Satire is difficult. There’s no real way to get past that. Making any art for that matter, is extremely difficult, immeasurably difficult. Oh sure, anyone can take a bucket of paint and a brush and start painting, but to create art? To actually engage in the act of creating something that wasn’t there before? That’s a whole different matter. The creation stories seem to have a grasp on just how impossible it is, exclusively giving the skill to the gods but not to man, and perhaps that is why many of us don’t think about the idea of people creating something as a tangible idea. It becomes something mystical, something sort of whispered about as though it mustn’t be brought to light. Gods create, man remixes. Everybody knows that. So maybe that’s the definition of art, if we must have one. Art is creation, taking an idea that only existed as a concept and birthing it into reality. Even coming up with that idea is itself an act of creating. And yes, by this definition, having a child is also an act of creation and therefore we must assume that all people are works of art.
Making movies is even more difficult. Ever sit through the credits to THE LORD OF THE RINGS? You should, the music is pretty incredible. The point is that there are so many credits. So much hard work went into making those movies. Basically, it’s like that for every movie. Even that little independent short film one of your hip friends was talking about, it took more work than most people would like to think about. So movies are hard work. Making art is hard, making movies is even harder. Well, add just a little more difficulty to the mix and you’ve got satire. Making satire is really, really, really difficult. Or I should say, making good satire is really, really, really difficult.
Okay but many people don’t even know what satire is. Fear not, that’s why Google was invented. By definition, satire is “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” Guh, what does that even mean? I’ll try and come up with a working definition. Basically, it is making fun of something by indulging in that very something. Or, taking it to the extreme. That doesn’t cover all of the bases, but it’s a good solid definition you can fall back on.
Probably the most popular work of satire is Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” (which you can find here) in which he proposes people grow and eat babies as a means to solve the hunger crisis. Crazy, right? Well, that’s the point, nobody should be reading that and going, “oh yeah, dude, totally, good idea, where do we start.” Or at least I hope nobody is thinking that.
Most of you probably already have a good idea of how this works and you’re nodding your head and wishing I’d get down to the more meaty parts of this essay. I just want to make sure everyone is caught up before I proceed, so I’ll mention one more popular work before I jump in.
David Fincher’s FIGHT CLUB¹. By now, I don’t know very many people who haven’t seen it, although I do know a few, so there will be no spoilers here. When FIGHT CLUB came out, people went nuts. The movie was both wildly applauded and reviled, loved and hated, hailed as a masterpiece and promptly ignored. A lot of people thought it spoke to the primal culture shifts that were happening at the time, and a lot of people thought it was a profane, excessive film about violence and sex that encouraged young men to beat each other up and defy the government. Which it did. Except it didn’t. You see why it’s so hard to nail down the definition of satire? It really helps to have a background established before you move forward, which is probably why some of us read Swift’s essay in high school. If there is one thing the film had going for it, it is that it really hit a nerve. And that’s what good satire does. Sure, you can argue about the validity of FIGHT CLUB’s narrative and it’s third act and discuss its somewhat clumsy-at-times approach to pulling the audience in vs. pushing them away (more on this later, keep reading), but the movie had a huge impact.
Flash forward to 2013. It has been 14 years since FIGHT CLUB, and audiences are once again caught up in a frenzy because a little filmmaker named Martin Scorsese has made a movie called THE WOLF OF WALL STREET that seems to glorify very rich people doing very illegal and immoral things. Some people are calling it one of his best movies, which is saying something, and others are calling it, well, less savory things. For those of you living in a hole for the past month, the movie is based on the memoir by Jordan Belfort who was a stockbroker arrested for fraud and the title character of the movie. So, key words: movie, satire, stockbroker, fraud, people are angry. Follow me so far? Good, because it gets fun.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is a hilarious movie. What? It’s a comedy? Yes, it’s a comedy. The Golden Globes nominated it in the comedy category and The Golden Globes are always right.
Talk about a movie of excess. The film set the new record for most profanity in a movie, it barely escaped an NC-17 rating, it is one minute shy of being 3 hours long, it features an obscene amount of drugs, sex, and debauchery. There is no way you can walk out of this movie and shrug as though you hadn’t seen anything new. Again, I really hope so. Now, you don’t have to like the movie, you are allowed to be offended by it, and you don’t even have to approve of the characters. In fact, you’re supposed to disapprove of them. Jordan Belfort is never meant to be a character you should look up to in any way. What he does is highly illegal and morally reprehensible. The fact that anyone can kind of root for him at all is a testament itself to the absolute power of the craft on display, but never for one moment are you supposed to aspire to be him. Well, maybe at first. Maybe when you see his perfect house, his amazing job, his flawless wife, and the enormous amount of money he has, maybe then you’re allowed to want to be him. That’s a hook, and it works. The movie invites you in, dares you to connect to these characters, and pulls it off. And then it cuts the breaks. Excess everywhere. Not just the content, but the sweeping camera movements, the pumping music, the power-montages, the unhinged performances, just everything goes up to 11 and doesn’t look back. This is meant to distance you as an audience so that you aren’t participating in the actions on screen, but observing them. Or at least this is what a lesser movie might do. See, there’s a fine line that must be walked when you’re trying to do this. Actually there’s two. The first line is between pulling the audience in and pushing them away. Let’s use an example. You’re watching a movie starring your favorite actor in which they are sad and alone and they wake up in the morning wishing for a better life, they make breakfast, and spill coffee all over their shirt. Sigh. It’s going to be a long day. This pulls you in, this creates empathy between you and the character on screen. You are now invested in their story. You care about them. Cue feelings. Then suddenly your favorite actor runs over a dog and laughs at it. Cue record scratch, hold up, pull out, no. Not okay. This is not okay. This is an example of distancing the audience, you don’t care, you don’t like this character or care about them. Stop the feelings, please, puberty is over.
The second line to walk is between excess for the sake of enlightenment, and excess for the sake of indulgence. This line is much harder to define. On one hand you have satire, on the other, basically the cinematic version of an orgy. If you like orgies, then sure, there are many movies that cater to that taste, but Scorsese isn’t interested in doing that. He’s looking for the much more difficult to achieve arena of excess for the sake of making a point. So you have Jordan Belfort ordering hookers to his office to have weird three-ways with his co-worker just because he can. You have Belfort explaining his daily drug routine, which consists of enough drugs to knock out most of the population. You have sex scenes so brazenly over-the-top you’d have to look pretty hard to find internet pornography that measure up to it.
This whole time, however, the movie never participates in these excesses. It never actually indulges in them. They distance you as a viewer, pulling you out of the action and making you not care before they happen, and because of this you become detached to what you are watching. That is, you are free to critique it. Then, when it’s over, the movie pulls you back in so you can identify with (not the same as liking) the characters again. And the process repeats, constantly working to push you away and pull you back in again. Like I say, it is a very difficult line to walk.
Essentially, that is what good satire does. You, the viewer, are allowed the opportunity to observe things without feeling the emotional attachment that makes you identify with them. You can comment, you can critique. You can understand. Finally, you can take what you see and apply it to your own life.
But first, let’s talk about the other side of the line. Excess for the sake of indulgence, or the orgies. The idea behind making this kind of movie is to capitalize on our most human tendencies toward empathy and inclusion. Look at the TRANSFORMERS movies for an example. There is so much indulgence happening on screen it’s nearly impossible not to get lost in it, but you are allowed the chance to get sucked in, to put yourself in the shoes of the protagonist and sort of be the hero for a couple hours. You engage in the fantasy of what you are seeing. There’s a very different purpose to these movies. So you can see the differences, right? Participation and engaging with fantasy vs. detachment and commentary.
Which brings us to the trouble with satire. Those two lines are so difficult to manage that most of the time there’s a good portion of the audience that just doesn’t get it. They just can’t quite differentiate between the two, or maybe they even think they’re in a third state somewhere in between or out beyond the two extremes. In other words, it goes over their head. I’m not trying to say these audiences are somehow less smart than the others. It always happens. Good art should polarize because it simply can’t speak to everyone. With satire it gets increasingly difficult because it is meant to polarize. You really can’t make fun of somebody without offending someone else and as such, people are going to miss the point.² And so, one tries to aim at the people or ideas that deserve being made fun of. After all, humanity is still growing and learning and we haven’t figured everything out yet. Every day somebody commits an offence against someone else and nobody else can stop them. That’s where the satirists come in usually. They seek to point out the flaws in what is happening via this whole confusing and complex process known as satire. It makes for some of the most brilliant works ever produced, and it makes for some very heated discussion afterward.
So does THE WOLF OF WALL STREET pull it off? Yes, and most brilliantly. It’s a profound cinematic experience by a filmmaker who just keeps defying expectations. It is unreal just how assured Scorsese is in this film, and the performances he gets out of his whole cast – seriously, everyone across the board is scary good in it – is something to marvel at. Even if you don’t see it, the discussion has been riveting, making it one of the most relevant movies of the year, one that really struck a nerve and got everyone talking about the way we perceive art, what we allow, what we like and don’t like, how far we’re willing to go, and how capable we are of understanding our own humanity.
¹It is worth noting of course, that FIGHT CLUB is a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, which also made huge waves upon its release, but the film remains the more popular of the two, although you should definitely read the book as well.
²This is not to say I condone making fun of people, but rather to say making fun of humanity as a whole can have huge benefits for a society. Stupid things happen all the time, sometimes they are simple mistakes, sometimes they can just be laughed off, sometimes they need to be taken very seriously, but sometimes they can’t be dealt with unless someone takes them down a peg.