10 January 2014

The American Wolf of Hustle Street

Martin Scorsese has made himself controversial again with his latest film, The Wolf of Wall Street. Based on a true story, Wolf is a three-hour riot of depravity and conspicuous consumption. The controversy starts with the perceived excess of sexuality, vulgar language and drug humor, but gets interesting as people debate whether the film "glorifies" its subject, the convicted junk-stock trader Jordan Belfort. If Wolf seems morally ambiguous, that's mainly because it's a comedy. In comedy, you're often invited to laugh at immoral or contemptible behavior, your laughter not necessarily indicating approval of it. I think Scorsese's view comes across most clearly, though not clearly enough for many, in the scene where Belfort is teaching his cronies how to close a deal over the phone. As he wheedles and cajoles in his most respectful voice, Belfort keeps making obscene gestures at the phone. Since his goal is to make commissions for himself and not to make the customer rich through any investments, his salesmanship, with its promises of wealth for the mark, isn't just a con but a big F.U. to the customer, complete with the middle finger the guy at the other end of the line can't see. Does Belfort's contempt for his customers register with the audience? If so, is their response indignation, indifference or empathy? One reason Wolf risks the charge of glorifying its subject is that, being a comedy, it never shows anyone actually suffering from what Belfort does to them. We don't see anyone whose life savings he may have sucked away, for instance. Wolf shares that apparent indifference to the victims of the con with another popular film of the moment, David O. Russell's American Hustle. Another period piece (the 70s, not the 80s and 90s), Hustle has con artists for heroes and makes a villain of an FBI agent trying to entrap politicians in the Abscam sting operation. The hero played by Christian Bale rips people off five grand at a time with false promises to help them secure big loans, but as far as the film's concerned his victims can take the loss. In both films people pay for a promise unlikely to be fulfilled. As James Surowiecki notes in a New Yorker column, one of the reasons both films may seem to glorify con artistry is that the con is at the heart of much of our legitimate business as well.

It seems that con artists, for all their vices, represent many of the virtues that Americans aspire to. Con artists are independent and typically self-made. They don’t have to kowtow to a boss—no small thing in a country in which people have always longed to strike out on their own. They succeed or fail based on their wits. They exemplify, in short, the complicated nature of American capitalism, which, as McDougall argues, has depended on people being hustlers in both the positive and the negative sense. The American economy wasn’t built just on good ideas and hard work. It was also built on hope and hype.

Entrepreneurs have skills that are very much like those of the con men. To raise money to start a business, you’ve got to sell an imagined future—a dream. Before building a single car, Henry Ford had to persuade his major supplier to take stock in lieu of cash, because he didn’t have the money to pay for thousands of dollars’ worth of parts.As the sociologist Alex Preda writes, “Talent for persuasion is key: after all, the public must be convinced to part with their money on the basis of the simple promise that an idea will yield profit in the future.” Successful entrepreneurship involves hucksterism, the ability to convince investors and employees that they should risk their money, their time, and their effort on you. Like a con artist, you’re peddling optimism.

Of course, this isn't the story capitalists tell about themselves.  They preach that success comes from making something, preferably  -- when they're preaching to the poor -- after a period of deferred gratification if not outright self-denial. By comparison, Jordan Belfort and his cohorts, in particular, never defer gratification; Belfort's mentor explicitly tells him not to. Whether they intend to or not, con-man films like Wolf and Hustle teach a counter-myth to the American Dream of entrepreneurship based on invention, on selling something of proven or self-evident quality. Both films hint that conmanship is the best if not only route for rags-to-riches success; hence the feeling that government agents are villains or at least killjoys for ending their sprees. They offer no counterexamples of honest success, though the protagonists of Hustle end up legitimate art dealers. The critics who complain that these films glorify excess and immorality probably recognize all of this. Some of them no doubt resent this because they do find the excess immoral, or the immorality excessive. But I wonder whether some resent these films because they think the films tell a truth they don't want people hearing.

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