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.