I watched The Wolf of Wall Street the day it came out. I left the theater feeling invigorated and couldn't wait to get home and read reviews about it. I was shocked and a bit disappointed to find out that a lot of top reviewers didn't see things they way I did. They complained that it was too surface; that it was a behemoth filled with lavish and overproduced scenes, but for no true purpose. Wolf is one of a slew of films this year to focus on a group of people consumed by glitz and glam including Spring Breakers, The Great Gatsby, The Bling Ring, and American Hustle. I haven't seen American Hustle yet. but as for the rest, these films are the ones that made me think the most and the ones I think were most important in 2013.
In a review for The New Yorker, David Denby wrote that, "one of the filmmakers' mistakes was to take Jordan Belfort's claims at face value."
Wolf is based on the autobiography of the real Jordan Belfort. I think it is the reviewer's mistake to not recognize that every perspective is biased and like all past Scorsese movies, this film is told from the perspective of a narrator who can only see things through his own eyes.
In an interview with Charlie Rose, Scorsese denies that the film is a satire and said, "This is it. This is the mentality." The key word here is mentality.
All the films I've mentioned deal with the idea of projection. The characters ask themselves: What kind of image am I projecting? How do people see me? In Spring Breakers, Selena Gomez's character doesn't want to seem like too much of a goodie goodie. In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby is obviously consumed with coming off as someone from the upper-class and in The Bling Ring, the girls want to be perceived like the celebrities they admire. Jordan in Wolf has figured out that power is all about perception and that image and name are the keys to success.
These stories are all about extreme self-consciousness, but they tap into something that is very real for most people today. I went to see The Bling Ring with my 15-year-old brother. The film overall was lacking -- I think mainly due to Coppola's indecisiveness about whether to laud or make fun of these teens, but my brother's comment to me after made me realize there were a lot of compelling details. He brought up a scene in which the crew is at a dance club, but instead of dancing, they are sitting in a booth looking bored between smiles and silly faces made for their camera phones as they take "selfies." He told me he goes to a lot of parties where kids sit around and instead of actually doing something, they take pictures of themselves, put it up on Facebook or Instagram and wait around for the likes and comments to flood in.
One aspect of these films that hardly gets discussed is communication. Of course, DiCaprio literally talks to the camera, but we also see him making infomercials, giving speeches and even through clips of home video footage of his wedding. Jordan Belfort is not just obsessed with money. He's obsessed with looking like and giving the impression of having lots of money. He is a manipulator of media of all different platforms -- in the same way everyday folk use multiple media today.
In Jonathan Franzen's beautiful op-ed in The New York Times, "Liking Is For Cowards. Go For What Hurts," he refers to social media as one big endless loop.
He wrote, "We like the mirror and the mirror likes us. To friend a person is to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors." I think part of the reason many reviewers have been so troubled by these films is that the films are mirrors themselves. They embody how these fictional people, if real, would like to be portrayed. Party girls like the ones in Spring Breakers would like their lives to look like a music video and Gatsby would want his life to be portrayed larger than life and 3-D. There seems to be little retribution for the selfishness and vanity these characters express. There is little plight or real hardship.
But if good film is meant to reveal truth, as I believe it does, then there is no other way in which to truly show these characters' mentality. James Franco when talking about Spring Breakers said that we are living in a world of surfaces.
When I go to parties and I see my friends taking pictures, asking to be "tagged", people discussing how many "likes" random things got, and sending Snapchat after Snapchat, it's hard for me to counter Franco's conclusion. I'm not saying down with social media or complaining about the failure of my generation to have social skills. I see Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites as great places for people to engage in discussions as well as a great platform for people to spread art and ideas. But it never hurts to have awareness.
Just two days ago The New York Times posted an op-ed written by Franco where he defends the "selfie" and talks about how it's a quick and powerful form of communication. The fact is more people are pointing the camera at themselves. The films I have mentioned show extreme hypothetical and sometimes real results of people trying to construct and control their own image. These movies are not just about flagrant materialism, they are about new modes of communication. They are about how we communicate.