Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Feature Film Is Dead, and “The Wolf of Wall Street” Is Its Tombstone

There are lots of bad Hollywood films pitchforked at us every year, of course.  But not many from the director of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas.

The Wolf of Wall Street is both a Martin Scorsese movie and a crime against cinema.  It’s a soulless, brainless, lazy, relentlessly ugly calamity it’s hard not to read as hostile to its audience—an audience out fully three hours of its one and only life on earth by the time the nightmare’s over. 

This is a film that asks the searing cultural question, "What happens when you lift a bunch of fictional 'men' out of a Bud Light ad, drop them into an NC-17 playground, and let the cameras roll?"

And then leave nothing on the cutting-room floor?   

I’d synopsize the story, but there is no story.

I’d mention the characters, but there are no characters.

There’s just a bloated, depthless cartoon that makes the idiotic mistake of cranking the debauchery knob to an anemic “10” when it’s well over two decades now since Bret Easton Ellis gave us a similarly revolting Wall Street nightmare (American Psycho) with the knob wrenched to 12 and a half.  

If debauchery's all you're going for, and you can’t get your knob to at least 13, what's the point?

Maybe it’s just the beginnings of the old-and-crankies on my part.  But I sometimes feel a little betrayed when hugely talented artists I’ve put a certain amount of spiritual stock in decide it's time to start farting in public.  I mean, can the man who gave us Jake Lamotta before the mirror really not see how unwatchable, how unbearably bad these never-ending scenes with Leo DiCaprio preaching hyena capitalism to cattle pens full of coked-up stockbrokers are?  Minute after impossible minute grinds by, DiCaprio screaming vapid corporate nothings about, like, Steve Madden shoes into a hand-held mike.  And just when you’re sure there can’t possibly be another such scene in the film, twenty minutes later he’s hollering into that mike again, another six, seven, eight, nine minutes ticking painfully off the clock.

There are a few possibilities here, maybe.

The first is that Scorsese just needs to retire.  Because he can no longer tell the difference between good cinema—which he may have been limply trying for here—and a migraine. 

The second is that The Wolf of Wall Street actually isn't an attempt at good movie making.  It’s just a hate letter addressed to multiplex-goers.  It’s Scorsese saying, All right, dolts.  You think the 2013 Superman was a good movie?  And Cars and Skyfall and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty?  Well here’s some red meat for you, morons.  Choke on it.  All three hours of it.  And how about you give it a best-picture nod, too, since the fact it came out in December must mean it’s Oscar material? 

The Wolf of Wall Street, this is to say, just might be Scorsese’s Metal Machine Music.

But there’s a third possibility.  And it brings me no joy to introduce it, but I feel, as I gaze out on the smoking ruins of 21st-century American cinema, the time has come to do so.

Maybe there are so few good American movies these days because we’re becoming a nation of philistines.

Maybe Martin Scorsese can’t make a great movie (or even a good one) in 2013 because he’s no longer living in a culture that licenses him to do it.  Maybe he’s working in an America that doesn’t want good movies.  That can’t tell the difference between a good movie and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Maybe a culture’s desire for good art is the rainwater that makes good art grow.       

Maybe one of our founding assumptions about great popular art is ass-backwards: great artists don’t create mass audiences for themselves through sheer brilliance, persistence, and brute intellectual will.  

Maybe society instead uses its force of will—one harder to see, but no less real—to grow the great art and artists it secretly wants and needs.

Maybe Americans, despite initial widespread expressions of anger and disgust, willed Friedkin and his Exorcist into being.  Or Hitchcock and his Psycho.  Or Waters and his Female Trouble.        

Maybe the veiled social will that gave rise to those great movies and scores of others is now fading away.

Maybe Martin Scorsese’s status as a sometimes-great artist doesn’t make him a magician who can grow a big, strong orange tree in the middle of Death Valley.  Maybe no matter how hard he tries, the best he’ll manage is to raise a gnarly little weed like The Wolf of Wall Street.   

Okay, okay: the nation-of-philistines thing might be going too far.  There’s been no particular scarcity of excellent pop music since 2000.  Or excellent TV, truth be told.  And it’s not like there have been no good American movies in the 21st century: behold Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), the Coens’ No Country for Old Men (2007), Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), Spielberg’s Munich (2005).

Every year, though, there are fewer films cut from anything like the same cloth as Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Nashville, Annie Hall, A Clockwork Orange, and Chinatown—or any of a thousand more obscure, no-less inspired Golden Era titles: your Eraserheads, your Night of the Living Deads, your Chelsea Girls.  And I know—I know—there’s been no paucity of mega-budget CGI extravaganzas in recent years making perfectly smart critics jump out of their seats with glee and invent whole new vocabularies of superlatives to drive up the Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes scores.  

But that fact begs a certain question:

Does anyone really think we’ll still be talking about Avatar twenty years from now?  

How about Gravity?  Or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows?  Or The Lord of the Rings?  Or Wall-E?  Or Iron ManAnd lest I come off as a simple special-effects/summer-blockbuster hater, how many 21st-century American movies that seem, at first blush, cut from genuine Golden Era cloth do we really think will stand that same test of time?  Winter’s BoneDjango UnchainedSidewaysThe Hurt LockerThere Will Be Blood21 GramsBoratBlack SwanMidnight in Paris

Takers?  Anyone?  On twenty years from now?

Look: I’m not saying it means fire and brimstone that the era of the Hollywood feature film as art is ending.  But I guess I’m saying it’s ending.  And pretty rapidly, too.  And it’s rarely clearer than when a once-major artist like Martin Scorsese drops a stink bomb like The Wolf of Wall Street.

Is some other cultural form going to step up to provide art for the masses?

Don’t look to pop music: unless it’s Justin Bieber's we’re talking about, there are no mass audiences anymore.

Don’t look to the American novel: a few strong 21st-century efforts by Toni Morrison and Jonathan Franzen aside, its best days are obviously gone.  Besides which, how many Americans still read?  Anything?

Could it be we’re simply evolving out of our need for art, now that so much of what happens in “reality” gets sucked up instantly into the Screenland we used to go to for art?

(Wasn't the painted canvas always a "screen"?  Wasn't the proscenium arch?  The printed page?)

For better or worse, we’re poised to find out.