May 2014
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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace

Guaranteed: many spoilers

Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is a brilliant, over-the-top comedy of capitalism. Martin Scorsese has long been one of the best directors working, and Raging Bull, along with The Searchers and Treasure of the Sierra Madre, is one of the best American movies ever made. I realized in watching Wolf that Scorsese has a Shakespearean thing going: when he follows an idea, he doesn’t stop where ordinary film-makers would, but just keeps on going, and then a little farther, with delightful rage and scathing irony. The scene where Leonard Di Caprio must get from his home to a pay phone to talk to his private investigator without government surveillance is exemplary. He and a friend have taken some expired Quaaludes, which seem to have no effect so they take some more, which finally hammer them into near loss of control of speech and muscles. So Di Caprio crawls, endlessly, to his car because he cannot walk, drives it somehow to his country club, crawls to a pay phone (all without being seen by anybody), howls incomprehensibly to the investigator, back into the car, drives it home somehow safely at a mile per hour, to find his equally incapacitated friend talking incriminatingly on the home phone. He launches himself at him in incriminating slow motion, and hangs up the phone, both of them getting tangled up in the cord and their own limbs. Then, as if that weren’t enough, in the morning police arrive and we find we have been listening to an unreliable narrator: on the way home, contrary to what he told us, Di Caprio smashed and scraped the De Lorean on every other available surface, and destroyed it. The whole scene and its epilog seem to go on for more than ten minutes of a three hour film. Scorsese’s love of film and of performance is expressed in moments at which Di Caprio speaks directly to the camera. At one moment he begins to tell us in detail why certain stock sale methods are illegal, then stops, smiling, saying, You don’t really care, do you? The importance is in the spectacle, not the exposition. The unavoidable side effect of all this is that the protagonist, Jordan Belmont, is heavily glamorized by a tour de force performance (Di Caprio hasnt given us an actual job of acting almost since What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) and Scorsese doesn't really tell us that the “pump and dump” tactics may be bankrupting customers or ruining their lives. Still, it was nice to see Scorsese really ragging on stockbroker culture.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez just died. In the 1960's, he wrote a brilliant book, One Hundred Years of Solitude, which blew away any other novel of the twentieth century. As strained as magical realism became in just a few short years afterwards, every moment in Solitude when I first encountered it was stunning: the woman followed by butterflies, the secret massacre of the crowd protesting the banana company, the doctor outlining the one place on Aureliano’s body where a bullet could pass through without hurting him, the punch in the gut delivered by the ending and the last sentence. I have read this novel over and over across forty years and it overwhelms me every time. One of the revelations-- and Marquez makes it seem effortless--is the combination of the history of individuals, of a family and of a country. I never saw it before, but Marquez’ conception of time is like Proust’s: he neither tells you what year the story begun or anything else happens, nor how much time has elapsed, though the title reveals that the entire action takes about a century, seemingly from the 1860’s to the 1960’s. Proust, like most novelists--and I love Proust, I have also read Remembrance more than once--has his head entirely up his own ass, I hope you’ll pardon the expression, while Solitude includes not only love affairs and father-son conflicts but the banana company and a revolution. Marquez thus manages to be Dreiser and Proust at once, and he does it completely without lecturing or didacticism.

I read almost everything of Marquez’s, though I flagged a bit there at the end, and though some of his other novels were satisfying, nothing else was quite on the same level. A very early novel, In Evil Hour, is an expert account of a near-miss in which a local despot wants to stop killing his subjects, but can’t quite, a Prisoner’s Dilemma set in a remote town. And some of the short stories are brilliant, particularly Eyes of a Blue Dog, about a man and woman who meet only in their dreams. Kipling had a story, The Brushwood Boy, on the same theme which I have loved and re-read since childhood; but his ends optimistically, with the couple meeting and recognizing each other in real life, while Blue Dog ends on a note of despair because….the man never remembers his dreams. While in this country we have idolized pedantic and self involved Philip Roths and David Foster Wallaces, Marquez showed everybody how it was done, and how you could have a best selling novel without actually making an ass of yourself at Studio 54 (he hung with Fidel Castro instead).