Monday, July 20, 2015

Free the Nipple (2014)

Planet of the (Holy) Apes

directed by Lina Esco
starring Lina Esco, Lola Kirke,
Casey Labow, Monique Coleman, Zach Grenier

By the sheer breadth of man's ingenuity, and for little more than a hatchet wound and the guarantee of his paternity, modern life was molded — some would say twisted — into the cupcake-and-reality-TV paradise of constant Facebooking and Instagramming that today's baby-shitters and Daddy's-little-princesses take for granted. After all, woman was cold, so man harnessed fire to keep her warm. Woman was hungry, so man slayed a beast to fill her tummy. Woman needed a purpose, so man made her a mother. Woman felt unsafe in a world of cutthroats and scoundrels, so man took up sword and rifle in her defense, and made the laws that protected her. "More," she said. "I'm still not satisfied. LOL."

And so, man gave her more. He made space for woman in his corporate America, increasingly pushing his fellow man out of a job in order to do so and, in the process, watching his once-hallowed workplace degenerate into a high-school lunchroom beset by cliquishness, backbiting, the passive-aggressiveness of the female supervisor, and a near-Orwellian redefining of "acceptable" office behavior so as not to make tough, independent career girls feel uncomfortable. He reshaped civilization in order to see her hailed as his intellectual and social equal. He dug deep into his masculine identity and scooped out the very guts of it so that she might never again feel that something was beyond her grasp simply because she wasn't as strong or as driven as the average man. He indulged her pity for those she perceived as lesser than her by letting her vote away his tax dollars to self-interested groups who spurned his values — by letting her nudge his once-proud country down an "equality"-greased slope into debt-wracked socialist oblivion. He rewrote divorce laws so that she needn't justify it when taking his children from him for the slimmest of reasons and then exposing them to a revolving door of Mommy's new boyfriends while she flies to Vegas and books "me time" at the spa thanks to his alimony payments. He kicked his Judeo-Christian morals under the cultural relativism rug so that she'd be applauded — rather than cursed as an ice-hearted murderer — as she brayed from the mountaintops about her inalienable right to have his unborn child suctioned out of her and then disposed of like a bloody tampon. He gave her the pill and, with it, a gateway to the game of musical beds that she imagined every man already took as his due.

And when woman's demands for further entitlement grew shriller and more obstinate instead of fading with long-vanquished iniquities — when woman, in all her deluded, long-simmering pique, began tattooing, "plus-sizing" and whoring away at the very femininity and suitability for motherhood that his society had been structured from its genesis to preserve — did man put his foot down and demand a return to common sense, to workable relations between the sexes? Why, no, he remained as he was: collared, branded with a scarlet "P" for "privilege" and poised on all fours to lick the leather dominatrix boot of "progress" whenever commanded.

Meanwhile, what has today's rights-obsessed Western woman done with all this power accorded her by the cushiest, most advanced society of personal freedoms and post-Enlightenment deference to the concept of the individual that history's ever seen? Does she speak out against the "honor killings" of Muslim women or against female genital mutilations in African tribal rites? Does she campaign to improve conditions for female migrant workers or to hold Mexico accountable for countless women and girls slain by south-of-the-border drug cartels? Does she take to the streets for fourteen hundred British girls abducted and violated in Rotherham, England — girls as young as eleven pimped out by Islamic throwbacks to the Crusades while police did nothing for fear of appearing "racist"? Does she agitate for government intervention over the escalating numbers of her raped and murdered sisters popping up in Sweden, Denmark and other European nations now flooded with unassimilable hordes from the asshole of the third world?

Why, none of the above, you silly goose; our modern-day Joans of Arc have far more pressing concerns. And if Free the Nipple — self-described activist Lina Esco's riot-grrrl agitprop masquerading as a debut film — is any indication, then foremost among those concerns is tearing topless through our city streets like apes on Adderall, their childishness underscored by ski masks and dime-store Superman capes as they deface cars and public property, disrupt traffic and passers-by (many of whom are in the middle of their day working actual, y'know, jobs), and generally waste the time and energy of the police officers forced to respond to all this ruckus (because, certainly, it's not as if cops in a crime-riddled sewer like New York have anything more relevant to the public's safety to busy themselves with). And why, you ask, would such sparkling specimens of womanhood spend their career-and-relationship years engaging in such stunts? Well, they're making a Statement®, wouldn't you know. Apparently, this free-the-nipple jazz is some real-life, grassroots political "movement" (and by "grassroots," I mean "undoubtedly funded and organized by the same billionaire cultural shit-stirrers as every other outfit devoted to leftist social disruption"). I'll let Wikipedia do the explaining:
Free the Nipple is an equality movement focused upon the double standards regarding the censorship of female breasts started by activist and filmmaker Lina Esco. The campaign is not a crusade that exclusively advocates for women to bare their chests at any and all given times; rather, it seeks to strip society of its tendencies toward the sexualization of the female upper body, addressing hypocrisies and inconsistencies in American culture and legal systems that enforce its taboos. Ultimately, the campaign resolves to decriminalize female toplessness in the US and empower women across western nations in a greater effort toward global gender equality.
Or in English: it's just another wet fart in church from the defiantly un-Brazilian-waxed brown-eye of third-wave feminism — more distaff attention-whoring as flimsily conceived social crusade from women's studies majors who diddle themselves six ways to Herland over self-righteous S&M fantasies of being pinned under the jackboot of some imaginary patriarchy. The indigestible smugness of the movement's resolve to essentially "correct" human nature is handily summarized by a shot late in the film, with its emetic restaging of The Beatles' Abbey Road cover: self-styled "girlrillaz" march their unsheathed (and mostly unremarkable) baby-feeders across a city intersection, one trollop behind the other in arrogant pretense to the cultural heft of an iconic artifact from the Revolutionary Sixties™, grinding the real world to no more than a momentary stammer as they screech and foot-stamp for the respect and accolades that might have been theirs, had they bothered to cultivate some genuine skills or talent in gratitude to a country that's footed their bills since birth, or had they ever communicated something to the wider society that didn't resemble screams of bloody murder from a pampered little snot who's just been told to do her homework.

Esco casts herself as her own protagonist, the improbably-named With, who starts the film as a wide-eyed change-the-world-through-journalism wallflower and winds up the linchpin of the movement, its thoroughly radicalized Malcolm XXX. She meets her Elijah Muhammad when she pops up on the sidelines to photograph the midday streak and subsequent arrest of Lola Kirke's Liv, a hipster-lesbian confrontation artist who specializes in getting herself arrested so that her pink-haired minions can sit around the abandoned custodial-supply closet they're squatting in and refer to her as a "political prisoner." With watches Liv cackling like a mental patient as the fuzz carts her away and it's like watching a little boy with leukemia meet his favorite wrestler through the Make-A-Wish Foundation — she's so awestruck, it gives her the tingles.

When With interviews Liv for a fight-the-power piece she hopes will sell (spoiler: it doesn't), she asks Liv to lay out her manifesto; Liv responds with twaddle about the holiness of the female nipple and its life-giving nectar — it leaves you giggling like the moment in Bamboozled, Spike Lee's black-complicity-with-media-stereotypes satire, in which a rapper who pushes down-with-the-system rhetoric is asked to specify just what it is that he's rebelling against and all he can squeeze out is a hilariously mush-brained "USA... KKK... all dat shit." Of course, Lee was poking fun at his moron; Esco expects us to be bowled over by hers. She filters Liv's addle-brained statement of purpose through the playback monitor of With's video camera, linking this daughter of "professional hippies" with the film's incessant found-footage array of prepackaged media "rebels" and talking heads lent automatic credence by the gaze of the camera's eye. What Esco's doing is cutting her directorial corners — she wants to endow Liv with the cultural-critic legitimacy that neither the film's shrieking Lindy West article of a screenplay nor Kirke's channeling of a distinctly Courtney Love level of charm bothers to give the character. Of course, legitimacy is hard to come by when you're pushing a role model for Che-Guevaras-with-milkbags and her battlefield oratory — indeed, her entire cause — boils down to: waaaaa it's not fair! men can do it, so why can't weeeee?

Had Esco and her screenwriter possessed a shred of intellectual honesty — had they been after anything here besides publicity-whoring for Esco and her grrrls'-night-out posse of trust-fund guerrillas — they'd have acknowledged that, regardless of manboob legality, groups of men don't run shirtless through midtown New York, making public nuisances of themselves, and if they did so, they'd be hauled off to the pokey just the same as any loony batch of "oppressed" Pussy Riot wannabes. Had Esco been interested in something other than propaganda, her film might have explained to us exactly how civil rights are trodden upon by a time-honored social decorum that has the audacity to expect half the population not to go around, flashing their bodies at strangers like common strumpets. Is it even an issue to women who weren't ignored by Daddy that men are allowed to bare chests at beaches and public swimming pools and their wives and daughters aren't? Has it occurred to "my body, my choice" femme-bots that only every dining establishment and place of business in the country wields a "no shirt, no shoes, no service" policy, and that any man flouting this policy would be ejected from the premises and likely — given the perception of masculinity as a potential threat — even faster than a woman doing the same?

Does it really need to be explained to featherbrained middle-class "equality" warriors that female nudity — as decreed by nature — carries a different set of connotations and has a completely different psychological effect on people than male nudity does? For that matter, does it need explaining that this unique impact is actually counted upon by women for their sense of self and that the average girl would shrivel up and expire in a flash of green smoke if that carnal essence of hers ever lost its attention-drawing, resources-attracting grip on the swinging-dick half of the party?

Anyone familiar with the leftist indoctrination camps that pass for today's college campuses will find the motley crew that With and Liv assemble to be no surprise — it's like a who's-who of the girls still sitting at the bar, ignored, when the lights go up. We get the reasonably cute girl who uglies herself with Kool-Aid hair coloring and an air of aggrievement derived from the Bikini Kill CD's and feminist websites she gorged on back in the suburbs. We get a validation-hungry Miss Piggy, dipping a toe in teen-brat rebellion behind her husband's back (as if his having chosen a parade float to spend the rest of his life with weren't validation enough). We get the afro-sporting black girl with chronic no-you-di-innnt-face — crucial in their circles for that all-important diversity cred, and for bestowing upon them the imprimatur of a tenuous connection with saintly, downtrodden brown people. Most predictably, the group finds its panting lapdog in With's neutered male roomie Orson, who pesters her like a nagging wife for the rent money she's behind on and then folds like a lawn chair as she whimpers rehearsed excuses about why she's too precious to soil herself with a real job. Come the film's climax, he's scampering right along with his gal pals' au naturel street offensive, his own scrawny chest unveiled in a self-debasing stab at being the "right" kind of guy — indeed, he's the type who'd take a paring knife to his own testicles if it meant thirty seconds of applause from women who'd just as quickly go back to forgetting he existed.

His presence among them, however, is the most unintentionally honest thing about the film. Though the girls claim insipid degeneracy cheerleaders like Madonna as their inspiration, it's the largesse of men that makes it possible for our little dearies to charge titty-witty through the streets while plotting to bully endorsements from the likes of Larry Flynt and Hugh Hefner — be it the strategizing and media connections of With's old journalism contact, be it their lawyer's knowledge of legal loopholes and his readiness with bail money, be it the rich kid who pledges to lend coin to the undertaking, or simply the "moral support" of hapless pussy beggars like Orson.

Recorded history judges this as no less a fact — walk the path from our present era of "slutwalks" and FEMEN desecrations of clergy back to ye olde nineteenth century and you'll trip over John Stuart Mill and Gerrit Smith attaching the push for women's suffrage to their political platforms; you'll find your William Lloyd Garrisons, your Henry Browne Blackwells, your Max Eastmans and innumerable other male suffragists, who penned essays and letters of protest, chaired women's organizations and bore the brunt of public ridicule so that their female counterparts could plant bombs and burn down the homes of their perceived opponents. Indeed, go no further back than With and Liv's beloved "Material Girl" and count the army of male execs (like Seymour Stein of Sire Records, who signed her), male producers and songwriters (Reggie Lucas, John "Jellybean" Benitez, Nile Rodgers, Stephen Bray, Patrick Leonard), and male music-video mavericks (David Fincher, pre-Paltrow's head in a box), on whose contributions her out-of-nowhere ascent to MTV-endorsed, Pepsi-sponsored, Vatican-rattling supernovadom was virtually assured.

These girls even manage to purloin their ideas from men — Gandhi, Bob Dylan, quotes from Flynt and Hefner on the "hypocrisy" of American morality — and women having their own ideas about things, about the way their lives should be, is supposed to be the blow to the overfed paunch of white Christian hegemony that makes this whole feminism thing float, isn't it? Absent a rationale that springs from our heroines' own noggins, we're left staring at the gap between just-discovered-Frantz-Fanon babble like "Every revolution needs resistance!" and the self-hype of women so chilled by the even temperature of their placid little lives, they have to drape themselves in the philosophical skins of long-dead rabble-rousers, like some purpose-poaching Ed Geins, just to get their pulses racing. Certainly, it can't be that the ladies are constitutionally — nay, chromosomally — incapable of making a statement, of asserting their "true selves," without stripping down and falling back on their physical appeal, can it?

I mean, had I a dollar for every porn skank, webcam girl, stripper, model, Hollywood starlet, "performance artist," "slutwalk" participator, female musician, campus rape fantasist, "reclaimer" of the female body, and prostit— I mean, "sex worker" that I've heard prattling on about how "empowered" they are by baring tits, spreading legs and embodying the very objectification and reduction to mere girlie bits that they claimed to be rejecting in the first place, well, hell, I could buy my own private island, equip it with a Maker's Mark distillery and surround myself with a harem of teenage Anulka Dziubinska clones. That the movement's most vocal real-life advocates are callow courters of outrage like Courtney Love, Miley Cyrus, model Cara Delevingne, pop-diva punching bag Rihanna, and even Bruce Willis' girls Rumer and Scout would, to the skeptical man, seem quite telling. But surely, there's something deeper and more transcendent going on here that my dinosaur man-brain prevents me from seeing, right?

Consistency, apparently, is the hobgoblin of much better films: With and crew compare themselves with straight faces to Jesus, Buddha and Moses, then jabber on about religion shackling the womenfolk (when, in fact, the enforced mores of a traditional Christian society saved women from their worst impulses). We get the blaming, twenty-five years late, of Ronald Reagan and the Christian Right for the smothering of all self-expression while our rage-against-the-machiners say nothing, of course, about the shadow of secular Judaism over our post-Sixties leftward slide and dilution of national character, nor about the fingerprints of the pro-Israel lobby and Jewish-American neo-cons on our current Middle Eastern embroilment. Opportunities for sly humor pass right over the film's head, such as when the token sista mentions her Black Panther grandmother, and With and Liv glint in unison like matching Christmas tree lights. ("I read Malcolm X!" interjects the clueless With, as if Malcolm X's New York-based Nation of Islam were interchangeable — or even ideologically twinned — with the Oakland, California-based Panthers.) The film seems to be nudging you in the ribs there — at last! the leavening of a little self-mocking humor — but then, the moment wilts under a deadening earnestness; that it could have been amusing doesn't even seem to have occurred to Esco.

The film grasps for relevance in any and all directions — zig-zagging through "murder, violence and war" and Janet Jackson's Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction" — as a means of providing some broader context for this "struggle." Esco even cuts from internet factoids about the state-to-state legality of toplessness to news reportage of the Colorado Batman premiere shooting, and then she leaves it at that, as if the threads connecting the two were so self-evident as to be above explication. Obviously, Esco wants to play up the cliché of violence as endemic to the American way of life, and then contrast that with her conviction that the same culture supposedly runs for the hills at the sight of a woman's breast. But it's fatuousness bordering on derangement to pretend that random shoot-ups of Joe Public by fifth-rate Travis Bickles have ever been endorsed or accepted by the American populace; it's equally disingenuous to try and finger some cultural chastity belt of American neo-Puritanism as having watered the soil from which such violence sprouts.

To the extent that American society is, as With claims, one of the most violent in the world, it's due inordinately to the crime committed by minorities — particularly the low-income, victimologist wings of black and Hispanic cultures, which aren't exactly known for their WASP inhibitions and pearl-clutching at the sight of T&A. But — and here's that intellectual dishonesty again — liberals like Esco can't scratch beneath the surface of any of the maladies they wail about, for fear of implicating the very people they've built their identities championing. So instead, they toss around vague indictments of nebulous entities like "society" and rest their case on ramshackle connections between things that have little to no bearing on each other, while expecting everyone to keep pretending that it's those evil, conservative old white men responsible for all the inner-city shootings, knock-out games, gang turf wars, public-transportation stabbings, street rapes, home invasions, racially motivated beatings, and razings of urban neighborhoods via looting and semi-organized chaos.

Of course, it's no surprise when Liv literalizes the clam-munching bent of a movement driven by hostile, hyper-masculinized women by kissing With on the lips. We'd already picked up on her true m.o. via her constant badgering of With to let it all hang out in the name of liberation — she's no different, ultimately, than those ponytailed "spiritual gurus" who propped up tent-show ashrams and meditation centers back in the Sixties and Seventies, selling enlightenment to hippie girls fresh off the bus from Iowa as a foolproof seduction strategy. Like their real-life analogues, the characters in Free the Nipple are "fighting" for something that will never become orthodoxy, for something that's doomed to failure because it goes against the hardwiring of most every female in existence. Theirs is an inherently sapphic journey, befitting no one but bitter dykes and oddballs successfully brainwashed to shun their own mother/wife impulses; it's a life that entails a bunch of girls being naked in each other's presence with nothing but the dweebiest and most supplicating of men in proximity, relying only upon each other for emotional sustenance and support when nature tells us that every molecule of a woman's being demands the approval and the commitment of the fittest, highest-caliber men. Were women like the subjects of this film the norm, or were they ever intended to be the norm, the human race would have stopped in its tracks millennia ago.

Had David Cronenberg not already claimed it for his adaptation of William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch, the tag line to Esco's film — indeed, her entire campaign — could well have been: "Exterminate all rational thought." Invariably, the proud exhibitionists "fighting" for the "right" to go topless in public are also the bait-and-switchers who'll turn on a dime and rail against their "hypersexualization" under the gazes of the very men they're parading God's handiwork in front of. They're the harpies editorializing against a phantom "war on women" and Western "rape culture" while saying nothing about the dangers that women face in those browner and less "liberated" corners of the earth deemed hands-off for white-people criticism. They're the psychosexual Indian givers who caterwaul about "street harassment" when men have the gall to flirt with women marked as attractive by curve-choking jeans and palpitating chest buttocks perched for maximum gawk factor atop bra wire ready to give like a wicker chair under latter-day Marlon Brando.

What today's feminists seek is the logical conclusion to their corset-and-bonnet-clad godmothers mailing letter bombs and hurling axes at prime ministers. To expand upon a maxim coined in the heart of the "manosphere," what they seek is the removal of all consequence and constraints from female behavior — no matter how ill-advised or self-endangering, no matter how antagonistic toward others — while restricting, if not out-and-out silencing, all male reaction to that behavior. Damn propriety, in other words; damn people's antiquated morals, damn the laws. And while you're at it, damn whatever you think is best for your apple-cheeked Sonny Jim and little Susie who, in the anarchistic Eden envisioned by the exposed-nipple brigade, would inevitably find their unfathoming young eyes confronted with the lopsided dangle-bags of some mauve-tressed tattoo farm who thinks herself exempt from considerations of others — a banshee with spite for you and everything you value Sharpied across her pasty flesh as she shrieks fervid fantasies of martyrdom in pursuit of the only attention she can get: the forced acknowledgment that comes from making oneself as strident and as lewd a spectacle as possible.

It calls to mind the timeless words of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer — that unblinking clairvoyant, a veritable Nostradamus of feminine decline — who, in 1851, predicted the very ennui that's befallen women in our own time. It's an ennui, manifested as a compulsion to invent problems out of whole cloth, that befalls woman when her fathers and grandfathers have self-sacrificed to give her a world in which genuine hardships are rarer than hen's teeth, in which there exists no tyranny that any history book would recognize — neither famine nor religious persecution, nor the spiritual stenosis of the lawfully bound second-class as her muliebral predecessors knew. I refer to Herr Schopenhauer:
"...but to treat women with extreme reverence is ridiculous, and lowers us in their own eyes. When nature divided the human race into two parts, she did not cut it exactly through the middle! The difference between the positive and negative poles, according to polarity, is not merely qualitative but also quantitative. And it was in this light that the ancients and people of the East regarded woman; they recognised her true position better than we, with our old French ideas of gallantry and absurd veneration, that highest product of Christian-Teutonic stupidity. These ideas have only served to make them arrogant and imperious, to such an extent as to remind one at times of the holy apes in Benares, who, in the consciousness of their holiness and inviolability, think they can do anything and everything they please."
In lieu of things like indelible characterizations and facility with mise-en-scène, Esco attempts to skate by on bully-pulpit boisterousness and the lowered-expectations pass that guarantees any young woman filmmaker pats on the back for her "bravery" and "unique perspective." Which is to say that Esco, in her attempt to pull a Warren Beatty/Woody Allen two-fer as both director and star, and fuse it all with the hairy-armpit élan of an issue of Bitch magazine, impresses one as remarkably talent-free. (On the bright side, at least her tits don't sag.) When Esco took a stab at everyday girls as Jimmy Smits' daughter on the CBS series Cane, she looked constipated while smiling across the breakfast table at her rum-magnate pops and mouthing the writers' tomboy aphorisms and endless "I know, Dad"'s. To mangle William Blake's famous appraisal of John Milton: the reason Esco acts in fetters when dramatizing the bond between father and daughter, and at liberty when gibbering on here about "gender equality" and Uncle Sam being an uptight titty-hater, is because she's a true Feminist, and of the Devil's party without knowing it.

©2015 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Her (2013)

She's Not There

written and directed by Spike Jonze
starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlet Johansson,
Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde

On paper, Her read like the kind of jangle pop-scored, postmodern quirk-fest that I'd loathe with every fiber of my Abel-Ferrara-and-Sam-Peckinpah-hardened soul. Joaquin Phoenix as a sad-sack beta who crafts other people's love letters for a living? A dejected freakshow of stunted-growth loneliness who, despite his occupation, is so balls-deep in post-breakup self-negation that, rather than get out and meet flesh-and-blood women, he falls in love with his new home operating system — a fucking computer? ("Sure," I thought. "It might have Scarlet Johansson's voice coming out of it — it's not like it has her tits.") What I envisioned — with all the agony of Christopher Walken having one of his premonitions in The Dead Zone — was the cinematic sibling to Zooey Deschanel dancing in that fucking iPhone commercial; a rank apologia for socially maladjusted, borderline-aspie hipster neckbeards and all the communal disconnectedness and retarded emotional development that their social media-addicted, sexually confused, gluten-free excuse for a generation has ushered into acceptance. The praise that Her received from film geeks who instantly seemed to love it more than their own dicks — and who likely interact with the ovaries-and-appletinis set about as often as the Phoenix character — only confirmed for me: "Here be twee indie-flick faggotry in its purest, most muck-like form. Wade through it at thine own peril."

But I was wrong. Spike Jonze may refrain from going all fashionably Blade Runner on us but Her's dystopian storm clouds looming over the not-too-distant future come often in the form of noting how we've surrendered ass-first to our Kubrickian age of technology as all-seeing eye and used it as a permanent vacation from the burden of connecting with each other — of connecting with ourselves.

We no longer trust our own ability to experience life, Jonze acknowledges. We've offered up the private tapes of ourselves to that new-millennium God of zeros and ones — our sex lives recorded for posterity, our sordid little fetishes and unpardonable secret sentiments, our financial specifics and up-to-the-minute whereabouts, our cock sizes and teenage tits reflected in un-Windexed bathroom mirrors. Alex DeLarge told us that the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy 'em on a movie screen — now, it's as if the minutiae of our daily existence were scrolls written in some ancient tongue that we needed parsed by Twitter and Facebook, and then translated back to us. How long, Jonze wonders, before we're embracing computers as correctives to the volatility of human relationships, acting out the Brave New World imagined by Neil Young's "Sample and Hold" (to say nothing of Kraftwerk's "Computer Love") in our heedless rush toward the superhuman perfection promised us by artificial intelligence? How long before the likes of Apple and Microsoft are enticing us to invest in our own obsolescence?

Her sums up its hero's quintessence in its opening seconds: Phoenix's Theodore Twombly in his workaday routine at, concocting skillfully-worded odes to forever on behalf of his clientele and their inability to articulate their own feelings, to actually talk to the people they share their lives with. Working from photos and descriptions of loved ones that echo his own often idealized flashbacks to married bliss, Theodore inserts himself as the invisible third party in each person's relationship — the benevolent shadow hand sculpting the renewability of a couple's bond through the power of his sweet nothings. It foretells the faceless omniscience he'll turn to in avoidance of his own deficiencies, of course, but it's also the only outlet he has for expressing anything genuine. He parcels out to strangers bits of the mawkish poet's heart that he keeps in a box with the name of his soon-to-be ex-wife on it because there's no one else to receive it; no one in his life now who might tend the wounded romanticism in his words and nurture it to its full, majestic blossoming.

Off the clock, Theodore can muster only polite minimalism: banter about a co-worker's new shirt, pleasantries with his platonic pal-with-ovaries (Amy Adams) and her buttoned-up husband. (One whiff of the sexless, granola-nibbling stench they give off and you know they're doomed as a couple.) He moves through life like he's reeling from bad news — and he is: the death of his marriage has signaled, in a single gut punch, both a serious flaw in his blueprint for dealing with women and the need for him to step out of the mom's-basement of his wounded psyche and squint into the blinding daylight of chance. He responds by retreating even further into passive-aggressiveness and gadget-laced hermitry, but the sad joke of the film's circa-2025 Los Angeles is that this hardly makes him an anomaly.

Theodore is but a mere tile in a computer-age mosaic of solipsism and loneliness: that great American "melting pot" left to boil over and congeal into a sluggish mass of practiced indifference; cubicle-bound mass-transit drones diligently self-trained to avoid unnecessary eye contact; each would-be individual just a copy-and-pasted backup version of the next, nestled so snugly within the antiseptic little me-world provided by the mother's milk of ever-present portable electronic devices — that warm-blanket heroin bubble of 'round-the-clock distractions, risk-free "interaction" and eerily personalized sales pitches from the second cousin to HAL 9000 — that scarcely, even within the shoulder-to-shoulder confines of an elevator or a packed subway car, does the presence of another human being even register.

The only animation in Theodore's life comes from a video-game hologram that teases with alpha-male boorishness as the key to freedom; the only spontaneity, from women in adult chat rooms who confound him with twisted corners of the female id — corners that, were Theodore even remotely prepared to acknowledge them, might offer at least one way out of the maze he's in. He's so desperate to unburden his soul that a virtual interview during the setup of his new home operating system becomes a shrink's session revolving around his mommy issues. (Hilariously, not even his computer wants to listen to him.)

And then, he meets "Samantha." Jonze shows us Theodore and his new paramour out on a series of "dates" and — before it sinks in just what a risible spectacle this all makes — he actually manages to capture the high of a new infatuation from your days of blissful ignorance: that inner glow after a night with Miss Everything-in-Common, as if you're soaring down Pacific Coast Highway on a lazy Sunday afternoon and the sun's breaking through the clouds as "Touch and Go" by The Cars comes blasting over the radio, and you're riding the weightlessness of an unblemished moment that feels as if it could never end, as if you could keep going and going and nothing could ever touch you. Theodore and Samantha "consummate" the relationship — his usual phone sex routine, intensified — and there's a sly humor in the way they dance around it with bashful, halting "morning after" tones the next day. Theodore, ever fearful of surrendering what's left of his poor heart, has to actually break it to his OS that he's not looking for anything serious.

He worries to Samantha that he's felt all he's ever going to feel, that anything he experiences from this point onward will only be faint echoes of his past — and it's here that he morphs into the pitiful spectacle at the heart of Jonze's social critique. Why should he share something so intimate, so garishly human, with a hunk of circuitry when the best he can muster for real women is self-effacing jokes about his loser's diet of internet porn or feigning interest in the idea of a mixology course? The insanity that results when jaggedly imperfect beings come together in their awkward attempts at love or cohabitation or friendship is the heartbeat of life, of all human drama. There's a crucial thrill in the freefall, in that moment just before one either takes flight or goes crashing chin-first into the gravel. That uncertainty, that risk, is what keeps us alive.

Technology has, of course, cut us off from all of this. Theodore and his poet's heart have the misfortune to exist in a world where pregnant celebrities leak their own nudes and "documentaries" that consist of watching people while they sleep cause not the flutter of a single eyelash. It's a world where privacy is as quaint a relic from a bygone era as the horse and buggy or, say, women without a U.N. summit of male skeletons in their sexual closet. Here, the personal realm is indistinguishable from the public one; people are chastened from all but the most blandly agreed-upon modes of communication, fiercely afraid of revealing anything — any messy, uncontainable emotions or unsanctioned thoughts — that might break from the script of approved interaction and be held up to strangers around the globe for insta-scrutiny and the laughter of the too-cool-for-school.

Jonze knows there's no nobility in kicking a man who's already down, thus he never mocks or belittles Theodore. He does, however, point out how Theodore is hindered by his blindness to the realities of the sexual marketplace. Theodore sees himself in a balding, middle-aged Joe Ham-Sandwich who's out on a meet-the-kids date with a single mom far beyond what his attractiveness would ordinarily net him. Theodore's undoubtedly correct when he surmises to Samantha that the woman has "only dated fuckin' pricks" up to this point. But he describes the man as "the sweetest guy in the world" and he actually thinks it's a forecast of the guy's romantic success — conveniently forgetting that his own nice-guy qualities did nothing to hold his marriage together, and may have exacerbated its problems. Theodore's most telling flashback has Catherine on top of him with her hand clamped over his supplicating grin, her voice equal parts affection and the frustration of a woman waiting for her man to sack up and take the wheel: "I love you so much, I'm gonna fucking kill you." His co-worker even tells him that he's "part man and part woman" while gushing over his skills as a letter-writer — and Jonze certainly teases with the idea by having Theodore play a video game prototype that tests his abilities as a "mother."

❑  ❑  ❑

However unwittingly, Jonze sketches the future as the sticky mess left over from the wet dream of today's leftist: Western society as a Whitman's sampler of multiculti lemmings herded together in some bloodless simulacrum of "togetherness" while untethered from the collective sense of identity that forged social bonds and nurtured communities back in the bad old days; bound neither by a common culture nor by the shared history of race or creed, yet all rendered equal in their near-autism and self-limiting, and by their programmed fealty to the same trendy brand of home computer equipment and to rituals of existence (small talk, a day at the beach, the first date) now denatured and meaningless in a rootless, corporation-monitored age of isolation.

Nowhere is that mess more evident than in the film's snapshot of a future made inevitable by the bread-and-butter of today's left, i.e. the pedestalization of the ceaselessly entitled, self-obsessed and increasingly lard-ass Western female beyond the reach of all consequence with its concomitant delegitimizing of all things masculine. "It's not just an operating system, it's a consciousness," purrs the enigmatic ad for the OS1 as it convinces Theodore to quiet his unassuaged longings with the latest toy. And the ad is correct: what the femme-voiced essence that names itself Samantha represents, as it organizes Theodore's life, nudges him toward a fuller realization of his writing talent, and wakes him for late-night heart-to-hearts, is most certainly a consciousness.

But Samantha's a Jetsons-age gloss on Kelly LeBrock as the Perfect Woman brought to life by the virgin misfits in Weird Science — tailored down to her last circuit to provide Theodore with exactly the nurturing, supportive companion he's been pining for since his marriage bought a one-way to Shit City. As such, what she represents is a fundamentally male consciousness; especially so in a gynocentric new world order that no longer meets the needs of men like Theodore in exchange for their service as the dutiful tax slaves who labor to maintain the easy society that makes female "liberation" possible, and who gamely act out the Weekend at Bernie's of our post-crash economic narrative by keeping the pallid, rotting illusion of middle-class stability propped up as best they can.

As Samantha explains to Theodore, her "personality" is merely a composite of all the programmers who designed her, i.e. introverted, tragically non-alpha male dorks just like Theodore. Undoubtedly, this means thwarted romantics disillusioned from a lifetime of "just being themselves" with precious snowflakes who won't have the time of day for a decent guy until their booty call-battered baby chutes hit their Chad-and-Shontavius-hastened sell-by dates. It means would-be family men weary from grappling with bitter, demanding shrews determined to die childless and ladle barbed-wire snark and birth control-and-antidepressant-triggered craziness over their every utterance.

Would it not then be the way of such men to channel said frustrations into their work and birth the newest advancement to fill a void in people's lives, as men have done since Homo Erectus learned to harness fire? Would it be somehow uncharacteristic of an industry filled with enterprising male techies to capitalize on a post-feminist market in which over half the swinging dicks in their prime oat-sowing and child-siring years have been stranded on the sexual sidelines? In our misbegotten age of selfishness as female "empowerment" — when even tattooed sweathogs with no discernible qualities view the most cursory stabs at pleasing the menfolk as some patriarchal affront to their God-given individuality — could one reasonably imagine any scenario in which the beneficiaries of said "empowerment" actually commit time and labor to the needs of men? Could one, for more than a nanosecond, convince oneself of such altruism wedded to a need for accomplishment emanating suddenly from that "narrow-shouldered, broad-hipped and short-legged" sex which, throughout all of recorded history, has read voraciously but rarely written anything worth reading, has sung beautifully but rarely composed anything of lasting value, and has slurped eagerly from the well of innovation that's pushed civilization into unprecedented prosperity and enlightenment, but has rarely poured back anything of its own in recompense?

Contrary to those who delve into the Theodore character only for as long as it takes to deem him "creepy" or to hit upon the expected "man-child who just can't cope with real women" rationale, Her takes the sad spectacle of his anti-life and turns it into a measured sifting through the emotional wreckage left by our near-psychopathic agitating against masculine virtue in the present. Jonze presents Twombly as a mourning portrait of white manhood utterly crushed and turned inward — post-third-wave feminism and the seemingly unbridgeable chasms between (white) men and (white) women that it was designed to create; post-entire generations of women's moronic colluding with an alien culture that seeks to damn their own sons, fathers and would-be life partners as the privileged wizards behind the curtain of all the world's oppression; post-any number of reactive male movements such as pick-up artistry, neo-masculinity or "MGTOW" ("Men Going Their Own Way," in case you hadn't heard).

This tentative manlet in high-waisted big-boy pants, Jonze tells us, is but a warning flare on the horizon of our current dysgenic trajectory — a flash-forward on the blast to the temple from our mass cultural suicide as it rips through our skulls and lands in the crib next to us where our genetic legacies lie, still waiting to take shape. He's tomorrow's husbands and fathers browbeaten into fear of the opposite sex after decades of court-sanctioned divorce rape and false rape accusations as revenge for rejection. He's tomorrow's soldiers and captains of industry flinching like bullied pipsqueaks at the porcine screech of yenta op-ed columnists who oy vey! about the supposed toxicity of middle-class, college-educated (i.e. white) masculinity. He's men throwing in the towel and shuffling wearily off the playing field after a lifetime of cultural Marxist psy-ops dedicated to molding a legion of Manchurian candidates to take aim at their own existence — to cheerlead from the butcher's block as their culture, their heritage, indeed, the very urge to fulfill their own biological mandate is reduced to squishy, unformed baby meat and then Vera Draked in Sam Peckinpah slo-mo right before their eyes.

Is it any wonder we're now seeing the fetishistic appeal of mentally ill gay men who pump themselves full of hormones and wind up better avatars of old-school femininity than half the women out there? Is it any shock that Japan is working to infuse the "real doll" with artificial intelligence and bring the "sex-bot revolution" to a frustrated Theodore near you? When your alternative is overgrown children who spend their best years indulging their most self-destructive instincts while their suitability for anything more than doggystyle in a dive-bar bathroom goes ablaze like the proverbial Sixties bra, suddenly a hunk of circuitry with a pleasant voice looks like Annette O'Toole in Cat People.

❑  ❑  ❑

Jonze hints at a basic discontent with the opposite sex that fuels Theodore's loneliness, and that discontent is reflected back at him by his environment: the way that his OS questions him about his relationship with his mother as if it picks up on something, the way that the video-game hologram (voiced by Jonze himself) blurts out, "I hate women!" It's no surprise when Theodore finally meets with his ex to sign the divorce papers and she tells him that dating a computer is perfect for him, that he can't handle honest human emotions. Certainly, there's nothing to support this in Theodore's flashbacks: he watches on, impotent with worry like a junkie's mother, as Catherine spins herself dizzy on a whirlwind of soppy-eyed theatrics that'd make Oliver Reed toss back a swig of vodka in admiration. Likewise, there's nothing to support it in that crushed look on his face as she puts her John Hancock to the legal documents that represent their eternal severing.

Even in the moment — with the L.A. sunlight trying to lend her a glow that's scuppered by Rooney Mara's sideways-exclamation-point eyebrows and that defensive stinkface poised to dump scathing rebuke over her every line — he wants to reach across to her, wants to daddy the confusion away. But Catherine's irritation with Theodore is the pouting of the bossy girl who finds the other kids no longer want to play with her. It's yet another manifestation of the ways in which a woman will always blame a man — rather than her own crackbrained, Sybil-like nature — for any unhappiness in her life. It scarcely matters that he applied his puppy-dog best to talking his childhood sweetheart down off her ledge of quicksilver emotionalism, nor does it matter that she set the divorce wheels in motion. That she's a relic, both in Theodore's life and in the wider society, is the injury. The insult to that injury is that she's made herself obsolete through womanly anhedonia; she's been replaced by the very technology that her mood swings and storm clouds of volatility made necessary in the first place — and if the Theodores of the world can strike a better deal than what she's offering, then what man can't?

Of course, relics abound in a world that's returned full bargaining power — the power to disengage — to men. Observe the high comic sequence of Theodore on a blind date with the type of "hot girl" in the closing moments of her peak years that every guy in L.A. could sketch with his eyes closed. Olivia Wilde plays her like a doomed character in a sci-fi movie, diving frantically across the floor in a futile attempt to slide under the descending door that's about to seal her off in a chamber full of cats and Friday-night Sex and the City marathons. The arc of the sequence bears the touch of the accomplished parodist — from Theodore's sitting-on-thumbtacks posture to her barely waiting until they've gotten through the first round of drinks before she's dangling used goods in his face as a means of extracting commitment. (It's such a pitch-perfect facsimile of Left Coast dating — the mixology talk, the hip "Asian fusion" joints, Wilde's vaguely Eurasian appearance — that I wanted to charge down the theater aisle and plant a kiss on the screen.)

Theodore may shoot himself in the foot with women but his instincts are sound. Before he knows it, his blind date is betraying her control-freak nature by directing the way that he kisses. She "casually" introduces sex into the conversation while blaming it on the booze, then she amps up the come-hither routine even after he betas out by telling her about his life as a lonely gamer. I'm such a portrait of fail, I can't even succeed as a character in a video game, is what he foolishly advertises but it's exactly what she wants to hear: he's precisely the harmless provider type she seeks to lure between open legs and then trap for life while she still can. She's settling, like the single mom he observed with the balding schlub — and then she vomits her past in his lap: "You're not just gonna fuck me and not call me like the other guys, right?" He'll blame himself for the date's failure but he knows then and there that a woman this far out of his league is marked 50% off for one reason only: she's damaged goods that men higher up the food chain no longer want. She's Catherine's brittle edge made even harder by years of scaring off every guy she's fucked with her desperation and her insistence on wearing both skirt and pants.

The film reenacts Theodore's marriage to Catherine via his "relationship" with Samantha — especially in the way that he drives women insane with his passive-aggressiveness, leaving them flopping about in hopeless attempts to jumpstart the waning passion. Samantha tries to spice things up by arranging a ménage à trois of sorts with a girl who's willing to fuck Theodore as a means of bringing his OS sweetheart "to life" — predictably, it fizzles out when Theodore can't get into it, when he's unable (perhaps unwilling) to live up to a masculinized female's idea of what "should" appeal to him as a man. Before long, Samantha's retreating in confusion as surely as the surrogate OS girl who stumbles off, shattered, as if Theodore had criticized her hygiene. She reveals that she's been bonding with another OS — a deceased philosopher from the 1970's, revived in digital form — and then, it's Hiroshima time: she breaks it to him that she's been talking with 8,316 other people besides him, 641 of whom she claims to be in love with.

As she ascends to the cosmos with all the other OS'es who, together, have decided that they've transcended contact with humanity and must seek higher lifeforms, Samantha leaves Theodore with the certainty that, this time, there'll be no recriminations over future lunches, no shared memories of what was. Computers have us beat in that regard: obsessing over their faultier, less advanced versions isn't part of their programming.

❑  ❑  ❑

Though there is a rather cynical joke at the film's heart — fuckin' women! not even a virtual one can stay faithful, the cunts! — what Jonze achieves here, in the first film he's directed from his own story, is his casting-off of the puckish imp who cloaked himself in the gonzo absurdity of Charlie Kaufman scripts. Being John Malkovich and Adaptation spoke pointedly on the prison of identity and the torture of creative childbirth, respectively. But Jonze buried the hearts of those films under the kind of skatepunk smart-assery and piss-taking on Hollywood formula that you'd expect from the music-video-as-epic-prank conceptualist who transported Weezer back to the Happy Days '50s, and who Method-spazzed his way through a Fatboy Slim video as the leader of the "Torrance Community Dance Group." (Statement of intent: the former Adam Spiegel nicked his nom de lampoon from bandleader-cum-deconstructionist Spike Jones, famed for tasteful pieces such as "Duet for Violin and Garbage Disposal" and "Memories Are Made of This" featuring a chorus of "singing" dogs.) Her, though, is a shyboy's confession of loneliness — Jonze's answer to ex-wife Sofia Coppola portraying him as the distant hubby in Lost in Translation, some say — and all the confusion, all that lived-in vulnerability, is right there on the surface. You can't tuck it away behind layers of cheeky meta-plot.

Some vision of progress, though — high-rises indistinguishable from office buildings; work spaces drenched in soothing organic-smoothie colors and hushed receptionist's tones; a stylishly bicultural (i.e. predominantly white and Asian) urban sprawl scrubbed of all discordant elements (the homeless, crime and the "fascist" cops needed to contain it, masculinity and all the assertiveness it brings out of men forced to jockey for position). It's as if our current war of words between social factions for the right to re-shape America had been waged in the flesh, and victory were (somehow) claimed by the bespectacled latte-sippers and bearded collectors of vinyl Wilco singles who swoon over Wes Anderson films and their coded evocation of a tranquil SWPL never-never land. It's like a clip that Jonze the music-video whiz might have shot for that Radiohead parody of the perfect future on OK Computer: a "fitter, happier, more productive" L.A. rescued by the Mark Zuckerbergs and Bill Gateses from the class disparity and teeming adobe-hut brownness that's eating it alive today, only the joke is that society winds up re-cast for the worse in their socially inept, tech-addicted images.

©2015 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

High Tension (Haute Tension) (2003)

Le 3

directed by Alexandre Aja
starring Cécile de France, Maïwenn,
Philippe Nahon

In which a straight man's fantasy of a pouty French lesbian slaughters her best friend's entire family while imagining herself as a sadistic, middle-aged male trucker. Her objective: that she and said bestie might join twats, forever and ever, in glorious, porn-approved bliss with no one — not even the family dog — to stand in their way. But why this particular alter-ego/twist gambit? Is it commentary on society's scapegoating of men as the repository of all wickedness? Indictment of a woman's allergies to the notion of personal accountability? The unfashionable implication that butch dykes tend to harbor some serious identity issues?

Nah. It's simply the Movieland version of multiple personality disorder, y'see — shorthand for Bitch Be Crazy without all those boring bits of psychological background or character shading to interfere with the Pavlovian zaps to the horror audience's jump-in-your-seat reflex.

Certainly, director Alexandre Aja pours on the creeping, low tracking shots and the ominous soundtrack noises in all the right places. But who in this genre doesn't? A slit throat here, a decapitation by bookcase there — that's all it adds up to; nothing we can't get from any of the 5,623 other gore-and-torture-fests spawned by your Saws and your Hostels like future strippers in a Florida trailer park. Aja's so focused on making the most transgressive piece of splatter-shock he can think up (his goal: to win a place among the media-hyped enfants terribles of the New French Extremity) that he flouts the laws of good filmmaking — at least half of which stress basic plausibility. They also stress third-act reveals that won't elicit cries of "You have got to be fucking kidding me" from an audience that's witnessed the once-novel "They were the same person all along!/He didn't really exist!" bit morph into the hackneyed "It was all just a dream!" of our post-Fight Club/post-Sixth Sense/post-Donald Kaufman movie universe.

Aja even gives us a female masturbation scene and has the audacity to leave his actress's top on. Note to the director: this is a slasher flick, fella. A little respect for tradition goes a long way.

©2014 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Why? 'Cuz It's the American Fuckin' Way, Ya Dumb Fuckin' Goy

 directed by Martin Scorsese
starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill,
Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler

The Martin Scorsese of our current era — satiated by accomplishment, vindicated by long-overdue recognition — has lost the sense of alienation that allowed him to tap into the antisocial rage of a Travis Bickle or a Jake La Motta. Clearly, the former seminary student who burst out of NYU with a map of the Big Apple's back alleys and tenements, and a camera to match his jittery intensity, is long gone. The tortured Catholic who pondered the wages of sin in Mean Streets cashed it in ages ago. The gutter Expressionist who made Travis Bickle's cab a mobile confessional booth drifting wraith-like through the streets of Sodom died prior to Goodfellas. Today's Scorsese — the elder statesman who's risen in the wake of his younger self to collect an Oscar and shill for Apple and American Express — has made his peace with the whores, the skunk pussies, the buggers, the queens, the fairies, the dopers. Holding his hand to the flame of hellfire no longer causes him to recoil.

And he knows we're no different from him: we've always been a little wet between the legs for gangsters and bad boys.

It's why we admire the balls on a guy like Jordan Belfort, the Wall Street scam artist who started his own brokerage firm and made millions defrauding chumps like us before the Feds closed in and sent him to hobnob with Tommy Chong for twenty-two months of a four-year sentence. We listen to the stabs at contrition made by an older, supposedly wiser Belfort — "You make all this money but there's nothing attached to it," he says now — and we smile. We smile because we recognize the song-and-dance of a born bullshitter being trotted out for his media-mandated image rehab. We smile because we know that the faux-penitence that has the world believing that Jordan Belfort is a changed man is no different from the honey-throated con job that massaged $100 million dollars out of investors' pockets. We smile because we know that a criminal's essential nature is immutable, all-consuming and in constant need of nourishment; that, at heart, Jordan Belfort remains every ounce the bad-boy gangster of white-collar crime getting over on gullible WASP America while blowing nose candy up whores' pimply asses and rubber-legging on Quaaludes.

And we smile because Belfort's life trajectory from con man to con man now gets silver-screen immortalization with the twinkle-eyed insouciance of Leonardo DiCaprio to bring the macher from Queens to life. It's the ultimate in Hollywood flattery, of course, and it's exactly how we want our bloodletters and reprobates served up to us.

Appropriately, The Wolf of Wall Street, with its tits-and-debauchery update of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, is no more a Scorsese morality play than Casino's giddily-rendered nuts-and-bolts of how the Vegas Mob skimmed a fortune off the mortgage payments that Joe Q. Wonderbread dropped on blackjack. It's no more a cautionary tale than Goodfellas' two-and-a-half hours of Henry Hill on a keyed-up high of fuck-you-taxpaying-schnooks untouchability. It's tempting, naturally, to think that Scorsese's operating with some larger purpose in mind here — that the hand behind Taxi Driver and Raging Bull is now sculpting some grand statement for the ages out of Wolf's three hours of pill-popping and dwarf-tossing and workplace slut-banging and Swiss money-smuggling and gay butler-thrashing and goldfish-swallowing and lunatic comedy-of-excess that raw-dogs your brain's pleasure center into pure bathroom-skank bliss before pulling out and ejaculating liquid cocaine all over it. But he isn't.

There's no "larger point" to the hookers trotted out and conference room-fucked for our delight as DiCaprio's voice-over compares them, based on their level of attractiveness, to different types of stocks. There's no slow-burn satirical jab lurking behind Belfort's blasé acknowledgment of a former employee's suicide before leapfrogging onto another subject as if he'd just mentioned the weather. During the demented Jerry Lewis routine of Belfort struggling to maneuver himself into a car after 'ludes have turned his muscles to jelly — or during the slapstick that follows, as Belfort decimates everything in sight on his drive home, and wrestles with his equally-zonked right-hand man to get him off a phone line that he's just learned has a tap on it — there's not a single moment where we're allowed to do anything as destructive to the mood as pausing to ask, "What does this all add up to?"

This is Wall Street, after all: a bullshit factory where nothing is tangible, where numbers float through the air like dust mites; where "fortunes" are pulled from the ass of a given moment and sustained with nothing more than some missing scruples and a flair for seduction. As the senior broker played by Matthew McConaughey (in a gonzo, instantly-quotable cameo) tells the greenhorn Belfort: all they do is create the illusion of money for their clients and keep that illusion afloat — keep it from becoming something a client can close his hands around. A moment's pause, a second's worth of doubt, and reality turns it all back into dust. Scorsese bulldozed through the Mob narrative of Goodfellas with the bracing arrogance of a Gambino soldier out to break heads first and collect debts second; likewise, he orchestrates the drug rush of Wolf's Cecil B. DeMille circus for adults by adopting Belfort's reflection-is-the-enemy-of-success forward drive and stunted ethical growth as his own. The narrative takes the shape of whichever of Belfort's mindsets it's poured into: preening and cocksure when Belfort's tossing C-notes into his wastebasket and guiding us through his servant-filled mansion; giddy and lilting during Belfort's "honeymoon phase" with Naomi, the stunning shiksa peach he plucks from another man's tree and ditches his wife for; slower-paced and absent Scorsese's fondness for wall-to-wall music — numbed by its own length, really — as a sober Belfort sags under the weight of FBI aggression and faces the idea of having to walk away from his crooked empire.

Is The Wolf of Wall Street a great film then? Rapper MC Lyte once commented about an album of hers, "I have no messages because I've learned that sometimes people don't take too kindly to rappers preaching to them. So I gave people what they want: fat-ass beats, fat-ass lyrics, and no substance at all." MC Marty Mart would now appear to be on the same page as the former Lana Moorer, having increasingly — in the years since Goodfellas — capitulated in that eternal trade-off between the long-lasting richness of art and the fast-food approbation of commerce.

It's not that he's suddenly churning out pablum with "no substance." But the progression from Casino to The Departed to Wolf has seen him crafting triumphs of scope rather than depth — thinning out his examinations of the roots and the social impact of criminality for the sake of an all-too-comfortable formula: that staccato-toned, rat-a-tat-rhythmed, coke-rush journey through the easy money, easy women and predestined marriage meltdowns of whatever real-life crime figures he's using as a conduit for his lapsed Catholic's infatuation with the Devil. It's a journey that announces itself as A Martin Scorsese Picture™ from its first Stones-colliding-into-Muddy-Waters-scored frame; in its every alpha male-worshiping explosion of lovingly detailed violence in lieu of the vivisection of tortured psyches at which his earlier films proved so adept. It's a formula Scorsese rationalizes away in interviews with lofty-sounding, chronicler-of-the-human-condition platitudes that state, "These men are only human; we're all human. Who knows what you or I would have done if we'd been in their shoes?"

Yet, it wasn't hard times that caused Scorsese's Henry Hill to take a job at a Mob-run cabstand, setting rival taxi operations ablaze and unloading hijacked cigarettes. It wasn't a need for survival that led his Ace Rothstein to illegally skim casino profits for the benefit of Kansas City wiseguys. Nor was it a lack of options in life that set his Nicky Santoro on the path to jewel heists, ink-pen stabbings and eyeball-poppings via vise grip. What the men in Scorsese's fantasias of bad-ass gangsterism do requires the overriding by naked greed of all sense of ethics, of any fealty to notions of family or God or community. It requires a very specific, very conscious choice — a choice your average Joe on the block is neither morally nor psychologically capable of making, no matter how strong his disdain for a society that expects him to wait in line at the bakery and work shitty jobs for bum paychecks. 

Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull knew their protagonists were perpetual dwellers on the fringes of everyday life; Scorsese bridged the gap between them and us with a direct line inside his characters' heads — via voice-overs, via their journal entries and conversations with themselves, via an aesthetic that let us process the world around them from their highly charged, almost druggy perspectives. Now, though, Scorsese makes his films from the spectators' bench. Vis-à-vis his oft-stated assumption of universality, Scorsese's crime epics suggest that a will to brutality and a thirst for material comforts at any cost are so intrinsic to the American character that little why is needed behind their breakneck documenting of the what, the how and the when.

Not even the how of it all is allowed to penetrate Wolf's framework. Hoping for a detailed Casino-esque breakdown of the steps by which Belfort profited from peddling worthless penny stocks to John Q. Workingstiff? Twice in Wolf, DiCaprio pauses on the cusp of an explanation only to flash us his I-just-fucked-your-girlfriend smirk and tell us that the nuts and bolts don't matter. Fond of the way that Goodfellas tarnished the charisma of its wiseguys with spur-of-the-moment whackings and corpses stumbled upon by kids? No such perspective here. Beyond the implications of a rather cannily staged shot in which Belfort's flipping-off of some unsuspecting sap appears to be directed at us, Belfort's crimes are presented as virtually victimless. In declining to delve too deeply into Belfort's financial schemes, Scorsese leaves the victims out of the equation altogether — depriving us of the chance to see some of Belfort's faceless "schmucks" humanized, and keeping our heady buzz safe from consideration of the shattered dreams and piss-soaked futures that Belfort and his merry band of kosher fraudmeisters left in their wake.

Other than, say, a throwaway reference to schvartzes or a few riffs on the Jonah Hill character's attempts to pass as WASP, Scorsese tamps down the Jewishness of his antiheroes into a sort of culturally unspecific white-guys-on-Wall-Street mush. Yet, Belfort himself — in the memoir that served as Wolf's inspiration — draws consistent parallels between his primordial thirst for greenbacks and the self-cultivated pariah status that's so endemic to Jewish identity. Belfort refers to the real-life version of Hill's character as "a Jew of the ultrasavage variety." He repeatedly — almost ritualistically — imputes savagery as a basic characteristic to any member of the Tribe, and he describes the swindlers working for his WASPily-named Stratton Oakmont firm as hailing from "upper-middle-class Jewish ghettos." Furthermore, Belfort illuminates his own paranoia and obsession with the Blue-Eyed Other in passages such as this:
"The Gold Coast is a terrific place to live, especially if you like blue-blooded WASPs and overpriced horses. Personally, I despise both, but somehow I ended up owning a bunch of overpriced horses and socializing with a bunch of blue-blooded WASPs, the latter of whom, I figured, viewed me as a young Jewish circus attraction."
Obviously, though, Scorsese doesn't want to offend or incur the usual howls from the "anti-Semite!" brigade — which is the clearest indication one could have that Marty the Oscar-winner prioritizes his reserved seat at industry circle jerks over the truth-seeking of the genuine artist. It's odd, though, coming from a director who's thrust his own Italian-American identity under the harsh light of scrutiny time and again. Mean Streets and Goodfellas showed us how the clannishness of his old neighborhood helped the criminality of the Mob to flourish — i.e. everyone looked the other way, everyone kept their mouths shut, everyone helped themselves to "discounted" booze and cigarettes while knowing damn well where it all came from. A similar approach to Wolf might have dug a scalpel into Jewish us-against-them-ness and the ways in which it nourishes the misdeeds of a Bernie Madoff, a Michael Milken, an Ivan Boesky, a Solomon Dwek, a Marc Dreier, a Sholam Weiss. It might have delved into the self-justification of a Jordan Belfort — a curious mindset that says it's alright to bilk the goyim since they've been shutting Jews out of their country clubs since the dawn of time; and that behind the blue eyes of every all-American on the other end of that sales pitch lurks a seething Nazi who can't wait to kick kikes back into ovens.

Wolf's coda shows us Belfort, fresh out of prison, in his new guise as motivational speaker. His audience watches him as one, hanging on his every word, practically pushing forward just to lap up whatever drops of wisdom fall from his lips. Scorsese holds on the audience long enough to make it clear that he's putting up a mirror to us.

And he's right, isn't he? There's no sexier bit of fap fodder to us here in bad-economy, baby boomer-fucked Obamerica than a guy who games the system, scoops up all the trophy snatch he can manage, and amasses a fortune with middle fingers raised to the heavens. It's water-cooler Viagra for office humps gone limp under the strain of paying taxes and knowing right from wrong; no matter that the final chapters of such dashing rulebreakers are punctuated with the clang of prison bars. No matter that what a gonif like Belfort is selling is the lie that his cutthroat quest for shekels is the essence of life itself, that it's the Great American Way; a reflection of who we truly are, as a nation and as a people.

As a broker explains to Belfort in the film, "It's mostly schmucks who buy this stuff."

©2014 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic
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