Rich Man, Poor Man

09/15/2010 4:00 AM |

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and On the Bowery (1956)
Directed by Oliver Stone, Lionel Rogosin
Opening September 24, and September 17-23 at Film Forum

At the peak of his controversial career Oliver Stone blatted every sound he could muster into his cacophonous films, their cumulative noise more important than any coherent ideas they might express. But in the past decade the director has refined his style, trading in visual indulgence and factual license for punchless, run-of-the-mill topicality-bombastic psychedelia for Top 40 granola. Unsurprisingly, Stone’s sequel to Reagan-era zeitgeist-humper Wall Street is just as uninterrogative as World Trade Center and W., exploring in predictable Corleone-lit boardroom conferences and split-screen montages the “seriousness” and “urgency” of the 2008 financial meltdown while sheepishly avoiding its deeper implications and repercussions.

Rather than challenge power, Money Never Sleeps worships it. Screenwriters Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff pay nothing more than dismissive lip service to the systemic corruption that led to the crash, fitting in some inside-baseball crisis discussions and aphoristic denunciations (“Greed is legal”) before passing the responsibility off to a few bad eggs (Michael Douglas’ unrepentantly sneaky Gordon Gekko and Josh Brolin’s even-worse shark). “The world’s crashing,” states Shia LaBeouf’s idealistic young trader as an intro to a high-speed motorcycle race-the POV is strictly privileged, the tone stuffily unironic. A film that suggests those working in the dying real estate market can instantly switch careers (but where are these jobs?) and that treats a $100-million theft like a bad hair day, MNS can only qualify its naive “everything is gonna be alright” answer to the Great Recession with the softest of metaphoric storms-on-the-horizon: floating soap bubbles.

Anyone not a Master of the Universe is looked on as an ant in Wall Street, as Stone consistently glides over the non-penthouse, non-trading floor sectors of Manhattan with swooping helicopter shots and blurs out the bailout-enabling populace with lazy time-lapse photography. Compare this elitist remove to Lionel Rogosin’s 1956 quasi-documentary On the Bowery, an up-close-and-personal study of society’s darkest corners and a pivotal work of American realism (pioneers John Cassavetes, Shirley Clarke, Robert Frank, and Kent MacKenzie each owed something to it). Refusing to shoot from afar, Rogosin befriended his impoverished, dissipated skid row subjects-a handsome young railroad worker, a shifty former doctor, a roving cardboard collector-on their home turf and in so doing barely avoided the alcoholism they had succumbed to. Thus, though scripted and staged, On the Bowery possesses an intimacy borne of extended confrontation with the human abyss. Police raids, claustrophobic flophouses, wobbly late-night bar fights all make for indelible images, but the film’s intense, spontaneous close-ups on scarred, pocked, withered, and swollen faces are eternally searing portraits of every bad break and self-sabotage experienced by these forgotten men.

Both Wall Street and On the Bowery concern insulated New York City subcultures where squandering the future is a way of life. The difference between the two, however, isn’t a simple matter of over- and underdogs. It’s instead a matter of perspective: the former reinforces the tunnel vision of people for whom risks and consequences are mere abstractions, while the latter enlarges the immediate surroundings of people whose every decision is as tangible as the concrete beds on which they sleep.