Scorsese has been telling this story for years: Goodfellas, Gangs of New York–and now–The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s a story about a dream, an American dream, and the people who try to remove the roadblocks to attaining it. Scorsese has never been an idealist; his character’s don’t achieve success and its trappings by birth or any sort of entitlement. Rather, his films are crime films for a reason: success cannot always be had by peaceful means. Scorsese’s protagonists are often endearing Nietzscheans, endearing not only for clever personalities and determination of spirit, but because of their humanism–their desire to see their deserving, overlooked friends achieve success alongside them. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belford becomes a Messiah to his “wolf-pit” of young, ex-working class yuppies. Scorsese, in my opinion, masterfully manages to arouse a measure of sympathy for Belford (particularly through breaking of the fourth wall) despite Belford’s constantly deplorable actions. A large part of this sympathy, too, is grounded in the “underdog” nature of the blue-collar salesmen which Belford surrounds himself with. Can they be faulted for visions of the American dream?
Yes, they can. Such stories have a common moral: a lifestyle of greed breeds self-destruction, dehumanization. With Belford, his greatest sin seems to be a self-idolatry, a love for an adoring audience to trust him, worship him. Indeed, Belford is a more-willing Messiah than Scorsese’s Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ. At first, Belford seems the smarter of the two, certainly the stronger. Like Jake LaMotta of Raging Bull, Belford sees what he wants and finds a way to attain it. He is self-actualized, the opposite of the Jesus brought to life by Willem Dafoe. Indeed, it is the attainment of long-standing visions of happiness that forces Christ to realize he is being deceived; there can be no heaven on earth with his mission–his death–unfulfilled. In Scorsese’s corpus, the American dream is the greatest temptation.
If surrendering to it is evil, feeling the temptation is only human. As a young professional, I am no stranger to it. Seldom a day goes by that I don’t wish for something different in my “career,” if you can even call my work that. Of course, patience is needed, progress is being made, etc. I try my best, day in and day out, to better my situation. And yet I also feel a greater call: the call to write. My writing ends up on this blog, and hopefully increasingly as I begin self-publishing my poetry here. Yesterday I published some photographs. None of this will make me a cent. Perhaps it could, perhaps I am being stupid to pass up any such opportunity. “Opportunity is everything,” The Wolf of Wall Street reminds. Still, I have finite resources, and I’d rather devote them to my art itself than the monetizing of it. I refuse to turn my art, myself, into a means to an end.
But it doesn’t seem fair that I should struggle with my expenses because of my high ideals. It’s frustrating, the same kind of frustration that led scores of men into the arms of the real Jordan Belford. I am often tempted to blame the times, the recession, the inflow of the over-qualified into entry-level positions, etc. The Wolf of Wall Street is a helpful correction here: things were no different in 1987–and one can continue extrapolating backwards. I’m still tempted to not believe it, maybe there were just as few jobs back then but they probably paid better. Isn’t the minimum wage now equal only to the minimum wage of 1950? What I really need is a patron; I got sick of schooling but I miss the lifestyle it afforded: time to think, to write, incentive to spend the time needed for quality work. It seems like a fantasy world now, and I have the loans to prove it.
Does the world really run on money and power? All of my life I’ve assumed the opposite, all of my education was devoted to learning itself, to the investigation of the idea, with a trust that money would follow. I think that was a poor assumption; the world does run on money and it’s harder and harder to get it (especially ethically). But I still remember The Last Temptation: some ideals are more important than monetary/social success. Sometimes I even wonder if justice is antithetical to comfortable living. I have an estranged relationship to the middle class (much less the upper!). I worry about the possessions I first want and then find in my apartment; I know the more I have the more of me those things will take. I’ve come to know there are no easy answers. Patience is a virtue, but not because it takes a long time to realize our dreams. Patience is a virtue because it takes a long time to know what our dreams should be. This is a reason to devote oneself to prayer, to writing, to self-education. This is a reason to never let our dreams destroy the joys, sorrows, and relationships of the present. That sure doesn’t sound particularly American.
I want to end with a quote and a photo.
So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. ~Matthew 6:34 (NRSV)
“Father’s Flag,” 2012