Wednesday, January 8, 2014

special comment: pain & gain = wolf of wall street = spring breakers

There were three movies released this past year that I liked a great deal. Three 2013 films that came from different directors, had different casts, released at different points this year, and received vastly different critical appraisals. One came from cinematic junk food director Michael Bay, guilty of the Transformers movies and all manner of other garbage cinema. One came from Martin Scorsese, responsible for Goodfellas, Raging Bull, The Departed, and one of the men most responsible for transforming Leonardo DiCaprio into a movie star. And one came from Harmony Korine, a film-school dropout whose last film was called Trash Humpers and who can be blamed for writing the script of atrocities like Ken Park.

The movies I'm talking about are Pain & Gain, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Spring Breakers - and they all exist on the exact same spectrum. The movies are mostly trying to do different things, but they exist in the same universe and share a disturbing amount of common elements. And the moral outrage that was - in my opinion, wrongly - hurled at all three films comes from the exact same place - as will the people who love these films for all the wrong reasons

What, don't believe me? Let's start with a basic plot synopsis of all three films.

1. Pain & Gain: a trio of muscle-bound body builders in Florida decide to attack a rich businessman, torture him into signing over his wealth, achieve the hedonistic 'lives of their dreams' and when the situation escalates and the police begin to hunt them down, they sink into greater and greater acts of grotesque depravity to save themselves.

2. The Wolf of Wall Street: an ambitious young stockbroker rises to the top on a barely-legal and completely unethical penny stock money spinning scam and indulges in reckless drug-addled hedonism. When the situation escalates and the police start to hunt him down, said stockbroker does everything in his power to thwart them and sinks to greater and greater acts of grotesque depravity to save himself and his colleagues from prosecution.

3. Spring Breakers: four teenage girls rob a Chicken Shack to finance a trip to the Spring Break celebrations in Florida, where they indulge in the hedonistic thrills of their dreams. When they're arrested, they are sprung from jail by a criminal who convinces them to sink to deeper and deeper acts of criminal depravity to save their dreams - in others, 'Spring Break... forever...'.

When broken down to a basic level, none of these plots are all that complex. We aren't talking about Christopher Nolan here, the intricate plot details don't matter. Hell, Leonardo DiCaprio's character in Wolf of Wall Street frequently breaks the fourth wall and says it right to the camera that we don't need to know the financial details, only that he was going to make a disgusting amount of money swindling people who trust him. That's mostly because all three of these films are what I'll call 'montage movies': they work in showing broad, flashy, scenes of depravity over and over again. All three films are linked to an instigating crime, the characters reaping the rewards of that crime in explicit detail, and when consequences come calling, the characters do whatever it takes to preserve their versions of paradise. All three films are about American excess, the perversion of the American Dream into something ugly and offensive... and yet captivating on a very basic level, at least initially.

None of the characters in these films are all that intelligent, and one could definitely make the argument that these films are putting forward intelligence matters less and less in comparison with street-smart instincts and an ability to lie your ass off. Both Pain & Gain and Wolf of Wall Street are set in the early-to-mid 90s, and feature the gleeful excess that managed survive the 80s and explode in American society in the following decade, while Spring Breakers features the children who grew up in that time period and were undoubtedly influenced by its culture. Going further, both Wolf of Wall Street and Pain & Gain feature 'instigator' characters - Matthew McConaughey in the first and Ken Jeong in the second - who push and guide the 'protagonists' into action. Spring Breakers doesn't really have that character, but that's because it's a larger societal 'push' (more on this in a bit) - a promise of partying and fun that they are convinced they deserve. In fact, if you go back through the script, all of the protagonists are convinced they deserve the raw excess they have so justly 'earned'. They deserve success, they have earned their paradise on earth, and they'll fight like hell to hold onto it.

Let's go deeper, shall we? All three films are shot with a bright, vibrant, technicolor palette, high-saturation and lots of colour. The camera in all three movies darts around and drops into demented dutch angles frequently. And all manner of excess and debauchery are on screen. Drugs, stacks of cash, and frequent nudity, all exploding in your face with purposely indecent exposure. It's shocking, it's jarring, and for most it's downright disgusting... but as the films continue, you slowly get used to it. Even as the debauchery ramps up, your mind begins to click into the mindset, and those greater shocks only sustain the emotional response, not really heightening it. One can easily make the argument that these films were shot like porn - and that's part of the point. It's looking to desensitize you, show in the cinematography the addiction taking hold, showing how the characters' excess is ramping up because everything just becomes so boring to them otherwise. And thus each film rises to greater and greater acts of depravity, from the mass murder in Spring Breakers to the dismemberment and murder in Pain & Gain to pretty much the entire third act of Wolf of Wall Street. But whenever the characters' motivation begins to slip, their hesitation or doubts begin to creep in, their depression rising to the surface, the colours wash out. The costumes and clothes get darker, the camera doesn't move around as much, and the characters are shown as a whole lot darker.

And in every film, we get outbursts, showing the nervous fury lurking just below the surface. The girls of Spring Breakers in the gas station parking lot, Mark Wahlberg destroying the barbecue in Pain & Gain when his plans start falling apart, Leonardo DiCaprio's screams, abuse, and sexual violence against the wife he now despises near the end of Wolf of Wall Street. All of these films reveal characters we've seen as the protagonists to be both deeply damaged and damn close to despicable human beings, and that they're capable of so much worse when they're pushed. 

And yet most people won't see that and that's due to a problem all three films have, which I will call the Fight Club problem. This was an issue of David Fincher's direction: he's telling the story of Tyler Durden's anarchistic plan and showing him to be a terrible, morally reprehensible human being - and yet it's filmed in such a way that his viewpoint looks attractive, or even seductive to those who see something of value in the message he promotes. And that's why while critics argued over whether the twist ending was a cop-out, fight clubs were started all over the country (check out the Film Critic Hulk article in the description for more details). 

And all three of these films - Pain & Gain, Wolf of Wall Street, and Spring Breakers - have this problem. To the right audience, the lifestyles of wealth and excess and endless sex and drugs are going to seem popular. In Pain & Gain, it's the macho gym scene, in Wolf of Wall Street it's the high-powered business set, in Spring Breakers, it's, well, my generation and younger, the ones that made Project X the most pirated movie of 2012 and sought to recreate it time and time again. And all three of these movies deal with this problem in similar, but different ways - they try to bring in outside perspective. Both Pain & Gain and Wolf of Wall Street frequently break the third wall, showing the protagonists talking to the audience to add distance to what's on screen. Pain & Gain actually goes a step further by having all of the characters provide narration, so you'll be informed just how dumb, deluded, and damn close to evil the entire cast of 'protagonists' really are. However, both of those films have the slight problem of pretty charismatic lead characters who can be pretty damn convincing. Spring Breakers does something a bit similar to Pain & Gain with James Franco's character of Alien, but the film doesn't need to bother with voice-overs, simply relying on his asinine digressions (see the infamous 'Look at my shit' speech') and the cultural expectations we as a culture have about c-list pop rappers obsessed with brands and guns.

And here's where things start to get interesting - because all of these films are about American culture at large. How much of Mark Wahlberg's self-esteem rhetoric have we seen parroted in TED Talks or on Doctor Phil, the lines to get motivated and to be successful? How much of Leonardo DiCaprio's business speeches are rooted in motivational seminars all around the world? And how much of mainstream popular culture has fed the girls of Spring Breakers with the stories of how Floridian Spring Break will be glorious and awesome? That's the reason that film doesn't need a Mephistophelean figure to tempt the girls into excess - mainstream popular culture did enough of that on its own! 

And yet there was moral outrage at all three films, and it came from the same place. Both Pain & Gain and Wolf of Wall Street were based on true stories, but Spring Breakers was pretty damn close to one all the same - the girls were stand-ins for youth of our generation who want that primal release, and I wouldn't be surprised if there is a story somewhere across the US where analogous events to Spring Breakers actually happened. But for the stories that were explicitly true, people were riled up because they didn't want to see characters they knew to be villains revel and profit for their crimes (plus, you know, the explicit content got plenty of people furious, but that's to be expected in the age of Miley outrage), and especially not be seen the vein of comedy. 

So I'd like to congratulate everyone who had any of that moral outrage - but you're directing it at the wrong people, because these films aren't doing anything that American culture at large hasn't explicitly or implicitly condoned. Your system produced the situations where intellect was devalued and terrible people could get away with monstrously indecent behaviour in the name of 'profit' and 'success', where they could make obscene wealth by exploiting others and not really suffer the consequences. And that's the indictment that all three filmmakers are making. Michael Bay, Martin Scorsese, and Harmony Korine are pointing at the same root problem and only addressing it in subtly different ways. And all three films are nihilistic in their portrayal of this - none of them expect things to get much 'better' any time soon, not without a serious price to be paid. In both Pain & Gain and Spring Breakers, that ends in blood.

So let's take a look at the white knight characters, the ones who represent a sane audience perspective. Both Wolf of Wall Street and Pain & Gain have the law for their brand of consequences, and thus they fall more in the vein of morality tales. This comes from the attitude behind the filmmakers - Michael Bay actively hates his protagonists and the filthy disgusting things they do, and while he'll put it all up on screen and frame it so that you can see why the characters want it, he wants you all to know that what they're doing is wrong. He plays it like a black comedy in the same vein as the late George Carlin's 'freak show' or 'entropy' sketches - some of us just want to watch the world burn. In short, Bay's not a subtle filmmaker, and while his message is more strikingly obvious, he doesn't quite reach high enough to elevate Pain & Gain into something with more subtext, arguably making it the weakest film.

Wolf of Wall Street is a bit more murky, mostly to its credit - Scorsese knows the sick things that DiCaprio and his colleagues do in the film are wrong, but he wants to show exactly how it can be attractive and seductive enough to drive a culture - possibly off a cliff. His framing is more ambiguous intentionally, and it follows along with the same style as Goodfellas - he's forcing the audience not just to be shocked, but to follow the same seductive path DiCaprio's character travels in all of its lurid detail. It shows how Kyle Chandler's FBI character's job is devalued by society in comparison with DiCaprio's, and the scene of him alone on a grubby subway while DiCaprio is playing tennis in an Arizona prison says plenty. What might be one of the most revealing shots in the movie is the final scene, with a crowd of people waiting to hear DiCaprio speak, showing how society is willing to hear words and buy into that dream, even if it's from a criminal!

And now we have Spring Breakers... but who's the straight man? Who's the audience surrogate, the moral guardian to tell the girls they're wrong? It certainly isn't the youth minister early on, because Selena Gomez's character walks away from that. It's not the classroom or education, because the girls walk out of that. And it's not the judge who sentences them, because they walk out to do even worse. You could make the argument that it's James Franco's character of Alien, showing the girls an ideal or giving them something to believe in, but it rapidly becomes apparent that he's not an authority figure or intelligent, or even a predator - he's a naive twit who falls for the girls in the same way they fall for him, mirroring the insecurities and weaknesses of the girls - and in the end, he doesn't make it and two of the girls (Ashley Benson and Vanessa Hudgens) complete their bloody mission on their own and drive off in Alien's convertible. And unlike when Selena Gomez or Rachel Korine's characters leave the movie, the colour doesn't wash out - somehow, they found some sort of victory. And really, they are what Korine wanted to show as the 'audience perspective'.

This implies a few important things. For one, it's a film about confronting failed cultural expectations and making something out of what's left without succumbing to hopelessness or the inevitable costs. The moral guardians of the past - religion, reason, law - they've failed these girls and the generation they represent - you want moral outrage, aim it at the society at large who spent so much time telling this generation as kids that they weren't just going to be big stars, they deserved to be stars - and then when they grew up entitled and demanding, said parents and teachers and promoters of that culture branded them the 'Me Generation' and threw them under the bus! What's important to note is the difference in framing: like in all of his films, Harmony Korine empathizes with his characters, almost to a disturbing degree, and unlike Wolf of Wall Street or Pain & Gain, he doesn't entirely blame his protagonists for the things they do. And without a surrogate character to push distance between the protagonists and the audience, he wants the audience to feel the same, which adds a ton of emotional weight to Spring Breakers, but also renders any moralistic commentary or sparse comedy he might make to temper the impact somewhat ineffectual. You can't exactly have it both ways when you paint society's answer to youth's existentialist crisis and your 'trial-by-fire' solution in roughly similar lights.

So in the end, we have three very similar movies that got very similar brands of moral outrage directed at the filmmakers - but really, that outrage is pointed at the wrong people. All three stories are targeting the increasingly hollow materialist lie of the American dream, and following it up by showing all of the horrific consequences of buying into it without the fading strictures of morality. And every day, whether they be white or blue collar criminals or a group of teenage girls looking for the life culture at large promised them, these stories are playing out - perhaps not on the same scale, but they're there. And while all three films might seem to endorse or glamorize the lifestyles on the screen, they all show the addictive pathology and dangerous dehumanization that comes with succumbing to base animal instincts when society tells you there's no greater purpose. 

So don't demonize Bay, Korine, or Scorsese for pointing out how twisted and wrong it is that so many have bought into the 'American Dream' and the terrible things they do to get to it. After all, you don't silence the messengers when they carry in the cold, brutal truth, even if you don't want to hear it.

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