At an early Academy screening of The Wolf of Wall Street, a screen-writer approaches Martin Scorsese after the movie and screamed at him, “how could you? You’re disgusting.” We can only imagine that Scorsese’s first thought was, “No, I’m Martin Scorsese.” Whether it be mob politics, child prostitution, the weighing of show girls, or highly controversial interpretations of some fairly important religious texts, the director has always handled morally dubious material. The only difference with The Wolf of Wall Street was that this time it looked like a lot more fun.
The critic’s point was that the movie seemed to glamorize the hedonistic, grotesque lifestyle of these men, who had made their money dirtily and who didn’t treat each other or their families any better. But really, what else did he expect? For one thing, The Wolf of Wall Street was based on actual events in American financial history – it’s not as though this was Scorsese’s reimagining of Goodnight Moon. Secondly – and more importantly – The Wolf of Wall Street wouldn’t have been much of a movie if they’d removed all morally offensive content. If Scorsese had tried to make this film while avoiding any character or plot thread that involved immoral behaviour or some shockingly unethical attitude or action, we essentially would have been left with something more along the lines of The Goldfish of Wall Street, and that wouldn’t have lasted very long, given that the goldfish gets eaten alive. The point is, without who Jordan Belfort really was The Wolf of Wall Street literally has no story.
Movies have a license to do this sort of thing; one of the whole attractions of film is that it can largely do whatever it likes, however distasteful or corrupt the content (we can only hope for the sake of his own blood pressure that the chap who shouted at Scorsese never saw The Human Centipede).
But, we don’t need to look at controversial films to find moments that are ethically or morally questionable, and the reason for this is quite straightforward. It is that it’s usually the aim of movies to in some way reflect life, and life generally involves just two main things. The first is the staying alive in the first place. The second – provided the first is going ok – is working out the principles of how things should or shouldn’t be done when it comes to the rest of the world around us. And for all of the many, many ways in which both of these things can go spectacularly wrong, a movie is made about it. Take the concept of ethics out of film and we’d be left with little more than Winnie the Pooh and so many more additions to the Step Up series that it will be able to start calling itself Stairs.
The aim here is to have a look at some ethically unsound movie moments, which are either not immediately obvious or that occur when we wouldn’t necessarily expect them. Because this is the angle, there’s a good few films that would usually show up on a list about ethics in film that are missing from this one. There’s no A Clockwork Orange for example; looking for the unethical moments in A Clockwork Orange is a bit like looking for the heartbreak in Marley and Me – we all know it’s there, and we really don’t need to talk about it again.
There’s also nothing else of a similarly obvious nature like Filth (even if Bruce Robertson does make Jordan Belfort look like Ghandi), and none of the Bourne series, where the dubious ethics of what the CIA have done to Jason Bourne is the entire point of the storyline. There’s also no Tarantino and no more Scorsese, given that their characters are quite often the sort who – to use Nicky from Casino as an example – think that a proportionate response to someone calling a friend an a—hole is to stab them in the throat with a biro.
The point is not to judge these situations, or to turn them all into something that should be taken deadly seriously; I would rather permanently surrender my Netflix subscription than ruin movie watching in such a fundamentally moronic way ( just to make this doubly clear, I’ll give away an example right now and reveal that The Hangover’s Alan Garner is on the list). The idea is simply to look at the endless variety of places in which the age old question of “is this ok to do?” shows up, and the huge range of results that we often get with the answer – whether they be alarming, sad, baffling, overdramatic or just downright hilarious.