The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013) is a repulsive affair. A hybrid of Wall Street (Oliver Stone, 1987) and American Pie (Chris and Paul Weitz, 1999) it comes short of the former as well as the latter, it comes short even of their shortcomings. If it regards itself as comedy, provided that comedy is still supposed to be comic – more probably one is dealing with a force of inertia, the endlessly dwindling-and-whirling jack that once upon a timepopped out of the box– it can bring laughter only to the utterly dehumanised and thus a contrario validates Henri Bergson’s definition that “the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human.” (1) Assuming that the comic demands “a momentary anesthesia of the heart,” (2) the latter cannot be attributed to the individual characters, it is rather a matter of global anesthesia that enfolds and pervades the whole plane. (3) One still watches a Hollywood film from time to time only to determine the stage of the decay of the Empire, resulting in an impression that this negativity is bottomless, limitless, that there is no end to the downfall. (4)
As far as it is still possible to talk of auteurship, it has been a long time since Scorsese became a brand name for an automated production, for the general line of general intellect. If late Picasso is a masterful forgery of Picasso, (5) here, one cannot detect any mastery, merely a senior trying to remain in high spirits at any cost, a professional adolescent doing all he can “to be a part of it.” To whichGuy Debord’s In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978) replies: “Avant-gardes have only one time; and the best thing that can happen to them is to have enlivened their time without outliving it. After them, operations move onto a vaster terrain. Too often have we seen such elite troops, after they have accomplished some valiant exploit, remain on hand to parade with their medals and then turn against the cause they previously supported. Nothing of this sort need be feared from those whose attack has carried them to the point of dissolution.” (6) Translated in pop music terms (which Debord would find unbearable): this is the whole difference between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
During almost three hours of jumping from sequence to sequence, one more redundant and formulaic than the other, the viewer taken for a ride of greed, drugs, sex etc. etc. keeps asking himself/herself, who is supposed to be the addressee, the yet unfamiliar with all of this. The insider information whispered by the main protagonist as if in confidence are long since communicated commonplaces, i.e., stock phrases. When, in The Movement-Image, Gilles Deleuze ponders on “how can the cinema attack the dark organisation of clichés, when it participates in their fabrication and propagation, as much as magazines or television?” (7), he – relating to the crisis of the action-image – points to the limit of the American cinema, whose critique is either still too attached to the American Dream (i.e.Sidney Lumet) or gets stuck at parodying clichés (i.e.Robert Altman). Deleuze writes: “In Taxi Driver Scorsese makes a catalogue of all the psychic clichés which bustle about in the driver’s head, but at the same time of the optical and sound clichés of the neon-city that he sees filing past along the streets: he himself, after his slaughter, will be the national hero of a day, attaining the state of cliché, without the event being his for all that. Finally, it is no longer even possible to distinguish what is physical and psychic in the universal cliché of King of Comedy, sucking the interchangeable characters into a single void.” (8) Through D. H. Lawrence Deleuze asserts that a critique or a parody of a cliché is not only never sufficient, but also helps the cliché to rise from the ashes – like Cinderella. In the case of Wolf this assessment turns out to be too optimistic: a cliché is neither more nor less than a cliché, it is its/theirs ceaseless mirroring, where nothing rises, it is a mere dust, an ash pile the stockbrokers are snorting up their nose. To use the words of Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke: “You still seem to think that emotions, instincts, ideas govern our behaviour …,” however, “… a human being does not express himself forthrightly and in keeping with his nature but always in some well-defined form….” (9) Of this form remains a cliché; a cliché as a prosaic excess that imitates the self-mutilating physical comedy of Jerry Lewis or early Jim Carrey (a body that turns a film into a cartoon, the lowbrow so dear to the highbrow French, as if all of their loathing of Americans were hidden in-there), the mechanism of which is a belated effect of Quaaludes, the appropriated sleeping pills for the desperate housewives. The deformation of the seen/visual, the heard/auditory, the sensed/sensory, the space-time flattens Leonardo DiCaprio’s head and body (that are already in discrepancy between eternal boyishness and inevitable aging) to such an extent that they conjure up an angular image of the late North Korean president Kim Jong-il. The body as its own down-the-stairs-rolling CGI puts itself alongside the spirit of the marble/bronze/embalmed bodies, bodies-mausoleums, bodies, laden with History, or, in AlainBadiou’s terminology, with passion for/of the Real. Integrated bodies of the spectacle. The wrecked Lamborghini, whose scale model appearance summons up the overall pettiness, is only there so it – as opposed to human wrecks – may evoke at least a bit of sympathy.
It seems that Scorsese’s trilogy Goodfellas (1990) / Casino (1995) / The Wolf of Wall Street or, better put, the original / the remake of the original / the remake of the remake, a series that could also be entitled The Rise and Fall of Rome, had from the start gravitated towards singing the praises of the good life and decadence as a continuation of Fellini (“it is not a trial by a judge, it is a trial conducted by an accomplice”). (10) Towards the glamorization of organized crime, whose road from the underground to the “model of all advanced commercial enterprises” (11) is also a moment of doleful nostalgia for the lost Wild West. “Rome is no longer in Rome” (12), Debord cites Racine in Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. Aside fromScarface (Brian De Palma, 1982) and The Godfather I-III (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972, 1974, 1990) the corporate/indie rappers, that paradigm of thugs/conformists, over-identify (13) the most with Goodfellas andCasino, without being bothered by the two-faced naivety of their morality tale (14), in exactly the same way as the brokers inBoiler Room (Ben Younger, 2000) know their Gordon Gekko lines by heart and recite/rap them interchangeably as a motivational mantra during the ritualised watching of Wall Street.The Wolf of Wall Street proves its case in an entirely rapper fashion, with money it can burn (the co-opted form of potlatch) and MTV Cribs-like cataloguing of things it owns and does violence to (the real estate, the means of transport, women…). If one is not impressed, one can only be sanctimonious, envious, a poor thing, a nobody. Thus – with a little help from Slovenia – the Empire retaliates. In The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, 2012) (15) the one-percenters – in alliance with the police – save Gotham (aka NYC aka the world) from the ecoterrorism of the anarchists-Jacobins, where else than in front of the Stock Exchange and immediately after the OWS. (16) In Wolf the Melvillian-Deleuzian indistinguishability between brothers and con-men is dissolved into a brotherhood of con-men, a wolfish “company of bon vivants,” (17) sworn to the gangster code of honour or silence, which is – as usually in this genre – betrayed by the main protagonist in the name of self-preservation.
Morris Berman’s book trilogy talks about the decline of the American Empire that had been founded by Hobbesian, entrepreneurial hustlers, a circumstance evident from the fact that in the American English there are 200 synonyms for the word “swindle”. In Wolf‘s closing scene a mirror is placed (what else could a cliché do?) in front of the viewers in the manner of “lupus in fabula,” with an imposing assumption that everyone, yes, everyone wants to win, in the same breath demonstrating that this can happen solely at the expense of others. Returning home on a subway – after a macho victory over a “little man” Belfort aka the invasion of Grenada – the FBI guy recoils at the sight of the poor specimens of ethnic/racial minorities, realising the meagerness of his own life. That kind of endangerment/nausea in the presence of the other is the only possible perspective (18)where a term of co-operation designates nothing else but a broken trust, an activity of a rat/traitorous collaborator (with the law/the prosecution).
Now to a different but same, that is, very local perspective. A Slovenian, Katarina Čas, has a brief role as Chantalle in the film and the whole petit bourgeois nation went hysterical with pride and envy, which amount to the same thing. In fact, she couldn’t have been of more help to the Wolf’s misanthropy/misogyny. A cliché of a useful idiot – who the instant he/she crosses the border turns into an ambassador/lobbyist/mouthpiece explaining to anyone having the misfortune to run into him/her, where he/she is coming from, how wonderful Slovenia is and that it should by no means and in no way be mixed up with Slovakia (disparagingly, without knowing anything about the latter) – has acquired a global certificate. A nation hooked on the gossip of success was all ears to the report from Hollywood, a hallucination of authorship according to which the original “Made in Slovenia”ideas were – as a sign of bedazzlement – included in the film. This kind of moronic compensation for the country’s discredited “success story,” as if Slovenia could with a pouting sigh one more, or rather, one last time put itself alongside Switzerland (since Chantalle is Swiss-Slovenian), was the act of self-affirmation, the authentication of the LOLblonde and the chick-country (19), thus both becoming a laughing stock, i.e., a penny stock, so suitable for pump and dump scheming. A natural blonde Borat which is not enacted, but simply is, found herself in a civilisation where everyone can act simply by being. In times when a fugitive, even an immobile one, is the only thinkable figure of political subjectivity (from immigrants without papers/citizenship to citizens-deserters of “codified instances of political participation”) (20), a consciousness – or its automatisms – pledging loyalty to the fatherland (nation-state) continues to exist, and one can imagine that the global governmentality does not laugh at this all the way to the bank, it laughs precisely as a bank. The verse of the Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun, “I grew tired of the image of my tribe / and moved out” (21) is flipped over; henceforth this image is exported as an exotic, substandard commodity, notwithstanding that the exotic does not exist anymore and that there is more than more than enough commodities. The exoticism of this particular commodity lays precisely in its excessive aspiration to be standardised, i.e., in compliance. Like the former Yugoslavian car Yugo that got itself typecast into a so-called stock character, securing a steady flow of unflattering, humiliating appearances (“What appears is good; what is good appears,” says the Spectacle) (22) as an unreliable, defective, shitty vehicle. (23) This is no longer a character role – an expression that vanished anyhow, together with characters, but not in the direction of Deleuze’s originals without qualities –, it is a caricature cameo. Slovenia had become – not for its singularity, but for its ridiculous residue of belief in the American Dream – the new Kazakhstan, at least for a blink of an eye as everlasting as those 15 minutes. From now on it has the “Borat of philosophy” aka Slavoj Žižek telling jokes and a Hollywood blonde straight out of a joke. (24)
This article was originally published in the Slovenian film magazine Ekran in March-April 2014.
1. Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1914, p. 3
2. Bergson, op. cit., p. 5
3. On the trail of painters or Deleuze & Guattari, Jacques Rancière writes in his monograph on Béla Tarr: “This global affect does not allow itself to be translated into feelings experienced by the characters.” See Béla Tarr, The Time After. Minneapolis: Univocal Publishing, 2013, p. 34
4. Whether capitalism has a limit is analogous to the dilemma on whether the universe will be expanding ad infinitum.
5. Fredric Jameson, Signatures of the Visible. New York, London: Routledge, 1992, p. 82
6. The film’s transcript is available at Bureau of Public Secrets.
7. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997, p. 210
8. Deleuze, op. cit., p. 209
9. Witold Gombrowicz, Ferdydurke. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000, p. 129 (epub version)
10. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image. London, New York: Continuum, 2005, p. 272, , note 11
11. Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. London, New York: Verso, 1990, p. 67
12. Debord, op. cit., p. 77
13. The legacy of the Situationist International’s text “The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy” on the 1965 Watts uprising illustrates a trajectory from subversion to co-optation: “ [T]he Los Angeles blacks take modern capitalist propaganda, its publicity of abundance, literally…[O]nce the vaunted abundance is taken at face value and directly seized, instead of being eternally pursued in the rat-race of alienated labour and increasing unmet social needs, real desires begin to be expressed in festive celebration, in playful self-assertion, in the potlatch of destruction. People who destroy commodities show their human superiority over commodities. They stop submitting to the arbitrary forms that distortedly reflect their real needs. The flames of Watts consummated the system of consumption. The theft of large refrigerators by people with no electricity, or with their electricity cut off, is the best image of the lie of affluence transformed into a truth in play. Once it is no longer bought, the commodity lies open to criticism and alteration, whatever particular form it may take. Only when it is paid for with money is it respected as an admirable fetish, as a symbol of status within the world of survival.” Today the overturned burning limousines and burning policemen amidst the spectacular violence of street riots in the videos of Jay Z. and co. (Holy Grail [Anthony Mandler, 2013] or No Church in the Wild [Romain Gavras, 2012]) demonstrate the complete subsumption under the commodity-form.
14. That this tendency had already been sensed in Scarface from 1932 (Howard Hawks), could be concluded from its opening message, by which the film distances itself – at least on paper – from such effects, but at the same time flirts with vigilantism: “This picture is an indictment of gang rule in America and of the callous indifference of the government to this constantly increasing menace to our safety and our liberty. Every incident in this picture is the reproduction of an actual occurrence, and the purpose of this picture is to demand of the government: ‘What are you going to do about it?’ The government is your government. What are YOU going to do about it?”
15. Slovenian actor Aliash Tepina has a bit part as Bane’s (Tom Hardy) assassin/hashishi in the opening sequence, almost as a small tribute to Vladimir Bartol’s 1938 novel Alamut, “the most famous Slovenian book in the world” rediscovered after the 9/11.
16. More on this and the conservatism of the superhero genre in David Graeber’s text “Super Position”
17. See Gilles Deleuze, “Bartleby; or, The Formula”, in Essays: Critical and Clinical. London, New York: Verso, 1998, p. 89
18. Under conditions in which a war of everyone-against-everyone is presented as a state of nature and the financialisation of everyday life is naturalised into a jungle, in this “homo homini Wall Street” the anomaly is precisely the use and existence of the public (transport, space, school, healthcare…), not its deregulation. At the same time the dichotomy between the private and the public, where the latter more or less refers to the State, is too tied to the liberal tradition.
19. It is a matter of great convenience that – seen from above – Slovenia has the shape of a chicken.
20. Giorgio Agamben, “Beyond Human Rights”
21. Tomaž Šalamun, “Eclipse”, in The Four Questions of Melancholy. Buffalo, NY: White Pine Press, 2002, p. 23-24
22. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle. London: Rebel Press, 2004, p. 9-10
23. Dragnet (Tom Mankiewicz, 1987), The Crow (Alex Proyas, 1994), Die Hard: With a Vengeance (John McTiernan, 1995), Drowning Mona (Nick Gomez, 2000), Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (Peter Sollett, 2008), Cars 2 (Brad Lewis and John Lasseter, 2011) etc.
24. Wolf brings both of them together at the end when there’s talk of a non-alcoholic beer.