Part Two: Sentimentality and Wall Street redux

Shia LaBeouf, Money Never Sleeps

Shia LaBeouf, Money Never Sleeps

I didn’t really get very far in talking about sentimentality last posting……so now after watching Money Never Sleeps, the latest Oliver Stone film, I think another opportunity presents itself to dig a tiny bit deeper in this concept.

The sentimental idealizes an object or scene for the sake of disproportionate emotional responses. Such a structural imperative tends to create a manipulative emotional effect — which is why so much advertising is sentimental. The emotional response is hence often in the service of mystifying the actual relationships being presented. It hides the deeper realities. In other words, the sentimental is essentially dishonest. It obscures the morality of the dynamics in play.

As I’ve said before, the sentimental in narrative can only occur (effectively) in a reduced landscape: a simplified world view that is without complexity. It is one dimensional.

In your Rhetoric 101 class the Sentimental Fallacy is usually presented as a figure of speech where the forces of nature are seen as having human intent, i.e. ‘the angry wind’, etc.

In poetry, it is useful to analyze the meter, where, for example, a strict anapest will strike on points already, probably, evoking an emotional response. It’s like cuing the violins in bad film–or these days, almost all film. It usually is combined with the signifiers of innocence: puppies and kittens, or the pure of heart, or any endless number of other images we have come to associate with the sentimental.  The traction sentimentality has for this culture probably has to do with an increasing need for reassurance. In today’s film world, the images have evolved in terms of sentimentality; and one often sees ruthlessness and “toughness” treated with the sentimental. This becomes a rather complex topic, but also I think a revealing one. In Magnificent Seven, there is a scene where Charles Bronson shares his candy (or gum or some fucking thing) with a young Mexican girl. It is the juxtaposition  of the tough with the innocent and pure that evokes our reaction. We have projected our trained assumptions about purity (in that case) onto a scene with almost no back story.

In all cases, the situation of the narrative and its characters, are treated dishonestly — are reductive. Otherwise the complexity of life we experience every day would erode the exaggerated moral reflex presented in this manipulative world created by the artist. The essential problem is that the emotional response to the sentimental is actually a very superficial one. It is fleeting and without much dimension. It massages our knee jerk reactions. It asks nothing.

What is most telling, however, is how the sentimental plays out in the narrative in an on-going way; how the tropes of sentimentality are embedded in ways that are effective because of the vast number of narratives modern audiences have consumed. There are the more obvious themes: reunion, religious awe, or the individual overcoming all odds to achieve his or her goal.  There are also a host of less obvious themes, and possibly any theme can be treated in a sentimentally dishonest way at this point.

Allow me to again quote Richard Brody:

“There does seem to be a great deal of research on the question of violence and of quantity of viewing; but very little, if any, on the subject of treacle. I do worry about the effect of violent films on children, but I worry just as much about the emotional debility, the sentimentalization of kids who watch only child-friendly works. In general, children watch much too much television and see far too many movies in which everyone smiles too much and talks as if they’re on sugar highs—or, simply, where there isn’t enough ambiguity or mystery. The oversimplification of life into tangy bite-sized morsels is as much of a danger, for individuals and generations, as stoked aggression.”

Now, this  brings me to Oliver Stone’s latest film, Money Never Sleeps, a sort of sequel to Wall St.  Stone is a director whom I want to like, for some reason. Maybe it’s that he made a great and very sympathetic documentary on Fidel Castro, I don’t know.  But the fact is that nearly all his films (at least the in the second half of his career) have been terrible, and Money Never Sleeps is no exception.  Stone’s basic failing is a failure of artistic intelligence. He has, for lack of a better description, no taste. Couple that, in the current case, to a deeply sentimental structural impulse and you get a film that actually is a sort of valentine to big business and Wall Street. Its probably too easy to pile on Shia Labeouf, but rarely has an actor of such limited ability managed to climb so high so fast. Perhaps at a later date a Shia-critique would be fun. For now, its best to just say he cannot sustain a film as a lead. Carey Milligan, the female lead, is equally boring, actually, though her pixie face — a somehwat proletarian Audrey Hepburn thing — has its charms. However, she also seems to posses only very surface emotions, and a limited range in all acting catagories. She has an unfortunate quality that lurks in her facial expressions and can be best described as conniving.  Michael Douglas seems to know he is in a bad film. He does his best I suppose. He is certainly more interesting than he used to be. Frank Langella and Eli Wallach are around to lend a kind of artistic legitimacy, but it doesn’t work.  The problem in narrative terms is that there is basically no narritive at all. Gordon Gekko is released from prison and embarks on a comeback. However, the audience is not really privy to how he is doing what he is doing, even with a surfiet of “authentic” detail. The fact is that one leaves the theatre feeling one knows LESS about how the stock market works. Gekko was always a faintly bullshit creation, and Stone coasts along on the audience’s knowledge of Gekko as an iconic character. There is no there there. The film treats poor Shia like he’s a boob, which is the one quality LeBeouf is good at projecting. A lot of dialogue about ‘hundreds of millions’ of dollars, and so on, doesnt really seem to gell into any sort of real vision of what those kinds of sums mean……on any level. Stone has always seemed, to me anyway, better suited to a career of Sam Fuller like genre material. Sort of an advanced thinking primitive. Natural Born Killers, for all its failings, still had a kind of anarchic energy, and  W was an amusing cartoon (that I recall defending at the time of its release). But to reflect on Platoon and Salvador — twenty years hence — is to see just how limited an artist Stone really is.

Sam Fuller

Sam Fuller

As for sentimentality, well, just think of the final credit sequence of Money Never Sleeps, and then think how, really, the entire film was about only this.

Here is an interesting link apropos of this discussion:

John Steppling


2 responses to “Part Two: Sentimentality and Wall Street redux

  1. Another corrosive effect of sentimentality is that audiences, particularly people under the age of 25, who’ve grown up seeing thousands of hours of reductive treacle, as Brody so aptly puts it, begin to see anything that elicits emotion (in a dishonest or honest way), as something to be eschewed. I saw “Howl” this past weekend, which is a flawed but soulful and worthwhile film. Many of the critics pooh-poohed this film in the same way they did “Jack Goes Boating.” They treated both films as if they were “Lifetime” cable made for TV films which they are not. When I recommended “Jack Goes Boating” to a friend of mine who happens to be a critic, he showed little interest as he heard it was “precious.” Unlike “Money Never Sleeps” these films earned their emotional highs and lows by delving into complex characters without being sentimental yet they were dismissed out of hand.
    Or take a movie like the last Jane Campion film, “Bright Star.” The critics gave it uniformly good reviews but I suspect because it was about a poet and a romance, many of the film cognoscenti didn’t bother with it. The use of sentimentality to manipulate audiences has tainted entire genres. Yet these same film goers championed a film like “Atonement” which is well executed but much more like a Chanel ad than a film. In the end whether it’s “Wall Street – Money Never Sleeps” or “Atonement,” you never go beneath the surface of any character and therefore feel very little.
    That’s another irony of sentimentality. It’s like a snootful of cocaine (or so I’ve been told!) where there’s a quick high and then nothing. Lots of violins and careful lighting and editing but to no real effect.
    Happily, there are a few wonderful antidotes to corporate Hollywood’s prolonged reliance on sentimentality; cross genre hi-jinx! The Coen Brothers “Raising Arizona” is a perfect example of a film that turns sentimentality on it’s head with cute desert animals spontaneously exploding as the phantom biker speeds by or babies forgotten in their little car seats in the middle of a busy highway!
    One last thought, so where does that put Tim Burton? I contend that while his work seems to be “edgy” or dark to many, it’s pure sentimentality clothed in a Halloween costume. John, the ball’s in your court!

  2. well, i should recurse myself on jack goes boating, as I have a vested interest in disliking the film — and which i would bet I would experience as sentimental…but thats another story, perhaps. Also, the self consciously working class, it might be argued, is not really a corrective to the absence of working class characters in mainstream culture.

    I think we have, as a culture, extended the parameters of what sentimentality is and does. Its so pervasive now, that is starts to suck in all sorts of other tropes and aspects of form ( if you watched the trailer to julie taymor’s new version of The Tempest, you will see that ‘cute’ is commandeered to the service of an ersatz aesthetic that has little to do with Shakespeare on any level). So its like a black hole that sucks in everything around it, and allows no light to escape (to push that metaphor past where its useful :)) ………………………..anyway, the problem with the Cohen bros (and Raising Arizona) is that it relies too heavily on irony. Now irony is another topic worthy of a lengthy discussion. I think my point was really that the sentimental is now so built in, as a default setting in most cultural product, that people hardly notice it. Which fact is rather scary because it then extends to people’s everyday behavior. At which point the discussion turns to what sincerity means. Ive argued that jackson pollock was the last sincere artist…….and I still think thats true. The ironic and the sentimental are so deeply embedded in our cultural vocabulary that when work even attempts to exist outside those forms, the audience feels a kind of defensiveness — a distrust. I think it was Kierkegaard who said we never know when we are being sincere………..and I would say he rather ahead of the curve on that one.

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