'Wolf' dispute reminds us that Martin Scorsese is no stranger to controversy

Posted by · 1:35 pm · December 29th, 2013

As we inch closer to the end of the year and one capped off by a trumped up “controversy” regarding Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” maybe we should all take a moment to appreciate the fact that a 71-year-old artist can still rile us so.

First and foremost, I think the dust-up over this film is symptomatic of things like satire being lost on a great many. I guess I get why someone personally vested might see the film as an endorsement of vile ways and then fire off a dubious open letter tearing it down. And of course I can understand run-of-the-mill simpletons staking out this ground, too. But it’s not as if smart people aren’t taking the film to task.

“‘Endorsing’ [is] a red herring,” New York Times critic A.O. Scott said in a recent Twitter conversation with myself and a few others. “Just as ‘satire’ is a crutch ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ partisans are leaning too hard on…I find defenses of ‘Wolf’ as unequivocally satirical unconvincing, as much wishful. Or at least [as much] projective thinking as the simple condemnations.”

Though I think the film clearly deals heavily in satire, I do partially agree with those sentiments. The film has become an extrapolation magnet for many over the last few months, I think. And things like this brouhaha, which ultimately bubbled to the surface in an Academy screening report from TheWrap that wasn’t quite news (but made for a grabby holiday headline), box out real discussions to be had. Few have really gotten into the formal elements of the film, lost in a fog of their own farts. I guess the “controversy” is simply the sexier topic.

But how boring. Scorsese is not new to controversy. Going all the way back to “Taxi Driver,” it has been a simmering threat in his work. In order to secure an “R” rating for that film, he had to desaturate the colors of the climactic shoot-out to make the bright red color of the blood less prominent. Casting a young Jodie Foster (13 years old) in the role of a prostitute who bears witness to that sequence was an equally raw nerve. Attempted Reagan assassin John Hinckley Jr. infamously obsessed on the film.

When “The Last Temptation of Christ” was released, fundamentalists lost their marbles. A Paris movie theater showing the film was burned to the ground, severely injuring many. Scorsese needed bodyguards.

“Kundun” caused quite the stir with the Chinese government, which threatened distributor Disney’s access to the ever-growing China market (after Universal – which distributed “Last Temptation” and had likely had its fill – declined the opportunity to distribute the film). Scorsese, screenwriter Melissa Mathison and others involved with the production were banned from ever returning to the country, and there are even those who surmise the film played a significant role in the firing of then-Disney president Michael Ovitz.

And by the way, “The Wolf of Wall Street” isn’t the first Scorsese Academy screening to draw jeers from the crowd. “Casino” was met with the same kind of heated tongue lashing at its screening nearly 20 years ago.

“Marty hates doing things that are politically correct or expected,” Scorsese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker told me in a recent interview. “He absolutely hates cliché. And because he wants the audience to decide about the film, he doesn’t want them being told what to think, which too many films, I think, are doing, frankly. They just throw things out there. They don’t make you believe it. That’s anathema to him.”

Those final points provide – or should provide – plenty of insight into Scorsese’s intentions with a film like “The Wolf of Wall Street.” The very idea of “intention” starts to fade away. The work as a Rorschach becomes its significance. If your response to the debauchery on display in “The Wolf of Wall Street” is an adrenaline-laced sense of euphoria, perhaps you checked your brain at the door (and that’s a point Scott made unequivocally in his review of the film, by the way). But more importantly, has Scorsese’s track record not afforded him the benefit of the doubt where ambiguity in the text of his work is concerned? Apparently not.

(NOTE: “Wolf of Wall Street” SPOILERS in the next paragraph.)

“Some audiences cheered Travis’ rampage in ‘Taxi Driver’; [the film is] not ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ anything,” film critic Matt Zoller Seitz said in the aforementioned Twitter discussion. To which Scott, rather stunningly, asserted: “I’m not sure those audiences were ‘wrong’ with regard to [that] film’s intentions. Same when audiences laugh at Naomi’s humiliation by the security cam or cheer Jordan’s abuse [in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’].”

I don’t quite know how to come at that one. But on that last bit, there is the question of misogyny in the film. “Critics who see misogyny not just depicted but enacted are not deluded, prudish or failing to ‘get it,'” Scott said. Perhaps not but they seem to be married to an interpretation that doesn’t hold a lot of water in light of Scorsese’s history.

I don’t think “The Wolf of Wall Street” is the great masterpiece some of my colleagues do, and I certainly don’t think it’s the abysmal, misshapen joke others do. I think it’s somewhere in between, clearly made by an analytical artist with something to say (and at three hours, somehow not enough time to say it). But the controversy surrounding it, however overstated it may well be, probably says more about us than it does the film.

So how’s this for an extrapolation: perhaps that was the point.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is now playing in theaters.

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