12. The Wolf of Wall Street: Tackling the Issue of Morality in Films, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Hate A Clockwork Orange

A while ago, an op-ed was written in The Nation in retort to Bob Dole’s campaign comments that he was opposed to films that were “nightmares of depravity.”  For Dole, he preferred such family classics as The Lion King.  The article brought up some valid points, putting aside the desperately pathetic attempt to classify The Lion King as racist, sexist, elitist, totalitarian, classist, and anti-intellectual (she forgot to bring up homophobic—after all, the film obviously glorifies heterosexuality in animals…unless…did she know something about Timon and Pumbaa that we don’t know?).  In straying away from those movies that are not perfectly in line with conservative Christianity—movies that deal with conflicts of race or sex, or even those movies that (gasp) question religion—people resort to movies that dumb them down and limit their own intellectual capacity.  The writer does not say that all good movies are immoral, or that immoral movies are all good.  The writer merely warns that such an idea as the one held by the Bob Doles, William Bennetts, and Lynn Cheneys of the world can be detrimental.

In response to this, I would ask, can such an idea as the one held by the writer of the article also be detrimental?  After all, the Doles and Bennetts and Cheneys aren’t exposing themselves to images of overt sexuality or controversial lifestyle like those “artsy” folks are.  In our quest to find what is artistic, we often lose ourselves in our own desensitization.  It is relatively well-known and universally accepted that such exposure leads to addictions to pornography and is particularly detrimental to the development of children.  And in all that liberal justification of such content, they can’t seem to dodge their own arguments that images like unto those they so adamantly defend contribute to violent and sexual crime.  So, who really loses?  The conservative butterflies-and-wooden-dialogue Disney adherents, or the most recent attendees to the Cannes Film Festival release of Lars von Trier’s most recent pornographic exposé?  The first miss out on the occasional artistic achievement.  The latter are subject to the desensitization.

The recent release of Martin Scorsese’s indulgent filth-fest The Wolf of Wall Street has resurrected the debate about morality in films.  Scorsese has always done this, since he first got on the movie industry’s scene in the 70s.  But this is by far Scorsese’s most sexually provocative and explicit film. This is his twenty-second film (not counting documentaries), and of his twenty-two movies, sixteen of them have higher ratings on Rotten Tomatoes.  Significant?  Yes.  (And I personally think that Shutter Island—rated below Wolf—was under-rated).  Considering the movie’s success and controversy, I feel like it is as good a time as any to write a page on a subject I have been stewing over for some time now: the issue of morality in films.

As this is a blog written for everyone, regardless of religious history, gender, race, or culture, I will attempt to write this essay with my personal beliefs put somewhat to the side.  This is impossible to do, really, but I feel that to some degree I can attempt to be unbiased in my analysis of morality in film.  I don’t mean to say that I am blindly obedient to a religious dogma or cultural ideal.  I hope that this blog, by its very nature, demonstrates sufficient enough intellect so as to counter any notion of dogmatic ignorance on my part.  Rather, I hope that I receive the benefit of the doubt; that my readers can understand that I am deeply religious and am not blindly so.  With that being said, my religiosity is born of decades’ life experience, and so referencing such religious understanding in an attempt to examine the issue of morality in film would be less-than-effective.  Instead, I will attempt to discuss this notion through cause-and-effect analysis and a discussion on the nature of the art.

The question of what content is appropriate in art has been an age-old query.  With the transferal of the film industry to Hollywood in the capitalistic United States, the issue became far more significant.  I have treated this concept with mild analysis in my second page on montage theory.  The point is that capitalism is the form of economy that allows for the most freedom of expression, identity, and choice, and it has proven to work in the world market.  It is difficult to find many cons to the system, but that does not disqualify it from the predicament of humanity: namely, that nothing ever works perfectly.  One of the most significant setbacks to the American system of consumerism is that art takes a step back to practicality.  That is not necessarily a bad thing, at least not on every level; only a fool would say that poetry is more important than pork, or that arias are more needed than air.  However, there is an ability to conceive, to think, and to ponder that separates the human from its baser relations in the animal kingdom.  This distinctively human characteristic that is the abstract mind has often led people to two different spheres: appellation to divinity, or humanistic glorification of the abilities of homo sapiens.  A Great Awakening or a Romantic Renaissance.  In our adherence to both, we find new and inventive ways to reform and improve the current application of practicality that would never have existed (or would have taken longer to come into existence) had we never appealed to the humanistic grandeur of the creative mind.  The ability to question and philosophize is the central factor in the creation of good art, and art has far more practical application than we often give it credit for.  After all, what good is a good meal if you can’t truly appreciate it on an emotional level?  Life is given its flavor in good art.  Life is also given its means for improvement.

I am reminded of something that a literature professor told me (and the rest of my class).  He was talking about the great Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov—who stands alongside Henrik Ibsen and William Shakespeare as one of the most performed playwrights in the modern world.  “I don’t read Chekhov when I want to just read something,” he said (in Russian; this is a rough translation).  “But when I feel like it is time to think deeper, differently, or to return to the truth through my own thoughts, I choose to read the plays of Anton Chekhov.”   Art is not empty, its purpose is human fulfillment whether through a quest for answers or merely a posing of questions.  Either way, sacrificing it on the altar of empty consumerism is not beneficial.

What is born, as I stated earlier, of American-style capitalism is a consumerist tendency that harms the artistic strain of society.  This is not to say that there is no good art that comes out of the United States or other Western nations like it.  The finest work of art of the 20th century was born of American hands (Citizen Kane).  Granted, I am biased to film over other art forms.  But, this goes to further prove my point.  Many would say that Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was the most important piece of art of the 20th century, but such an obsession with abstract things does not “stick” in the American psyche.  So, in steps a good movie.  Granted, that movie is not The Dark Knight; it’s Citizen Kane, or Vertigo, or City Lights.     Either way, there is a phenomenon that occurs in the United States that greatly derides the intellectual value of the arts, and this is nowhere more manifest than in film.  Consider, for example, the critical and commercial rivalry that is born of the Marvel movies.

Why film?  Because it is the most explicit of the art forms.  Since the arrival of Parental Advisory stickers on the corners of CD cases the word “explicit” has a negative connotation; it means, for many in the modern generation, “inappropriate” or “bad”.  It really means “clearly stated” or “obviously explained in detail.”  It is the opposite of “implicit”, which means “vaguely represented” or “alluded to in symbolic terms or through innuendo.”  Where, with things of implicitness we must intuit, with things of explicitness there is no need for imagination, deduction, or involvement.  Basically, with the emergence of explicit things comes the dumbing-down of the consumer.  In this regard, the word “explicit” kind of does mean “bad”, but only implicitly.

I talked about this in my historical analysis of montage theory.  When the public comes to determine what it likes in mass quantities, there is an inevitable transferal to the world of explicitness, and there is nothing more explicit and exciting than sex and violence.  Where men like Michelangelo Antonioni (in L’Avventura), Federico Fellini (in La Dolce Vita), Alfred Hitchcock (in Notorious), and even Jean Renoir (in The Rules of the Game) once alluded to very adult themes and sexual plot developments through a masterful appeal to montage, framing, and dialogue, we now have a bunch of people who actually feel that the audience is too stupid to get it through any other means besides explicit provision of sex scenes. Where men like F.W. Murnau (in Nosferatu), Michael Powell (in Peeping Tom), Andrei Tarkovsky (in Andrei Rublev) and Alfred Hitchcock, again, (in Psycho) once provided scenes of violence through an appeal to the principles of suspense, horror, and the darkness of human depravity, we now have a bunch of people who actually feel that the audience is too stupid to get it through any other means besides explicit provision of ridiculous violence.

Is all this wrong?  It is merely an evolution of film style.  Well, yes.  Is it wrong because it assumes that we’re all too stupid and shallow to really involve ourselves in a good movie?  No, it’s not, because we endorse such evolution by watching the explicit movies.  However, it is wrong in that this appeal to the lowest common denominator in society (the banal, primal human in all of us) in order to get profit leads to a provision of scenes documenting what many consider the basest human instincts of sex and violence.  (I don’t agree with much of anything Freud said, but I do agree that there is something horrendously natural about humankind’s vulgarity).  By providing these scenes in such a mass amount we get nothing in return except mass desensitization.  I’m reminded of something I heard (second-hand, mind you) from a professor: “Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino have done more to contribute to the desensitization of America than anyone in history.”  Whether or not I agree with said professor is not important, the point stands on its own.  Desensitization to violence and sex is a problem for any society, any time, any place.

It’s not like this is an isolated phenomenon extant only in the capitalist system.  Communism—capitalism’s opposite—also follows a downward spiral to the banal and explicit.  Communism (according to Marx himself) is distinctly anti-religious, and said removal of religion results in an inevitable turn towards moral relativity.  Moral relativism isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in that we all need to recognize that certain people have certain ideas, and so long as those ideas are well-founded, and as long as people continue to hold an open mind, we shouldn’t rush to judge people unfairly.  However, there is a disturbing development in our attempts to view everyone relatively: we begin to sacrifice our own ideas in an attempt to be “politically correct”.  In this regard, we move from moral relativism to moral absence, and this nonexistence of any morals whatsoever leads to permissiveness.  Which, in turn, leads to the exact same degree of desensitization that exists in the capitalist art-consumerism.

The result of this desensitization is that instances of brutality or intensity which once may have carried some cinematic power have become so commonplace that they are no longer special.  Sex, violence, filth, vulgarity, contention, pessimism, outright rebellion and smuttiness have become common in film, while the ability to make a movie without such things has become a rare gift among filmmakers.  This commonness is problematic, because, like I said, the moments when these sorts of things may be important become lost in a web of frequency.

In saying this, I cede that there are, indeed, moments when immorality in films can be considered appropriate.  While my religious beliefs have a hard time reconciling this idea, the secular understanding of morality in films must certainly consider the good that comes from adult content in films.

There are a few instances where “immorality” in cinema can be justified to some extent.  First of all, consider the nature of the art.  I always try to consider the nature of cinema when I examine the merits of any film or aspect of film.  It’s an important step in taking the casual movie-goer and turning him or her into the competent film-connoisseur.  The entire nature of the photograph is to expose.  After all, isn’t that the verb that is used in photography to describe the amount of light that comes into a picture?  Exposure is all about getting to the bare roots, and that is why Dziga Vertov saw the camera to be superior even to the human eye: it could do things the human eye could never do.  It could freeze time and space, and then manipulate that space by juxtaposing it against other frozen moments through montage.  The whole role of photography is to take advantage of these images, to expose the body, the mind, and the secret places of humanity and reality.  In so doing, the camera can provide a whole new realm of reality (my whole blog is based on film’s ability to create this new reality…this is the basis of my “A Slice of Cake” theory).

Really raw and edgy film directors get really caught up in this idea of exposure.  The problem is, is that they wish to expose the realities of humanity to a point where they lose out on the advantages that the “slice of cake” approach can provide to film: when they make immorality realistic they merely make life redundant, and when they stylize it, they make it so grotesque that they make imagination and participation of the viewer null and void.  But, I get ahead of myself.  I don’t want to retort these notions yet, but I don’t feel like I’ll get back to that point again in this essay.

Furthermore, the nature of photography is one of honesty.  No matter how much you adhere to my “slice of cake” approach to film criticism, you must recognize that reality has its place in cinema: it provides the starting ground, parameters, and context for our own understanding of the images provided.  A truly honest reality can give us better access into these imaginative realms, and it is simply not honest to portray every person in a film as pure, untainted, and innocent, nor to make every human relationship one of generous giving and love.

The original notion of putting real violence in films—I’m talking real violence, not Treasure of the Sierra Madre fist-fight violence—was to sensitize people to the horrors that humankind can inflict on one another, making lessons far more potent and giving the morals far more significance.  After all, how better to convince people not to heed the nationalistic clamoring of a neo-Hitler than to show the atrocities of the Holocaust and the great losses of World War II?

The other reason why immorality in film is sometimes justifiable is because it allows for connectivity and understanding of the characters.  This may not be obvious, but think on this.  In creating a world where moral relativism (or moral complacency) exists, the viewer can better sympathize with a character who screws up.  For example, when Ross and Rachel get drunk and make a baby out of wedlock, we don’t get turned off to their further exploits with Chandler, Monica, Phoebe, and Joey because the writers and directors of F-R-I-E-N-D-S have encouraged an environment of moral complacency as opposed to moral deviance.  The characters aren’t violating a long-held moral code, so we don’t lose respect for them.  This is important because we don’t have the advantage of knowing Ross and Rachel in real life, and so its better for us to not lose respect for them.  They are good people who get into some sort of trouble every episode.  We need that in order to keep going or the show dies.  It’s easier to do that if we look at morals relatively.  This is an important writing device for people who are writing about mature, deep ideas.  You can’t show a real analysis of anything without seeing a little bit of both sides, so good writers and directors will often work to create an atmosphere of moral relativism in order to give their characters a chance in the eyes of their viewers.

Lastly, many people justify immorality in films retroactively: during awards season.  Consider Natalie Portman in Black Swan or Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball.  Somehow, these performances are considered better than the performances of all their cinematic colleagues because they are brave and bold.  I’m not sold that they’re all that brave and bold; who wouldn’t like to get paid to make out with some hot Hollywood star over and over for days?  But anyway, again, I get ahead of myself.

I feel like I have given enough page space to justifying immorality.  I don’t intend to ever write any more on such justifications.  Call me a culture warrior.  The issue with all these justifications is that they all lead to, again, desensitization.  The very thing that justifies making such a film—that it provides some sort of anti-cultural boldness or anti-conformist bravery—becomes absolutely nullified because it is all so common!

Which brings me back to my original point.  We always want to be special, so we all dress like hipsters, not recognizing that we’re all just conforming to the newest fad (gasp!).  We hate being told what to do by the world, so we isolate ourselves and dress like Goths and Emos—strange, again, how everyone wants to be different but ends up acting the same.  This happens in movies, too.  While directors try so hard to be different, they all end up making another Tim Burton-style movie.  It turns out, Donnie Darko is not one in a million, but one of a million.  When a director wants to “bold”, “brave”, or “edgy”, they just make another Tarantino movie or von Trier movie.  The big problem, therefore, with making immoral films is that it makes the director look bad.  It’s all just one great big cop-out.

These directors, by means of this directorial cop-out, are not only tricking themselves into thinking they’re making something good, they are also tricking the viewers into thinking that they are watching something “bold, brave and edgy”.  I for one, don’t like to be tricked.  Like I said already, there is plenty of evidence that such pornographic or ultra-violent indulgences in film have a negative impact on the individual watching it.  That makes such indulgences inherently bad.  One thing that I have come to learn in life is that badness—or evil, or nefariousness, or depravity, or sin, or immorality, or crudeness, or what have you—likes very much to counterfeit in order to trick and deceive.  Lust as a counterfeit for love, aggression as a counterfeit for bravery, conspiracy as a counterfeit for promises.

When it comes to film, inclusion of adult content is far too often a mere counterfeit for true, edgy art.  Take for example, Scorsese.

When the topic of morality in films comes up, Scorsese is often mentioned.  I must admit, I really like (strike that, love) a lot of Scorsese movies.  Just look at my Greatest Films of All Time List: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Departed, and Goodfellas are all on the list.  What Scorsese does in most of his pictures is create a truly raw and edgy imagery and atmosphere through witty dialogue and Bresson-like narratives.  He has a superb ability to balance his mise-en-scène, giving significant sway to the extravagant while somehow keeping with an almost Bresson-like minimalism: nothing is superfluous (unless, superfluity is the point).  By doing this so well, Scorsese makes his rawness far more subtle, evading the outright showmanship of lesser filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Troy Duffy.  One director who succeeded—albeit only once—in harboring such distinguished adult content was Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn with his movie Drive.  Rex Reed of the New York Observer said that Drive was “moody, shocking and perversely fascinating”.  But, then there was Only God Forgives, which the same Rex Reed saidmay not be the worst movie ever made, but it is unquestionably in the top five.”  Why the difference?  Because of the problem of commonness; the cop-outs are far too obvious and obnoxious.  Scorsese hardly ever falls into that trend.

That is not to say that Scorsese is perfect, though.  He has messed up plenty of times, for example, with Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street.  He is far better in talking about the gritty and grimy and personal than the extravagant and loud and public.  His subtlety gets lost in a movie that feels much more like a show-and-tell than an artistic endeavor to penetrate the depths of the human complex.  I think that’s why I liked Shutter Island so much.  The truth is, when a director chooses to include a violent or sexual scene (even a light one), they start to distract the viewer from the importance.  They get lost in the shallowness of 5-dollar matinee sex and, by extension, never find the depth of a truly great film.  That’s why Boondock Saints sucked so bad.  It was a cheap, shallow imitation.

This is why, if you look at my Greatest Films of all Time list, you will not see Midnight Cowboy, Blue Velvet, or A Clockwork Orange.  It’s not because I haven’t seen them.  I have.  And I regret ever doing it.  Such films are merely the indulgence of their directors, who are so caught up in their own worlds that they have to film their sex-fantasies for future use.  It’s all just indulgence and cop-outs designed to play off the assumed shallowness of their viewers, tricking them into thinking there is depth in their movie.  Blue Velvet is (shockingly, I know) perhaps the most shallow of all the “deep” movies.  The first scene shows a perfectly manufactured suburban neighborhood.  The camera moves downward, going through the ground and showing the soil creeping with all sorts of creepy creatures.  At seeing this obvious symbol, the bored and sarcastic intellectual says, “my, oh my, what in the world could that mean?”   The whole movie is shallow in its symbology, but is turned infinitely more shallow by its masochistic sexism and indulgence.

Keeping with Blue Velvet, I’ll return to a point I made earlier.  Movies like this provide actors an opportunity to play extremely bold roles, to literally and figuratively expose not just the depths of their character but also the depths of themselves.  Isabella Rosellini, in this picture, truly accomplished this in her performance, providing one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen.  But, this becomes even more problematic, when one considers Roger Ebert’s words: “[t]hose very scenes of stark sexual despair are the tipoff to what’s wrong with the movie. They’re so strong that they deserve to be in a movie that is sincere, honest and true. But ‘Blue Velvet’ surrounds them with a story that’s marred by sophomoric satire and cheap shots. The director is either denying the strength of his material or trying to defuse it by pretending it’s all part of a campy in-joke…the performance by Rosellini is so convincing and courageous, that it demands a movie that deserves it. American movies have been using satire for years to take the edge off sex and violence. Occasionally, perhaps sex and violence should be treated with the seriousness they deserve. Given the power of the darker scenes in this movie, we’re all the more frustrated that the director is unwilling to follow through to the consequences of his insights.”  We can see that even though a lax approach to morality in films may give the actor the role of a lifetime, by the very nature of the film in which the character resides, the potency of the role is put on the chopping block of bad taste.

Now, on to another grotesquely overrated film, one that I mention in the title of this blog: Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.  But I will not review it myself—at least not on my own. I’ll let Pauline Kael do the talking:

“When I pass a newsstand and see the saintly, bearded, intellectual Kubrick on the cover of Saturday Review, I wonder: Do people notice things like the way Kubrick cuts to the rival teen-age gang before Alex and his hoods arrive to fight them, just so we can have the pleasure of watching that gang strip the struggling girl they mean to rape? Alex’s voice is on the track announcing his arrival, but Kubrick can’t wait for Alex to arrive, because then he couldn’t show us as much. That girl is stripped for our benefit; it’s the purest exploitation. Yet this film lusts for greatness, and I’m not sure that Kubrick knows how to make simple movies anymore, or that he cares to, either. I don’t know how consciously he has thrown this film to youth; maybe he’s more of a showman than he lets on — a lucky showman with opportunism built into the cells of his body. The film can work at a pop-fantasy level for a young audience already prepared to accept Alex’s view of the society, ready to believe that that’s how it is.”

In essence, Kubrick just tricked us, and A Clockwork Orange is the cop-out of all cop-outs.

“Wait,” some will say.  They will say, and I know they will say, because I have heard them say it, “But Kubrick is merely perpetuating an important plot element: he is giving his viewers his own version of the ‘Ludovico Technique,’ just like the therapy that Alex was put under to give him an aversion to acts of violence.  We, the viewers, are being exposed to a similar therapy.”

For those who have not seen the movie—those blessed folks—I should stop to explain what is going on in this imaginary retort.  Alex is the main character, an ultra-violent adolescent criminal.  To get out of prison sooner, he agrees to undergo the newly developed ‘Ludovico Technique’ to help to temper his addiction to sex and violence, and theretofore make him a pure, innocent citizen.  Go ahead and read the book.  It’s really good; much better than the movie.

Back to the debate: to claim that Kubrick is merely trying to create an aversion to acts of violence in us is to say that Kubrick did not understand the movie that he made or the book that his screenplay was adapted from.  The entire premise of the book is based on more than just the fact that the post-Ludovico Alex is “a clockwork orange”, a mechanized, brainwashed, robot of a man.  It is based on the irony that the pre-Ludovico Alex is just as much “a clockwork orange.”  Alex the good is a mechanized creature, if you allow me to reword Kael, but so is Alex the sadist.  The latter is mechanized by a lifeless society that does not give proper credence to values.  The irony exists in the fact that Alex is a robot either way.  The movie does not demonstrate this.  If that was truly Kubrick’s goal, he failed, because instead of helping a bunch of viewers form an aversion to ultra-violence, he instead contributed to the establishment of a desensitized society.  He, instead, made a bunch of clockwork oranges.

I’ll return to Pauline Kale’s review to contribute to my point.  She said:

“At the movies, we are gradually being conditioned to accept violence as a sensual pleasure. The directors used to say they were showing us its real face and how ugly it was in order to sensitize us to its horrors. You don’t have to be very keen to see that they are now in fact de-sensitizing us. They are saying that everyone is brutal, and the heroes must be as brutal as the villains or they turn into fools. There seems to be an assumption that if you’re offended by movie brutality, you are somehow playing into the hands of the people who want censorship. But this would deny those of us who don’t believe in censorship the use of the only counterbalance: the freedom of the press to say that there’s anything conceivably damaging in these films — the freedom to analyze their implications. If we don’t use this critical freedom, we are implicitly saying that no brutality is too much for us — that only squares and people who believe in censorship are concerned with brutality. Actually, those who believe in censorship are primarily concerned with sex, and they generally worry about violence only when it’s eroticized. This means that practically no one raises the issue of the possible cumulative effects of movie brutality. Yet surely, when night after night atrocities are served up to us as entertainment, it’s worth some anxiety. We become clockwork oranges if we accept all this pop culture without asking what’s in it. How can people go on talking about the dazzling brilliance of movies and not notice that the directors are sucking up to the thugs in the audience?”

I could close here, but I want to make one final point.

Art is sometimes sacred, but more often it is humanist.  That shouldn’t matter in the context of morality.  Both trends of thought seek to establish and cultivate the good inside people, the quest for human perfection both on the individual and societal level.  Art is about cultivation and growth, development and help.  Through art, the human struggle against pain, sin, death, and weakness is portrayed.  Through art, both the consumer and the producer are granted the opportunity to reconcile their lives with that struggle.  If good art shows the struggle, bad art must show the succumbing.  I suppose that’s where the secular answer lies in regards to how much importance morality holds in cinema: are we showing the struggle, or the succumbing?  Is the director himself struggling, or succumbing?  Somewhere in all this struggle, when accurately portrayed in an artful and dignified way, the viewer can find true meaning and purpose in life.  But, in a world full of evil and wrongdoing, our artists should certainly not be contributing to the problem with their own desensitizing propaganda.

So, let’s not be tricked by the cop-outs.  No clockwork oranges here.

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