Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Fraud, American style

I spent New Year’s Eve watching Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and then David O. Russell’s American Hustle back to back and therefore conclude that the business of America is now defrauding the next guy, having fun, and then sorta feeling bad about it.

The two films, among the hottest in our cinemas today, are cracking good entertainments. Both narratives are also based on real people and events. But the extent to which they massage the facts is less relevant than what the massaging says about how our artists view the recent past and by extension the present.

Wolf reaches back to the pre-crash naughts, the same terrain explored by Margin Call, i.e., the wild west days of finance when deregulation and Reaganite worship of ‘success’ opened the floodgates to all manner of newly invented scams, which culminated in the mortgage-based Big Fleece from which we are still trying to recover. Leonardo di Caprio is another Gordo Gerko/Michael Douglas type named Jordan Belfort (a real person) whose origins are more mundane and whose pretensions are far more grotesquely nouveau riche. He satisfies them by peddling worthless penny stocks to suckers.

The film follows the predictable arc of wealth, glory, decadence, decay, and crash, lasts three hours, and provides the usual gratifications: we get to see all the cool luxury, join the orgiastic parties, throw up (a little) in our popcorn over the ostentatious excess, and piously cheer the come-uppances suffered by one and all.

What’s missing, as more than one commentator has pointed out, are the victims. We hear the anxious blue-collar workers on the other end of di Caprio’s phone calls (while he mimes butt-fucking them and taking their cash to the chortles of his employees). But we never see them, and that is, of course, essential to the entire operation, both for the di Caprio character in the movie and for ours in the audience. If we actually saw the people getting their hard-earned savings wiped out to pay for these frat boys to snort coke off hookers’ behinds, the film would not be very funny. And we do want to laugh.

Hustle reaches further back to the Abscam sting operation of the late 1970s that snared a few congressmen and a couple of Jersey mayors. It’s a more complex film with eerie plays on the shadowy world of scam artists and con men (and women), whose skill is tied to their sociopathic capacity to believe their own lies. Here, the viewer is as lost as the targets of the multiplying scams.

The take-away lesson from Russell (laid out explicitly in the epilogue) is that the FBI overreached in luring these workaday politicians into bribery scams that were easily believed in the post-Watergate era but also criminalized borderline activities like cutting deals to generate local business, jobs, a tax base, etc. So perhaps some day we’ll have similar films about how the FBI now creates terror plots by pumping up marginal or deluded immigrants whom they can then bust and crow about on camera (and get refunded for next year).

Meanwhile, the juxtaposition of these two films about lying and cheating and scamming and playing on human beings’ trusting natures in order to then screw them blind does lead to reflection on what we are telling ourselves about our culture and our motivations.

Scam artists are celebrated characters in our national psyche from Tom Sawyer and probably long before. We laugh at the smooth talking guy out to make a buck, the Music Man bringing wholesome band instruments to River City threatened by a pool hall, the buffoonish snake oil salesman one step ahead of a licking by defrauded locals; we even get serious at the death of a failed salesman in Arthur Miller’s iconic masterpiece. Commercial culture is in our blood as a society founded on trade rather than social class.

But there is something new in the way Scorsese winds up his treatment of the di Caprio/Belfort character, who emerges from prison to star in salesmanship seminars hosted by a New Zealand entrepreneur. (The real Jordan Belfort gets a brief cameo as his host—Scorsese never really condemns his bad guys.) Di Caprio starts to work his sleazy magic on the crowd as the credits roll, and we see a crowd of dazed losers who have paid serious money to sit through a course in how to rip the faces off stupid people with idle cash.

Ha ha, I get it. We’ve moved beyond getting your slow-witted friends to paint your fence. Today, you either sink your jaws into your neighbors’ haunches or get stuck with the losers taking the subway.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes, where is the "little guy" on our big screen these days? Audiences may not want to get depressed focusing on victims, but what about the "little guys" who fight back? Where is the Grapes of Wrath of our time? Where are the films in which our biggest stars inspire us by portraying the average person, who not only refuses to be beaten down, but who manages to think beyond his/her individual needs to unite with others for the common good in a just cause?