Table of Contents
Is Greed Good? - Wall Street and its use of the melodramatic mode
2. Melodrama Theory
3. Historical context: Reaganomics and neoliberalism
4. Analysis of Wall Street
4.1. Wall Street's story and its melodramatic elements
4.2. The characters and their representative function
4.3 Analysis of the Mise-en-scène and the subtext it produces
Over the course of the 1980’s the United States of America saw major cultural, ideological and habitual shifts that shape Western cultures up until today. After two decades of idealistic and hedonistic counterculture currents in American society, Eighties culture was mainly defined by materialism, consumerism and neoliberal ideology. In view of these significant cultural shifts, it is interesting to find out in how far these changes were processed in American movies through the melodramatic mode. According to Linda Williams melodrama is the fundamental mode of American cinema and claims to find moral certainty in an era where a clear moral framework is absent. The latter thesis was first brought up by Peter Brooks, whose work about the melodramatic imagination was crucial in melodrama discourse. Both Williams “Melodrama revised” and Brooks “The melodramatic imagination” will be the primary texts used in the following analysis. The main cinematic research object will be Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, which was released in 1987. Given that the movie captures quintessential Eighties America features and contemporary social anxieties makes it an ideal object to answer the question in how far it is using the melodramatic mode in the age of hypermaterialism. Moreover, it has a strong legacy in Western pop culture, symbolized by the monologue that features the infamous quote “Greed is good.” by the movie’s villain Gordon Gekko. Plus, to find out how the movie captures the ideological legacy of Reaganomics, it was necessary to choose a moving picture that was released towards the end of Reagans presidency. Otherwise the ideological and cultural shifts would have not been as implemented in American society as they were in 1987 after six years of Ronald Reagan. In order to find an answer to the question in how far Wall Street is melodramatic and how that helps to process contemporary moral quests, it is necessary to expound the key elements of Williams and Brooks melodrama theories. The theoretical framework will be followed by a short socio-historical context that is necessary to understand the significance of both the research object and the moral vacuum it tries to fill. Afterwards, the plot of Wall Street will be outlined and analyzed with regard how and why it is melodramatic. Since melodrama heavily relies on visual language, the mise-en-scène will be examined to an equal extent as the story. With those two sub-chapters as an extensive context, in the following subchapter the characters and their motivations will be investigated. They will be also analyzed with a special attention regarding their representative nature and how they are historically conditioned. Due to the limited scope of this paper, the chapter will focus on four characters. A main theme in this context will be the question of moral identity and a feeling of belonging. The conclusion will provide an answer to the research question to how and why Oliver Stone’s Wall Street can be classified as being melodramatic. As minor section of the conclusion will also provide a short commentary of the cultural impact of the movie and how it was and is perceived.
2. Melodrama theory
As stated before, the main melodrama theories used in the following paper will be those by Linda Williams and Peter Brooks. Due to the “continuous resemanticization of the term” (Kelleter 2007: 12) in film studies over the course of the twentieth century, it is important to focus on one coherent theoretical frame. Brooks argues that melodrama emerged due to historical caesuras like the French Revolution, the Enlightment and Industrial Revolution. These lead to a stronger sense of self of the individual being and enforced a skepticism towards the power structures both on a political and religious level. As a result, a collectively shared moral framework was erased and the vacuum that was mostly inhabited by religion needed to be filled. Melodramas emergence was a reaction to that vacuum due to its ability to express and discuss morality in a secularized world:
Melodrama represents both the urge toward resacralization and the impossibility of conceiving sacralization other than in personal terms. Melodramatic good and evil are highly personalized: they are assigned to, they inhabit persons who indeed have no psychological complexity but who are strongly characterized.” (Brooks 1995: 15)
So, in contrast to epic religious myths, in melodrama it is often an ordinary person who either represents virtue or evil. And instead of metaphors, characters in melodrama “tend to say, directly or explicitly, their moraljudgements of the world” (Brooks 1995: 36), which makes it highly accessible and democratic. With this major reliance on the individual, melodrama perfectly embeds itself in American culture. Linda Williams states that melodrama is the default mode of American cinema and distinguishes itself through its “compulsion to reconcile the irreconcilable” (Williams 1998: 37). To illustrate this thesis in the historical context of this paper: Reconcile the legitimization of greed through massive economic deregulation with the Reaganian instrumentalization of Christianity where greed is a death sin. This reconciliation process is specific for 1980’s America. The melodramatic ambition of retrieving innocence is regardless of the historical frame is was produced in since it is a key part of American culture. As Williams further specifies, it is the general assumption that virtue is more likely achieved in an individual’s act rather than in revolution and change (Williams 1998: 74).
Another important part of Williams’ theory is melodramas reliance on feeling:
“However, what we think and what we feel at the "movies" are often two very different things. We go to the movies not to think but to be moved. In a postsacred world, melodrama represents one of the most significant, and deeply symptomatic, ways we negotiate moral feeling. “ (Williams 1998: 61)
According to Thomas Elsaesser, melodrama is a “historically and socially conditioned mode of experience” (Elsaesser 1995: 49). Family melodrama of post-war America was conditioned by the then popularized Freudian theory in the US and repressive suburban lifestyle. Since society evolves and new social anxieties emerge, the mode of experience in the Eighties are different and so are the contemporary melodramas of that time. The research object of this paper clarifies this since its narrative framework and visuals are quintessential Eighties. As in most melodramatic movies, the mise-en-scène functions as a subtext that creates more meaning. Since the term melodrama derives form melos (music) and drama (action) the use of music was always a key feature of the mode. Plus, movies using the melodramatic mode heavily rely on triggering feelings in the spectators rather than rational thinking. Another non-narrative feature is the rhythm and pacing. Altogether, these elements act as 'constituents in a system of punctuation' (Elsaesser 1995: 50). In melodrama, the mise-en-scène and music functions as a nonverbal extension of meaning that is often times decoded subconsciously. As stated before, the characters in melodrama oftentimes explicitly state their morals, but some issues cannot be expressed through words. This is where the mise-en-scène is important. Certain ideological issues or anxieties can be commented through an intelligent use of montage, scenery or other visual and auditive tools without the spectator actively noticing.
Socio-historical context: Reaganomics and the economization of life
Even though widespread deregulation programs found their beginning under Jimmy Carter, it was Ronald Reagan, who perfected a strong economy-friendly political course. When he was inaugurated in January 1981, the United States persisted in a recession for already one year. Not until November 1982 the economy recovered, and the country found itself in a postrecession ideological dislocation (Kaufmann 1991: 95). A reaction to that vacuum to be filled was the “institutionalization of a neoliberal consensus that has taken form not only as a political and economic, but also as a cultural regime”. (Mna 2021: 16). This regime was an answer to the desire of many Americans to overcome the idealistic counterculture of the preceding decades and return to alleged traditional American values. Reaganomics not only gave an economic, but a moral answer to that desire. One tool to legitimize this agenda was to “reinvent American myths for a contemporary audience” (Thompson 2007: 8) with the Wall Street being a major place in American imagination. The street was representative for the new neoliberal financial capitalism and therefore saw a major ethics shift over the course of the Eighties. In discourse the Wall Street during the Reagan era is often described as a manic, extraordinary greedy and cult-like place. Therefore, the nickname of the 1980s in America as the “decade of greed”. This greed was legitimized by the dominant neoliberal politics of the era. The irony in that is, that Reagan and his neoconservative agenda also instrumentalized Christianity, where greed is one of the death sins. But that seems to be more of a rule than exception as seen in that quote:
“It should not come as a surprise, then, that the '80s were years of odd and ironic nostalgia. Nostalgia marks a longing for a set of certainties— or rather pseudo-certainties—that have been lost. Irony marks the fact that they have been lost, that they no longer make any sense.” (Kaufmann 1991: 110)
By connecting American values and the concept of freedom to purely economic aspects the Reagonomics not only affected the work sphere but also the private life. Especially “men are more used to the single-minded pursuit of work goals at the expense of family, friends and relationships.” (Crouch 2014: 117). According to Wendy Brown practically all aspects of life were monetized and economized (Brown 2015: 31-32). With the final implementation of strict neoliberal politics, it was the 1980’s in the US where this economization took hold. With the strong entanglement of the work and private the sphere, neoliberalism has a strong influence on identity construction:
Subjects that selfactualize through their own labor. The terms of this self-actualization are tautly strung between discourses of freedom and enterprise on one hand, and the regulatory and punitive practices of government on the other, with work positioned and promoted as the best way to improve one’s situation” (Walkerdine 2010: 493)
Improving you career status is equated with a chance of a better life. This is highly significant for the protagonist’s search for identity in the research object as will be seen in the following.