No birthday would be complete without a reflection on age and maturity. But, seeing as this is a film blog, not a personal one, I thought I'd frame that through a comparison of two of my favorite Martin Scorsese films: Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street. Not particularly original, but it's my party and I'll ramble if I want to.
Thematically, Scorsese often chooses to create worlds on the darker side of society and fill them with cohorts of strong, sinning men. And whether that world is filled with the cabbies of Taxi Driver or the mob and police of The Departed, Scorsese's structure is impeccable: rise, salad days, decline, fall. To say the man is a master of storytelling is an understatement and a misuse of the word master. I don't want to ignore his politics toward POC, specifically Black folks (even if Spike Lee did,) or his dubious politics on media violence, but that isn't the point of my post today.
No, today's post is about an artist's restraint.
When Goodfellas came out, it was a masterpiece. As perhaps the most iconic gangster movie at the time (though not of all time; for me, that title belongs to City Of God,) the film is an impeccably constructed Greek Tragedy. Every single shot (and yes, that includes the revered Copacabana scene, which I think pales in comparison to the excellently superfluous opening line) is photographed with the utmost care, and you can almost see the master pulling the strings. If this were a play, it would be Hamlet.
Now compare that to the neurotic fever dream that is The Wolf Of Wall Street. 20+ years later, Scorsese could have made another great film about rules and the consequences of breaking them, but instead he made a confusing mash of hyperenergetic images that tell the story of the nouveau über-riche, starring the actor who just seven months earlier had played Jay Gatsby. They say nothing in filmmaking is accidental, but I would go farther to say that everything in a Scorsese picture is intentional. So, why was this movie so much different?
The answer is simple: in chaos lays elegant solutions. For all of its extravagance, The Wolf Of Wall Street is as uncomplicated as lust. The imperfect ambition, high passions, and human consequences of Harold Hill are replaced by a man who simply succeeds. Even while riding yachts through the maelstrom and taking cocaine to reverse the effects of quaaludes, Leo is not shown slowly crumpling like Hill over the course of the story. The man is invincible until annihilation, too big to fail. Until he does. What more perfect fate for a white guy who helped crash the American economy?
The crash is all contained within that which is not shown. We never see any intricacies of his collapse because Scorsese is too smart to do that, too mature to revel in the emotion, and instead tells a fable of an unreal man who has no grounding in reality. And as a fable, it has a greater impact on us as pedagogy, not as a flawed tale. The message, that greed and extravagance is rewarded often in our economic system, is shouted through the lack of pathos.
Or maybe they never show Leo acting because he can't do anything but shout.