March 2014

Film: Double Feature

Rick Alber

The Oscar-nominated blockbuster The Wolf of Wall Street and the understated Swedish documentary, Liv and Ingmar don’t have much in common, but both films illuminate the surprisingly seamy sides of two powerful and revered directors.

Film has always been a director’s medium, and the most influential and unique directors have historically been men. The Swedish director Ingmar Bergman created a series of masterpieces over a 62-year career, punctuated with bleak black-and-white dramas of death, sickness, and despair, as well as human comedy/tragedies dealing with marital conflict, betrayal, loneliness, and deep love. They are mostly unforgettable.  

 When he was 47, Ingmar fell in love with his 25-year-old leading actress, Liv Ullman. Liv and Ingmar tells the little-known story of their 42-year, love-hate relationship. In voiceover, Ullman describes her life-long infatuation for Bergman, and his psychological abuse.  He essentially imprisoned the two of them for years on a desolate island. What makes the film compelling are scenes from Bergman’s masterpieces – Persona, Scenes from a Marriage, Cries and Whispers–intercut with an interview of Ullman reflecting on her fear, delight, and confusion about the relationship. The scenes are often of Ullman with a leading man grappling with the same strong feelings she describes having with Bergman.

 Some of these cinematic illustrations are trite; others deeply moving. Bergman was obsessed with the spiritual, and the two artists engaged in a destructive attraction with one another.  Together they created films, starring Ullman, to explore the drama, joy, and anguish they lived. Bergman was a deeply-flawed artist who was unafraid to confront his monstrous instincts, and played the object of his affection, as Ullman says, “like a Stradivarius.” In doing so, he enriched the lives of generations of filmgoers. Bergman died in 2007 at 89.

 Representing another extreme is The Wolf of Wall Street, the latest meticulously-crafted, three-hour grand spectacle by film legend Martin Scorsese. Wolf cinematizes the life of Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street con man who bilked gullible investors out of tens of millions of dollars before cooperating with federal prosecutors and serving a prison term. Along the way Belfort– played by Leonardo DiCaprio–builds a debauched empire based on drugs, women, and motivational bravado delivered via impassioned speeches to hundreds of employees, each hoping to achieve his success.

 Wolf’s music, acting, cinematography, and technical accomplishments are top notch, and the film deserves whatever Academy Awards it receives. That’d be enough to qualify for some reviewers’ top ten lists but, at its heart, the film is undeniably empty. Wolf has nothing to say about the inner motivation that drives Belfort or any character to pursue the hedonistic heights the film depicts. If there’s a moral position advocated, it’s not obvious.

 Instead, the film celebrates the extent to which juvenile men can be captivated by the rush of illicit drugs and willing women, all the while rationalizing the fleecing of investing chumps who believe that Wall Street advisors know more than they do. In the end, Belfort continues his deception, shifting to motivational seminars, after serving less time than did his associates convicted by evidence he provided.

At age 72, Scorsese has repeatedly demonstrated his cinematic artistry. His masterpieces will live forever.  But it’s hard to understand why the director of Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Mean Streets, and even the recent Hugo would spend his remaining time and energy to flamboyantly depict thoughtless swindlers staggering through orgies on coke and Quaaludes. When a talented man has a gift for moviemaking and an obvious understanding of the human condition, doesn’t he feel a call to share a message that’s meaningful and helps his audience deal with the challenges in their lives?  The Wolf of Wall Street presents that question, but fails to answer it.


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