Thursday, August 25, 2016

Theory Thursday: "The Wolf of Wall Street" is the Most Influential Film of the Past 5 Years

Scene from The Wolf of Wall Street
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: War Dogs is currently playing in theaters.
Theory: The Wolf of Wall Street is the most influential film of the past five years.

In 2013, it was easy to look at director Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street as a morally corrupt and objectively "bad" film. Who could argue with the excessive nature by which the film thrived as it made comedy out of drug hallucinations and showed the destruction of yachts almost as if it was a throwaway moment. There's a lot of things that to a normal person would be offensive. If one was to argue this would be to ask if we breathe air. At three hours, it may be difficult for some to take. However, there is a legitimate conversation around this serving a subversive and more challenging intent. Is the film a masterpiece? It's only been three years and there's a good chance that the jury's still out on it.

However, what's more unexpected and not talked about enough is how many films have essentially borrowed from The Wolf of Wall Street in the few years since. Admittedly, it's tough to really argue its influence as a finite thing, especially since it does seem likely that we are to see clones for the next few years. Yet it would be difficult to imagine a world where last weekend's War Dogs exists without Scorsese's epic - and not just because Jonah Hill was in both. While Inception may be more influential to the action film score technique, I want to make the argument that The Wolf of Wall Street has greatly changed how cinema has discussed capitalist politics in just three short years.

To summarize, the 2013 film was by no means a detailed account of how Jordan Belfort screwed everyone over. It more reveled in the comical conversations and the lack of empathy that he felt towards the underclass. As the film suggests, those who don't want to do his stock broker routine should work at McDonald's. It's all about greed, and he makes Wall Street's Gordon Gecko seem noble. There's drugs and sex at every turn, and there's no shortage of brushing off the terrible actions as if it was a stubbed toe. In typical Scorsese fashion, there's the voice over, the quick editing, and even the freeze frame to emphasize the impending chaos. By no stretch is this new to Scorsese. He did it before on Goodfellas. However, its use when discussing politics seems to be relatively new.

Again, Scorsese didn't invent the corrupt politician. Belfort isn't even the first morally objectionable person in cinematic history. However, there's a contemporary sense that feels like it has bled into everything that has come out since. It's the Hard R political lecture that allows for the adult themes to hang out in between cocaine lines and a rocking soundtrack that ranges from 50's classics to modern rock hits. In general, R rated cinema is harder to finance because the audience is greatly depreciated, and the themes of greed and corruption aren't exactly what cinema goers want to turn to. It's why The Wolf of Wall Street was so controversial at the time. However, there was some sick, perverted joy in watching debauchery unfold at an epic length and on a budget fitting to high end, safer studio dramas.

With all of this said, it may seem like a stretch to call this the most influential film simply because of its brevity. We only have three years of films to judge from, and I honestly think that's enough to see a trend forming. While there will always be your atypical political biopics and dramas, there is something to making it "accessible" to a wider audience by making the cursing more frank and the negligence more comedic/horrifying. This is more true in American cinema than anywhere else, and I think that there aren't two better examples than The Big Short and War Dogs.

Scene from War Dogs
The answer isn't as obvious in The Big Short, which focuses on the housing market collapse. It was a stylized account that saw director Adam McKay talk about complicated algorithms in a stylized manner. I choose to call it the MTV approach, as the balance of popular music over edited and stylized imagery created its own collage of spectacle. It moved fast while many found its dense amount of information easy to consume. The only real crossover besides "bad guy screws everyone over" is Margot Robbie, who famously talked economics in a bubble bath. It's a film that clicked with a lot of viewers and if anything was the next logical step to The Wolf of Wall Street by presenting information in a dizzying and effective manner.

On the other side of the spectrum is War Dogs, which sees director Todd Phillips tackling the gun running trade - also during the George W. Bush administration. It at times feels more fabricated from Scorsese with its casual cursing and its choice to highlight the insanity that comes with greed and stubbornness. Even the dynamics that develop in the third act mirror The Wolf of Wall Street - even if both were ostensibly based on true stories. I guarantee that in a few years, possibly a decade, one will look back at The Wolf of Wall Street and see how every political drama ripped it off. I'm not saying that these two examples are bad, but they definitely have an uncanny similarity and debt to Scorsese that only those paying attention will notice.

I know that two films don't make a pattern, but I'm sure that there's plenty that are being ignored. For instance, it's funny to look back on 2013 and remember that American Hustle was dubbed as "Scorsese lite." While I admit that David O. Russell's film maybe won't impact the future as much, it is odd to look at that now as being anything tangential to Scorsese. Yes, it does have the wiseguys, but it also seems more geared towards an older mindset that was more concerned about looking right as well as telling a compelling story. The Wolf of Wall Street simply doesn't care. If Russell's film really was impacted by Scorsese, there'd be more reckless abandonment outside of genre tropes. All you have to do to understand what I'm saying is compare American Hustle to War Dogs. The former starts to seem like an older, tamer film. That's especially odd, as Scorsese is much older and mature than Russell.

I feel like in an election year, things are only going to get more obvious with the parallels. The political drama is changing before our eyes, and I don't think that enough people realize it. Yes, we will always have more refined works like Spotlight to fall back on. However, it does seem like Scorsese opened the floodgates, especially for comedy directors, to explore their political fancies with a textbook style of how to make it exciting. If The Wolf of Wall Street isn't the most influential film of the past five years, then it at least should be on a list of films that we're seeing being imitated with a regular frequency. It may not be the best by some people's standards, but the proof don't lie. If you watch War Dogs and don't see the Scorsese fingerprints over every cliche moment, then you need to take another look at The Wolf of Wall Street.  

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