Astrologers have their eyes on Mars right now, as we will for the rest of this winter and spring. The warrior planet is tightrope-walking back and forth across the degree range occupied by Uranus, Pluto and Jupiter. The kick-off of this riff was Christmas Eve, when Mars opposed Uranus in a debut as emphatic as a movie star’s face on a 96-foot screen.
One of the things that happened under that sky was a movie opening. The transits suggest that The Wolf of Wall Street is an important cultural event, as does the fact that the film has hit a nerve among critics and audiences.
It’s a true story (except for the fact that no one who did that many drugs, for that long, would look as fresh-faced as Leonardo DiCaprio does). In fact, it’s truer than a true story. It’s a myth, an allegorical picture of a world moment. Scorcese’s film exaggerates – though not by much — what these transits want us to see about ourselves.
The movie tracks the self-creation, self-destruction and self-remodeling (Pluto) of a driven young entrepreneur (Uranus) whose solipsistic game plan (Mars) puts a modern spin on an old American fairy tale. Jordan Belfort is an updated Horatio Alger, a larger-than-life self-aggrandizer (Jupiter) who broke a lot of laws, took a lot of drugs, and got obscenely rich by ruining a lot of people less savvy than himself.
Although the events portrayed in the movie happened in the 80s and 90s, The Wolf of Wall Street is a morality tale for the Cardinal Cross years (2008-23). Belfort’s criminal excesses presaged those of the Wall Street wolves about whom movies have not yet been made: the predatory lenders and traders, who — in 2008, when the transit of Pluto (corruption, manipulation) in Capricorn (monetary systems) had just begun — were revealed to have committed the biggest financial fraud in history.
Like Belfort, who sharpened his teeth on the meager savings of the working class, the big Manhattan firms preyed on the little people. Big Finance capitalized on the earnest hopes of the kind of Americans I write about in “Nothing Personal”: folks of modest means who have swallowed — hook, line and sinker — the idea that living in the land of opportunity means the right to become grotesquely rich.
I doubt that anyone who saw The Wolf of Wall Street will forget the scene in which young Jordan cajoled his gulls over the speaker phone, while pantomiming aggressive rear-entry penetration for the entertainment and edification of his colleagues.
The scene draws its ugly power from the conflation of masculine sexual conquest (Mars) with financial dominance (Pluto in Capricorn). It helps us understand the psychology behind the movie’s – and the culture’s — incessant use of the word fuck, whose dual meaning equates the sex act1 with doing harm to somebody.
As his junior partners chortled like frat boys in the background, the Belfort character showed them — and us — how fucking someone over financially is motivated by the same distorted Mars impulse as the violent triumphalism of the bully on the playground and in the prison yard, the athlete who belittles the “losers” on the opposing team, and the soldier who rapes as an act of war.
Bad vs. Good
But this isn’t a bad guys vs. good guys movie. Scorcese’s point is not that men are bad and women are good. (The lone successful female broker in the film, portrayed as a sympathetic character, apes the mentality of her confrères, using phallic gestures to express disdain.) Nor is it about the corrupt preying on the innocent. The garbage men who lost their savings to Belfort were credulous, but not innocent. Those stars in their eyes were dollar signs.
The movie is about a corrupt and corrupting system, in which a few amoral players play the game superbly — the way all the other, lesser players wish they could play it. It’s hard to imagine a story that would more precisely match the transit of Pluto (breakdown) in Capricorn (the current definition of civilization).
The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t about morality (Jupiter) so much as what our society has instead.
There But For Fortune
Scorcese pulled out all the stops in getting us to identify with his villain. He made him the protagonist, let him break the fourth wall and narrate the action, endowed him with appetites that are glamorized in every program and every commercial on TV, and cast an appealing actor in the role. At the screening I attended, the audience was suitably smitten with our bad boy, cheering him on as he lied and conned his way to the top.
But the final shot in the movie is not of Belfort. It is of the attendees at his seminars: ordinary people seeking pointers on how to screw others and get rich. Their rapt faces reflect an international array of different genders and different skin colors, as if to say that the movie is not even just about America.
These Belfort wannabes — stand-ins for us, the movie audience — could be from anywhere in the world of flailing post-ethical capitalism.
Scorcese is doing what we need artists to do. We need them to tell us dark truths about ourselves, and we need this especially now, in this era of crossroads.
We may prefer art that sweetly suggests a way forward. But under skies like these, the best art will shock and provoke us (Uranus) into seeing how corrupt (Pluto) things have gotten. The movie’s ending, with the camera focused on the audience, seems to hurl a final challenge: Look at yourselves. Is this what you want?
1 In this context, “fuck” is not just about the sex act, it is about perpetrating the sex act. The verb is all about its implied agent (Mars).