Totem and Taboo: A Movie Review


Christopher Nolan (2010) Inception

Warren Beatty (2016) Rules Don’t Apply

What do these two films have to do with the series of blogs on the nature of the university? More particularly, what do they have to do with the transformation of the university from a Sanctuary of Truth to a Sanctuary of Method? The overall theme of the essays on the university focuses on power, influence and authority. In my last blog, I used the material from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to explicate his thesis of power, influence and authority when offering a structural analysis of the Book of Exodus.

In his account, Sacks made reference to Sigmund Freud’s Totem and Taboo to insist that in the chiasmic pattern linking the design of the sanctuary with the construction of the sanctuary in Exodus, the story of the Golden Calf was the pivot point. Most importantly, the story of the Golden Calf was not about idolatry, but about the longing for an absent father and, out of this longing, giving one’s allegiance to a tyrant as a substitute. As the reader will see, on this subject, I take a traditionalist stance and argue that the story of the Golden Calf is indeed about idolatry, is about taking a material valuable entity as a substitute for a spiritual entity.

Are the two interpretations mutually exclusive? I will return to answer that question, but I first want to show the link to the two films. I did not choose to watch these films specifically on Saturday night. Inception was just what was on TV when I entered the den. Rules Don’t Apply followed, so I stayed to watch that film as well. As it happens, a dominant plot element in each was about an absent father. A key prop in Inception was explicitly a totem. It is a wonder how serendipity can play a part in the understanding and explication of a position.

In Freud, a totem is a primeval prohibition as well as a protection. In contrast to Inception, a totem for Freud is not self-generated, but is chosen by another or adopted by a whole tribe. The source is characterized as an authentic authority. The totem protects the individual from his or her most powerful longings, but the desire to violate persists in the subconscious. Thus, the totem is both a prohibition against surrendering to temptation and committing a transgression, and a protector that provides boundary conditions.

In both films, at the centre of the plot is a key character who suffers considerably from his relationship with his father. In Inception, he is the son of a very rich man who recently died; the young man is in the process of inheriting the old man’s extensive corporate holdings. This is a psychological heist movie in which a usual heist team, each member with complementary skills, gets together, this time not to rob a physical safe, but a psychological one. The team plans to invade the subconscious of the young heir and influence him to believe that, on his own, he must dismantle his father’s holdings. That will serve the interests of a rival tycoon who hired the heist team because they have developed the techniques for getting inside the safe of memories of an individual in order to manipulate those memories and, thereby, control his mind.

In Rules Don’t Apply, Warren Beatty plays Howard Hughes who is obsessed, not with rosebud (Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, 1941), but with his father, with ensuring the Hughes name is preserved on his father’s company which he inherited, just as bankers and shareholders of TCA close in on him as an eccentric incapable of managing a huge company. A subsequent psychological post-mortem argued that he was not so much driven to his madness by that obsession, but that his anxiety and retreat into isolation were yhe result of a very over-protective mother obsessed with the cleanliness of her child and protecting him from polio. The father is gone. Inception picks up the same theme. Powerful fathers who are absent from the films nevertheless play dominating roles.

Neither plot worked to support Jonathan Sack’s thesis about choosing tyrants to rule over you as a substitute for the longed-for father. In Inception, the son remains under the thumb of his father. The whole effort to “capture his mind” was to plant an idea that will hopefully dominate his conscious life that he needs to free himself from his father at the same time as he remains true to his father. This is to be accomplished by implanting the idea that the father was not disappointed in his son for failing to emerge as a strong leader in the mold of his father, but for failing to emerge as an independent thinker and doer who would not be under the thumb of anyone. With such a new mindset, instead of clinging to the assets he inherited as a way to cling to his father who showed him no affection as a child, he would dissolve the corporate assets to free himself and become an independent man.

Cutting across this theme is another father-child story, that of the role of the leader of the heist team, Cobb, who has mastered the art of penetrating a third level of depth to the unconscious. However, Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is the absent father. He has been cut off from contact with his children as part of his mind remains stuck in the underworld of the unconscious attached and obsessed with his wife and mother of his children whom he used as an experiment to explore the very great depth of the subconscious, but in the experiment was unable to return to earth. Guilt submerges him. The only route back to his children is by going back, both to regain access to the United States, the government of which suspects that he killed his wife, and his children.

According to that narrative, guilt can operate in multiple dimensions and in different directions just as time and experience can. The key always to preserving one’s sanity is by possession of a totem, in this case, a dreidl, a spinning top, that can be grasped and used to prevent being sucked totally into the vortex of the subconscious and to test whether you are in the real world or a world of dreams. In “primitive” societies, a totem defines the perimeter of the tribe and identification with it ensures the protection of the member. In Nolan’s film, the threat is not simply another tribe, but an extinguishing of any spatial and temporal reference points altogether. The totem becomes the the protective marker of a boundary which guards the spirit of the tribe, this time, of the whole human species.

In Beatty’s film, the totem is not explicit, but it is Howard Hughes who serves as the substitute father figure for both Maria Mabrey, a devour Baptist aspiring starlet played by Lily Collins, and her unconsummated knight, Frank Forbes played by Alden Ehrenreich, another repressed Protestant type. Both are in thrall to Harold Hughes. He dictates that there is to be no sexual involvement of his employees. Both are tied to Hughes as the god who will deliver them into stardom or magnificent wealth as an entrepreneur. They reveal themselves to be both consecrated by Hughes but also dangerously passionate about one another. Hughes in the end is right. He does not simply have an obsession with cleanliness and a fear of being defiled. Pollution lurks everywhere.

Both films are about power and the use of wealth, of material influence, to affect the behaviour of others. Power as creative energy, as enterprise and innovation, is expressed through the heist team and particularly the DiCaprio character, who in scene after scene must fight off the apparitions of Cobb’s subconscious who are determined to kill the members of the heist team. Coercive power is used as a defence, but the core tool of the offence is influence, to gain control over the mind, not through drugs, but by entering the subconscious of the other. This is not influence via information, analysis and education. But neither is it simply about tyrannical coercive power, though that is a necessary ingredient in the mix.

The Golden Calf as both a real phenomenon and an idol that dominates the imagination and character identity to promise freedom to and deliver someone from bondage and slavery to a subconscious tyrant, in this case, a father, who controls behaviour even from the grave and reduces the heir to a puppet rather than an independent autonomous being. Warren Beatty’s Citizen Kane as Howard Hughes never achieves that freedom, even though his life appeared to be that of a star lighting up the heavens as it crossed the sky and burnt itself up in the quest for free expression.

The casting couch is not portrayed in Rules Don’t Apply as a fly trap but as a prison of the woman’s own imagination – in this case, a star-struck deeply Christian young lady – driven subconsciously by her own desires to be a star in the firmament.  And for her forlorn lover and satrap of Howard Hughes, it is much more clearly a dream of becoming the author of his own initiatives in wealth accumulation. Tyranny in the case of both films is more a problem of self-identity than one of external coercion, but the desire, the longing, is not narrowly cast as a pursuit simply for a substitute father. The problem in Inception is about cognitive dissonance, is about what is real and what is a product of one’s own imagination, is about what others should be held accountable for and what is your own responsibility. As in Exodus, freedom is only attained when you actually break free and construct your own sanctuary.

In both films, God is a visible absence. There is no source of divine authority, no source of authentic being, except, and in both films, the love of a parent for a child. That is the ultimate source of authenticity. This is the repeated pattern of the tale told in Genesis about the family rather than the making of nation in Exodus. The error in Inception is that DiCaprio left his children behind, not to climb to the peak of a mountain, but to get to the valley of the third level of the subconscious on the ocean floor. The route to freedom in this film is about self-making and freeing oneself from irrational ties – father, mother, wife – in order to bond with a child. It is a Rousseau fantasy. The issue is not so much freeing oneself from a father-figure who protects, guides and supports, as becoming a father figure who protects, guides and supports.

Becoming a settled nation with boundaries, with recognized authorities and rules, requires leaving behind the nomadic life, whether that roaming takes place in the heavens above, as in the case of Howard Hughes as a pilot, or in the subconsciousness of other lives. And that means accepting responsibility for accumulating wealth without succumbing to the worship of it. In the pastoral world, yearning and desire offer fatal attractions that lead to war and violence. The object is to construct an alternative settled world in which roaming will take place in the imagination and in intellectual inquiry rather than in a quest for riches.

The job of the university is to help facilitate that process. So why must it change all the time, change the idea behind it so that the idea itself creeps in to control the mind and prevent precisely what its purpose was intended to fulfil? Why must humans return to converting a rich and flowering institution into the fatal attraction of the nomad for the consolation of a desert? What lies behind the compulsion for self-destruction and all in the name of re-creation and renewal? How and why do the horizon-struck dreamers, whether in the arts or Hollywood, whether into the unconscious or nature, end up turning the rich life of a jungle into an arid place for both the mind and body?  Where and how does the parting of the waters lead to the construction of a Golden Calf, a treasured inert object without an ounce of spiritual creativity?

In the Torah, how do the Israelites overcome the heroic world of pastoral nomads to seek an oasis in a city of stone like Jerusalem (or Amman)? How did the Israelites, transformed by forty years of desert life from slaves into alert warriors with the endurance of camels, with wells of courage, loyalty, and openness both to strangers and to new ideas at the same time, become a nation that builds walls of stone within which they find a sanctuary? What role did the portable sanctuary of the desert play in that transition?

That is the key question. The university reinvents itself as a sanctuary, transforms itself from one type of sanctuary into another, only to eventually destroy its own walls. Why? And how? Why was it necessary for the university to leave faith behind so that both faculty and students are left bereft, feel it, but largely do not recognize what they feel? Is civilization necessarily intertwined with discontent and can salvation only come from an escape from hidebound institutions and well-defined roles to return to the clean air of the desert with waters lapping on an unseen shore?

Certainly, many of the prophets believed that corruption came with civilization and all effort must be made to engage in intellectual and imaginative nomadism where rules do not apply and the power of fire guides one towards the promised land which, when reached, has already revealed itself as a betrayal of its vision of clean air and an austere landscape guided on its path by a pillar of fire to an austere desert. Has the university waxed fat and gone a whoring as Hosea declared?

Settlers are governed by rules and laws as are universities that prepare people to live in a civilized culture. But the latest rebellion is all around. The people want to worship at the feet of a Golden Calf, even those strongly rooted in a religious tradition and, perhaps even more so, for they want to return to a world of faith rather than one grounded in scepticism, forgetting that the desert world is a place of discord and feuds rather than an imaginary place of magnificent calm at one with the peace of God.


To be continued: From the Sanctuary of Truth to a Sanctuary of Method


Noah and the Flood

Parashat Noah


Howard Adelman

Serendipity – sometimes called revelation – is wonderful. Last night, a very old dear friend who nevertheless reads my blog – or at least receives it – emailed me an article by Daniel Burston called, “It Can’t Happen Here: Trump, Authoritarianism & American Politics,” presumably to reinforce my interpretations and critique of Donald Trump. If you read both, you will understand how the psychoanalytic interpretations of personality have influenced my thought. As you read through this commentary, it will become clear how appropriate that article was. In addition, last evening my wife chose a documentary to watch, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood. I had planned to write this morning about Noah and the flood, so the timing seemed perfect as will become apparent. As DiCaprio’s documentary makes clear, many people as in Noah’s time seem to adopt a mindblindness about global warming, the most dangerous threat faced by the world. Perhaps there was a purpose in my falling behind in writing my commentaries.

The Reform movement in Judaism sends out an email each week with a “drash” or commentary on the coming week’s portion of Torah. Most of the time I do not find that it speaks to me, my concerns or my reading of text. This past week I expected a comment on whether Noah was really “a just man” or on the flood and Noah’s or humanity’s responsibility for the catastrophe. Or on the rainbow or the raven and the dove, the very stuff of fables.

However, this past week, the commentary of Dr. Ellen Umansky, Professor of Judaic Studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut, was spot on. “In many ways, Parashat Noach is filled with as many theological problems as answers. Chief among them is why, after creating the world and all living things, God destroys ‘all that lives under the heavens’ (Genesis 6:17). The reason that God gives is the ‘violence’ or ‘lawlessness’ (chamas) of humankind. Yet what about such godly virtues as patience, love, and forgiveness? Does saving Noah, his family, and a male and female of all living species in order to ensure continued reproduction make up for God’s actions?”

The reflection went on. “Is saving them a sign of mercy or of pragmatism? The fact that after the flood, God promises to never again ‘destroy all living beings, as I have [just] done’ (8:21), suggests that, despite having saved the righteous Noah and his family and enabling future life on the earth, God shows signs of regret (for discussions on the degree to which Noah was righteous, see B’reishit Rabbah 30). God acknowledges that humans will continue to do bad things, presumably including engaging in acts of violence. Yet despite this, God blesses Noah and his sons (why God doesn’t bless Noah’s wife and daughters-in-law is another theological problem) and makes an eternal covenant with them, their descendants (that is, future generations), and the earth’s animals, promising to never again send a flood to destroy all living creatures (Genesis 9:11).”

That is exactly the most crucial question. However, violent or lawless humans were, why destroy mankind? Why indeed go much further and destroy all of nature? Was God having a hissy fit because his creation did not work out perfectly as planned? The punishment is so disproportionate to the crime that the action is unspeakable. Does God earn redemption by saying He regretted what he did? Does God earn brownie points by implying that, in retrospect and hindsight, His action might have been rash and even wrong? Especially since He acknowledges that the action achieved nothing! Humans would continue to do dirty deeds. They would lie and not revere the truth – as my rabbi said in her Friday night commentary, they would many times not be faithful to one another never mind to God because they failed to revere the truth – emet (אמת).

Emet is a word made up of the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet followed by the middle letter of that alphabet and concluding with the final letter. This is generally interpreted to mean that truth is not simply based on a correspondence theory of truth, though that is a prerequisite, but on a coherence theory encompassing everything from the beginning to the end in one coherent development. The flood is totally incongruent with a God dedicated to mercy and love and is the second major clue that God is inadequate to the task. (God’s lack of understanding of sexuality was the first clue.)

Truth is a way. Truth is a path. (Genesis 24:27 & 48) One acts truly, not just by telling the truth. The truth lies within you not just in what you say. (Genesis 42:16) When Jacob was ready to die, he asked Joseph to put his hand under his thigh “and deal kindly and truly” with him by not burying him in Egypt. (Genesis 47:29) It is why Jews at funerals say, “Baruch dayan emet,” “Blessed is the True Judge.” For the truth of a judge will be seen in how he treats and buries the dead – hence the theme in the movie, Son of Saul.

The ultimate truth is how we treat our dead. A man of truth is not just a man that does not engage in lies, though at a minimum, he must not lie. Yesterday on the news, I listened to Donald Trump describe Barack Obama as screaming at a protestor at his rally that day and then watched a video of Barack Obama coolly telling the crowd they must not boo a man shouting out and holding aloft a “Vote for Trump” sign. They must respect the man’s freedom of speech, must respect him as a veteran, must respect him as an elder. It was the very opposite of screaming. Barack’s speech was a call for civility and decency and was an exemplification of the very characteristics Donald Trump does not demonstrate when he calls for the people at his rallies to “throw out” protesters, promising to pay their legal bills if they are charged with assault. Then Donald Trump tops it off by lying and projecting onto the president the very villainy he expresses.

In the final words of the story of creation Genesis 2.3 – the final letters of those three words also spell emet. Bara Elohim la’asot, God created the world for action, “to do” and not just to understand, not just for Adam to walk around in innocence providing an accurate and useful taxonomy of the things of the world. As I wrote in my commentary on the first portion of Genesis, the emphasis is on Becoming, not Being, on change and development, especially of critical self-consciousness, and not simply on whether what is said precisely conforms to what we find in the world, though it certainly includes the latter since lying is absolutely forbidden. God only created a framework. Man must live and act in truth.

The Noah story not only demonstrated that much more was required of creativity, but that God was not up to the task of completing the job. God was deeply flawed. There was just no excuse for such drastic action as the flood. God needed a partner in creation because God did not understand how the admixture of spirit and flesh, of earth and air, of light and water, actually interacted. Since Heraclitus, the symbol of constant change has been water. God might have blown air and the divine spirit into human nostrils, God may Himself be the spirit of truth, but God is not its material manifestation in this world. It is humans who must assume responsibility for change and for the management of water, the symbol of change. God was too caught up in the world He had created to understand how it had to and would undergo change. Thus, His excess. Thus, the deluge.

But does not the Torah also say that Elohim is rav chesed v’emet, that God is both abundant in loving kindness and in truth. God is a righteous judge. But that is after the fact. After humans assume their responsibility for creation, for doing. Then God can pronounce whether it is good or not. But God as an agent is not perfect. God makes mistakes. Not necessarily in the assessment, but in the meting out of punishment. Sure, humans were violent; sure, humans lied and cheated; sure, humans even killed. But the deluge!!!

So God drowns everyone and everything but a saving remnant. But, unlike the story of Gilgamesh, God makes an eternal promise to humanity that He will not destroy the world again no matter how humans misbehave. The responsibility for the well-being of the world will now belong to humanity. Thus, the rainbow (Genesis 9.8-16). Thus the rainbow coalition and the conception of a world that is not a homogeneous unity but a singularity that must work with and through diversity. Thus, the conception that the righteous can arise from any nation. Thus, the covenant not just with humans, but with “all that live upon the earth.” Humans may assume the responsibility, but it is a responsibility not just for himself, not just for one’s people, not just for all humanity, but for all that live on this planet. Each of us, everyone of us, is responsible to every other human for the welfare of the world. That is the Noachide Covenant.

Why is it a universal covenant not to worship idols, not to worship anything man made as divine whether it be the internet or a champion baseball team? Why must one not blaspheme God? Is not calling God imperfect and suggesting that He has hissy fits offensive and sacrilegious? It certainly sounds impious. But such statements are not offensive acts. They are just descriptors. Only acts can be blasphemous. And whether any act is or is not blasphemous or contemptuous of the divine spirit must be determined by the rule of law, by courts of justice and not by rumour, innuendo and the court of public opinion. So whether any act expresses idolatry – taking a human product as divine – or blasphemous – making what is divine an expression of human propensity to lie and murder, must be determined by courts. And those courts of justice are restricted to three core actions – the prohibition of murder (taking another human life when not in self-defense), the prohibition of robbery (taking the property of another when not driven by absolute need), and the prohibition of adultery, the fundamental sign of faith between two intimate partners.

So the story boils down to the following propositions:
1. It is a tale of corruption, of human violence and lawlessness. The core of that corruption is most manifest in ignoring a catastrophe that is in process of unfolding. The core of that corruption is the denial of climate change – by Donald Trump, by Ted Cruz, by Marco Rubio – that the oceans will rise and that the coastal cities of the world will be flooded. The core of that corruption entails ignoring the truth on which 97% of environmental scientists agree and insisting that those who warn of climate change are liars, and insisting that these dogmatists of denial are the ones professing the truth. The corruption is that the very politicians who claim their opponent is beholden to the special interests of Wall Street, are beholden to the Koch brothers and all those powerful corporations with vested interests in a fossil fuel economy. The corruption is exemplified when people of power are wedded to spreading rampant misinformation and outright lies about the state of our planet. Human kind has fallen because humanity has failed to live and act in truth.
2. This second worldwide flood that threatens the planet because of the profusion of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuel and eating the beef of cows that produce enormous amounts of methane, both of which are the main causes of the melting of the icecaps, is still denied as a human responsibility. There is no recognition that God, having witnessed what he wrought in response to human previous irresponsibility, has learned that the problem of corruption can only be addressed if humans take responsibility for what they do and act to correct the situation.
3. What follows from 1 and 2 is that the first responsibility of humans is to learn, know and recognize the truth, primarily the truth about the dynamics of change.
4. God, and Noah for that matter, prior to the flood evinced not a drop of compassion for all those and all of nature that would die as a result of the flood. There is no indication that Noah cared one whit that the graves of his parents would be beneath a league of water. So how we revere our dead will be the key clue to whether we revere life and our fellow humans.
5. God becomes merciful only as a result of atoning for what He wrought and, as a result of the flood and God’s regret, acquirers the attribute of rachamim, the capacity for empathy and tender love, the ability to show compassion and mercy – even eventually for those who deserve punishment. Elohim, the ruler of the universe, then becomes Adonai as well, a name first given to God in Genesis 15:2 by Abram after the flood and the story of the Tower of Babel when Abram begs God to allow him to have a son.

The story has another side not yet articulated. Prior to the flood, God had no sense of remorse. God is strictly a dominating and controlling persona prone to dramatic gestures and an absolute belief that if He says something, just because he says it, it will come into being. Law is not judicial law. Law is not a process. Laws are merely the commandments of a ruler. Further, simple disobedience to those commandments is worthy of death. God is dominating and controlling and insists that law means order. It is only after the flood that a core constitution for all humanity appears when God has experienced and expressed remorse. Prior to the flood, God was simply and unequivocally an authoritarian persona, a bully with no tolerance for dissenters and particularly prone to denigrate women – which explains why Noah and his sons only were blessed. Prior to the flood, God recognized only blind obedience to His orders as expressions of faith and otherwise had only derision and scorn for humans.

Noah, on the other hand, is typical of the passive obedient individual. Noah is praised for his obedience and never challenges God’s decision to destroy humanity and all of nature. He is typical of one who only focuses on self survival of himself and his family and never risks challenging God’s decision. Noah simply wants to escape God’s wrath. Noah is typical of the unquestioning individual who believes whatever he is told and never questions what God means when he says that the world has gone to hell and that He needs to sweep the slate clean and start all over to once again make the world great again. Noah is the exemplification of the silent individual who accepts whatever the prevailing norms are. So Noah can be said in this sense to have abetted God’s heinous crime by going along with the inversion of morality wherein evil is pronounced as good. Noah so idolized God that he fails to see and name the heinous act God commits.

But all is not lost. God experiences remorse. Out of the deluge emerges a new norm, namely to live truth and think trust, think loyalty, think faith. Further, humans will soon learn, though very gradually, that God cannot be an excuse for passivity and indifference in the face of the victimization of others. After the flood, and only after the flood will humans begin to develop a critical self-consciousness.

DiCaprio begins his film with his personal memory of a copy of a triptych painting by Hieronymus Bosch that hung at the foot of his bed and that he went to sleep watching each night. The painting is called, “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” I marvelled at the original myself when we visited the Museo del Prado in Madrid fifteen or so years ago. In the left panel, the viewer sees an idyllic portrait of humans in the Garden of Eden with God when God introduces Eve to Adam to be his help meet.

In the middle there is a large panel of nude humans and phantasmagoric flora and fauna. If I recall correctly, in the documentary DiCaprio saw this panel as representing an overcrowded world whereas I saw it as a different version of Eden in which humans are engaged in various amorous activities, as if the novelty of sex had just been discovered. There is no indication of disgust or shame. All the figures seem at one with nature and it is as if we are merely watching a different phase of the Garden of Eden if humans had not hidden in shame and lied to God, but instead displayed their delight in their nature. It was much more a picture of a delight in the erotic than a portrait of a world that had become corrupt.

The third panel to the right is dark and clearly portrays a bleak world of corruption, but I was never able to understand how Bosch understood how humanity moved from the second to the third panel. Except I did understand that this was not a painting of purgatory, but of contemporary life of corruption when modernity was first making itself presence in the cradle of the transformation of Europe, the Netherlands. Was Bosch prescient about the projection of that genesis into the contemporary world? DiCaprio clearly saw the painting as an allegory of what will happen to the world if we do not get rid of corruption. Although I totally agreed with him about the dangers of climate change, I suspect we differ radically on the metaphysical premises against which the failure to deal with climate change can be read.

But it is an excellent documentary to watch while studying Parashat Noah.

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Revenant – Stamina

The Revenant – Stamina


Howard Adelman

“Revenir” in French means return, to come back, and, in this film, to come back from the dead, to be really and materially resurrected. This is a film about resurrection and revenge. The medium of resurrection was the holy spirit of the dead wife of Hugh Glass’ (Leonardo DiCaprio). As I wrote in my blog on Friday, the lesson was to keep breathing no matter what, because the Holy Spirit was in “ruah,” the breath of life.

The motive for Hugh Glass’ pursuit of revenge was the killing of his half-breed son by John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), even if, according to legend, the revenge was because Glass had been left for dead contrary to the code of trappers and fur traders and the military forces that provided a degree of protection. In Western legend, Hugh Glass, a frontier trapper and fur trader, was attacked by a bear and left for dead by two other trappers, but he was not buried alive and the events took place in late summer rather than in late winter.

Why the infusion of a different theme of survival than the one handed down in history? And why was a non-existent son included, but given such a flimsy almost ethereal presence to complement that of his invented mother? The answer may be found in Alejandro González Iñarritu’s comments as the director; he envisioned Hugh Glass as an amalgam of “a man, a beast, a saint, a martyr, a spirit.” The question is how does this syncretic view compare and contrast with inherited legend, and how does it rewrite the mythology of the American frontier?

Why did the native American hung from a tree, presumably by French trappers, have a sign hung around his neck, “On est tous des sauvages” (we are all savages)? Was it an assertion about Native Americans or a universal assertion that in the Wild West, in a Hobbesian world of each man for himself in competition with every other, all humans are savages? If universal, is this thesis put out there as a contrast with a competing ethic of human survival through the help and care of others, through the mediation of women, through a God of mercy and not just justice? Is the film really about “mercy” competing with “justice” for pre-eminence? If so, why in the end does vengeful justice emerge supreme instead, as legend has it, Hugh Glass eventually forgave the two trappers who abandoned him?

But, of course, it is breathing we hear at the end. So ruah is still associated with mercy, with survival, even if Glass, in the film, lost his soul to justice. Redemption was still possible through the feminine aspect of the divine spirit, through the shechinah. In the legend of Hugh Glass, there is both masculine individualism and the power of justice to motivate, but, in the end, mercy wins out as the feminine aspect in the male soul is the real power behind survival. In the movie, that feminine aspect is almost totally externalized in a female ghost and lives on only after the God of cruel justice has his revenge.

In a blog a few days ago, I quoted from Abraham Lincoln’s first public speech at the Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, called, “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” I repeat the first part of that quote here:

We [the American People] find ourselves in the peaceful possession, of the fairest portion of the earth, as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil, and salubrity of climate. We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us. We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them–they are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors. Their’s was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; ’tis ours only, to transmit these, the former, unprofaned by the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpation, to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.

In The Revenant, the far West was on the verge of being conquered and wrestled away from the French just fifteen years before Abraham Lincoln made his speech. In the first half of the nineteenth century, these were “the new territories.” The West (ironically, as we shall see, the Canadian West and, in the end, Argentina, were used in the film) is not portrayed as verdant and bucolic, fertile and graced with a salubrious climate. It is starkly and much more beautiful, but also far more inhospitable with its cold and its cliffs, its ice and wild rivers and even wilder “savages.” [Excuse my politically incorrect language, but it is true to the film.] However, although the scenes do not correspond to Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills where the Crazy Horse Memorial is located and that I described last year in my blogs as we drove through South Dakota and to which we will be returning next week, for thematic purposes, the Alberta landscape was probably more suitable.

I am writing this review in expectation that by now everyone has seen the movie in the theatre where it absolutely must be seen. It is such a magnificent visual product. But I will not focus on the difference in landscape between Alberta and the Black Hills, with the ending even shot in Argentina because Canada’s winter had been too mild, with the fact that in the short days in winter with so few daylight hours and the desire to shoot only in natural light to enhance “the realism” in accordance with the aesthetic decisions of the academy award winners Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director, and cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, to shoot only with natural light for maximum realism, meant that they were only able to shoot a few hours a day. I will not allude to the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio, a vegetarian, ate real raw liver allegedly from a bison to give a real feel to his hunger.

However, as the readers will see, it is important that Iñárritu was a tyrant on set and that Tom Hardy, who, in my contention, was the best actor in the film, came to fisticuffs with his tyrannical director. Further, some comparison to reality is necessary to clarify what the film is really about. There are a number of iconic characters in the narrative of America “taming” the West, some, like Davie Crockett, very well known and others that you encounter in the wonderful museums in virtually every town throughout the West when you travel through the U.S. Those are icons that I had previously known nothing about. Hugh Glass was not a virtual unknown. There may not be songs written about him to make him a household name, but his story is reasonably widespread to those who read about the West and love westerns.

So why change the facts of history? Why, in the film, let his companions in the wilderness set his leg snapped by the bear, when, according to the “real” historical narrative, he set his own leg? Why give him a half-breed son when there is no record of his having had a son, part native or otherwise? If realism was the goal, why evade essential elements of realism? Though setting one’s own broken leg might be harder to believe, exploding gunpowder on a wound to cauterize it was perhaps more sensational, and I did not know that he had actually done that until I saw the film and double checked afterwards. And why not include the grossest scene of all, Glass rolling around in rot to allow maggots to eat away the gangrene that had infused his wounds?

Glass, in the film, is made into a loving father and a romantic male haunted by the love of his life, his native wife. But he never had a wife, native or otherwise. He was truly a wilderness survivor who relied on his inherited individual resources. Native aboriginal peoples helped him, but not nearly as much as the film suggested, for the narratives handed down in history again make him an exemplar of the rugged individualist who could conquer the challenges of nature on his own. He, according to legend, actually crawled several hundred miles with his broken leg, though we only get a hint of that in the film. The film clearly suggests that his survival skills – sucking bone marrow from the skeleton of a dead bison – are what count. The film, however, suggests that these were survival techniques learned from Native Americans, which could possibly be truer than the stories of the Robinson Crusoe who virtually survives on his own.

And what about Jim Bridger, the young boy who is persuaded by John Fitzgerald to leave Glass behind in spite of the agreement made with the fort’s captain? I looked up the “real” story and, as it turns out, both of the trappers who abandoned him were eventually found and forgiven, Bridger, as suggested in the film because he was duped by Fitzgerald, and Fitzgerald himself, not because of any act of mercy towards him, but because Glass knew he would be hung for murdering an active military man.

Further, Hugh Glass went on to live another ten years and did not die in a vengeful battle. I write all of this, not to insist that a film conform with inherited historical reality, but to ask why history is being so totally rewritten when visual realism, when the feeling of the real, has been such an aesthetic dictatorial principle in making the film, but historical realism has been simply cast into the dustbin of history? I contend that the reason is that the director is involved in the construction of a new mythology about the West intended to displace the old one.

What is that old mythology?

Frederick Jackson Turner, an American historian, at the end of the nineteenth century, advanced the thesis that the American character had been formed and forged by the process of westward movement of pioneers and settlers, a character reinforced at each stage of western movement and reified by legend and history. On Sunday, we will be driving by Chicago to reach and pass through the latest stages where that character was forged and it is in Chicago where Turner first presented his famous paper introducing us to his thesis about the American character.

I think it is no coincidence that it was in Chicago that Donald Trump had to cancel his rally with the lie that it was because peaceful protesters were threats when the real threats came for his own supporters and his instigations to prove that “might is right,” that force works, and that what counts in a leader is strength and not wisdom, will and certainly not judgment. Almost fifty years earlier, at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, riots broke out in the International Amphitheater in late August in response to the news that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated and in the way that Mayor Richard Daley had responded to Black rage.

This time, white rage, not so much at economic injustice as it has widely been portrayed (though undoubtedly a factor), but white rage as white resentment and latent racism that still permeates America and is redirected by Trump at Muslims and Mexicans.  But Black rage is still evident in the way the campaign to nominate Hillary Clinton has been hurt by Rahm Emanuel, currently mayor of Chicago and former White House Chief of Staff under Barack Obama, and rage that is now directed at how he has handled, or mishandled, the information on the police treatment of Blacks that has leaked out. Chicago remains a testing ground for American values. In the nineteenth century, Chicago served as the bridge between the opening frontier and settled America.

When presidential candidates, from Ted Cruz to Hillary Clinton, cite liberty and egalitarianism, though different versions of each, as the core of the American character, when Republicans and Democrats take such opposite views of the use of coercive force both domestically and internationally, in the case of Donald Trump stressing non-conformity and the refusal to accept any inherited norms of correct political conduct as supervening while his opponents rail at his torching the conventions that have governed politics in the U.S., we watch current emanations of the conflict over the role of the frontier and settled America.

The irony, of course, is that politicians of all stripes talk about the eternal and unchanging character of American equality of opportunity, of liberty and of justice, but Frederick Jackson Turner had an evolutionary model of the functioning of the frontier in the tension between civilization versus the wilderness. “Establishment,” whichever establishment it is, became a term of abuse which Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Bernie Sanders all rhetorically rail against because American history is so imbued with a narrative that insists that America was forged in opposition to any standing class, to any aristocracy, to any established church, and, currently, to any establishment in Washington.

The issue for all has become insensitivity to the rising expression of the will of the people and Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sander’s monopoly over the economic version of this thesis has been removed. Of course, all this depends on ignoring the fact that “the checks and balances” system of democracy is but an inheritance from Great Britain reconstructed as a democratic monarchy. The king is now elected, but must be opposed as soon as he or she is in office. And Trotsky wrote about “continuous or permanent revolution!”

As Turner wrote, as Americans moved further and further into taming the wilderness and the Rockies, they became more and more prone to resist intrusive government, more “democratic,” more intolerant of any hierarchy. It does not matter if Donald Trump is a billionaire, what matters is that he sells himself like a snake oil salesman as anti-establishment and does it so much better than any other competitor. Of course, in Turner’s thesis, the more Americans moved West, the more they moved further away from inherited institutions, the more violence and individuals taking security into their own hands became the ruling norm. Not science, not a refined sense of fine art, but literally a society forged out of tooth and claw.

For Turner, with the conquest and taming of the New Territories by the end of the nineteenth century, the forge out of which the America was built, would no longer be in play. What Turner did not envision is that this construct became even more powerful as it was divorced from actual history and became an integral element in American mythology. If the frontier closed on the ground, it had a vastly wider purview when it operated on the mythological rather than the earthly plane.

It may help to contrast the American mythology with the Canadian tale of the frontier developed by Harold Innis that became so pervasive when I was at university, especially in its revamped form of communications theory of Marshal McLuhan. For the fur trade was not so much about the interaction of humans in conflict with nature in a lawless universe, but about establishing communication routes and contacts between and among peoples. Sometimes that would entail violent conflict, but most times it was negotiations and treaties, about trade and exchange of goods, of ideas, of services. In America, the frontier was a region of natural and inherent contestation. In Canada, opening the West was a matter of utilizing different technologies of communication that altered both the so-called wilderness and the ordered system of government coming into contact with a different political and social order. The issue was not so much violent conflict as inter-cultural exchange.

Harold Innis was an economic historian. His “staples thesis” about the fur trade was a tale of export-led growth. In Canada, the issue was natural resources – fur, fish, lumber, mineral commodities – and how these could be brought to markets where they were wanted and needed for a developing consumer economy. Cod and its modes of collection, transformation and transportation produced one kind of culture while furs produced a different one. Canada was inherently multicultural dependent on which natural resource was being exploited. The American frontier thesis was about a constant and universal quality inherent and characteristic of all Americans, reinforced, not because it happened to be fur that was being fought over among Americans, the French and the native peoples, but because the fight was a constant whatever the commodity and whatever the place.

I recall that my eldest son’s first publication – or one of his first major ones – was on the contrast between the way Argentina was settled and the way Canada was settled in the freezing climate of the West at the end of the nineteenth century. In Canada, only when a new strain of wheat was invented that could survive in that harsh climate could the West be settled. Civilization was a precondition for settling the West and not antithetical to it.

The combination of the type of commodity (then wheat) versus cattle, the communication routes for labour and capital, the technology of a new strain of wheat and of a new form of transportation, railways, all were woven together to produce different characters in different regions dependent on the interaction of a variety of factors rather than a thesis of a constant battle between wilderness and civilization, between individuals and inherited social establishments.

In The Reverant, there is no mention that the fur trade was controlled by large multinational companies, in Canada, the Northwest Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company, where the emphasis was on the need for large companies to facilitate the trade instead of on the wild individual, whether a trapper or a prospector of minerals. Large companies, centres of finance capital and the creation of technologically-founded communication routes were all crucial to find and forge the materials. So Canada is much more attuned to the importance of international trade and large multinational firms, to trade and transportation more than acquisition, to cultural mosaics rather than forging a unified national character, to cooperation more than competitiveness, to the volatility of resource economies in general and to the disruptions and radical changes required by broad technological evolutions.

Which takes us back to the film. For in the movie, the Mexican director is using the lament over the demise of the old individualistic American mythology of the frontier to forge a new one. Cooperation and competition are in contention. Law and order versus the wild West are in contention. The feminine spirit is at the heart of survival in nature, shechinah rather than Elohim, the merciful Adonai more than the God of justice. The villain kills he who is Other. The villain denies and disrupts family values. The hero insists on revenge, but survives, not only to take revenge, but because of the spirit world which is the world of the feminine.

In the days of modern communication when electronic and digital media are at war with old-fashioned television in the political marketplace of ideas in the American election, The Revenant is really an old fashioned frontier movie, but with a new vision of the frontier embedded with mercy as a value, embedded with a feminine spirit, in an effort to transvalue and resurrect, not just Hugh Glass, but an old American ethic for a new age.

Elohim, the God of justice, and Adonai, the God of mercy infused and evocative of the shechinah as would eventually be expressed in the post-biblical period, are in contention. As the Mexican Director has interpreted it and as American politicians and voters experience every day, the issue is stamina, who can survive best the legions of arrows shot at both candidates and voters in barrages every day. It is we, crippled with a broken leg and suffering wounds that would kill most mortals, who crawl hundreds of miles to the finish line.

The issue is over stamina, not individualism, and a different expression of stamina than demonstrated by Terry Fox in his run across Canada against cancer. For Terry Fox became a hero even though he lost his life to cancer. Donald Trump denigrated the American war hero, John McCain, even though he survived five years in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. After all, he was a loser and not a winner. In the revised mythology and the inherited one, only winners count. Losers must be cast aside, except when opposing Trump and the God of mercy is then invoked. We need a liberal rather than two different and competing tyrannical versions of the frontier tale.

The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street


Howard Adelman

SPOILER ALERT: A boring interminable film of excessive self-indulgence that is excellently acted with very high production values and some very entertaining scenes. Since it is bound to be Oscar material, and since most people I know were very entertained by the movie, you may want to see it. If you do, save the review for afterwards.

The Wolf of Wall Street directed by Martin Scorcese plays for almost one hour longer than Wall Street directed by Oliver Stone made over a quarter century earlier. Other than the much greater length of the new film, on the surface the two movies seem to be very similar. In both films, the main characters are crooked stockbrokers based on real life characters. Gordon Gekko played by Michael Douglas in Wall Street, was based loosely on a dash of Oliver Stone’s own stockbroker father, but mostly Michael Milken, the junk bond king and perhaps some of Ivan Boesky as a condiment to top off the portrait. Both Milken and Boesky were convicted of insider trading, racketeering and fraud and went to jail.

The Wolf is a movie adaptation of Jordan Belfort’s autobiography, another crooked stockbroker from only a few years later. Belfort made his multi-millions by transforming a boiler room operation for touting penny stocks milking ordinary working stiffs into a sophisticated sales operation to loot the pockets of the 1%. The game lasted until his ambition to rise to the higher echelons of stockbrokerages by issuing an Initial Public Offering (IPO) took him into the stratosphere of profits by touting a stock he himself owned through delegates and then selling the stock off when it reached a peak. At the same time, this brought him squarely into the sights of the regulating authorities. His insider trading was more audacious and even more crooked than simply benefitting from inside information. And he added to his security fraud crimes, money laundering and hiding his audacious profits of millions of dollars in overseas Swiss bank accounts.

Michael Douglas who played Gordon Gekko won an Oscar for his audacious performance. Leonardo DiCaprio is certain to be nominated for and may win an Oscar for his energetic, manic portrayal of Jordan Belfort who is not in the business of making cars or clothes, shoes or steel. He is just in the business of making money, and making money does not require any ability to create anything, does not require genesis, but only kinesis, a hyper-charged over-exuberant energy and determination to transfer money from the pockets of his clients into his own.

This is a major difference between the two films. Gordon Gekko played by Michael Douglas preached, “Greed is good.” Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, taught, “Greed is good for me.” For the latter, there was no transcendental message about the way of the world. In fact, there is a scene in The Wolf in which Belfort attempts to make a generalization about the nature of everyone wanting to make a buck. He is challenged by one of his old street buddies hired when he formed the firm. What about priests? Another example is offered. Belfort backs off to insist that he’s just talking about most guys – firemen and garbagemen, etc. Gordon Gekko’s actual message in Wall Street was: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures, the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind and greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the U.S.A.” Gekko preached GREED; Belfort simply practiced it.

Gordan Gekko was the messiah and personification of a caricature of capitalism. Jordan Belfort is the reincarnation of Caligula’s extravagance and sexual indulgences and offers no message, even a false one, for salvation and redemption. That is why when one critic viewed The Wolf of Wall Street as merely a more extravagant and audacious movie on the same theme as Wall Street, that critic demonstrated that he did not understand The Wolf on Wall Street. Similarly, when Richard Brody in praising the film in The New Yorker as wild and brilliant wrote that the excessive indulgence of one’s appetites is a “central part of human nature”, he too revealed that he missed a central point of the film. For the film insists that mankind is not uniform. There are wolves and there are sheep. And you can belong to one animal species or another, but there is no characteristic that unites us all – even greed.

Wall Street was a movie in the tradition of Elmer Gantry, the 1960 adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ novel about a charismatic salesman played by Burt Lancaster – that also earned him an Oscar – who finds it even more profitable to save souls more than sell cars. Like Gekko, Gantry sermonized and made extravagant proclamations as he used his enormous physical energy and mastery of the use of a quicksilver tongue to put on “the greatest show” to manipulate the crowd who wanted and needed to believe. Gekko simply substituted surrendering oneself to greed. Belfort, in contrast, simply asks his salesmen to surrender themselves to him and his mantra just as they must ask their clients to surrender themselves to the salesmen. Trust- or faith – the setting aside of all doubts is the name of the game. In Wall Street, the surrender is in the name of a higher power, a general universal abstraction, the economic laws of the market place; in The Wolf of Wall Street, the surrender is to a particular person.

However, if Gekko was deliberate and conniving, calculating and cool. Belfort is hot. He is high on cocaine and quaaludes, moving like a souped-up car on high octane fuel travelling at uncontrollable speeds. He is also present like a god in the film for he is also the all-present, all-knowing narrator of his own life, even addressing the audience in the movie theatre – sometimes even, as Leonardo, stepping out of the action on the screen. Though the camera moves through the army of salesman like God parting the Red Sea  and then plunges deep and soars above in the orgy scenes, the film is clearly not an exercise offering a widely insane message, but an indulgence in fantasies and induced hallucinations. Wall Street may have preached a false morality, but it was a moral vision which was being held up for ridicule. The Wolf on Wall Street has no moral message but is just the exhibition of a handsome, far more charming and much more suave Rob Ford stumbling around on a mixture of alcohol and drugs.  If Gordon Gekko as a prophet was a louse, Belfort is no prophet. He is an uninhibited embarrassment with a fascist God-complex. Martin Scorcese is the ideal director to paint such a portrait and Leonardo DiCaprio performs the part with brilliance.

Wall Street was different in another respect. Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko takes on Charlie Sheen who is desperate to learn at the feet of his mentor. In contrast, though DiCaprio as Belfort has followers, they are his buddies and immediate disciples, foremost among them Donnie Azoff played brilliantly by Jonah Hill. There is no explanation of why Belfort, though wearing a wire in the end under threat from the FBI and the courts, refuses to betray Azoff. Belfort’s note warned Azoff not to say anything incriminating because Belfort is wearing a wire. Does Azoff, as a student of the message os self-interest, betray Belfort by passing Belfort’s note to the FBI? Or does the FBI simply find the note in their raid? We are not told.

The only explanation I could think of for the mystery has nothing to do with the characters of either Azoff or Belfort. Instead,  the whole film is an exercise in mimicry of Christ’s relationship with Judas and his other apostles, but in the name of licentiousness instead of self-sacrifice. The film, which opened on Christmas Day, is simply an inversion of the Christian message as a paean, not to greed as a master idea, but to decadence and a life of purgatory. Otherwise, where, when and why did Belfort develop scruples and refuse to rat out his friends?

Near the beginning of the movie, DiCaprio himself has a John the Baptist to induct him into the ways of the devil. Matthew McConaughey as the top broker, Mark Hanna, of the firm Belfort first joins, takes his naive and innocent student, Belfort, to lunch and in a brilliant cameo appearance teaches him the basic rules of the game. You do not work for your client. You work for yourself. When your client makes money, you make money by not allowing him to cash in his chips by convincing him to reinvest further so that you, his broker, can make more commissions. He puts up the cash; you make the money. His money must work for you; you are not working to make him money. Further, in this hyper-kinetic world of individual acquisitiveness ad infinitum, you cannot survive on one day of rest a week but need to relax a number of times a day. Take cocaine; how else can you otherwise face living such a scummy life. Masturbate at least twice a day.

There is another characteristic of The Wolf on Wall Street that differentiates it from Wall Street.  In the scene at lunch where Belfort is undertaking his induction lessons, Matthew McConaughey beats out a tribal beat on his chest, a tribal beat that will become the mantra of Belfort’s firm when it is established.

Hmm Hmm Hum.

Hmm Hmm Hum

Hum Hum Hum Hmm Hmm Hum

Stocktraders are warriors. They are killers. They belong to a macho tribe of Mafia fighters and they take no prisoners. They are the real badfellas of GoodFellas. At one point in the film, during a lull on the floor of the trading offices as they await a launch of the new IPO, one of the stockbrokers is spotted by Donnie Azoff cleaning his small glass goldfish bowl. Donnie grabs the bowl, empties the water out, takes out the goldfish and swallows it. The ostensible message is not to waste time in private caring tasks when the barbarians are about to go on the warpath. The deeper message is that we are carnivores who eat our enemies. The wayward stockbroker is immediately fired.

Further, these brokers travel in wolf packs and give each other cute nicknames for they remain permanent adolescents. Brian Sacca plays Robbie Feinberg, “Pinhead”. Henry Zebrowski plays Alden Kupferberg, “Sea Otter”. P. J. Byrne plays Nicky Koskoff, the only educated one of the bunch, a lawyer nicknamed “Rugrat” because of his awful toupé. Kenneth Choi plays Chester Ming, “the Depraved Chinaman.” The hypocrastic use of names to convey affection and bonding by using a diminutive conveys smallness as well. It is a way of gently dissing another and diminishing that other, a friendly form of bullying when the attitude to everyone else outside the group is unfriendly bullying. Thus, when DiCaprio is on the phone taking in another mark, his gestures to his fellow guffawing cohort conveys condescension and his general contempt for his clients while talking in a tone of hypocritical respect.

The world does not consist of a universe of humanity all sharing a common creed of greed. Instead, it is a Manichean world made up of marks and those who pick the pockets of the marks. The marks lack the right combination of drive and ruthlessness, powerful appetite and disciplined will so they are relegated to narrow and boring lives. The enemies are not other warrior tribes, but the majority of humans relegated to an Other and only worthy of serving as prey until they are destroyed, sacrificed on the altars of those who have the drive and the unquenchable thirst and appetite to eat the livers of others.

The only problem is that the FBI agents are viewed as marks by the Belforts of this world, but Belfort is unable to seduce them into taking his money let alone parting with their own. F.B.I. agent, Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) demonstrates as much guile and determination as Belfort but with infinitely more patience. When Denham is on Belfort’s 170 ft. yacht and they engage in a cat-and-mouse game, DiCaprio may not be stupid enough for the moment to become Chandler’s mouse, but Chandler also refuses to become marked by DiCaprio’s money. And DiCaprio made the mistake of not listening to his lawyer; against his lawyer’s advice, he tries to entice the agent. In doing so, he set himself up for the losing role in the successor game of cat-and-rat.

However, this is a film primarily about initiating cults and a tribal male macho alpha culture, a film that takes a dumb film like Frat Party (2009) and shows how a collective culture of self-indulgence and mutual arousal is sustained on the most sophisticated level. There is little interest in the cars and yachts that the money buys other than as symbols of victory for the Prince of Thieves. The helicopter and Lamborghini can be crashed and trashed; the yacht can be sunk. The real thrill is the excitement of battle. Like the fantasy miniseries on HBO, The Game of Thrones, the same themes of a crown prince and loyalty to him, corruption and sexuality, crime and punishment, war and more war, are played out on the monitors of the brokerage offices.

After all, as Matthew McConaughey as Mark Hanna says to Belfort, its all “fergassee”, all fairy dust, glitz and glitter without an iota of reality. What we see is life dressed up as a fantasy and then the realm of fantasy par excellence mimicking that fantasy as if it represented life on Wall Street. The crooked pump and dump brokers are the fairies scattering the fergassee to steal people from this world into the orgiastic world of a bacchanalia. No wonder fairy dust is also known as the semen spilled on the ground in Onanism. With all its swaggering inflated self-indulgence, sudden and enormous bursts of energy, intoxicating mania, cruel vulgarity and grotesque insensitivity, extravagant debauchery and simply filthy, disgusting piggish behaviour, the subject matter and the movie itself are both demonstrations of excessive self-importance. As such, the process of disintegration becomes redundant and boring.

There was a discussion on CBC radio on satire as the exaggeration of the foibles of humanity, but, as one commentator moaned, when the behaviour depicted is so over-the-top, as in the case of Rob Ford, all Jon Stewart can do is put it on display, imitate it and guffaw in dumfounded disbelief, but it is too excessive to satirize, The antics of Belfort and his crew of horny cocksucking assholes are too insane to satirize. Satire is instructive and cleansing. There is no cathartic effect in watching this movie.

So what is the source of the comedy that offers only periodic minute relief from this otherwise tedious and meaningless film, however excellent the acting and the production values? The answer is the uninhibited atmosphere of burlesque, the creation of a caricature of Wall Street that is so ludicrous that it becomes a parody itself of what it represents. The endless scenes of nude and fornicating women are especially characteristic of the bawdy performances that historically were part of the American burlesque tradition often punctuated by physical fights as when Brad and Azoff come to blows or when the macho men roughhouse in the milder versions. That is why the movie is a series of ribald sketches and vignettes, a nostalgic throwback to the spectacle and excessive glitz and glamour of a lost art form. And when the movie is pure burlesque, it is hilariously funny.

This is true of the uproarious Matthew McConaughey scene near the beginning of the film and of the wriggling, crawling DiCaprio near the end of the film as he squirms and slinks home and tries to get the telephone away from his partner in crime, Jonah Hill, and then revives Jonah when he chokes on a rolled up piece of deli. This hilarious burlesque piece of combat and physical fisticuffs between two doped up protagonists is the epitome of excess and the segments that also has the most meaning. For DiCaprio, like the Serpent in the story of Genesis as the objectified erect penis of Adam, is cast down by God into a writhing, wriggling creature incapable of any longer standing on its own. Belfort has been reduced to impotence for the FBI agent has overheard the whole conversation of the conspiracy between these two crooks and their thieving Swiss smooth-as-silk banker.

However, for every great moment of grotesque burlesque-scale debauchery and degeneration, there are long sections where the film takes itself seriously, all-too-seriously. And that is when its character as a piece of work not only about bullying but characterized as a bullying piece of art is revealed. The movie pushes you rather than carries you along for the ride. Where there were opportunities for battle scenes to be equally hilarious, as when Margot Robbie playing Naomi Lapaglia, Belfort’s first mistress and second wife, either withholds her pussy from him or indulges him with intercourse for the last time, instead of another over-the-top inventive piece of burlesque, we get a typical very banal and boring scene of moviedom marital conflict.

Richard Brody in The New Yorker dubbed the movie wild and brilliant and insisted that “anyone who can’t take vast pleasure in its delinquent behaviour is dead from the neck down.” In saying that, he is simply practicing the same bullying character of the movie itself, dissing a member of the audience (me) who found the film boring and accusing that individual of not being able to get his pecker in a dander. The film was very often not compelling to view, and often, to the extent that it was, the experience was of being forced to watch rather than enchanted by what was happening on the screen. Was the insertion of an enema by a dominatrix funny or just gratuitous? The movie was never about ecstasy but only about excess. And when it said it was about excess, it failed to live up to its billing.

In one skit with a modicum of comedy, Rob Reiner, as Belfort’s father, Max, reveals the reason for his nickname as Mad Max for his vile temper contrasted with his polite English-accented voice when he is forced to pick up the phone. We smile and look forward to further innovative playful variations on this double characterization through the rest of the movie. But we are totally disappointed for Mad Max becomes the epitome of trying to enforce some degree of sanity in an otherwise madcap brokerage firm as the brokers, including his own son, carry on their bullying tactics and mock him to his face. The promise of humour proves false.

Another failure takes place in London when Belfort sits on a bench with his wife’s English aunt to convince her to keep his money in her name and Scorcese uses the aside voice of each to express their inner thought that Belfort thinks Emma is coming on to him and, in response to Belfort’s response to that thought, Emma comes to the surprising thought that Belfort is coming on to her. Does the potential for a great comedy of misinterpretation go anywhere? Perhaps it ended up on the cutting room floor. As it is, members of the audience are left frustrated with the lost comedic potential. A similar device between Belfort dissing the smooth Swiss banker while mouthing sweet nothings as the elegant and handsome Swiss banker looks forward to the millions of dollars in deposits as he thinks about the vulgarity of the DiCaprio persona he has to deal with.

What is one to make of the classification of hookers by their cost into blue chips, NASDAqs and skanks or pink sheets? This is certainly the dismissive tone of the “frat” boys to the ladies who suck their cocks. It is the same dismissive tone towards their own clients who are coerced to ejaculate their money into the banks of the brokers.

So as often as there are great scenes of hilarity, just as often there are depressing disappointments while, in between, the skits are linked by a ponderous and repetitive plot, that even in its repetitions had a potential to be funny, but the opportunities were ignored. Given that the movie lacks any dramatic development and is just an increasingly rapid slide into disaster, given that it lacks any character development, given the total absence of any sense of redemption, the movie just drags and bullies one forward as the  recrudescence of another orgy of nudity and sex beats between the periods of relief and abatement like the thumps on Matthew McConaughey’s chest that promised so much at the beginning of the film and failed to deliver.

So the movie ends, not with a bang but with a whimper. Belfort is out of jail and banned from being a stockbroker; he sells salesmanship. He has become a motivational speaker. But when he asks a series of individuals who attend his seminars, how would each of them sell the pen that he hands them, they cannot ask, “Would you mind signing your autograph?’ Instead, each makes in turn an even more pitiable attempt to extol the virtue of the pen for they do not recognize that the first step in salesmanship is instilling in the other the belief that they need your product. Even more importantly, they need you. So the salesman, while maintaining the image of a great success as salesman of selling, is really a pitiable character who has lost his claque that would join in the collective dissing of the incompetent marks of the world