Tag Archives: Martin Scorsese

The King of Comedy (1983)

The King of Comedy, while less well-known than the overrated Network, is the better film by far.

If Network, Sydney Lumet’s classic 1976 black comedy, is so highly praised on liberal Democratic web sites like Media Matters or Digby, then it’s almost certainly because the screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky looks back with nostalgia on an idealized early TV news culture that never existed. The King of Comedy resists this temptation. Martin Scorsese has no illusions about the golden age of Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, and Fred W. Friendly. The King of Comedy is not another self-aggrandizing tale about how See it Now brought down Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Scorsese centers the debate on America’s corrupt mass media right where it should be, on class. Rupert Pumpkin, De Niro, is a 34-year-old would be comic who lives in the basement of his mother’s house in Jersey City. Every day he joins a crowd of autograph hounds and crazed fans outside of the studios of the Jerry Langford show. While a thinly fictionalized version of Johnny Carson, Jerry Langford could just as easily be David Letterman or Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Simon Cowell, or any figure in the mass media with the power to make or break careers. Rupert Pumpkin, like a contestant on American Idol, is hoping against hope for just a few minutes of his time. Pumpkin, who’s unwilling to work his way up through small clubs and open mics, sincerely believes that he’s a comic genius ready for the big time. All he needs is a few minutes of time on the air.

One day he gets what he thinks is his big break. Masha, an even more deranged fan played by Sandra Bernhard, manages to sneak into Langford’s limousine. She’s waiting for him in the back seat after he finishes taping the show. Langford is so terrified that Pumpkin is able to take control of the situation, and get into the limousine in her place. They drive off together. During the ride home, Pumpkin makes his pitch. Langford, now sufficiently calmed down — Pumpkin wants to be Langford, not fuck him — like any high status figure in the mass media does when he’s forced to deal with a persistent wannabe. He brushes him off. Here’s my card. Talk to my agent. Send my producer a tape. We’ll get back to you.

Rupert Pumpkin doesn’t take the brush off for a brush off. He’s in his own world. We get an idea of just how deluded Pumpkin really is when we see him practicing his monologues in the basement of his mother’s house. It’s not only that he has life-size cut outs of Jerry Langford and Liza Minelli. It’s not even that he imagines himself as a guest on the Jerry Langford show. Scorsese digs much deeper than this. While Rupert Pumpkin dreams about finding a place inside the mass media, we can very clearly see that he’s already there. The way he speaks, his body language, his jokes, his self-deprecating humor, Pumpkin is not an individual human being. He’s a composite, a collage of what the corporate mass media has made of him. What he wants is not to get into the mass media, but to raise his status, to work his way up from the proletariat to become part of the media’s elite.

Rupert Pumpkin’s redeeming quality is that he actually tries to get what he wants. He takes his illusions seriously. “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, Blake said. “If a fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise.” Rupert Pumpkin is that fool.

If Americans love their oppressors, adore their own ruling class, then it’s mostly because they believe in the illusion of upward mobility. Americans accept their subordination because, for them, it’s just another type of deferred gratification. If they work hard, they assume, if go to the right schools, and have the right attitude, they’ll get ahead. When Rupert Pumpkin goes to Jerry Langford’s studios, he’s the perfect American. He’s bright, chipper, patient, polite but with a touch of persistent aggression. He wants a spot on Langford’s show the way most of us want a job. Nobody at the office has any idea who he is, but he still manages to convince the receptionist that Langford told him to drop by, so he gets a meeting with Cathy Long, a producer and agent played to ice-queen perfection by Shelly Hack. If Jerry Langford is the 1% then Cathy Long is the upper-middle-class, that layer of professionals that stands between the elite and the great unwashed. She knows just how to handle an obnoxious peon like Pumpkin, how to give him just the right dose of “hope” while putting him in his place, her thin veneer of civility more social control then graciousness, but so skillfully managed that anybody but Rupert Pumpkin would have taken her rejection as encouragement.

Cathy Long is the first hurdle the ruling class puts up for would be members, propaganda. Rupert Pumpkin, like any good revolutionary, can’t be turned back by propaganda. As soon as he realizes he’s not going to get a spot on the show chatting with Cathy Long he drops the charade. “Mr. Langford trusts my judgement,” she says after telling him that his routine isn’t ready for prime time. “Mr. Langford may trust your judgement,” he responds. “But I don’t.” Cathy Long’s icy civility becomes simple ice. She’s had enough. She calls security, the second hurdle, propaganda mixed with the promise of muscle. She goes back inside her office, and shuts the door. But the polite security guard who tries to finesse Pumpkin out of the office isn’t enough. The Jerry Langford Show’s front office needs real muscle, not white collar muscle. Soon, we see three armed, security guards who drag Pumpkin out of the building and throw him into the street. Pumpkin has now been met with the ruling class’s plan B, brute force uncut with persuasion

If Rupert Pumpkin is persistent, it’s partly because he’s motivated by love. Nobody is more persistent than a persistent romantic. Rita Keane, played by Robert De Niro’s real life wife Diahnne Abbott, tends bar at a saloon Pumpkin frequents in Hell’s Kitchen. They also went to high school together. Loser who lives in his mother’s basement though he may be, Pumpkin, his delusions about a spot on the Jerry Langford show very much alive, finds the courage to ask her on a date. She’s dismissive, but not totally dismissive. We get the sense that Rita is as attracted to Rupert as he’s attracted to her. If he gets his shit together, he’d have a chance. He shows her a book of autographs. She’s impressed. He’s a good collector. Then he shows her his own autograph in the same book. She’s even more dismissive. His penmanship sucks. Nevertheless, when he invites her out to a party at Jerry Langford’s house, she believes him. Perhaps she has aspirations towards stardom herself. Perhaps he’s just persistent. But, for whatever reason, she gets on the train out to suburbia, where they both crash Langford’s weekend mansion, with predictably disastrous results.

If propaganda and brute force are the first two hurdles, Jerry Langford himself is the third hurdle. A star struck fan is not going to be deterred by Cathy Long or the building’s security. They’re just lackeys. Rupert Pumpkin, as a future Jerry Langford, knows he doesn’t play in their league. Like the Russian peasant who thinks that the Czar is a good person manipulated by scheming government, he thinks Langford will understand him where Cathy Long didn’t. He has so internalized the values of the media elite, he not only genuinely likes Langford, he thinks Langford likes him. Needless to say Langford doesn’t. Langford, like most celebrities, actually despises his fans, the more devoted the more he thinks they merit his contempt. He orders Pumpkin to leave. Pumpkin refuses. Rita wants to go. She tries to make Rupert see that Langford wants nothing to do with them. It still doesn’t work. Pumpkin loves Rita. He’s not willing to be discouraged by her. Finally, Langford just explodes.

“You’re a moron.”

For most directors, this would put an end to it all. Pumpkin, slapped across the face, would realize he’s been living a lie. Perhaps he’d decide to work the small comedy clubs and open mics after all. Maybe he’d give it up altogether. But whatever Scorsese may be, The King of Comedy is a revolutionary film. Rupert Pumpkin isn’t going to give up his false consciousness. He’s going to persist in his folly until he becomes wise. Enter Masha. Masha has a big townhouse near the Langford show’s studios. What’s more, Jerry Langford, while he despises and fears his fans, still likes to take walks through the city, alone, without undercover security. This is all the opportunity Rupert and Masha need. They stalk Langford, kidnap him, then hold him hostage until his producers agree to give Pumpkin a 5 minute spot on the air. They do. We finally get to see Pumpkin’s monologue. It’s terrible. Or is it? Whatever Pumpkin’s talent, or lack of talent, as a comic, his spot on network TV convinces people he’s good. He’s sentenced to six years in jail for kidnapping. But he gets out in two. The gun wasn’t real. Besides, he’s now a media star. To punish him too severely would be to destroy the illusion. It would be roll out the brute force when all they need is propaganda. This is still 1983, not 2011. They can let Rupert Pumpkin become another star, yet another King. As long as he does nothing to threaten the system as a whole, they can assimilate him. He can wear a crown.

We don’t find out what happens to Masha. We assume she did some jail time as well. If Rupert Pumpkin is the prototypical male member of the 99%, then Masha is the prototypical female member. Pumpkin wants to be the 1%. Masha wants to fuck the 1%. With Jerry Langford tied up in her townhouse and Pumpkin at the studios, she gets her opportunity. She sexually assaults Jerry Langford. There’s really no other word for it. Reverse the genders, and you open up a whole new can of worms, but, here, it says something very important about the cult of celebrity. Masha is basically a Maenad, a shrill, Jewish New York Maenad but a Maenad nonetheless. Jerry Langford’s initial terror in the limousine comes from the way that, deep down inside, he knows that the media star is also a sacrifice. Dionysus will be ripped apart. The peons will kill their idols. Scorsese’s genius is how well he understands the capitalist response. Someday in the future, everybody will be famous for 15 minutes. Jerry Langford escapes when Masha unties him so she can fuck him. But he’s been replaced. Pumpkin is the new Jerry Langford, the new King of Comedy. Eventually he will have his own versions of himself, men who want to take his place, and his own version of Masha, women who want to fuck him then rend him to pieces after they’re done with him. When he’s gone, capitalism will throw up another Dionysus,  another American Idol. Reality shows, the empty presidency of Barack Obama, Jersey Shore, Snookie, it’s all down here on film in 1983.

My only criticism of The King of Comedy would be this: Martin Scorsese had Jerry Lewis tied up. He had him at his mercy. And he didn’t demand that he release “The Day The Clown Cried?” It’s just not credible.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013): Dan’s Review

Note: This blog entry was written by Dan Levine.

You can find him here.

Martin Scorsese has always had a certain yen for the criminal element, a fascination that makes their exploits, their interesting anecdotal characters, come alive for him but at the same time this liveliness dulls the possibility for his films to be critical. He realizes intellectually that the people he portrays are amoral at best, and more often than not evil, and we see in film after film their rise into a temporary opulence and their later descent into domestic violence, madness, but more to the point, upper middle class living. What a horrific fate to befall someone who’s seen the top!

There are frequent points in his most recent rise and fall biopic, what might be considered the end of a trilogy of such films, where the urge is to compare it to his earlier film Goodfellas. And there is definitely a goodly amount of shared DNA, a similar carriage.

But Scorsese in 2013 is an older man than the Scorsese of 1990, and as each film might be his last, what the French would dub a “testament” film, he strips away more and more of the bullshit. The Wolf of Wall Street is a longer better and more honest film than Goodfellas, Scorsese as usual makes a life of crime seem like the world’s greatest block party, the people are a little off but they’re funny and charming and could be your neighbors, the music never stops and often has a beat, you could dance to it, food is plentiful as are drugs. The difference being that in this film the criminals are stock traders. The late great Dennis Grunes said once in a review that the brilliance of John Huston’s The Asphault Jungle was that Huston made what was essentially a crime film but shot it like it was essentially a business deal, the film is full of interminable boardroom meetings etc. Wolf of Wall Street could be said to invert this dynamic; though ostensibly a film about business it’s shot like a crime film, and if anyone should be the person to effect this inversion it’s Scorsese, who essentially created the style of the post-noir crime film.

I liked this film more than Goodfellas because oddly enough it embraces the excess and insanity of its lifestyle far more than the earlier film. The typical visual gag in this film is the sort where one pulls away from a yacht to show that it has a helicopter on top of it. The criticism that Scorsese makes crime too charismatic and appealing was perhaps never a criticism that accrued any capital because that’s the point of the typical Scorsese film. He likes the excess and visual possibilities it provides, he likes the liveliness of it, the dynamism. The Stratford-Oakmont office in the film, any of the three shown, are so buzzing with activity that Fellini would’ve been impressed. And the film does seem, if not morally on board with Belfort, at least far more interested in his lifestyle than any other kind; when an FBI agent approaches Belfort on his yacht Belfort taunts him with a description of what he imagines the agent’s life is like, lower middle class income, riding the subway and when it gets hot in the summer fidgeting so his balls don’t stick to his thigh, and in the only shot in the film that isn’t subject to Belfort’s subjectivity we see the agent, on the subway, most likely thinking about how his balls are stuck to his thigh. Belfort meanwhile is playing tennis in a low security prison. Belfort gets the last laugh.

Wolf of Wall Street is also better than Goodfellas (a comparison I’m not artificially dragging into the review, anyone who’s seen both realizes they’re essentially twins) because it more effectively conveys the appeal of crime to a filmmaker; crime shows the actual promise of Horatio Alger to the ethnic working classes, the reason why urban kids saw Scarface as an inspiration rather than a cautionary tale. In a speech late in the film, Belfort compares his boiler-room penny stock operation to Ellis Island; he isn’t wrong in this.

And it ends as a defeated Belfort addresses a large crowd of eager onlookers; they’d like to be him, to have had his wealth. They’re clueless, awkward, and one could imagine they probably own a couple Scorsese DVDs…

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) : Stanley W. Rogouski’s Review

There are three reasons I moved out of New York City. The first was 9/11. I was over 8 blocks away from the World Trade Center when it came down, and my apartment was all the way up in the north Bronx, but seeing the windows of my office go completely black that horrible morning, twice, gave me a mild case of PTSD. So I went back to Southeast Alaska. When I returned back to New York, I found that I could no longer afford to live there, which would be the second reason. The third reason is entirely personal and idiosyncratic: Steve Madden Shoes.

Anybody who lived in New York city in the late 1990s remembers the ads in the subway for Steve Madden Shoes. Women with over-sized heads, tiny arms and legs and bitchy looks on their faces, they were a conscious caricature of urban femininity. For all I know women may have liked Steve Madden’s shoes. They may even have liked his subway ads, but, for me, looking at those images of those angry dolls every morning on the D-Train all the way down from 205th Street in the Bronx was just too much to take. I had begun to feel like Karen Black in Trilogy of Terror.

Steve Madden, as it turns out, was a high school friend of Danny Porush, the co-founder, along with Jordan Belfort, of the “pump and dump” brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont. Steve Madden Shoes was the first company they “took public.” Martin Scorsese’s new movie The Wolf of Wall Street is their story.

Porush, fictionalized as Donnie Azoff, and played by Jonah Hill from Seth Rogan’s Superbad, is a nerd with power. A soft, puffy, effeminate, angry little Pillsbury Dough Boy with man titties and clear glass in horn rim glasses — to make him look more like a WASP—Azoff would normally be a joke, the kind of kid the jocks beat up in high school, and women “friend zone” in their 20s. At best he might grow up to be Chris Christie. But in The Wolf of Wall Street Azoff finds himself in the right place at the right time. Not particularly articulate, or even competent, Azoff, nevertheless, has the one quality essential to success in late 1990s, neoliberal America. He’s completely unethical. That gives him money, which, in the words of Al Pacino from Scarface, also gives him power, and that, in turn, gives access to the best drugs, and, more importantly, to beautiful woman. He doesn’t get bullied. He does the bullying. In one hilariously over the top scene, for example, he catches one of his brokers cleaning a fish tank on the day of the Steve Madden IPO. He fires the man on the spot and eats the fish. If you want to know what “The American Dream” looks like for the frustrated American geek, The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t a bad place to start.

But The Wolf of Wall Street is not Danny Porush’s story. If if had been, Scorsese wouldn’t have fictionalized his name. It’s Jordan Belfort’s, played by the now middle-aged Leonardo DiCaprio. If Donnie Azoff is the Wolf of Wall Street’s Tommy DeVito, then Jordan Belfort is its Henry Hill. An everyman with a gift of gab, a NYC white ethnic with a degree from a non-Ivy-league university, Belfort is a trainee stock broker at the blue chip Wall Street brokerage house L.F. Rothschild. There he comes under the guidance of the senior broker “Mark Hanna” (history nerds will get the Gilded Age tie in), played by a now middle-aged Matthew McConaughey, learns the over the top machismo of Wall Street, and gets started on his drug habit. He seems destined to become just another broker at L.F. Rothschild making six figures, but then luck intervenes. He passes his Series 7 Exam on October 1987, Black Monday. L.F. Rothschild goes out of business, and he finds himself looking for a new job.

Black Monday turns out to be a happy accident. Belfort winds up in a boiler room on Long Island, Investor Center, a low end brokerage house specializing in pushing worthless “penny stocks” to working class people who don’t know any better. He not only masters the job on the first day, he becomes the dominant broker after the first sale. As the assembled employees of Investor Center gather around his desk in fascination as he smooth talks a sucker out of his money, we see the charisma that will carry him to great wealth and fame.

Soon, along with Azoff, he opens up his own boiler room, and, soon after that, he “rebrands” the company Stratton Oakmont, a newly minted “blue chip” firm, a move that gives him access to richer suckers and bigger bank accounts. An attempted “hit job” by Forbes Magazine backfires. It makes him a household name. They should have hired the NY Post instead. After that comes the Steve Madden IPO, and, by the age of 26, Jordan Belfort is worth 50 million dollars. The rest of the movie is as predictable as it is entertaining. Copious amounts of drugs are taken. Hundreds of prostitutes are fucked. Hundreds of millions of dollars of investor money are flushed down the toilet, and, eventually, Stratton Oakmont attracts the attention of the FBI.

(Historical Footnote: Before 9/11, the FBI occasionally prosecuted criminals on Wall Street. This may strike the viewer as dated, even fantastical. But it did happen. Even though the Clinton Administration, like the Obama Administration, generally declined to prosecute major financial criminals at large, blue chip firms like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, they would, at times, throw a small time hustler — and 50 million dollars is chump change on Wall Street —like Jordan Belfort to the wolves. Belfort and Porush did in fact wind up doing a token sentences in minimum security, “country club” prisons.)

Judging by the reviews of The Wolf of Wall Street I’ve read online, which include an “open letter” from Christina McDowell, one of Belfort’s employees, and a man he “ratted on” to the FBI, many people are accusing Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio of “glorifying” Jordon Belfort. That’s debatable. While the film is based on Belfort’s memoir, and does indeed read as a “God I was so drunk last night” story that frat boys tell each other on Sunday morning — and who doesn’t love a frat boy with a hangover — I’m equally sure there are as many people on Wall Street offended by their portrayal as sexist, booze soaked, coke addled jerkoffs as there are people pleased by it. Just because Scorsese gives Belfort some charisma, doesn’t present him as a killjoy like Walter or Skylar White, doesn’t mean he thinks he’s a hero. Indeed, Walter White is the hero. He goes down, in a final blaze of glory, taking out a gang of neo Nazis. Jordan Belfort, on the other hand, goes down ratting out most of his friends to the cops.

What’s more, if the American people look up to men like Jordan Belfort and Donnie Azoff, and they do, that’s not Martin Scorsese’s fault. Just because Scorsese attempts to locate the source of Belfort’s appeal, he’s not romanticizing him. Jordan Belfort succeeds because, in the tawdry world of the 1990s neoliberal United States, he was able to articulate the only thing left about the “American Dream.” Make money. Get rich. Fuck hookers and do drugs. It may not be my ideal, but it sure as hell beats “check your privilege.” If Belfort comes off like a smarmy mediocrity and Azoff like a angry little toad, that’s only because we Americans love smarmy mediocrities and angry toads. Indeed, the final scenes of The Wolf of Wall Street show Belfort as a wannabe cult leader, a “motivational speaker” who’s found his place at last, holding forth like a Baptist preacher about the Gospel of Success. If this had been another time, and Belfort had been black, he might have been Reverend Ike. Azoff, post 9/11, might have been Michael Savage or Sean Hannity. If you don’t like it, don’t blame a movie. Change the culture. Overthrow capitalism. But don’t wag your finger at Martin Scorsese for being an honest filmmaker.

I suppose I should also include a “trigger warning” with this review. The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the most misogynistic films I’ve seen in quite some time. Scorsese’s mastery of film allows him to get away with demeaning women in a way a less skilled director couldn’t, but, in spite of a few token female characters with back stories and real personalities, women in The Wolf of Wall Street are largely props. Belfort’s blond, guidette wife is a petty snob — she lets us know that even though she’s got an Italian last name she’s got relatives who are actually British — and a brainless twit who’s too incompetent even to try to Heimlich Donny Azoff when he’s choking to death. She has no job skills, no education, and, as soon as she realizes Belfort is going down, that he’s going to lose most of his money, she files for a divorce. Yes, we are rooting for her to get custody of their daughter “Skylar” but that’s only because Belfort is so drugged out of his mind, we realize he’d probably kill her if he got away. It’s not a hard decision for a family court judge. Between a castrating bitch and a drug addled maniac, the child goes to the castrating bitch. At least she’ll survive into her 20s to go into psychotherapy. In fact, The Wolf of Wall Street is so brilliantly misogynistic that I actually cheered when Belfort punched his wife in the face.

So make of it what you will. Scorsese shows us lots of tawdry, hateful people with tawdry hateful dreams. But ignore it at your peril, Americans. This is the country you live in.