Power in “The Apartment” and “The Wolf of Wall Street”

One of the three sections I wrote for my paper on the similarity of “The Apartment” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” in their critiques of excess among the elite.

Power is central to both The Wolf of Wall Street and The Apartment; Scorsese continues this critique from The Apartment to The Wolf of Wall Street by paralleling the mise-en-scène of their workspaces. Both Consolidated Life Insurance Company and Stratton Oakmont Brokerage Firm convey the sense of security and professionalism to the common person. This façade is depicted in the beginnings of both films: The Apartment with its documentary-like footage of the Consolidated Life Insurance Company building and voiceover narration of statistics and The Wolf of Wall Street with the confident TV commercial of the Stratton Oakmont Brokerage Firm. Inside the buildings’ floor plans and offices are set up quite similarly. Wilder and Scorsese both set up their protagonists in the center of the frames with a repetitive, monotonous set up. However, in contrast to symmetric and orderly set up of The Apartment, The Wolf of Wall Street is much more chaotic with the various (male) employees flailing their arms. Like the floor plans, the offices for higher associates are much larger and roomy than the general office floor space. These offices are set apart from the common area and are made for one person: the higher the person, the bigger the room, or, the bigger the office, the bigger the jerk.

However these are only façades of the companies. The faux professionalism covers up the true and excessive behaviors of the employees. The main difference between The Apartment and The Wolf of Wall Street are their protagonists. In The Apartment Wilder wants the viewer to sympathize with C.C. Baxter because he is an ordinary person who lives within his means, whereas in The Wolf of Wall Street Scorsese wants the viewer to laugh at and be angry with Jordan Belfort because he is so excessive and selfish. However, Wilder does not drop critique of human excess. Throughout the entirety of The Apartment Dr. Dreyfuss tells C.C. Baxter to “slow down” and “grow up.” Baxter is a scapegoat for Wilder to drive this critique on the excess of higher associates, like Sheldrake and Kirkeby, to ridicule and bash them. Scorsese conversely uses his critique much more subtly because his main character is the excessive character of The Apartment. Both films essentially comment that those in power are too excessive.

Examples that sum up this idea of power are the parties that occur in the films. For The Wolf of Street, just about everyday is party and excess day, but it is clear that Scorsese had the office Christmas party from The Apartment in mind when he filmed his scenes. The office Christmas office party explicitly intermingles the common office space and the separate offices, both areas containing lots of drinking and philandering. At one point the phone operator Sylvia is seen doing a striptease for the employees on an office table. In comparing this party with the party scenes in The Wolf of Wall Street, the similarities are striking. In The Wolf of Wall Street the parties consist of people drinking, hooking up, and dancing on tables. The only real difference in The Wolf of Wall Street is the lack of romance in its scene plot line and the women as prostitutes than employees. Overall power in these films is not presented as professional, but rather faux and devious.

Scorsese’s Depiction of the Stratton Oakmont Office in “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013)

One of the things that struck me when I was rewatching The Wolf of Wall Street was Scorsese’s depiction of the Stratton Oakmont office. While it seemed a disorienting the first time around, this time I took more note of what formally made it so off-putting. Of obvious notice is the use of the wide-angle lens. While (if I remember correctly) Scorsese uses wide-angle lenses quite frequently throughout the film, it is so painfully obvious and persistent here because of Jordan’s central position in the frame. Wide-angle lenses are used with the intention to distort the image being shown; here the lens specifically distorts the image of Jordan’s unsophisticated Felliniesque world, so much so that I’m sure Fellini would be begging for Jordan to stop. The distortion in the lens is just one of the many things that tell us that we should not believe this drugged-up stock company owner.

There seems to be a drastic difference in Mark Hanna’s office and Jordan Belfort’s office. The distance from the floor to the ceiling is noticeably much higher in Hanna’s office when Wall Street virgin Jordan joins the business. Not yet tainted by Wall Street, Belfort’s first day is the only moment in the film where we can somewhat relate to Belfort, as he tells us that he “can only imagine what a douchebag” the guy who makes over one million a year must be. Once Jordan has Stratton Oakmont, however, that is what he has become, or even worse. However, unlike his previous workplace, Jordan’s company’s floor is tight from top to bottom. This tightness visually dictates that Jordan is no longer “normal,” so to speak, like he was in the beginning of the film. Perhaps he sees that he has dominated the world but, in my opinion, it reads as confining and oppressive. He minimizes Belfort’s importance and, in conjunction with the wide-angle lens, pushes at the fact that Jordan is an unreliable narrator. The behind the shoulder shots depict Belfort essentially at the same height as his employees; there is not towering, higher appearance of Jordan to suggest he is any better than his employees. In fact, at one point in the beginning of the film, there is an extreme long shot from other end of the office that barely makes Jordan noticeable. Therefore, Scorsese has the ulitmate control of how he wants to depict Belfort, and it’s not a positive one. Just these few things immediately slash the critique that this film glamourizes Belfort’s lifestyle.

While watching The Wolf of Wall Street I made a connection to the famous 1960 film, The Apartment. The repeated, distorted shots behind Jordan as he pep talks his employees reminded me very much of Wilder’s shot in The Apartment of the office floor where C.C. Baxter works. In relation to The Wolf of Wall Street, I think Scorsese intends to compare Jordan, not to C.C. Baxter, but to the likewise despicable head of the company, Jeff D. Sheldrake, who promotes C.C. Baxter in exchange for the use of Baxter’s apartment to sleep with Fran Kubelik. Both heads of the companies in these films are corrupt and thoughtless. However I think it is important to stress the fact that Jordan’s floor is much smaller and condensed, deemphasizing his power, credibility, and appeal.