Archive for December, 2013

Jordan Belfort: “The Wolf of Wall Street”

December 29, 2013

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Martin Scorsese has a new film out titled The Wolf of Wall Street. It is based on the memoirs of Jordan Belfort, who in the 1990’s ran a brokerage firm called Stratton Oakmont that did illegal “pump and dump” schemes that got Belfort thrown into prison. I’m debating in my mind whether or not I should go see this movie. I found Scorsese’s last film, Hugo, dull and over-long. The Wolf of Wall Street clocks in at two hours and forty minutes. This doesn’t look promising.

One person who did see the movie was Christina McDowell, the daughter of Tom Prousalis, one of Belfort’s business partners at Stratton Oakmont. She has written an open letter to the makers of the film, in which she states:

    Belfort’s victims, my father’s victims, don’t have a chance at keeping up with the Joneses. They’re left destitute, having lost their life savings at the age of 80. They can’t pay their medical bills or help send their children off to college because of characters like the ones glorified in Terry Winters’ screenplay.

    Let me ask you guys something. What makes you think this man deserves to be the protagonist in this story? Do you think his victims are going to want to watch it? Did we forget about the damage that accompanied all those rollicking good times? Or are we sweeping it under the carpet for the sale of a movie ticket? And not just on any day, but on Christmas morning??

    I urge each and every human being in America NOT to support this film, because if you do, you’re simply continuing to feed the Wolves of Wall Street.

Another argument against seeing this movie. The L.A. Weekly has an interesting article about Belfort. In it, we learn that Belfort has only paid $11.6 million of the $110 million he owes his victims.

I’m told that Belfort now works as a motivational speaker. What kind of advice can someone with his background give to people? “Don’t start a company that fleeces people out of their life savings”? Out of curiosity, I looked at Belfort’s website. On the home page, it says:

    Right From The Smash Blockbuster Movie, “The Wolf of Wall Street”…
    THE STRAIGHT LINE PERSUASION SYSTEM
    REAL PROFITS FOR YOU… OR HOLLYWOOD MYTH?
    Can You Really Use The Wolf of Wall Street’s Sales Tactics To Ethically Persuade People And Make Money?

So, Belfort is using his criminal past to promote his motivational business. How ethical.

According to the above-mentioned L.A. Weekly article:

    Five years ago, the Weekly accompanied Belfort to one of his first speaking gigs, with the Young Entrepreneurs of Los Angeles. During the Q&A following his talk, Belfort had a stock answer whenever anyone questioned the morality of what he had done to his investors. “Hey, at least no one got killed,” he said several times.

At least no one got killed. That’s how low the bar is set in the business world.

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The Satire Glut

December 26, 2013

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A story has been circulating on social media lately that Pope Francis declared that “all religions are true.” The problem here is that the Pope never said that. According to Snopes.com this story comes from a satirical website called Diversity Chronicles. This is not the first time I’ve seen people on social media mistake a satirical article for a real story. There has been a proliferation of satirical websites in recent years, inspired, no doubt, by the success of The Onion. The problem here is not just that most of these sites aren’t that funny, but that they’re leading to false stories and rumors circulating on the Internet. And there’s already a lot of false information on the Internet as it is. Perhaps what we need is a moratorium on new satirical sites.

The Ruling Class

December 19, 2013

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After the Irish actor, Peter O’Toole, died, some of my Facebook friends said that his best film was The Ruling Class. This piqued my curiosity, so I decided to watch it. (You can find the whole movie on Youtube.)

The Ruling Class is a 1972 film directed by Peter Medak, with a script by Peter Barnes, adapted from his own stage play.

The 13th Earl of Gurney (Harry Andrews) accidentally kills himself while engaging in autoerotic asphyxiation. His will leaves his entire estate to his only surviving son, Jack (Peter O’Toole). The problem here is that Jack believes he is Jesus Christ. He spends his time making speeches about love and hanging on a cross. This scandalizes the Gurneys and their aristocratic neighbors. Jack’s uncle, Sir Charles (William Mervyn) plots to take the estate away from him. He reasons that if he can get Jack to produce a male heir, he can then have Jack declared insane while having the Gurney line continue unbroken. Sir Charles persuades his mistress, Grace, (Carolyn Seymour) to woo Jack. Jack falls in love with her. They get married, and Grace soon gives birth to a son. Sir Charles’s plan, however, is complicated by the psychiatrist, Dr. Herder (Michael Bryant), who is determined to cure Jack of his delusion. After several failed attempts, Herder hits upon the idea of confronting Jack with a mental patient who also believes he is God. This appears to work; Jack seems to be restored to his old self. Sir Charles is still determined to have him committed, however, and he arranges to have a court-appointed psychiatrist interview Jack. The meeting gets off to a rocky start, but when Jack begins spouting reactionary and xenophobic political rhetoric, the doctor declares him to be sane.

The Ruling Class should have ended at this point. Instead, it goes into a lengthy coda, in which Jack convinces himself that he is actually Jack the Ripper, and he starts killing people. The joke here is that the “sane” Jack is actually a pathological murderer. This struck me as unnecessary, since it doesn’t build on the film’s previous ideas. What’s more, it makes the movie long: two-and-a-half hours. The characters and the situation simply aren’t strong enough to sustain one’s interest for that period of time. Satire is best done with a light, but sharp, touch. This movie does have many funny moments, though, and it benefits from strong performances. O’Toole is powerful and convincing as Jack.

It no doubt tells us something about O’Toole’s political views that he lobbied United Artists to make Barnes’s play into a film. He even went so far as to agree to do the part of Jack for no pay. The aristocratic Gurneys are portrayed as moral hypocrites. The movie strongly implies that Britain’s upper classes secretly yearn for fascism. Whatever his faults may have been, O’Toole was on the right side of history.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

December 14, 2013

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the second installment of the films based on Joanne Collins’s young adult novels. Although I found it entertaining, I did not like it as much as the first film in the series. (You can read my review of that movie here. I will discuss the reasons for this below.

Catching Fire picks up where the previous film left off. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) returns to her home district after the game. She and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are about to go on a victory tour of the various districts. She meets with President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who warns her that she had better do as she is told, or there will be dire consequences. During the tour, it becomes clear to Katniss that she has become a symbol of resistance to the people. This is clear to the government as well. Snow’s henchman, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) devises a scheme to solve this problem. They will make Katniss fight another Hunger Game, in which she will be made to kill people who have helped her. The aim is to disillusion people who see her as a heroine.

This is where I start to have a problem with this movie. When Katniss arrives at the Hunger Game, the government immediately tries to kill her, sending poisonous fog and giant babbon-like creatures at her, before she has a chance to kill anyone. It seems to me that the makers of this film were more concerned about having a lot of action than they were about maintaining narrative logic. Which is a problem with a lot of Hollywood movies.

The posters for this film feature the line: “Remember who the enemy is.” The line in the movie is actually “Remember who the real enemy is.” It occurs twice: Haymish (Woody Harrelson) says it to Katniss just before the Hunger Game, and a character whom Katniss mistakenly believes has betrayed her says it just before the film’s climactic scene. The word “real” is the most important word in the sentence. The Hunger Games create false enemies, when the real enemy is the government. The Hunger Games is a metaphor for how our society creates false enemies to distract us from our real enemy. This is why the story has had such a strong resonance with many people.

Chirs Hedges and Cynthia McKinney

December 9, 2013

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Chris Hedges has an article at Truthdig entitled Is America ‘Yearning for Fascism’? In it, he makes an argument that he’s been making on and off since 2008, which is that the United States is going to go down the same road that Yugoslavia did in the 1990’s. Hedges seems unfazed by the fact that this country is no closer to a civil war today than it was five years ago. The two biggest acts of violence of the last year, the Boston Marathon bombings and the Sandy Hook massacre, were both carried out by isolated misfits not associated with any political group.

One is, in fact, struck by the stability of U.S. society, especially considering the extreme inequality of wealth that exists in this country. The Occupy movement came and went without making even a dent in the status quo. It would perhaps be more useful for Hedges to try to analyze the reasons for this, rather than make dubious apocalyptic predictions.

What is strange about this article, though, is that Hedges suddenly and inexplicably quotes Cynthia McKinney – yes, that Cynthia McKinney, the one who earlier this year claimed that the Boston Marathan bombings were a false flag operation. Why would Hedges, or anyone else for that matter, care what this woman has to say (except perhaps as an example of a particular type of political lunacy)? Hedges writes:

    It is time for us to stop talking about right and left,” McKinney told me. “The old political paradigm that serves the interests of the people who put us in this predicament will not be the paradigm that gets us out of this.

Somebody as historically literate as Hedges must surely know that the claim of going beyond right and left is a common theme in fascist rhetoric. (Yes, I am implying that McKinney is leaning towards fascism. This is someone who repeats Alex Jones nuttery, after all.)

McKinney also says:

    I am a child of the South. Janet Napolitano tells me I need to be afraid of people who are labeled white supremacists but I was raised around white supremacists. I am not afraid of white supremacists. I am concerned about my own government. The Patriot Act did not come from the white supremacists, it came from the White House and Congress. Citizens United did not come from white supremacists, it came from the Supreme Court.

What did come from white supremacists were lynchings, sundown towns, racist police departments, and a black underclass. And McKinney wants to make common cause with these people.

I have always had deeply mixed feelings about Hedges. He sometimes makes good arguments, but there are times when he seems to have drifted off into the ether. (Here is an article in which I write about a talk that Hedges gave in Oakland a few years ago.)

Boondoggle

December 2, 2013

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The Los Angeles Unified School District is prepared to spend $1 billion on iPads to be distributed to students and teachers. This is while the schools in Los Angeles are plagued by too large class sizes (40 or more students) and crumbling buildings. (A friend of mine who works as a high school teacher tells me that there is sometimes raw sewage in the hallways of the school where he works.) The iPads, which cost $647 each, will be obsolete in a few years, and in three years the district will have to spend $60 million to renew the licenses of the educational programs on the iPads. And the district apparently has no plans for what to do about iPads that get lost or broken.

This seems to me to be symptomatic of our society’s love of gimmickry when it comes to education. Standardized tests and charter schools are seen as magic solutions to our schools’ ills. Handing out iPads to students is the logical result of this shallow thinking.