The Sweet Smell of Excess

"While the social implications of excessive behaviour seem real and uncomfortable, then, the extent to which films tend to deal with these is, we surely have to admit, limited."

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“White elephants – the God of Hollywood wanted white elephants, and white elephants he got – eight of ’em, plaster mammoths perched on mega-mushroom pedestals, lording it over the colossal court.”

So begins Kenneth Anger’s gossipy movie memoir Hollywood Babylon, referencing D.W. Griffith’s gigantic Intolerance (1916). It’s immediately clear what Anger perceives to be the thrusting force in the development of Hollywood’s appeal: gloriously overblown, gleefully bloated excess. Flash forward roughly a century from Intolerance’s opening night, and the promise of thrilling excess is at least in part responsible for drawing audiences to Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Audiences, it seems, love films centred around extremes.

Excess, and its unavoidable corollary, inequality, are perdurable elements in the societies which duly provide audiences for Hollywood’s most extravagant creations. We all hear the cries and whispers of this or that debauched incident and like to tut and scorn; but why then are we so obsessed with seeing representations of this kind of behaviour on screen, and reminding ourselves of the extreme lives some can happily enjoy while others have little or nothing.

Maybe we can err on the side of idealism and claim that we’re seeking an explanation for extravagant behaviour. Is Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ Belfort right when, in reference to his extravagant, obnoxious and massively successful brokerage house, he gurns that “Stratton Oakmont IS America”? Is Michael Fassbender’s sex addiction in Shame really representative of society’s inability to tame and accommodate its primal urges? What can we learn about the socially transcendent nature of genius by watching Mozart’s fall away from the decadent opulence of Viennese high society in ‘Amadeus’?

While the social implications of excessive behaviour seem real and uncomfortable, then, the extent to which films tend to deal with these is, we surely have to admit, limited. Just look at the work of the most vividly, luridly over-the-top mainstream director of the past twenty-five years. Quentin Tarantino has pumped his cinematic oeuvre so full of drug-taking, foul-mouthing and ultraviolence that it has occasionally risked rupturing out into an unengaging orgy of excess. You’d be hard pressed to find much in the way of socio-cultural analysis in-between the swear-y quips and gunshots.  

This is not a criticism, but rather a path into what I’d consider the fundamental tension in our relationship with cinematic excess. Experience of film is characterised by the dual tenets of ‘fear’ and ‘desire’. These work not in dichotomy, however, but in tandem. We find excessive behaviour alluring because we both fear its consequences, in individual narratives and in ‘real-world’ society, and are drawn to its potential pleasures, chiefly the opportunity to enter a world most of us feel ordinarily excluded from. There’s something beguiling about the opportunity to experience the heights of decadence in the safety of the cinema and the finiteness of a film.

This dual interpretation is essentially an answer to the question A. O. Scott asks at the start of his review of The Wolf of Wall Street, if it were applied to all films that depict over-the-top behaviour:  “Do they offer a sustained and compelling diagnosis of the terminal pathology that afflicts us, or are they especially florid symptoms of the disease?” The answer, surely, is both.

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