Why Movies About Wall Street Help Wall Street

There is an interview included on the DVD version of Oliver Stone's 1987 film Wall Street in which Michael Douglas makes a startling confession. In all the years since portraying Gordon Gekko, the prototypical bad guy of New York high finance, young men have approached him to express their gratitude. They're not thankful for having been warned away from a profession prone to richly rewarding those who behave according to Gekko's motto, "greed is good," or even for a cautionary tale that made them seek to do business in a more ethical sort of way. Rather, they credit Douglas, as Gekko, for inspiring them to charge into the industry whole hog, to embrace the perverse parsimony of a worldview in which greed is actually good. Gekko the villain, Douglas discovered, was their hero.

Entertainment is full of fascination with with some of civilization's most bizarre social arrangements; we justify our enjoyment of them with the thought that they are being presented in some kind of critical manner. We allow ourselves to enter Mad Men's hollow corporate lives, or Downton Abbey's gracefully crumbling aristocracy, because their protagonists are tragic figures. This season we have Leonardo DiCaprio's anti-hero in The Wolf of Wall Street -- another cautionary tale, another victim of his own creepy success. We come out of the theater both amused and smugly convinced that we wouldn't make the same mistakes ourselves.

Yet, somehow, when the most recent Great Gatsby came out, shopping malls became full not with the wardrobes of Nick Carraway, the story's workaday and somewhat redeemable narrator, but with the various luxury items worn by (again, Leonardo DiCaprio's rendition of) Gatsby. He is our hero. The warning that F. Scott Fitzgerald so carefully crafted about personal delusion in a time of social decadence is lost on us -- in an age when we could probably benefit from it again.

One clue to understanding this pattern can be found in a passage from Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, a later-life treatise by the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch. She calls to mind the scene of a parent pointing something out to her child: "Look, listen, isn't that pretty, isn't that nice?" In this simple act, the child learns what is worth paying attention to, what in the whole bewildering world has importance. Murdoch, as both a storyteller and a theorist, came to believe, "This is moral training as well as preparation for a pleasurable life."

The same also goes for pointing out unpleasurable things -- as when the parent says, "Don't touch!" Even then, says Murdoch, "the far-reaching idea of respect is included in such teaching." To say something is bad is still to say that it matters.

Murdoch's insight is this: What we lend our attention to is as much a part of our moral life as whether we conclude it's right or wrong. Perhaps attention matters even more than judgment; perhaps it's more basic. Spending an hour and a half in a movie theater in the company of a nasty character can send a lesson in his favor stronger than whatever subtler warnings are meanwhile conveyed in the story.

Anyone who has felt the allure of the forbidden might recognize this phenomenon; what we're told is bad somehow seems too significant to be left alone. And then there is the saying that celebrity culture is constantly proving at least mostly true: that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Politicians recover from the most unseemly scandals, such as when Anthony Weiner gained such disturbing initial momentum in New York City's recent mayoral race. Yet it is often precisely because of the scandal that millions of people learned the politician was worth paying attention to in the first place.

How, then, could one go about making a movie about the excesses of Wall Street -- a story that touches so many of our lives today? Here's a start: Don't make it about Wall Street. There are enough films about corrupt politicians, crooked bankers and brutal gangsters already. The story of the 2008 financial crash and its aftermath has been told from the perspective of the finance demigods who have mostly gotten off scot-free; even if they're portrayed critically, they're the stars.

Far rarer are stories of the people whose lives are affected by what they do, though these are stories no less full of danger, heroism, tragedy and triumph. Even rarer are movies about ordinary people fighting back and winning, except when it's a vigilante cop or some other kind of unattainable superhero.

Iris Murdoch, in the end, holds out hope that art can lead us to goodness through its portrayal of evil. "Great art," she wrote, "is an image of virtue. Its condensed, clarified, presentation enables us to look without sin upon a sinful world." But, even if such great art really exists, not all art is great. Most of it is more or less propaganda. We should stop lending that service so readily to the wolves of Wall Street, even if we think we're doing so more smartly and subtly than we likely are.