The Good Guys Won the Oscars (This Time)

rs_634x1024-140108134218-634.Ellen-Degeneres-Oscar-Promo.jl.010814This year’s Academy Awards were special and historic, and they stood in stark contrast to last year’s ceremony, and to the Oscar’s long history of stealing victory away from deserving progressive films. The tone of the broadcast was radically different than last year, including the way the show was hosted. A year ago we were subjected to Seth MacFarlane’s misogynistic, mean spirited, and offensive “humor” during a ceremony that culminated with Michelle Obama awarding the reactionary film Argo the top prize while surrounded by military personnel.

This year, a strong progressive wind blew through the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. If last year’s Oscars were a reactionary celebration of “guy culture” this year was a progressive tribute to the oppressed minorities of society, including women, the LGBT community, and black people. Ellen DeGeneres, an openly gay woman, hosted the ceremony for the second time. Her jokes were funny without the need to be offensive simply for the sake of shock value, and her best line of the night was when she alluded to the ceremony’s racist history. “Possibility #1: 12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture. Possibility #2: you’re all racists.” It was a joke, but it definitely contained an element of truth.

Ellen also made several genuine attempts to connect to the audience in a personal, fun way. At one point she ordered pizza for the audience, and then got the celebrities to cough up money for it later on. She also took a hilarious selfie with several actors crammed into the frame, and then posted it on Twitter, involving the audience around the globe. As of now that image has over 3 million retweets, breaking the previous record set by Obama’s tweet announcing his reelection campaign. The ceremony also included a tribute to The Wizard of Oz in which the singer Pink sang a beautiful rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which reinforced the progressive theme of the evening, celebrating women in film and supporting oppressed minorities. Overall, it was a refreshing and much needed alternative to the open celebration of reactionary values from a year ago.

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Most importantly, and perhaps amazingly, virtually all the major awards went to progressive films, capped off by the historic victory of 12 Years a Slave, now the first film principally about the oppression of black people to win Best Picture. Director Steve McQueen became the first black person in the history of the Academy to win a Best Picture Oscar. Lupita Nyong’o won the statue for Best Supporting Actress, marking just the 15th time a black actor has taken home an Oscar, and John Ridley won for 12 Years‘ Adapted Screenplay, which is only the 2nd time a black person has won an Oscar for writing.

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Dallas Buyers Club, a film that powerfully skewers the corporate health care industry while embracing the humanity of the oppressed LGBT community and those suffering from the HIV/AIDS epidemic, also won three Oscars. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto received both of the male acting awards for their transformative performances, and the film also won for Makeup.

The most prolific winner of the night was Gravity, which won seven total Oscars, including almost all of the technical awards as well as Best Cinematography for Emmanuel Lubezki and Best Director for Alfonso Cuaron. Given that female actors are still paid significantly less than their male counterparts and most major blockbusters are male driven films, Gravity proved that original, female driven films can be both highly entertaining and financially successful, and hopefully Hollywood is getting the message.

Best Actress went to Cate Blanchett for her brilliant role in Woody Allen’s film Blue Jasmine. Despite the controversy surrounding the director, Blanchett didn’t hesitate to praise Allen in her acceptance speech, which was brave considering it would have been all too easy to simply avoid the issue. Piggy-backing on Gravity‘s success, she spoke about the importance of making female-centered films and argued that they can connect with audiences, while celebrating Allen’s contribution to women in film.

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While it’s important to focus on the progressive winners, it’s also worth noting what didn’t win. The film that glorifies Wall Street hedonism, The Wolf of Wall Street, went home empty handed, despite heavy campaigning by Leonardo DiCaprio. In a delightful irony, DiCaprio’s other film, the one he didn’t go to the mat for, The Great Gatsby, won two Academy Awards (Production Design and Costume Design). American Hustle, the drastically over-hyped snooze-fest, also went home with zero Oscars, and the deeply pessimistic film with the most publicized Oscar campaign of the year, Inside Llewyn Davis, received only a single nomination and also went home with its tail between its legs.

The only potential missteps during yesterday’s Academy Awards were in the Documentary Feature and Foreign Feature categories. While 20 Feet From Stardom is certainly a progressive documentary about important issues, considering the gravity of alternatives like Dirty WarsThe Square, and The Act of Killing, it was perhaps a missed opportunity for the Academy to make a major statement on some very serious and controversial issues.

It’s also a shame that The Broken Circle Breakdown, a brilliant Belgian film about a couple in a folk band suffering through a religious conflict during a personal tragedy, lost out on the Foreign Feature award. The Academy had the opportunity to make a significant progressive statement and they passed on the chance.

Though, it’s worth mentioning that this year’s Academy Awards closely mirrored the traditionally more progressive Independent Spirit Awards. All the same actors won in both ceremonies, as well as 12 Years a Slave for Best Film, and John Ridley for Best Screenplay. The Independent Spirit Awards also honored 12 Years‘ director Steve McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. Gravity, which wasn’t eligible for the Spirit Awards, won those two awards at the Oscars.

You might be asking, who cares? What’s the point? Why does it matter who wins Oscars and who doesn’t? The Academy Awards have always been political, and these days the studios spend a lot of money to lobby for Oscar wins. Given that all films serve one sort of politics or another, and represent the worldview of the film makers in some way, the awards handed out by the Academy carry political weight and can be interpreted as approval for what a film stands for. An Oscar gives prestige to a film and guarantees that people will seek out those winners for years to come. So, when the Academy honors reactionary films, or chooses not to honor quality progressive work, it does actual harm to society.

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This year however, progressive politics held sway at the Academy Awards in a way they never have before. In past years when powerful progressive films were up for major awards, such as Reds in 1981, Brokeback Mountain in 2005, Avatar in 2009, or even Django Unchained last year, invariably those films aren’t allowed to win, and often films with reactionary politics are upheld instead (The Hurt Locker, Argo). And given the history of progressive films being denied on Oscar night, that just makes this year’s progressive sweep all the more powerful and important.

Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave strikes directly at America’s ugly, racist history, and forces the audience to confront the true nature of this society. Its victory at the Oscars reinforces and amplifies this powerful progressive message against slavery and ongoing racial oppression, and guarantees that it will be seen for decades to come, rather than being swept conveniently under the rug.

Last night, for once, the good guys won decisively, overcoming the reactionary forces that often influence the Oscars’ outcome. Though you can bet that next year a strong campaign will be mounted on behalf of a reactionary film in retaliation for this year’s defeat at the hands of progressives, for now, we can celebrate the victories of Gravity, Dallas Buyers Club, The Great Gatsby, Blue Jasmine, and especially 12 Years a Slave.

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.

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.