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Manufacturing Dissent: When Adult Viewers Act Like Children

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | January 8, 2014 | Comments ()


scorsese-wolf.jpg

I haven’t even seen The Wolf of Wall Street yet, and I’m already sick of hearing about it.

Hundreds of reviews and dozens of essays have been written about the film in the wake of hand-wringing over its depiction of the drug- and sex-fueled life of stockbroker Jordan Belfort, whose memoir was adapted for the screen by writer Terence Winter and director Martin Scorsese. Some viewers have walked out on the film, apparently shocked by its content, while more than a few critics have dug into the film to examine its methods and motives. On this site, Sean McElwee posited that some people are put off the film because it reminds us of our own capitalist greed that is “our sin as a society.” I think he’s spot-on in his argument about Scorsese’s goals, but I’m not willing to extend such credit to some the film’s louder or more hysterical detractors. It’s not merely that Scorsese is an established filmmaker, whose style and substance are hardly a mystery by now. Nor is it that Scorsese is a powerfully moral filmmaker, who deftly explores the financial and spiritual cost of crime in story after story of people paying the price and falling from deluded grace. No, it’s that this kind of whinging is widespread now. The Wolf of Wall Street is just one part of a larger and more worrisome puzzle.

Co-hosting a New Year’s Eve special with Carson Daly, Natasha Leggero made a joke about the public relations snafu that had briefly befallen Franco-American’s SpaghettiOs in December. In a befuddled attempt to capitalize (somehow) on the day of remembrance for the Pearl Harbor attacks, a tweet on the official SpaghettiOs account showed a cartoon noodle holding an American flag above a caption that read “Take a moment to remember #PearlHarbor with us.” It was taken down pretty quickly as comedians and columnists tore it to pieces. Riffing on the event, Leggero said, “It sucks that the only survivors of Pearl Harbor are being mocked by the only food they can still chew.” It’s a joke about old people and soft foods, and while not exactly revolutionary, it’s still a pretty funny bit. The fallout was astonishing, though: Leggero received death threats across Twitter and Facebook — “your a stupid ignorant whore,” while grammatically challenged, is the nicest one I can reproduce here — from people expressing outrage that Leggero had, I guess, attempted to defame those who lived through the Pearl Harbor attacks. In response, Leggero wrote an open letter in which she stood by her totally normal joke and tried to get people to see reason. She wrote in part: “I don’t think the amazing courage of American veterans and specifically those who survived Pearl Harbor is in any way diminished by a comedian making a joke about dentures on television.”

Leggero’s joke wasn’t inflammatory, racist, sexist, or crude, but she was called a “vile whore” and told to “drink bleach” because people wanted to read sinister intent into her words. Across many films, Scorsese has endeavored to create queasy, compelling stories about people who do bad things, and people have been railing against The Wolf of Wall Street as if Scorsese had personally affronted them. What’s happening?

Part of the problem — but just part — is that many people willfully ignore the fact that depiction and endorsement aren’t the same thing, and that a filmmaker’s decision to include certain content does not mean he or she condones those acts. How many movies would we have missed if we believed something as dumb as this? Do we think Scorsese is saying, for instance, that Henry Hill and Ace Rothstein are good guys because they lived to tell their tales? Just because certain cultures have decided to glorify Scarface doesn’t mean Scarface is now a hero, and I defy anyone to watch that film and think Brian De Palma is saying we should all snort mountains of coke and murder each other. Scorsese’s employing style to re-create real events, too, the same way Kathryn Bigelow brought her own style and attitude to bear on the events surrounding the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty. That she showed American operatives torturing people doesn’t mean she agrees with the idea, but that she’s committed to discussing things that actually happened. Her work and Scorsese’s are historical fictions, but they’re rooted in hard and uncomfortable fact.

That doesn’t matter for some people, though, because the real problem is that we seem to be living in an age of manufactured outrage, when everything that happens is just fuel for another bitchfest on Twitter or Facebook or a huffy petition to fire or hire someone or a teary-eyed plea for a return to a simpler time. We act wounded, personally attacked, when someone says something we even slightly disagree with, and we channel that feeling — i.e., a basic awareness that the desires or opinions of another might not align with ours — into indignation. Some people didn’t think Leggero’s joke was that funny, but instead of saying “I didn’t think that joke was that funny” and then moving on with their lives, they unloaded gallons of vitriol and tried to think of creative ways she could kill herself. Instead of bringing their own moral compass to bear on The Wolf of Wall Street and thinking about the way we collectively idolize greed and power, some people decided that Martin Scorsese was morally bankrupt, full stop. They threw their hands up and wept for the children, not realizing they had become childish.

Here’s the thing, though: you are absolutely free to hate those movies, or Leggero, or mediocre canned pasta, or anything you want. And you’re free to make reasoned, impassioned arguments against them. But true dissent always seeks to explore the root of discord, not turn another person into an opponent or an enemy. True dissent asks us what’s really bothering us, and what we expect out of art, or comedy, or life itself, and how we feel about the gap between our expectations and reality. It takes a brutal level of investigation and control and honesty. True dissent is about ourselves.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.




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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Behemoth

    While I find this piece interesting and quite accurate, I can't help but indulge in death threats towards Daniel Carlson for calling noodles "pasta" when it is not. It's very insulting to Italians, kinda like sh*tting on a nation's flag.
    Hence fatwa: AAAAAAHHHGGG!!!#!!%§=(!!!!!!

  • jja

    Here's some true dissent. Can we stop writing "whinging" when we mean "whining"? Why that particular Britishism? And here's why it really bothers me: because it's a lazy and perhaps even unconscious aping of a dominant writing style (in this case the one I think of as hipster-pop-culture-style). The only thing more teeth-gratingly irritating is this construction: because [reasons].

  • kirbyjay

    I still miss Franco American Spaghetti and Meatballs. Spaghetti-O's SUCK!!!

  • Some Think Pieces are just pointless navel-gazing, but this was a good one. I hate coming late to a good Think Piece, though, because when I do, I find that all my opinions have already been stated and usually more eloquently that I would have done it myself. It gives me the blue opinion balls and I can't even assuage it by making fun of people, because all the stupid opinions have also already been shredded. And then I have to turn on MSNBC and shout at it until I feel better.

  • Pitry

    Like the very wise Art3mis said upthread, you're missing the part in your analogy that Leggero experienced violence that is very much related to her gender, and that no one's taken such a language and never will with Martin Scorsese. This is not a good analogy. At all.

    But to focus on the Wolf part of your post, rather than the bad analogy.

    As someone who wrote a large tirade in response to that earlier piece by Sean, I can tell you exactly where my rage is coming from. It's not moral. It's not because I'm looking for Bad People To Be Angry With. It's coming from people telling me why I didn't like the movie instead of listening to me when I explain to them why I didn't like the movie. They can do this politely, like Sean did. Some of them didn't. Y'know, those who explicitly referred to people who disliked the movie as dumb, mouth breathing idiots, prudes, etc. This kind of language makes me short with anyone who tells me why I dislike Wolf, including those who do so nicely. Listen to me, instead of assuming. That's the most important part of a dialogue. And the discourse around this movie discourages dialogue. And both sides are to blame for that.

    As for the extra part, other than simply disliking the movie. Depiction ins't endorsement and I don't think this movie endorses Belfort in its depiction of him. I do think, however, that there's a huge problem here when the film's producer and star filmed an endorsement video for the real Jordan Belfort. Now, I can criticise the movie without resorting to claiming it's endorsing Belfort's behaviour, and have done so, on this website too. I would, however, greatly appreciate it, if one - just one - of the many defenders of the movie would address the close relationship between Belfort and the production.

  • I couldn't agree more that 'True dissent is about ourselves.'

    I sometimes rant about how the revolution that has hit media, with rapid technology disrupting old models, hits the hardest in this particular area of criticism journalism. The proliferation of platforms for projecting outward opinions of varying verisimilitude vanquishes the valued role (see how I did that?) of the editorial function, which can modulate the excesses of this tendency, which I believe has always been there. It just has nearly unlimited access to projection.

  • lukebc

    My outrage is the focal point of existence. Agree with me or fuck off!

  • DeaconG

    If you had no manufactured dissent you'd have no politics.

    You're just now figuring this out?
    I've been watching this shit develop for nearly 30 years!

  • Pippa_Laughingstock

    Depiction isn't endorsement, but you kind of undermine your scathing invective when you buy the rights to the guy's book, choose Leonardo DeCaprio to play him, and give him a cameo. If Martin Scorcese wants to give me a couple mil, cast me as Angelina Jolie, and give me a cameo, he can assassinate my character all he wants.

  • Steve Regis

    Good point. And there's an extent to which almost any depiction is an endorsement, regardless of intent. If this guy, or the subjects of Goodfellas or Casino are glamorized in the eyes of most viewers, and in their own minds AND they make money off it... you can't just pretend none of that is real. At the same time, most of the manufactured outrage set are just trying to get their toes in the spotlight too.

  • Maddy

    I have nothing intelligent to say about this except EXACTLY. Just because filmmakers etc depict uncomfortable terrible things doesn't mean they're endorsing them. Not everything is an explicit morality tale where the good guys win and the bad guys die in the end. I still haven't seen this movie and not sure if I can watch this for 3 hours but that's more of an aesthetic choice than a moral one.

  • JohnnyL53

    Maybe if you got off twitter, facebook, et. al. you would find that there isn't really very much going on in the meat world concerning this movie. Social media is fueled by peoples imagined outrages. Once you quit reading that crap you realize that things are much quieter than you previously thought.

  • crispin

    Here, here!

  • Eamon Doyle
  • Robinson Crudite

    Leggero’s joke wasn’t inflammatory, racist, sexist, or crude, but she
    was called a “vile whore” and told to “drink bleach” because people
    wanted to read sinister intent into her words.

    No. People who threaten others with bodily harm over a tasteless joke do not care about any kind of larger issue. They have problems which are manifesting in their responses to things they read online. We get that you disagree with the opinion, but that doesn't mean some didn't have a legitimate criticism about Leggerio's comment. And if it's legit criticism made in good faith, then it doesn't deserve to be lumped into the same group as the emotionally unhinged who spout off with death threats.

    As far as the rather ill-informed criticism of WoWS goes, again, legit criticism deserves respect, even if you disagree with it. There are absolutely examples of critics who make bad faith arguments, you're right, but I see no examples listed here. Instead, vague mentions of people who can't review a film properly, or so you say, without even linking to an example. The IW piece is good, but doesn't link to any concrete examples of a critic deciding "that Martin Scorsese was morally bankrupt."

    Some examples I know of come from non-critics who have an agenda. A couple come from critics who seem to have an agenda, based on what they said and the outlet they write for. And some come from critics who aren't in the least unable to differentiate between advocacy and portrayal. Leonard Maltin seems taken aback by the film, for example, but it would be silly to claim he thinks Scorsese is advocating the real-life Belfort's behavior.

    Again, I'm not sure what is accomplished by lumping genuine criticism in with poorly-written articles or agenda-driven open letters. To imply that they are all equal...well, that sounds like "manufactured outrage."

  • Amen.

  • logan

    I really gotta go see this damn movie!

  • You nailed the manufactured outrage part, but I do believe there are some legitimate criticisms surrounding WoWW and how the cast/crew viewed the author and his subject matter. Vince over at FilmDrunk did a great job articulating those arguments: http://www.uproxx.com/filmdrun...

  • Art3mis

    I'm really struggling with this piece. I think the parallel you're trying to draw between (1) people making violent, misogynist comments about a female comedian and (2) people who decided to stop watching a movie they disliked or complained about it and questioned the filmmaker's intent, is an incredibly strained one. Yes, people have gotten upset about both of those things. But the type and severity of the reactions to each, the subject matter in question, and basically everything else about those two situations is completely different.

    I haven't seen, and you don't cite, a critical mass of "let's burn him at the stake!" reactions to Scorcese's movie: some people disliked it, and some people really disliked it, and a few people in the latter group wrote things talking about how much they disliked it. That's hardly a new phenomenon with movies and I really don't think the reaction to this particular movie is any more hysterical than any other divisive film, there are just more people taking offense to the offense because they like and respect Scorcese.

    Your other example is worlds away from the generally pretty reasonable response to Scorcese, though. And honestly, I can't take a discussion of that situation seriously when you entirely ignore the factor that is by far the most relevant to the type of reactions she got: her gender. If you've read the excellent article making the rounds this week about online threats against women, you'll know that many, many women in the public eye get reactions like that every time they say anything at all. I'm sure some people took a great deal of offense to a joke that I agree wasn't all that terrible. But death and rape threats and generally misogynist, violent slurs? That's about being a woman who drew negative attention, of any kind, to herself. I'm sure some people would still have been upset if a male comedian had made that joke, but the tone and content of the reaction would have been totally different.

    More generally, though, I find outraged pieces about "manufactured outrage" to be incredibly irritating because they do exactly what they claim to hate in others. Here, for example, you complain that people refuse to really think about and engage with the substance of what Scorcese was trying to do with his film, and accuse them of "willfully ignor[ing] the fact that depiction and endorsement aren’t the same thing, and that a filmmaker’s decision to include certain content does not mean he or she condones those acts." But in making that argument, you are yourself willfully ignoring the fact that many of the people who took issue with the movie (which you haven't even seen) in fact DID understand that general principle and explained, sometimes at length, why they still believed that this movie still missed its mark (maybe because whatever its intent, they think that it still came across as shallowly glamorizing Belfort, or maybe because, as Dustin pointed out, it's hard to claim you weren't endorsing your bad guy's acts when the bad guy in question appeared in the movie and cheered his own acts on and then the star did a real-life endorsement for the villian).

    And honestly, I agree that in general--and in large part because of how the internet has changed communication--we have more of a piling-on tendency than is healthy, and that in many cases reasoned criticism gets overtaken by a negative reaction that is both out of hand and out of proportion. But I can't get on board with this analysis of that phenomenon.

  • chrisahl

    This comment is so much better than the piece it comments on. I generally love Daniel Carlson's musings, but this one pretty much exists only so that this comment can exist.

  • Tammy

    As an art-maker, it mystifies me that people don't understand that depiction DOES NOT EQUAL endorsement. It's a huge frustration. How do I make art that challenges if I can't show the things that horrify me, for fear that people will think I'm placing a stamp of approval on them? How can we possibly make people to think on what the nature of evil is if we're never allowed to show it? I don't understand this mentality at all. The greatest works of drama ever created expose our ideas of evil through characters who do bad things, so that we can see into that evil and think about it and apply it to our lives, hopefully spurred into finding other paths based on what we see.

    Shakespeare was ALL ABOUT this. Do I think Macbeth is an endorsement of rampant murder fueled by unchecked ambition? No, dudes. Quite the opposite. It's like the world has forgotten how to read for context.

  • Art3mis

    Well, it mystifies me that people don't understand that criticism of The Wolf of Wall Street isn't just "but you showed him having fun, and he's a bad guy, so this movie is immoral and terrible!" Most of what I've read about it has been a good deal smarter and more nuanced than that.

    Yes, depiction =/= endorsement. That doesn't mean that every depiction of a gross, immoral life is raising deep questions about society and human nature, or that every attempt to interrogate a villainous protagonist actually worked. I fully understand what Scorcese was trying to do here, and I don't think there's anything wrong with it. Whether he was successful is what's sparked most of the debate.

  • Tammy

    I'd also follow up by saying I don't think Carlson was saying there is *no* valid criticism of Scorsese to be found; just that there's a lot of (very loud, very irritating) not-so-valid criticism out there at the moment, and he's teasing out one reason why that might be. From his article:
    "Instead of bringing their own moral compass to bear on The Wolf of Wall Street and thinking about the way we collectively idolize greed and power, some people decided that Martin Scorsese was morally bankrupt, full stop."

    *Some* people decided. I've seen quite a few, and those voices (in my circles, anyway) are drowning out the voices like yours. Perhaps I'm off base, but I suspect you and Carlson are closer to the same page here than you might think. If we cull thru the kneejerk, pearl-clutching reactions that Carlson is addressing above, we can then get into the more interesting, more important work of substantive criticism you are describing, no?

  • Tammy

    I in no way disagree with you. I'd be delighted if what you describe was, in fact, the kind of criticism I was seeing blow up my Facebook feed, but it hasn't been thus far. Different circles of friends, I suppose, but I've seen a ton of "criticism" amongst my circle (infuriatingly, from other art-makers), that distills down to "He showed it, he must approve!" But really my comment isn't in relation to Scorsese at all, as I haven't seen the film yet; it's about a common trend I see across my social media feeds for knee-jerk judgement of films/theatrical pieces that disregards context to feed the Outrage Monster.

  • Guest

    I'd also follow up by saying I don't think Carlson was saying there is no valid criticism of Scorsese here; just that there's a lot of (very loud, very irritating) not-so-valid criticism out there at the moment, and he's teasing out one reason why that might be. From his article:
    "Instead of bringing their own moral compass to bear on The Wolf of Wall Street and thinking about the way we collectively idolize greed and power, some people decided that Martin Scorsese was morally bankrupt, full stop."

    *Some* people decided. I've seen quite a few, and those voices (in my circles, anyway) are drowning out the voices like yours. Perhaps I'm off base, but I suspect you and Carlson are closer to the same page here than you might think. If we cull thru the kneejerk, pearl-clutching reactions that Carlson is addressing above, we can then get into the more interesting, more important work of substantive criticism you are describing, no?

  • Protoguy

    The same people who threw a tantrum at Last Temptation of Christ. If you don't depict their idols in the form they consider proper, you deserve to die. As a Tolkien lunatic, I understand the mindset, it's just that the stupid level is turned up to 11 on these guys.

    That and people seem to LOVE to be outraged. It gives them a mental boner. Reminds me of Sutherland in Six Degrees of Separation:

    "I bet Flan loves to be outraged.
    - I do not!
    - You do too!
    - Flan loves getting into high dudgeon.
    - And look at his cheeks turn all rosy.
    Dudgeon becomes him."

  • JenVegas

    So much truth. Thank you. I'm completely over this trend toward seeing malfeasance in every statement made by anyone, anywhere about anything. I've actually given up on reading specific websites (starts with a J and rhymes with Blezabel) because I no longer have the energy to defend innocent statements or read about people freeaaaaaaaking out over nothing.

  • Eamon Doyle
  • JenVegas

    ohforfuxsake

  • Guest

    The Social Justice Kittens Calendar is also pretty damn funny.

  • That was damn funny.

  • JenVegas

    The Social Justice Kittens Calendar is also pretty funny.

  • JustOP

    Somewhat ironic post given Dustins previous one about Jason Biggs. Excellent piece though - always a pleasure to read your work.

  • Eddie
  • TotesMcGotes

    Yeah,I was thinking about this the entire time I was reading this piece.

    Still,spot on,Daniel. So much truth.

  • Pasqualie

    So much this it hurts.

  • Guest

    I'd change:

    The real problem is that we seem to be ARE living in an age of manufactured outrage.

    But otherwise a well done piece and I concur with K.C.'s comment Spot on.

  • I agree with you. But as Zizek points out that anytime you have strong opposition there is a fantasy being concealed.The question is, "What is the fantasy here?"Zizek also takes Zero Dark Thirty to task for the depiction of torture which is the beginning of legitimizing it, of institutionalizing it, of making it begin to be commonplace on the screen and in the eyes and minds of the watchers.

    Haven't seen the "Wolf" yet but the excess of his actions and the reported excess of the film are in keeping with Nietzsche's advice:The work of art about a subject must be even more so that the subject, "worse" than the subject/object being written - filmed,painted - about.

    So the nail in the coffin in our time of the "end of capitalism" is its excess, the porno of capitalism, its everywhereness obscenity. This is what Rand -unknowingly - portrayed in Atlas Shrugged, as Zizek also points out in admiration of his enemy Ms Rand.

  • Spot on.

  • lowercase_ryan

    Great piece. Thanks Daniel.

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