Scorsese vs. Scorsese: Tales of Two Dreamers

The Wolf of Wall Street celebrates deception, whereas Hugo upholds the search for truth. Which worldview is Scorsese's?

Above: Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

The Wolf of Wall Street celebrates deception, whereas Hugo upholds the search for truth. Which worldview is Scorsese’s?

In The Philosophy of Martin Scorsese, Jennifer L. McMahon contributes a chapter about the director’s 1985 film After Hours. “After Hours: Scorsese on Absurdity”, focuses on that film’s protagonist and the threat (and realization) of absurdity within his life. She sums up the character, Paul, as being mediocre and uncertain of the purpose of his existence, and then observes that in Scorsese’s film, “existential crises — and epiphanies — can be catalyzed as easily by ordinary as by extraordinary events.”

Considering the range of Scorsese’s filmography, this search for purpose is not unique to After Hours. In fact, the presence of such an arc within a film that many consider to be a Scorsese outlier, attests to its fundamental place within the story type to which he’s attracted. That is to say, even when Scorsese appears to stray with respect to genre or tone, his existential concern remains.

As a director, Scorsese’s two most recently released feature films, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and Hugo (2011) would form a strange coupling for any filmmaker. The Wolf of Wall Street was adapted by Terence Winter from Jordan Belfort’s memoir about his hedonistic days as a lawless and drug-abusing stockbroker. Hugo, on the other hand, was adapted by John Logan from Brian Selznick’s children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the story of an orphan and an old man whose lives intersect to mutually transforming effect.

Both films were nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, which indicates high critical acclaim. But the worldviews the movies espouse could not be more opposite. The Wolf of Wall Street celebrates deception of the self and others as keys to living the good life. By contrast, Hugo upholds the search for truth, the affirmation of one’s true purpose, and kindness to others as keys to a life well lived. That these consecutive films within Scorsese’s filmography arrive at such different themes provides an opportunity to explore the mechanisms and effects of a movie’s worldview, both for its creators and audience.

The most apparent link between the plots of Hugo and The Wolf of Wall Street is the arrangement of events around aspirational characters. The orphan Hugo has goals that begin in isolation. He wants to fix an automaton that he and his late father were repairing at the time of his father’s death. Hugo, existing alone in the walls and hidden quarters of a train station, keeps the clocks running in order to go unnoticed by those who would send him away to an orphanage. But his desire to unlock the mystery of the automaton brings him into contact with other characters at the station. When he is caught stealing a toy that might contain the mechanical parts he needs to accomplish his goal, the toymaker (an older man named Georges) calls him a thief and a liar. Hugo’s first attempt to succeed ends with being labeled a “reprobate”.

Asa Butterfield as Hugo Cabret in Hugo (2011)

The Wolf of Wall Street opens on the spoils of a proud reprobate. The audience is treated to a lavish visual display of ill-gotten material success. Belfort is our onscreen guide, introducing us to evidence of his ostensibly limitless wealth and appetites. From car to mansion to wife to mistress to drug supply, there is nothing he cannot summon with his money. And in his words, money has the effects of making one “invincible” and “a better person”.

The film flashes back to his earliest days on Wall Street, as his younger self learns that his single goal as a stock broker should be to keep clients reinvesting in the dream of wealth so that they don’t cash out, for “real”. Belfort describes his revolutionary approach to selling penny stocks as “selling garbage to garbage men and making cash hand over fist.” Hence, the opening act of the film is designed to seduce the audience with a fantasy lifestyle and then provide instructions for how to attain it through wanton dishonesty.

The movies’ opening arguments do seem to be consistent with Scorsese’s stated reasons for becoming involved with the projects. In November 2011, speaking about Hugowith The Hollywood Reporter‘s Jay Fernandez, Scorsese cites his (then) 12-year-old daughter as the motivation for creating the film. On the subject of children that age, he says, “You deal with them every day so that you’re made to understand actually how they perceive the world around them.” Elsewhere, Scorsese and producer Graham King have spoken about the film’s PG rating and the opportunity to create that rare film within the director’s filmography that his preteen daughter could watch and not be assaulted with adult content.

In “‘Wolf of Wall Street’s’ excess, corruption hit a nerve”, a January 2014 interview with the Los Angeles Times‘ Mark Olsen, Scorsese is quoted as saying, “When I was growing up, I don’t remember being told that America was created so that everyone could get rich… I remember being told it was about opportunity and the pursuit of happiness. Not happiness itself, but the pursuit. In the past 35 years the value has become rich at all costs.”

Leonardo DiCaprio, a producer and star of the film, has shown a similar concern about the effects of greed in his comments on what spurred his involvement. In a Variety interview, also from January 2014, he tells Tim Gray, “With all these people on Wall Street who’ve screwed over so many people since 2008, I became obsessed with playing a character who made me understand the mentality and nature of the seduction of Wall Street and greed.”

Presently, to view the finished films back-to-back is to observe how deeply Scorsese becomes immersed in his stories of dreamers. Directly related to this immersion of the storyteller is the strength with which the values of those very narratives affect the manner of the telling. When considered within this framework, Scorsese’s directorial vision proves to be alternately clear (Hugo) and murky (The Wolf of Wall Street).

In Hugo, Scorsese successfully uses cinematographic techniques to cause the audience to “understand how [children] perceive the world around them.” Viewers are often restricted to the orphan’s view of his environment. Through Hugo’s temperament, we face the constant threat of being caught by the Station Inspector, the dark and menacing corners of the station’s hiding places and the judgment of Georges the toymaker. Scorsese also highlights the pleasures of the station, such as the food, music, romance, and conversation. Yet he keeps these pleasures somewhat distant, as they are to young Hugo.

Shooting in 3D for the first time, Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson elevate the director’s signature tracking shot style to new heights. Here, however, the shot expresses a different meaning than it has in past films. In contrast to its use in Goodfellas and Casino, cautionary tales in which the continuous shot conveys the intoxicating freedom enjoyed by men in power, the effect in Hugo is to highlight the boy’s confinement. While it is visually thrilling to follow Hugo through the dark spaces that make up his physical environment, we’re always reminded that his life is defined by being alone and enclosed.

After the character’s unfortunate circumstances have been established by this visualization, the events of the narrative begin to improve his situation and meet his needs. He encounters others and begins an unlikely journey out of isolation and into socialization. Essential to this journey is Isabelle, a young girl whose kindness towards Hugo and desire for adventure transform both of their lives. She joins him in his hiding places, and he joins her in the world outside.

The first hour of The Wolf of Wall Street is dizzying. Sex and drugs are described as fuels for the lifestyle being depicted. Exposed flesh and illicit substances are constant presences on screen. Director of photography Rodrigo Prieto and editor Thelma Schoonmaker work with Scorsese to move the action so quickly and without reflection that one might assume Scorsese has achieved at least the pace of ruthless advancement he and DiCaprio have observed among financial players like Belfort. The kinetic visuals and editing pace resemble a mindset that seeks the next thrill as a means of ignoring the conscience. For character-driven stories, seeing the world through a character’s eyes is one measure of evaluating the quality of storytelling, and in this aspect The Wolf of Wall Street succeeds as well as Hugo.

Though even before the first hour of this three-hour film has ended, one already suspects that The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t nearly as successful as Hugo in creating a dynamic or dialectical relationship between visuals, story events, and narrative intentions. In fact, the Scorsese of The Wolf of Wall Street forgets or is content to ignore the world as it exists beyond his characters’ desires. And in this way the film directly defies the stated concerns of its director and producer. Entirely absent from the screen are the victims of Belfort’s predatory practices. They are disembodied voices on speakerphones, characterized as rubes whose sole function within the narrative is to be laughed at by Belfort and his team of brokers.

Scorsese and screenwriter Winter attempt to turn this callousness into a source of humor, but its effectiveness is considerably more limited than the filmmakers believe. For example, there is a female character at the office that has sexual relationships with several male employees. She marries one of them, but her reputation/activity persists, and as a result her husband commits suicide. The audience sees a graphic but quick cutaway to the alleged scene of the man’s suicide, and then Belfort interrupts the moment of reflection with an abrupt “anyway…” in the voiceover narration. His “anyway” is supposed to be a joke that emphasizes the character’s thoughtlessness, as if he can’t be bothered to mourn the loss. Though the more lasting effect is to foreground how, for most of its running time, The Wolf of Wall Street is itself uninterested in confronting the unpleasant results of its all-pleasure-all-the-time fantasy lifestyle.

And what of Hugo’s hopes and dreams? In Hugo, dreams are not fantasy fulfillments, denial-enabling intoxications, or self-serving thrills. Dreams are complex yearnings that do involve disappointments, emotional risks, and real consequences. Let us pause to reflect that this is Scorsese’s “children’s movie”. As such, we could determine that he trusts kids to handle a measure of complexity on the subject of life’s ups and downs that is altogether absent from his later film, which is the one intended strictly for adults.

Hugo’s initial goal of fixing his father’s automaton appears to be totally extinguished when Georges the toymaker confiscates and then claims to have burned the notebook containing the father’s notes and designs/drawings. Georges presents Hugo with a handkerchief holding only ashes. These developments are more than disappointments. For Hugo, as well as the audience identifying with his journey, the destruction of the book revives the trauma of having lost his father. It’s no coincidence that fire is also the force responsible for that earlier tragedy.

Later, Isabelle (who is revealed to be Georges’ goddaughter) informs Hugo that Georges didn’t burn the book. Hugo will have a second chance to complete his father’s work, but he will have to earn that opportunity by working for Georges. Much could be written about the contrast of Hugo’s work ethic versus Belfort’s contempt for honest work. However the more interesting point of comparison concerns the ways in which each character consciously considers and communicates his existence within the ordinary world and the world of dreams.

Belfort’s father, Max, does his best to act as a CFO/business advisor, but Belfort rejects his advice for moderation amongst the employees. Belfort says of his employees, “I need them to want to live like me. You get it? To live like me.” An alternative version of this dialogue appearing in Winter’s screenplay has Belfort saying to Max, “In order to keep these guys working, I gotta keep ‘em spending. I need to keep them chasing the dream.”

Within the film, this scene plays like a justification for Belfort’s behavior. On another level, it is also an inadvertent admission of what the film is doing to its audience. Max counters that the lifestyle Belfort is promoting is “obscene”. In the voiceover narration, Belfort concedes, “It was obscene — in the normal world. But who wanted to live there?” Again, the implication is that greed, self-indulgence, and denial of consequences will enable Belfort’s workers (and Scorsese’s audience) to escape the ordinary world. They need only chase the dream he (and the movie) proffer.

Hugo, on the other hand, sees the ordinary world as a place designed for finding individual purpose. Looking out from a large clock onto the lights of Paris, Hugo talks with Isabelle about his state of mind following his father’s death. He says he would stand in this place and “imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason.”

For those inclined to see Scorsese’s films as existential narratives, Hugo should doubtlessly be considered a more multifaceted variation than The Wolf of Wall Street. Belfort is a one-note playboy whose resistance to insight regarding his experiences becomes a defining characteristic. Even when threatened by certain death in a storm at sea, he declares, “I will not die sober” and demands that his friend fetch drugs to enliven the final moments. When, against all odds, he survives the ordeal and sees the plane intended to carry him away explode in the sky, he perceives the explosion as a “sign from God” that he must live to spread the gospel of wealth creation. For the audience enduring the film’s three-hour tour inside Belfort’s mind, the “joke” of his persistent defiance is hardly worth the cost of admission.

Conversely, despite being a child left alone and confined to live amongst the cogs that help mark the time for others’ busy lives, Hugo is able to trust that his life does have greater meaning. And the reward for his commitment to seeking a purpose is that he gains entry into the world of dreams, via his relationship with Isabelle and Georges. Hugo introduces Isabelle to the joy of movies. Then, by solving the mystery of the automaton, they both discover that Georges is in fact Georges Méliès, the pioneering magician of cinema responsible for A Trip to the Moon and hundreds of other films. The automaton was one of his creations.

In their research about Georges’ secret past, Hugo and Isabelle find a quotation that reads, “The filmmaker Georges Méliès was one of the first to realize that films had the power to capture dreams.” Scorsese, whose knowledge of early cinema and film preservation efforts is unrivaled among working directors, arranges the rest of the film around the nearly-forgotten dreams of this legendary filmmaker and young Hugo’s efforts to revive them.

Thus, the third act of Hugo repeats and varies nearly every significant event of the film’s beginning. As Hugo previously struggled to bring the automaton to life, now he commits to do the same with Méliès. As Hugo was forced to come to terms with the destruction of his family and the near-destruction of his father’s book, so must Méliès come to terms with his lost legacy, his films having been burned and mostly forgotten. Hugo works to preserve what remains of Méliès’ masterpieces.

A celebratory screening of those films unites the two foremost concerns of Hugo — dreams and purpose — which flow like fuel between the boy and the old man. Each sustains and strengthens the other, contributing to the film’s theme of finding a place to belong. The final scene is a social gathering that expresses the outward results of Hugo and Méliès’ contributions to their world. Méliès calls Hugo’s effort “the kindest magic trick that ever I’ve seen.” The effects, however, are far from illusory. Hugo and Méliès share a happy family. Dreams come true.

Jordan Belfort, who tricks others to sustain his own fantasy lifestyle, doesn’t enjoy such a happy ending. Nor is he punished. Sure, he experiences some friction from the FBI, some marital discord, and the inconvenience of having to temporarily sober up. At his most confined, his wealth buys him a brief and cushy federal prison stay in Nevada. In the narration, his parting words to the audience are “Everything was for sale. Wouldn’t you like to learn how to sell it?”

Scorsese ends the film at a Belfort seminar called the Straight Line Persuasion System Seminar. Belfort has traded his former hapless stock buyers for an arguably more clueless audience who pay for the privilege of hearing his advice. In one of the most cynical endings in recent cinema, Scorsese frames Belfort’s gullible audience as a direct visual analogue to the viewers watching The Wolf of Wall Street. This conclusion is downright offensive, particularly in light of Méliès’ realization “that films had the power to capture dreams” as well as Scorsese’s pure rendering of that very message just two years prior.

Insulting as it is to the paying viewer/customer, the low blow-conclusion of The Wolf of Wall Street is ultimately representative of the movie’s insidious worldview. It’s possible that Scorsese is so blinded by his immersion into the character that he fails to notice how fully he subverts his own proven knowledge of cinema’s higher aims. There’s plenty of evidence of this distorted vision in The Wolf Pack, a collection of interviews with the cast and filmmakers that accompanies the recent Blu-ray release.

Jon Favreau, who has a supporting role in the movie, discusses Scorsese’s aptitude for both aspirational plots (“do this”) and cautionary tales (“don’t do this”). He concludes, “The ‘don’t do this’ moments in his movies are really more memorable.” If that opinion is intended to praise The Wolf of Wall Street, then one wonders if the “don’t do this” moments did exist but were edited out of the finished film? Alternatively, if Favreau is being more even-handed in his commentary, then perhaps he is admitting that the aspirational The Wolf of Wall Street is a less memorable work within Scorsese’s filmography.

Scorsese couches his goal as being absent of intervention, saying he wanted to show the fun of Belfort’s lifestyle “honestly without tipping the scales into judgment.” Winter is consistent with that attitude, observing that his script “doesn’t make a judgment, it doesn’t apologize, doesn’t explain. It just presents the information for you to draw your own conclusions.”

Yet none of these comments is entirely honest. The truth is that each directorial/aesthetic decision in The Wolf of Wall Street is indeed the result of a judgment by Scorsese himself. And these decisions go way beyond what Winter describes as “just [presenting] information.” As a result of the film’s highly subjective design, which places the viewer in the mindset of the character at the center of the narrative, the film becomes an experiential endorsement of the lifestyle Belfort lived. His sensations are the audience’s sensations. Each time he abuses drugs, commits adultery, mocks his victims, punches his wife, and endangers his children, the viewer lives that experience vicariously. What’s more, we’re specifically being asked by the director and screenwriter not to judge any of these things.

Elsewhere in The Wolf Pack Margot Robbie comments on her star-making turn as Belfort’s second wife, Naomi. She says she was initially uncertain of how she would ever become comfortable taking off her clothes for the role. But once she saw how everyone in the cast was being asked to go to extremes, those extremes and the anything goes-environment of the set made nudity seem like no problem at all. It’s one of the most concise anecdotes I’ve ever heard from an actor about the demolishing impact of a movie’s values system on her own individual values.

Jonah Hill, who plays Belfort’s confidante Donnie Azoff, is even more candid about the moral compromise involved in assenting to a character’s actions that he would otherwise find reprehensible. He says he would overcome his moral objections in order to perform the role, “and then you get home, and you’re like, ‘Oh my God! Like, what did I do?'”

What does it say about The Wolf of Wall Street that its actors — whose voices and bodies brought the film to life — cannot even promote the movie without mentioning the ways in which it warped their values and haunted their conscience? Scorsese chooses to pretend that a movie about the absence of consequences can be absent of consequences. But his actors tell a different story. And the audience members being sold Belfort’s advice — the ones being told not to judge — watch the screen for captured dreams and are instead treated to certain deception. If only someone thought to tell them, “Don’t do this.”