Thursday, May 13, 2010

Didactism, Wall Street, And Not Getting Your Own Point

Add Oliver Stone to the list of artists who don’t really understand their own work:
But the first Wall Street was meant to be a cautionary tale and wound up becoming the total opposite: Many of the kids who went and got jobs on Wall Street in the late eighties and early nineties did so precisely because they wanted to be Gordon Gekko, not Charlie Sheen's Bud Fox.
You could argue it both ways ... It's a bit of an exaggeration, "the total opposite," because I did talk to a lot of people, and while a lot of them say Gekko became their hero, I think that's not quite true. I think that people liked the world that was created, the fantasy of that world. A lot of young people told me they joined the Street after that. They were studying law or medicine, and they went into the market because they saw the [first] movie. They were 30 or 40 years old, and many of them had become millionaires. But many of them had become millionaires honestly.

Part of this may be denial, I guess you’d call it. (Though what's that weird fillip about becoming millionaires honestly? I feel like Stone should be implacably against Wall Street.) Stone would prefer a world in which Wall Street worked: a world in which people watched Gordon Gekko and by the end had a sense of revulsion. But it didn’t work that away: prospective Wall Streeters basically love Gordon Gekko (as a consultation of any business minded kid’s Facebook page will quickly reveal) while the people who are neutral-to-negative on Wall Street mostly don’t care about Gordon Gekko. Wall Street is interesting until about halfway through (the exact moment: when Bud Fox is redecorating his apartment, and viewers suppress the desire to giggle uproariously by the awful taste exhibited by Fox).

In theory we know that Gordon Gekko is a villain, but we never quite feel that way. Part of the challenge is that we’re supposed to like and be tempted by Gordon Gekko, to see his lifestyle as seductive. Part of the challenge is that the type of crime and corrosive effect of high finance run amok has victims who live far away and safely away from the prying eyes of the camera. Stone tries to remedy this with the regional airline subplot, but narratively it feels cheap—too blatant a ploy for our affections—that its moral lesson is lost.

And of course the ultimate appeal to Gekko is that he is powerful. I remember when I was young saying that if I were ever an actor I’d only want to play villains. In children’s stories especially, villains get to act on their desires because they’re powerful. This has a certain appeal to the child in us who knows what it’s like to have our desires thwarted by, well, rules. (e.g. No TV after eight etc. etc.) Most children only see rules as an imposition when they regulate something they wanted to do, so the idea of rulebreaking to get what you want seems pretty awesome. You don’t want to go around being evil per se, because you’re not interested in it. You just want to watch TV after eight. And Gordon Gekko definitely watches TV after eight and has dessert every night, should he so please. Anyway, that aspect of our personality never goes away, though it recedes after we learn about other kinds of villainy and other kinds of rules.

The point here is that Stone had an incredibly difficult narrative task to demonstrate both the appeal of Wall Street and its evils. Everyone wants to watch TV after eight, and if you tell someone that there’s a magical place where they can watch TV after eight, you’re automatically set up to wish you lived in that place. So your task is difficult—you have to convince people that Wall Street’s ability to eat dessert every night is directly connected to privation. And the connection has to feel organic. As I said, it’s difficult.

Now—and I realize I’ve proposed this show to the solution to many narrative problems—something like The Wire or other forms of epic social realism are the direction you want to go. You want to show—simultaneously—the story of the high financier and the story of whomever is getting screwed by said high financier, and develop it at such length that both stories feel organic, and then and only then will the audience be convinced. I don’t believe The Wire has a shady high financier, which is somewhat surprising, I think—given David Simon’s theories on global capitalism, Goldman Sachs is right up there on the list of approved villains—but it could’ve. Or a show or novel like that could’ve. The point is, if you’re after a didactic point in narrative form, people respond to said didactic point if it’s delivered in a way that it’s not a didactic point. Otherwise they might take exactly the opposite message, as any college student who’s looked at enough Facebook profiles approvingly citing such nuggets as “Lunch is for wimps” or “Greed is good” blah blah blah. This is why Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps isn’t likely to be good.

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