Why Hollywood can’t tackle the recession

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As The Wolf of Wall Street hits UK screens, is “financial cowardice” the reason Hollywood can’t totally engage with the recession?

As I write this, I am eating Sainsbury’s basics brown rice with nothing on it from a Tupperware box. I have a Paddington Bear fleece wrapped around me and I’m in bed and I can see my breath in the air and in a minute I’m going to steal some of my bodybuilder housemate’s whey protein just so I have enough energy to continue shivering. This is a recession.

American Psycho put a nice full stop to the whole ’80s conversation’ in film; it depicted the decade as clownish and deadly

Now, as you all know, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is coming out on Friday and it’ll be a bit like American Psycho, except without the protagonist chasing a prostitute through an apartment complex wearing nothing but running shoes and a chainsaw. It’ll have the excess, the financial hubris, the sexism, the drugs and the stupidity and it’ll be considered extremely SATIRICAL and TIMELY and it’ll win an Oscar or something.

But the 80s have already been confronted (Wall Street), deconstructed (Glengarry Glen Ross) and ridiculed (American Psycho) to excellent effect. In my opinion, American Psycho put a nice full stop to the whole ’80s conversation’ in film; it depicted the decade as clownish and deadly and doomed to a self-destruction whose shockwaves we’re all still feeling 30-odd years on. Patrick Bateman was a sort of walking narrative amalgam of everything about the 80s that we found fascinating; he was rich, alien, compelling and, ultimately, doomed. Everything being discussed and deconstructed before then was just sort of put to bed. The 80s were stupid – they were the stupidest time in the world. Until now.

american psycho

I’m not going to get into why Earth, circa 2008, is the stupidest place to live in the universe, because I’m tired, malnourished and not that clever or politically switched on. But I’m of the opinion that the road to where we are now would make one of the most compelling pieces of Oscar bait in decades. So why is no one biting? We’ve definitely had zeitgeisty content in the last few years. Zero Dark Thirty, Green Zone and The Hurt Locker gave us imperialism from the point-of-view of the imperialists. The films of Noah Baumbach – especially Frances Ha – have given us shocking insight into the ennui-ridden lives of hot Williamsburg hipsters.

The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, The Great Gatsby – these fetishise the far-away lustre of the past while criticising its ugliness

Girls does much the same thing as Baumbach’s work, but with less self-effacement and more self-abuse, while Arbitrage was an abortive punt at financial engagement. Other than that, the most fascinating event of the last 20 years has seen little to no lip-service in film. So, when the story that needs to be told is how we reached this point (dripping wet rice and protein shake for dinner), mining the past for similarities just feels like procrastination. And what’s so frustrating is that just even the most cursory scrutiny of the kind of films attracting theatre-packing names and big studios are ones that create a narrative around excess and financial recklessness.

The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, The Great Gatsby – these films fetishise the far-away lustre of the past while criticising its ugliness. Has there been a more financially excessive or ugly time than now? In January of 2013, Goldman Sachs’ army of bankers awarded themselves £8.3 billion in bonuses. Let’s get Scorsese on-hand for that vicious, morally ambiguous financial epic; the story of a cut-throat investment banker who won’t let an economic downturn get in the way of his ambitions. It could be the plot of The Wolf of Wall Street, just with the dates changed.

wolf of wall street midget tossing

And we could take the camera out of the board rooms and into the streets. By June 2012, hundreds of families had been evicted or browbeaten out of their homes in South-East London to allow for the building of the Olympic stadium and village. Let’s get Ken Loach on the case for a state-of-the-nation indictment of corporate spending, there’s no way that wouldn’t at least win a BAFTA. Hell, I’d even settle for Baz Luhrman taking a stab at it; no one does drug-fuelled sensory overload bollocks like Luhrman and I’m sure those financiers paid for some wicked parties with their stolen doubloons.

Hollywood has never been the most adventurous of beasts – some serious hedge-betting is happening behind the scenes

I’ve no doubt that the motivating factor behind the film world’s squeamishness is financial cowardice – which seems slightly short-sighted considering it was financial recklessness that got us here in the first place – but as we know Hollywood has never been the most adventurous of beasts. I don’t pretend to know what the ramifications of proper, overt counter-cultural sentiment would be for a successful studio, distributor or director, but when the most politically-engaged film about the war in the Middle East is Zero Dark Thirty (a film so rabidly pro-torture, it might as well have been called Waterboarding, The Movie: Surfs Up! and been done with it), we know that there’s definitely some serious hedge-betting happening behind the scenes in regards who can and can’t be pissed off.

My editor pointed out to me, just before I started writing this, that even if they were given license to make a genuinely subversive film about a contemporary subject, the vast majority of Hollywood creative personnel are so cut off from reality that they’d end up doing a bad job anyway. He’s right, of course, but I don’t care. Films like The Wolf of Wall street position us away from the reality of our society while offering the bogus carrot of cultural importance. I’d take a shitty movie made by an out-of-touch billionaire any day if it just tried to engage with the here and now.


Featured image: Universal

Inset images: Lionsgate; Universal

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