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The Wolf of Wall Street


Peter T Chattaway
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I felt awkward telling an unbelieving co-worker, in front of a fellow Christian in the office, how wowed I was by in the film. My believing friend has heard me challenge his dismissal of other films on moral grounds before -- or, if not challenge on those precise grounds, speak of why I liked certain films for other reasons. 

 

 

 

I got comments from someone at my blog today who was clearly distressed by the film's spot on my top 10 list. She wrote:

 

You're trying to say there's a deeper purpose here. Beneath all the obscenity and pornographic filth, we find the profound message that... America sucks/capitalism is evil? Maybe that's an oversimplification, but bear in mind that if Scorsese is par for the course in Hollywood, he's coming at this from a very leftist economic bias.

 

 

You see how easy it is to write a movie off? Just find a political label you don't like and pin it on the filmmaker. Saves you the trouble of, you know, really considering the film.

 

 

 

Or maybe she did consider the film and that was her conclusion? ;) A capsule description of a film isn't necessarily a label. No one called Christian's "obscene" a label.

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there is no way the sex, nudity, drug use, swearing could be "abhorrent to virtue" or "designed to incite lust."

 

Yeah, Margot Robbie standing naked in a bedroom doorway does nothing for me. wink.png I get your point, mostly, but I can name several films with graphic sex that are less obscene than Wolf of Wall Street.

I don't deny that the content and behavior of the characters in The Wolf of Wall Street is obscene.  I'm just hesitant to call the film itself obscene, because it is so brutally critical of Belfort and his actions.  If that makes sense.

"Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones."

"Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning."

- Pope Francis, August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro

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there is no way the sex, nudity, drug use, swearing could be "abhorrent to virtue" or "designed to incite lust."

 

Yeah, Margot Robbie standing naked in a bedroom doorway does nothing for me. wink.png I get your point, mostly, but I can name several films with graphic sex that are less obscene than Wolf of Wall Street.

I don't deny that the content and behavior of the characters in The Wolf of Wall Street is obscene.  I'm just hesitant to call the film itself obscene, because it is so brutally critical of Belfort and his actions.  If that makes sense.

 

 

That makes sense and I agree.  That shot of Margot was the only nudity in the film that truly was, well, what it was.  But even there I can see why it fit with the story.  I really disliked all of the nudity and the sexuality in this film, but I can also see why it was there.  Surely in a bygone era they might have been able to make a film dealing with these themes without it, and have the film not seem too safe and watered down for its themes.  But not now I don't expect.  Which is of course in and of itself probably sad.

 

That all being said.  This film has been floating around in my head since I saw it, in a good way.  Also the scenes that are in my head are the scene of the FBI agent in the subway etc.  NOT the nudity and debauchery, as such.  Another shot that keeps popping up, was the shot of him trying to open the door to the car with his leg (funny stuff), and the scene of the car when they found out what he had done to it (funny - but also insightful as to his delusions.)  

 

This is a brilliant film, somehow there were scenes that had something of an awesomness to them, for me.  I think its just simply because the film is so darn clever in its humorous observation of these jerks.

Edited by Attica
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Here we go.
 


DEADLINE: What do you say? 
SCORSESE: In Goodfellas, people either get killed, or they go to jail. The ones who get out clearly haven’t learned much, and complain because they can’t get good spaghetti sauce. Well, too bad. But here, the character goes to jail, but that doesn’t really mean much. He gets out and he starts all over. I don’t know about the real Belfort, I’m talking about the character. The main factor to be considered here is the mindset and the culture which allows this kind of behavior not only to be allowed, but encouraged. And what they do is never shown. As a naïve young person I thought that in white collar jobs, people behaved a certain way, respectably. I’m sure there are people who do. But, I’m 71. And in the past 30 years or so, I’ve seen the change in the country, what values were and where they’ve gone. The values now are only quite honestly about what makes money. To present characters like this on the screen, have them reach some emotional crisis, and to see them punished for what they’ve done, all it does is making us feel better. And we’re the victims, the people watching onscreen. So to do something that has an obvious moral message, where two characters sit in the film and hash it out, or where you have titles at the end of the film explaining the justice, the audience expects that. They’ve been inured to it.

 

DEADLINE: What were you instead going for?
SCORSESE: I didn’t want them to be able to think problem solved, and forget about it. I wanted them to feel like they’d been slapped into recognizing that this behavior has been encouraged in this country, and that it affects business and the world, and everything down to our children and how they’re going to live, and their values in the future. It’s almost becoming like, these days in Hollywood, people misbehave, they have problems in their lives, drugs, alcohol, they go to rehab and come out again. And that means it’s okay, it’s an expected ritual you go through. You make a film about slavery, it’s important for young people to understand and see it vibrantly presented on the screen. And when you make a film that just points up and decries the terrible goings on in the financial world and the financial philosophy and the financial religion of America, we do that a certain way and it makes us feel okay, that we’ve done our duty, we’ve seen the film, given it some awards and it goes away and we put it out of our minds. By the way, Jordan and a bunch of guys went to jail, and even though they served sentences in very nice jails, the reality is jail is nice and a light sentence is still a sentence. The lingering reality is, if you look at the last disaster this world created, who went to jail?

DEADLINE: Nobody.
SCORSESE: That’s right.

 

DEADLINE: It would make a fascinating movie, but I’ve always heard you’ll never Hollywood show how Hitler charmed Germany and Europe into being his accomplices in the Holocaust; you’d have to show his seductive side and nobody wants to risk appearing to glorify an indefensible figure. This is your latest collection of bad guys who killed or stole. Leonardo said you told him that you don’t judge your bad guys. What are your rules for depicting loathsome people onscreen?
SCORSESE: I don’t know if I’d call them rules. I grew up in an area where as far as I knew, this was the world. It was an area in Manhattan, an old, old fashioned culture. An evil culture. I knew them first as human beings. Some were nice to children and other people around them, and would help other families. Some were not nice at all. Later on, I discovered a number of them were not wholesome characters, to say the least. To say the least. Yet, I also knew some of them were genuinely good people forced by circumstance or their own human weakness into a life of doing bad things. But they were basically decent people. It happens. People do it in war, people do it in business. People do it in love. This is about human weakness. If we don’t recognize it, if we don’t say it exists, it’s not going to go away. The hell with us, we’re old, but what about the young ones. What are we going to do, put some political correct ribbon over it? No. There is evil in us.

 

DEADLINE: You’ve said this movie was an expression of anger…
SCORSESE: More like frustration, really. I’m just sick of it.

 

DEADLINE: You’re 71, your films withstand the test of time, you’ve got a little one running around. How do you summon anger and intensity with all these nice things swirling around you?
SCORSESE: Because, it’s not fair. There has to be something that can be determined as fair business code. Business is not just buying and selling. It’s how you treat people. I may treat people terribly, I don’t know. Maybe in some cases I do know. I can’t judge that. But when you say I don’t judge the characters, what I meant when I said that to Leo is, the author’s stance on the character is obvious here, so we’re taken off the hook. We didn’t need to put an outsider’s perspective on it. We had to go all the way, be forced to look at yourself. Times in my life, were my acts moral or immoral? Was I right or wrong? Did I do even worse than he does? All I can show is what he does, and I do not like it. I do not like it. I’m furious with it. But, there are still some people I grew up with, they are the most charming people you’ve ever met. You would not want to be with them, though.

 

DEADLINE: It is notable that you resisted wrapping this in a bright, shiny moralistic package.
SCORSESE: It wouldn’t mean anything. People would accept it and forget about. You see that on television, like every two seconds. It no longer means something. I felt here that if we were going to try and say it, let’s do it, full out. Be as open about it as possible.

Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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FWIW, I receive emails promoting Tom O'Neill's Gold Derby Oscar site (I have no idea how I got on his list), and today's email links to a Scorcese webcast I've yet to watch. However, the email itself puts quote marks around excerpts from Scorcese's comments, so he must have actually called the film "obscene":

 

In a webcam chat with Tom O'Neil, Marty Scorsese admits his new film is a "lightning rod" and that it's "profane and obscene," but so is the money culture it dramatizes.

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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So.  I was poking around the comments for this film on the IMDB website and this short little exchange made me chuckle.

 

From a detractor - "Movie was utter smutt and garbage. Vulgar and idiotic trash"

 

 

Then the response - "...I agree! I liked it too!"

 

 

-

 

I really think that if a person writes this film off as *just* being smutt and garbage, then they really, really aren't thinking this film through.  Of course there's also what Scorsese is saying.

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Attica wrote:
: That shot of Margot was the only nudity in the film that truly was, well, what it was.  But even there I can see why it fit with the story.

 

It's a tricky thing, because there's really no way to show how she uses her sexuality to get Jordan without, well, showing how she uses her sexuality. (Especially if the film is being told, in some sense, from Jordan's point of view.) But that moment is wonderfully undercut in the very next bit of voice-over narration.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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I've been rereading Richard Schickel's excellent Conversations with Scorsese while watching some other Scorsese pictures (bits of Goodfellas, all of Casino and New York, New York, with possible viewings of Gangs of New York and The Departed to come this week). As I work through this, I find myself esteeming Wolf more, not less, but also developing concerns about some of Scorsese's tendencies as a filmmaker. Considering Scorsese's body of work as a whole, I don't think that Wolf is particularly distinguished in its brutishness or repetitiveness or ungainliness.

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Attica wrote:

: That shot of Margot was the only nudity in the film that truly was, well, what it was.  But even there I can see why it fit with the story.

 

It's a tricky thing, because there's really no way to show how she uses her sexuality to get Jordan without, well, showing how she uses her sexuality. (Especially if the film is being told, in some sense, from Jordan's point of view.) But that moment is wonderfully undercut in the very next bit of voice-over narration.

 

Completely agree.

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Scorcese's interview fits with something I've been wondering.  Could it be that the filmmakers have the same feelings towards the depictions of debauchery in the film as many of us do?

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Jeffrey's commenter wrote:

 

You're trying to say there's a deeper purpose here. Beneath all the obscenity and pornographic filth, we find the profound message that... America sucks/capitalism is evil? Maybe that's an oversimplification, but bear in mind that if Scorsese is par for the course in Hollywood, he's coming at this from a very leftist economic bias.

 

I'd guess I'm 180 degrees to the left of the commenter (and a good bit to the left of Scorsese as well), but I think I'm pretty much in agreement with the first two sentences of that comment, and Scorsese seems to confirm it in the interviews snipped above. He's angry about our economic condition and has made a movie that forces us to sit among the ruins for three hours? I'm not sure what that accomplishes, exactly. I'll take Alien's "Look at all my shit" monologue in Spring Breakers over anything in this film.

 

On a sidenote, I saw Wolf yesterday with a good friend who's also an independent filmmaker, and we joked afterwards that Scorsese's budget for fake cocaine would have paid for my friend's latest feature. This argument can obviously be taken to tricky logical extreme, but I'll say it anyway: it's hard for me believe Scorsese is so angry about our economic situation when his own production has a stripper budget as big as Belfort's (apparently).

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On a sidenote, I saw Wolf yesterday with a good friend who's also an independent filmmaker, and we joked afterwards that Scorsese's budget for fake cocaine would have paid for my friend's latest feature. This argument can obviously be taken to tricky logical extreme, but I'll say it anyway: it's hard for me believe Scorsese is so angry about our economic situation when his own production has a stripper budget as big as Belfort's (apparently).

 

I have mixed feelings about this issue...

 

...sort of the way I have mixed feelings whenever there's a debate about "Why do Catholics pour so much money into fancy cathedrals when they say they're so concerned about the poor?" On the one hand, sure, that money could be put to direct, practical use that would do some direct, practical good. But on the other hand, the definition of "poor" is very broad, and the poor in spirit are drawn to aesthetic beauty just as they're drawn by any other essential and healthy appetite.

 

In the case of this film, on the one hand, yeah... you're on thin ice when you spend lavish amounts of money on a satire about excess. On the other hand, in this case the money is going to things that make this movie into a firehose-blast-force representation of excess that wouldn't work if it didn't... you know... shock us with its own extravagance. Would a Wolf of Wall Street that was done on the cheap even work?

 

Further, I think this film isn't exactly summed up with "America sucks/capitalism is evil." I think it's a film about how consumer culture left to run wild turns everybody and everything into sellers and customers, and the film takes us through so many different guises of salesmanship that it's speaking beyond the walls of Wall Street into the dehumanizing force of salesmanship in any endeavor, and how the distancing influence of technology (telephones, essentially) enables and even encourages dishonesty. I found myself thinking about evangelists, missionaries, and the ways in which we sell ourselves via phone lines and the Internet almost as much as I thought about stock brokers during this film.

Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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I am really interested in this issue of films that supposedly attempt making a point via audience participation in indulgence. On the whole, I'm highly suspicious of it when I hear it as a critical line of defense.

 

This year we have Spring Breakers, The Wolf of Wall Street, and I think some have argued for Pain and Gain fitting in this category of "but over-the-top indulgence is the point! Isn't it subversive?!"

 

I'll share that I struggled to discern a "there" there with Spring Breakers (I haven't seen Pain and Gain, but I have my doubts), while I think Wolf, despite operating in this vein of audience manipulation, is clearly a morally-infused satire. I think much of the chatter about this (including the Scorsese snippets above) comes when we make a distinction between "moral" and "moralizing." Scorsese doesn't spell it out for us, but his righteous indignation is evident to me nonetheless. I could be wrong, but I'm not sure "righteous" and "evil" are relevant to Spring Breakers. Perhaps for some that's not a problem.

 

I've said elsewhere that, for the most part, the sex in Wolf isn't all that sexy. When I've qualified it, I've had in mind the scene Darren mentions.

Edited by Nick Olson

"What is inside is also outside." -Goethe via Merleau-Ponty, in conclusion to the latter's one extended rumination on film
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Right.  Except for that one shot, which as touched on probably needed to be sexy, there was nothing really all that sexy in this film.  I agree that Scorsese's righteous indignation is quite evident.  Part of the difference in opinions here would also come down to views on what films can and should be.  I think most of us on this forum would agree that a film can be moral without being moralizing (possibly even that moralizing could in some cases actually be immoral?) But there are a lot of people, especially in the Christian world I'd expect, who don't share those views.  So for them the only thing that could possibly save this film from being utterly rotten, being moralizing, isn't present.  

 

But what Scorsese is basically saying, to my understanding, is that moralizing wouldn't save this film, but would make its message less potent and thus the whole ordeal even worse.

Edited by Attica
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I'll share that I struggled to discern a "there" there with Spring Breakers (I haven't seen Pain and Gain, but I have my doubts), while I think Wolf, despite operating in this vein of audience manipulation, is clearly a morally-infused satire.

Yes. Wolf's critique of American culture is more substantive and incisive than whatever statement is offered by Spring Breakers.

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I don't know. I think the films are making similar statements--and neither of them are especially profound in doing so--so evaluation comes down somewhat to taste. I think Spring Breakers is a lot more interesting formally. It has an ambivalence, radicalism, and sorrow to it that isn't possible in a satire like Wolf. Your mileage will likely vary. I liked Taxi Driver the last time I watched it five or ten years ago, but, otherwise, I don't really care for Scorsese. Other than cinephilia, I just don't share any of his obsessions and always feel at a remove from the world he inhabits.

 

A friend just posted this on Facebook. It summarizes my take on this debate pretty accurately.

 

Richard Brody says: "The difference between Belfort and his victims—and between the fictionalized Belfort and his viewers—is that he does what we would but don’t dare, he says what we think and feel but suppress."

Penn Jillette says: "“I, myself, have raped and killed everyone I want to ... and the number for both is zero.”

The lesson I take from this is that I would rather hang out with Penn.
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Most people wouldn't think and feel what Belfort is saying, or want to do what he was doing.  It's called a *Conscience*.  Either there's something wrong in Belfort's head, or his conscience has become very scathed over.  

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I don't know. I think the films are making similar statements--and neither of them are especially profound in doing so--so evaluation comes down somewhat to taste. I think Spring Breakers is a lot more interesting formally. It has an ambivalence, radicalism, and sorrow to it that isn't possible in a satire like Wolf. Your mileage will likely vary. I liked Taxi Driver the last time I watched it five or ten years ago, but, otherwise, I don't really care for Scorsese. Other than cinephilia, I just don't share any of his obsessions and always feel at a remove from the world he inhabits.

 

You're way out ahead of me in terms of reading all that a film is doing formally, Darren. So I'll say that up front. Have you written about Spring Breakers extensively? Here's what I mean mostly by what I said above. If someone asked me what Scorsese thought of his subject or whether or not WOLF has a moral center, I think I could provide a really compelling, layered answer to that question in the affirmative. If someone asked me what I think Korine thinks of Spring Break culture based on his film alone, I don't know that I have an answer one way or the other. I haven't stopped thinking about many aspects of Scorsese's film--and most of the formal choices I notice actually play into the answer I would provide; the most SPRING BREAKERS left me with was Franco's one-liners/performance and the Britney Spears "video" (one of my favorite scenes of the year, fwiw). I think I could write the perspective of SB being satirically interesting, but I'd at least feel like one of those writers ascribing something to a film that's not definitely there.

That doesn't mean that I'm not missing something about Spring Breakers or that "therefore" WOLF is better or "therefore" if you like SB, you have a morality problem (hopefully I don't need to explicitly state this, but so as to avoid online communication traps).

All of this is to say that I agree much of this comes down to taste (and I know exactly what you mean about feeling at a remove from a director's world), but I'm not sure if I'd agree with the first part of your first sentence. I'd need to be convinced that Korine is making a similar statement (and I'd like to be!)...

Edited by Nick Olson

"What is inside is also outside." -Goethe via Merleau-Ponty, in conclusion to the latter's one extended rumination on film
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I think the films are making similar statements--and neither of them are especially profound in doing so--so evaluation comes down somewhat to taste. I think Spring Breakers is a lot more interesting formally. It has an ambivalence, radicalism, and sorrow to it that isn't possible in a satire like Wolf. Your mileage will likely vary.

I think the films are up to different things. Spring Breakers opens as an examination of hedonistic youth culture and segues into a comment on how African American culture is being appropriated by American white culture. Wolf is an extended study of the ubiquitousness of wealth envy in American culture that permits monsters like Jordan Belfort and the culture he presents to exist.

What I detected in Spring Breakers, and what turned me off of it so completely, is an overwhelming insincerity, something I didn't find in Wolf. Scorsese is, even at the worst of times, a terribly sincere filmmaker, and for all of my reservations about it, I don't think Wolf is an exception.

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When I said they're doing similar things I was basically agreeing with Jeff's commenter: Wolf of Wall Street and Spring Breakers are both about this particular stage of capitalism we're all swimming in, and in that both of the films revel in the ugliness of this condition, it's fair to say they're both critiques of it. They're set in different milieus (wall street vs. college), but Belfort and Alien are the same age, they're indulging in the same vices, and they're just begging everyone to look at all of their sheeyit. Comparing the two films actually adds another nice layer to their critique, as the white collar criminals of Scorsese's world get off (no pun intended) pretty easily compared to the poor (as in not-rich) folk in Korine's.

 

Is Korine sincere? Is he insincere? I have no idea. But Spring Breakers at least tries to find a new form to address the new conditions. Scorsese's classicism, combined with his satiric pantomimes of MTV hedonism and Robin Leach, often seemed just silly to me. Or maybe "stodgy" is a better word. Whereas Korine's film instantiates (not always with complete success) the twisted, aestheticized, reified reality of our situation. (These sentences make sense, vaguely, in my head, but I realize they need a lot of fleshing out.)

 

I'm eager for more people to see Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves, which combines classic genre filmmaking with analysis of particular tendencies of capitalism. It's the best film of the three by a long shot, in part because it's the smartest.

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More later perhaps (heading to bed). For now: I'm still not sure I detect a "reveling in ugliness" qua critique in SB like I do in WOLF, which means that I'm not so much calling out Korine's sincerity about a moral position so much as I'm questioning whether or not a moral position is evident in the film in the way that it is in Scorsese's.

 

That said, I'd love to hear you flesh out that second paragraph a bit more.

 

But most importantly: NIGHT MOVES is near the top of my want-to-see list, so I'm glad to read your last comment, Darren.

"What is inside is also outside." -Goethe via Merleau-Ponty, in conclusion to the latter's one extended rumination on film
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Is Korine sincere? Is he insincere? I have no idea. But Spring Breakers at least tries to find a new form to address the new conditions. Scorsese's classicism, combined with his satiric pantomimes of MTV hedonism and Robin Leach, often seemed just silly to me. Or maybe "stodgy" is a better word. Whereas Korine's film instantiates (not always with complete success) the twisted, aestheticized, reified reality of our situation. (These sentences make sense, vaguely, in my head, but I realize they need a lot of fleshing out.)

 

Thanks for making this more clear to me, Darren. I see what you're getting at now with the classicism comment. WOLF seemed no more stodgy to me than GOODFELLAS or CASINO, which in my mind always have had a lot of energy. But this clarifies for me the real question you're getting at, which is more difficult: that is, which film is more "relevant." I haven't seen SPRING BREAKERS yet, aside from a few clips online, but I will have to now. Similarly, I felt that THE BLING RING managed to realize the reality of our current form of capitalism as well, though perhaps not fully successfully. Though many of the students I teach strike me as having a similar worldview to the characters in Coppola's film (I don't mean that to sound cruel or to distance myself, but just to note that it's portrait struck me with its verisimilitude).

 

One thing that the "silliness" and over-the-top nature of WOLF's late-80s and 90s milieu emphasizes (and the stylistic classicism that Scorsese is committed to) is its rootedness in an actual historical moment, something that cultural critics often praise in other contexts. WOLF is not set today. It's not the present financial crisis (Belfort doesn't even *really* work on Wall Street). But it is still rooted in its own particularity. Its pastness didn't blunt its effect for me. I think in some respects we can only learn from history, as we are blown with our back to the future (to evoke Benjamin's "Angel of History").

 

In that sense, a film like SPRING BREAKERS and Korine's effort to instantiate our current situation might not work for some simply because we are too close to the present situation. It's still unfolding and hasn't been absorbed and processed to the extent that the story of Jordan Belfort is. Belfort is already history, even if recent. Korine seems to be suggesting that Alien is us (?) (again, I haven't seen the film yet and it's always dangerous to make such presuppositions), and some folks might not buy into that.

"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

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 Whereas Korine's film instantiates (not always with complete success) the twisted, aestheticized, reified reality of our situation. (These sentences make sense, vaguely, in my head, but I realize they need a lot of fleshing out.)

 

 

Made possible by the highly publicized notion that the first act of the film is not far removed from what these girls get up to on a regular basis, including the little echo chamber of singing Britney Spears songs in harmony. The thing I find fascinating about Spring Breakers is Korine is actually doing less than it seems to accomplish his formal goals. Trying to find a moral center in Korine's films seems to verge on a category mistake.

 

In contrast, the moral center of Wolf may be Scorsese as a filmmaker "exploring" the American dream in its pre-Giuliani NYC guises.

Edited by M. Leary

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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