Tag Archives: Martin Scorsese

What a wunch of bankers*: The Wolf of Wall Street

22 Jan

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Thank god for Martin Scorsese. Here he is, at 71, still making big, brash, riotously entertaining films that take on weighty American topics without fear of the controversy they will inevitably cause: in this case that wunch of bankers in The Wolf of Wall Street.

Loads has been written already about how immoral/amoral the film is, in not showing the victims of Jordan Belfort’s crimes; and how chauvinistic the film is, with its lashings of ripe female flesh and its rampantly misogynistic office culture. But all this is wide of the mark, because I think the real point is this: The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the finest examples of an “unreliable narrator” since The Catcher in the Rye.

Right from the off, it’s made clear that this film will be Belfort’s version of the truth. Not only does he provide the voice-over, in the first few minutes we see him driving a red Ferrari – only for that Ferrari to change to white as he informs us: “No, not a red Ferrari, a white one like Don Johnson in Miami Vice.”

This provides some of the funniest moments: particularly when, after a massive Quaalude bender, Belfort somehow steers his car home unscathed. Leonardo DiCaprio’s physical comedy here, dragging himself along the floor to the wheel, is what surely earned him his Oscar nomination; but the real joke is at the end of this sequence. The police come to arrest Belfort the next morning; confused, he exits his mansion to see the beautiful car totally destroyed, with the back wheel hanging off and bits of tree still attached to its dents. Only then does the film replay the true version of his drugged-up drive home.

Belfort clearly has no remorse for his victims, and nor does the film. Belfort has a predatory, proprietary approach to women, somehow still believing he treats his wife well until the moment she dumps him, and so does the film.

I don’t believe it’s the job of a film, or any work of art, to be socially responsible. The Wolf of Wall Street clearly isn’t; it’s much too much fun, and the consequences too inconsequential, to be seen as a cautionary tale. No wonder bankers are treating it as a “how-to” lesson, which is a problem for the rest of us: it is their world, and sadly we all have to live in it.

No, the job of art is to be true to itself, which this is, up to a point. The problem here is that, in providing only Belfort’s viewpoint, we get no closer to the real truth: what really motivated and drove his insatiable greed and ambition; or why his father, who worked for him, made no real attempt to provide a moral compass.

Oh well. This is, in bits, one of the funniest films of the year. Sometimes it’s in a frat-house way, such as the introduction of the preternaturally beautiful woman Belfort would marry: “I would f*** that girl if she was my sister!” says one colleague. “I would let her give me f***ing AIDS!” A drugged-up Jonah Hill (brilliant; could easily win Best Supporting Actor) simply whips out his schlong and starts masturbating in the middle of the party.

But often the humour is quite subtle. Discussing the hiring of dwarfs for an office game of dwarf-tossing (yes, this was a thing in the ‘80s), Belfort earnestly stresses that “safety is paramount”. He then elaborates: “I think we should have tranquilliser guns on standby in case the dwarves get mad.”

* With thanks to Neil Gaiman for the headline. Discussing the term “a murder of crows” many years back, he told me the collective noun for bankers: “It’s a wunch,” he said. “As in, ‘what a wunch of bankers’.”

Inside David Cronenberg’s brain

19 Jan
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Me in a ‘borrowed’ lab coat, inspecting David Cronenberg’s POD brain implant at the TIFF Evolution exhibition in Toronto

I have seen David Cronenberg’s brain. Or rather, its POD (Personal On Demand) implant, preserved in a glass jar along with hundreds of other PODs, glowing red. It’s part of Evolution, an extraordinary exhibition I visited a couple of weeks ago at Toronto’s glorious new TIFF centre devoted to the great Canadian film-maker.

A lab-coated technician on the fourth floor explained: “We’re working on an implantation system similar to [Cronenberg’s film] Existenz. Members of the public have been going online and answering questions, teaching the computer programme to become more like them so it implants better. Once done, we 3D-print the PODs, all different, put them in a jar, and then in a big ceremony we’ll implant them into the back of their skulls. They’re like a pacemaker for the brain.”

Just as in many of Cronenberg’s films, it’s hard to know where reality ends and fantasy begins in this exhibition. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Canada so I have a patriotic affinity, or maybe it’s because I saw Scanners at an impressionable age AND THEIR HEADS EXPLODE, but I’ve seen every Cronenberg film as it comes out; he’s one of only about ten directors whose movies I will see without question, regardless of review. So there’s a real thrill of recognition when walking round the exhibits.

Here is the Ducati 450 Desmo RT motorcycle cylinder that inspired the design of The Fly’s telepod, with “cockroach colour” paint to finish the job. Here are the gynaecological instruments for operating on mutant women from Dead Ringers, which in 1988 caused my companion to leave the screening and be physically sick in the Ladies’ toilets. Other exhibits have titles such as “Stage 3 Torso for Parasitic Twin Puppet”, or “Studies for Two-Headed Mutant Amphibian, In Four Parts”, or “Jeremy Irons Ear Moulds”.

There are a couple of framed fan letters to the director: “Saw The Fly – loved it – found it deeply moving – when you’re in town again please call.” This was from Martin Scorsese (his name misspelled as “Scorcese” on the caption, naughty TIFF). “The Crash script is brilliant – it’s even more frightening than the book.” This was from Jim (J.G.) Ballard.

In the centre of it all is a video room in which Cronenberg describes the leap from being a writer to a director in his twenties: “I literally looked up ‘camera’ and ‘lens’ in an encyclopaedia.” His 1975 horror film Shivers provoked a heated debate in the House of Commons, as it was funded by taxpayers’ money. Two decades later, the UK release of Crash was delayed for a year while the BBFC havered over its future; I travelled to Paris to see it, loved it, and put it on the cover of Time Out. Even after release it was arbitrarily banned by some local councils. As if it would encourage cinema-goers to crash their cars for a sexual thrill.

Cronenberg is, bizarrely, almost a mainstream director these days. The likes of Eastern Promises or A Dangerous Method are hardly blockbusters, but they don’t quite have the singular vision of old. This quote about The Fly helps illustrate why: “This is a movie about two eccentric people who fall in love,” says Cronenberg, “and the man contracts a terrible wasting disease. She watches, unable to help him, until she helps him to commit suicide. You would never get that made as a mainstream movie, it’s too dark, too depressing; but it’s protected by the genre.”  

Now, as a grand old man of 70, with a Cannes lifetime achievement award, the Légion d’Honneur and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, an Officer of the Order of Canada and fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, he can pretty much make any type of damn film he pleases.

But I still like to think of him as the guy whose brain implant sits in a glass jar, glowing red.

Evolution ended on Jan 19, but they will soon be putting online an ambitious Virtual Exhibition. See http://tiff.net/cronenberg/museum.

Hollywood Costume: why clothes maketh the man

22 Jan
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Animal Charm: great costume design for our terrorista fashionistas

There’s an old expression that, to understand someone, you need to walk a mile in their shoes. This is what many actors do. Literally. They find the character through the clothes.

That’s why the V&A’s Hollywood Costume exhibition, which closes on Jan 27 (tickets sold out online but still available on the day), is such an eye-opener. “There’s no doubt costume is character,” says Martin Scorsese in a video interview. “You can feel the transformation.”

There’s Matt Damon’s grey clothes from Bourne: simple, utilitarian, designed to blend into a crowd. They made 25 identical outfits due to the abuse received in the action sequences. At the other end of the scale, there’s Marlene Dietrich’s exquisite dress for Angel, on which a score of embroiderers worked for two and a half weeks.

And, best of all, Indiana Jones’s outfit. “A cultural icon is born when the character can be instantly recognised in his silhouette,” says costume designer Deborah Landis. The designer has to bear in mind practical as well as aesthetic considerations: the famous beaver-felt hat was given a specially short brim to allow the cameras to see Harrison Ford’s eyes.

My own revelation came on the featurette I co-wrote with director Ben Charles Edwards, Animal Charm, starring Sadie Frost, Sally Phillips and Boy George. In the opening scene, Frost’s character is kidnapped by terrorista fashionistas objecting to her promotion of fur. (See trailer here: http://bit.ly/y78KML.)

We wrote the scene as “three women in balaclavas”. But when it came to filming, it was decided that these ex-models would wear something more daring: knitted balaclavas by Piers Atkinson were procured, with full make-up and attached wig. Stylish, provocative, more than slightly sinister, they became a defining image of the film.

It’s a timely reminder that even character, as Joaquin Phoenix pointed out in his gracious London Critics’ Circle Award speech this week (bit.ly/10D8sra), is a collaboration. Critics sometimes write as if the director is the only person who matters. They are the person responsible, of course, and it’s their vision, ultimately, that is being served. But they are only as good as their team: costume, lighting, cinematography, sound, score, editing, actors and, yes, writers.

One reason I predict great things for Ben Charles Edwards (talent, youth and fearlessness apart), is that he knows how to get the best from that team. When last we met, he was a whisker away from getting funding for his first feature, written by the brilliant musician Al Joshua of Orphans & Vandals. If so, it will be one to watch.