I’m not counting the comic book-inspired, CGI-enhanced, video game-fueled, super-hero-driven, transnational mega-franchises that hogged cineplex screens and dominated the box-office last year as they have for the past several decades. Nor am I referring solely to the recent trend in more thematically ambitious films that equate bloated running times with high-mindedness. Earnest films about corporate greed such as Promised Land, The East, and Dallas Buyers Club also take a back seat because their very earnestness forced the excesses of content to trump those of style. Front and center from 2013 are a critical mass of “prestige” films—one adapted from a literary classic; the other three, Oscar contenders—whose content and style self-consciously reflected as they helped perpetuate a zeitgeist of excess.
The anxiety of excess is nothing new. Capitalism falls apart without and sometimes because of it, as periodic economic bubbles and Pres. Bush’s post-9/11 admonishment to “not stop shopping” remind us. But the stubborn refusal, on all levels of society, to fully confront the Great Recession, widening income disparity, and metastasizing environmental degradation appears to have spurred several A-list filmmakers to address, for better or worse, the causes and consequences of profligacy.
Topping my list of movies from last year’s crop that explicitly engage with America’s ethos of overindulgence are Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby, David O. Russell’s American Hustle, and, from an oblique angle, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. Among these, only The Wolf of Wall Street has been called out for its alleged glorification of the lust for Mammon it purports to debunk. And indeed, besides overextending its running time by at least an hour (after the first two hours, “We get it, already!”), what begins as an indictment, however farcical, of real-life financial scam artist Jordan Belfort’s late-1980s rise to ultra-affluence and descent into hyper-hedonism ends up as enthralled by Belfort’s super-salesmanship and Caligula-like life-style as his cadre of fellow scammers.
Although The Great Gatsby similarly indulges in that which it critiques, it escapes the opprobrium that ensnares The Wolf of Wall Street for several reasons. First, Luhrman’s film more openly acknowledges its accomplice-ness—such as when the nouveau riche Gatsby asks neighbor-friend Nick’s opinion of his over-the-top flower display, “Is it too much?” and Nick responds like a dutiful set decorator, “It’s what you want.” Or when Nick, predicting critics’ attacks on the film’s infidelity to Fitzgerald’s great American novel, tells Gatsby, “You can’t repeat the past” and Gatsby retorts, “Of course you can! Of course you can!” Second, Luhrman flaunts, and justifies, his infidelity through gross, but telling, anachronism. This occurs, most exaggeratedly, in the scored and diegetic music that infuses Roaring 20s New York City with Beyonce, rap, and EDM. The upshot of all the temporal disjunction is to underscore the uncanny match—in time, place, and personality disorder—not only between Gatsby and Luhrman but also between Jazz Age America and its postmodern (re)incarnation in the Era of Mass Distraction.
American Hustle is another epic of excess cut (or rather shredded) from real cloth. “Some of this actually happened,” an opening title quips, setting up a film that, like The Wolf of Wall Street, gleefully sends up an historical incident: in this case the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s that exposed, through questionable means, corruption among a panoply of elected officials. Unlike Scorsese’s wanna-be Satyricon, Russell’s gets away with its wildly comedic expose of criminality, though not through Gatsby-like anachronism or self-deprecating associations with its director. It avoids The Wolf of Wall Street trap partly because the crimes it depicts are less egregious than those committed by Belfort and company, mainly because its broader institutional associations are more pertinent to the present, pertaining to ethically challenged politicians as well as an overly zealous FBI, whose sting operation is motivated more by promotional ambition than patriotic duty.
Which brings us to 12 Years a Slave, and to the question of how a dead serious film about the horrors of slavery, based on an actual freed slave’s memoir, possibly can speak to contemporary American excess. Although one certainly can find, in the film’s indictment of slavery, intimations that this brutal feudal system served as a crucial prop of global capitalism, such an analogy to excess itself reeks of overreach. A more cogent connection, however, exists on the level of affect—more specifically, on a Wolf of Wall Street-like tendency toward stylistic overkill that threatens to undermine, if not negate, 12 Years a Slave’s progressive aim and impact.
As the horrors portrayed in 12 Years a Slave mount in detail and duration, their effect becomes subject, as with The Wolf of Wall Street’s bacchanals, to the law of diminishing returns. Though the internal outcry may be an anguished “I can’t take anymore!” rather than a surfeited “We get it, already!,” a similar “numbing out” results. Conversely, for sex-and-violence-saturated youth, the inuring may derive less from the horrific imagery than from its paling in comparison to run-of-the-mill video games, porno sites, and slasher flicks. For slavery romanticizers, it offers a ready excuse to dismiss the film as bleeding-heart liberal propaganda. Not to mention the S/M set’s (as with Wolf of Wall Street’s hedonistic set’s) “getting off” on the proceedings—an unavoidable sidebar to any gore (or gorge) fest, no matter how loftily intended.
To be fair, given cinema’s inherent susceptibility to visceral spectacle, anti-excess films of all types, in tapping the hidden recesses of the id, face an especially high burden of proof—both of filmmaker intent and audience response. And as long as society remains stuck on a seeming runaway train to apocalypse, we can expect Hollywood to respond in kind.
VincentBrook teaches at USC and UCLA. His most recent books are Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles and Woody on Rye: Jewishness in the Films and Plays of Woody Allen.