging himself of guilt than helping Jesse recover from the terrible abuse Walt has put him through. To Jesse, it’s just one more way that Walt wants him to do his dirty work for him, just like he did with Gale Boetticher. This time, though, Jesse refuses to comply and tells Walt to do it himself.

This is Jesse’s moment of moral triumph. While many often mistakenly describe him as “weak,” in reality he is the only major character on the show who actually reverses course and rejects the status quo. While Breaking Bad is primarily about Walt’s transformation, Jesse has also undergone some major changes. His transition is in many ways opposite of Walt’s. While Walt became increasingly greedy and power hungry, Jesse ultimately went from wanting to make “fat stacks” of money by selling meth to rejecting the pursuit of money based on exploitation and violence. Given that Breaking Bad has been an allegory of capitalism from the very start, one could argue that Jesse’s reversal, representing the moral compass of the show, is a symbolic rejection of capitalism all-together.

Jesse eventually learns that Walt and his endless manipulation is the source of his pain and that Walt’s greed is a negative force on all of society, and he chooses to stand up to him. It can take a great deal of strength to confront a tormentor, especially a manipulative abuser like Walt, and Jesse summons the will to do just that, at great personal cost. But once he drives away from the neo-Nazi’s compound, simultaneously crying tears of sadness and joy, pain and relief, he’s free in a way that no other character on the show is. We get the sense that Jesse has actually learned something, both about himself and the world, and his future is a blank slate which will likely be very different than his past. He chose not to kill Walt. He’s grown and evolved and will no longer allow himself to be manipulated, which is an indication of strength, not weakness.

By contrast, what has Skyler learned? Has she learned a lesson about using her family as an excuse to become complicit in violence and exploitation for profit and security? It doesn’t appear so. She hates the damage that Walt did to her comfortable family, but she doesn’t seem to recognize her own role in the madness. By the end, she was advising Walt to kill more people to protect the family. “What’s one more?” she asked. Jesse’s evolution is much more righteous and the show rewards him with the chance to atone for his mistakes. Skyler will make a deal with the prosecutors and rest easy knowing that Walt won’t be around to threaten the family’s stability any more, and in doing so she will avoid accountability. But make no mistake, Skyler broke bad, too, though she will likely never admit her complicity, even to herself. Anything to protect the family.

Breaking Bad was a magnificent show, and it represents the very best the medium can achieve. It was cinematic in a way no other current show can match, other than possibly Game of Thrones, with an extremely high quality of cinematography, acting, writing, and directing all coming together in perfect measure, combined with an obsessive attention to detail, narrative, and theme. Because of this perfectly balanced equation Breaking Bad was able to avoid the pitfalls experienced by other great television dramas and end on its own terms, gracefully, while staying true to itself and satisfying the audience at the same time. Six Feet Under was able to pull off a similar feat, but Breaking Bad was able to elevate the medium in ways even Alan Ball’s brilliant show didn’t, by raising the technical aspects to the highest level possible, and crafting a completely absorbing drama that incorporated questions of morality as its central focus.

Gilligan, whatever his personal views may be, managed to guide the ship home in a way that was consistent with what the show has been from the beginning. It didn’t end with a lame “drugs are bad” message that upholds the war on drugs. And it also didn’t end with Hank, representing the establishment, ultimately prevailing. A lesser show might have had such an ending, perhaps showing Hank and the DEA leading Walt away in handcuffs to face justice in a court room. Thankfully, Breaking Bad is Breaking Bad, and its ending was consistent with the essence of what made the show great.

The final moments of Breaking Bad show Walter White, dying, but at peace with his monstrous deeds. He has nothing left to do. There’s no one left to lie to, manipulate, or kill. His work is done. While he waits to die he surveys the last lab used to create his infamous blue meth. He’s accepted who he became and embraced the pursuit of wealth and power as his true love. The Walter White in these last moments is the full expression capitalist-imperialism, rotted to the core and withering away. Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” provides the soundtrack as Walt admires the lab set-up. “Guess I got what I deserved…”

Walter White smears blood on a tank as he finally collapses and dies, alone in the dark with the chemistry he used to give himself value at the expense of thousands of others; both Walter White and Heisenberg laid bare and exposed with no more lies left to cover the truth. “Didn’t know you’d think that I’d forget or I’d regret the special love I had for you, my baby blue…”

The camera slowly rises and rotates, and if you look with the right kind of eyes you can see it, from the aerial view of Walter White’s lifeless body on the floor, an equals sign, formed by the tables upon which the lab equipment rests. Breaking Bad, down to the last shot of the series, balanced the equation.

 

 

Please see FedRev’s previous analysis of Breaking Bad

- “The Empire Business”: Breaking Bad, Capitalism, and the Family

- Breaking Bad: Hank Isn’t “The Good Guy”

Elysium & What Could Have Been

Getting overtly progressive big-budget films made in Hollywood isn’t always an easy thing to do, and successfully marketing them is even more difficult. Neill Blomkamp deserves a fair amount of credit then, not only for Elysium‘s existence, but for crafting a film capable of being marketed to a wide audience. Just last year, even though it was a far greater film, Cloud Atlas failed spectacularly at the U.S. box office, so Elysium‘s debut at #1 is nothing to sneeze at. However, while the film hits many of the right notes, especially in the first half, it fails to be the Science Fiction masterpiece it could have been.

Elysium‘s basic premise is that in the next century Earth’s wealthiest citizens flee the planet due to overpopulation and disease. They build themselves a “habitat,” as it’s repeatedly called by the principal villain, played in chilling fashion by Jodie Foster, called Elysium. It’s a massive space station which orbits Earth, complete with its own artificial atmosphere and lush gardens encircling perfectly manicured estates, far out of reach of the unsightly poverty stricken people below.

The film succeeds in depicting an extreme class division that accurately describes the brutal unfairness inherent in capitalist society. It’s a system in which the wealthy profit off the labor of the masses, hoard an ever increasing percentage of the total wealth, and then barricade themselves in mansions, protected by gates and a growing police state. Elysium simply takes the horrible reality already manifesting itself across the globe to its next logical step. When fleeing to the suburbs is no longer a viable option, space becomes the final refuge of the elite seeking to put distance between themselves and the people they exploit for profit. Elysium, the “habitat” for the elite, is the ultimate gated community.

In the film, which takes place in 2154, the whole of Los Angeles has become a massive slum, but it should be noted that there are already many places on Earth much worse than anything shown in Elysium. Point being, while Blomkamp certainly gets the point across, he could have taken the poverty depicted in the film much further and still been within the bounds of plausibility.

Elysium‘s perfectly integrated special effects shine brightest in the opening sequences. It’s clear that Blomkamp hasn’t lost his flair for building future worlds with an amazing sense of physical authenticity since his feature debut, District 9 (2009). The movements of the robotic cops are completely natural and life-like, making their vicious brutality all the more visceral, which allows the film to bring into focus the true role of the police under capitalism with unflinching clarity. They are agents of oppression who enforce the divide between the rich and the poor, and the film gets this exactly right.

Max, the film’s main character, played by Matt Damon, is beaten by the android police, his arm broken, simply because he told a harmless joke while being questioned about the contents of his backpack while on his way to work. The poor and working classes have to know their place, and a police baton to the skull is a crude but effective method used by the elite to maintain the established order. The lesson: don’t step out of line and don’t question your place, or else.

This lesson is applied even more harshly when a group of Earthlings aboard pirate shuttles attempt to make their way to Elysium’s high-tech healthcare pods, which can cure everything from broken bones to cancer in a matter of seconds. Elysium is protected by Delacourt (Foster), who serves as the sanctuary’s secretary of defense. She orders the shuttles shot down without hesitation. Life preserving technology is reserved only for those who can afford the luxury, and those who can’t are dealt with swiftly.

Max is badly injured while working his job in a factory, ironically building the robotic police force which oppresses his class, and he’s given a grim prognosis. With only days to live, he and his friend Julio (Diego Luna) seek out a local smuggler in the hope of buying a ticket to Elysium, where his life could be saved with the help of a medical pod.

Though while the opening sequences of the film lay the foundation for the possibility of a truly radical conclusion, Elysium ultimately falls short of this potential. Rather than taking the plot in a direction in which Max fights for the liberation of all people of Earth, Blomkamp’s story is one of self preservation. Max wants to get to Elysium only to save himself. This isn’t to say that Max isn’t generally a pretty good guy, or that he isn’t respected by his peers, but it is a reflection of the way people are taught to think under capitalism.

Max makes a deal with the smuggler and agrees to hijack information from an Elysium citizen’s brain in exchange for passage to Elysium. The job goes badly wrong, but the information is successfully downloaded into Max’s brain. And the rest of the film is a highly entertaining chase between Max and a ruthless former government agent named Kruger who has been dispatched by Delacourt to stop the fugitive at all costs.

During the action, Max protects his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga), a nurse who has a young daughter dying of cancer. As children Max promised to take her to Elysium, but now she wants to get there so she can cure her daughter.

Elysium is definitely a progressive film. It’s obvious from its depiction of extreme class division that Blomkamp is attempting to make a point, not only about where society is heading, but about our world as it is now. Science Fiction has always been a genre that allows for the expression of political ideas through metaphor and allegory, and Elysium, like District 9 before it, is no exception. But Elysium fails to bring home the message that is really needed right now.

It focuses on an individual who aspires to the lifestyle of the elite. His whole life he’s wanted membership in their exclusive club, and he’s lived a life of crime looking for his way to the mountain top. Max was never a Robin Hood figure who fights on behalf of the poor and oppressed, he’s merely been searching for his ticket out of poverty. His life-threatening accident on the job only adds urgency to the quest he was already undertaking.

And in order for Max to accomplish his goal he unites with a band of smugglers and mercenaries, rather than rallying the masses to rise up and overthrow their oppressors once and for all. Elysium could have gone in such a direction, not only getting to the root of the problem, but showing a truly righteous course of action to overcome it.

It’s also disappointing that the film depicts such stereotypical gender roles. Max is the strong warrior who protects his woman, while Frey is cast exclusively in the role of nurturing mother. And Delacourt, the apparently childless power hungry totalitarian, serves as the negative contrast to Frey’s nurturing motherhood. Delacourt represents the wrong kind of woman, while Frey is upheld as the good kind who gets protected by the male hero.

In much more radical fashion, James Cameron’s Avatar envisioned a technologically inferior people not only resisting an invading capitalist-imperialist force, but soundly defeating them, and it sent a clear message about the type of revolutionary struggle that needs to be waged, including a breakdown of traditional gender roles. Neytiri is every bit the warrior Jake Sully is.

Had Blomkamp chosen to embrace that same revolutionary spirit, Elysium could have potentially surpassed Avatar in terms of political importance. It’s set here on Earth and features actual human beings struggling to survive under the very same system that rules over us right now. It’s a very entertaining film, but imagine how powerful and inspiring Elysium could have been to millions around the world had it actually shown the development of an authentic revolutionary movement here on Earth, especially one that successfully topples an unjust system based on exploitation that results in extreme class division.

Breaking Bad: Hank Isn’t “The Good Guy”

:::Please see my previous analysis of Breaking Bad before reading this follow-up:::

I’ve noticed a sentiment in the Breaking Bad community that Hank is considered “the good guy” by many viewers; or, at least, the goodest guy. I want to dispel that theory once and for all.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that Walt, at this stage in his transformation, is beyond the point of possible redemption. He’s too far gone, done too many horrific things, exploited too many people, and committed murder many times over, all in the selfish pursuit of wealth, power, and respect (His motivations are discussed at length in my previous piece). He truly has broken bad, never to return, and he’s well past the point where any moral observer should be able to root for him.

His most obvious foil on the show is Hank Schrader, his DEA agent his brother-in-law. It would be logical to assume that if we can’t root for Walt, then Hank, the agent trying to catch him, is who we should be pulling for. But that is not the case.

First of all, Hank is a hypocrite. While he makes his living busting people for using certain drugs, he’s totally comfortable smoking illegal Cuban cigars, brewing his own homemade beer, and serving as bartender at house parties, pouring everyone margaritas and doing shots of whiskey. His drugs are okay while other drugs aren’t.

Second of all, Hank is an officer of the Drug Enforcement Agency, which means that he is an agent of oppression. He’s a federal employee whose job it is to arrest people who produce, distribute, or use illegal drugs. Meanwhile, the government is in bed with the pharmaceutical companies, who push their legal yet just as potent, addictive, and dangerous drugs through the health care system. In essence, Hank’s job is to eliminate the corporate state’s competition.

And the police are in general an oppressive force designed first and foremost to protect the status quo and preserve the established order of society. In other words, their job is to safeguard the elite, and they oppress the masses in order to do so. The police are only necessary in our society because the system creates haves and have nots, and their job is to make sure the haves maintain their power over society. As a police officer Hank is part of the mechanism that enforces the class divide and fills the for-profit prison industrial complex with drug users, and everything he does is stained by that fact.

Finally, Hank has crossed the line too many times. Throughout the entire show he has bent the law, or flat out violated it, in order to pursue his leads. He breaks and enters without warrants, willfully ignores orders from his superiors, and engages suspects without documented proof, on more than one occasion outright assaulting people without cause. His beating of Jesse was brutal and unforgivable, and he should have been fired. The only reason he wasn’t arrested was because Jesse didn’t press charges, and it should be noted that Jesse would have pressed charges if it weren’t for Walt’s manipulation of the situation.

The point I’m trying to make is that Walt and Hank are almost equally bad. Both are prone to breaking the law and committing acts of brutal violence, the only difference is that Hank is sanctioned by the system and Walt is not. Walt is a renegade capitalist-imperialist who exists outside the law while Hank serves the established system of capitalist-imperialism. They are mirrors of each other, and we can’t root for one to prevail over the other.

There are many ways Breaking Bad could end, but the worst possible ending would be one in which Hank emerges as a triumphant victor over Walt. Though it might be gratifying to see Walt get what he deserves after escaping justice for so long, Hank shouldn’t be the one to give it to him, because ultimately that would represent the oppressive establishment preserving itself, ridding itself of Walt’s anomaly, and the current order of haves and have nots lives on.

So, if we can’t pull for Walt or Hank, who can we root for? In my opinion: Jesse. While Jesse, like Walt, has done many terrible things, he hasn’t yet lost his moral compass. He still knows right from wrong, and he is therefore redeemable. Plus, you have to consider that a lot of his wrongdoing is the direct result of Walt’s manipulation, and if left to his own devices Jesse would have remained a small-time meth cook scraping together a living, more interested in partying with his boys than building a drug empire.

Personally, I hope both Walt and Hank get what they deserve in one way or another, and I hope that it’s Jesse who ultimately gives it to them, since he has cause to hate them both, and he, unlike them, still has time to redeem himself.

“The Empire Business”: Breaking Bad, Capitalism, and the Family

“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” – Edward Abbey

 

Last year on AMC’s Breaking Bad, during episode 506: “Buyout,” Walter White has a conversation with his partner in crime, Jesse Pinkman. Jesse is trying to convince Walt to retire from their illegal meth operation. They have an offer on the table to sell their supply of methylamine to a rival organization for $5-million each. It’s more money than either of them ever imagined they’d make when they began, and more than enough to comfortably set them up for life. Walt rejects Jesse’s plea to take the deal and drop out of the business by telling a story about his past, the content of which spells out Walt’s true motivation and illuminates the thesis of the show.

He explains that back in grad-school he co-founded a company with two friends, Gray Matter. Walt even came up with the name, but he took a buyout before it became profitable because of an affair with one of the other co-founders. The amount he took: $5,000. He tells Jesse that today the company is worth billions and that he looks up its value every week, knowing that he could have been immensely wealthy had he not sold his stake in the business. Walt scoffs at the measly $5-million buyout Jesse is advocating. “I’m in the empire business,” he proclaims.

Though it may have taken five seasons for Walt to clearly and honestly express his motivation to another character, the audience should have already had a pretty good idea of what motivates him. It’s amazing how many seeds of who Walter White would later become were planted in the very first episode.

At the beginning of the series, Walter White is an overqualified, middle-aged high school chemistry teacher. He has a teenage son with cerebral palsy, Walter Jr., and is in a relatively stable marriage with Skyler, who is pregnant with an unplanned baby. They live in a modest house, but are having trouble making ends meet. Their rusting water heater leaks and turns their water brown, Skyler lectures Walt about using the wrong credit card at Staples, the glove box in his car is broken and won’t stay shut, and in order to make some extra cash he works a part-time job at a car wash after school. Though hired to work the register, his boss forces him to wash cars outside, where he’s humiliated by one of his students (who drives a much more expensive car than Walt does). At home his sex life appears to be passionless; Skyler seems more involved in selling their household items on Ebay than sharing an intimate moment in the bedroom, and Walt has trouble getting “inspired” anyway. To make matters worse, Walt has a loudmouth, alpha-male brother-in-law, Hank, who has a flashy job as a DEA agent, which is infinitely more impressive to Walt Jr. than his gig as a chemistry teacher.

Right away, we can see that Walter is a 50 year old man whose life didn’t turn out how he envisioned. He feels beaten down, stretched thin, passed over, cheated, emasculated, exploited, unfulfilled, and even his great talent, chemistry, falls on the deaf ears of his students who couldn’t care less. And then the cancer hits.

But even before his diagnosis he felt like a failure, unable to adequately provide for his family, or, more specifically, to fulfill the role expected of a man in this society. Learning that his life will be unexpectedly cut short, coupled with the knowledge that he’s going to leave his family bankrupt, is the final slap in the face, the last humiliating insult life can dish out.

When Walt partners up with Jesse, one of his former students, to make meth, his stated motivation is his family. He says that before he dies he wants to be able to take care of his loved ones. Practical things, mostly. He wants Skyler to be able to pay off the mortgage, to cover college educations for his children, and medical bills for the whole family. At one point early on he even calculates an exact figure of how much money he needs to make in order to provide the essentials for his family over the next 20 years ($737-thousand), and then he’d quit selling drugs once he reaches that number.

Becoming a meth manufacturer is morally dubious, but even though the audience might disagree with his choice, given the state of Walt’s life, it’s understandable why he would make that decision. At first, anyway. After all, Walt is a victim of the capitalist system. He has been dealt a terrible set of circumstances in a world based on exploitation, and he is virtually powerless to change them by legitimate means. Though he’s still a member of the comparatively better off middle class, the anger he feels about having to scrounge for every dollar while being trapped in an monotonous cycle, his life passing by day by day without any joy or fulfillment, is legitimate, and it’s compounded by the importance placed on the “traditional” patriarchal family unit, as well the pressure and expectation put on men to provide for their families under the capitalist system. A man who can’t isn’t really a man, goes the thinking.

By the end of the first episode Walt has survived his first foray into the dangerous drug underworld, and while it was life threatening, terrifying, and violent, for the first time in years he feels invigorated. He goes home and sleeps with his wife. Skyler, surprised by his sudden sexual advance, asks, “Walt, is that you?!” as she gasps for breath and the credits roll.

And there it is. That’s really what it’s all about for Walt. While he may say that he just wants to support his family before he dies, what he really wants is to finally be a man, a real man, and to get all the privileges that go with that. His family is just the excuse he uses, the lie he tells himself to justify his actions. He wants to shed the image of the nerdy science teacher who can’t take care of his family. He wants authority and power. He wants respect. The tone is set for the rest of the series as Walt seeks revenge against the society that screwed him over, undervalued his worth, and overlooked his potential. From the moment of his diagnosis forward Walt will take what he wants and he will prove to any doubters that he’s man enough for anything, by any horrific means necessary.

Later on, when Walt and Skyler need to buy a business to launder their drug money, Walt is determined to purchase the very same car wash that wounded his pride. He refuses to let the previous owner keep his framed dollar on the wall, and out of spite Walt uses that dollar to buy a soda from the vending machine. It’s clear that Walt is more interested in getting revenge than providing for his family.

Though while Walter was right to feel angry and bitter about the unfortunate hand he’s been dealt, his mistake is that instead of channeling that frustration into exposing and tearing down an unjust system, a system that exploits and oppresses millions around the world, he goes about trying to place himself atop that system of exploitation. He doesn’t want out of the system of oppression, he wants in. He doesn’t care about the plight of other oppressed people, he only cares about his own misfortune, and as a result, while he is attempting to rebel against the capitalist system, he adopts that system’s own ideology, and thus dooms himself to failure. As he said, he’s in the “empire business.” He wants to conquer, to dominate, to bend the world to his will, and enrich himself without limit for the sake of obtaining power, everyone else be damned. His idea of revenge isn’t to bring down capitalism, he wants to become the ultimate capitalist, and in this way, his successful rebellion against the system is just as bad as failure.

The show, in effect, becomes an allegory of capitalist-imperialism, clearly indicting a system that allows a tiny minority to profit off the misery of the vast majority. As Walt delves deeper into the criminal underworld he increasingly sees people as expendable pawns, who he either manipulates to further his interests, or eliminates. Early on, Walt has great difficulty bringing himself to murder, but by the end of season 5, he barely gives it a second thought. Nothing can stand in the way of his growing empire, and being in a position of power numbs his empathy for other human beings.

Walt’s rise to power mirrors the classic capitalist model. In order to survive as a capitalist you must expand or face being overtaken by your competitors. If you don’t ruthlessly expand your business, someone else will, and you lose everything. Likewise, every time Walt is forced to make a choice between backing out or doubling down, he always doubles down. Every time he comes up against someone with more power than he does, instead of retreating he systematically destroys them and takes their place. First Krazy 8, then Tuco, Gus, and finally Mike, until only he is left holding the keys to the kingdom.

It’s also important to note that it’s always other people who pay for Walt’s crimes. He makes a huge profit off of the poor people addicted to his product, with absolutely no regard for the damage done to society. In fact, he thinks of drug addicts in the worst possible terms, as if they’re less than human, even though he’s more than willing to exploit them for his own gain. In his wake, thousands ruin their lives using meth, many people are murdered, and he’s even responsible for a major air disaster. The damage ripples through society while he profits and gains power. It’s a perfect allegory for the way wealth flows from the exploited masses to a tiny elite, and shows how under capitalism, if you’re willing to brutally exploit, oppress, and destroy other people you can achieve a great measure of what’s considered “success.” And Walt is very successful by that standard.

The family is also a major theme in Breaking Bad, and it can’t be overstated how important the concept of the “traditional” patriarchal family is to capitalism. It’s a model that by design teaches individuals to value the well-being of their relatives over those of everyone else in society. This may not seem like a big problem at first glance, but the net result is a society where everyone does what’s best for their family, even if it comes at the expense of everyone else. Society becomes about competition, rather than collaboration, and people often abandon their moral or political principles when faced with a choice that might negatively impact their family. It’s an institution that keeps the masses pacified as individuals become preoccupied with maintaining the well-being of their family unit, preventing the people from uniting to struggle for justice for all, relatives or not.

Walt frequently uses the concept of family as a justification for his actions. “When we do what we do for good reasons, there’s nothing to worry about, and what better reason is there than family?” Walt assures Skyler, who is struggling with the collateral damage inflicted upon her former boss, Ted Beneke. He’s paralyzed while trying to flee from a pair of goons Skyler dispatched to force him to pay off his debt to the IRS, preventing the government from catching on to the Whites’ illegal drug money. Skyler and Walt do what is best for their family, and the result is devastating to other people. Breaking Bad brings this issue to the forefront, and the fact that Walt is so frighteningly at peace with this justification should force the audience to call into question its own morality. How much damage would you be willing to inflict upon society in order to protect your loved ones?

Given the state of the world today, considering where the lines of battle are being drawn in society, it’s possible that Breaking Bad is currently the most politically relevant show on television. America’s capitalist-imperialist empire is beginning to rot from the inside, but before it crumbles the establishment will use all available options to maintain power, brutally suppressing the masses if necessary. Breaking Bad has clearly been an allegory for the moral vacancy of obtaining power through the capitalist system, and it shows the horrific consequences of going down that path. Is it worth it to enrich yourself if you destroy the world in the process? Walter White says ‘yes,’ and his example should be a blueprint for how not to think and for what not to do.

The problem with building an empire is that there’s no end point. There’s always someone else to conquer, more power to be gained. This is where Walt lives now. He built his capitalist empire with brutal violence, and enriched himself beyond his wildest dreams, but when is it enough power? When is it enough money? It’s worth noting that Walt does not stop producing meth after he surpasses his goal of $737-thousand.

When you’re on a mission to prove to the world how great, powerful, and manly you really are, there’s no logical stopping point, and you expand or die. You keep growing for the sake of growth because you have to, just like the cancer that resides inside Walt’s body, until it spreads too far, consumes all life, and kills its host from the inside. That’s what has happened to America. Breaking Bad might be the Moby Dick of this era, with Walter White as the new version of Captain Ahab, and Gray Matter, Walt’s long lost opportunity for wealth and power, as the illusive white whale, taunting him, luring him further into the void, and hastening his destruction.

The show is crafted with such care, and such attention to detail. The acting is impeccable, the cinematography unmatched, and the music completely absorbing. Bryan Cranston (Walter) and Aaron Paul (Jesse) are obviously the standout actors on the show, but the entire ensemble plays their parts with great nuance. Taken as a whole, Breaking Bad is a masterpiece unlike anything else on television, and it’s clearly more than just an entertaining story about a chemistry teacher turned drug lord, though it is that, too.

What it might lack in realism it more than makes up for in allegory. It’s telling us something about who we’ve become as a society. It’s warning us that next time, when we’re faced with a choice between taking a step back or doubling down on a misguided course of action, when we hear that voice inside our head, the lie we tell ourselves that rationalizes evil as long as we do it for a “good reason,” like protecting our families no matter the cost to others, we need to ignore that lie and take that step back. At some point the chain has to be broken and we need to put the greater good ahead of our own individual interests.

Walter White is more than just an isolated cautionary tale about drugs and violence. He represents something bigger. He symbolizes the attitude of America on the global stage and he wields its greatest weapon, capitalist-imperialism, to benefit himself, to give himself a sense of worth and pride, and he justifies his murderous greed by claiming he’s just doing it for the good of his family. That lie is the American way. Underneath that thinly veiled altruistic excuse is a naked desire to dominate others for the sake unfettered growth and power.

If you watch Breaking Bad carefully, you’ll notice that Walt is just itching for the chance to tell his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank that it’s actually him, the mild mannered chemistry teacher that everyone’s always overlooked and laughed at, who’s been behind the legendary blue meth all along. It’s that reckless desire for masculine pride that causes Walt’s empire to swell beyond control, and it’s what will cause his inevitable downfall, even if it’s everyone else who pays the price for his crimes.

There’s a brief but significant moment of note toward the end of the first episode. Walt is standing on a desolate road in the middle of the desert. Sirens are approaching and he believes he’s about to be caught. He pulls out a gun, puts it under his chin, and pulls the trigger. He hears the click, but no bullet is fired. The safety is on. He fumbles with the gun and accidentally fires a shot into the ground. After feeling the force of the gun in his hand he loses his nerve and goes on living. The sirens turn out to be firetrucks, not police, and Walt is relieved. In hindsight, knowing the monster he will later become, it’s hard not to think that the imaginary world of the show would have been a better place had the safety been off. But the great thing about art is that it can help us understand the real world. Walter White’s fictitious journey illuminates a very real and inconvenient truth about our society, and being deprived of his horrific transformation on Breaking Bad would be a major loss, not only culturally, but politically, because it demonstrates how deeply out of order our priorities are under capitalism.

:::Please see follow-up piece about Hank not being “the good guy”:::

Man of Steel in Obama’s America

There is no doubt that Superman is one of the most significant and iconic characters in American literature and film. A modern day mythic character, he has been the subject of scholarly analysis and debate for decades, and since his creation in the 1930s he has continually reinvented himself to maintain relevance through changes in cultural attitude over the years.

Man of Steel, the new film directed by Zack Snyder, represents the latest incarnation of Superman, and unlike Superman Returns (2006), which was a lighthearted and cartoonish continuation of the Christopher Reeve series, this franchise re-boot is much more serious and loaded with social and political messaging.

Despite mixed reviews, Man of Steel is proving to be a pretty significant hit at the box office. And because it’s so popular, mainstream, and culturally relevant, in addition to being well made technically, the stakes are raised, and it’s very important to sort out what the film is saying, and to set the record straight.

Early incarnations of Superman’s character in the 1930s depicted him as a sort of super-human Robin Hood, fighting for social justice against corporations and government corruption on behalf of the poor and working classes. His adopted home-town of Metropolis was even named for the Fritz Lang film, which also deals with the injustice of class inequality. This original progressive version of the character was developed in the context of the Great Depression, but despite this positive political origin, as America established itself as a global imperialist power, Superman’s political identity changed.

Since World War II Superman has been inexorably linked to America’s idealized self-image and symbolically represented its self-appointed role of global policeman. His motto became “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” This was a major departure from his left-leaning beginnings as he became a thinly veiled metaphor propagandizing American imperialism. For much of Superman’s heyday he was the fictional personification of that “shining city on a hill,” a powerful beacon for the world to aspire to and admire, which is exactly how America prefers to think of itself. And as America’s military might and world dominance grew, so did Superman’s muscles and powers in the comic book series.

Now, in the Age of Obama, politics aren’t always what they seem on the surface, and the same holds true for Superman. The latest incarnation of the character- a lonely, brooding, complicated man struggling to deal with his power and learn his place in the world- fits right into the complex Obama age.

In Man of Steel, Kal-El, Superman’s Kryptonian birth name, is skeptical and concerned about his role. He’s layered, nuanced, and thoughtful. He wants to help others but is worried about how the world will receive him. This kind of thoughtful and measured restraint is exactly what America thought it was voting for when Obama came to power in the wake of George W. Bush’s bellicose arrogance. It’s no accident that this film is coming out now and that it takes on the political complexities of this era. This isn’t the outwardly patriotic Superman of the Cold War.

Before being elected president, Obama had a reputation for being intellectual, peaceful, and even a borderline radical leftist (not to imply that was actually the case, but it was a perception many had). He had past associations with Bill Ayers and Reverend Wright, and he was sometimes named among the most liberal members of the US Senate. But since assuming the highest office in the land he has taken a very different political course. He’s embraced the worst of Bush’s abuses and taken many of them even further. He’s drastically increased the secretive drone program which murders hundreds of innocent people, he failed to uphold his promise to close Gitmo, he’s launched an aggressive assault on civil and human rights, and he’s prosecuted more whistle-blowers than all previous presidents combined.

The point of mentioning all this is that Obama has been able to embrace a reactionary agenda and get away with it because of his liberal reputation, not in spite of it. And Man of Steel operates in the same way. It promotes many backward ideas while appealing aesthetically to a liberal sensibility. It strips away the overt, cartoonish patriotism of past Superman incarnations and replaces it with a more serious, intellectual narrative. The film is darker than Superman films of the past; more emotional, and generally more sophisticated on every level. It takes place in a grounded and realistic landscape rather than in a bright, fanciful setting.

But underneath this darker, serious, realistic, and emotional exterior is the same old imperialistic and nationalistic Superman story that’s been told repeatedly since World War II. It’s just been dressed up in a way that appeals to today’s audience. Even though Christopher Nolan, Man of Steel‘s producer, and Zack Snyder want you to think this is a Superman of the people, it’s packed with backward and reactionary themes and ideas.

For example, an obvious attempt has been made to make Superman a stand-in for Jesus. So much so that the film was specifically marketed to church congregations by inviting clergy members to advance screenings. Man of Steel includes a sub-plot where Kal-El was the first member of his race to be born naturally (more on this later), paralleling the “miracle” birth of Jesus. And at one point in the film he enters a church and seeks guidance from a pastor, which makes no sense because if anyone should know that god doesn’t exist it would be the alien born of a scientificly advanced race that has explored the galaxy. The entire film makes a point of showing that Kal-El is a “savior” figure who can perform miraculous feats while the rest of us are merely children who must strive to live up to his standard.

As a matter of fact, the masses of people are less than nothing in this film. Superman is the only force that can save the planet while the people scatter and flee. Human beings are mostly insignificant in resolving the plot, other than some assistance by the military, which, by the way, is featured prominently and positively throughout the film. A film that depicts the masses as insignificant while a powerful savior figure protects them encourages inaction and fear during turmoil, and discourages the idea that united peoples can overcome overwhelming odds when working for mutual benefit. In Man of Steel, the people are powerless and need “Jesus” and the military to save them.

Another issue raised in the film is the idea of controlling the population through artificial births outside the body. The film shows Kryptonians as a highly advanced civilization which has developed a method of having babies by storing genetic information inside a “codex” and then growing fetuses in artificial wombs, thus allowing their species to procreate without the need for women to go through pregnancy. Kal-El, as previously mentioned, is the first natural birth on Krypton in centuries. Every child on Krypton is born to fulfill a pre-determined purpose in society, but Kal’s parents chose natural pregnancy and birth so that he would grow up free to decide his own fate.

While that sounds simple enough at first glace, it’s actually a sophisticated straw-man attack against communism, social planning, as well as the idea of ectogenesis itself. It’s targeting the false notion that under communism people would effectively be turned into robots, have no individuality, and be forced to work a pre-determined role without any choice in the matter. Of course none of that is true, and the film fundamentally misses the positive potential ectogenesis could have for society.

Going back to the beginning of humanity, women have had to bear the physical burden of pregnancy while men are free to spread their seed without being physically anchored to their children. Women don’t have that luxury. If artificial womb technology could become widely available so that women could have a choice between natural childbirth and ectogenesis, it would go a long way toward establishing true equality between men and women. Ectogenesis could function as a sort of reverse abortion, a choice women could make allowing them to become mothers without pregnancy, giving more options to potential parents.

But Man of Steel sees this concept in the worst possible terms, depicting ectogenesis as authoritarian social planning, draining society of choice and freedom and contributing to the decay of a once great civilization. The opposite would likely be true in the real world. If this technology were to become widely accessible it would simply be a tool providing more options for potential parents. In a free society it would be a voluntary option, not a draconian mandate. An advancement like this could revolutionize the way we think about motherhood and the family unit, and help establish equality between the sexes.

Another major problem with the film is the depiction of the military. Even before the release of the film it was obvious this was going to be an issue because of the prominent cross-promotion with the US National Guard. There has been a major campaign to promote the armed forces with Man of Steel-National Guard ads in movie theaters, on billboards, and on TV. The slogan “one American icon inspires another” has been difficult to miss over the last few months as Superman is shown to be an ally of the American military through the multi-platform recruitment and propaganda campaign.

In the film itself the military is very worried about Superman and his power and they approach him with apprehension, but it isn’t long until they team up to fight General Zod, the ex-military leader of Kal-El’s home planet who has come to Earth to rebuild their almost extinct race. It’s essentially a clash of superpowers with the fate of humanity, hiding meekly out of sight (with the exception of the military), hanging in the balance. There’s even a scene where Superman dramatically walks through a group of soldiers; they all lower their guns, realizing he’s on their side.

General Zod, however, loudly proclaims that every action he takes, no matter how violent or cruel is for the greater good of his people. He’s been programmed, remember, as all Kryptonians have been, to fulfill a specific purpose. Zod was born to defend Krypton, and once his home planet was destroyed he had no choice but to commit genocide to make room on Earth to rebuild his race. He is ultimately revealed as a caricature, a straw-man attack against communism while Superman on the other hand was born free to choose his own purpose, and he benevolently sides with humans over his own race.

The film metaphorically sets up a contrast between socialism and free market capitalism, but it does so by depicting the former in the worst possible terms and the latter in the best. Zod might as well be Stalin on steroids, while Superman is the idealized image of Obama. That’s how the film gets away with reactionary ideas, by establishing a false “objective” position, and then ultimately siding with and promoting the wrong ideas.

Toward the end of the film Superman destroys a US military drone and then lands to have a conversation with his new military allies. The film tries to have it both ways. By destroying the drone Nolan and Synder can claim they’re making an anti-drone statement, but in reality the film upholds the role of the military. When the American general asks Superman if he’ll act in America’s interests he responds, “I was raised in Kansas! It doesn’t get any more American than that.”

And thus, Man of Steel continues the long tradition of Superman stories that uphold the idealized “American way” while appearing on the surface to be more thoughtful, intelligent, nuanced, and grounded in reality. You vote for Obama because he appears to be the opposite of Bush, but ultimately what you end up with is even worse. Likewise, Man of Steel is even worse than the previous incarnations of the story because it’s a Trojan horse, creating the appearance that it’s something new and different, selling itself to a new audience, but still upholding the same foul ideas.

Man of Steel embraces the role of religion, downplays the role of the masses, upholds the military, portrays ectogensis in the worst possible authoritarian terms in a straw-man attack on social planning, and promotes a sanitized and idealized vision of America as the shining city on a hill for the rest of the world to aspire to and admire, which couldn’t be further from the truth. While certainly well produced and very entertaining, the film ultimately promotes a reactionary agenda.

Cool Things I’ve Found: ‘The End of Poverty?”

A fantastic documentary by film maker Philippe Diaz about the root causes of poverty and inequality around the globe. Narrated by Martin Sheen, it paints a stunning portrait of poverty by exploring both the macro and micro views of its causes, as well as the forces that perpetuate it, while celebrating the culture and resolve of poverty stricken peoples around the world. A large international cast is interviewed offering a wide variety of perspectives, though all agree on one important point: the poor’s poverty is not their own doing. They are victims of an unjust system of exploitation. The entire film can be streamed here, and I highly encourage everyone to watch it.

The Great Gatsby: A Capitalist Tragedy

Money. That’s really what The Great Gatsby boils down to, isn’t it? The acquisition and the spending of money in the pursuit of the mythological American Dream. It’s an extremely simple story, really. Boy grows up ashamed of his family’s poverty and goes through the rest of his life determined to posses everything he could ever dream of, by any means necessary, to prove his worth to his wealthy lost love.

When said like that there’s almost nothing to it, but the simplicity of the story practically begs us to look closer, to examine what’s really going on in a larger sense. What does The Great Gatsby say about America and its Dream?

Baz Luhrmann’s new film is a largely faithful adaptation of Fitzgerald’s classic novel, brought to life with roaring color, sound, music, and intensity, starring Leonard DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire. Luhrmann’s work is often polarizing, but there’s no doubt that he’s a visionary. His signature style is a dazzling trick of false depth perception and perspective. He bends reality, pulling distant backgrounds closer than they should be, allowing the audience to see what’s up close and what’s far away at the same time, and it has the effect of adding importance to the setting.

Technically, the film is a wonder. It’s a dazzling display of powerful film making and great acting. DiCaprio in particular is fantastic in the title role, able to play both the mysterious, larger than life, powerful Gatsby and the nervous, self-conscious, and unhinged Gatsby with ease and nuance. Tobey Maguire handles Nick Carroway’s beautiful narration very well and also brings life to a role that could be very bland in the wrong hands. Carey Mulligan also adds depth to what could be a very light and airy role, while maintaining Daisy’s aura of unobtainable beauty. Joel Edgerton was also excellent (and nearly unrecognizable) as Tom Buchanan, and newcomer Elizabeth Debicki was perfectly cast as Jordan Baker, though I wish they had expanded her role slightly.

Though mostly faithful, the film does differ from the novel in a couple interesting ways. First, there’s the added narrative device of having Nick Carroway recalling the story from the confines of a mental institution, writing it down on the advice of his psychologist. In the novel, Fitzgerald also tells the story through Carroway’s journaling, but from some undisclosed time and place in the future. The idea that Nick would need serious psychiatric help after living through the events he describes adds an element of judgement to the story.

Can capitalism create mental illness? Does living in a society like this, where priorities become so warped and perverse, make people mentally unstable? It’s an interesting question that the film raises simply by showing how ruined and unhealthy Nick has become in the wake of the drama.

Another major difference from novel to screen is that Luhrmann’s Carroway lacks the disdain for Gatsby’s lifestyle that is emphasized in the book. In the novel we always feel as though Nick looks upon the conspicuous consumption going on all around him with contempt, even though he doesn’t hate it enough to actually leave.

Perhaps this makes the film’s version of Nick Carroway more honest, or at least more consistent. Novel Nick is a hypocrite, convinced of his innocence even as he bathes himself in the lifestyles of both Gatsby and his wealthy cousin Daisy. Film Nick is a willing participant, and his complicity is important because when it comes to capitalism and the pursuit of wealth, comfort, and pleasure at the expense of others as the ultimate goal, we have a choice, and that choice has moral consequences. You can’t jump in the pool without getting wet.

Jay Gatsby made his choice long ago. He met Daisy when he was a penniless soldier. They fell in love, but knowing that she was from a wealthy family he knew he wouldn’t be considered good enough for her. So he wrote out a grand script for his life to follow and left to build his fortune in the hopes that Daisy would come back to him once he was a worthy match for her, and his story could continue as planned as if no time at all had passed. But before that could happen, she met Tom Buchanan, a man from another wealthy family, and they got married.

Both the novel and film rightly condemn Tom’s outlook, and by extension the outlook of his class of wealthy elite. Tom is shown to be an entitled, spoiled, cheating brat, with a strong dose of racism and paranoia thrown in for good measure. He’s practically a fascist, more than once spouting off about the need to violently suppress other races and their attempts to supplant white domination. Once you have wealth and power, the ultimate threat is having it taken away, and Tom embodies that attitude. He represents the capitalist elite, the “Old Money” class that rules over society under capitalism, and it’s obvious that Fitzgerald deeply resented this institution based on the way Tom is portrayed.

The fatal flaw of both the novel and film, however, is the way it seems to admire Gatsby’s wealth while despising Tom’s. Flawed as Gatsby may be shown to be, acquiring his wealth illegally with the help of the criminal underworld, he’s always meant to represent the ever hopeful nature of the American Dream; the idea that in America anyone can one day have everything they can imagine.

In reality, there is nothing noble about Gatsby’s pursuit of power by amassing staggering wealth. He may actually love Daisy, or at least he thinks he does, but he treats her as just another object he has to acquire in order to live his life according to his predetermined script. Daisy is the last piece of the puzzle that he thinks will complete him; the arrival of the queen for his kingdom, proving to the world that Jay Gatsby is a “somebody” after all, not the poverty stricken James Gatz he was born.

The Great Gatsby is a tragedy, and on a certain level it does expose the fraudulent nature of the American Dream as a lie that can never really be achieved, but it does so with blind admiration for those who strive to achieve it nonetheless. The tragedy is that in a world under capitalism people are made to believe that if they’re poor it’s their own fault, and Gatsby’s character is an example of how people can internalize the shame of poverty and become misguided capitalist tyrants themselves. And Gatsby is a tyrant, having chosen to attempt to join the capitalist elite to benefit only himself, rather than choosing to struggle against them to benefit everyone.

But imagine if there was no inequality. Imagine if people who loved each other could simply be together with no class discrimination to keep them apart? The tragic events of The Great Gatsby could be totally avoided under a system based on equality rather than one that perpetuates inequality and stigmatizes the poor.

By the end of the story Nick is alone in mourning Gatsby’s death, the only one who saw the good in what Gatsby was trying to do, devastated by his loss. And perhaps that’s why Luhrmann has Nick tell the story from a mental hospital. There was actually no good in what Gatsby was trying to do, and the fact that Nick was so distressed by his death and the fact that he admired him so much in the first place is frankly, kind of crazy. Nick is mourning not just the death of his friend, but also the death of a dream all Americans are taught to collectively believe in. It’s something he can’t reconcile, just as Fitzgerald couldn’t reconcile his hatred of capitalism’s unfairness with the envy he had of those who “have.”

The novel is a masterpiece of American literature, and the film is a bold artistic statement that may even improve on some aspects of the story, but they both fail to fully condemn capitalism for the ugly, oppressive, exploitative system that it really is. It hates “Old Money” while worshiping the pursuit of “New Money.” It hates the system that keeps a wealthy elite class in power, but holds on to the “hopeful” idea that anyone can get rich while mostly ignoring the exploited lower classes who do the hard labor that allows others to be wealthy and comfortable. The most positive thing about the book, ironically, is that Gatsby fails, which at least in part helps to tear at the fabric of the American Dream, even if it can’t bring itself to fully shred it.

At the end of the film we see Nick complete his manuscript. He types the title Gatsby on the cover page and then places it on top of the pile. But he stops, looks at the page, and then hand writes The Great above the original title. This was a moment that perfectly symbolized the fatal flaw of the story. Perhaps it would have been a better story as simply Gatsby, criticizing capitalism without envy and admiration.

The New Wave of Post-Apocalyptic Sci-Fi

As is often the case in Hollywood, several movies with similar themes and plots are being released in close proximity. This year, it’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi, and the films are Oblivion, After Earth, and Elysium.

Each of these films look to be made with a very high standard of technical quality, each is a vehicle for a major A-list star, and I’m positive that they will all be very entertaining. What I’m more concerned about is what each of these films has to say about the human condition and society.

The first of the trio to be released will be Oblivion (April 19) starring Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman. The premise is that Earth was attacked 60 years ago (the trailer doesn’t say by who or what), and humanity was forced to flee the planet. Left behind on Earth is a skeleton crew of maintenance workers who just want to finish their duties so they can “go home.”

What most intrigues me about Oblivion is the inclusion of drones in the plot. Cruise’s character’s job is to service automated drones, until something goes wrong and he encounters a group of survivors still living on Earth.

Given the rise of drones as a major tool of imperialist power and their growing use in domestic law enforcement, the fact that Oblivion‘s story involves these unmanned death machines is, in and of itself, significant, and the film’s verdict on this technology’s use is potentially very important from a sociopolitical perspective. I’m hopeful that Oblivion will cast drone warfare in an appropriately negative light, considering the death and horror they rain down on innocent people.

Next up, the Will Smith vehicle After Earth (June 7), which takes place at least 1000 years in the future. This film seems to be a “man against nature” survivor tale. A father and son (Will Smith’s actual son Jaden) crash land on Earth long after humanity has abandoned the planet, and since then it’s become a wilderness of death traps they have to overcome.

All films say something about the world and reflect the worldview of the people who make them in some way. I have a feeling that this film, After Earth, will have a more subtle social/political content than Oblivion and Elysium. On the surface, it might not seem very political at all, but it’s possible that it could have some things to say about family dynamics,  survivalism, and humanity’s relationship with nature. We’ll see.

Finally, Elysium drops on August 9, and of the three this is the one I’m most interested in. Directed by Neill Blomkamp (District 9) and starring Matt Damon, Elysium appears to be the most overtly political of these post-apocalyptic films, zeroing in directly on class oppression.

Set 141 years in the future, the wealthy have built a massive space station that orbits the planet, a sanctuary away from the poverty, war, and disease of Earth. The film appears to create an obvious divide between rich and poor, and shows the people left on Earth to be dirty and oppressed while the elite have escaped to a manufactured paradise called Elysium. They can even cure cancer just as easily as getting an MRI while everyone else back on Earth struggles to survive on a polluted, dying world.

Damon’s character lives on Earth, recognizes the injustice of the class segregation, and decides to fight for equality. He acquires some sort of mechanical body suit and takes a mission to break into Elysium and “override their whole system.”

What I find so intriguing about this film is not only the bold and daring way it appears to be speaking out against the way the poor are exploited and oppressed, but also the way it seems to be embracing the righteousness of actually fighting against the system that creates this injustice. I only hope that I’m not somehow deceived by the trailer, because my expectations are officially high for Elysium.

It’s also intriguing that all of these films are being released so close together. It says a lot about the current state of society that there’s such an obvious pattern emerging, a noticeable upsurge in post-apocalyptic films, especially considering that they’re all sci-fi films that likely have a lot of social and political messaging embedded into their narratives.

There is something very wrong with the core of capitalist society, an inherent unfairness based on exploitation, and deep down I think people can sense that this system is unsustainable, even if they aren’t actively aware of it. And therefore, it’s interesting that so many films are emerging in popular culture that speak to this underlying fear of society’s decay and collapse. I’m looking forward to seeing what these films have to say about the times we live in, and seeing how they’re received.