Monday, November 23, 2009

Oliver Stone - Wall Street (1987)

As my list of a week or so ago might indicate, I'm currently undergoing an on-again off-again project of watching my way through important and/or cult films of the '80s which, for one reason or another, I haven't seen before - and the latest instalment is Oliver Stone's Wall Street.

This is, of course, an extremely apt film in the context of the present moment - the GFC and the impact that it's had both on voices opposed to the current socio-financial system, and the way in which the response has re-emphasised the massive power of business as usual. Wall Street, set in 1985 (two years before the film was released) is a reflection of the insider trading scandals which broke in that period ('85-'86). For those who haven't seen it, the film is a Faustian tale of Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), a naive and unsuccessful but ambitious young trader who gets his break in the form of ruthless corporate honcho Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) - but at what cost?

In the present era, the film's stylistic aesthetic, which in the contemporary period would have signified wealth and luxury, seems a little cluttered and clunky in comparison to current 'classy' minimalist wealth-signifiers - as does some of the dialogue around this milieu. Of course, one often underestimates the farcical crassness of wealth. But the city itself, shimmering at dawn and dusk, is a more timeless signifier of the fantasy of fluidity as solidity and thus, power. The message itself - wealth corrupts, and a price must be paid, the authenticity of blue-collar union resistance, self-sacrifice as heroism - is rather obvious, as is some of the dialogue. Nonetheless, the tale itself is deeply engrossing - personally I have little interest in or understanding of the complexities of the financial world, but nonetheless I was gripped, despite Oliver Stone's trademark directorial self-indulgence.

For my taste, although this is a story of the way in which the system corrupts, it's essentially too much a critique of the immoral Randian individual (Stone cited Upton Sinclair as an influence, and, interestingly, the same critique has been made of the way in which Sinclair's Oil was translated into film in There Will Be Blood) rather than of the system which creates such individuals and provides them with a readymade framework of moral distance. I also find it difficult to believe Gekko's famous 'greed is good' speech (to a board of shareholders) would actually be a triumph - not because of its content, but because of the use of the word 'greed.' Rhetoric of justification, in my experience, tends to function because it labels actions which might appear to be immoral, as moral, and explains why they should be perceived in this way. Gekko's valorisation of the merciless market as the universally beneficial invisible hand fulfils the second, but not the first of these functions.

There are some intriguing flourishes - occasionally we are tempted to think that 'the lady doth protest too much,' that (as with other fictional works of social criticism, in particular Brave New World) the author can't help being seduced by the ostensible object of criticism - and what are we to make of Michael Douglas' excellent Gekko enjoying the beauty of a sunrise, the only scene where he shows a positive human emotional trait? The supporting cast are a veritable smorgasboard of eighties favourites - including Martin Sheen, the Blade Runner double whammy of Sean Young and Daryl Hannah, and old favourite James Karen, who to me will always be Return of the Living Dead's Frank.

Essentially what we have here is a classic film of the eighties dialectic, a rejection of the inauthentic and artificial world of untrustworthy fluidity and glittering surfaces which can't help being somewhat seduced by its own object.

PS ... did I mention the sublime Talking Heads song, This Must Be The Place, which plays over the closing credits? Or the fact that the soundtrack (somewhat incongruously, but I can't fault the choice) also features two songs from Byrne & Eno's My Life In The Bush of Ghosts? Swoony...

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