Monthly Archives: January 2014

What the F*** is Wrong with Wolf?

Too far?  Or not far enough?

Martin Scorsese’s new film, The Wolf of Wall Street, is a three-hour testimonial to the proposition that nothing succeeds like excess.

Whether it’s Leonardo DiCaprio’s acting, Scorsese’s directing, or the characters’ carefree wallowing in a cesspool of depravity, drugs, booze, sex, and random acts of greed, the movie is an utter assault on moral balance.  It drains you, stuns you, and makes you feel a little less noble as a human being.

The characters are possessed by a primal drive to one-up each other – to snort more coke, bed more women, drive more exotic cars, have bigger houses, bigger expense accounts, bigger yachts, bigger hangovers.  Live fast and die young.

Nothing seems to exemplify this gestalt better than the use of the word fuck, which populates the dialog like consonants in Polish names.  A lot of  reviews have expressed faux astonishment at this fact, many actually citing that the word is used more than 560 times during the movie.  (Someone actually counted?!)

The irony is that this outrage is directed at Scorsese for his movie when in fact the excess is all in the book!

Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Jordan Belfort, is a real person and he really was called The Wolf of Wall Street (in a Forbes article of all places), and he wrote a confessional book about his exploits published in 2007.

I’ve read it.  It is not exactly a whiz read.  Belfort writes in the first person, which is fine, but he loves to reminisce in dense gray paragraphs of sometimes excruciating detail.  But he offers two important caveats right up front.  The first is that his book is written “in a voice that was playing inside my head at that very time.”  Which is why the writing is frenetic and bombastic and lubricious – because his mind at the time was fueled by a pharmacopeia of drugs.  And the second is that his book is “a satirical reconstruction” of the “insanity” of that time.

Far from the being the balls-to-the-wall celebration of excess depicted in the movie, Belfort in his book actually has a higher purpose:  “. . . what I sincerely hope is that my life serves as a cautionary tale . . . to anyone who thinks there’s anything glamorous about being known as a Wolf of Wall Street.”

The movie is about excess, but the book is about addiction – to money, to things, to love, to sensations, to some magical something just out of reach.  These addictions grow and invade and metastasize until eventually, like a cancer, they kill their host.

Jordan Belfort doesn’t die.  But The Wolf of Wall Street does.  The movie equivocates about his fate at the end, leaving us to wonder if he really gets away with it after all, getting a slap-on-the-wrist punishment but keeping all his wealth.  But in the book, in real life, the only thing Jordan Belfort gets away with is his sobriety – because he loses everything else.  Everything.  He goes to prison for twenty-two months, and he loses his business, his assets, his home, his wife, his children, his friends, himself.  And he is still on the hook to pay back his defrauded clients $110 million, somehow.

So maybe the real criticism of Martin Scorsese’s movie shouldn’t be that it goes too far in depicting excess – but because it fails to show us the shattering consequences of that excess, it doesn’t go far enough.

Nevertheless, having said all that, like Fellini’s Satyricon, you need to see it once.

It’s Never Too Late Unless You’re Dead

Worse than not succeeding is not trying at all.

I’m sixty-six years old and trying to launch a career as a writer.

Actually, that’s not quite true.

I am sixty-six years old, but I’ve been a professional writer my whole career.  I was an advertising copywriter and creative director at several global agencies for twenty-five years and I’ve been an independent marketing and communications writer for ten.

But I’m launching a career as a novel writer now because of Mike Koelker.

Mike was the creative director on the Levi’s account at Foote, Cone & Belding in the 70s and 80s.  That was the hottest account in town and Mike was the hottest creative director.  As the VP of Worldwide Marketing at Levi’s once told me – and it was after several drinks at Reno’s, so I know it was true – “If Mike Koelker leaves FCB, Levi’s leaves FCB.”

Mike also gave me my first break.  He referred me to Ron Berman, who was creative director of the office, and Ron eventually hired me.  I was lucky.

But what I still remember vividly was sitting in Mike’s office one day, talking about creative stuff like we always did, and some account executive, trying to kiss up I figured, asked, “Mike, you’re such a great writer, why haven’t you written a novel?”

Without hesitating he responded, “Because I guess I have nothing to say.”

That was sad, I thought, even at the time, because I bet Mike had plenty to say.  He’s gone now, so we’ll never know.

But that stuck with me and made me wonder throughout my own career if I was similarly afflicted, that I had nothing to say.  Even before I got into advertising, I wrote a novel.  I sent it around to agents and publishers.  And they all sent it back.  Years later I reread it and realized they were right:  It was bad.

That’s actually what propelled me into advertising.  Having failed at my first novel – so easily dissuaded! – and then having written a play and a screenplay, both of which suffered the same fate – I pitched myself to the ad world.  And I got in.  And I loved it!  So I didn’t worry about whether I had anything to say — I was getting paid to write.

But I’m older now than Mike was when he died, and I think I finally have something to say.

So with that as a basis, I’m “starting over” at sixty-six.

Actually, that’s not quite true either.

I actually started over about three years ago.  I wrote a screenplay called Cenote.  I pitched it to Kerry McCluggage, I pitched it to Tony Bill, I pitched it to Charlie Meeker.  No, no, no.

So I rewrote it as a novel.  And I queried agents about it.  And they all rejected it.  So I rewrote it.  More queries.  More rejections.  More rewrites.  Queries-rejections-rewrite.  It was a nice dependable pattern in my life.

And in the process of writing Cenote, I discovered that the story is actually a trilogy.  So I’ve already written the second book in the series, called Primrose, and I’m working on the third, called Eden.

But while these books bubble to the surface, I thought I’d start this blog.

Because I think I have something to say.

Maybe you do, too.  Post a reply, ask a question, let me know what you think.  Maybe you write, maybe you paint or sculpt or take photographs or do music or weave baskets — whatever you do, just as a joy shared is twice a joy and a sorrow shared is half a sorrow, a dream shared has a better chance of becoming more than a dream.

Because I think a dream, any dream – even if it seems distant and unreachable and unrealistic – I think that dream deserves a chance to struggle and squirm and fight its way into existence.

Because a dream is a gift.  It’s a fragile, magical thing that can carry us away and let us soar.

I don’t care how old you are, if you have a dream, it’s worth the effort to try to see it come to life.  Because it’s never too late.  Unless you’re dead.  Mike taught me that.