It’s Oscar Season
I watched ‘Blue Jasmine’ recently. The brouhaha that erupted from Dylan Farrow’s open letter put me off doing an entry on it but I have to say it was typical fare from Woody Allen. Cate Blanchett is in top form playing a hysteric and deluded person but these kinds of characters aren’t that rare in the Woody Allen oeuvre so…
Anyway, the Oscars have come and gone and that’s meant a bit of binge viewing the nominees. I may as well try and see if there’s something to be said in mashing up these two films. ‘Gravity’ of course has been the highly praised hard sci-fi movie of the year that even the toughest there’s-no-sound-in-space crowd can embrace happily. ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ is the adaptation of Jordan Belfort’s book about brokers who sold penny stocks to the rich. They’re both very interesting films – much more so than ‘Blue Jasmine’ – so here they are.
Victory of Verisimilitude Part 101
Much of the praise and criticism of ‘Gravity’ has centered around whether the experience of space and space walking and surviving in high orbit is anything like what is presented. The praise comes from people who are sick of Star Wars and Star Trek characters exploring space without ever going EVA in heavy spacesuits to brave the non-elements of no atmosphere, no perceivable gravity. The critic s of the film have pointed out how unlikely it is to venture to the ISS from the shuttle orbit, that it would take considerably more energy to get there than what is left in the propulsion of the suit. Still, you have to marvel at how naturalistic the portrayal of ‘null-grav’ and the constraints of working with spacesuits. Is it really like this? Some have suggested it is not as dexrously possible in real suits with real gloves. Even so I think this is the first space movie where I’ve felt the fear of heights staring down to the planet surface from on high.
‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ similarly goes in hard for brute realism. The language, the deals, the anxiety and the adrenaline of selling the market to itself comes over like a tidal wave. The film takes particular delight in explaining the ins and out of the various drugs consumed and the sexual adventures attempted. The film actually give flesh to the Talking Heads song ‘Wild Wild Life’. Interestingly enough, Matthew McConnaughy’s performance in his cameo appearance as the elder stockbroker invokes ‘American Psycho’ so perhaps this film can be seen as the continuing narrative of the 1980s Wall Street onto the 1990s. Just as it is hard to gauge just how close to the reality it gets with ‘Gravity’, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ has a good deal of sense of reality.
Maybe this kind of obsession over verisimilitude comes from Oliver Stone and his movie where he brings in consultants for every little detail he needs knowledge – and of course Oliver Stone directed ‘Wall Street’. Both films are like triumphs of production design and props departments. The eye to details that come and go in both films are astonishing. In ‘Gravity’, the international Space Station looks exactly like the modules are supposed to with even the Kibou science module done exactly as it looks. ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ is like a time capsule for a catalogue of luxury goods. Even the lingerie frills look period-accurate. It’s simply astonishing how far both films go. The sheer weight of detail forms the compelling picture of verisimilitude.
Space Age Gender, Wall Street Sex
‘Gravity’ has something in common with ‘Alien’. Of course ‘Alien’ hardly had ‘artificial gravity’ in the Nostromo so the amount of floaty ‘null-grav’ shots in ‘Gravity’ tell us how far filming techniques have come. The way ‘Alien’ would have been written with artificial gravity would have been to save what would have been astronomical costs and simply get on with the drama. The elegant camera-choreographed movements of Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Stone, floating through the chambers of the ISS and then the Chinese satellite are a tour de force of contemporary shooting technique. the fact that she does it in tight, minimal underwear is evocative of Ripley’s underwear moment in ‘Alien’.
All the same, ‘Gravity’ can be summed up as an update of ‘man versus nature’ narrative, except that it’s more like ‘woman versus environment’. Amy Pohler made the gag at the Golden Globes that the film shows George Clooney would rather drift off in to deep space than form a meaningful working relationship with a mature woman, and it’s sad to say there’s some truth to it. Not so much as applying to George Clooney, but to the fact that it’s the film about the moment a woman has to get up and do the work and survival routine in space all on her ownsome.
Is this a big deal? Who knows. There may well be an astronaut of the future who says she was inspired by Sandra Bullock in this movie. That story is yet to be written – but it does seem like this film gets rid of the guy to put the woman on the spot, and the guy gets sent flying off into deep space because it’s the greatest complication for the female character. It hardly seems like a big moment except when you look at the unreconstructed, unedited abject sexism of the Wall Street culture in ‘the Wolf of wall Street’ where not only are women objectified, they compete hard to be the most desirable object because there are no other stakes. The breakdown of prices of prostitutes and what you get for your money is so brutal you come to realise we live in some kind of two-zoned society.
There’s one zone of society that works towards equality and emancipation and egalitarianism, and there’s a whole other zone where everything is so reified by money that social structures and ethics and morals and culture just don’t mean a thing. ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ loudly proclaims everybody can be bought, and in that narrative universe it is mostly true. The people who cannot be bought – like FBI agents and the government officials seem to be highly anomalous aliens who are deeply dishonest to their own needs. In fact, it’s is very strange to try and reconcile these two zones while desires can be met through money. It’s even arguable that the government and its agents are a kind of hypocrites that functions through being incredibly dishonest (or simply repressed) about their transaction to do with desire, pleasure and money. Stripped of moral meaning, we’re led to view the human circus in ‘the Wolf of Wall Street’ as a tableau of indecency.
When you watch the two films together, you really wonder if society has come a long way; or perhaps not. Perhaps there are two zones to this world and only the deft can inhabit both with a straight face. Maybe that’s why there’s so much drugs in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’.
Gangs Of Wall Street
I’ve been thinking if there was a director better suited to handling this material than Martin Scorsese. The reason it surfaced as question for me was because I kept seeing echoes of ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘Gangs of New York’ in this film. (If Robert DeNiro were still in his prime in his 30s, he would have been magnificent in ‘the Wolf of Wall Street’). The film even follows on from the concerns of ‘Casino’ which closed with the lament that Las Vegas was now owned by the bankers.
This film occupies a spot in Scorsese’s filmography that documents life in New York City often as a crime-infested mirror to Woody Allen’s ouevre of comedies. The pertinent question to be asked is perhaps is that what is to say the gangsters and psychopaths often portrayed in Scorsese’s films aren’t more prevalent than we think, and that perhaps a good deal of the world’s problems could be sheeted home to these psychopaths with gangster culture running so much of American capitalism.
The other observation to be made is that it is good to see Scorsese has a lot of energy for making very energetic movies. He’s certainly not slowing down to make things more comfortable.
Space Shuttle, Wherefore Art Thou
In the olden days, best and brightest minds would go to MIT and then find jobs with NASA. This changed around the time of the Reagan administration and more and more of the smartest graduates would go work in banks writing algorithms for making money. This of course led to the creation of things like mortgage bonds and futures derivatives, and these things in turn led to the GFC. Had they gone to NASA instead of Wall Street we might have lost a few more shuttles but we might not have created such disparity in wealth in the world.
NASA of course has ceased to fly the Space Shuttles because of safety concerns. It’s quite strange to watch ‘Gravity’ where the film opens with the demise of a shuttle due to orbital debris. NASA is charged with doing something, but its current mission is really unclear, so the film seems to be a metaphor for the way NASA stands at the moment – that is to say, the Shuttle is dead, the ISS is something just to hang on and the Chinese space program is the only one doing anything. I’m personally not encouraged by the Chinese space program. Especially after the Jade Rabbit probe packed it in on the moon on the third day, living down to the reputation of ‘Made in China’.
In some ways ‘Gravity’ seems to point at a time in history – now – where NASA has been reduced to a distant patter on the radio, and when the situation is really critical, somehow recedes into the darkness.
Because NASA have indeed receded so far from the front line of mounting manned missions, ‘Gravity’ makes you wonder about technological progress. It appears American technology is far more adept at creating the illusion of space exploration than actually doing. it. It would be because so much money has been spent on the technology of special effects, it is probably easier to make a person look like they’re doing space exploration realistically than actually sending somebody into space to do indeterminate ‘research work’.
The irony of this is tremendous. ‘The Wolf of Wall Street takes great pains to explain that stock prices and money are virtual things compared to cash. The ephemeral nature of a deal being expanded to having its own transactional value independent of the deal has essentially created today’s world.
Similarly, American capitalism is at such a point that there is so much money to be made trading derivatives than equities or bonds. Indeed, high-speed trading and dark pools combined can be seen as American capitalism racing off into a dark world with very little transparency. The US governments of the last 30+years have a lot to answer for in how things have worked out.
The Allure of Pennystocks
It’s only mentioned ever so briefly but the main instrument through which the characters of ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ enrich themselves is pennystocks and their volatility. Much like Milliken and the junk bond trade, there is some serious money to be made in the volatility of cheaper stocks. The problem with all of them is that you never know if the volatility represents an actual market or a couple of other speculator spinning the wheel. It’s an inspired move to shove pennystocks towards the wealthy because the potential returns on junkbonds and small caps have been shown to be more than a portfolio of bluechip stocks. But the trick is always going to be which pennystock is going to represent the future and figuring out which ones are going to stay dogs and playthings of the speculators. That takes a lot of time and research – and these things are not available to the average Joe Schmoe and Mrs Schmoe.
Naturally, there is an information war going on between the broker and investor. The more and better the information one has, the better one has a chance of making sound decisions. Jordan Belfort and hi company essentially wade into their clients head with a bunch of bamboozling sales pitch and ambush them into buying stocks they might have never opted to buy on their own cognisance. If stockbroking is a dodgy business to begin with, you sort of wonder how the SEC let this practice flourish for as long as it did.
Watching the film, it occurred to me that if Jordan Belfort and company had stayed with selling their pennystocks to ordinary mom and dad investors instead of the rich, they might have never brought down the SEC and FBI on their backs. It is suggested very strongly in the film that it is complaints from the rich and powerful who inadvertently lost money to ‘Stratton and Oakmont’. it might have gone for much much longer if the victims were just ordinary moms and dads, and therein lies the very scary thing about American capitalism and its lax regulation. It really is a everything goes until you step on the powerful toes.